Highland Woodworking Wood News Online, No. 157, September 2018
Hands Employed Aright
by Joshua A. Klein

Book Review by J. Norman Reid

Jonathan Fisher is known to us as a woodworker whose works were ordinarily the plain stuff of a country woodshop. But he was much more than that. Orphaned at an early age, he succeeded in graduating from Harvard College, where he demonstrated excellence in mathematics and drawing, among other things. As a Congregational minister, he served what was then "rough" frontier country in Blue Hill, Maine, where he carried on his work and lived out his life. What's remarkable about his life is not merely his many accomplishments, but the fact that it was so well documented and that so much of his work has survived.

Throughout his life, Fisher kept detailed journals that often included details of his furniture construction. Due to a combination of fortuitous circumstances, a good deal of his furniture has survived, and provenance can be established from his voluminous diaries. So too with the tools he used to craft his woodwork. Many yet exist and they, and the furniture, are documented in Joshua Klein's masterful new book, Hands Employed Aright.

This book accomplishes several things. It documents the life of this accomplished man, who in addition to his woodworking, excelled in geometry, mathematics and several languages, in addition to painting. Adopting a belief that time is precious and short, he lived out a strong work ethic fueled by both his scholarship and religious convictions.

Klein describes how Fisher set up shop, first in a room in his home, then a portion of a barn before constructing a "wood house" for his labors. For a time, he experimented with wind power to drive his lathe, a practice later abandoned as impractical. He employed about four benches, including a small bench probably kept in his study so he could readily undertake small projects in comfort.

Fisher was active not only as a woodworker and minister but also as a farmer on a part-time basis. For him, woodworking was a source of much-needed income but also a pleasant pastime. Still, once his home was paid for, his practice of taking furniture commissions declined notably. Nonetheless, his output was prodigious, including the desk and bookshelf featured on the book's cover, tables, many candle stands, picture frames, boxes and a press bed that folded up in Murphy bed style. Not limited to woodworking, he also made detailed woodcuts using handmade tools, wrote several books, built a camera obscura to project images for drawing, made accomplished paintings and created a device to produce silhouettes.

Klein combines several disciplines in his treatment of Fisher. In addition to biographical material, he replicates Fisher's working methods by conducting shop-based research to better understand how woodworking was done in the period when Fisher lived and worked. In the process, Klein adopted some new practices for his own work and found himself eased away from reliance on power tools.

The book concludes with an extensive illustrated catalog of Fisher's furniture and the tools he's known to have used. Though the furniture is generally plain in style, Shaker-like in its simplicity, Fisher adopted some stylistic additions the Shakers eschewed, notably decorative moldings. Of note is the whimsical child's desk originally painted to represent a peacock's tail feathers. Fisher also excelled at faux wood graining, some examples of which yet to exist and are shown in the book. Interestingly, one of his highest accomplishments was also among his earliest: a wooden clock he fashioned in his own manner using his mathematical skills. He adorned it with messages in several languages reminding himself that time was fleeting, a principle that guided his life.

Fisher's tool set appears to be nearly complete, including some of his benches, shaving horse, lathe, both bench and molding planes, saws, drill bits, lathe chisels and a vise that was operated with the use of a wooden wrench.

Though much has been written about various aspects of Fisher's life, this book is important for several reasons. Not only does it document Fisher's life and many accomplishments, but it notably describes in detail the woodworking practices that prevailed in the early 19th century. Little similar material exists elsewhere, making this book a valuable contribution to the history of woodworking.

Beautifully illustrated in color in the manner we've come to expect from Klein, who also edits Mortise & Tenon Magazine, this hardbound book from Lost Art Press is slipcovered and printed on paper that can be expected to last for years to come.

Woodworkers with an interest in the history of the craft and hand tool enthusiasts will greatly appreciate this book. It's a delight to read and relish the copious illustrations. And it's an inspiration to witness how this simple man employed his hands and heart to attain so many accomplishments though a life well spent. This book is a definite keeper.

Find out more and purchase Hands Employed Aright by Joshua Klein.

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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