One man’s craft is another’s commodity

“Fast modern contemporary furniture, I want no part of it. People wanting to express themselves, it’s just simply crap. That’s what’s causing all the ills of our society, individualism with nothing to express. You tear your guts out to express yourself and it ends up in frustration and a terrible environment…. (Wood is) a gift we should treasure and use in the most logical and beautiful way, and personal expression is quite illegitimate. It’s an arrogant conceit, and we have too much conceit in our society.”

— George Nakashima interviewed by John Kelsey for the January/February 1979 issue of Fine Woodworking (Issue No. 14). 

cited by Chris Schwarz

I was taken aback by the misreadings and vitriol that occurred in the comments over at Lost Art Press regarding this quote. Comparing George Nakashima to Kanye? Really? It doesn’t matter in the grand scheme, but it’s what happens when American “rugged individualism” butts heads with eastern ideas of craft. The weird thing is, I was reading at the time about one of the fundamental Jainist tenets, aparigraha at the time that this tempest in a teapot was brewing.

This concept is found at the center of various yoga approaches as well, probably including the particular flavor embraced by Nakashima. It relates to the “simple living” reading I’ve been doing in a direct fashion, being the stricture against taking more than one needs, or wasting resources needlessly. Individualism, which frequently takes the form of “personal expression” can easily be termed unnecessary and a poor use of resources. Hoarding and showing off— as expressions of ego, are equally heinous under these ethical systems.

Of course Nakashima is a famous wood hoarder, as well as a craftsman with a highly individual signature style. He would dispute that though, claiming that he simply follows the spirit of the wood. One man’s individualism is another mans “truth to nature,” and one man’s rescuing of resources from decay and ruin is another man’s hoarding. It all depends on what angle you look at it from.

As the quote continues, it’s clear which side John Kelsey stands on:

Looking at a small table salvaged from a madly extravagant and extremely fragile burl, I see what he means: The wood is merely displayed, utterly simple. It is as if the tree had given away a part of itself and there it sits, without human intervention. We know that someone has sliced the stump into boards and saved this ruined piece from the firewood pile, cleaned it up and defined its edges, and given it a true, oiled surface. But this work does not intrude, there is no precious molding or delicate dovetail to announce the craftsman’s ego. The tabletop seems to have evolved directly from the material, as Nakashima says, it is probably the only thing that could have been done with such a piece of wood. (46)

That is of course the problem with taking quotes out of context; often, the explanation for the claims is just a line or two away in the remaining text. There’s an illustration of this table, but my PDF of the article isn’t really of sufficient resolution to do it justice. The table is described as an engineering problem:

Nonetheless, something is holding it off the ground, a base tucked well back and unobtrusive. It’s not a narly branch or root section (which Nakashima calls “gauche barbarisms”_, it’s a designed intersection of vertical slab and horizontal runner. I ask how this base evolved from the material and Nakashima explains that it is “almost purely an engineering job, it’s just to support the top and do it in a way that’s satisfying to me. I don’t mean that I’m beyond design, but I don’t design from the approach of art school, I design from the material.

The final passage is the most telling, though, and it closes out the article:

FWW: Are you working from a tradition, are you consciously part of a tradition?

Nakashima: Well, if I’m in a tradition it’s a mixture of early American and Japanese. I think I work very much in the Japanese idiom, the use of materials, the type of materials, but what we do also has roots in America.

FWW: You imply that aside from being a skilled craftsman and aside from knowing the material intimately and being able to design with it, there’s another dimension here.

Nakashima: Yeah, it’s a spiritual one, and I think it actually comes first. . .


I’m pretty certain that this dimension is actually primarily Indian; Nakashima spent time in Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Reading Nakashima’s book The Soul of a Tree, there’s a lot of “simple living” material in there as well, and attitudes towards tools. For example, he calls his approach to machinery “intermediate,” choosing a combination power tools and handwork, steadfastly choosing to market to a local community rather than a broader audience because he does not seem to be overly concerned with profit. His furniture may sell for millions these days, but it wasn’t created with a primarily economic intent. It’s really something when capitalists get ahold of scarce spiritual artifacts; the bidding goes up pretty quickly. It tends to pollute the ideas that originally birthed them.

The Fine Woodworking article is similar in the way it weaves the economic topics together. In a sidebar, Nakashima laments taking on workers to train them and having them leave for more lucrative work before he gets any advantage from their skill. He suggests that people who want to learn contact trade schools or go to countries that have apprenticeship systems rather than calling on him. But the last comment there is not about profit, but it is about wealth:

Skills are maybe the finest resource any nation can have, and we don’t have that in this country and that’s why things are getting so bad. This country prides itself on automobiles and can’t even make a decent automobile, a sad situation. Whereas if one has skills, one could make the slums bloom with no money at all, simply by work and skills. (42)

Money is only a small part of Nakashima’s world view, as it should be. It’s ludicrous to translate everything into that. Theories of work and skill are not commensurate with theories of labor and exchange.

Education of a Woodworker

At the utmost, the active minded young man should ask of his teachers only the mastery of his tools. The young man himself, the subject of education, is a certain form of energy; the object to be gained is economy of his force; the training is partly the clearing away of obstacles, partly by the direct application of effort. Once acquired, the tools and models may be thrown away.

The Education of Henry Adams (2007), xiv

In the author’s preface, Henry Adams sets up a model of the author/narrator as a mannequin, a stand-in that should be discarded once an adequate level of skill is achieved. This device has replicated itself over time, but has frequently been ignored or overlooked. Chris Schwarz, in his first book The Anarchist’s Tool Chest, declares his “anarchist” manifesto with the admonition “disobey me.” It is difficult, however, to discard or disobey his assemblage of a tool kit that he substantiates historically, even annotating it across other authors covering centuries. Just what does “disobey me” mean when all paths, apparently, lead to the same conclusions as he has reached?

I think I have read the opening chapters of Schwarz’s book a few dozen times in the past few years. In fact, I am putting the finishing touches on the sort of English tool chest he describes right now, not because I think it’s the best solution to the problem of tool storage but simply because it seemed  like the right thing to do. He’s right of course, this sort of chest makes a lot more sense once you start to use it. It’s rich with the sort of “economy of force” that Henry Adams was on about. The patience and practice that you acquire while pursuing this sort of project is priceless, really. But the fact that Schwarz looms large as a person instead of a persona obscures the “anarchist” agenda that he seeks to pursue. The more I visit the book, the more I see how he got there. Like his basic tool assortment, Schwarz’s anarchist disposition is an easy journey to support historically.

Right about the time of the first publication of The Education of Henry Adams, at the dawn of the twentieth century there was a basic shift in the perception of “craft” among its proponents. William Morris, a devout socialist saw the onslaught of industrial production driven by capitalism as an evil to be defeated by traditional crafts.  Interrogating the social benefits of “hand” crafts versus machines was a the center of a lot of writing in the late nineteenth century (particularly Hawthorne). However, as the Arts and Crafts movement began to falter in the early twentieth century, socialists were replaced by anarchists (and capitalists like the Stickley brothers) with a more machine friendly stance.

The anarchist Herbert Read, writing in Art and Industry (1949) suggests that Morris was simply asking the wrong question. We shouldn’t be asking if the machines are damaging our society, but rather if the machines can give us the art we need. He thought yes. The merits of individualism/anarchism vs. socialism frequently generate ripples across the discussion; they are models that seem to consistently provide a sort of touchstone to rub. Is this really useful in the long run? I have mixed feelings. As Henry Adams remarks, politics as a practice has always been the systematic organization of hatreds (6). However, as the truism goes, the personal is always political.

For myself, perhaps the strongest urge is always what I’ve come to call the “hunter gatherer” impulse. The draw of The Anarchist’s Tool Chest is its well researched set of tools; most people reading the book, I suspect, use it as a starting point to figure out what tools they should be proficient with. It’s much easier to hunt and gather tools than it is to develop skills, so we gather them up and then and only then attempt to use them. Overcoming the frustration when they don’t work the way we think they should, well, that’s a problem.

Schwarz is really no help there; he and most of the dons of the the woodworking forums online suggest that you simply must have the best tool. There is no substitute. Schwarz, as he so succinctly points out in his book, due to the circumstances of his profession, found himself buried alive in tools. His book is about stripping away those things that he found he didn’t need, including “tool-resembling objects.” For most, readers they’re gathering tools, not getting rid of them.

For some reason though, I just keep coming back to Schwarz’s first book. I’ve read and enjoyed his latest book, Campaign Furniture, and there is much to say about it. But the more I read around, the more I can see why that first book had to happen for him.

Manifestos usually bore me, but for some reason this one doesn’t; it irritates me in the best sense of the word. I constantly wonder if there is a better way to get there. The path that his education follows is fairly straightforward, and in its own way traditional. But I do not think that you can cast away your tools and models once you get there, which makes it flirt dangerously with dogma.


The Artisan of Ipswich

artisan of ipswich I just finished The Artisan of Ipswich by Robert Tarule, and I’ve got mixed feelings about it. Paul Sellers mentioned it as one of his top ten, and Chris Schwarz has reviewed it postively as well. While it was informative, it just set off a bunch of irritations in me. I’d still recommend it to others, but the writing style just really got on my nerves.

The book begins like a dissertation that’s been converted into a book, full of numbing statistics and details. I really enjoyed that part the most, oddly enough. But compared to say, Tudor Monastery Farm or Tales from the Green Valley, it was dry as toast.

What irritated me most was when it switched into storytelling mode to detail the construction of a particular oak chest. It was a fanciful telling, marred with constant references to what the maker intended and why they made the choices that the did. The switch in tone was abrupt, and just grating. I found myself screaming “You just can’t know that!” or “How dare you use a dead man as a puppet for your own voice!”

I have no doubt of Tarule’s credentials, or his theories regarding the way the artisan worked. I have the greatest admiration for those who work to recover historical working methods. It was simply a “voice” thing. If one builds a historical piece using their technologies, one does not become that person. There are things that a person simply can’t know.

Missing goals


I’m continually missing goals, shifting the target, and then trying again. This winter is getting a bit better, but not by much. I wanted to be able to post a newly completed project here at least once a month, but one thing or another always frustrates me. Right now I’m working on a big tool chest (basic anarchist model) and an Enfield Shaker cupboard. Neither project is really going well; nothing fatal but nothing really rewarding yet. I’ve not been able to finish much reading, and of course I haven’t been doing much writing either.

Splitting firewood and cooking occupies most of my time these days. Strange, but that is what it works out to. Maybe there will be something more positive to write tomorrow. I remember how I used to cope with “writer’s block” years ago in Arkansas. I would drive down the street and look around until I saw (or imagined) something worth writing a short blog post about. The key is just to face up to it, and place one word after the other— the only way out is through. Spring always happens eventually.

As for the projects, I go into the shop most every day. And if I fail, I at least try to fail differently than I did the day before.

Shaker Side Tables

Shaker Side Tables
It took a long time to gather the courage to make these tables.

I first glued up and cut the tops of these tables from a nice wide curly cherry board over a year ago. I cut them to rough size, flattened them, etc. and then started trying to figure out the tapered legs. The legs scared the heck out of me. They are only 1 1/8″ square tapering down to 5/8″ at the foot. It seemed nearly impossible to cut mortises on such a small leg, and to keep them straight and true. I threw up my hands when I got overzealous squaring up the stock I had, reducing it to 1 1/16″. I went in search of more leg stock, both for the first table and for a second one. I must have bought $150 worth of boards that weren’t quite right (or so I thought at the time). I wandered away to work on other projects, over the fear of those tiny legs.

At that time, I hadn’t even visited any Shaker sites, or looked at any of their furniture in person. I picked out these tables, mostly because I needed something that would match the bookstand I built for the guest room (my first bookstand), and they looked very simpatico with the Stickley #72 magazine stand that I finished a bit before starting to work on these. That stand was really a traumatic project, mostly because I tapered the legs before doing the joinery (big mistake). It marked the beginning of my transition into hand tool work. I screwed up at least 4 sets of legs on that one before I got it right, so I was really gun shy. That’s probably why I tabled these tables for so long.

When I resumed, I decided to go ahead and use the 1 1/16″ legs I’d already milled (they’re on the table on the left) and make another set the right size for the second table. After seeing many Shaker tables at Hancock Village, I figured out that minor differences in measurements really don’t matter. If you measure the real pieces there, you’ll find a lot of variation among pieces that look pretty much the same. I also got a lathe for Christmas, so this provided a good opportunity to make knobs, and of course no two of those look exactly the same either. It wasn’t really about “compromising” it was about just relaxing my fears about somehow getting it wrong. It’s about spirit, rather than machining to precise specifications— after all, it’s supposed to be woodworking, not wood-machining.

The other fearful part of this table was making the drawers. I have made many rabbeted drawers before with power tools, but this time I wanted to do hand-cut dovetails like the originals. I’ve done lots of dovetailing before, but not half-blind dovetails. I was worried about the tiny edges splitting out. It turned out to be okay, and though they’re not the best and did involve a few small patches to fill gaps, they do work and they are authentic. Overall, I’m pretty happy with them.

My first attempts at half-blind dovetails.

A crafty spatial aide de mémoire

To explain my work for you, I have to build a room for you. A creative room with four walls which represents my boundaries, and actually my greatest freedom. Freedom of expression is not working without limits. Those limits are tools and material but within them I have incredible variety and diversity, and there I can be who I want to be, surolle, the craftsman. My aesthetic expression is formed by these four walls, and now I will describe those four walls. First we have the material wall.

. . .  so, as the beat poet Jack Kerouac said, you’ve got to have the right beat to get life, right. Life has to sway and swing and rock and roll and I’m fine with that. It’s a process, you’ve got to have a dialog with the material. When I choose the material for my work wall number two comes in, and that’s tools and tool skills. I just love this surface coming from the cutting tool, a tool inherited for generations, a technique refined for thousands of years, a kind of assembled aesthetic form which is intimately associated with tools and technology.

. . .The third wall is behind me, and that’s tradition. The word sloyd  refers to know how to, smart, or do it yourself, DIY and it’s still in our dialect in Västerbotten. It’s the viking age word slög, and it means crafty. But we never say that we are crafty, practical. We always say that we are not unpractical, not uncrafty. . . .And every day I work I am connected with my family’s ten generations of work with wood, furniture and household items and I have a deep respect for their tradition and skills because they knew that they had to live with what they had made for the rest of their lives. This is a sort of responsibility for themselves that they have embedded in the objects they have made., which is about love, about caring to pass on to the next generation.

. . .the three dimensional design was about people. And people, that’s the fourth wall, the folk-art wall. A story about all of you, about the longing, love, desire, incantations, spells and magic which is embedded in the handmade object. . . .So the fourth wall in the creative room is about communication between people, and  art and design in traditional crafts is talking directly to the users: Use me, love me, take care of me. Because when I made it, I took care.

Not Uncrafty: A Craftsman’s Definition of Art Jögge Sundqvist, Ted Talk.

Tool making

Drawbore pins
Tools for making pinned mortise joints

The top item was the first object I made on my new lathe that wasn’t a simple dowel. It was quite a learning experience, and I discovered just how hard it is to drill a centered hole in a round object without a large drill press. It’s crooked, which won’t affect it’s use, but still it bothers me. I also forgot to wire brush off the paint on the alignment tool and polish the ferrule that I made from a copper pipe fitting.

The second, lower version is much improved. To do it, I made a screw chuck so that I could use the lathe as a drill press giving me a nearly centered hole. I’ll probably redo the top one at a later date, because I figured out if I had a cone live center I could drill the hole before turning the handle and insure it being perfectly centered. It doesn’t take long to do this stuff, so it’s actually much easier to learn than furniture making. Successive iterations of a project take hours, not days and weeks.

Stickley #79 Bookstand

Stickley #79

I finally managed to steal enough time to complete my version of the Stickley #79 bookstand. It was a good learning experience and a really solid piece. The bottom shelf is just barely big enough for medium size art books; I’d like to build another bookcase simply for art books now; this one is just a trifle short on the second shelf for that. But what these book stand projects have really been about is exploring joinery.

79 detailI opted for pinned through mortises, which made it necessary to make some five inch maple dowels on my new lathe. It was my first turning, so to speak. I really hated trying to make dowels using a dowel plate. I’ve decided that I really don’t like the parts of woodworking that involve forcefully pounding on things. It’s loud and obnoxious.

I didn’t care much for the wedged tenons I used on a little shaker step stool a while back, but I think I’ll revisit those for my next book stand just because they seem to be a really popular contemporary choice. The pinned tenons were a little extreme due to the long dowels, but I had to give it a try at least once. They’d be fine for skirts and other shallower bits, but on shelves it seems like overkill. The center shelf and skirt pieces on this one are doweled with hidden dowels; I’m really comfortable with doing that.

I really enjoyed lining up the figure for the individual parts of this. I think it turned out quite well.

Pinning things down

I rough dimensioned the wood for a new bookcase project almost two weeks ago, and of course I got distracted with a new project— putting together a turning set-up and researching that. There’s been a lot of back-and-forth on that front, with great difficulty getting all the correct parts together (the main hold-up being a set of casters that should arrive tomorrow). As a by-product, the shop is getting cleaner and cleaner as I avoid doing anything really meaningful, like finishing previous projects.

20131113-151044.jpgOh well. Part of the hold-up on the bookcase project has been unanswered research questions. The saga actually starts with a “arts and crafts inspired” bookcase built in January of 2012. It turned out okay, but it suffers a bit from a weakness to “racking” forces and oddly dimensioned shelves. The top shelf only holds tiny books, the middle shelf is a bit cramped, and only the bottom shelf is full useful. The joinery was a fun experience, because it is a tenoned frame with shelves attached by keyed tenons.


20131113-151201.jpgIt’s sort of cheating, in that the shelves don’t have any shoulder where they meet the frame; that’s why it will rack under stress, I think. It’s a good use of narrow lumber (uncommon in most modern plans) but though it turned out “pretty” it just isn’t up to the sort of design quality I’d like. I learned a lot making it, including not to trust “updated” designs much.

The “keys” that pin the shelves to the frame are so tiny that they are really a pain to make and attach and have never struck me as very strong.

This year, I built a stock Stickley #74 book rack that I was a lot happier with. The shelves are the right size, and using true keyed tenons and angled shelves on the top, it simply won’t rack at all. It also holds books better. On the heels of the #72 magazine stand that I built the year before, I am really growing to prefer just doing things in as historically accurate of a way as possible. Those two projects were most satisfying.

So, contemplating building a #79, I was really disappointed that there aren’t any “unimproved” plans out there. There was an article in Woodworking Magazine from Spring 2005, but it used pocket-screws. I’ve not got anything against pocket screws in plywood cabinets and such, but I really don’t want to use them for furniture. The improved version has a variety of features that seemed really odd to me. Chris Schwarz, responding to questions about the improvements, claimed that the changes were mostly to make it simpler for the beginner to build. If he were building it for himself, he said he’d use through tenons like the original. So, I started looking around for original examples, which raised a question I just haven’t been able to answer.

As Schwarz points out, this magazine stand was produced in a couple of different forms (odd for Stickley, at least according to the folks at Dalton’s). Some of them have pinned through tenons, some don’t.

Stickley 79 #1
Note the through tenons on top and bottom shelves, the middle shelves were most likely doweled because there is no trace of a dado.
In closeup, it's easy to see the pin in the front face that holds the through tenon in place.
In closeup, it’s easy to see the pin in the front face that holds the through tenon in place.


The interesting detail for me, after looking at this type of joinery on other pieces at the Stickley Museum, is that the pin face that shows is impossibly huge given the size of the shouldered through tenon. It’s 3/8″ (I measured on another piece) while the tenon is only 1/2″ thick. If the tenon were of constant diameter, there would only be 1/16″ of wood on either side of the tenon if it passed through.

That’s idiotic– and Stickley seldom if ever used “dummy” pins on his furniture. So, the pin must be turned down or be a cover for a screw. Greene and Greene used that technique, but not Stickley.



I think the easiest answer is that it is a dowel pin turned down from 3/8 to 1/4, either in a taper or a step. It would be impossible to tell without an x-ray or destroying a piece.



Stickley 79 #2
No pins on this one either
Stickley 79 #4
No pins here

I’ve been scratching my head over this for a while. It’s not just this particular piece, it’s a feature of several other kinds of Stickley casework. The really curious thing though, is that it’s not constant from one example to another.

Stickley 79 #3Stickley 79 #4 detail

This is another pinned example; also, I have noted that some examples of pinned casework do use 1/4 dowels instead of 3/8″ So, I don’t know what I want to do here. Doing some work with calipers and a calculator, it also seems that the original shelves are only about 8″ apart, so Schwarz’s three rather than four shelf version makes better sense with modern books. I suspect that’ I’ll probably just use 1/4″ dowels and three shelves, rather than trying to be strictly authentic.

The Reveal


I bought two 8′ lengths of ambrosia maple, rough, to make a Stickley #79 bookstand from. One of the things I enjoy most about woodworking is starting with rough stock and surfacing it to find out just what it looks like underneath its fuzzy exterior. I trimmed them to rough length to help minimize the loss due to twist.

Ambrosia is cheap, and somewhat unpredictable. The “ambrosia” designation is strictly a marketing term— what it really means is infested and damaged wood, with stains and color from insect tracks. It’s the cheapest maple you can find, mostly because of the potential weakness from the damage, even though it is “figured”. I think it’s pretty. $67 for the 2 boards (10″ x 8′) didn’t seem bad to me. I think I can build the small Stickley bookcase with a little section of the most knotty/gnarled wood to spare for boxes or bowls.

The weirdness of maple, at least in my experience, is that it just loves to keep moving when it’s cut or surfaced. Currently these are just under an inch thick, even though I only need 3/4. I figure I’ll let it think things over for a while before I continue working on this project.

I seem to be working my way through the 70s with my bookstand quest. I’ve built a #72, and a #74, and now I’m tackling the #79.