men raising a barn

Of useful work and community

men raising a barn
People still do raise barns. Photograph by Rebecca Siegel licensed Creative Commons.

In the spring of 1941, a farmer named Victor Zimmerman of Seipstown, Pennsylvania, lost his barn to a fire. This was, sadly, no unusual occurrence. A barn stuffed with hay and straw is a tinderbox waiting for a spark, and fires were a continual risk in farming communities. When, one month later, thirty-four of Victor Zimmerman’s neighbors showed up to help build him a new one, that too was only to be expected. But the days of the barn raising were numbered. Soon enough that neighborly work would be something only the Amish did, and for the rest of us merely a symbol of community rather than its expression. Indeed by 1941 it was already a curiosity to many people. And so the Allentown Morning Call sent a reporter out to rural Lehigh County to cover it.

That, ironically, is the only way I know about Victor Zimmerman’s barn raising: it was already a curiosity. Practically all the other hundreds or thousands of similar gatherings that took place across Pennsylvania in the preceding couple of centuries are long forgotten, but Zimmerman’s came at the end of a dying tradition, after decades of upheaval and Depression, under the shadow of global war. It made good reading—so much so that seventy years later, Elaine Bogert of the Weisenberg/Lowhill (Township) Historical Society ran across the newspaper’s account of the day and republished it in the society’s newsletter.1 And then one day my father was idly googling his grandfather’s name, looking for genealogical Easter eggs, and found the article.

My great-grandfather, you see, was the contractor hired to build the barn. Victor Walbert, Builder and Contractor, Maxatawny, Pennsylvania. He died before I was born, but I have some of his tools, and use them every time I build a chair. This article was the first thing I ever learned about him that wasn’t a family story. So what would otherwise be merely a charming slice of life from the middle of the last century turns out to be personal.

But here’s the slice of life, anyhow.

Tools and externalities

Following on my previous post: In trying to define a “traditional” tool I raised the issue of toolmaking. But the way a tool is made has implications for the maker of the tool as well as (if not more than) for the end user.

The low stages of my scales suggest a toolmaker who pursues a craft in a small shop: people who make wooden molding planes, for example. That may be a kind of ideal, but it isn’t always practical.

In the middle are small, semi-industrial operations in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, with relatively few workers, an emphasis on craft, and a working environment that is, for lack of a handier term, more or less flat, in that it minimizes the distance and distinction between labor and management workers being given latitude for authority and the owner is not only capable of doing some actual work but even now and then does it. That, at least, is the kind of working environment I would prefer for myself, whether as a worker or a manager ( I have been both).

At the high end of the scale, you have machine parts cranked out by machines wherever labor is cheapest for the profit of corporate shareholders.

If I value the way I work, surely I ought to try to extend that privilege to others? That’s merely the golden rule. So I might say, as a third principle, that “A tool (and its components) should be made by workers who work as the user would want to work and who are treated as the end user would want to be treated.”

There in my old-fashioned shop the new machinery had almost forced its way in—the thin end of the wedge of scientific engineering. And from the first day the machines began running, the use of axes and adzes disappeared from the well-known place, the saws and saw-pit became obsolete. We forgot what chips were like.... "The Men," thought still my friends, as I fancied, became machine 'hands.'...

Of course wages are higher—many a workman to-day receives a larger income than I was ever able to get as "profit" when I was an employer. But no higher wage, no income, will buy for men that satisfaction which of old—until machinery made drudges of them—streamed into their muscles all day long from close contact with iron, timber, clay, wind and wave, horse-strength. It tingles up in the niceties of touch, sight, scent. The very ears unawares received it, as when the plane went singing over the wood, or the exact chisel went tapping in (under the mallet) to the hard ash with gentle sound. But these intimacies are over. Although they have so much more leisure men can now taste little solace in life, of the sort that skilled hand-work used to yield to them.... The products of work are, to be sure, as important as ever... But it remains true that in modern conditions work is nothing like so tolerable as it was say thirty years ago; partly because there is more hurry in it, but largely because machinery has separated employers from employed and has robbed the latter of the sustaining delights which materials used to afford them. Work is less and less pleasant to do—unless, perhaps, for the engineer or the electrician.

—George Sturt, The Wheelwright's Shop (1923), 201–202.

The thin edge of the wedge of scientific engineering

Hand tools and “traditional woodworking”

When I asked recently “What is a ‘hand tool,’ anyway?” I considered two fairly literal definitions of a hand tool: a tool held and operated with the hands, and a tool powered exclusively by the hands (or possibly by other body parts). Neither was really satisfying. Here’s another, more complicated idea that comes up in conversations about hand tools: the idea of “traditional woodworking.” Continuing my list, I could say that

3. A hand tool reflects traditional woodworking practice.

But what do I mean by traditional?

Here we go again.

What is a “hand tool,” anyway?

When I describe my work I usually say that I do “hand-tool woodworking,” or that I work primarily or exclusively with hand tools. Nobody has ever asked me what I mean by “hand tools,” so presumably everyone has a clear idea in his or her head what I mean… or rather what they think I mean. What do I mean? What’s a hand tool, anyway? And why do I use them, as opposed to… whatever hand tools are opposed to?

Maybe this seems like a facile question. I don’t believe it is. Nor an unimportant one. If I’m only using the term for introductions at parties and taglines on business cards, then I suppose it doesn’t matter much what I mean, but if I’m trying to make serious decisions about work, then it matters a great deal. It matters in conversations with other woodworkers who use machines, and who are apt to see a hand-tool-first or hand-tool-only approach as stupidity or snobbery—opinions that I can’t refute if I can’t clearly define what I’m doing and why.

Most important, it matters in making decisions about what tool to use for a job. We all have standards by which we evaluate and adopt (or decline to adopt) technology, but few of us actually know what they are — or have considered what they should be.

But it’s also the kind of question a guy with advanced degrees who has written cultural history starts thinking about while he’s in his second hour of sawing and planing 8/4 oak. Not just why don’t I buy a freaking bandsaw? but no, really, why don’t I? This need to define my terms was made rather more urgent, if ironically also more quixotic, by my experience teaching homeschool environmental science last spring. When my daughter suggested writing her final paper on means of reducing or eliminating single-use plastics, I told her she had better start by defining what a “single-use plastic” was. She spent three months, wrote nearly five thousand words, and still never quite managed a precise definition, but by the end she knew a hell of a lot more about what she didn’t know. She grew wisely ignorant, you might say, as opposed to being merely a clever fool. Which I believe to be an improvement.

So let me see if I can become at least more wisely ignorant. This will take awhile to suss out; I’ll only get started today, and I’ll post new ideas as I think of them, revising my thinking as I go. Consider this an invitation to think along with me.

I can think of several qualities that might qualify a tool as a “hand tool,” but none of them is sufficient as a definition. Let’s start with two.

The ecosystem of the kitchen

Following on my previous post thinking about the workshop as an ecosystem, here’s an example perhaps familiar to more people: baking.

If you bake, you may have run across traditional formulas for cakes. A pound cake is made from a pound of flour, a pound of sugar, a pound of butter and a pound of eggs. A 1-2-3-4 cake has 1 cup butter, 2 cups sugar, 3 cups flour, and 4 eggs. Both are easy to remember, and neither depends heavily on exact measurements. If your scale is a little off, your pound cake will just be a little bigger or smaller. Any old cup will do for a 1-2-3-4 cake; you may have to adjust the eggs a bit, but since eggs vary in size (at least if your chickens are as traditional as your teacups), you’d have to do that anyway. No special instructions, no special tools required — only skill, which costs only time and bears ample fruit.

Now along comes this newfangled magical thing called baking powder, which is supposed to ensure a consistent result, no matter your skill level. Wonderful! Baking made easy! Ah, but baking powder is measured in teaspoons, and has a big impact on the final product, so that an error of half a teaspoon either way may yield a very different cake. Now you need, not just any old teaspoon, but a modern factory-made industrially calibrated teaspoon, which you have to buy from, say, Sears-Roebuck. And your teaspoons have to be calibrated to your cups, as well, so it’s back to the mail-order catalog for measuring cups. The first chemical leaveners came into use by about 1790, and their successors were widely used by the mid-nineteenth century, but only after about 1880 did they really become respectable, because only then did they become really reliable — because only then did the first calibrated measuring cups and spoons appear to measure them reliably. And then, within a generation, it became almost unthinkable to bake a cake without baking powder.

But now instead of eyeballing, which always worked well enough before, you have to learn to do level measurements. And you can’t easily experiment with the proportions of your cake, because you’ll throw off those tiny little measurements, and you’re relying now on processes you don’t fully understand. You’ve yoked yourself to a whole system of store-bought tools, which are not only made by industrially precise processes but demand new, industrially precise methods of work — and to a system of set, test-kitchen approved recipes which had better be followed with equal precision. Your whole approach to baking a cake has changed. The skilled baker now becomes just another factory worker, a kind of subsidiary of the industrial system that made the baking powder and the measuring cups. All because of one little ingredient!

There’s a book in that story, and my two-paragraph history oversimplifies things, but you get the idea, I hope. The workshop of the kitchen is also a kind of ecosystem, in which tools, ingredients, techniques, tastes all have to mesh. Cooking evolves, the kitchen changes — but not all changes are gradual or benign. Every once in a while, an invasive species can show up and cause a mass extinction. And it can be hard to know what little changes will turn into cataclysms before they’ve done it.

The ecosystem of the workshop

As I have spent more time in the workshop the past couple of years I have been thinking more and more about what I do and why I do what I do — that is, work wood with what are commonly called “hand tools.” Certain tasks (like cutting dovetails) take all my concentration, some (ripping 8/4 stock for chair legs) take enough bodily energy that I can’t sustain a complicated conversation with myself, but others (sanding, carving spoons) leave good space for thought, and in that space I find myself asking questions that I am not always able to answer. Questions like: what is a “hand tool,” anyway?

I want to use this blog, in part, to explore those questions, if not necessarily to answer them to anybody’s satisfaction. Rather than starting with what seems like an easy one — what is a hand tool? — I’m going to start in media res, with something I was mulling yesterday: the interconnectedness of tools, materials, methods of work, and the broader economy and culture — what I think of as the “ecosystem” of the workshop. That means starting deep “in the weeds” of the craft and working my way out again. I’ll try to write in a way that gives non-specialists the gist of things without boring woodworkers. That’s a narrow target; forgive me if I don’t quite hit it in a blog post.

So, to begin, a bit of background.

I don’t like your style

This summer my stepson worked for his uncle, who makes mailboxes in what I guess is a mid-century modern style. I say “I guess” because “mid-century modern” can mean so many things that I would hesitate to apply it to anything I actually liked. In a conversation over dinner one night, I said something to that end, and added that I really did not like mid-century modern style.

Then, almost immediately, I had to backtrack.

splay legged coffee table

Building a splay-legged table with hand tools

This is not a project blog, meaning that I don’t want to write a lot of photo-heavy step-by-step posts about how to build things. There are enough of those out there already. Some of them are very good. It isn’t my thing, and the bases, mostly, are covered.

Occasionally, though, a project requires my working through a process that I have not seen explained elsewhere, and I’d like to write it down for my own understanding and reference… and if I’m going to do that much, I figure someone else may benefit from my experience.

This table is one such project:

splay legged coffee table

While there are some good articles available on building a table with splayed legs, they’re written for machine work. Since I work almost entirely with hand tools—I don’t own a drill press or table saw—most of the advice, and indeed even the process, in such articles is useless to me. Here, then, are ten things I learned from designing and building a splay-legged coffee table.

First, I am assuming that you can build a basic four-legged square table with straight aprons. I’m not going to explain mortise and tenon joints. Nor did I photo-document every stage of the process; I was too busy trying to build the thing. If Fine Woodworking wants to pay me to build it again and write it up (ha!) we’ll talk.

Ready? Here we go.

splay legged coffee table, in finishing

Small arcs of large circles: A calculator for cheaters and engineers

splay legged coffee table, in finishing

This week I am finishing my splay-legged coffee table… in the dining room, because the humidity is such that I don’t trust oil to dry in the workshop. I will have more to say about (and better photos of) this piece, which posed several, ah, interesting challenges, but for now let’s talk about this one, which I’ve faced before and will face again: constructing small arcs of large circles.

There are three long arcs of circles on this table, at the ends of the top and on the undersides of the aprons. The longest has a lengths of 23 inches and height of 1 inch — a radius of some five feet, so actually constructing the circle was straight out. I could probably have drawn the shortest one freehand to within sawing and shaving tolerances, but the longest moves so slowly that I didn’t trust myself. I’ve been known to use Affinity Designer (Adobe Illustrator for people without corporate budgets) to draw ogees when I couldn’t get what I wanted with French curves, but I can’t print something 23" long. What to do?