As with the previous two issues, I was thrilled when Issue No. 3 of Mortise & Tenon
Magazine recently arrived in my mailbox. In part, my delight was due to the intriguing
photo of a handheld drawknife on the cover. But even more, it was from anticipating the
10 articles that lay within. Enhanced by a wealth of beautiful photography and drawings
and delightfully laid out, the issue promised a feast for the eyes as well as for the mind.
It did not disappoint.
As did its predecessors, this issue—now part of a semi-annual
production—encompassed a range of topics, including furniture conservation and
restoration, construction, design and the very roots of woodworking as art and craft. It
opens on a somewhat philosophical note with Jim McConnell's essay "On Perfection."
McConnell struggled, as we all do, with the expectation that our creations should
approach an ideal form and then kept forever as unmarred things of beauty. With a
cherry dining table for his example, he related the obstacles to that level of
perfection—errors in both design and building among them—and then witnessed the
accumulation of marks as his children used it for games, study and its intended use,
dining. He ultimately concluded that "perfection" must embody the whole history of a
piece, its life story throughout its making and use, rather than some antiseptic and
probably unattainable ideal.
Joshua Klein, the magazine's chief editor, then describes the construction of his heavy
white oak spring pole lathe. Touting its advantages of being "accessible, safe, quiet and
humane," he shows how one can be inexpensively built in a weekend. A bit of history
documents spring pole lathes to at least the 13th century. Though less efficient than
continuous rotation lathes since they only cut on the downstroke of the pedal, they held
their own over the centuries due to their simplicity and reliability. Though his discussion
omits the dimensions of his lathe, he offers plenty of construction details and clear
photos so others can build their own.
Garrett Hack reviews his use of patterns in making furniture. They offer both efficiency
and repeatability, along with a good way to test the visual appeal of new designs.
Accuracy is key to effective patterns since flaws will inevitably show up in the finished piece. Knot-free, light-colored hardwood makes the best patterns, though softwood,
thin plywood and even paper all have their place. Hack illustrates using a pattern to
shape tapered table legs, which helps him see the taper clearly, accurately choose
grain orientation in the stock and cut and shape the taper. Patterns are especially
valuable for laying out curves. His shop, as might be expected, is filled with patterns
that are reminders of past projects as well as props for repeated use.
Michael Updegraff, co-editor of the magazine, and Jim McConnell follow with interviews
with Drew Langsner and Kenneth Kortemeier. Drew's 1974 book Handmade reflected
his desire to learn from others' experiences in handcrafted woodworking and led to a
period of study in rural Europe. For Drew, it was transformational. On his return, he
relocated to North Carolina to make wooden handcrafts. After Swedish carver Wille
Sundqvist joined him to teach classes, Country Workshops, dedicated to teaching
handcrafts, was born.
Fast forward a couple of decades. Like Drew, Kenneth Kortemeier had a background in
fine art but a desire to go well beyond emphasis on form to explore function. Early on
he was drawn to North Carolina, where he worked with Drew at Country Workshops.
Later, he took up an apprenticeship with Welsh chairmaker John Brown, who ultimately
advised him to stop taking apprenticeships and learn by making his own mistakes.
Moving to Maine, he met Bill Coperthwaite who became an important influence on his
life and who enabled him to set up shop in Bill's homestead.
Fast forward once again. Drew was approaching retirement and wanted someone to
take over Country Workshops. He reconnected with Kenneth, who chose to stay in
Maine. The two arrived at a plan to establish the Maine Coast Craft School, using the
benches and other infrastructure of Country Workshops as well as its distributorship of
premium Swedish hand tools. For Drew, retirement will bring much desired reading,
travel and a continuing though long-distance relationship with the school he began.
Brendan Bernhardt Gaffney takes us on an interesting journey into the variety of
measurement tools used over time. Most have been anthropomorphic measures,
based on units of body size such as the span of a hand or the distance between joints.
While builders can rely on these body-based measurements for their own work, they
require sticks to share measurements with others. But until the Industrial Revolution
imposed the need for standardization, many variations of purportedly the same
measures existed. Now nearly the whole world uses the metric system, based not on
body size but the size of the earth; only the U.S., Liberia and Myanmar use indigenous
systems. The U.S. Imperial system is anthropomorphic resting, as it does on the
Roman thumb (inch) and foot.
A pictorial examination of two period high chairs follows. One green, one brown, they
each were constructed of riven wood and incorporate turned elements. Both have rush
seats. But many details of design vary between them. The article presents dimensions
and good photographs of joinery, making the chairs reproducible.
Danielle Rose Byrd wrestles with the concepts of art and craft, form and function. She
resists reducing work to one or two-word labels, arguing that pieces need to be seen as
they are, in context and as a whole. Naming is one way we limit our perspective on
work that merits being more richly understood. The more confidence we have in
ourselves, the less we need to rely on the judgment of others about our work.
Openness will help us eschew the need to build walls around what is art and what is
Michel Updegraff continues the form and function theme with the build of a candle stand
out of yellow birch from a beaver-girdled tree. He describes in detail his methods of
hand tool work to prepare the pedestal and legs, the latter riven with froe and hatchet
and shaped by drawknife, chisel, spokeshave and rasp. He cut the sliding dovetails
pins first and trimmed the tails to fit. The 15" top, glued up from a cherry board, was
attached so that it could be tilted and the table pushed against a wall. Michael
succeeded at his goal of recreating the methods a period woodworker might have used
for the same job and ended up with a fine table for his home.
Shelley Cathcart and Amy Griffin recount the woodworking careers of two
Massachusetts cabinetmakers whose work is featured in an exhibit at Old Sturbridge
Village. Samuel Wing's workshop is among the best-preserved period workshops,
photos of which are included in the article. Wing was principally a farmer, but did a
variety of other jobs in addition to cabinetmaking. Tilly Mead, the records show, had a
larger, full-time cabinet shop that employed other workers. Though none of his furniture
survives, it's known to have been decorated in the style of the early 19 th century.
Documentary evidence enabled a model of his workshop to be constructed, which,
interestingly, included a separate finishing room.
Joshua Klein spied an old, handmade chest at an antique store and set out to restore it.
With a conservator's eye, he developed a plan before setting out, first addressing the
critical question of what makes it so special that it merits the time and money spent on
it. What problems need attention? What can be removed without loss? Value, he
notes, has several dimensions, money for sure, but also historic, utilitarian, artistic and
sentimental. Judging it worth his time and effort, Klein describes his restoration of the
piece to as close as possible to original. The biggest compromise was in finishing;
failing to remove several overcoats of paint, he eventually decided to paint the cabinet
indigo blue. The result reflected, as it must, the conservator's hard choices about losing
the old and adding the new.
Bill Pavlak looks at 18 th century pattern books and their meaning. He concludes that
they were not intended as guides for cabinetmakers to copy as a whole but as fashion
books from which to draw ideas and then fill in the blanks. He recounts his own
experience with pattern books, first avoiding them, then being perplexed about their
meaning before coming to see that the ornamented drawings overlaid basic and familiar
furniture forms. He argues that you really come to grips with 18 th century ornamentation
by experiencing it, by drawing it and carving it in three dimensions. He advises
woodworkers to begin with isolated elements, rather than whole pieces. He has made a
practice to collect and draw as many examples as he can, a task that's complicated by
poor and pixelated modern copies that fail to capture all the detail of the original
Vic Tesolin's review of Bruce Hoadley's A Field Guide to Identifying Woods in American
Antiques & Collectibles concludes the volume.
I found this informative issue to be mind-stretching. Put another way, I learned some
things I didn't know and didn't even know I wanted to know. I was challenged to think.
And I was entertained. What more could you ask? In my opinion, any serious
woodworker or collector with an interest in the art and craft of cabinetmaking will relish
Find out more and purchase Mortise & Tenon Magazine, Issue 3
J. Norman Reid is a woodworker, writer, and woodworking instructor living in the Blue Ridge Mountains with his wife, a woodshop full of power and hand tools and four cats who think they are cabinetmaker's assistants. He is the author of Choosing and Using Handplanes.
He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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