Thursday, November 26, 2015

M&T is Dedicated to Hands-On Research

This is Part Three of a seven day series as a lead up to the official December 1st opening of pre-orders for Mortise & Tenon Magazine Issue One. Each day I’m discussing one tenet of the Mortise & Tenon Manifesto.


3. M&T is dedicated to hands-on research. We believe working with authentic methods is the best way to do historical research because it allows the maker to stand in the shoes of the original artisan. Insights are gained through this “shop based research” more readily than by ordinary examination because the natural constraints of working by hand allow the maker to discern the logic behind original construction choices.

There are so many ways to study period furniture. By exploring documentary evidence, tracing genealogical lineage, and examining the object itself, we can potentially determine quite a bit about a piece. Nine times out of ten, what scholars are after in that kind of research are the names of the maker and original owner. But that doesn’t say much about the characteristics of the object itself.

By intimately acquainting ourselves with a piece’s construction, we can often retrace the original workflow and creation process. By then walking through the steps ourselves, using the same tools they did, something magical happens. All of the sudden, your understanding of that piece is immensely enhanced. You feel like you know the original as well as if you had made it. (Every maker knows this feeling. When they see their finished product, they can only see each step of the process and how well each particular aspect was executed.)

These protruding wedged pins in this dovetail joint are an interesting Germanic construction method.

This principal works at two levels: it works for object-specific study and it works for period craftsmanship in general. As I discussed in yesterday’s post, working wood “by hand” is a completely different animal. I don’t care if you’ve worked in a high-tech cabinet shop your whole life. If you’ve never chopped all the mortises for a piece or resawed your stock with a handsaw, you are going to have a hard time comprehending what the original maker went through to produce the piece. But it’s not always about learning “how hard” it was. I was surprised to discover that many of these tasks are not nearly as arduous or difficult as they were made out to be. You learn which operations take the most time and then search for ways to expedite them. When you constrain yourself to the tools available to the artisans of yesterday, more often than not, your solutions were their solutions. Those are the epiphany moments.

This research methodology does not supplant traditional documentary and genealogical investigation but should be seen as a compliment. It is the conviction of M&T that this kind of research should be explored in deeper ways. We want woodworkers around the country to engage in this kind of historical study. This is an invitation to experiment with us. Throw out your digital calipers, dust off that foreplane, and sharpen your handsaw: Let’s do some research.

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