Blog — Issue Six RSS





A Wild Material

The back-to-the-land movement (as well as more recent offshoots such as the farm-to-table trend in dining) seeks to short-circuit the elaborate industrial complex that produces most of our consumable and durable goods these days. Proponents of the philosophy point to the loss of skill that is evident in the average person for basic tasks; to the health and environmental effects of large-scale industrialization; and to the sociological harm that comes of being dependent on technologies that are beyond the control or comprehension of most individuals. This dependence becomes crippling when a technological or supply-chain disruption renders us incapable of executing those basic tasks that we have turned over to mechanization. Even as we enjoy the benefits and ease that these...

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Not Programmed by a Technician

The first challenge both men experienced was the exponential development of machine technology which began in earnest during Morris’ generation and continued on through Nakashima’s. Nakashima, Morris, and Ruskin before them, recognized that handwork, especially when undertaken with creativity and individuality, infused the work with both a tangible sense of human input and with a level of detail and quality that distinguished it from mass-produced machine work. That unique human quality went missing from machine-produced furniture because the latter relied on standardized dimensioning; repeatability; and mass-produced, surface-mounted ornamentation. Morris saw no future in these processes. In his 1884 lecture, “Useful Work versus Useless Toil,” he optimistically predicted the demise of machinery, which “would probably, after a time, be somewhat restricted...

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Dramatic Results

In the early 1990s, I began my woodworking journey with a couple of vintage Stanley bench planes and a Fine Woodworking book on hand tools. I dutifully followed the book’s instructions on setting up and sharpening my new planes, and everything was going pretty well until I came to the section on setting the cap iron (also known as the chipbreaker). According to the author, for difficult hardwoods I was supposed to set the edge of the cap iron “as close as possible” to the cutting edge. So I did, and disaster ensued. I could barely push the plane; it shuddered, shook, and quickly came to an unceremonious halt, the mouth hopelessly clogged with balled-up shavings. I moved the cap...

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I’m Not an Artist – I’m a Craftsman

M&T: Tell us more about how art connects with the slöjd tradition, and why it’s such a vital part of it. JS: I would say it’s about form following function. The knowledge of how to make common, functional items was always a big part of everyday life. They knew, for example, how thick to make a table so that it would be strong, how big that sliding dovetail had to be to make a stable joint. That knowledge of proportions – dimensions, thicknesses, and joinery – is part of the tradition, and is very practical. But when they made things that were connected to certain traditions, like the love gift of a spinning wheel, they made it extraordinarily delicate, with...

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Far Better in Difficult Grain

The origins of the double iron are somewhat mysterious, but probably date to the mid-18th century. A double-iron smoothing plane discovered in London during an archaeological dig may have been made as early as 1750. The most interesting feature of this plane is that while the business end of the cap iron is typical, there is no mechanism for fastening the cap iron to the cutting iron. The two irons are loose, held together by the wedge, so the owner would have to set both irons by tapping them independently. This arrangement supports the theory that the earliest double iron was simply two cutting irons that some enterprising craftsman placed back-to-back. The first written reference to the double iron dates...

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We Can Do All That

M&T: How is slöjd relevant to 21st-century society? JS: I think that people are probably just the same now as they used to be 200 years ago. We still want to try new things, to learn, to be more skilled, to express ourselves, and to show off. With slöjd, we can do all that by being producers and consumers at the same time. There was a philosopher in the 1800s, Friedrich Engels, who was one of the first to talk about that concept. He warned that the Industrial Revolution was going to cause social problems because the producers would be separate from the consumers and they would be alienated from one another. Instead of connection and unity, there would be...

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A Journey Full of Rewards

“The pursuit of independence through making your own tools is a journey full of rewards. The broader a craftsperson’s competency, the more successfully he or she will be able to open whole new realms of creative possibility and manage hurdles that come along in the making process. This bitstock project brings together various skills that many furniture makers don’t get to exercise often enough: long accurate boring, turning, casting pewter, burning mortises, and utilizing naturally crooked branches. Even more, it is a joy to work with tools that reflect your own unique personality and individual aesthetic preferences, something we miss out on if our tool chest is filled with those identical to everyone else’s.” – Joshua Klein, excerpt from “The...

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Liveliness, Mythology, and Whimsy

Dower Chest. ca.1780 Berks County, Pennsylvania. 23.16. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Painted furniture in the German-American tradition bears evidence of a deep craving for liveliness, mythology, and whimsy. As Fabian suggests, these chests “exhibit a full range of celestial and earthly subjects” with stars, flowers, hearts, horses, and peacocks right beside more fanciful creatures like unicorns, angels, and the elusive mermaid. Even the common house cat makes an occasional appearance. The decorators of these chests clearly wanted to incorporate the fullness of life in their work, though the intent of individual decorators in applying particular motifs is sometimes unclear. Fabian suggests that while there is much conjecture about these themes, “almost never are we given any clue...

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“Trees are not Tame”

“What we call green woodworking today carried no such particular distinction in the past. Vernacular woodcraft began in the forest, and made great use of the metamorphosing properties of wood as it changes from soft and saturated to hard and dry. Most everything a typical household needed, from treen to transportation, was produced through this process. Nowadays, much of that intimacy with this raw material has been lost as modern woodworkers turn to machines that rely on tame wood and massive infrastructure to function properly. But trees are not tame, and require knowledge and patience to work in the old way. There are valuable returns for the effort, not just in terms of fulfillment for the individual maker, but in...

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Slöjd for Survival

  “Slöjd makes my body strong, gives me a strong back and muscles – slöjd contains a rich diet for both body and mind. Also, I’m able to repair things when they break. That’s why I think of it as a survival kit – in a society where we’re trying to be sustainable and live more simply, craft can be a part of that restoration. When we make things, we want to take care of them – we’re not throwing them away after five years and buying a new one. This gives you a definition of what quality is. The urge for quality is also an urge for quality of life, where making and beauty give meaning to what a...

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