Blog — Issue Seven RSS





Striking an Inner Balance

Making a living as a full-time craftsperson takes discipline, careful planning, and hard work. Today’s successful craftspeople are educators, marketers, teachers, businesspeople, travelers, and community builders. It is not enough to be good at making nicely handcrafted items. You must think about your own story and why you are passionate about your craft.  Your story becomes the armature for the image you create for yourself, for your products, and for the markets you develop to sell your wares. Share your story widely – use social media and other tools to reinforce your story and build your brand. Travel to meet people and build networks – the community you create around you will continue to expand and will nourish you, as...

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Like a One-Handled Drawknife

The mokotagen is a tool completely unique to the North Woods, and is much less familiar to most woodworkers today than the others used in the Four-tool Philosophy; however, it was considered by many to be the most useful and indispensable of the four. Mokotagen (with a variety of spellings used) is a Cree word meaning “to bring the spirit out of the wood.” The early French explorers and voyageurs of Canada called it le couteau croche, “the crooked knife,” and quickly recognized the immense utility of the tool – Dillingham refers to it as “the indigenous version of a Swiss Army knife.” During the river-driving heyday of the 1800s, it became common in lumber camps in Maine and was...

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The Risk is to the Object Itself

As he explains, the phrase “workmanship of risk” refers to any operation that does not rely on controls such as fences or depth stops to prevent the very real possibility of spoiling the job from cutting too far or incorrectly. This can easily happen with unguided tools when the maker lacks skill, his or her attention drifts, or unanticipated variables (such as sudden grain change) arise. The “risk” Pye refers to, then, is not risk of physical injury from using dangerous tools – the risk is to the object itself.          This mode of work is contrasted with the workmanship of certainty, which is “always to be found in quantity production, and found in its pure state...

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A Place Full of Creativity

“I like to think that today's handcraft interest is helping us all to re-learn how to live with our hands and our hearts. I know it shows me how to slow down, use all my senses, surround myself with beauty, do something I love, and need less. My hope for everyone is that handcraft becomes a core guiding part of daily life rather than a temporary refuge from daily electronic chaos. The back-to-the-land movement had many of us learning rural skills that were commonplace only a generation before. Today, the so-called maker spaces popping up, especially in urban areas, are similar to exercise gyms that have taken the place of what were daily activities necessary to simply live in an...

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Spoon Carving: The Gateway Drug

“Spoon carving has often been jokingly called the “gateway drug” into green woodworking – and for good reason. Often, after carving your first few spoons, the allure of other greenwood projects is hard to resist. Other cooking utensils are an obvious progression, but there are also carved cups and bowls, coat hooks from small limb crotches, and shrink pots. One of the beauties of green woodworking is its connection to the past, in which wood was the material of choice for everyday objects. Learning to make things that we use in our daily lives is a great feeling. We can drink our tea, hang our coats, or store dry goods for later use, in and with the wooden things we...

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The Misrepresentation of Shaker Furniture

“Shaker furniture is often misrepresented. Because most collectors and curators only want to show the very best of Shaker design, the same 100 objects are carted around to exhibition after exhibition, printed in book after book. They never exhibit the piece that didn’t work or the ones that were clunky, mis-proportioned, painted an ugly color, too plain, too fancy, too primitive, or too derivative of Victorian fashion, but these are all legitimate Shaker-made objects, too. They served a purpose and were well-used over several generations. This myopic presentation gives the public a skewed perspective on our work that does not do our legacy justice, and it has given birth to the sentimental notion that Shaker craftsmen made chairs laboring under...

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The “Four-tool Philosophy”

“As the unique traits of every culture shape its woodworking traditions (and vice versa), the North Woods traits of adaptability and mobility wove themselves into the way indigenous craft evolved. The tools themselves developed to meet these criteria, being portable, versatile, and endlessly repairable. They could all be used one-handed, with the other hand (often in conjunction with the body and feet) providing the necessary workholding. Only four tools (with variations of each) composed the “tool-box” of the Northern maker, and every necessary wooden object (from spoons, bowls, and snowshoes up to canoes and shelters) could be made using this minimalist kit. Modern practitioners of this ancient means sometimes refer to it as the “Four-tool Philosophy.” Nick Dillingham, a skilled...

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Turned Upside Down

The onset of the Industrial Revolution caused major changes in virtually every craft. Machinery worked on a scale and at a cost that a pre-industrial artisan could not compete with, and the advent of canals and railroads meant that the village artisan had to contend with rivals not just across the next hill, but across the country. But as profound as that change was, something even more traumatic happened; the fundamental axioms were turned upside down. This change disrupted how the buying public valued good work. This shift happened in part because the Industrial Revolution rose alongside the emergence of nation-states that competed against one another for industrial dominance. This trend developed into National Exhibitions to showcase advances in industry...

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A Mythology Around Shaker Furniture

There is a valuable lesson in this for today’s woodworkers: We need to be careful about where we derive our standards of “good” work and sense of appropriate tolerances. Sometimes this means separating truth from myth. We need to recognize that modern dogma about engineer-like precision and glass-smooth secondary surfaces is an anomaly in the history of craft. As these photographs reveal, tear-out, knots, and coarse plane tracks are normal characteristics of hand work throughout history. It’s not sloppy or slipshod. It’s normal – even for the Shakers who aimed for perfection in all their efforts. As Brother Arnold explained to us, dealers and curators have developed a mythology around Shaker furniture in order to market these objects at art...

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Western Workholding History

Historically, workbenches were remarkably simple affairs. Peter Nicholson’s 1812 bench featured just a simple planing stop in the benchtop – not even one hole for a holdfast. Other historic images of benches show workpieces secured with nails, by a rope held by the worker’s feet, and even by the worker’s weight as he sits on the board being planed or the table leg into which a mortise is chopped. The main distinction of this style of work is that the workpiece is restrained by the worker, rather than by some mechanical device. It is not as if more rigid workholding solutions weren’t available to period craftsmen (as we will see), but it’s clear that they consciously chose to work without...

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