The Craftsman

The Craftsman

WITH the Initial number of “The Craftsman,” The United Crafts of Eastwood, N. Y., enter upon a  work for which they hope to gain the sympathy and the co-operation of a wide public. The new association Is a guild of cabinet makers, metal and leather workers, which has been recently formed for the production of household furnishings. The Guild has had but one parallel in modern times, and this is found in the firm organized in London, in 1860, by the great decorator and socialist, William Morris, together with his not less distinguished friends, Burne-Jones, Rossetti and Ford Madox Brown, all of Pre-Raphaelite fame.

The United Crafts endeavor to promote and to extend the principles established by Morris, in both the artistic and the socialistic sense. In the interests of art, they seek to substitute the luxury of taste for the luxury of costliness; to teach that beauty does not imply elaboration or ornament; to employ only those forms and materials which make for simplicity, Individuality and dignity of effect.

In the interests of the workman, they accept without qualification the proposition formulated by the artist-socialist: “It is right and necessary that all men should have work to do which shall be worth doing, and be pleasant to do; and which should be done under such conditions as would make it neither over-wearisome, nor over-anxious.”

Foreword, The Craftsman, October 1901.

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.


Talking Shop

9780813931210You won’t find Talking Shop on many woodworker’s “must read” lists. I started it a while ago and put it aside, once I got the gist of it’s thesis. I was enjoying it, but it just didn’t seem relevant to the other craft reading I was doing until now. I thought of it soon after I finished Tarule’s book, because like another book I’ve read recently, it sort of degenerated into a sort of idolatry and presumption rather than making significant observations about craft.

It was a bit odd to think of Talking Shop while contemplating craft, because it’s really more about rhetoric than craft. But then it was the rhetoric of The Artisan of Ipswich that galled me more than real information about craft. From Talking Shop‘s jacket blurb:

“By arguing that what matters culturally, finally, is the representation of craft, the idea of craft, rather than the objects, Betjemann takes the whole subject of craft and stands it on its head. In doing so, he makes a substantial contribution to the cultural history of the United States, changing our way of thinking about craft by broadening its meaning considerably.”—Miles Orvell, Temple University, author of The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880–1940

I’m quite familiar with Orvell from my studies in New Deal photography. He always irritated me too, because his primary focus was representation rather than documentary; to read most of the postmodern documentary critics the fact that people were suffering and well meaning people were trying to alleviate it was secondary to the oppressive nature of representing anything at all. This is uniquely unhelpful, and I suppose I was afraid that Betejemann’s book would be unhelpful as well. But it was really interesting to me at first, because it began with a long interrogation of Benvenuto Cellini’s Autobiography.

Cellini’s autobiography was on my nightstand for years, when I was photographing in nightclubs. I would come home and read it to unwind before I slept, I thought it was a real hoot. Betjemann’s use of it as a sort of 19th century lightning rod for descriptions of craft is apt. Cellini boasts endlessly about what a great craftsman he is, but he never really gets around to describing much about it. Instead, he’s too busy swashbuckling about having adventures and claiming that everyone else’s methods are inferior to his. What his method is, is of course ambiguous. Not many of his artistic works have survived, but instead his autobiography looms large as a sort of paradigm for the life of an artist.

Which is precisely Betjemann’s point. Craft remains outside, constructing a sort of platonic ideal which simply can’t be represented in the text except as a shadow doppelganger of a life fully lived. It’s the paradigm for modern DIY as well– grow your own tomato, make your own bacon, mill your own flour, bake the bread and make the condiments to produce your own BLT and only then will you be the consummate craftsman. The craftsman is involved, if not proficient, in everything.

I suppose Tarule’s book, as well as many others, follow a sort of Cellini model in resurrecting long dead craftsman. In a sense, the internet has created armies of Cellinis. Woodworking forums are filled with tool talk vs. object talk at the ratio of at least 100:1, not to mention digressions into cooking and other crafts at a fairly steady pace. Not much need to talk about the craft itself, because after all you just have to do it rather than represent it. To his credit, Tarule does talk about a single specific object and the construction of it— it is nothing if not object oriented and in that sense deviates from the Cellini model. It’s discussions of tools are only present when they have a direct impact on the object at hand. But hanging over it like a spectre is a sort of idolatry that is all too common. It was just the tone of certainty, built into a narrative of the consummate craftsman at work.

I’m really feeling chafed by this just now. I can’t agree with Orvell that removing the discourse from its context of the objects of craft is a great breakthrough. I think it’s useful in order to see how these discussions are so often derailed in various ways, and for that reason I’m now reading Talking Shop. The objects, and their places in our lives will always be more important than the things we say about them, just as documentary is more useful as a window rather than simply a fiction constructed about people outside our immediate sphere for political reasons.

Of course the window of documentary distorts, just as the narrative we construct about objects distorts.

There is much more to say, of course. But I wanted to get this off my chest. My primary concern isn’t really to classify things as good books or bad books, but rather to cross-connect some significant ideas.

I suppose it goes back to discovering David Pye’s Nature and Art of Workmanship. Pye takes Ruskin to task for idolizing “handwork” without developing a coherent theory of what handwork was. Betjemann’s book begins by examining the spread of Cellini’s “hand” as an object of admiration, and as such feeds into the Arts and Crafts movement. There are some important connections here, but with major differences in emphasis.

Betjemann’s task was to examine language, while Pye was examining workmanship. It really bothers me that the discussion started by Pye seems to have just been derailed and stagnated, buried by the weight of language. Contemporary writers on craft haven’t made much headway into theories of work and workmanship. More worrisome is that they really don’t appear interested in that at all, and would rather perpetuate a pantheon of artistic swashbuckling heroes.

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.

Durable Goods reprise

I once wrote long ago about being interested in “composition” in the broadest sense. At the time, I was thinking in terms of words and images rather than objects. Surrounding the period when my mother died, I began to really consider the concepts surrounding “durable goods” because when confronting just what is important when faced with mortality. Like most people, I suppose, I hadn’t really thought much about the objects that fill our lives, and as my mother’s life was stripped down to the essential goods, I began to wonder about the matter of matter (as opposed to words/images, or more descriptively, eidolons).

In 2010 I came pretty close to putting some perspective on things when I tried to theorize about the relationship of craft to words, images, and woodworking (my latest sidetrack). To bring this decade long obsessive/compulsive spasm up to date, lately I’ve been building and thinking about furniture and household items (treen). I’ve thought several times that I should be compiling a bibliography of sources about this latest phase, which has moved far outside my usual comfort zone of art and literature. Thankfully, my wife has been teaching a seminar on rhetorics of craft which has brought new levels of focus to my scattered thoughts on the subject. We’ve been talking about craft a lot.

It dawned on me a few days ago that one of the reasons for the shift in subject areas (though not in methodology, strangely enough) is because I figured out a while ago that I am happiest when I am where I am. The place I live now was central to the Arts and Crafts movement in America during the early twentieth century. The original Stickley factory is just down the street from me. Consequently, it is all too natural to become obsessed with furniture history. After reading deeply on Arts and Crafts, the last month or so my attention has shifted to the Shakers (the original settlements are not far from me in the Hudson valley). In that shift, there’s been an interesting twist.

I’ve been pretty appalled the constant shilling for products by most writers on woodworking, even those who claim to be free from commercial interest. To acquire the best tools, seems to be a matter of constant worry for contemporary woodworkers. That attitude of connoisseur is pretty pervasive, particularly when boutique capitalism masquerades as anarchism. I haven’t been able to even consider building a thousand dollar workbench in expensive hardwood, or saw benches made of cherry wood, etc.. I really want to build furniture, not a collection of pretty tools. Visiting the workshops at Hancock Shaker Village revealed some unusual things– scrollsaws and lathes in every shop, for one thing. The scrollsaw has become a tool for fretwork alone, these days. But the shakers (who eschewed excessive ornament) still found solid uses for the tool, apparently. And most things in the Shaker shops seemed to be made of dull pine and poplar, not fancy hardwoods.

Shaker furniture used hardwoods when appropriate, but was not shy about using softwoods or paint when they would be suitable as well. Reading about some elements of furniture design in the UK in the early twentieth century, the phrase “fit for purpose” as a slogan appears. The language, taken from consumer protection law in the 19th century, makes sense. That’s a driving element behind twentieth century design in America as well, though it isn’t so clearly stated. I found myself wondering just why the idea of a cherry saw bench bothered me so much. After all, hardwoods are certainly “fit for purpose” for shop fixtures, they’re just expensive. Then it came to me— they are just plain ostentatious— conspicuous consumption of scarce resources for commonplace use. So “fit for purpose” isn’t the only factor in selecting material, it’s also important to me that there me some degree of humility.

Stickley furniture, with its quarter-sawn oak and heft is interesting to me but as a consumer product, it seems unsustainable. Only a select few can afford it. I like the philosophy behind some of it, and its solidness, but I’m afraid I’m slowly drifting away from it. I keep building Stickley style small pieces because they are nicely joined and economical in material for the most part, but I can’t see myself building the major pieces. My heart is headed somewhere else.