Chris Schwarz's Blog

Book Review: 'The Artisan of Ipswich'

When woodworking magazines publish plans for a reproduction of an antique, we show you the details you need to construct a facsimile. We give you part sizes, joinery details and tips on how to perform the major operations in a modern shop.

But rarely do we give you the social, communal and historical context of a piece. We never try to investigate the original maker’s intentions, or discuss his or her relationship to the neighbors, family or village.

So as a woodworker, it was both alarming and thrilling to read Robert Tarule’s 2004 book, “The Artisan of Ipswich” (The Johns Hopkins University Press). This slim volume tries to capture the essence of everything important to 17th-century joiner Thomas Dennis as he built a chest for a client one November in his shop.

In this remarkable book, Tarule, a professional joiner, historian and former curator at Plimoth Plantation, takes a bird’s eye view of one example of Dennis’s work , a 47″-long lift-lid chest in oak with beautiful low-relief carvings. He begins the book with a bit of personal history to explain what led him down the curious path to reproducing 17th-century pieces for a living.

With his bona-fides established, Tarule begins to spin the tale of Ipswich, Mass., from its first mention in the historical texts to the time that Thomas Dennis settled there from England. Tarule’s insights into Colonial Massachusetts are surprising (if you had a particularly sanitized view of Colonial history from school, as I seem to).

What you quickly realize is that one of the most important things in 17th-century America was access to wood , for fuel, tanning, fences, construction, cooperage, wheewrighting and joinery. In fact, wood turns out to be a sort of currency among the artisans. And the right to cut wood was the source of lawsuits, fines and revenge.

And so Tarule delves deeply into the topic of wood (oak, in particular). He contrasts how it grew and was managed in the coppices in England with its forms in the New World. And then he weaves the dendrology into the fabric of Ipswich society, explaining all the town’s economic needs in terms of the wood.

As a joiner, Dennis needed particular kinds of wood for his work. So Tarule takes us into Dennis’s head as he searches the forest for the trees he needs, and he and a helper split the wood and as he prepares it for the chest (now in the hands of the Ipswich Historical Society).

Tarule obviously spent many hours studying this chest to try to tease out Dennis’s intentions. He uses every dimension, every knot and every stray tool mark to suss out how this chest was built and the mental processes Dennis employed to design the chest and organize the material to build it.

Because Tarule himself works this way (see his work at his Heart of the Wood web site), you can see that Tarule has faced the same decisions as he rived out the panels he needed for his own chests. And so the voice that Tarule gives to Dennis rings entirely true to me.

For the skilled woodworker, this book won’t teach you anything about how to cut a tenon or a mortise, but it will show you how to change your methods to match the goals of a 17th-century joiner. The book won’t give you precise part sizes that you can plug into your rip fence on your table saw, but it will show you how to use your material at hand to make adjustments as you go, and to sort out what is important and what is not.

But most of all, “The Artisan of Ipswich” will give you a deep appreciation for the work of 17th-century joiners and to see their pieces in a new light.

– Christopher Schwarz

6 thoughts on “Book Review: 'The Artisan of Ipswich'

  1. Josh B

    Derek,

    Oh without a doubt there are valid literary and historical criticisms that can be leveled against all three of the books I cited. Not sure what you mean by ‘agendas’ though, but this blog isn’t the place for discussing that. The reason I mentioned these three specifically is because of Chris’s comment:

    "…are surprising (if you had a particularly sanitized view of Colonial history from school, as I seem to)."

    Whatever quibbles one might have with narrative or the conclusions the authors draw all three books (Wordy Shipmates is in particular very relevant to this blog post) do reveal verifiable facts that simply aren’t included in the founding history of this country as taught to public school students. I for one had no idea that the Spanish explored into the midwest as far as modern day Kansas for example. Whether you like Sarah Vowell or not Shipmates does a better job of describing life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and Rhode Island better than any history book I was presented with in public schools.

    History is often presented as mere facts and dates, like most woodworking information is presented as diagrams, procedures and cutlists, with no context that tries to explain why things are (or were) the way they are. In period woodworking in particular learning the context that explains how designs and methods evolved, the setting in which the furniture would be used and the type of social and class based relations that took place between the joiner and his clients and other craftsmen is very valuable. Just like "The Artisian of Ipswich" attempts to give a better understanding of how and why the chest was built the way it was by explainging the society that Dennis lived in I feel the three books I mentioned (imperfect though they may be) do a good job explaining how his society got the way it was.

    Cheers,

    Josh

  2. Derek Lyons

    Josh, I’d be very careful with some of those "myth shattering" books, the scholarship is often… a bit lacking in favor of entertainment or agendas. "Guns, Germs and Steel" in particular has been widely criticized on those issues.

    D.

  3. Josh B

    Chris,

    Whoo-hoo! Just ordered the last in stock copy from Amazon 🙂

    Thanks for the tip on this book, I’m really looking forward to reading it. Getting the social context of what life was really like for a craftsman in the 17th and 18th centuries is something I’ve really been hoping to explore more. Books like this one, your reprint of Moxon and "The Joiner and Cabinet Maker" are really important to me personally and I think for the craft in general.

    There’s been a lot written over the past few years, in print and more so on blogs, about the, for lack of a better term, spiritual nature of handwork vs machine work which is all well and good but often impractical. Don’t get me wrong I’m not mocking those that have that epiphany about the joy of turning off the machines but a lot of writing like that seems put handwork on some rarefied plane (heh) that divorces it from practical consideration. Since I work almost exclusively by hand I find such essays interesting but not terribly useful. It’s become very important for me to learn as much as possible about how the craft was practiced when there were only handtools. Understanding who the old joiners worked for, what standards they were held to (and the different standards different classes of customer could expect) and their relationships to other craftsmen and in the general colonial society helps me put my own work and methods into perspective and helps make me a better, faster, more practical builder. Once again I owe you a big thanks on this front!

    On a related note if you think you can handle some more colonial American history myth shattering check out:
    "The Wordy Shipmates" by Sarah Vowell

    "A Voyage Long and Strange" by Tony Horowitz

    "Guns, Germs and Steel" by Jared Diamond (blows up a lot old myths about European colonialism in general)

    Cheers,

    Josh

  4. Christopher Schwarz

    David,

    In the book, all the joinery is cut for the chest, then the carving is added, and then it is assembled.

    Chris

  5. AAAndrew

    What it sounds like Tarule’s done is a bit of hands-on, modern art history. Way back in the day, when I was an Art History grad student, what we studied was not the connoisseurship type of art history most people think about (this Madonna of the Rocks from painted by Blah blah blah in 1483, while this Madonna of the Park was painted by so-and-so the Younger in 1530. Notice the increased dynamism in line…) What we would do was use art, in this case furniture, as a central theme around which to look at the history, economics, social dynamics, religion, politics, etc… of a time and place and people.

    This is now way up on my list of woodworking books to get.

    Thanks for the review, I’m really looking forward to ti.

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