In Pursuit of the Hand Tool Tradition: Efficiency, Community, and Technique in Historic Furniture Making
Editor’s note: Andrew submitted this comprehensive analysis of the fourth issue of Mortise & Tenon magazine to us after a conversation on YouTube. He proposes several fascinating themes for this issue. Thanks Andrew! – David Lyell
In Pursuit of the Hand Tool Tradition: Efficiency, Community, and Technique in Historic Furniture Making
By: Andrew Milacci, PhD
This essay reviews the following work:
Mortise and Tenon Magazine Issue 4. Edited by Klein, Joshua A., et al. Sedgwick, Maine: Mortise and Tenon Magazine, 2018. Pp. 144. $24.00 paperback. ISBN: 9780998366722.
It’s no secret that hand tools have seen a spike in popularity and general interest in recent years. While in the past enthusiasts might have encountered difficulty obtaining quality hand tools or finding adequate materials to reference in their hand-tool journey, that is not the case anymore. The relative abundance of resources—from the tools themselves to content creators on video sharing websites, and everything in between—bears witness to the anachronistic growth[i] of traditional woodworking methods in the 21st century. In particular, the now two-year-old publication, Mortise and Tenon Magazine, offers a glimpse into what might be called the hand-tool renaissance in which we currently find ourselves, as its own upward trajectory has followed and even contributed to the growth of historic furniture making and hand-tool methods of woodworking.
While the window for Issue Four pre-orders of Mortise and Tenon Magazine officially opened on February 1st, 2018, some of the first details of the contents were already trickling out by way of the magazine’s official podcast, hosted by Joshua Klein and Michael Updegraff: authors were writing, and some of the editing had already begun. That the week of Christmas brought news of the advanced progress of issue is quite remarkable, as issue three had shipped less than three months prior. If issue three was the first issue for which annual (which is to say, two issues) subscriptions were available, Issue Four marks the first of two issues promised in 2018.
And the year is off to a strong start. In the teaser articles published on the official blog page in the weeks leading up to the issue’s release, the author lineup spoke volumes, before the volume itself had been shipped, about what we could expect from Issue Four. Beside the editors’ own contributions, Issue Four’s table of contents boasts names such as Jim Toplin (By Hand & Eye, The New Traditional Woodworker), Charles F. Hummel (With Hammer in Hand: The Dominy Craftsmen of East Hampton, New York), Vic Tesolin (The Minimalist Woodworker), Christine Thomson (Furniture Conservator and scholar of japanning in America), and Peter Follansbee (17th-century reproduction furniture maker and guest on The Woodwright’s Shop), among others. What is more, the specific topics addressed in the issue range from the photographic documentation and measurement of a historic piece of furniture, to timber framing in a Romanian community where handcraft is the norm, to attempting to ascertain what historically was considered “accurate” in furniture making, to lessons learned from batch or production woodworking.
The matte cover once again features a close-up of a tool on a stark white background: an ax, lodged into the end grain of a weathered stump. Fittingly, editors Klein and Updegraff have chosen this image in response to the growing sensation that, during their editing, a particular theme had begun to emerge, and quite organically, to be sure: “As articles for Issue Four came in from our authors, we noticed a preponderance of axes, and this was a welcome discovery because the place of this tool within the history of craftsmanship is hard to overestimate” (8). In effect, the ax as an integral part of the hand tool workflow, and its continuing importance as such, led to the photograph on the cover. Though I, too, noticed the presence and preeminence of ax-work in the myriad texts of the issue, I humbly submit, however, that it is not the sole central theme; indeed, in the paragraphs that follow, I would like to make the case that three particular topics serve as a lens by which we can consider Issue Four of Mortise and Tenon Magazine: Efficiency, Community, and Technique.
First, the theme of efficiency crops up time and again. A glance at the article titles (“The Quest for…,” “The Artisan’s Guide to …,” “In Pursuit of…,” “The Business of …”) shows another curious coincidence; approximately one third of the articles deal directly with the idea of recreating or rediscovering the essence of particular aspects of the furniture making trade in the pre-industrial world. In other words, the articles deal with how efficient were traditional craftspeople of old, and how did they going about being efficient, not only in their woodwork but also in their business practices. Jarrod Dahl’s “The Quest for Mastery Through Production Work” is a treatise on the lessons learned through repetition and, as such, extols the benefit of performing the same task numerous times while batching out piecework. He explains, “[My mentor] made the same shape over and over … [and] learned that even the most seemingly insignificant changes could have drastic effects on his work” (12). Indeed, even the slightest of time-saving efforts would result in massive payoffs in terms of productivity and efficiency, especially, as Dahl reports, when a community’s craftspeople produced tens of thousands of boxes, spoons, or other similar items in just a year’s time (13). Dahl, then, looks to production work as a means of ironing out the wrinkles in one’s work flow.
Similarly, Joshua Klein’s “The Artisan’s Guide to Pre-Industrial Table Construction” finds efficiency in the simplest of places: the reference surfaces of a board. Klein’s approach is pragmatic at the same time that it is historically-based. Through experience in building and investigating period furniture, he relates that having a fool-proof and repeatable system of referencing, while spending as little time as possible on non-essential (which is to say, non-reference) faces, constitutes the heart of an artisan’s building process: “If you take only one thing away from this article, it should be this: Hand tools rely on reference faces … This is important because of human error but also because it frees you from having to perfectly and consistently thickness and square all sides of a board. With this system, all you need is one flat and smooth face and one square edge” (22). He concludes that mastering referencing is “the key to unlock efficient hand-tool woodworking” (22). Admittedly, I had never considered referencing as anything more than a way of ensuring accuracy in my work; Klein’s insight into the way that referencing also increases efficiency is both obvious—in hindsight—as it is enlightening.
In this same vein, Michael Updegraff’s “In the Pursuit of the Handmade Aesthetic” explores the effects of prioritizing efficiency as he chases the elusive “look” that is so characteristic of hand-made pieces. In other words, because hand tools do not, generally speaking, seek to work to the level of minute, thousandths-of-an-inch accuracy, because S4S (square four sides) is not an imperative for the traditional woodworker, the resulting furniture, necessarily and by sheer consequence of the hand-tool working procedure, bears the marks of the maker and his or her tools. What, then, is the ultimate determiner of when tool marks are part of the desirable aesthetic appeal of a hand-made piece and when they are the signs of an inexperienced builder? At what point do tool marks become blights on the beauty of the piece? Was there a level of tolerance that pre-industrial furniture worked to as a rule, and what might it have been? What was the balance between efficiency and aesthetics? These are the questions, in essence, at the heart of Updegraff’s “pursuit.”
The final article that most clearly falls into the category of the efficiency of pre-industrial processes is Charles F. Hummel’s “The Business of Woodworking: 1700 to 1840.” From the matter of sourcing lumber in this time period, to lumber yards themselves, to balancing the books, to bartering, and ultimately running a profitable business, Hummel’s article is an unexpectedly captivating work of historiography, in that one would not expect what is essentially a report of his archival research into business practices from over 300 years ago to be so enthralling. At least I did not. It was by far the article that caught me the most off guard. His research leg work, so to speak, is apparent and thorough, and by the end of the text, it becomes abundantly clear that no craftsperson during this time period had the luxury that many of us have today, which is to make a hobby of working wood. Between the building and the business affairs, furniture makers found their day-to-day lives replete with sundry challenges, priorities, and managerial decisions that evoke in the reader profound respect for these craftspeople’s entrepreneurship even at the same time as they produced art in the form of household furnishings.
Springing from efficiency is the second theme of community. And while Will Lisak’s “Carpentry without Borders: An Exploration of Traditional Timber Framing in Romania” most closely reflects this idea, Dahl’s article on production work, again, serves to explain the relationship between efficiency and community. Dahl reports that the tens of thousands of pieces produced in a region of Sweden in 1771 “were made by approximately 1,500 to 2,000 artisans” (13). Their efficiency was entirely dependent on their community; the community’s vitality, its prosperity, then, was also dependent upon their ability to efficiently work and co-exist to meet market demand.
If some 250 years ago, a Swedish town relied on their community of craftspeople to supply a booming market of handicrafts, a town “in the Moldova region of northeast Romania” (Lisak 99) provides a modern-day example of a community in “collaboration between several groups and nonprofits dedicated to preserving architectural and cultural heritage” (Lisak 99). This memoir-meets-textual-documentary of the author’s time working on the timber-framing project is a breath of fresh Romanian air, mixed with the smell of the ink from the two-dozen printed pictures of Lisak’s time in country and on site. The Romantic appeal of such an experience is further enhanced by anecdotes of “comparing and borrowing tools, in order to learn more about the craft, and this sort of interaction is part of the goal of [the organization Charpentiers Sans Frontièrs]” (100). Indeed, in their podcast, Klein and Updegraff have related their desire to follow in Lisak’s footsteps after reading his account. What is more, as a testament to the communal/community-oriented nature of the experience, Lisak’s writing constantly refers to “us,” “we,” and “our” as a collective body of craftspeople, working together to achieve a common goal: “We arrived late” (100), “We worked next” (100), “Our crew” (100), “After breakfast, we broke into our working groups” (102), “members of our company” (102), “We brought the components” (107), “After we bid our farewells” (110), and many other examples. Even more noticeable is the fact that, of the 24 photographic images that accompany the text, 15 of them show groups of people working together on the job. The other nine mostly show artistic shots of tools and the work in progress. Lisak’s conceptualization of his experience, both in word and in image, clearly centers on the community aspect and how this community is a necessary intervention in not only performing the task at hand, but, perhaps more importantly, preserving cultural heritage.
Less obviously related to the current theme of community is Jim McConnell’s treatment of a particular “group of little-known craftsmen from the Yadkin River Valley in Rowan (now Davidson) County, North Carolina” (87). If Lisak’s article provides insight into the value of community craftsmanship, in “An Open Question: Investigating the Steam-Bent Drawer Backs of the Swisegood School of Cabinetmaking,” McConnell delves into the dynamics of community work and the way artisans influence each other and can foster the kind of innovation that, ultimately, comes to define a particular community’s “style.” Part historical inquiry (or biography) and part reconstructive furniture making, the author traces the rise of the steam-bent drawer as an ingenious, space-utilizing solution to the challenges of including a drawer in corner cabinets. He chronicles the arrival of different craftsmen and apprentices to this community who, in the end, developed and popularized the steam-bent drawer back/sides of the corner cabinet, and then he sets out to uncover the best practices for producing such a piece, now that the information has been largely lost: “Sadly this technique [of steam bending a corner cabinet drawer] probably never caught on …; it was simply never passed down … the technique likely just faded away” (94). This final observation by McConnell is, without a doubt, the driving force behind his attempt to recreate the stem-bent drawer from the Swisegood School, and his catalog of the School’s history and his entry into the experimental realm of woodworking make for a fascinating read about a community’s progression toward a unique style of their own.
Finally, I move to a discussion of technique as an overarching theme in Issue Four. I admit that this particular observation could be perceived as an obvious one, and for that reason, I will not present a particular rationale or interpretation as such; once again the titles clearly communicate this fact as they deal with mastery through production work, table building practices, making a true straight-edge, using an ax, recreating a steam-bent drawer, restoring planes, and preserving furniture. Clearly, then, the technical aspect of hand-tool work is present from the first. To be sure, skill development is at the heart of Dahl’s article as he reminds us that, in production work, “because the design was already set [his mentor] had the freedom to focus on his techniques” (Dahl 12). Again, Klein’s article is an ode to the reference surface as the technique of hand-tool efficiency. Jim Tolpin’s “Straight to the Truth: Designing, Making and Using Wooden Straightedges” walks the reader through the various steps needed to not only make such a tool, but to make one that lasts and stays true. For Tolpin, it’s all in the technical aspects; from selecting to drying to shaping the straightedge, and ultimately putting it to use, the article emphasizes specific practices or techniques that, in the end, lay the ground work for much more ambitious and accurate work.
Additionally, Vic Tesolin’s “Axes for the Workshop” deals precisely with the technique of using an ax in the woodshop, not as a novelty, but as an integral part of one’s work flow in heavy stock removal and rough shaping. In the same manner that Tesolin dives into the particularities of gross woodworking, Klein’s other article, “Carrying Their Legacies: Selecting, Restoring, & Using Wooden Bench Planes,” presents an accessible guide to wooden plane restoration, from purchase to planing. Again, the author takes care to detail specific techniques that will be of immense value to those looking to make the jump to such tools. Finally, then, we arrive at the interview, “Entrusted to Our Care: An Interview with Furniture Conservator Christine Thomson”, whose expertise in the technique of conservation is, perhaps, the perfect—in my opinion—ending to the issue, Follansbee’s book review notwithstanding. Her interview speaks to efficient practices, the value of building community as a means of knowledge sharing among fellow conservators, and finally specific techniques she uses and is researching. The interview’s wide range of information, despite being devoted to conservation, encompasses all themes I have previous expounded upon, and for that reason, I, again, find it a fitting final article before the Follansbee review (which itself will likely cause a rise in sales of the book he reviewed, The Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay: 1625-1725).
All in all, I set out to write a concise review of Issue Four, and what came out was a more detailed thematic treatment. I do not apologize for that. I can say without hesitation that Issue Four is worth the purchase price and is quite a bargain for what one receives in return: excellent and reliable information, top-notch writing, beautiful photography, a pleasing experience, and an heirloom-quality publication. Indeed, in episode five of the Mortise and Tenon Podcast, guest speaker Ben Strano of Fine Woodworking predicted that woodworkers of tomorrow will, doubtless, grow up surrounded by shelves full of treasured issues of Mortise and Tenon Magazine, as their woodworking family members could not bear to part with them, opting instead to collect them. And I agree. I don’t see myself giving this issue over to the recycling bin or the hearth of a fireplace, and I know that many other woodworkers in my immediate sphere share this sentiment. The intersection of a number of my interests and passions—reading, woodworking, history (learning in general)—combine to form a magazine that I read, cover to cover, within a day of it arriving on my doorstep. Issue Four is as much about the making as it is about the furniture, and not just making as an end, but making as a means of understanding the pre-industrial mindset, of learning efficiency, building community, or simply developing technique. In short, I cannot recommend this issue enough; I commend the authors and editors of Issue Four, and I wait in earnest anticipation the publication of Issue Five.
The HandToolery on YouTube
I’m a university professor by trade, with a PhD in Literature, which is why my first thought was to write a review on the newest issue. I am a hobbyist woodworker and have been using mostly hand tools for a little over two years now.
Clark, Joseph W. “Bespoke Analytics at Lie Nielsen Toolworks: A Teaching Case.” Paper Presented at the Pre-ICIS SIGDSA Symposium on Innovations in Data Analytics, Dublin Ireland. 11 Dec. 2016. Date Accessed 5 April 2018. <https://joeclark-phd.github.io>.
Mortise and Tenon Blog. Accessed 5 April 2018. <https://www.mortiseandtenonmag.com/blogs/blog>.
Mortise and Tenon Podcast. Episodes 1-7 available via iTunes. Accessed 5 April 2018.
[i] As a case in point, Lie Nielsen Toolworks experienced approximately 10% growth, year over year, from 2015-2016, placing its revenue at around $10 million. (Clark 15).