Sunday, June 28, 2015

Seeking the Story They Tell

In less than two weeks I’ll be at Lie-Nielsen in Warren, Maine as one of their Open House guest demonstrators. July 10th-11th this year Tom is opening up his place again to allow any and all to come tour the factory, try out high quality hand tools, learn from demonstrators, and chat with hundreds of other like-minded woodworkers. The event is always a blast.

Because of my Introduction to Furniture Restoration workshop in September, I will be there demonstrating furniture conservation practice. I will bring along my bench and furniture in need of work. I’ll be showing the guests what exactly furniture conservation is by demonstrating techniques for disassembly, repair, and inpainting with shellac and pigments. I will also have actual examples of period joinery and surfaces for folks to examine.

I’m looking forward to this class because spreading enthusiasm for furniture conservation is something I’ve felt evangelistic about. I know so many makers that honor our woodworking heritage by learning to reproduce the techniques and objects of the past. While making new is fun, what if you got to work on the originals themselves? I honestly get more out of conserving actual 200-300 year old relics than making a brand new copy of them. My good friend Jon Brandon put it this way to me, 

I’ve built reproduction furniture.  For example, there was a set of chairs that needed extra chairs made to fill out the set. It was a fun project. I loved doing it to match the old chairs and everything but when I had looked at those brand new chairs that I had made, even though they matched the old chairs, I had an empty feeling. I had made them and I felt proud of that but those chairs said nothing. You look at those 200 year old chairs and they were saying an awful lot.”

Jon’s right. When handmade furniture survives through centuries of use, abuse, and repair there is a rich story to tell to those who look for it. This happens for every single object that comes in my conservation studio, not only on rare masterpieces. My goal is to help others learn to seek the story in order that they may find it.

I truly believe my furniture making had a tremendous jump start because of my familiarity with the ins and outs of surviving period furniture. All the best makers I know of, in fact, had this background before making so if someone were to ask the best way to learn to how to build beautiful historically-informed furniture I would tell them to learn to restore the originals. I will be spending the two days of the Open House showing the guests exactly why they would sign up for my workshop in September. Check out more details on the workshop here:

Otherwise, I’ll see you in two weeks!

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Look What Arrived in My Mailbox!

Yesterday, my comp copies of the August issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine arrived in my mailbox. I was tickled to see my article about making a looking glass within its pages. I wrote this article for the woodworker who hasn't build entirely "by hand" yet but wants to dip their toes into a bite size project. This project is simple, requires little labor intensive steps, and introduces readers to potentially new ways of working with a limited tool set. If you don't have any molding planes but want to make this (or any other) looking glass, this article is for you. If you don't yet have a copy, subscribe here. If you do end up doing the project, drop me a line to share a finished picture. I hope it inspires your work.

p.s. Happy Father's Day!

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

They Believe in What We’re Doing

When I set out to create Mortise & Tenon Magazine, I consulted with an enormous list of people from all perspectives. I talked with woodworkers (professional and hobbyist), conservators, magazine publishers, business people, and friends. I got a lot of information about the ins and outs of running a small independent magazine. Almost all the conversations about the different aspects were resolved in consensus. This made charting my course much easier. There was one issue, however, that wasn’t lopsided. About 50% of the people said they believed I needed advertising to survive while the other half said I would be better off without it. I continued to explore that fuzzy issue and, in order of significance, here’s what came clear to me:
  1. I hated ad clutter. I didn’t want a ton of little ads infiltrating the articles, especially when the aesthetic did not correspond with the rest of the magazine. I found that a number of people I respect agreed that ad clutter was jarring.
  2. Community support was essential, especially in a niche world like hand tool woodworking. I wanted an avenue for businesses to publicly stand with and endorse the magazine.
  3. I wanted a “resource” section. It became clear to me that not all of my readers were going to be professionals well versed in all of the high quality toolmakers, etc. It was apparent that, for better or worse, people were going to be looking to M&T for resources for tools, workshops, etc.
  4. Subsidizing the print costs would be helpful. Choosing high quality uncoated thick paper with a book-thick cover is an expensive route to go. Then to do it for a relatively small run for this niche market is a bold move. (For those of you who don’t know, the first copy is about 80% of the cost. After the printer is setup, they can move thousands of copies through in minutes. Translate: small print runs = high cost)
All that considered, I decided to choose a path that addressed all those points. In the course of my conversations I came across the sponsorship model. It works like this: a like-minded high quality business chips in a small fee to be listed in a carefully curated Directory of Sponsors. This is highlighted both online and in a tasteful dedicated Directory in the back of each print issue. Next to their logos, the sponsors are given room to provide contact info and descriptions of their business. This avoids ad clutter, promotes community support, lists resources for readers, and helps make a small dent in the printing costs.

I have had a great response so far from woodworking professionals excited about the magazine. I’m honored to have such strong support. They believe in what we’re doing. It’s humbling and motivating to produce the most enlightening, instructive and inspiring hand tool woodworking magazine possible.

It is a pretty incredible line-up already and I have more confirmed but yet to be listed. I’m honored. Check it out here: 

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Three Weeks In

We’ve been at this thing for three weeks now. For a few guys doing a few days a week I’d say we’re making good headway. If we keep at this pace I don’t see why we can’t wrap this thing up in another three weeks or so. First off, I need to give credit where credit is due. I’ve hired a few of my friends to help out. Without them this would be impossible for us to pull off. Dan, Mike, Nathan, and Brave have been a huge help to me. My dad is flying out tomorrow to spend the week with me. I’ve got more folks lined up ready to help also. Above all, we are so thankful we hired an expert. Mark has been at this business a long time and he has provided the critical interpretation of evidence of original features as well as his hard-earned practical/strategical wisdom.

Demo of "modern" renovation in the back half of the house

In another half day of work the second floor will be completely gutted down to rafters and roof sheathing. The first floor is currently gutted down to studs and lath nailers. Next step will be tearing off the later porches and then dismantling the large central chimney and small kitchen chimney on the back. Ready, Dad?

Julia and I are funny about our house project. With few exceptions, we would much rather know what was original than think of new possibilities for the space. We do not enjoy the designing process at all. Because the back half of the first floor has been butchered up a bit, it’s sort of a blank canvas. We have a few parameters we can be sure were original but otherwise we have to go straight to the drawing board. We spent a number of hours agonizing over the layout. For some relief after one session, I said, “Oh! Julia I was looking at something you’d find interesting.” I took her outside and showed her remnants of the only paint scheme on the exterior: bright yellow clapboards and red-brown trim. “Whew. Good.” she said. Now we don’t have to pick paint colors out here! It’s already decided for us! Told you we were strange.

Part of the mantel studs

Creative chimney bump out that was plastered and trimmed out

It's better to break the nails off at the back than break out wood at the face.

Floor prying tools

Found some neat stuff pulling the floors up upstairs. I found all these tally marks on many of the boards (both sub floor and top floor). Puzzled, I tweeted (ugh. Did I just say that?) my friend Bill Rainford about it and he fired back lots of info about how these are tally marks from the sawmill for numbering the boards. I guess the original owners decided to lay them down rough because the tally marks are still there and where there wasn’t heavy traffic wear you can see sash saw marks. I guess the upstairs was not a real elegant space at first. Pretty interesting stuff.

Sawmill tally marks on sub floor

Newspaper was all over in the walls upstairs

A few of the boards were rotted to powder. The name of this escapes me. Red rot? Don't remember.

We also uncovered an original knee wall that was assembled completely with wrought nails. That threw us off a little. That whole corner looks almost 18th century but the frame doesn’t appear to be of that era. Mark is pretty sure this house was built no earlier than 1830 and no later than 1840. So, wrought nails in one corner of an upstairs rough storage attic? Maybe they had a handful of “olde” nails from their grandfather and just used them in the least important place in the house. Who knows?

One of the original knee wall boards...coon chewed and all.

Also of note… Look at the above picture. See something off? Does the dormer hole look a little crooked? It’s not. The middle rafter is seated in the wrong spot. They must have notched it into the wrong side of the line because it’s about 6” off at the plate. I guess they knew it would still hold the roof up and they probably never anticipated me blogging about it to the world. “No one will ever know”, they thought. 

Sadly, I had to bid farewell to my most regular worker this week. Dan is going out to sea for work for the next month. We joked about how I hope I won’t have any work for him when he gets back. I’d like to be wrapped up by then but I’ll miss him at the house. We’ve worked hard side by side and talked a lot. This kind of work is a very bonding kind of experience and I think Dan and I are becoming real good friends.

Julia and I have received a lot of feedback about the project. Some of it was encouraging but most people think we’re crazy. I don’t know what this says our mental condition but we’re still convinced this project makes sense for our family and is totally attainable. I think we’re over halfway done with the disassembly and there’s no rush on putting it back up after that. We’ll take that part as it comes. In the end, we will have a totally structurally sound, raccoon poop free, well insulated, plumbed, and wired 200 year old house with most of its original material. That sounds like a dream to me. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Interpreting the Idiosyncrasies

Interpreting the idiosyncrasies of artifacts from antiquity is a tenuous art. It’s so easy to point to an awkward saw cut or a splice joint and, without firsthand knowledge, deduce that a tool slipped during the process or the maker ran out of “proper” materials. Sometimes joinery is executed in surprising ways and its elusive purpose doesn’t reveal itself to the casual observer. In fact, I think this is the way many history myths are born: Someone sees a peculiar characteristic of an artifact and they begin to imagine what it could mean.  They postulate, they suppose, and they presume but all of this is from a 21st century frame of reference. There are few people whose knowledge of early American life is extensive enough to be able to envisage life centuries ago even somewhat accurately. It’s that handful of people that will be the first to admit that, at the end of the day, we just don’t know.

It’s been illuminating to closely examine the frame in this house. There are so many curiosities we’ve puzzled over. Some things have become clearer as the layers are peeled away. Other things remain unexplainable. Perhaps at another time I will post here about the more peculiar matters in hopes that you readers can help. For now, though, I’ve gotta pack up my lunch and head out the door. It’s going to be another long day of old house archaeology. 

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Blogging for Popular Woodworking

For those of you that don’t yet follow the Popular Woodworking Magazine Shop Blog, I thought I would let you know that I started guest blogging there. I’ll be periodically posting anecdotes and thoughts about my work there in addition to the writing here at the Diary. In case you’re wondering, yes, I’ve switched my guest blogging energy from Craftsy to Pop Wood.

This first post Megan Fitzpatrick and I thought should be an introduction post. So if you are wondering about who I am and how I got into this stuff, check it out here: