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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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Back Stories

When the time comes around to pore over our authors’ newly submitted rough drafts, I can't help but reflect on the process for past issues of the magazine. It might be because we print the magazine “just” twice per year, or because we invest ourselves so heavily into our authors’ worlds and spend a ton of time with each and every sentence, or because we intentionally don’t recycle content, but every published article sticks out in memory with a funny or compelling story behind it. Some, you might easily guess. For example, spending days hanging out with Roy Underhill for Issue Eight was a riot. We went for lunch one day at his favorite local burrito joint, then strolled to...

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Perfect for the Preservation of Wooden Artifacts

The main structure of Hay’s cabinet shop was built in the 1740s at the bottom of a ravine on a Williamsburg back street. A later extension, appended to the west wall of the original structure, spanned a small stream that snaked its way through the ravine. Never made to power early machinery, the stream, combined with the gully and locale, likely made for cheap real estate. The potential savings were offset over time by the stream’s slowly destructive interaction with the building’s foundations. Anthony Hay and successors – Benjamin Bucktrout and Edmund Dickinson – were kept busy by the stream’s constant encroachments. While the business thrived until Dickinson’s 1776 enlistment in the First Virginia Regiment, the building slowly fell into...

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There is Much More in Workmanship than Not Spoiling the Job

Where then can the workmanships of risk and certainty be found? Neither are strictly time- bound, that’s for sure. Not only can free workmanship with hand-guided tools be found today, but its antithesis, the workmanship of certainty, has been around from antiquity. “The workmanship of certainty has been in occasional use in undeveloped and embryonic forms since the Middle Ages.” This concurs with Jonathan Thornton’s observation that “the aim of the careful worker in the European tradition was to reduce variation by skill and increasingly, by ever more complex tools.” Pye explains that the most common reasons for employing the workmanship of certainty are speed or accuracy – both especially important for quantity production. In Pye’s thought, it’s an oversimplification...

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Deceptively Simple

Wood has always been integral to the world we live in, and it’s still the best material for many jobs. Consider the power lines held in the sky, suspended over our houses and streets by millions of wooden poles. Even things so seemingly disconnected from trees – concrete structures such as bridges and skyscrapers – depend on plywood forms. Many houses are made of wood, as are the cabinets and furniture in them. Wine and whiskey are still aged in wooden barrels. All of these are carryovers from the old wood culture that we mostly take for granted. Because of modern industrial processes and extensive international trade, it’s hard to imagine these products were at one time related to whole...

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An Awareness of Natural Timber

At the larger end of the scale, a number of timber-framed cottages at St Fagans demonstrate the use of curved tree trunks that have been book-matched to provide gable ends, the shape of the roof being determined by the natural curve of the trunk. This is an efficient way of working given that once felled, the tree would require little shaping before being incorporated into the frame of the cottage, and the use of curved timber ensures there is little grain runout (which would reduce the strength of the frame). This raises the question in my mind at least: Might the craftsmen who were framing cottages also have been building stick chairs?  A similar approach has been identified in extant...

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Better Balance and More Control

There are no vises on Japanese benches. In fact, to a craftsman accustomed to Western woodworking, Japanese benches don’t look like workbenches at all. Author Toshio Odate notes: “Traditional tategu-shi do not use workbenches for planing. Planes are used either while standing at a planing beam (when working long material) or sitting at a planing board (for shorter material).” The planing beam is a smoothed and squared timber with one end held elevated on a triangular horse, while the other end rests on a block of wood. This is then butted against a wall or other immovable support. For a planing stop, usually a pair of nails driven into the beam suffices. Andrew Hunter, a furniture maker based in upstate...

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The Salt and Pepper of Free Workmanship

“For all the benefits we’ve gained from mechanization and automation, it is high time we take a step back to consider afresh if our shop work is actually any richer when our tools are Bluetooth-compatible. There is no doubt that “information technology is changing the nature of human work in industrial production. The machine operator has become the machine overseer. [But] whether this change is making work more humane is another question.” In Pye’s day, he saw his contemporaries’ appetite for antiques as a “sign of an unsatisfied hunger for diversity and spontaneity in the things of everyday use.” Our fenced tools and highly jigged operations give us precise, quality work. But they cannot give us technophiles what we so...

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Podcast 15 – Workshop, Timber Frame, and Issue Seven

This podcast episode (listen above) is all about filling you in on our incredibly intense summer. Between the workshop with our six students, Issue Seven shipping out, and our hand-tool-only timber frame blacksmith shop, we’ve been out straight busy. Also, in this episode, meet Grace, our new team member. You’ll hear our enthusiasm for the whirlwind of events that happened as well as the new projects we’re working to wrap up now! A new book, a documentary film, and another apprenticeship video all on the horizon!  

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Issue Seven in the House – Pre-orders are Ending!

The packing party for Issue Seven is this coming Friday and Saturday. (Subscribe here.) That means tomorrow is the last day to subscribe if you want to get a wrapped copy of Issue Seven! Also, we just discovered that we can fit a few more people into the party. So, if you want to join us at the 2-day wrapping party in Sedgwick, Maine, send us an email at info@mortiseandtenonmag.com right away! Issue Seven is heading out soon!  

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