Highland Woodworking Wood News Online, No. 165, May 2019
Book Review: Mortise & Tenon Magazine, Issue 6
Review by J. Norman Reid

For the sixth time, Mortise & Tenon Magazine creator and editor Joshua Klein has given us a superb example of a high quality woodworking publication. As with its predecessors, its 10 articles are well-balanced in content, beautifully photographed and engagingly written. While there's no single organizing theme to the articles, they nonetheless collectively reflect a spirit of individualism and self-sufficiency in the design and execution of craftsmanship. As is customary for M&T, this issue pertains to hand tool woodworking rather than electron-driven tool work.

In the leading article, entitled "The Good Life," carver Jögge Sundqvist examines the concept of slöjd, the Swedish term for craft, a practice he follows and that shapes his life as much as it does his exquisite spoons and other crafts. Sundqvist considers that his shop has four walls: materials, tools, tradition, and folk art. The practice of slöjd enables self-sufficiency, something he finds sorely lacking in our modern consumer society and economy. He finds its practice freeing, in that while machines excel at making things square, they are also boring and kill design. The practice of slöjd allows the craftsperson to permit design to evolve with each new piece. The quest to make each new object better than the last gives meaning to life. As this beautifully-illustrated article demonstrates, slöjd is a practice that has indeed helped Sundqvist to realize the good life.

The second article is one I found to be particularly important for my own work with handplanes. In it, planemaker Steve Voight challenges the view that single plane blades set at a high pitch are the best way to control tearout. He notes that while this was the standard practice before 1750 in wood-bodied planes, double blades - that is, blades accompanied with chipbreakers, came into use about that time. They proved to be superior in taming tearout and were soon widely adopted by cabinetmakers seeking to achieve fine surfaces. He argues that, later in the 19th century, Leonard Bailey got it right when he produced planes with the familiar curved chipbreaker. That chipbreaker creates an approximately 45 degree edge to curl the shaving upward as it's sliced. Voight's own tests — he began as a skeptic — showed that with proper setup, superior results are indeed possible. This includes setting the gap between the blade and the chipbreaker tighter for smoothing, wider for preliminary work, but seldom more than 1/16". He also found that, unlike single blade planes, which require a tight mouth for good performance, the mouth width on a double-bladed plane does not matter. He also argues that modern flat chipbreakers are not effective because they don't create the 45 degree angle of escape for the shaving, though they can be honed to create a small edge that approximates Bailey's 45 degree angle.

Nathaniel Brewster's essay "A Chair Called Henry" explores the possible provenance of an unusual Windsor chair. The chair's sculpted crest rail and simple turned legs make it unique in design and offer some clues to its origins, possibly Connecticut or Massachusetts. Held for generations in one family, he speculates that its maker might in fact have been a family member.

David Lane explores the artistic and intellectual links between two dissimilar and widely-separated craftsmanship greats: William Morris and George Nakashima. Nakashima, it seems, was deeply influenced by the writings of Sōetsu Yanagi, who himself had been influenced by John Ruskin and William Morris, leaders of the English Arts & Crafts movement. Morris and Nakashima shared a reverence for the past, moved away from their beginnings in architecture and its forms, pursued a pastoral ideal closely allied with nature, and reconciled modern technology with handcrafted production, seeking a middle ground that left them free to be craftsmen and not technicians.

The centerfold, if you will, is an examination of an 1804 painted cupboard. Of Pennsylvania Dutch origin, it features a bold paint scheme, wooden pegged construction throughout, and irregular primary and secondary surfaces. The entire surface is covered in fanciful painted decoration, typical of many such pieces. The surface plainly shows tool marks and other evidence typical of such pieces of furniture of necessity.

Co-editor Michael Updegraff offers an essay on the radical efficiency of green woodworking. Traditionally, trees were worked by hand and while the wood was green. But modern technology has by now widely disconnected woodworking from the basic resource of this craft — trees. Still, Updegraff notes that there are two ways to work wood: with dried, dimensioned lumber or green wood. He argues that the efficiency of working dried lumber by machine may be overstated, and he points to the advantages of working green wood. It's more energy efficient in terms of electricity, more readily worked with hand tools, less wasteful of the basic resource — wood, uses simpler, less expensive tools, requires a smaller manufacturing footprint, and is more sustainable. At the same time, it takes special knowledge, as does all woodworking, as well as patience.

Jim McConnell returns to the theme of painted chests in the Pennsylvania German tradition. The so-called Pennsylvania Dutch were, rather, from Germany and began immigrating in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Segregated from English society by language and culture, they developed their own styles, which included brightly and whimsically-decorated furniture. Characteristically, all surfaces were decorated; joinery, unlike the nailed English pieces, was usually dovetailed. As an experiment, McConnell builds a small chest for his daughter, decorated with an iconic hex pattern, with hearts wrapped around the corner dovetails.

Self-sufficient woodworkers often make their own tools and to experiment with this tradition, Joshua Klein sets out to fashion a wooden bitstock, or brace. He sawed the shape from a block of soft maple, less prone to splitting than open-pored wood like oak or ash. Klein provides a step-by-step account of constructing his bitstock to help those who follow to avoid the errors he encountered in his journey. He built a second brace from a curved branch, arguing that its natural shape would render it stronger when used under stress. In the process, he discovered why so few examples of this type of brace exist: it's exceptionally difficult to drill holes in perfect alignment, and his example, though usable, wobbles in practice. Klein explores how to hold the brace. The preferred practice is to press it tightly against the chest rather than adopting a two-handed grip. Repeated use can hurt the chest, though, and Klein also experiments with using a wooden block as an apron to relieve the stress on his body.

Brock Jobe, a trustee at Old Sturbridge Village, reports that the village intends to recreate a cabinetmaker's shop. The problem is to define how large it should be, how it should be appointed with tools, and what activities it should support. He delves into the historical record of shops that either still exist or that have been documented. While there's much information about the diverse sizes of cabinetmaker's shops, less information is available about their tools and even less about woodworking practices and conditions. As the design process continues, so will the search for better information. Still, what Jobe offers is an interesting look at period woodshops and daily life in them.

Wilbur Pan takes a good look at Japanese and Western edge tools to discover why Japanese tools are as good or better than Western tools. This leads him to delve into the laminated construction of Japanese blades, in which a hard steel back is fused with a softer iron edge. This has the advantage of yielding blades that are more durable, hold an edge better and are easier to hone. Western blades are a compromise between durability and sharpness and cannot reach the standards of properly-made Japanese blades. Interestingly, he finds that the size of the carbides in Western blades is much larger in O1 and A2 steel than in Japanese blades, which benefit from repeated beating with a hammer during creation, a practice not attainable by Western production methods. The smaller carbides make finer edges possible. Also of interest is the fact that Western blades were once upon a time laminated in the Japanese manner, but as the Industrial Revolution progressed, the practice was abandoned in favor of production efficiency. Though the Japanese too are under pressure to cut costs and replace traditional craftsmanship in blademaking, support by the Japanese government for traditional crafts has helped keep the practice going. Pan concludes that, in terms of the historical record, at least, there's more similarity between Japanese and Western edges than at first meets the eye.

The volume concludes with a review of Sōetsu Yanagi's classic The Unknown Craftsman. Translated from the Japanese original, the book reflects Yanagi's influence by John Ruskin and William Morris. It's a philosophical work, not a how-to book, that reflects a reverence for the craft that will appeal to the contemplative craftsman. In the expectation that it will have a similar aspect to James Krenov's work, I ordered a copy for myself.

As usual, I found this issue of Mortise & Tenon Magazine to be not only engaging but at the same time highly instructive for my own work. In my opinion, this issue will appeal to a wide range of woodworkers. Hand tool enthusiasts will find the Voight and Pan articles particularly useful. Those interested in pursuing a lifestyle less dependent on mechanization and technology will find inspiration with the Sundqvist, Updegraff and Klein articles. The historical record is evidenced in several more articles. In short, armchair woodworkers will find much here to reward their time. Practicing hand tool woodworkers will find valuable, practical advice. Self-sufficiency aspirants will find inspiration and guidance. I loved this issue. I think you will as well.

Find out more and purchase Mortise & Tenon Magazine, Issue 6

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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