Editor’s note: This essay from Andrew Milacci is a comprehensive analysis of the fifth issue of Mortise & Tenon magazine. You can read his previous review here, and be sure to check out The HandToolery on YouTube. Thanks again, Andrew!
The Same Newness: A Look to the Future by Connecting with the Past
By: Andrew Milacci, PhD
This essay reviews the following work:
Mortise and Tenon Magazine Issue 5. Edited by Klein, Joshua A., et al. Sedgwick, Maine: Mortise and Tenon Magazine, 2018. Pp. 144. $24.00 paperback. ISBN: 9780998366722
Mortise and Tenon Magazine has been on my radar for a while, and I regret not making a point to buy it from the start. Nevertheless, when I finally did purchase an issue for the first time—Issue 4—it was worth it (You can read my in-depth review of Issue 4 here).
A few months ago, I “splurged” on the subscription option for Mortise and Tenon Magazine because, quite frankly, I was feeling antsy about wanting to read Issue 5. When the issue arrived, and after reading it in as close to one sitting as my two children will allow (read: broken up across two or three interrupted sessions), it occurred to me that I should resist the temptation to compare the latest volume with previous ones, for this issue is a new one, all of its own. Nevertheless, returning readers of Issue 5 will find the issue both familiar and novel. As such, in this review, I’d like to talk about the “same newness” you can expect from Issue 5 of Mortise and Tenon Magazine.
Indeed, the “sameness” of Issue 5 is very much in its familiarity for past readers of the magazine. When you slide it out of its packaging, carefully remove the trade card, and begin to flip through the pages, you will be delighted to know that the “same” Mortise and Tenon Magazine we have been reading for over two years now has finally arrived. Aesthetically, Issue 5 continues the tradition of high-quality production and keeps the tools-on-white-background motif for the cover, in addition to the photo-centric articles with thoughtful, engaging writing. Of course, for first-time readers, as I myself was with Issue 4, there is nothing else out there like it, nothing the “same” at all: it is entirely new, novel.
If you are already familiar with prior issues, Issue 5 features many of the same types of articles that we expect and look forward to: articles of woodworking journeys and personal discoveries, historical studies, an in-depth look at a particular skill or trade, an article about the lessons learned by recreating a piece, the requisite examination of a piece of period furniture, and a book review to round out the volume.
Now, astute readers will notice that I left out the article to which the two main editors contributed: “Tools for Learning: Woodworking with Young Children” by Klein and Updegraff. The piece might seem a bit out of place, given the overall tone of the publication as one that, according to the Mortise and Tenon Magazine website, “merges makers, conservators, and scholars.” For me, however, it fits completely within the ethos of the M&T vision, which “celebrat[es] the preservation, research, and recreation of historic furniture” (“About”), and it is this article that will help me transition to the topic of “newness” in Issue 5.
When discussing the concept of “new,” it is tempting to revert to the words of Solomon in the Biblical text of Ecclesiastes when he declares there is nothing new under the sun, or declare like Heraclitus that one cannot step in the same river twice. The despair of cliché might lead to the idealization of the past in the form of nostalgia, which can then become stifling as we dare not attempt to “improve” upon the past. In Updegraff’s treatment of Eric Sloane’s legacy, he is keen to note that Sloane has no tolerance of nostalgia for the past, “[i]nstead, it was the recovery of the worthwhile attitudes and ways of the past that Sloane desired” (104). I might be so bold to say that editors of and contributors to Mortise and Tenon Magazine would nod their head in agreement. To value the worthwhile of the past is, in a way, and quite ironically I might add, a looking toward the future. Preservation, research, and recreation, then, if we consider them in general terms, are practices that, similarly, serve future generations. When we preserve, we ensure that the thing exists beyond today, tomorrow, and hopefully the proverbial day after. Recreating is about recovering what might have been or what might be lost to transmit that information about the past to our future society. Research is conducted about the past, but it also concerned with the future.
When we preserve, we ensure that the thing exists beyond today, tomorrow, and hopefully the proverbial day after. Recreating is about recovering what might have been or what might be lost to transmit that information about the past to our future society.
I make this point to say what you might already have guessed: Issue 5’s most “out of place” article when taking their mission at face value is, perhaps, their most mission-oriented. What better way to preserve core values, ensure the survival, to transmit knowledge, to concern ourselves with a future that is itself worthwhile than by investing in the young lives of those whose future it will be? And someday they, too, as much as it may pain us to say, will look at our lives and decide what is worthwhile to pass on to the next generation. If the magazine, its raison d’être, and the readers who literally buy into that philosophy see present value in delving into the world of the past, then it only makes sense to pass that on to the future.
The article is divided into sections that offer age-specific advice that is at times based on Otto Salomon’s recommendations for teaching slöjd or a craft-centric education. It blends past, present, and future seamlessly by including appropriate historical perspectives and images, as well as real-life photographs of the editors enjoying shop time with their families. And it urges the reader to remember, often, that a child’s definition of making is vastly different than an adult’s. As a father of two young children, this article resonated with me on a personal level, and I appreciate this “new” article as a reminder of my own role in contributing to the preservation and transmission of handiwork on to future generations.
Now, with that “new” article situated within the broader context of the issue and magazine, I would like to discuss where the theme of “newness” crops up in other articles.
Right from the start, Kim Choy’s article is a testament to the path most (if not all) of us have taken to arrive anywhere near what we would call “proficiency” in crafting in wood. The path was long, winding, bumpy, but ultimately rewarding. The new skill of working with Japanese style tools brought about, for Choy, a reorienting, from designing a Roubo bench to going all-in on this new venture: “I was so intrigued by this approach that I set aside my planned workbench project to focus instead on learning the techniques of this tradition” (13). Spencer Nelson’s journey from brand-new woodworker to supplier of the cover art for Issue 5  follows a similar, though not exactly the same, path. Whereas Choy discusses the challenges of learning a new style of woodworking, Nelson is concerned with the difficulties of fitting (literally) woodworking into one’s life, especially when living in the tight quarters of a New York City flat. By sharing the new knowledge they gained in their journeys into Japanese woodworking, both Choy and Nelson’s inclusion in the magazine provides a brand-new and welcome perspective for the magazine, which up to this point had not featured the Japanese tradition in an issue.
Continuing with new trades and hobbies, Updegraff’s short biography of Eric Sloane emphasizes the importance of the multiple fields in which Sloane worked as part of the development of his personal style and aesthetic. Similarly, in his article about coopering, Marshall Scheetz describes a phenomenon that many of us would know well: when we take a break from making or creating, whether voluntarily or by some necessity, returning to the craft involves a re-learning curve. In a way, the processes feel a bit foreign again, like we must start anew, though not from the beginning. Scheetz states, “‘Coopering is a harsh mistress,’ my master would always say. If you step away from the trade for any length of time, it takes a while to ‘get your hand back into it’” (51). I identified immensely with this statement, as my own work and parenting schedule often causes significant gaps in my workflow in the shop. When I am able to return to a project, I am often hesitant, unsure, and though I’m eager, I’m also cautious not to rush back into things.
From journeys in working wood we shift to new knowledge about specific topics, in particular Kate Fox’s hands-on discoveries while making a six-board Viking chest and Brendan Gaffney’s examination of Chester Cornett’s body of work as it ultimately informs our understanding of his masterpiece, the bookcase rocking “chire.”  Fox’s text reminded me in a way of Jim McConnell’s from Issue four, in that both went about resolving “mysteries” of particular pieces by simply building them. The issue at hand, as Fox notes, is that “[t]he front, back, bottom, and lid all have horizontal grain orientation, while the sides run vertically” (25) and counterintuitively to our knowledge of best practices in relation to wood movement. Fox ends up reproducing and arriving at a convincing explanation for the seemingly “wrong” orientation of the grain on the sides of the Viking chest and thus conveys this new knowledge to us as readers.
Gaffney’s work on Chester Cornett was fascinating for me as a linguist, history-buff, and woodworker. Linguistically, the letters and ledgers included provide insight into Cornett’s regional dialect, while from a historian viewpoint, the photographs of Chester Cornett himself, his original chairs, his workshop, and close-up details of the renowned bookcase chair offer important documentation of his legacy. Finally, Gaffney reveals the construction methods of the famous “chire” little by little, and it is as if we are finding out the story of this chair along with the author. In a way, too, this “little-by-little” finding out how to build the chair reflects Cornett’s own process as he struggles to describe how the chair just came out of him, without him realizing: “This one is Made so different that hit don’t look like iney chair that I Ever made. … I don’t Reley no what hapin I just started working on hit Seems to Be sometime Kidin me” (45) and “Sem to Be sumtin new about Ever day has got to Be Adied” (45).
Cornett’s words, “sumtin new” that needs to be added every day, are striking in that they hint at his design process; while we are quick to use “new” technology to model our designs before we buy the lumber, there is also something to be said for allowing the “newness” of the craft overtake us in our creative pursuit. This is exactly what happened in Joshua Klein’s, let’s call it a teaser trailer, of his book on Jonathan Fisher. If you have been following Lost Art Press and Klein’s work, you know that the book on Fisher has recently been released, and this article is a brief adaptation of that work. Klein’s ability to boil down more than 250 pages into less than 10 pages of text is commendable, and I imagine that many new orders for the book will “ping” the online store, as this text will serve to whet appetites. That said, the article manages to communicate the findings of years of research for the book project without sounding like a sales pitch, and I appreciate Klein’s willingness to, like other authors in Issue 5, discover by doing. Case in point: a strange “mouse-shaped tote” that appeared time and again in Fisher’s tool chest. Without giving away the entire conclusion, I will say that the “mouse” tote, for Klein, “allowed [his] pinky to slip down onto the sidewall of the plane” (134) and is more than an aesthetic choice for Fisher.
A final article for consideration is Megan Fitzpatrick’s “Woodworking in Classic Literature.” In addition to clearly-but-not-so-blatantly revealing why her Instagram handle is @1snugthejoiner, her treatment of a diverse range of texts across multiple centuries appeals to my academic formation in literature. Much more than a catalog of instances when tools appear or are used in a text, Fitzpatrick studies how they are used by character and their overall importance in the work, among other things. For Daniel Defoe’s title character in the widely read Robinson Crusoe, tools take on life-and-death importance, and so he sets about mastering them, despite his relative inexperience. In Shakespeare, a group of characters are tradespeople in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Fitzpatrick’s contextualization of the role of local guilds in the history of theatre adds another layer to consider when reading an already well-known work. This article is, like others in the issue, a new approach that is rather unique to Issue 5, and its original readings of texts through the lens of the craft is a necessary and novel intervention into the literature.
From incorporating the future generation into our hand-tool woodworking, to rediscovering old trade secrets, to uncovering hidden motives, to explaining the motivation or build process, Issue 5 is another must-read in the Mortise and Tenon library. And while we may find joy in the fact that it contains the same quality of print and content, the issue reminded me that, whether it is in the past, present, or the future, whether we are ourselves discovering new paths in our continuing journey in the craft of woodworking or we are helping others discover woodworking for the first time, there is value in our search for the new and worthwhile. Derek Olson, in his review of Oak Furniture: The British Tradition by Victor Chinnery, touches on this principle in stating, “This book is a conduit to correspondence with the past that offers invaluable inspiration for our work in the present” (139). Usually, we tend to think that tomorrow is out of our hands, but as the authors of Issue 5 have highlighted, we do have a say in how the future remembers, either by making the present worth remembering or teaching the future generations how to respect the past. Perhaps such is the change of perspective the editors allude to in their opening to Issue 5.
Once again, I commend the writers and editors of Mortise and Tenon Magazine Issue 5 for their exceptional work, and I recommend that you, reader, pick up your copy sooner rather than later.
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.
 After sending my draft to David Lyell at Popular Woodworking, I caught up on other work while listening to episode 10 of the Mortise and Tenon Podcast, released on October 2nd, for the first time. I hadn’t had a chance to listen yet, but you can imagine my surprise when I heard them say, “This idea of going back to the past to find answers to the future—that’s a good place to start.” While I don’t necessarily ascribe to some monolithic idea of “correct” reading and interpretation, I do feel somewhat validated in my approach to this review, for I had already written the essay and its title and had sent it for consideration before listening to the podcast and hearing those words.
 One Instagram user even asked if there was some hidden message or scene that could only be revealed by arranging the covers in a particular way. The editors lamented not having the forethought to do so.
 “10,000 hours: A Journey into Japanese Woodworking” by Kim Choy and “In Tight Quarters: A Conversation with Spencer Nelson about Apartment Woodworking” come to mind.
 See Brendan Gaffney’s piece on Chester Cornett, Megan Fitzpatrick’s “Woodworking in Classic Literature,” Michael Updegraff’s inquiry into the life and work of Eric Sloane, and of course Joshua A. Klein’s article, adapted from his recently published book on the life of Jonathan Fisher.
 “Coopering: A Harsh Mistress” by Marshall Scheetz.
 Kate Fox’s “Convergent Design: The Six-board Viking Sea Chest.”
 An 18th-century Mahogany Tea Table.
 Derek Olson reviews Oak Furniture: The British Tradition by Victor Chinnery. His review is a well-written look at the Chinnery’s work, and he credits it with coming to his creative rescue from time to time: “When I need inspiration, I find it in Chinnery” (139). He also mentions other prominent woodworkers who sing the praises of Oak Furniture.
 Ecclesiastes 1:9
 The value of recreating is expressed well in the title of the article from Issue 2 by Peter Follansbee, “Everyone Who Knows ‘Why’ is Dead.”
 His tools are the “subjects” of the cover photograph.
 “Chire” is Cornett’s spelling of the word “chair” as influenced by his phonetic pronunciation of the term. It appears in a transcription of a letter reproduced in the article.
“About.” Mortise and Tenon Magazine. Accessed 2 October 2018. <https://www.mortiseandtenonmag.com >.
The Holy Bible. New International Version. www.biblegateway.com
Mortise and Tenon Podcast. Episodes 1-10 available via iTunes. Accessed 7 October 2018.
Get your copy of Mortise & Tenon Issue 5 today by visiting shopwoodworking.com.
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