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Little Things in the Big Picture

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” John Muir I made this little shaving the other day in a piece of ash. It got me thinking about connection – more specifically, “interconnectedness,” which is a word I trip over every time I pronounce it. I was fresh from a conversation about the emerald ash borer and how that little bug is likely to turn most of our beautiful ash trees into memories within my lifetime, in the same way that chestnut blight and Dutch elm disease wreaked havoc in the 20th century. But here I am, in a moment in time when ash lumber is plentiful and Maine’s...

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Rethinking ‘Efficiency’

I used to think of most areas of my life in terms of “efficiency.” Don’t “waste” time on sluggish methods. Always seek to expedite the task at hand. This bled into my woodworking too, and I may not be the only one. Whether you’re a hand tool nut or a power tool devotee (or something in between), we all can be tempted to think this way. One of our worst criticisms of an operation is that it is slow. Have you ever heard anyone complain about a technique because it is too easy or too fast? I haven’t. If it’s faster, it’s better by definition.  But what if woodworking wasn’t about getting it over with as soon as possible? What...

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The Connection Between Artisan and Tool

At the CSF project in Maine, the carpenters’ hewing abilities were even more impressive than their joggling – they split the line with their axes all day long as if it was nothing. It was clear that they have spent many hours with these tools, and each axe’s handmade uniqueness strengthened the connection between artisan and tool. The axes on-site were highly individual and varied tremendously from tradition to tradition, but most were French, American, Swedish, or German. Many of the examples had a bevel on only one side. The idea with this style is that the “flat” back (actually slightly convex in both directions) guides the tool in creating a flat surface on the timber. I wish I could...

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The Elephant in the Room

  Over the years, the most offensive thing I’ve ever done (so I’m told) is to make a sticker that said, “Kill Your Tablesaw.” It was conceived of as an absurd self-caricature – a spoof of the classic Luddite bumper sticker that said, “Kill Your Television.” (Wait… do Luddites drive cars?) Anyway, it’s clear by now that M&T has a reputation for the hand-tool “thing,” and we make no apologies for it. We’ve decided not to use “power tools” in our furniture making for several reasons, but none are about pretension or ego. We just do not enjoy machinery. And we really love hand tools. That said, in the woodworking world, the elephant in the room is the fact that...

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Organic Woodworking

“Take the meanest rusty handplane, clean it up, grind the blade and sharpen it like a razor. Tune the plane, set it very fine and run it over a scrap of oak. Hear the sound it makes and feel the finish. If you share that thrill, set yourself a project to make entirely by hand. By doing so, I once, years ago, renewed my love affair with wood. I have owned some machines myself, but I examined what I was doing and decided to go organic. I haven’t regretted it once.” –John Brown, from Good Work   Thank you, Lost Art Press, for publishing this excellent book by Christopher Williams. As longtime fans of Brown’s writing, we heartily commend it....

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The Last One

Good stories are often built around a plot line of “the last one.” Something once grand and beautiful has dwindled, fallen out of favor, or disappeared from common knowledge, until there is only one left somewhere in the world (or universe). I think of The Last of the Mohicans, written almost 200 years ago by James Fenimore Cooper, or The Last Jedi, about which I shall say no more. The premise is compelling (whether or not the actual script manages to be) and I often find myself drawn into such tales. A young boy discovers he is the only remaining heir of a mythical kingdom and possesses strange powers? A computer programmer finds that he is the one long-awaited hero...

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Fish Don’t Know They’re in Water

John, a former student of the M&T Apprenticeship and current Daily Dispatch follower, recently sent me a link to an interesting article posted on the BBC. The piece discussed historian Roger Ekirch’s research into human sleep patterns throughout time. Ekirch’s interest in the subject became part of his book about the history of night titled At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, and it reveals a fascinating aspect of human society and ubiquitous change. The insight this article highlighted was the worldwide pre-industrial human pattern of “biphasic sleep” – two sleep sessions (the first starting somewhere around 9:00 pm and the second starting around 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning) with a several-hour wakeful period of productivity in the middle...

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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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Vintage Video: Swedish Spoon Carver

Watching vintage films of woodworkers in action is one of the most illuminating avenues of woodworking research. Watch this guy carve a spoon – there is so much to learn. The way he wields that axe to do the vast majority of the shaping is humbling. And inspiring. Then the knife work – so swift and confident. This is craftsmanship. -Joshua  

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Hands Cannot Contemplate: On Ornamentation and Not Leaving Furniture Alone, Pt. II

In my last post, I defended the value of ornamentation in furniture-making, and also introduced the architect Aldolf Loos’ famous 1910 polemic, “Ornament and Crime,” in which he propounded that – you got it – ornamentation was bad. Here’s one redeeming thing about Loos’ proclamation, though. By glorifying pure form, he was condemning an awful turn-of-the-century factory culture. One that appropriated countless variations of traditional, culture-specific craft ornamentation – then figured out how to industrially stamp or impress those patterns onto bowls, wallpaper, dress hems, and all the other everyday items with machines in a form of “surrogate art” or “add-on intarsia.” As the architect Ingeborg Rocker puts it: “Loos’ critique responded to the increasing alignment between ornament and fashion,...

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