Friday, January 30, 2015

French Marking Gauge

I recently made this marking gauge taken from Dean Jansa’s Popular Woodworking article in 2009. My other wooden gauge is of the English screw-locking variety and I was always happy enough with its performance. That is until I saw Bob Rozaieski’s video. When I watched him set the French gauge entirely with one hand, its efficiency became immediately apparent. It locks by wedge action so that once you have your depth aligned, you can press the wide end of your wedge with your thumb. With it secured by thumb pressure, one quick tap on the bench top drives it in tight. To release, tap the small end of the wedge on the bench. Also, the wedge is captured when the arm’s installed so you don’t have to worry about the little guy falling out during your work. I’m happy I finally made this gauge. If you haven’t tried one, watch Bob’s video and then make one for yourself. You won’t regret it.


Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Jonathan Fisher Research

Over the past two years a portion of my professional life has been devoted to researching a 19th century rural Maine cabinet and chair maker named Jonathan Fisher. This page will remain linked on the sidebar to serve as a resource for updates and information throughout the course of this project.

Bluehill historian, Brad Emerson has said of the research, “The furniture has been a relative unknown. Joshua’s project is really important. He is taking a scholarly and craftsman’s approach to the study and separating fact from fiction. One of the things that makes the Fisher furniture so important is that everything survived. Fisher writes about making the furniture and who he made it for, the tools he made it with survive. It’s really an extraordinary thing. It’s going to tell us more than we ever knew about Fisher’s position as a cabinetmaker in the community and as someone who made furniture for himself and his neighbors. It’s going to be an important addition to the history of early furniture making in New England and Maine. This is another part of the story. It’s been waiting for someone like Joshua to come along and take it apart and put it together.”

Fisher's landscape of Bluehill. Courtesy: Maine Memory Network


Fisher's desk and bookcase
Jonathan Fisher was born October 7th, 1768 in New Braintree, MA. He spent his youth in manual labor as well as drawing and painting. As a child, he decided to pursue academic study and eventually graduated from Harvard for ministerial training. Jonathan accepted a call to minister in Bluehill, Maine in 1796. Throughout his life and ministry in Bluehill, he sought to capitalize on the lack of skilled artisans in the frontier community by making furniture, straw hats, and household items for sale while providing decorative painting, well drilling, and bookbinding services, to name a few. Though never formally trained in a cabinetmaking apprenticeship, Fisher’s manual dexterity and aptitude were remarkably sophisticated for a rural artisan.  

Fisher built numerous articles of furniture from 1798 through the 1820s. He fabricated a variety of chairs, chests, stands, tables, and even common domestic items for both personal use and on commission. Fisher’s surviving furniture exemplifies the conservative vernacular taste so prevalent in preindustrial New England. Additionally, among his countless ingenious devices, the windmill which powered his sawmill, lathe, and grindstone is most remarkable.

Molding made by Fisher


Most preindustrial cabinet and chair makers have had little if any of their story survive. Some makers have furniture attributed to them but no tools survive. Others may have tools but only one or two pieces of furniture. Few have any meaningful documentary evidence (if they do it is usually restricted to ledgers alone). Welcome to the dilemma of the furniture historian.

In contrast to these, the most exciting element of the Fisher story is the overwhelming body of surviving artifacts from his life and work.  The house Fisher built survives as a museum to this day as well as much of his furniture (which is on display in the museum) and his chest of woodworking tools. Astonishingly, beyond the abundance of material evidence, all but two years of Fisher’s 35 year daily journals survive in the archives of the museum. Quotidian entries abound such as, “Spent most of the day in sawing out legs for light stands” and, “Turned four chair posts for Mr. Ellis” and, “Purchased of Mr. Clark 22 feet of pine board and worked upon a chest.” This level of documentation combined with the overwhelming number of surviving artifacts is unparalleled by any other preindustrial cabinet or chair maker.


Fisher's Workshop built in 1811
Because of his prominence in Maine history, numerous scholars have discussed aspects of Jonathan Fisher and many museum exhibits have highlighted him. Fisher was a multifaceted individual and although many of these facets have been discussed, surprisingly, no one has concentrated on the parson’s furniture making. I’m working to fill that gap.

My research compiled thus far has been well received and I am now under contract with Lost Art Press to develop a book manuscript. The objective of the book is to tell the story of Jonathan Fisher as a rural multifaceted preindustrial furniture maker. Biographical information will lay the ground work for the heart of the book which focuses on his workshops, tools, and extant furniture. Discussion of his motivations, aesthetic preferences, and clientele will also be presented. Finally, both the furniture and the tools will be displayed in catalog format for a more detailed look at the objects.

Fisher's "mahogany" grain painting
This important story provides fresh insight into furniture making in rural New England before the Industrial Revolution. It is my hope we will benefit from better understanding this aspect of our cultural heritage. If you are interested in the development of the research feel free to follow along at the blog here. Updates, sneak peaks, upcoming events, and publishing information will all be made available here at The Workbench Diary. Thank you for your interest.

If you would like to contact me regarding this research, you can email me at:

Some of Fisher's molding planes


See what Christopher Schwarz has been saying about it:

And what Don Williams has said about it:

The Jonathan Fisher House:

Monday, January 26, 2015

Convert to Collagen - A Free Printable Liquid Hide Glue Recipe

Granules and Salt

I've posted before about making your own liquid hide glue but I fear that not all the readers here are committed enough to purchase a digital scale and urea prills. Because I feel evangelistic about hide glue, I want to remove any unnecessary barriers in order to convert you.  I'm a relativist when it comes to woodworking tool choices. I really don’t care if you're in love with your tablesaw. To each his own.  But when it comes to adhesive choices for wooden joinery, I sincerely tell you that there are no acceptable alternatives. If you don’t know why you ought to be using hide glue for your furniture making, read my Eleven Reasons.

When I ran out of urea last year, I decided to give canning salt another fair shot. (My previous experiments resulted with the salt content way too high.  Sometimes it took days to dry.) After experimenting  a while with proportions of salt to glue granules, I found my recipe. I've been using it for about a year and I'm very happy with it. Here it is:

Right click and select "Open in New Tab" for printing

The above image is a small printable jpg for you to print out to tack it up in your shop. For the larger version click here.The salt is canning (non-iodized) salt. The gram strength of the glue is 192. The water is just from the tap. You can make your own glue pot.

You can purchase premixed liquid hide glue if you insist but I mix my own because I believe freshness is the most critical factor in glue integrity. I mix up small amounts at a time to ensure freshness. I don’t let a batch sit around for more than a month. Read the posts linked above for more information on using hide glue.

Be ye converted.

Any questions you have about liquid hide glue?

Friday, January 23, 2015

Dillinger's Got it Handled


If you don’t read Zach Dillinger’s blog (shame on you) then I recommend heading over to check out his recent post on fitting tanged chisels with 18th century octagonal handles. This is my favorite way of handling the chisels I periodically pick up second hand. At the moment, I have a small pile of them waiting. I don’t have much to add to what Zach has written except maybe these two things: 


1. I size the hole so that with hand pressure the bolster is about ¼” away from being fully set into the handle. Then I drive the tang in by burying the chisel’s edge into a scrap of hardwood and gently hammering the handle down onto it. I make sure I have extra length on the stock to account for hammer damage. 

A wedge helps

2. Once you have two tapers, work holding becomes a little hairy. For the last two tapers, I simply add a wedge in the vise to make up for the lost material. No problems that way.

I prefer patina to fresh wood

I applied dyes, shellac, and pigments to give this handle some character. If you are interested in this kind of finishing, you may want to watch out for my looking glass article this summer. In it I go over how to achieve this patination simply and quickly. More details on that later.


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A Long Story Short

Asher in the hospital

Things have been a little crazy here lately. Not long after the New Year, Asher started throwing up. A lot. All the time. The doctors were just keeping an eye on him for over a week until he lost a full pound. At that point it was time to take action. It turns out he had pyloric stenosis – basically a tightening of the opening from the stomach to small intestine. Long story short he went in for surgery. That’s nerve wracking stuff for a five week old to go through. Surgery went well and Asher is back to his normal self. We are so thankful.

 Asher back to himself

Sample molding for looking glass

To pass time at the hospital I did some writing. I spent time on an article that will be published this summer. It details the making of a period looking glass that I made for Julia for Christmas. Today I finished the photography for the article and this evening I put the finishing touches on the manuscript. It’s rare these days to have something done so far ahead of schedule.

Working on the manuscript

 Rather nice veneer, no?

I am thankful that things in the studio are in full swing. Having a decent backlog after time off is a good thing. I have been privileged to book some nice pieces for this winter and I look forward to getting to them.

Monday, January 12, 2015

On Reading Well

Last night I finished reading “The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities” by Richard Bushman. As I closed the book for the last time, I couldn't help but think about how valuable good books are to my work. It is so easy to perpetuate myth and hyperbole when thinking about history. Even though we may have been taught better, the nuances of historical actuality are too often missed. To remedy this, a well-conceived book is ballast for our thoughts about our ancestors, what they did, and why they did it. It takes an exceptional author to be able to compellingly lay out a historical narrative in a way that highlights obvious points of contact to the lives of a diversified audience. That is history done well.

The key to building a worthy library is found in the Bibliography in the back of every good book you own. This section reveals the scholarship the author is relying on. Look those books up. Buy them. Read them and their bibliographies. Then read those books and their bibliographies. And on it goes. You may feel overwhelmed for a while but it is not long before you begin to see certain sources cited over and over again. This is a good sign. Those are the ones that might be worth taking a closer look at.

Really good exhibition catalogs put out by major museums are usually a sure bet. These can be pricey but are almost always worth it. Top-drawer up-to-date scholarship is not always expensive, though. My library consists mostly of used books. While cost is not the decisive factor in book selection, most used books are cheap. There are a handful of used book stores online. Try AbeBooks or Amazon for starters.

Annotated for future reference

Pay close attention to good scholars: highlight in your books. Underline. Annotate. Use whatever markings that will help you digest the text. Unless you are trying to amass a pristine collection for sale someday, use your books like tools. There is something about the physical motion of highlighting that seems to facilitate the learning process. It sticks better that way. Beyond the benefits of first time comprehension, I later find that merely flipping through pages scanning highlighted portions with my eyes instantly brings back the content of what I read. This is a great way to go back six months later and quickly brush up on important topics. If you don’t highlight, the only other alternative is rereading every word again.

For really important books, I will actually go back through the book again and annotate the highlighted sections of the text. This may seem overkill, but when there is a book I have to go back to over and over in my research, this is a big time saver.

So read much but make sure you read well. Retention and revisitation are the two goals for reading well.

Any other tips you have to contribute?

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Some People Go to the Gym


I've never been much of an athlete. I always preferred creating art to running laps. But what if the creative process was a workout in itself? Some people go to the gym for exercise. Others spend a few hours ripping 12/4 lumber in order to build a bed. After all that, I feel great.




Tuesday, January 6, 2015

A Slow, Steady Stream

Fly rail repair

Now that Christmas and the New Year have come and gone I am settling into the winter work schedule. Summer is always so scattered with appointments, lectures, and events but winter is hunkering down time. It’s usually a slow, steady stream of miscellaneous repairs in solitude. It’s also when I do my research and writing. I look forward to this time of year. Being self-employed, it’s the closest thing I get to a steady schedule.

Refinished desk

Plant stand ring fracture

 New bun foot turned on my pole lathe

Turned a new bun foot for a china cabinet. The cabinet's bottom was sagging over the years so the long expanse needed some more support. Been working on my turning skills. I still rely on sandpaper for cleanup and wish I was more efficient. We'll get this pole lathe thing figured out one of these days.

Lots of gluing as well

  New foot installed
 Repairing worn drawers

 A sweet little desk on frame that needed structural work.

I love this work. Building is fun but there is a deep satisfaction that comes with restoring a 200 year old artifact. (A kind I don't get from building.) I love the variety of skills involved in conservation work. One minute you are sleuthing around for evidence of construction methodology, the next you are testing the solubility of an undesirable film on a historic surface, and then you find yourself planing flush a grafted component. This is a good job for someone as divergently interested as myself. I have a hard time doing one thing for a long time.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Men at Work


The past couple days I’ve been busy making molding, gluing stuff, etc…


Eden and Garbanzo have been busy with heavy machinery…


and Asher’s been busy staring at things.

What’s a Mama to do with all this industrious male energy?