Highland Woodworking
Mortise & Tenon Magazine, Issue 2
Edited by Joshua Klein

Book Review by J. Norman Reid

It's here, the much-awaited second issue of Mortise & Tenon Magazine , now established as a high quality annual presentation of some of the best in period furniture-making. If you liked the first issue, you're sure to love this one, which in many ways is even better than the first. If you didn't read the first issue, give this one a try. You'll be surprised at what a good, period and hand tool oriented compilation can deliver.

Why do I like this issue even better than the first? While Issue 1 was fascinating in its own right, it devoted a lot of pages on the magazine's underlying purpose and philosophy and was a tad heavy on the distinctions among preservation, conservation and restoration. Notwithstanding the importance of those issues, they seemed a bit distracting from the magazine's central themes of furniture design and construction.

Those minor concerns are fully resolved in Issue 2. Yes, there's one article on conservation, a good one at that. But otherwise Issue 2 is a fascinating mix of articles on a wide range of topics that are sure to interest most woodworkers. The emphasis in this issue is on making, on doing and on understanding the past.

The issue sets out with chairmaking. The initial article is an interview with David and George Sawyer, father and son makers of fine Windsor chairs using traditional methods. David, who's been making chairs for three decades, was trained in engineering but gave up industry to be like a 19th-century craftsman and make the whole product himself, rather than pieces of a larger whole. This fit in well with his life's path of living and working independently. David no longer makes chairs for reasons of health, but his son George carries on the business of making furniture by hand.

However, George foresees the need to branch out beyond green woodworking to pay the bills. David's advice to others who wish to eschew the corporate world for a lifestyle of homesteading and handcraft: "Just be prepared for poverty because you probably won't strike it rich."

The second article, by editor Joshua Klein, chronicles the reproduction of a bannister-back chair from the Yale University Art Gallery. The Gallery wanted to better understand the methods used to make the original chair and commissioned one to be produced by the same means. The article details how Klein and his assistant Michael Updegraff made the chair, including the turned bannister backs, in its own right an informative technical discussion.

A piece by Peter Follansbee, entitled "Everybody Who Knows 'Why' is Dead," follows. Follansbee opines about conundrums in the construction of period furniture, questions for which he could find no answers. Why, for instance, were some three-legged chairs made? And why in Europe but not in New England? Why do tools have the designs they do—the nib on some saw blades, for instance, or the ogee ends on some wooden squares? It's a charming piece that, if it doesn't resolve the questions it poses, nonetheless gives us interesting food for thought.

George Walker argues that period cabinetmakers seldom relied on patterns—though a few celebrated pattern books like Chippendale's do exist—and built instead using proportions drawn from classical architecture and elementary geometry. He demonstrates how some complex mouldings can be reduced to a succession of arcs. The lesson is that these designs are within the grasp of each of us to accomplish—without a pattern.

Christopher Schwarz discusses the design and history of Roman workbenches, then describes how he built one, using hand tools, of course. The low height of the bench makes it useful for traversing boards with a fore plane, planing the edges of boards and cutting tenons, and Schwarz shows how he accomplishes holding the work for these tasks.

The centerfold is prime wood porn. It is a pictorial examination of an 18th century drop leaf table. The series of clear and detailed photos show the table's construction and assembly, revealing where the maker exercised fine care and where hidden flaws were tolerated. File marks on the underside of the turned pad feet are one example of working quickly when the effect is hidden.

Don Williams offers a "primer" on furniture conservation. After deftly sidestepping quarrels about terminology, he delves into the principles and practices that underlie conservation. He acknowledges the need for tradeoffs between a series of criteria: the needs of the object, technical limits on what can be done, the user's needs for the object and the resources available for the restoration among them. I found this article to be very helpful in clarifying the field of conservation and, in addition to being illuminating, quite interesting.

Michael Updegraff's interview with Michigan furnituremaker Zachary Dillinger comes next. Dillinger is the recent author of With Saw, Plane & Chisel, a hand tool only period furniture book offering six projects for woodworkers to build. Dillinger works entirely with hand tools, the current appeal of which he believes is due to the frustration of the workaday world of technology. Hand tools, he states, offer relief from the ennui of much in the modern world. His choice is to put emphasis on building skills, rather than acquiring tools and technology.

A second pictorial essay examines period dovetails on pieces from the Yale University Art Gallery Furniture Study. Eighteen half-blind dovetailed drawers are shown, along with data on the pieces from which they are taken. Close-up photos reveal much irregularity in spacing, angles, scribe lines, overcutting, surface quality of the side and end grain, gaps and other features. The result is highly instructive about the actual practices of cabinetmakers in the 18th century, whom we often attempt to emulate (and out-perform).

A misidentified bedstead discovered in England was documented, through careful forensic research, to be part of the household furniture of Philadelphians John and Elizabeth Cadwalader. This intriguing article demonstrates the procedures of scientific work in establishing the provenance of such important pieces. Cadwalader was a general in the American Revolution and an associate of George Washington. It would be interesting to also know if the bedstead was purloined by the British and taken to England during their occupation of Philadelphia while Washington's army shivered at Valley Forge. Perhaps future research will unearth more of the bed's history.

What hand tool user or collector has not heard of Maine's Liberty Tool Company? An interview with longtime tool buyer and seller Skip Brack chronicles his life in the used tool business, which now includes several stores near the Maine coast. Brack buys about 75 tons of tools a year on buying trips throughout New England, which average about 30 estates sales a month. Does it hurt his business that he's located in a rural area? Not really; people treat it as a destination and come from all over the country to look for rare tools and bargains. I live in Virginia and I did.

The issue concludes with a brief review of Woodworking in Estonia , a recent release by Lost Art Press that reviewer Michael Updegraff concludes is one of the most important books Lost Art Press has published.

It's probably evident from the above that I liked this issue a lot. I found it to be informative, inspirational and just plain fun reading. The illustrations, a major feature of the magazine, are simply gorgeous and besides being beautiful are essential to conveying many of the magazine's messages. Woodworkers who are interested in period furnituremaking, conservation and hand tool woodworking will be especially interested. Whether you'll ever make a period piece, do green woodworking, or even make more than cursory use of hand tools, this second issue of Mortise & Tenon Magazine makes great armchair woodworking fare.

Find out more and purchase Mortise & Tenon Magazine, Issue 2

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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