Highland Woodworking
Mortise & Tenon, Issue Nine
Review by J. Norman Reid

Mortise & Tenon Magazine has evolved into a semi-annual feast of words and images that inform and inspire. The latest is Issue 9, which follows the proud tradition of its predecessors. While it carries on many of the themes introduced in earlier issues, this one nonetheless manages to be fresh and enticing and deftly avoids the ever-present potential to be repetitive or pedantic. It is, in short, another great read.

As a reviewer, I generally look for themes that run through the books I read. Though this Mortise & Tenon is no less eclectic than the issues before it, one can see a gentle emphasis in this issue on the soul of woodcraft. It's most clearly evident in the opening essay, "The Sacred in the Common," in which Symeon van Donkelaar illustrates the woodworking that goes into making a religious icon. Icons, he explains, are unique to the Christian religion and principally, though not exclusively, celebrate the coronation of Jesus. Icons are painted on a base of wood with egg tempera, which has the ability to retain rich colors over time. He describes the creation of the wooden bases, from harvesting the logs, quartersawing the lumber, and air drying it for one to two years in an unheated attic. He normally uses basswood, which is not only soft and light but also dimensionally stable and not prone to cracking. The panels are supported in the back by hand cut tapered dovetails held in place by compression rather than glue. While he gives less attention to painting the images on his wooden frames, it's clear that van Donkelaar brings a generous share of soul to his handiwork, which will ultimately reside in a church or worshiper's home.

Abdollah Nafisi follows with his description of taking on a challenge to re-create William Morris's Sussex Chair in a period of only five days, using hand tools and with merely 20 minutes to study an example with no access to plans. What follows is a tale of an adventure in which he added his own touches in crafting the 36 parts of the chair. Though it was his first experience working with green wood, he completed the challenge in time. Now he plans to make his own variety of the Sussex Chair, but using dried wood!

Steve Voigt gives the history of Cesor Chelor, perhaps the most prolific early American planemaker. An African enslaved to Francis Nicholson, the acknowledged first maker of American-made handplanes, Chelor not only invented many enhancements in plane design to fit the needs of American joiners but was also probably responsible for producing a significant share of the planes credited to Nicholson during the later years of Nicholson's career. Voigt's study of the Chelor planes in the Colonial Williamsburg collection led him to construct his own copies, in which he confirmed Chelor's genius for improving on traditional designs.

Michael Updegraff's article on dendrochronology — using wood to document and understand historical events and things — refers to trees as "scribes of nature." We're familiar with the study of rings to document the age of trees and the weather conditions in which they lived. Less familiar, perhaps, is the use of the same methodology to document the age of furniture and wooden structures, as has been done at Sturbridge Village. The method has more recently been extended to dating items older than the lifespan of recently grown timber by overlapping examples from multiple eras. Though the study of rings evident in end grain comes readily to mind, methods have been developed to measure the grain longitudinally as well. This let researchers document the Stradivarius "Messiah" violin both as to its genuineness and the locale and altitude at which the Norway spruce that yields its rich sound was harvested. Trees, it thus seems, have a remarkable ability to document more of our history than I, at least, imagined.

A standard feature of each Mortise & Tenon issue is the exploration of a piece of furniture. This issue looks at an 1815-1830 New England rocking chair that likely derived from the Salem, Massachusetts, region. The review details dimensions, parts, joinery, and paint and offers a thorough analysis of its construction.

Joshua Klein then describes his construction of a shaving horse. His preference, and the one he built, is a dumbhead model, which employs a treadle-driven angled head to hold workpieces, in contrast to the English bodger style. Klein describes the build in careful step-by-step detail that is easily replicated by any woodworker in his or her own shop. Klein's overarching point is that it's not only his preference to build by the seat of his pants — in this case literally — but that doing so involves a deliberate process of iterative adjustments so that the end product is far better than could have been anticipated ahead of time. It is, thus, an example of finding one's way to a soul-satisfying conclusion to design and execution.

Canlin J. Frost investigates the life and work of John Hemmings, an enslaved joiner at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. Beginning at about 14 years of age, Hemmings started out as a lumberman working in the woods. But before long he was apprenticed to a wheelwright and moved indoors. When a new lead joiner was hired by Jefferson, Hemmings was enabled to learn a broader range of joinery skills. When that lead joiner left Monticello, Hemmings was installed as lead joiner himself, a position he held until he attained his freedom in 1827 by the terms of Jefferson's will. Though he built some furniture, his principal contributions appear to be architectural details at both Monticello and Jefferson's Poplar Forest estate in nearby Bedford County.

Zachary Dellinger describes how he discovered a style of wooden clamp used by Norse boatbuilders. He shows how he re-created them for general woodworking in his shop and found them to be a useful new shop-made tool.

David Lane describes his immersion in the world of South Korean woodworkers, about whose work and workmanship little is known in the West. As Lane explains, Koreans live close to nature and approach projects guided by the wood as a medium, rather than using it as a utensil. Traditional wood choices are persimmon, a hard wood whose vivid colors are often displayed bookmatched; the lighter and plainer paulownia; and zelkova, intermediate in color and grain pattern. Paulownia is often the wood of choice for clothing boxes and the unusually shaped hat boxes built to contain ceremonial hats. Korean joinery is flexible and responsive to a variety of needs, and the 60 or so joints in the Korean repertoire have enabled them to create buildings that have survived the tremors of this earthquake-prone environment for hundreds of years. Korean work is never signed. Korean craftsman put their emphasis on the soul of their pieces and not on gaining individual recognition.

In a final essay, a review of Matthew Crawford's Shop Craft as Soul Craft, Nancy Hiller teases out the way work in the trades can be a soul-satisfying alternative to white-collar information industry employment.

I always find it a treat to discover the delights Joshua Klein will come up with in each issue of Mortise & Tenon. This volume was, for me, every bit as satisfying as its predecessors. Lucidly written throughout and beautifully illustrated with clear and artfully executed color photography, this issue is as easy on the mind as it is on the eyes. Though there are some replicable projects in this volume, most notably Klein's shaving horse, this issue is intended to be mind-expanding and, yes, soul satisfying. I was well pleased to be gently entertained by it. If you revel in the diversity of ways to approach woodworking, its history and its practices, I think you'll like it too.

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

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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