Threads of the past: A Pennsylvania Dutch blanket chest

This winter I built a Pennsylvania Dutch blanket chest. You can see pretty clearly what it is from the photos: it’s a chest, and you put your blankets in it. But that term “Pennsylvania Dutch blanket chest” is tricky: it refers almost exclusively to antiques, and so it might seem proper to call this a Pennsylvania Dutch style blanket chest — but it is, in fact, Pennsylvania Dutch, because I’m Pennsylvania Dutch, and I built it. It is also, in both construction and decoration, in keeping with both the form and the spirit of traditional (pre-1850) Pennsylvania blanket chests, and not only because I stuck a heart and some goldfinches on it. It isn’t a flat-sided New England six-board chest; it’s got decorative molding and a scroll-cut plinth (base). But the molding is simple, and it isn’t built of figured maple or imported mahogany, as some rich merchant or southern planter might want; it’s made of inexpensive wood (poplar) and painted. The painting is “just for pretty” but it relies on simple forms and on the skill and individual creativity of the maker rather than on expensive materials for its aesthetic value. It’s both practical and decorative, and there’s no competition between those qualities.

I tried to carry that spirit through the whole design, elevating the practical without compromising it. (Oh lord, this is starting to sound like an artist’s statement now. Reader, forgive me.) There were two challenges in designing this chest, the construction and the decoration, and I’ll address them separately. Continue reading “Threads of the past: A Pennsylvania Dutch blanket chest”

Some thoughts on learning together

Most of what I’ve learned about both cooking and woodworking I’ve learned on my own, from books, from the internet, occasionally from television, and from experimentation. There’s been a lot of what I’d not uncharitably call hacking. Much of it has worked. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to appreciate the value of direct instruction, and by direct I mean in-person, physical instruction. There are questions you can’t ask of a book and answers you can’t get without physical presence.

Here’s an example. I learned to cut pretty good dovetails by watching Roy Underhill on television and reading his books, and then by practicing. But when he opened his Woodwright’s School I jumped at the chance to take a basic joinery class, because by then, fifteen years into my haphazard and frequently interrupted pursuit of hand-tool woodworking, I had a pretty good sense of what I wasn’t figuring out on my own. I knew how the tools worked, what the process was, and what the result should look like, and I could replicate all that decently, but something was missing.

So I took a class on what I supposedly already knew how to do. When Roy stopped by the bench to check on my progress, I knew what I wanted to know: How do you stand in relation to the work? Where do your feet go and where do they point? How can I best use my hands and fingers to guide the chisel when I’m paring? It’s elementary stuff, the kind of thing you get on day one in a face-to-face class or an apprenticeship, but it’s hard to see on video and harder to interpret from books. As I said last week about the difficulty of learning from cookbooks, this isn’t a limitation of the authors or directors, but of the medium. Woodworking is a physical craft; you learn it best from physical presence! While it can be reduced to a process, a procedure, an algorithm, doing so… reduces it. The physical, bodily aspect is lost, and the bodily aspect, of course, is the one that matters most.

Anyway, I got what I needed from that class. What I had been doing sort of jangled around, getting decent results but never feeling right and eventually stalling on a plateau; now my work slipped into a groove where I could keep improving. I’ve made a few adjustments since, but they’re gradual improvements or experiments from a solid foundation. I love books, and I can’t imagine how I’d have ever gotten into woodworking, let alone kept developing skills, without libraries and magazines and television and the internet. But I can’t help thinking we’re hamstrung by relying so heavily on all these visual and intellectual means of instruction for what is, after all, work of the body.

What to do about that is the question, and I don’t know how to answer it, except to say more community. (I was going to say that I can’t imagine how traditional woodworking could have been revived without technologically mediated communication — television, internet, radio maybe not so much. But of course if we didn’t have technologically mediated communication, we might still have something more like traditional community in which it was easier to work together, literally together. So I was imagining our society as it presently is without some of the things that made it what it is but that also provide us a means of navigating it, which is nightmarishly dystopian but not very realistic. So never mind that.)

Tools, adaptation, and seriousness of work

The stuffed wingback chair in my office puts me at eye level with my woodworking books, which was not deliberate but maybe not entirely accidental either. Last week I noticed a book I’d forgotten I’d bought: The Village Carpenter, written by Walter Rose in 1937, a memoir of life as a carpenter in an English village in the late nineteenth century. There’s a great deal here that interested me, both as a woodworker and as a rural historian, and I may have more to say about it later, but what struck me most was the relationship Rose describes between the workers, their methods of work, and their tools—the ecosystem of the craft, you might say.

Several years ago, as I tried to get back into serious woodworking, I realized that if I was going to continue I was going to need to sharpen my saws, which were a decade or more old and growing too dull to use effectively. But I couldn’t find anyone who could sharpen a handsaw for me, and I knew I wasn’t going to figure out how to do it from books and videos alone. So I took a class on sharpening hand saws, and I dutifully took along my old, dulled crosscut saw for practice.

It turned out that my old, dulled crosscut saw could not be sharpened. “Modern” saws of the sort sold by big box home centers are made of steel tempered too hard to be sharpened with a steel file. They’re designed to stay usably sharp for a long time… and then to be thrown away and replaced.

Most of us, in other words, aren’t even used to the idea that tools have to be maintained. Continue reading “Tools, adaptation, and seriousness of work”

Two stools

Since I’ve written a couple of times about working on a shaving horse, I suppose I should post some examples of what I’ve been able to do on it. So far, two stools, functional and good-enough looking, and good projects for building skills.

For my first day working on a shaving horse out at Duke Homestead I just grabbed whatever potentially suitable wood I had lying around, which happened to be some pieces of Bradford pear and dogwood branches I’d trimmed the previous spring, still with bark on. The dogwood was easy enough to work, the pear considerably more challenging: not only is it harder wood, but none of the branches was straight, and each had side branches that had to be trimmed, leaving knots. Back home, after I built my own shaving horse and bought a spokeshave, I had another go at the pear branches. The tricky grain made a good exercise for learning to use the tools, and with considerable patience they turned out gorgeous. So I dug out a piece of butternut I’d bought years ago, cut it for a seat, and made a stool. Continue reading “Two stools”

The thirty-dollar shaving horse

Until my first day doing living history I’d never used a shaving horse before, never used a drawknife or a spokeshave. I’d always thought that someday I might like to take a chairmaking class, just for fun, but that it wasn’t something I really saw myself doing much.

Shows what I know. One day muddling my borrowed-tool way through demonstrations and I knew I needed a shaving horse and tools of my own, if only so that I could pay decent respect to the real craftsmen whose role I was playing. It turned out, though, that even though a shaving horse is one of the simplest, rough-and-tumblest workbenches a man can make, it might just be harder to make in 2011 than it would have been in 1700. I had to get a little inventive. What follows is the story of my thirty-dollar, down and dirty, twenty-first century shaving horse. Continue reading “The thirty-dollar shaving horse”

Old timey

A couple of weeks ago I spent my first day volunteering as a costumed museum interpreter, which is not something I ever saw myself doing. I’d worked with the site director and staff before, and figured that, as an out-of-work historian, I’d see if I could help them out in any way — doing a little research or leading a few tours, I thought, but when they found out that I build furniture with hand tools, the next thing I knew I was being fitted for 1870s clothes. And so there I was on a ninety-degree North Carolina June Saturday outside a nineteenth-century farmhouse demonstrating “traditional” woodworking. Continue reading “Old timey”

The eighty-twenty rule of traditional craft

I have been building a tool carrier this week, a wooden box with splayed sides and a handle like every carpenter had a hundred years ago, long enough for my hand saws and my jointer plane, designed for easy carrying. This was supposed to be a simple project, which was my first mistake — but I’ll get to that later, in another post, after I’ve finished the thing. In addition to being more complicated than I realized it has turned out to be more work than I’d expected, for a couple of reasons. Continue reading “The eighty-twenty rule of traditional craft”