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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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