Friday, May 22, 2015

In Portsmouth with Gerry Ward and Portland with Tim Manney

Sometimes you just gotta get away to clear your head and my drive down to New Hampshire and back yesterday was a much needed time of silent contemplation. I had a total of about 8 hours to think through all of the various jobs and responsibilities in my life presently. I’m so glad I had it.

Yesterday morning, I arrived in Portsmouth to meet with Gerald W. R. Ward, one of the nation’s most erudite decorative arts curators. Gerry and I got coffee and talked for a couple hours about furniture, museum culture, historic research, etc. Gerry is not only knowledgeable, but he is generous to share his knowledge. To be perfectly honest, each time I do an interview I‘m nervous about keeping the conversation alive and open. Any journalist will tell you there is an art to interviewing… one that I’m only learning. Fortunately, Gerry (and all the other interviewees so far) were the easy ones to interview. He’s not just part of academia so that he needs only to communicate with other academics. Because he loves the public educational aspect of his museum work, Gerry is an experienced communicator of ideas.

The interview was great and I’m looking forward to you all reading it. I really do think this is a part of furniture more woodworkers would benefit to be familiar with and I hope this is the gateway drug that leads them down the dark path toward scholarly literature.

On my way back up I stopped at the shop of the ingenious Tim Manney in Portland, ME. Tim and I have had contact only through digital means until yesterday and I’m so glad I was able to stop this time. Tim’s singular vision to make high quality precision reamers and adzes is admirable. I always have been awed by his workmanship so I am especially excited about a new adze prototype he showed me. But I’ll let him be the one to reveal the details on that. Stay tuned for that one! Some woodworkers can be a bit asocial and isolationist. Not Manney. Tim is a true gentleman. We had a great time chatting and I look forward to the future path-crossing or collaboration we may be able to do.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Magazine I Always Wanted to Read

The magazine launch has gone well and there’s been a good amount of interest so far. Right now, I and a handful of top drawer authors are working on the articles. There is a lot of coordination with this kind of collaborative project so it’s very different from the blog in that way. Takes a little getting used to.

In about half an hour I’m hopping in the car to make my way down to Portsmouth, NH to interview one of the premier scholars of historic American furniture. It has been my observation that there is a tremendous gap between today’s woodworkers and decorative arts scholars. Many of the woodworkers I know read scholarly writings regularly but that’s about where the connection ends. It seems to me that few makers have a good understanding of museum philosophies, curatorial responsibilities, and how furniture fits into that context. I would like to change that with this interview. What does a curator do exactly? What documents do you study to come to conclusions about a furniture maker’s life story 200 years ago? What about the future of cultural preservation?

It should be a wonderful time. I’m excited to share this content with you all. Honestly, Mortise and Tenon is the magazine I’ve always wanted to read. A blend of period practice tutorials, sound scholarship, and a minimal ad-free aesthetic. An annual that’s 130 pages of body copy? It’s more like a book than a magazine. Yes, Issue One is looking pretty exciting.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Take a Load Off

I used to be part of a religious movement that did not view weekly Sabbath taking as a privilege Christians ought to enjoy. If you felt like working after the church service, you could go for it. Burn yourself out! Always looking to capitalize on “free” time, this pattern took a toll on Julia and I and we were exhausted all the time. We were running on all cylinders but only 75% efficiency seven days a week. As we got deeper into exhaustion, our patience thinned and bickering and arguing would surface. It was very unhealthy.

It wasn’t until six or so years ago, when we joined a new church that we saw the beauty of weekly Sabbath taking. Nowadays, after church (which is an hour drive from our house) we come home to do absolutely nothing. All day. That’s right… our family starts each week with a day of total rest. We don’t make strict legalistic regulations about this, though, because piano recitals, fun gardening, etc come up. The point is to relax and enjoy the day. If we feel like we “ought” to be doing a certain job, that may be a good indication to go take a nap in the shade instead. (At this point, Julia contributes in full disclosure, “You should tell them we let the house go insane. We don’t even do the dishes!”)

This lounging, napping, and family socializing prepares us for six days of hard work juggling house work, gardening, home schooling, the boy’s community activities, teaching piano lessons, serving in the church, furniture restoration, Fisher research, and the magazine. We make our own yogurt, bake our own bread, roast our coffee, brew our beer, and tend to the chickens and goats.

Maybe you see why we love Sundays.

Someone asked us recently how we do all the stuff we do without burning out. Sabbath, that’s how. I’m fully aware that not all of the readers here are Christians. But I don’t think you need to be in order to see the glory of this rest one day, work six system. With all sincerity, I recommend you take a load off.  Sanctify one day a week to resting from your work. Whatever material responsibilities you feel the burden of during the week, resolve to let go for a day. Besides keeping you sane, I promise you will be more productive the other six days.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

1808 Potty Talk

I try my best to avoid potty talk and poop jokes here on the Diary because I wanna keep this place family friendly. Sometimes, though, we gotta be honest about this crap.

What kind of toilet do you have? Does yours have satinwood and mahogany veneer? Do you have a john with French feet? Well the Pierce family from Dorchester, MA did. This commode which is inscribed with the date 1808 came into my studio not long ago. One foot had broken off (surprise, surprise), some veneer was missing, and the top had a split in it. It was not a huge job but as I was working on it I couldn’t help but marvel at how delicately this thing was constructed. Those tiny little feet were tasked with bearing the weight of many a sitter over the years.

I think if I were designing such a thing, I would choose a more stout base arrangement. I mean... the stakes are pretty high, no? Can you imagine that thing giving way when you were using it? Yikes.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

No Bite!

I’ve said before that toothed planing stops are vastly superior over their toothless brethren. The difference in grip is tremendous. If you have never used one before do yourself a favor and screw a sawplate to the top of your stop. It will be an epiphany for you.

One of reasons some folks are apprehensive about bearing some teeth is because they worry about leaving marks in the endgrain of their stock. In practice, this issue is inconsequential 99% of the time because I plane to thickness before cutting to length. Simple as that.

In the 1% of cases where I need to plane the face grain on a piece that is already cut to length, I don’t fret. The solution is stupid simple. Grab a piece from the scrap bin (Don’t all good shop tips start that way?) and shove it into the teeth as a barrier for your workpiece. Yes, you no longer have the benefit of the teeth biting into your stock but for these rare circumstances, you just have to plane more attentively.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Mortise & Tenon Magazine: Official Unveiling

Today is the official public launch of a new venture I’m undertaking. The past four years I’ve been blogging here at the Diary about my furniture conservation practice and preindustrial woodworking. My own thoughts and understanding have been refined, the readership has grown significantly, and most importantly I have made lifetime friends with like minded woodworkers.

While maintaining the blog has been valuable, I’ve decided to allow it to blossom into the form it appears to be naturally heading. From here on out I will be dedicating time and energy to creating an annual print magazine that seeks to provide readers a bridge between the worlds of furniture maker, conservator, and scholar. (In case you’re wondering, this doesn’t mean I will be altogether closing the doors on The Diary.)

I’ve found the interrelationship between these disciplines to be a fascinating tri-perspectival look at furniture made by the sweat of the brow before the industrial revolution. No one of these perspectives has the whole picture in view. In order to fully understand historic furniture making, we need the insight of a disciplined look at period documentation combined with analysis of actual surviving objects. But even that’s not enough. We then need to pick up those tools and walk in the shoes of the artisan to recreate the process and product if we’re going to get a glimpse into the mindset of the original maker.

Mortise & Tenon Magazine will be a no-advertisement, 130-150 page independent annual publication printed on perfect bound 70# matte paper. The magazine will have a crisp minimalist aesthetic relying heavily on rich photography to enhance each article and essay. Sample page spreads are on the website.

Issue One is currently under development with an expected print date sometime this coming winter. I’m not taking pre-orders until the issue is complete so if you are interested in what we’re doing here, please visit our website and connect with us on our social media pages.

Please visit the new website for more information about the distinctive vision for M&T. Sign up for the email list on the site and you will receive periodic updates and information about pre-ordering dates. You will notice we also have launched Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter pages in order to keep everyone in the loop on the progress of the magazine. This is the best way to keep in touch with us so “like” us on Facebook and follow us on Instagram and Twitter. I want to hear your thoughts about the magazine.

Thank you, readers, for your input and support thus far. It’s my hope that this next step will be an even more valuable asset to your creative life.

Here’s the Mortise & Tenon official site:

Saturday, May 2, 2015

They Would’ve Used Plywood if They Had It

One of the widely circulating theories about furniture makers of the past is that they would’ve used X had they had access to such a thing in their day. While I have no doubt much of these claims are probably accurate a number of them are a bit misguided. In reality, this matter is too muddy to make such sweeping assertions. This is because of two things primarily:

1. There is an assumption that “they” were just like us. This one presupposes that they had the same values, worldview, and tastes as “us” today so that had the availability of resources been different, they would have chosen to work exactly as we do today.

2. There is an assumption that “they” were so radically different from us. This one says that those people of the past… they were stronger, smarter, tougher, skilled, traditionalistic, and more independent than us today so no way would they have compromised their craftsmanship with uninspired things like table saws and plywood.

I hope you can see the flaw in both of these assumptions. One of the most common mistakes of hobbyist historians is emphasis on one or the other of these two statements. In reality, the “us” and “them” is not as easily distinguishable as these theories make it out to be. Truthfully, there were as many different personalities and artistic motivations 200 years ago as there are today. Some people built and decorated furniture for creative expression (fewer than today, though) and others built furniture out of vocational necessity. They didn’t see themselves as making “art”. They simply had to pay their bills. There is the same mix among furniture makers today. For some, it just a pleasurable hobby they play around with occasionally while others are making a business out of it. What I’m saying is there is no “us” and “them”.

But I think it’s correct that the only way we could determine if a cabinetmaker would have done any certain thing is by considering their values. Why did they do what they did? It’s important to look for what construction and materials decisions they made and ask, “What does that tell us about their values? Were they fastidious for their day? Economy minded? Were they traditionally minded or were they inventive?”

So what about plywood? Would “they” have used it? I think many would have. From an economic standpoint, it’s easier to drop sheet goods to fill a back of a chest of drawers than individual boards prepped and beveled to slide in a groove or nailed into a rabbet. Additionally, a solid plywood back provides a rigidity to the structure that I think many preindustrial makers would have found appealing. The majority of makers of furniture “back then” were very economy minded. The bottoms, backs, and insides were simply not aesthetically important to them (just like most makers today). That’s why many of them left those surfaces so atrociously (and consequently beautifully) rough. Finally, I think it’s significant that what we see historically is that the industrialized model of furniture production embraced plywood. Why? Because of economy.

20th century desk and bookcase with plywood back

So why won’t I use plywood in my furniture? It’s simply because of my values. I personally make furniture to reproduce objects of a certain historical period. My making is for research, not economy. Sure it’s easier, cheaper, and potentially more stabilizing to drop plywood into the back of a chest of drawers. Who cares? None of those things are of first importance to me. As quixotic as it sounds, authenticity is all I’m after.