Category Archives: Books

Arts and Crafts classics at The Wilson

Please note: The following images are snapshots I took during my visit to The Wilson. They are used here with explicit permission, which required a lot of work and a fee, as described in a previous post. I respectfully request that you avoid gaily copying and using them for your own purposes.

The research for my book on English Arts and Crafts furniture (scheduled for publication by Popular Woodworking in May 2018) entailed a visit to England last winter. Aside from immersing myself anew in the architecture and scenery of the beautiful land that produced the Arts and Crafts movement, I needed to take measurements from a chair designed by C.F.A. Voysey in 1898.

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Be still, my heart.  An original two heart chair, as the form is known, designed by Voysey, though this example flagrantly flouts its designer’s prohibition against finishing with stain or polish.

While waiting for my appointment with the chair, I took myself on a tour of the museum’s other furniture offerings, which are many and awe-inspiring. I was especially interested in seeing details of how these classic pieces were made. Here are a few I documented.

1. A cupboard, as it’s called, designed by Ernest Barnsley and made at the Pinbury workshop shared with his brother Sidney and their friend Ernest Gimson, around 1899

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What happened here? Was the joint too tight? Did someone drop the cabinet?  Look at that charming gougework on the chamfers. I love the minor variations in the pattern.

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I was fascinated to see the knotty piece used for the cupboard’s plinth. Gorgeous figure, but how many of us would have gone ahead and used this piece of oak — at least before the current slab-driven embrace of knots, splits, and such?

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Dovetail details in the top

2. A hayrake table designed by Ernest Barnsley and believed to have been built in the workshops at Rodmarton Estate in the 1920s

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I was intrigued to see how the table top had lifted from its frame, despite being anchored by buttons. As you’ll see farther down the post, this table is made with hayrake stretchers top and bottom and has no apron — an amazing piece of construction.

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Shrinkage happens. On the other hand, ooohhh! that shallow-relief carving! Love it.

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The table’s underside. Be still, my heart, again. Hayrake construction at the top, as well as at the base. Note that the craftsman/men who made this piece did not feel obligated (or, as I imagine they, being English, would have put it, “obliged”) to finish the unseen parts of the underside as assiduously as those that would be seen. You can get as religious on this point as you like, but this treatment is consistent with my training and early indoctrination (not too strong a word), which took into account the constraints imposed by the cabinetmaker’s livelihood being 100% dependent on getting the work done and paid for.

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The hayrake base: intriguing joinery detail and chamfering

3. Swan chair designed by C.F.A. Voysey for Haydee Ward-Higgs

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Are you as amazed as I am to see that these short-grain swans’ heads have survived for a century?

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Seat joinery detail: ditto re. the short grain here.

4. Hayrake table in ebony and walnut designed by Ernest Gimson for Allen Tangye

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Joinery and chamfering detail: This sings.

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Stretcher joinery detail; see close-up below

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That top! I was particularly interested in the joinery of the edging, which appears to be designed with expansion and contraction of the main top in mind. Also note the century-old detail of butterfly keys and the presence of  knots. Not visible here is a large area of lively figure formed where a limb grew out of the tree’s trunk; it’s so lively (yes, I am using that as a euphemism) that many contemporary woodworkers might well have rejected it for use in a table top, especially one as formal as this.

5. Table designed by Ernest Barnsley for Rodmarton Manor between 1920 and 1925

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Love the rhythm of that chamfered stretcher. Interesting method of top attachment, though. The table has the lovely matte finish that Gimson and the Barnsleys preferred.

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Base detail

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Joinery detail

6. Voysey two heart chair

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Seat/front leg detail

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Striking silhouette

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Trick of the eye: Seen from behind, the cutout shape of the top back rail suggests a curve but in fact is straight.

The Wilson makes available rich resources at its website, which includes a searchable directory of many holdings. I’m grateful to the staff, especially Benedict Sayers, who arranged for me to measure this Voysey chair.–Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work

All hail the book

or…Join me for a love fest

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Roman Workbenches: tiny but mighty. Despite their lack of aprons and stretchers, those Roman Workbenches can lift some weight.

The publishing company Lost Art Press first came to my attention thanks to Jim Ferrell, a genial woodworker and tool geek who took a class I taught at Kelly Mehler’s School of Woodworking a decade ago. After several years of prodding by Jim I subscribed to the Lost Art Press blog and gave it the occasional read. I was taken with the variety of content; I enjoy just about anything written by the whip-smart, sassy Megan Fitzpatrick, whose work used to appear at Lost Art Press more often than it has of late (give her a break; she’s restoring yet another old house while living in it), and I was intrigued that a woodworking blog published such esoterica as Suzanne Ellison’s research on peasant art in Lapland, not to mention the occasional kick-ass nugget of feminist woodworking history.

Then I read some advance publicity for L’Art du Menuisier. An oversized clothbound book of old-fashioned library quality, printed and produced entirely in the United States? With titles in French and drawings from more than two centuries ago? I had never spent $120 on a book. I especially had no business spending that much on a book of plans for such eccentricities as chaises d’aisances and voitures anciennes. But I was going to buy it, because any business that produced a woodworking-related book of such excellent form and content at this contemporary moment of e-publishing and knockdown-/wiki-up-everything was going to have my support, at least insofar as I could give it.

The Book of Plates, as the volume is also known, resonated with me because as someone who has made her living primarily from making things, I’ve been traumatized (that’s not hyperbole) by the casual way so many people complain about how much well-made things cost, only to drift into the now-well-worn lament about jobs going overseas. By the time 18th-century woodworking master A.J. Roubo entered my consciousness I’d spent a couple of decades silently talking back to those people (while sanding, cutting tenons, and routing seemingly endless dovetails for kitchen drawers) about what goes into making things of quality. The Book of Plates felt like a concrete expression of hope.

It’s not just a question of how many dollars’ worth of labor and materials go into making an object, or objects, plural; it’s a matter of basic respect. The way we think about things and their value says a lot about how we think about other people and their value, because it’s people who make things. Needless to say, this is a vast subject that could turn a comments section into a frontline battlefield, so forgive me for moving on instead of elaborating here. Even without elaboration, the point stands (if only at the level of a bumper sticker slogan).

A book is not just a means to information, but a made object in its own right. Hardly news, but worth restating. Just because we’ve been trained by our constant-consumption-dependent culture to think of books, along with most everything else, in instrumental terms, as mere vehicles for content (with the emphasis on content as the valuable component — the part that should supposedly be worth the most to us, the consumers), does not mean that’s all they are – or can or should be. You can find “information” on just about any subject at no charge on the web.

Which brings me to Chris Schwarz’s Roman Workbenches, or at least the first edition thereof. A slim, understated, letterpress-printed volume, it’s an exploration of the earliest workbenches we know of, to quote the description on its Lost Art Press page. I didn’t buy my copy; it was a gift, one I was thrilled to receive because I’d been intrigued by the quaintly formal frontispiece in advance promotions.

 

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Frontispiece with suitable Friday evening libation, a Martinez

My first reading left me with a vague sense that the book was about much more than its title might suggest. It was clearly not just about how Roman workbenches function, or how to build them, but about discovering the Roman workbench as a form of utility furniture. Schwarz is a journalist by training, so his dogged investigative compulsion and his refusal to take accepted truths without question should come as no surprise. His often-humorous account of the winding road his research took him on offers guidance to those inclined to research other disused furniture forms.

 

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I take great pleasure in discovering words such as oecus in contemporary woodworking literature. The word comes from the Greek oikos, which, millennia before it signified a brand of yogurt, was the word for house or home, and so, figuratively, a room. From it we derive English words such as economy and ecology. (Think about the implications, which are profound.)

But Schwarz’s research goes beyond the realm of words to practice. The sections on how he allowed the benches he built to teach him new ways of using his body to perform common operations more effectively are delightfully provocative (and no, these are not the reasons for the book’s PG-13 warning; I mean intellectually provocative).

 

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Another delightful word: erotes. Sounds bizarre until you learn it’s simply a transliteration from the Greek plural of the word eros, i.e., desire. This word was commonly used to connote the god of love, a.k.a. Cupid (the corresponding Latin word for desire, as in our word cupidity).

How often do we see ourselves as students of our furniture? How often do we permit a “thing” to instruct us in its optimal use, instead of just dismissing something we find inconvenient as poorly designed? Schwarz sets an example of the open-minded detective ready to consider what unfamiliar tables, chairs, or cabinets can teach us about how those who made and used them worked. Such informed curiosity is a stark contrast to the usual mode of regarding things simply in terms of their usefulness to us. This is an attitude of rare humility and respect in the context of how we think about “stuff.”

If you let Schwarz’s discoveries percolate a while, you may find, as I did, that Roman Workbenches doesn’t just relate to Roman workbenches, but suggests – at least, by implication – that all the things with which we’re surrounded (our workbenches, spoons, hot water bottles, chaises d’aisances, wrenches, mopeds, and most definitely our books, whether budget paperbacks or deluxe editions, jewels of the bookmaker’s art) are quietly shaping us while we think we’re using them. Which raises another question: What kinds of things are we allowing ourselves to be shaped by, and what kinds of people are they turning us into?–Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work

Bonus recipe: Thanks to my friend Mary Beth for introducing me to the Martinez

Live and Learn

Some people have the vague notion that when you’ve been a woodworker for decades, you know how to do everything. If only. No one knows how to do everything. Experience in a variety of techniques may be transferable to new forms, but just because a technique will work does not mean it’s especially good in structural or aesthetic terms, let alone efficient to use in specific circumstances.

When faced with a woodworking mystery–say, a look I want for a finish, or some convincing 3-D effect I’d like to produce in an 1/8-inch-deep relief carving–I like to try to answer the question for myself before I seek the answer from others. The effort of thinking a problem through will often give me deeper insight into methods others recommend, and it’s especially satisfying when I find that “my” method is the one used by other woodworkers I respect.

I’ve enjoyed a few such moments while planning how to build a hayrake table for the book on English Arts & Crafts furniture I’m writing for Popular Woodworking.

Gimson table drawing

My contact at Bridgeman Images provided a hi-res image of Gimson’s original drawing for the table, which we will purchase the rights to reproduce in the book.

I chose this particular table based on an original drawing by Ernest Gimson that I came across online. The artistry in the rendering is delightful, and the table fit the bill when I was looking for a furniture form distinct from the other two projects in the book, a chair and a sideboard. It wasn’t until I was at the lumberyard looking through stacks of sassafras that I got wind of the fun in store for me, thanks to a message from Frank Strazza. “The challenge is getting all 5 shoulders to meet perfectly, everything is scribed to fit,” he wrote in an Instagram post to which he referred me. My blood ran cold. Then I adjusted my perspective: This table is a puzzle.

In for a penny, in for a pound, as they say across the Atlantic. Here are a few of the thrills I’ve enjoyed on this journey to date.

The lamb’s tongue
I love the look of a lamb’s tongue, but in more than 30 years of work as a cabinetmaker, I had never before had occasion to make one. I devised my technique based on what made sense, starting with a saw kerf to make the clean transition from chamfer to carving. I made a sample; it worked well.

Lamb's tongue trial

Yeah, it’s super rough. It was a quick experiment in a piece of discarded wood. But I figured out how to make a lamb’s tongue.

When you’re writing for publication, you want to be informed about these things. I was especially concerned that my use of the saw kerf might be way out in left field. So I did an online search. Up came a Lee Valley post written by Chris Schwarz, who starts with a saw kerf and follows through with a chisel, as I had.

Yes.

The joint between the stretcher and the legs
The hayrake table form I’ve seen published most often is based on one by Sidney Barnsley in which the stretcher meets the legs at a 90-degree angle. I’d seen the same leg-to-stretcher orientation in a gorgeous hayrake table made by Ernest Barnsley at The Wilson last spring. But the Gimson table’s stretcher rails meet the legs in a V—commonly known as a bird’s mouth in the realm of architectural moldings, which presents a challenge.

I could see the joint being an actual bird’s mouth (in molding terms, if not in ornithological terms), preferably with a tenon or spline to lock the stretcher mechanically in place. Not that I was sure about how I’d create that mechanical part. Alternatively, the stretcher could be notched into the leg.

This time I consulted Christopher Vickers, an English craftsman-designer who has built several variations on the Gimson hayrake theme; we met last spring when I interviewed him at his home in Somerset for this book. (Look out for a post on Vickers, coming soon. You’ll be blown away by his shop.) “Your first guess is almost correct,” he wrote back, “in that the legs are notched for the stretchers but with the addition of a short tenon on the end of the stretcher with a mortice (1/3rd width of the stretcher) into the leg.”

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Cool again. It’s so fun to learn a new technique that builds on stuff you already know.

Mitered mortise and tenon joint
The hayrake stretchers meet the center stretcher rail at 45 degrees, and the drawing indicates a pegged mortise and tenon joint. This all seemed fine until I experimented with chopping the mortises. How would I get the point at the far end, I wondered—that is, make a mortise that ended in a pointed V?

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A trial tenon for the hayrake-to-center-rail joint, placed next to the full-scale layout. I tried to cut that sharp far point of the mortise but wondered whether it was really necessary.

It seemed to me that it would make more sense to make that end of the tenon square, but I was worried that this might be cutting corners. (Ouch.) So I looked up Mike Pekovich’s article from 2012. Mike cut the far end of the tenon square.

Happy dance.

Hedge your bets by leaving parts over-length until you need them cut to size

It seemed like a good idea to leave the stretcher parts long, cutting each joint in a logical sequence called for by the structure. This way I wouldn’t cut the joint on one end of a part only to find I’d thereby made the part too short to allow for the joint on the other end. Leaving the parts long would also allow me enough material to redo a joint if I messed it up. If I was correct, the parts should come together like a puzzle. It was nice to see that Mike recommends just this approach in his article, although the joinery in that table has significant differences from that in the Gimson example.

And so it goes. We live and learn.–Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work

Why I married my sister

I published my latest book in March. Publishing it myself was the last thing I originally had in mind. I’m well aware of the stigma attached to self-publishing. Chris Schwarz puts it as starkly as anyone ever has: “In the media world, publishing your own book is akin to marrying your sister. Most self-published books are about encounters with aliens that involve wax paper and Wesson oil, or Klingon wildlife poetry, or recipes for curing cancer with celery salt.”

With Maggie 1963

She’s the one without the fake smile.

The book was a longstanding thorn in my side, albeit a thorn of my own placing. I started working on it a dozen years ago, fitting the writing in around the edges of my daily work. The book would respond to two of my professional peeves: (1) the widespread public ignorance of what it costs to make things when you’re doing so for a living and have to cover the many expenses, beyond labor and materials, associated with running a business; and (2) the romanticization of furniture making as a way to make a full-time living. My model, authorially speaking, was Michael Pollan; I hoped to present a detailed picture of what goes into making a table, a dresser, or a set of kitchen cabinets and explain the related costs – in existential, as well as financial terms.

One year in, I began to wonder whether I would ever find enough time to complete the research and get the necessary distance from my manuscript to do the subject justice. Out of the blue, a client asked me to write a book directly in line with my interest in period cabinetry for the Indiana University Press; she even arranged for a contract with an advance. How could I turn that down? Two years later, I had an opportunity to work on a book about another subject that has long exercised me: the way many of us form relationships with our home, especially when living without a human partner. That book was published by the same press. All of which is to say that it was easy to be distracted by writing other books with firm contracts, in contrast to the nebulousness of the book I still felt compelled to write but didn’t really know how to.

The book continued to nag. I worked on it when I could. One day I was working in the kitchen of an especially trying client, marveling at how Fawlty-Towers-surreal the job had become, and it hit me: Maybe Michael Pollan was not the best author-model for me. Maybe David Sedaris was a better fit.

I went back to square one, making many of the same points, but now through humorous tales drawn from real life. A friend put me in touch with a literary agent who had secured not one, but two lucrative offers from prestigious presses for her husband’s book. The agent graciously discussed my book and agreed to represent me. We worked together for several months, during which he provided some good critical feedback. But I never quite felt we were on the same page.

When the time came to discuss pitching the proposal to publishers, the question of blurbs arose. “Of course you know who the obvious choice for a blurb is,” the agent said matter-of-factly.

“Sedaris?” I wanted to respond, but kept my mouth shut, knowing that Sedaris is on what he calls a self-imposed “blurbatorium.”

“Jimmy Carter!” the agent exclaimed with a note of triumph.

My heart sank. My agent and I really weren’t on the same page. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a serious fan of Carter, the man. But he doesn’t strike me as the right woodworker to blurb a book in which the F-word appears four times in the first two pages. I couldn’t reconcile the former president with the ribaldry that colors daily life for so many of us in the crafts and trades. What I needed was someone edgy, with contemporary clout.

“I think Nick Offerman would be more appropriate,” I replied.

“Who’s that?” the agent responded.

Maggie and I 1962

She has always been the cute one hamming for the camera.

It was starting to look like I would need an alternative plan. As anyone in the book world is aware, barring some inside connection it’s all but impossible to get an East Coast publisher to look at a manuscript without an agent. Getting an agent is a challenge in itself, and I’d already had a taste of what working with one can entail. I wasn’t even sure I’d want to write a version of my book that my agent was likely to deem marketable. And if I got a contract with a big-time publisher, I would face the prospect of who-knows-how-much-more reworking to bring my manuscript in line with an editor’s vision for what he or she thought the book should be.

Shortly after this dispiriting conversation with my agent, I was discussing my projet with Megan Fitzpatrick. She urged me to publish the book myself, having it printed and bound by one of the firms used by Lost Art Press. “You may not sell as many copies,” she said, “but you’ll make more money [on each copy] than you would with a commercial publisher.”* I took her statement with not a pinch, but a pound, of salt. As one of my editors in the world of woodworking periodicals, she was familiar with my work in words, as well as wood. But she hadn’t even read the proposal for my book, let alone the manuscript. For all I knew, she and everyone else might consider it a load of rubbish. What if I couldn’t even sell enough copies to break even?

In the end, my agent and I parted ways on friendly terms, and I took Megan’s advice. I sent the manuscript to some of my most discerning friends for critical feedback, then hired a professional copy editor, book designer, and graphic artist to ensure that it would be as close as possible to a commercial publisher’s quality. It was a big financial risk (OK, a drop in the bucket compared to the risk taken by Lost Art Press to bring Roubo Deluxe into being, but a big financial risk relative to my resources); I had to borrow the several thousand dollars it took for printing and binding.

Fortunately, Megan and Chris Schwarz both wrote enthusiastically about the book and recommended it. Thanks to those who bought the book on their (and subsequent readers’) recommendation, I broke even after two months. Huge relief. Another early reader saw to it that a copy found its way into the hands of Nick Offerman, who wrote the kind of blurb a writer can only dream of.

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Photo via Instagram, courtesy of Offerman Wood Shop

These poignant, honest, sometimes heartbreaking and sometimes hilarious but always masterful stories are so much more than woodworking anecdotes – they are nakedly human moments…. A necessary read for any aspiring craftsperson, but just as requisite for the clientele. I can’t decide in what retail section this book should be displayed – fine woodworking? Sure, that’s easy, but the integrity of Ms. Hiller’s voice, the tenacity of her principles, and the respect with which she endows honest, hard work compel me to suggest instead the shelves of philosophy, self-help, etiquette, or even religion, goddamnit.–Nick Offerman

Selling a book becomes a job in its own right. I’m grateful to everyone who has read the book and recommended it to others.–Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work

*I’m always shocked when I hear someone talk about authors “getting rich” from their books. Sure, some best-selling authors make a good amount (a few make a very good amount) of money from book sales. But many authors make $1-$2 per copy in royalties. The odds are tiny that sales of Making Things Work will ever cover the cost of the time I invested in writing, let alone promoting the book. But when you feel compelled to do something, you do it.

 

Do You Really Need That Gourmet Outdoor Kitchen?

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Edouard Manet, “Dejeuner sur l’herbe”*

A recent search of kitchens on the internet turned up several articles on gourmet outdoor kitchens. These articles described in glowing terms a range of “necessities” for outside entertaining. Among these objects appeared the predictable favorites—comfortable seating, easy-to-clean tables, umbrellas for shade. But there was more. It seems that Harry and Henrietta Homeowner have moved beyond the Styrofoam cooler, charcoal grill, and paper towels of days gone by. Today’s outdoor kitchen is designed to duplicate, or perhaps even outdo, the cooking facilities inside the house. The modest cooler has been relegated to the garage in favor of an outdoor fridge and ice well sink. The charcoal grill has been replaced by a “professional” version powered by gas and made of stainless steel. Families were once content to revel in basic outdoor senses—the balmy warmth of the sun, the gentle twittering of birds, and the occasional crack of Johnny’s softball bat as he ran around the yard with friends. But now, apparently, it is essential to incorporate into this outdoor scheme a large flat-screen TV. And for those engaged in such modernization, it may also be worth considering a marble fireplace for the outdoor kitchen, to help create a living room atmosphere in their home’s backyard….

Far from contributing to the actual possibility of meal preparation, the proliferation of such “gourmet level” facilities stems from marketing pressure exerted on behalf of the manufacturers of kitchen-related appliances and building products. The desire for state-of-the-art equipment is not born of any genuine need—consider the very plain kitchens of many truly great cooks, even professionals—but from social one-upmanship and a culture which has persuaded people that consumption should be regarded as a patriotic duty, as well as one of life’s greatest pleasures.–Excerpted from The Hoosier Cabinet in Kitchen History by Nancy R. Hiller, author of “Making Things Work

(It seems that what you really need is to put some clothes on.)

*https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_Dejeuner_sur_l’herbe#/media/File:Edouard_Manet_-_Luncheon_on_the_Grass_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg (public domain)