Highland Woodworking
Book Review: Another Work Is Possible
by Joshua A. Klein
Review by J. Norman Reid

How often do you read a book that brings tears to your eyes? For me, certainly, not often, maybe never. But this book, Another Work Is Possible, did. Let me explain.

This book is, on its surface, a recounting of the process of building a timber-framed blacksmith shop next to the author's woodshop. In August 2019, an international 35 - member team from Charpentiers San Frontieres (CsF) assembled in rural Maine to spend a little over a week creating the structure. They assembled the frame, starting with raw white pine logs, finished them, cut the joinery, raised the walls and installed the rafters. Klein relates all of this in a telling that follows the chronological order of events.

But what lies on the surface can be misleading, and in this case there is much more to the story. That story is about a magical time, a time of shared labor, of teaching and learning, of camaraderie, of joy.

It began almost by chance, when the head of the CsF was seeking a viable project for the team to come to America and learn American timber framing practices. An email to Klein led to the offhand mention that he was thinking about building a blacksmith shop on his property. That idea soon blossomed into a concrete proposal, and the project was on.

The first step was to design the structure, which was based on New England barn frames, with some modifications to accommodate the French workers, who were more familiar with the different construction methods than the Americans. The plans were drawn out by hand and modified numerous times before they could serve as a blueprint for the structure.

The foundation, composed of specially cut 16 in. granite blocks, was installed by the shared labor of students from one of his classes, in but a day. The framing timber of Eastern White Pine — chosen for its relative freedom from knots and relative ease of working — came from a neighboring woodlot. The rafters and joists came from Klein's own stand of trees.

Before the team arrived from all parts of the compass, many preparations were undertaken. A temporary kitchen was established, locally-grown food supplies were sourced, Klein's woodshop was converted into a dining area, sleeping quarters were obtained, and hewing stations were set up on the grounds.

Then the team arrived and after a day of recuperation work began. The logs were elevated on "bunks" with an assortment of dogs to keep them from rolling while the workers stood atop them. The bark was peeled only where chalk lines were snapped to guide the shaping, this to enable surefootedness on the otherwise slippery green wood. The process, once the dimensions were laid out, was to score and notch the logs, joggle or rough trim them, and finally hew smooth faces on each side.

Many shapes of axes were in use, each worker having his or her own preference. The work went quickly, taking about three hours to take a log from rough to finished timber, so that the entire frame was ready in two days.

Cutting the joinery followed. One day was taken up laying out the joinery, another in cutting mortises and tenons by the American square rule method. It was a major goal of the project to teach this new-to-them system to the French workers. The square rule system employs rulers and squares to cut standard sized joints so parts can be installed interchangeably. Boring machines and T-augurs cleared out the mortises, which were then finished by chisel work. At the same time, pit saws were used to rip the curved hardwood beams so they could be bookmatched into the frames.

As the work progressed, the spirit of the workers rose to a place of genuine joy. As Klein notes, joy is the product of engagement in the whole work, that when the woodworker faces tasks that use acquired skills and yet pose new challenges, a sense of "flow" emerges. When this happens, work becomes a pathway to joy.

The sills were made of Maine tamarack, locally known as hackmatack, because of its rot resistance. Joists were laid down, with 2 inch spruce flooring atop them.

With the deck in place, work progressed to setting the curved braces into the bents. The French method uses plumb bobs rather than squares to lay out the joints, a method that takes into account the irregularity of hewn timber. This ancient method works well when working with timber that is not always regular in shape. As the Americans had taught the French the square rule method, the French reciprocated by teaching the Americans their techniques. This cross-cultural exchange, a major goal of the project, was a beautiful thing to watch, as was the cultural collaboration in the cooking by an international team.

Soon it was time to gather up tools, clear the site of wood chips, and prepare to raise the walls. In a relaxed preparatory day, many workers carved designs into the ends of the rafters, commemorating their shared time together.

The day of the raising, a fascinated public was invited to watch. First the walls were raised, then the bents were fitted in place. When the roof assembly was completed, the ceremonial driving of the final w edge was conducted. Festivities, enlivened by a fiddle band, lasted far into the night.

As Klein notes, a timber-framed building, such as this, stretched both his imagination and his skill set. But in that there's a lesson for each of us to take away — that no matter who we are and what our conditions, there is always the possibility of reaching beyond our current circumstances to seek out something new, something greater. Or, as Klein puts it, "another work is possible."

And now, about those tears. As the week drew to a close and departures loomed, there was an aura of bittersweet from this time of shared labor. In a brief essay, Klein's collaborator Michael Updegraff concluded that he could not find sufficient words to encapsulate this magical experience. So rather than attempting a simple explanation, he recounted some examples of standout experiences from the week. It was in reading these that my eyes dampened. He had caught the spirit of the week in a language that communicated to me far better than a pithy sentence or even a page could have done.

This is a beautiful book. Already renowned for his exemplary work on Mortise & Tenon Magazine, Klein outdid himself in the conception and execution of this fine volume. Hardbound, slip covered, and full-sized, it's filled with wonderful color photos that are integral to communicating the spirit as well as the methods of the project. Viewing them enables the reader to step inside the project, to be a part of it even without having been there.

In addition to Klein's description of the project's progress, he included a wonderful array of supporting material — sidebars, quotations, poetry, short essays by the participants on aspects of the project and their meaning, as well as excerpts from relevant writings. In this, Klein excelled. Clearly, for him, this book, as with the project, was a labor of love.

While on the surface the book should be of especial interest to timber frame woodworkers and those intrigued by green woodworking, its appeal extends far beyond that. It will be of interest to those enamored of hand tool work, of self-sufficiency, of the community of labor. It is more than that, though. It's a beautiful story of a shared experience that will appeal far beyond these narrow interests. I loved the book. I think you will too.

Find out more and purchase Another Work Is Possible
at Highland Woodworking

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 nreid@fcc.net.

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