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What does it take to build furniture entirely by hand? That’s the subject of my 2 “18th c Tools and Techniques” classes in the spring of 2009 and I’m really excited about them. Unlike other popular hand tool classes, I’ll be focusing specifically on 18th c tools and techniques. But like every other teacher, I’ll be focusing on the subject through my unique filter. In my case, I seek to reproduce 18th c case work as I see and understand it, while working fast enough to make money at it.

I realize not everybody shares my dream of working as quickly as a London journeyman cabinetmaker. But I think everyone can see that when one removes time as a constraint, the result can be very different tools, techniques and furniture. I recently had the need for a 12-3/4″ board. The board I had on hand was 13″. Forget about the fact that this was an 8′ rip operation in 4/4 hardwood. 1/4″ is sometimes too much to plane and not enough to saw. I think it’s a truism that hand tools are effected by the waste. This certainly happens with planes and chisels. In fact, that’s the difference between a plane and chisel, right? A plane is a chisel that manages the waste in a controlled fashion. So if time were no issue, I might have planed that 1/4″. In my shop however, time is always an issue. So reasonable alternatives included redesigning the project to allow the 13″ board or hatcheting off the 1/4″. The draw knife is another tool that popped into my head. I think this is fun and there are a ton of interesting and helpful side effects of working this way.

These classes will look at specific 18th c inventories and period tool lists. I think modern woodworkers will benefit from a better understanding and appreciation of the quantity and sorts of hand tools required to work 100% by hand. Other instructors seem to focus on the tools that are available today. That’s fine and even practical and smart. But from my perspective, it’s limiting. We’re woodworkers. We build stuff. Our skill set shouldn’t be limited by what we can buy. And there are tool makers who can build the stuff we need. They don’t because nobody’s asking.

I think folks need to know:

  • what tools 18th c cabinetmakers had
  • what those tools were for,
  • what makes them good or bad for that work,
  • what the alternatives to those tools are,
  • and basically how they are used.

This is where we are going to spend our time. If the students are good with their planes (as I suspect they will be) we’ll focus on chisels and saws. Students are going to use my tools, but are permitted to bring whatever they’d like. We’re not going to be making anything in particular, but I’d really like to see everyone cut a set of dovetails, make a mortise and tenon joint, a sliding dovetail, T&G, all the basic 18th c joints. Not having a project will allow us to focus on the challenging parts while skipping the drudgery that you’re already pretty good at.

My goal for these classes is to help individuals develop the skills necessary to build furniture 100% by hand, work in Colonial Williamsburg’s Anthony Hay Cabinet shop, or take more ambitious hand tool only projects. Call me selfish, I want to TAKE a class on building a Thomas Affleck Chippendale lowboy by hand and I need some of you to go with me! You get the idea: Day one saw out and carve the 4 legs. Day 2 put the carcass together and make the corner columns (turned on a spring pole lathe of course). And I can’t afford to spend three weeks building this project while the instructor wrestles with somebody’s dull chisels or LN jack that cut like a smoother.

I think these new 18th c Tools and Techniques classes will be fun and helpful. I’m pretty sure this is material that has not been offered before by anyone else. They’ll be like miny apprenticeships. And they’ll be held in two really great schools in locations that will be accessible to many woodworkers. For details see:

Kelly Mehler’s school, Berea Kentucky, March 20-22

Mike Siemsen’s school, Chisago City Minnesota May 13-16


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Showing 9 comments
  • Bob Rozaieski


    If you do put some type of period themed school or classes together in the area and need volunteers or "apprentices" to help, please let me know. I’d be interested in helping out if you are interested in help.


  • Bjenk


    I hope your idea of a school like that will come to fruition. I am doing all I can to see if I can attend to your classes but it’s hard to make it work with my two young children and all. Are all the places filled? What about next fall? Will you be teaching then too?

  • Adam Cherubini

    Can you survive in an 18th century wood shop? What does that mean to you? Can any of us build 18th c style furniture using hand tools? What about 18th c style hand tools? That means no tape measures, no Starrett squares, no LN planes. Could you work without artificial light? Could you work in plain leather shoes with heels? All of these things effect how we work wood.

    Wearing 18th c clothes will not be required for these classes. But know that I am working in that direction. I would love to immerse my students in the 18th century. The clothes help with the transformation. But like good 18th c style reproduction tools, good 18th c reproduction clothes are very expensive. Mine cost a fortune.

    These classes are intended as introductory. More advanced classes will involve greater levels of authenticity and not only in the projects, and processes taught, but in the tools used, benches, and eventually the classroom itself. Will that trend continue to include authentic clothing? I don’t know Maybe not in my life time. But I’m working in that direction.

    P.S. I may have $1000 of clothes on when I’m dressed in period attire. And I try to use the same disciplined approach to designing and constructing my clothing as I do when I design and build furniture. My Mother, who is just about to turn 82, sews my clothes with HER Grandmother’s needles. In most cases, hand stitching is the only way to gather the little pleats in the cuffs of my shirts. Little details like thread "rope" button loops secure the buttons at my neck. Patterns are tailored to ensure 18th c fashion values are represented. Do I look great in 18th c clothes? No, absolutely not. Are they comfortable to work in? No. My breeches are tight in the thigh and baggy in the seat. The intended sillouette is very different from modern ideals. But I go with the research I’ve done, as I understand it, expressing my commitment to representing the values of the 18th century.

  • antknee

    We wouldn’t have to wear those clothes would we?

  • James


    I attended Mary Washington College and recieved a degree in Historic Preservation, after that, I worked on various restoration projects but was never able to fulfill my desires to learn the ways of an 18th century joiner. Well, life took over and I became a 21st century builder in Colorado. Last year, I bought my first hand plane from Lie Nielsen and a video from that guy Schwarz. It’s been a train wreck ever since. The internet has so much information that it’s difficult to know how to progress through the various steps of becoming a "journeymen joiner".I know I’m not the most organized person and most of it’s a product of my Attention Deficit Syndrome, but I think an 18th century hands on school is a great idea. I strongly agree that learning the steps to building, let’s say an 18th century high boy, using hand tools first; could only make the transition to operating a modern "blended" workshop easier. Least of all, it could help someone fulfill their desires earlier in life instead of waiting fifty years.

    Thanks for your blog, I’ve been waiting to read this about myself for a long time,

    Thanks again,


  • Adam Cherubini


    I’m working on a Philadelphia area based 18th c ww school. I would love to have a shop with enough space to accommodate students. I certainly don’t at present. So I’ve been looking around for an existing school. And there are some.

    What I’d really like is to have a school environment that looks and feels like Colonial Williamsburg. And no school in the country has that. So stay tuned. One might be coming.


    Yes, I think prepping stock is part of building furniture by hand. It’s not a trivial step. The classes will focus on what I think it really takes to go from boards to furniture without electricity. If the Anthony Hay shop in Colonial Williamsburg were hiring for journeyman cabinetmakers and the salary was $250,000/year (yeah right) would have you have the skills to get the job? My feeling is that not many people do today.

    I think most woodworkers rely heavily on their power tools. If those power tools suddenly weren’t there, do you have the skills to carry on? I think what most folks will find is that the skills and approaches they have developed are predicated on power tools. My classes will offer an unprecedented alternative approach. I suspect that my methods, when coupled with a few basic ww machines will result in a highly efficient and capable shop. But I can’t show you how to do that. I only know the part that I know. You’ll have to figure out the rest of it. I think, I THINK, the part that I can help with, will be useful to the "blended" woodworkers, even those who want to stay "blended". We’ll see.


  • Mark


    Are you also going to go over dimensioning lumber by hand? Not exactly something most blended woodworkers really need to do, but rather helpful if you are trying to do everything with hand tools.


  • Jamie Bacon

    I second the motion for east coast classes. I would love to "apprentice" under you for a week or even a few days somewhere in the Mid-Altantic. I would really love a class that focuses on 18TH CENTURY hand tools. Real planes. The kind made of WOOD. And real 18th century techniques.
    See you at the CW Woodworking Conference!

  • Al Rossi

    The classes sound great. Have you ever spoken to the folks at Thaddeus Stevens in Lancaster PA, to give some of us on the east coast a better shot at attending one of your classes?

    Or maybe you could open our own school, call it the 18th Century Institute.

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