This week I’m getting ready to build a Shaker firewood box for the I Can Do That column in our sister publication, Popular Woodworking. I really like building projects for this column because you’re limited to hand-held tools and a Workmate to do the job. Plus the projects are fast and , if I do my job right , look pretty good in the end.
In fact, what’s crazy about building projects for this column is that it takes longer to research the project than it does to build it. Here’s the story.
I’ve always wanted to build the Shaker firewood box from the Pleasant Hill community in Kentucky. Not that we have a working fireplace. (Ask my wife about that sometime if you’d like a good laugh. All you have to say is “father-in-law,” “smoke-filled house,” and “husband streaking through the house carrying burning logs.”)
The Pleasant Hill box has a couple nice curves that remind me of other rural Kentucky pieces I’ve seen in my 14 years here, yet it still looks Shaker. To build the project, my first step was to consult Ejner Handberg’s “Measured Drawings of Shaker Furniture & Woodenware” (Berkshire House) and his drawings of the box.
Now, I really like Handberg’s books on the Shakers. He made his drawings based on the real pieces that passed through his shop (sometimes for repair). But the more I get to know Handberg’s drawings, the more I’ve begun to think that he perhaps smudged some of the details. It wouldn’t surprise me if it were on purpose , counterfeit furniture is big business.
So I knew that Handberg’s drawing shouldn’t be taken as gospel. So earlier this fall I took another a trip to Pleasant Hill to see some alpacas and get a gander at the firewood box first-hand. Plus I wanted to record the color of the finish as best I could.
As I expected, the drawing is different, especially in one critical piece: the protruding rail that runs across the front of the box. Handberg drew it square in section, when the original clearly is relieved on its underside to fit over the curve on the sides. I like the original. Plus, the profile on the lid to the kindling box on the top is different.
In short, I’m glad I checked.
Really, there is nothing like seeing an original piece before you build it. Plans and photos can take you only so far. And sometimes, seeing the original can change your mind about a piece. For example, I’ve always liked the clocks that came out of the Dominy workshop in New York, and I’ve looked them over many times in the 1968 classic “With Hammer in Hand.” But I’ve never felt compelled to build one. The grainy black-and-white photos show off the lines of the pieces, but don’t really serve to inspire me.
A couple weeks ago I got to visit the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum in Delaware, where the Dominy shop was moved years ago. I went to Winterthur to see the shop, but I was stunned by the clocks. Not by the ornate tall clocks. I’m not big on ornate.
But the last recorded clock made by the Dominy shop in 1824 grabbed me by the throat and I decided I had to build this clock. And soon. I’m hoping to publish plans for the clock in a future issue of Woodworking Magazine, but here’s a word to the wise: You might want to check out the original for yourself before you build it based off my plans. Woodworking publications are not to be trusted.
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