Highland Woodworking
Book Review: Mortise & Tenon Magazine, Issue 10
Review by J. Norman Reid

What began a few years ago as a tentative exploration of the possibilities for a new and decidedly fresh approach to woodworking literature has now reached a milestone. This, the 10th issue of this intriguing and enlightening contribution, follows in the footsteps of its predecessors. If its diverse essays have any unifying themes, they are the nobility of craftsmanship and the respect for tradition. This accords well with earlier issues but, though similar in content, this issue is bright with fresh ideas and alive with inspiration.

In the opening article, Will Wheeler describes his apprenticeship in green chairmaking, a venture he undertook part time while working a regular job. His 100 hours of instruction enabled him to bring away two Jennie Alexander chairs and a host of new skills. These he expected. What he did not expect was the gift of fulfillment he achieved from making things by hand.

Jeff Miller describes his quest to replicate David Pye's fluting engine. Pye did not leave complete plans, or even clear pictures of his self-designed carving tool, leaving Miller to experiment his way through to success. Seemingly, the perceived precision of the fluting engine contradicts Pye's famous argument for "workmanship of risk," in which human error is accepted as a part of the creative process. But as Miller discovered, even the fluting engine has enough idiosyncrasies to produce randomness of results and, hence, contributes to a pattern of risk to Miller's beautifully machine carved bowls.

For me, a highlight of this issue was a significant excerpt from John Ruskin's The Stones of Venice. Ruskin, a father of the English Arts and Crafts movement of the 19th century, convincingly argues that the highest form of beauty is achieved by individually crafted work that reflects the maker's highest intellect but that, as a work of the hand, may include small imperfections in details. This was my first direct exposure to the words of Ruskin, but it won't be my last. I have ordered some of his writings and intend to mine them for further insights.

In an essay that is, on the surface, about constructing a firewood box, Joshua Klein pens a letter of advice to his young sons, offering thoughts to guide the course of their lives. The modern world, he asserts, is outsourced to external sources via the technology that permeates all aspects of our lives and that leads us to disengage from full-out living. Understandably, he then argues for doing rather than simply consuming.

Like Ruskin, he argues that we should do the best we can but accept imperfections. Tools, he says, are not neutral; while we shape them, they then turn about to shape us. His advice: do your work as well as you can; avoid accumulating things; consider thoughtfully who you want to be and the life you want to live; be grateful for technological enhancements, but don't let them cut you off from the world.

The centerpiece of the issue is an examination of a William & Mary gateleg table that shows the beauty of the piece, its construction details, and the imperfections of handtool work employed in building this 18th century piece of furniture.

Michael Updegraff describes the process of weaving a cattarush, or cattail, chair seat. A traditional practice, cattail or bulrush seats were common until displaced by machine made paper cord seating in the late 19 th century. Updegraff points out that cattail seating is, by contrast, environmentally responsible, sustainable, and yet another example of creative handwork. He describes the process of harvesting and weaving with cattails in enough detail to be replicated by the reader.

French woodworker Joseph Brihiez offers a gentle reflection on dressing oak timbers with a hewing tax. His use of this and other hand tools allows him to shape wood in ways power tools cannot and to retain his human connection to the wood.

George Walker's evocative essay probes the meaning of the term "tool." Though originally applied to human sized implements of the hand, the name now extends to electronic devices like smartphones and computers that lack the ability to generate physical feedback, or qualia. His observations constitute an homage to the value of hand tools and the human connection that is so readily transformed by modern technological changes.

The concluding article by Patrick Edwards describes the origins of his career as an exemplary furniture restorer. After starting out to become a nuclear physicist, early on he encountered David Pye's The Nature and Art of Workmanship and suddenly changed his career trajectory. He taught himself restoration by studying books as well as the pieces that arrived for repair. For him, getting good results yields pride of workmanship, the source of the personal satisfaction that inspires him to work his best each and every day.

Al Breed points out several good books on furniture that he recommends to others, with emphasis on the Queen Anne and Chippendale styles.

It has become customary for Mortise and Tenon to champion handwork, crafting on a human scale, accepting the beauty of imperfections in detail, and achieving life satisfaction through the pursuit of self-determined and creative endeavors. This issue follows in that tradition. It is, though, by no means a stale repetition of what has gone before but rather a fresh interpretation of important themes from which we can each of us draw inspiration and encouragement. It's also a delightful read. Beautifully laid out and well-illustrated with evocative color photographs, it's an enticing volume. If you liked the previous issues — and who didn't? — you'll love this one.

Find out more and purchase Mortise & Tenon Magazine, Issue 10
at Highland Woodworking

J. Norman Reid is a woodworker, writer, photographer and woodworking instructor living in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains with his wife, a woodshop full of power and hand tools and two cats who think they are cabinetmaker's assistants. He is the author of Choosing and Using Handplanes: All You Need to Know to Get Started Planing by Hand, and co-owner of Shenandoah Tool Works. He can be reached by email at jnreid45@gmail.com.

Return to Wood News Online

Click the images below to visit some of our most popular tool departments

Wood Turning 

Highland Woodworking
1045 N. Highland Ave. NE
Atlanta, Georgia 30306
Tel. 800-241-6748

Email us at email@highlandwoodworking.com
Visit us on the web at www.highlandwoodworking.com

Copyright © 2021 Highland Hardware, Inc.

Errors regarding pricing and specifications are subject to correction.
SOME SALE QUANTITIES MAY SELL OUT and become unavailable at the advertised price.