Highland Woodworking Wood News Online, No. 159, November 2018
Mortise & Tenon, Issue 5
Book Review by J. Norman Reid

Once again, Joshua Klein and his co-editor Michael Updegraff have brought forth an eclectic and engaging gathering of articles about matters woodworking in Mortise & Tenon Magazine, Issue 5. As is their wont, the articles range widely in scope, emphasizing an historical perspective, with nary an electron-powered device in sight. While respect for tradition is evident throughout the issue, missing is the explicit attention to conservation and preservation that was evident in prior issues. Also missing is any attempt to present a how-to-do-it approach to our art and craft. What remains, though, is delightful and inspiring, as well as a darn good read.

Issue 5 opens with an essay by Singapore-based woodworker Kim Choy, who thinks the old saw that it takes 10,000 hours to master a new skill is most likely correct. After electing to use Japanese tools and methods, he attempted to teach himself their use. He recounts his trials and tribulations in a frank and sometimes humorous account of learning new ways, concluding that he's not yet attained his 10,000 hours of apprenticeship.

Kate Fox explores the history of six-board chests, which are found in multiple cultures in different eras. She concludes that because it's unlikely the form migrated from one place to another, it's an illustration of "convergent design," in which the same idea occurs spontaneously by minds operating independently but in parallel. She describes a unique style of Viking Age six-board chest with angled sides that may have been used as seating aboard ships.

Brendan Bernhardt Gaffney looks at the life and work of Kentucky artisan Chester Cornett. A subsistence woodworker, "Hairy" Cornett was noted for his eclectic and often unusual creations. His masterpiece, a four-rockered bookshelf chair that cocoons the sitter amid books on either side, is a wonder that would delight any bookworm.

Marshall Sheetz, Colonial Williamsburg cooper, describes the history and styles of coopering before taking us on a journey through the steps of building a cask, a process his mentor and teacher called "a hard mistress." Scheetz's riveting account describes the steps to build the prototypical "wet" cask, though he admits it's not sufficient detail for the process to be replicated in a home woodshop. For that, he recommends a workshop or starting with a "dry" cask not intended to hold liquids.

Noting that children need to learn both physical dexterity and the mental and physical habits that come only by working with their hands, Joshua Klein and Michael Updegraff decry the lack of shop classes now offered in schools. Citing the Swedish slöjd system as an example of what's possible, they set out to test manual training on their own offspring. They conclude, along with British scholar and author Dorothy Sayers of Lord Peter Wimsey fame, that children need to progress through several stages as their skills evolve toward the goal of self-sufficiency.

Classical scholar and woodworker Megan Fitzpatrick walks us through some notable examples of woodworking as it's appeared in classic literature. This charming exploration finds us face to face with some familiar characters, such as Robinson Crusoe, Shakespeare's rude mechanicals, George Eliot's Adam Bede, the ship's carpenter in Moby Dick, and others perhaps less known to us. Along the way, Fitzpatrick pokes fun at the foibles of the characters, their ignorance of things we well know, and their ability to produce the seemingly impossible with inadequate resources and skills.

A signature feature of each issue of Mortise & Tenon Magazine, Issue 5 has been the detailed examination of a piece of period furniture, and this issue is no exception. This time we look in detail at an 18th century mahogany folding tea table. Emphasis is on the tapered sliding dovetails used to attach the legs to the center column. As always, measurements are given in enough detail that the piece can be replicated in home woodshops.

Eric Sloane was a prolific author and artist whose life's work centered on the simple rural life of bygone days. In a gentle and informative essay, Michael Updegraff honors Sloane's contributions, especially as revealed by his fascination and homage to handmade tools from the pre-industrial period. Considered by some as the father of the current tool-collecting movement, Sloane himself collected tools that now are displayed and preserved as he himself arrayed them at the Eric Sloane Museum in Kent, Connecticut, where they can be seen today.

Spencer Nelson is an apartment-dweller who by necessity works wood in a small space using only hand tools. In a Q&A article, Nelson describes how he got started in woodworking as a respite from computer programming, how he discovered Japanese tools, and how he's able to work effectively and with neighborly quiet in tight spaces.

Joshua Klein writes about Maine minister and woodworker Jonathan Fisher, whose body of work is both meticulously documented and to a large extent preserved. Klein's article is an extract and distillation of his more detailed book-length treatment of Fisher's life's work but retains its essential spirit. Of special note are the emphasis on the utility of Fisher's Nuremberg-style workbench (why aren't we all using them?) and the advantage of Fisher's off-center, "Mickey Mouse" style handplane tote.

This issue concludes with Derek Olson's review of Victor Chimmery's Oak Furniture: The British Tradition. This massive volume is a source of inspiration about design, joinery, details and finishes that carries readers far beyond the how-to approach with ideas that encourage setting out in new directions. Though it emphasizes British furniture, its principles and examples are easily transferable to North American applications.

Like its predecessors, Issue 5 is beautifully laid out and well-illustrated with gorgeous color photos and instructive line drawings. It is, in short, a sensory delight.

This issue will have broad appeal. Hand tool woodworkers, woodworking history fans, those seeking fresh ideas and inspiration and anyone wanting a good read will all appreciate this issue. Like the first four issues, this one delights and entertains. Also, it informs. I've read lots of good woodworking books while writing these reviews, but I must confess I encountered fresh and surprising information in this issue. I think you will too. It's well worth a read.

Find out more and purchase Mortise & Tenon, Issue 5

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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