Appendix 1: Memoir of Forty Years of Woodworking

Experience Counts! Notes on personal motivations for woodworking

    Now it matters but little what your financial or social position may be, how well educated you are, or what your vocation is, if you have never used woodworking tools you have missed one of the greatest pleasures and lasting benefits that is the heritage of the human race. To be able to use tools is a special education in itself, for it coordinates the mind, the eye, and the hand, and this kind of training will help you to do many other things well and, it follows, will prove to be of the greatest value to you as long as you live.

    Source: Archie Frederick Collins, Working With Tools For Fun and Profit, New York: New Home Library, 1937, page viii

Question: How does one become an amateur woodworker? The following is my rambling response. Among outsiders to woodworking, when observing craftsmen working on a project, like, say, routing the edge of a table top, or, simply using a hand plane to smooth a warped board, the almost universal question is,

"How did you learn how to do that?" Sometimes, of course, these questions are easily answered:

"I just started, without any knowledge of the tools or skills, but slowly I became more proficient, and found that, with practice, I could do it."

In other instances, fewer than we would like, some amateur woodworkers have been fortunate enough to take course(s) in woodworking, maybe while in high school, or later, at an evening class in a community college.

Still, in many other instances, this same question cannot be answered easily. Instead, woodworkers have to fall back on responses like, "I am not sure, but ...."

A compelling reason for many potentially enthusiastic participants to avoid engaging in woodworking, even though it is an exceedingly satisfying pastime, is the fear of not having the skill to execute the individual operations that completing a project requires. Couple that fear with the intimidating vocabulary. Many examples abound, but -- for the moment -- I give only one:

Here's where I think my experience counts, both as an amateur woodworker and as a journeyman research/writer.

Are you a Woodbutcher? I know I am.

Below on the left is an image of some text, copped from an issue  Fine Woodworking, "volume 1, number 6", in other words, the sixth issue of that periodical. (My subscription for FW didn't begin volume 1, no 1, but shortly afterward -- number 2 or 3.) The whole article focuses on the confessions of an amateur woodworker from Hampton, GA, tongue-in-cheek, voicing a jeremiad about being a "woodbutcher". Why is he a woodbutcher -- rather than, say, an amateur woodworker? Well, bottom line, because he always attempts projects in woodworking that are beyond his capabilities. 

If anything is true about my engagement in woodworking it is that I have consistently attempted projects beyond my capabilities and outside the capacities of my woodworking tools.  

(Below, on the left, is an account of what a woodbutcher is from Fine Woodworking, Spring, 1977.)

woodbutcher image from <b><i>Fine Woodworking</b></i> Spring 1977

However, rather than seeing this pattern of behavior as a weakness of my  personality, instead I consider it an asset.

In fact, throughout my adult life, my preference has been to take on the projects that I fancied, rather than follow the advice of my associates, because they considered many projects that I undertook beyond my talent. 

Maybe I didn't achieve "perfection" -- perfection in the sense implied by "master craftsman"-- but the both the "process" and the "product" were rewarding for me, and -- I've noticed -- the "imperfections" of your work are noticed by you, but not anyone else.

Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?

Source: Robert Browning 1812-89,  Andrea del Sarto (1855) L.97

And what about the predictable charge: As woodbutchers, you are "Second Rate!" Hardly. Second rate implies that we are in some sort of competition. In competition with whom? If anybody, in competition with ourselves. Amateur woodworking is done for the shear fun of it.    

 

My qualifications for writing a history of the amateur woodworking movement: 

My toil on this history of woodworking project, especially the research where I uncover more about the hidden history of amateur woodworking, is informed to a large part by my own experience as an amateur woodworker. 

My personal experience as an amateur woodworker dates back to my high school days, in the Canadian prairie province of Saskatchewan.

Where appropriate, I will inject my interpretations of these experiences into the narrative. My experience in my woodworking courses in high school was not particularly enjoyable. Anyone with reaction to high schools woodworking courses like mine would not be encouraged to continue woodworking. Instead, something else was the driver, leading me to pursue woodworking as a hobby.

In my own case, while I did take a woodworking course in high school, I think is it was grade ten -- this experience was not enjoyable. Instead, I had little respect for my teacher, and really didn't get much out of it at all. My initiation into woodworking -- squaring a board with a plane -- was not sufficiently motivating, evidently. Likewise, the results of my other attempts at woodworking, i.e., working by myself at home, while more satisfying, and using the hand tools, such as an Atkins hand saw, a No. 5 Stanley hand plane, and a Stanley adjustable square, were at the time disappointing, although not always. (Highlighted terms are defined in the glossary.)

These tools were given to me on my 10th or 11th birthday by my uncles, and I still have them, over fifty years later.

Why was I disappointed in my initial results of woodworking? My results never matched my expectations. You soon find out that sawing a board with a hand saw takes much skill, skill that is not learned quickly, and for a teenage boy, one had to be resolved to accepting less than "good" results.

At Heart, I'm Really a Power Tool Person

Years later, in retrospect, I have concluded that I am a power tool woodworker, that I prefer power tools over hand tools.

Fortunately, unsatisfactory results from attempts at woodworking with hand tools did not kill my motives to continue woodworking.

Maybe it was because still another factor entered the picture: economic need.

Previously, I am convinced, it was from a response to my creative juices that drove me to woodworking. Still, I am not certain. What are the components of woodworking?

I can't put it better than either Stephen Shepherd or my friend, Stan Klonowski III:

Only one half of the art of woodworking is in knowledge of the wood. The other half is knowledge of the tools and the ways of using them."

Source: Stephen Shepherd, Compleat Early Nineteenth Century Woodworker. Green River Forge G.S.L.C.,Utah, 1981, page 2
link to Shepherd's website: http://www.ilovewood.com/

While Shepherd is a professional woodworker, in my view, his wisdom also applies to amateurs.

My friend, Stan Klonowski III, both a professional woodworker and inventor, voices a similar thought, but also expands upon Shepherd when he says that woodworkers need to possess,

First, knowledge, of the strengths and weaknesses of both the wood and the tools.

Second, functionality, the intended purpose, the use, of the piece that you are creating?

Any notion of "functionality", moreover, breaks down further into two additional considerations:

Are you, first, trying to match a style or complement a existing style?

Or, second, are you "stepping out of the box" and creating something unique, different, your own innovative design?

In the end, then, the style/form defines the material and the joinery needed to achieve the function of the piece you are building.

All pretty heady stuff, and certainly inspirational.

Some Personal Notes

My wife Karen and I were married in in Vancouver in June 1958. Now both an American and Canadian citizen, I was born in 1936 of a working class family on the hard Canadian prairie in the teeny town, Wishart, Saskatchewan.

Born in 1937, at Elma, Washington, in the heart of Washington's forest industry, my wife Karen is from a very similar socio-economic background.

When we got married -- both my wife and I were in our very early 20s -- we started out virtually penniless.

(I am sure, though, that our experience with poverty at that time was pretty common, far from unique.)

I graduated from library school at the University of Washington in 1961 and, after several temporary positions, in June, 1965, landed at Western Washington University in Bellingham, as a beginning academic reference librarian in the lowest faculty rank. Barely able to collect enough money for a down payment on a mortgage on a small house, together we started what was to become for me a rewarding, exciting 36-year long career in the academic world.

Located on the edge of Puget Sound, roughly half way between Seattle and Vancouver, the idyllic city Bellingham sits in the shadow of the 14,000-foot Mount Baker. In 1965, Bellingham was a city of about 40,000. Today, in the first decade of the 21st century, it is approaching 100,000 and growing.

Besides beginning a professional career, I had to begin furnishing a home. Furnishing a home means furniture and appliances. When you can't afford to buy new furniture, you have only a few other options. You can take family handouts. Make you own furniture, Or, almost the same thing, you can locate cast off pieces and/or second hand pieces, and use them "as is" or refinish them. I did all of the above.

Immediately, we discovered that we needed more furniture for our new home. At the time, our "dining" table was a colonial-style tilt-top table that I had made a few years earlier in a community-college woodworking course. Pictured here (temporarily) is Franklin Gottshall's 1984 book, Provincial Furniture: Design and Construction,much more elaborate than mine. (Eventually I'll post a photo of my table.)

settle table

In Colonial days, this type of table was designed to serve several purposes; a table obviously, but also as a seat, near the fireplace, a central part of the colonial house, because it was the source of heat and comfort. At the time, because I was unable to afford anything but the tuition, I built the table out of Western Red Cedar from the forests nearby, that some kind soul gave me. Western Red Cedar is indeed a noble wood, but it is just too soft for constructing a table that gets heavy use from young kids. Moreover, while I followed plans, for a reason that is not clear to me now, 50 years later, I made the base narrower than I should have, a factor that has always made me detest the piece. My wife, however, likes it, and while we do not use it as furniture now, she will not think of getting rid of it.

When we moved into our first Bellingham home, we did have a double bed, a second hand one that we had purchased for $25 in while I was student in Seattle. (In those days, $25 was quite a bit to afford.) I cannot remember what we had for a sofa or chairs for the living room.

The summer of 1965, soon after I got started in my new position as reference librarian at WWU, I introduced myself to the woodworking professor on Westerns technology department, Dr Sam Porter.

Since I had attended evening classes at a community college several years earlier, I wanted to know what/how Western's woodworking department had to offer a destitute new faculty member. While I found that there were no opportunity to take classes, I did discover that Sam had some good looking sugar pine planks that he didn't need. And they were so cheap that I could easily afford to buy them.

Further, he let me have access to the workshop on Saturday's so that I could build the table using the institution's stationary tools. Again, my tools at the time were still the hand tools given to me by my uncles on my birthday about 15 years ago, and, unfortunately, these tools were still at my parent's home in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada, 1500 miles away. The style of the table is, again, Colonial, ca 1600-1750, called a "trestle" table, the only style that I knew at the time that was simple enough for me to build.

gottshall trestle table

(The illustration above is also in Franklin H. Gottshall's classic 1937 How to Design Period Furniture, on p53. The first five chapters of this textbook, 44 pages, contain, for me at least, perhaps what are for me the 50 most important principles about the design and building of furniture. On these pages,

 

 

 

gottshall proportion

Gottshall discusses "the division of space and areas," "curved lines and elements, and their application, to outline enrichment," "proportion in furniture," "the sources and kinds of ornament, and its application to furniture design," and "color in furniture". Further, parenthetically, for several reasons, Gottshall is of interest for a history of amateur woodworking. I'll deal with him and his contributions more fully in the chapter that covers the 1930s.)

Colonial furniture, designed in a style reminiscent of primitive English Tudor furniture, is very straight lined, with simple curves and angles, that reasonably, "newbie" woodworkers can master without too much difficulty.

And, in the revival of widespread interest in Arts and Crafts design, primarily because of the furniture simple, straight lines, beginning in the 1980s, where designs are featured in woodworking journals, amateur woodworkers were drawn to constructing furniture in the Arts and Crafts style. Also known as "Craftsman" or "Mission" style, Arts and Crafts design has generated almost a way of life, or, in today's parlance, "lifestyle" : homes, art, furniture, conferences, periodicals, books -- )

Karen, though, soon discovered the cheap, but still solid, furniture that we could purchase in Bellingham's "Old Town", a run-down section of the city where several second hand stores -- which advertised themselves as "antique shops" -- were located. So, in our first years in Bellingham, Karen frequently went to Old Town looking for bargains.

We also got to know other sources of used furniture, and when we could, took advantage of these outlets too.

Soon we had a bevy of old 1920s-style, spindle back chairs, inspired, I think, by the Colonial Windsor chairs, but definitely not as elegant. Still, these chairs exhibit a simple authenticity, and we still treasure them in our home to today. I mention them because in making repairs, I learned some important woodworking skills, including how to and how NOT to replace spindles. (That we only paid $1.00 to 50 cents each for these chairs is a wonder to our kids and their spouses.)

 spindle chair

As yet, I haven't identified this captain's chair, pictured below. Because of its construction, I know that it belongs to the "Oak" period, which stretches from ca 1840 to ca 1910. It's machine-made, part of that transition "from production to consumption". I also saw it in a scene -- in an NY apartment -- in the 1973 movie, "The Way We Were". (I still remember, vividly, the asking price by Mr. Walton for this chair> $3.60! Why $3.60, and not $3.50, or $4.00, I never bothered asking.)

caned chair

Both Karen and I still treasure these chairs today. For me, in particular they are important as markers:

  • in an acquisition of skills for a lifelong hobby of woodworking;
  • in the social and aesthetic history of America

Academic Reference Librarian as Career Choice

For a woodworking hobby, the career choice, academic reference librarian, is ideal. Research in libraries, whether in paper or digitized sources, is an asset that comes built in. Frequently, when starting a furniture building project I would (and still do) conduct research on a piece of furniture, including locating the historical context from which it emerged, or a tool that I was interested in buying.

 

An example is the pictured table, by the Englishman, Sidney Barnsley, featured in Fine Woodworking September-October,1984, a table that I aspire to make. This table is also featured in Mary Comino, Gimson and the Barnsleys (Van Nostrand, 1980), ch 2, The Arts and Crafts Movement" and Annette Carruthers and Mary Greensted, Good Citizen's Furniture: The Arts and Crafts Collections at Cheltenham .

Image below courtesy The Millinery Works and Jefferson Smith, taken from Arts & Crafts Furniture by John Andrews, published by the Antique Collectors' Club.)


 

gordon russell hayrake table 1931
 

My encounter with that table began with an accidental find in Henderson's Books, in downtown Bellingham. Henderson's is, evidently, Washington state's largest used bookstore, and always has -- I found, belatedly -- a large section dedicated to use woodworking books. Truth be told, I did not discover this treasure until I retired. Before, for forty years in Bellingham, I had depended upon other sources, and sad to say, missed out on this obviously rich, local, source of woodworking material.

I was drawn to Henderson's large selection of woodworking books, more or less accidentally. My fondness for Arts and Crafts design had grown over the years, fueled by subconscious intellectual suggestions, still not entirely clear to me. [However, here is how I think it happened that I came to admire Arts and Crafts design enough to want to build some pieces myself: ]

Around 1980, woodworking magazines began featuring arts and crafts projects. As a national movement, interest in Arts and Crafts started sometime in the 1960s or early 1970s, although the precise catalyst still remains unclear.

(What exactly was the catalyst responsible for the current Arts and Crafts movement? Was it an article by John Freeman Crosby? Or, was it an exhibit in 1972 at a Princeton University museum, curated by professor Robert Judson Clark? For a discussion, scroll down on this page. These are questions that I hope to answer as this project progresses.

On the left, is a "hayrake" table by Gordon Russell, in 1931; it evidently "copies" the similar design of Sidney Barnsley. According to Victor J Taylor, Fine Woodworking September-October, 1984, page 72, this style of hayrake table is a "scaled-down" version of a more elaborate "hayrake" table constructed in oak by Sidney Barnsley, with a foot-pedal-powered saw in 1924. Taylor's article shows you how to build the table.

For a black-and-white photo of the Barnsley original, plus two photos of the original wooden hayrake -- located in Gloustershire -- that inspired the project, see pages 118-199, of Mary Comino, Gimson and the Barnsleys: 'Wonderful furniture of a commonplace kind', New York: Van Nostrand, 1982.

The photo above comes from the striking collection of photos and descriptions of furniture of the entire scope of the arts and crafts movement, John Andrews' Arts and Crafts Furniture, Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK, Antique Collectors' Club, 2005, page 191. Right to reproduce being sought 4-22-07)

 

The appearance of Woodworking Magazines

In the mid-1970s, when woodworking magazines, as we know them today, first began to appear, I subscribed to several. (I give more details about this phenomenon in the chapter on the 1970s.) My collection of Fine Woodworking issues start in 1976, BUT with volume one, number one? Probably issue number 3 or 4, I can't say for sure, because my collecting is not that organized . Truth be told, my woodworking magazines are scattered around in many areas of my activities.

When Woodsmith magazine appeared, I did manage to begin with the first issue, January 1979. I also began subscribing to the American Woodworker -- it started in July, 1985 -- when Jim Jennings edited it.

Jennings came to woodworking through a natural route [I mean to get some more info from early AW issues]. Today, Jennings is a retired woodworking teacher, but when he started AW , he was also a teacher. (Jennings subsequently sold AW to Rodale, who in turn sold it to Reader's Digest. I still subscribe to AW, but think that, consistently, it fails to meet the standard achieved under Jennings's leadership) I was also an early subscriber to Woodworker's Journal, when it first appeared in the 1970s [exact date?].

First Power Tool Purchase

My first "larger" power tool was a second-hand 1947 model 10E Shopsmith, serial number 5908.

(I have since learned that an intense -- and very interesting -- set of subcultures have been formed lately -- tightly united around discussion groups on the Internet -- related to the preservation of old woodworking tools, hence my reference above the serial number for the Shopsmith model 10E, that I own. Ownership of a 10E puts me into an elite group, where pride of ownership of models of old woodworking machines with low serial numbers is an achievement. For me -- and I am admitting that I treasure being part of this fraternity/guild -- I sense that the motive for us to strive for ownership of these older artifacts of life is their enduring quality, a sure sign of high standards of manufacture in the past. See red decal below -- my illustrations for the Shopsmith don't do justice to this noble machine. (For a little background, both historical and technical, read this 1951 article on the Shopsmith.) For over 20 years I have stored it under a roof, but not inside, hence the rust. Later, as time allows, I will clean it up and get a better photo.)

Karen purchased the Shopsmith for me in the late 1960s. The price: $150.00, and, in the 1960s, quite a bit out of our domestic budget, yes, but not a lot today. Driven with a 3/4 hp motor, the 1947 Shopsmith is a "combination" tool that includes an 8" saw, a 30" lathe, a horizontal/vertical drill press, a horizontal mortiser, and a 12" disk sander.

shopsmith 10E

 shopsmith logo

The copy of the 1963 Vico Magistretti chair pictured below is one of a set of four chairs I made about 20 years ago using the Shopsmith. The original Magistretti chair -- the inspiration -- is on the right. (According to an obituary for Magistretti in London's The Guardian, the chair was Magistretti's first great success as a post-World War II furniture designer in Milan Italy. The chair is

... the world famous Carimate chair produced by the Cassina company, headed by Cesare Cassina. The chair was a bestseller for years and mixed rural simplicity (the straw of the seat) with urban sophistication. There were the smooth lines of the wooden supports and legs, the colour, the pop-art bright red frame and elements of Scandinavian design....

 magistretti chairmagistretti 1963 chair 892

Inherent Problem of Using a Shopsmith: Adjustment Time

But the Shopsmith has numerous downsides, as the many former owners will tell you. Like the first small scale power tools manufactured for the homeshop woodworking market of the 1920s and 30s, the table is 16" x 16", too small for anything but small projects. 

One of the problems inherent in using this Shopsmith is the amount of adjustment time needed to make it operate accurately, whether cutting boards with the circular saw, or mortising at an angle, as I needed to when constructing the Italian chairs. For example, in constructing the chair to the left, for the vertical mortising with the drill press, I had no gauges to indicate the angles that I needed. Using the mortising bit chisel, and many hours of sweat and patience, I was able to mortise the compound angles into each chair's four legs. Wisely, I think, I did the mortising while the leg pieces were square, before turning them. Since the back legs are longer than the 30" limit of the lathe, I had to borrow a friend's 48" lathe for turning them. (Note that the legs, at the chair's front, are wider than at the back, which means that the mortises --i.e., "holes" that receive the "tenons" -- need to be cut at an angle. I spent literally hours getting the angle right, by combining a "jig" and my eyes for aligning the mortising bit for the "correct" angle.

Another problem with the Shopsmith was the limited power of its motor. Under powered by a 3/4 hp, 110 volt motor, the 1947 model comprises an 8 inch circular saw, with a tilt-top table (more about tilt top tables below), a miter slot on each side of the blade, a 30 inch lathe, a drill press (operationally, both vertical and horizontal), and 18" sanding disk (driven by the 5/8" arbor).

With an 8 inch saw driven by a 3/4 hp motor, stopping the blade when cutting oak boards, or other similar hardwood, was not unusual. And the 8-inch saw blade's capacity was just over 2 inches, meaning that you can barely cross-cut a 2 x 4, 1 3/4", laying on its flat side. (A 2 x 4, maybe not everybody knows, is a board dimensioned according to an American standard of many years: 2 inches by 4 inches, and of lengths, usually beginning at 8 feet, and ranging to about 16 foot lengths. In reality, while it is called a 2 x 4, the dimensions are 1 1/2" x 3 1/2".)

Exactly when, I forget, but sometime shortly after I obtained the Shopsmith, I came into possession of a 1955 manual for the Shopsmith, Power Tool Woodworking for Everyone. Authored by the revered author of a multitude of woodworking articles and books, R. J. DeCristoforo, it served me well, even though the textbook covered the Shopsmiths of the 1950s, rather than my vintage 1940s machine.

Over the 19 years in our first house, I built many things with that old Shopsmith, including four turned oak chairs -- one is pictured above -- that I still have today.