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”


It has for several years been a source of mild frustration to me that I cannot find a reliable recipe for preserves. I have all kinds of recipes for chutneys and conserves and marmalades, and for jams with honey and low-sugar jellies and for special preserves made from this or that sort of (where I live) unattainable stone fruit. What I want is simply strawberry preserves, peach preserves, blackberry preserves, and there, so far as I can tell, are no well-tested recipes to be had in books.

For basic jams and jellies, of course, the folded sheet in the box of pectin gives me instructions, but the point of preserves is not to use boxed pectin. Preserves is fruit with just enough sugar to literally preserve it, and perhaps a touch of fresh lemon juice if even that much sugar seems too sweet; it is stirred and tended while it cooks down; it is soft on the spoon and in the mouth, not molded like a school-lunch dessert. To make true preserves is to capture the essence of fresh summer fruit and hoard it away in a cupboard for the horrible soggy February morning when you simply cannot face another day of winter, and you open it up and spoon dollops onto buttered toast and feel that perhaps you can live another day. Continue reading “Preserves”

Weekly bread

bread For several years I have, in principle, been baking bread every week. You may guess from the phrase “in princple” that I have not actually been baking bread every week. The idea is to bake every Sunday so we have bread for the week’s breakfast and lunches, but sometimes I’ve kept up with it and sometimes I haven’t. My problem, in essence, has been finding a recipe I can make every week that meets my family’s needs rather than my foodie dreams. Continue reading “Weekly bread”

Maybe it is magic after all

When I was learning to cook I liked to watch Jacques Pépin. In the early 1990s he recorded a series of short videos on basic cooking techniques that the local PBS station aired every year during its pledge drive. Poaching an egg, for example, or making mayonnaise, or trimming an artichoke, or making tomato flowers. When demonstrating a technique that required learned skill he slowed it down and patiently explained it so that the viewer could see and understand what he was doing. Then — and this was the part I especially liked — he would speed it back up so that you could see what the technique looked like in the hands of a professional. “In cooking school you would do it three, four hundred times,” he would say with a shrug, “and then it will look like this.” This looked like magic, but because I’d seen it step by step, his expectation that I would emulate him at home seemed perfectly reasonable. Continue reading “Maybe it is magic after all”

Why I don’t like the metric system

For the benefit of Canadians, Jacobins, progressives, engineers, and stuck-up stickybeaks of all stripes, I herein explain why the metric system is inferior to traditional systems of measurement for those who work with their hands, think with their right brains, and prefer not to resort to a calculator for every little thing.

Metric vs. traditional systems

First, I don’t like the term “metric system.” Either it refers only to the meter and ignores all of the other units of measure (which is silly), or it implies that it’s the only system that is metered (which is also silly). What is commonly called the metric system is part of a much larger system of measurement known as the International System, or SI. (The abbreviation is backward because it comes from the French, and they do everything backwards.)

The SI is all decimal, and its units, which include familiar ones like the watt and the second and less-familiar ones like the joule, are all interrelated in a very nice way that I won’t trouble to explain here. (You can read about it here.) It’s a very nice system, for many purposes — but not for all purposes. (I’m unnecessarily familiar with it from having been, at some time late in the last century, a theoretical physicist in training.) Continue reading “Why I don’t like the metric system”

First planting

In the Chinese Calendar, the New Year, which arrives four to eight weeks after the winter solstice, marks the beginning of spring. (That’s late January to mid Feburary for you Westerners.) That makes sense to us, because in North Carolina, it’s time to plant potatoes, lettuce, greens, onions, peas, and cabbages and their kin. We planted lettuce, turnip greens, red and white onions, sugar snaps, broccoil, cabbage, radishes, and carrots in raised beds. The potatoes go in "bins," chickenwire cages lined with newspaper and filled with topsoil and compost. As the plants grow taller they can be covered with more dirt. Continue reading “First planting”