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The Death of an Artisan

Ever since I could read I’ve been fascinated by history. I was in most other ways a typical kid. I played sports growing up, especially baseball and basketball, I was in a band, and when I was old enough I got an after school job. But what made me different was my love of reading, history in particular. I spent my free time amassing “useless knowledge”, as many have told me. Maybe it was useless to them, but not to me. As a young child it started with the America of the old west, and then ancient Egypt. As I got older I read as much as I could about medieval Britain and Europe; later I became enamoured by ancient Greece and Rome. Now, as an adult pushing forty, I’ve found myself wanting to learn more and more about early America, the mid 18th to the mid 19th centuries in particular.

Of course in school I learned about the American Revolution, the years leading up to it and the battles that followed. Those things still interest me to this day, from the Stamp Act to Common Sense to the Declaration of Independence. But now I find myself drawn towards the day-to-day life of a colonial/early American. What was a typical day like? How did the economy work? I’ve found some interesting books on the subject, and being a woodworker, I’ve been learning a little about the furniture trade when America was young as well. We are often told by contemporary woodworkers and scholars who have studied the era how skilled those craftsmen actually were. It was later, with the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, that machines began taking the place of the artisan and slowly but surely doomed him to obscurity. Trades such as blacksmith and joiner, among many others, ceased to exist. I don’t doubt that hypothesis, but I personally think that the death of the artisan wasn’t solely caused by the Industrial Revolution; to me the industrial era was the proverbial “straw that broke the camels back” and that the local artisan/craftsman was doomed as early as 1820.

The economy of Early America was somewhat different from what we have today. There were large industries to be sure, lumber and ship making for example, but the majority of the population was rural and a good deal of them were farmers. The family farm was generally either owned, or rented from another farmer, and the food was basically grown for consumption and not for sale. The farmers would often run small businesses from nail making, to milling, to joinery shops to earn income. In those days, most people could not afford furniture made by a cabinetmaker, and the farmers of the era generally made their own rustic pieces. A farmer had to be a lot of things in those days: veterinarian, blacksmith, carpenter, joiner, and businessman. So one of the big misconceptions is that every home in early America was filled with masterpiece works of furniture and that simply isn’t true. That isn’t to say that there wasn’t some incredible furniture being built in America; there was; but generally only the wealthy could afford it, same as Europe for the most part.

As more and more of the population spread out, often times the artisan trades didn’t follow right away. The wilderness was simply no place to set up shop, and again the settlers had to learn to fend for themselves. Items we take for granted: soap, candles, utensils, and simple tools were often made by the farmer because he had no choice, and that brings me to another point. It is also a common misconception that the high quality hand tools of the day were in every American’s shop or home; the truth is that tools were very expensive and the average person couldn’t afford to own them. Again, what tools the average American had were often made in the farm’s blacksmith shop. As Eric Sloane pointed out often, some modern people often claim that those who lived in the old days were able to accomplish so much because they had much more time than we do. Most people will agree that it isn’t actually true, and a modern person has much more free time than ever before. I don’t. I could leave it at that but I will give you my reasons.

It is certainly true that the average person of today doesn’t work nearly as physically hard as our predecessors. We live nearly twice as long, are probably healthier in the sense that modern medicine has cured many diseases that the early American had to endure, and we have electricity. Electricity doesn’t only apply to power tools; it allows us to work even at night. The people of early America basically had to accomplish most of their work using what daylight was available. So didn’t I just disagree with myself? No, because there is one huge difference: the Gentleman farmer of the day did one thing that most Americans don’t do; he worked for himself. He was  assured that if he tilled his lands and planted his crops that his family would eat. If he needed a table he built it; if he needed an axe he forged it; it was all part of his day. He answered to himself and to his family. He was his own man. He spent every waking hour being an artisan because that was how he survived. The “city” artisan blacksmith, or joiner, or cabinetmaker could say the same.

Today I woke up at 5:15. I was out the door by 6:20, worked from 7 to 5, and walked in my front door at around 5:45. That is roughly 12 and a half hours, more than half the day spent working for somebody else, not being a craftsman, not being an artisan. I’m not saying that my job means nothing to me. I go to work everyday and perform my job to the best of my ability. My job pays for my house, puts food on the table and clothes on our backs, but it doesn’t leave much room for being an artisan. If you add to my day sleep, family time, and even a bit of relaxation you can easily see that the time left over to spend in the shop is next to nothing. I’m not an artisan because I can’t be, because my family needs to eat and a place to live, and I don’t have a farm and land to provide those things. My family doesn’t need me to be an artisan, so I have to work for somebody else.

Back to the history lesson. After the War of 1812, America began to emerge as a world power. With that emergence came immigration, and with that the population began to spread to the west. The immigrants pouring into the east coast needed places to live and work, and they needed food to eat. Most of them were poor and couldn’t afford land. So farms became commercial endeavors on a much larger-scale. The new Americans also needed furniture, candles, soap, and clothing. The artisans of the day could not keep up with the demand, and in general these items were often more than these people could afford. They couldn’t make it themselves, they had no way of possibly doing it, so factories emerged that made affordable goods for the masses using the machinery of the day. As the population grew so did the scale of the machinery and the technology that built it. This machinery wasn’t made to put the artisan out of business; it was made out of necessity. The artisan was doomed not because people became dumber, or lazy , or less skilled, but because the times changed and they were no longer needed.

Who needed the artisan of the late 17th and 18th century? Not the small family farmer, not really. He made what he needed and in reality had little actual money to afford artisan goods. Not the immigrant, who couldn’t afford much of anything. It was the upper class that kept the artisan in business. They purchased custom furniture and clothing, had blacksmith’s make fine gates for their homes, and had joiners do the amazing millwork we see to this day on their homes. When the immigrants began pouring in, it was the artisan’s upper-class clientele who had the real capital to open factories for making these once exclusive goods. The artisan’s bread and butter suddenly became their doom.

So why the half-assed history lesson from me today? I think we as hobby woodworkers take a lot of grief from some of the pro set. We are constantly told that our ways are inferior to the old ways, that we rely on machinery that has taken the soul out of woodworking, and that we don’t have any skill, at least not the skills of the old-time artisan. I think that’s a bunch of shit. I don’t woodwork because I have to, I can much of the time purchase the furniture that I’m making for the same relative cost of building it. The early American could not make that claim; often times a piece of furniture made by a cabinet-maker would cost the average person of the late 18th century a half a years salary. I make furniture because I enjoy it. I enjoy being creative and working with my hands. I enjoy using tools; I enjoy the workshop environment. I enjoy telling people that I built the stand that my TV sits on. Aren’t those the traits of a craftsman? Do the methods really matter? Does the fact that a furniture maker of 1790 worked by candlelight while I work by fluorescent make his love of the craft greater than mine? Does the fact that I’m an electrician and not a so-called artisan lessen my existence? Well, here it is…..I’m not an artisan by some people’s definition of the word. My woodworking is probably just okay in some people’s eyes. But I don’t woodwork for others, I woodwork for myself and my family. I’m proud of my woodworking. I use the best tools that I can afford, maybe they wouldn’t be good enough for certain people’s toolchests, but they are good enough for mine. I’m proud of my job; I’m proud that my house is nice and that we don’t want for anything, as humble and un-artisan like my house may be in some eyes because I purchased much of the moulding and millwork in it. I’m proud that I’m good at my job, even though I’m not being an “artisan” every day at work. I’m sorry that I can’t make candles or stained glass for a living, but as awful as my corporate, work-a-day existence may be to some people, my little girl has a warm place to sleep at night because of it. So before you start telling everybody that if they aren’t “artisans” they aren’t really that important, look in the mirror. In fact, when you want to make those statements, be sure to do it man to man, face to face. Tell me then that I’m an ant like drone destroying the craftsman forever. Then I’ll give you an answer, and maybe even a little more, that you might not like so much.

If you think that this sounds like I have a chip on my shoulder you would be right. But if you walked in my shoes then you might understand it a little more. And to be clear this isn’t aimed at any body who happens to follow my blog. I hope those of you who read this know that you are part of the reason I write it. So for that I thank you. But I’m still pissed off.


Arts and Crafts Bookcase day 4….

A minor family emergency kind of shuffled my day around, so I didn’t get to do everything I would like on the bookcase project. Still, I managed to get the face frame assembled and installed, and I got my shelves all trimmed and cut to length, I just need to finish putting on the edge banding. The face frame went together much more easily than I thought it would. Normally I would have my wife help me but she had to run out early this morning. So rather than her helping hands, I clamped the frame upright to my workbench and assembled it by my lonesome. After the frame was assembled I placed the case on its back on the garage floor to install the face frame, the same way I did with the side frames. Everything fit pretty much on the money, with a very slight overhang on each side that I will plane off later. My only issue was at the bottom of the case where the arch met the bottom shelf. I found that there was a minor gap, less than a 1/16″, but noticeable. I cut a small strip and spent about 5 minutes planing it down with the jack plane until I had an acceptable fit. I then attached the face frame with some glue and a few strategically placed pin nails, and a few clamps for good measure. So what is the verdict?

This project, like all of my recent projects, was hardly perfect. There are a few dings, and some minor gaps, and I wish I had made the arch at the bottom more pronounced. The bottom arch is identical to the top one. The gentle curve at the top looks exactly how I wanted it to, but at the bottom it looks like it needs a little more; it doesn’t have that Je ne sais quoi. I could lay the case on its back and attempt to cut the arch with a more pronounced curve, but instead I will leave it the way it is. Once the back boards and top are added I will have a much better basis to form an opinion and  really I want to hold off any judgements until the case is stained and finished. I can honestly say that there were very few low points on this build. I enjoyed using the birch plywood and I am looking forward to getting my hands on some walnut plywood and give that a go.

As I said, it’s not a perfect case but in the end I am quite proud of it. I tried out some new techniques, used a different building material for the first time, and will have completed a fairly large piece of useful furniture in a relatively short amount of time because in the end I planned it carefully and built it in my head about 20 times. There are things that I would have done differently, but that is one of the reasons I built it, to learn. For my next Art & Crafts build I will definitely examine some more furniture in the style and take my cues from there. With this build nearing an end I’m already thinking about my next project. I would like to try a medicine cabinet. I think I will use poplar and paint it. I am going to do some research and see if anything catches my eye and maybe build a copy, or do what I normally do and use my imagination. Either way it will be fun.

Completed face frame

The Conformists Toolchest.(I had to add this)

Arts & Crafts bookcase..Days 2 and 3

On Thanksgiving morning I decided to take advantage of a rare midweek day off from work and spend a few hours in my garage woodworking. With the case assembled I set my sights on building the side and face frames. I started with the side frames, and having symmetrical sides really helps speed things up by allowing the stock to all be prepared at once. First thing I did was rip the stiles to width (always a 1/16″ wider than final dimension) and then cross-cut them to length. Next thing I did was rip the rails to width and then planed them down to 5/8″ using a surface planer. I had thought about using a hand plane just for the heck of it but because the finished pieces are so small I decided against it. After the stock was prepared I used the jack plane to clean up all of the edges of any tooling marks. Hand planing the long stiles required the leg vice and a hold fast.

clamped and ready for planing

As always, using the Lie Nielsen Jack plane was a pleasure and the parts were quickly cleaned up and ready to be assembled. If there are any Anarchists reading this blog be prepared, because I used pocket screws to put the side frames together.

Jacque Plane

I do not use pocket screws often for woodworking, at least not in jig form. I do like them for attaching tops to carcases. The pan head on the screw holds well even with the elongated holes to allow for seasonal wood movement. For this instance, though, the Kreg pocket hole jig was indeed a friend. Of course I could have assembled the frames using mortise and tenon joinery, but as I said in an earlier blog, I saw no need for it. The frames are purely decorative and add no real structure to the bookcase. I’m sure I’m offending somebody by using them, and I’m sure I don’t care.
The only real difficult part of the assembly was aligning the rails flush with the stiles. I made the rails thinner than the stiles to create a shadow line being that I’m trying to simulate a panelled side. If both parts of the frame were the same thickness I could have simply applied the glue, clamped them together, and screwed them fast. Instead I used my hand as the clamp and everything turned out just fine. I will again give Kreg a lot of credit, as I said, I don’t always use pocket holes for woodworking, but that little $40 jig performs brilliantly every time I do.
When both side frames were assembled I called it a day. I had relatives coming over for dinner and we still had things to do in preparation.

Kreg pocket jig. Look away Anarchists!!

Perfect size drill for pocket screws, and electrical work.


A finished side frame.

Day three began this morning with the attachment of the side frames. For that operation I layed the carcase on its side and applied the glue. To hold the frame in place I used (GASP!) a brad nailer with some pins. Again, this is a tool I rarely use for woodworking, but it allowed me to work on each side of the case by laying it on the floor of my garage. Doing it this way let me align the sides exactly how I wanted, and let me use gravity to my advantage rather than fight it. I quickly flipped the case and attached the second side frame. After, I stood the case and applied the clamps. A lot of Anarchists.. I mean woodworkers used to knock Norm Abram for using a brad nailer, but the nailer let me fit both frames exactly the way I wanted to without clamps getting in the way. A few pin nails went a long way, and nobody will ever notice them.

Side frame ready to be attached.

With the side frames attached I began working on the face frame. I prepared the stock the same way as the side frames, with the rails being 5/8″ thick. The rails were also being cut into arches, so for that I used a piece of quarter sawn pine I had been saving just for the this occasion. I’m not a big quarter sawn vs plain sawn crusader. They both have their merits. If I had my way all the time I would use plain sawn for case sides and shelves and quartersawn for the frame, but I’m not that lucky. The main reason I used the quarter sawn for the arches is because I knew they would be much easier to cut on the jigsaw, and I was right. After both arches were cut I cleaned them up with my falling apart spoke shave and then sanding, first by hand and then with a random orbit sander. After I was satisfied with the arches I decided to cut the shelves to width.

For the shelves I’m using the same birch plywood I used for the carcase. I only need to rip some edging for them to dress up with edges of the shelves. Both the face frame and the shelves will be finished tomorrow morning, and with that I’m left with a bit of a dilemma. I had planned on making the top of the bookcase with a glued up panel, same as my last two projects. But, it dawned on me that the finished case will be 6ft 2 inches tall. I’m 5ft 11, my wife is 5ft 2. There is nobody in my immediate family taller than 6ft 2 that I’m aware of. So the only way the actual top of the case will be noticed is if Lebron James comes over for dinner one night. On my last two projects the tops were showcased, so I took plenty of care in selecting the boards to get a pleasing grain pattern. On this project the only part of the top that will be noticeable will be two inches of over hang on each side and the front. I’ve seen older pieces of furniture where the top is actually a faux full board, and only the overhang is actually attached. I won’t do it that way, though. I’m just not going to drive myself nuts over selecting grain patterns.

So with a little luck, the only things I will have left to do after tomorrow morning are attaching the back boards and making the top. So far this project has gone smoothly (mostly) The Birch plywood has been a real pleasure to work with. I felt a little bit like Norm Abram today, but so what! As far as I’m concerned Norm did some pretty nice work. If I’m half as successful as him I will consider myself lucky.

Starting to look like a bookcase.

Arches ready to go

We got this covered…

The Pyramids, old barns, Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, convertibles, Disney World, Life, Liberty, the Pursuit of Happiness, Abraham Lincoln, Tolkien, The World Series, The Godfather, Star Wars, Hemingway, Sam Maloof, Harry Potter, bikinis, coffee and pumpkin pie, Thanksgiving Dinner, Christmas morning, A Christmas Story, Arts and Crafts furniture…….Sunday mornings in the shop during the spring time, radio in the backgroung, some good tools, a few pieces of wood, my little girl with me….

The Human Race isn’t perfect, but we got a few things right at least.

The old chair

Haven’t you felt a peculiar sort of worry about the chair in your living room that no one sits in?
-Nicholson Baker

I have a million of them…

I almost forgot; I make furniture too.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that in the midst of my ranting and raving that I do make furniture from time to time. Just a few days ago I began the final project in my Arts and Crafts trilogy of furniture: a bookcase. I began my project in earnest the other day by cutting my plywood stock to length and cutting the dados for the carcase assembly. This is my first large-scale furniture project using plywood. It is sometimes difficult to maneuver large sheets in my garage shop, so a big part of the battle was getting the stock cut to usable length. To complete that task I turned to a power tool that I haven’t used in quite some time, my sliding compound miter saw.

When I purchased the saw around 7 years ago, woodworking wasn’t what I had in mind for it. The saw was one of the tools I bought for finishing my downstairs. Keep in mind, my house did have a finished lower level when we first looked at it. My walking cliché of a real estate agent even pointed it out to my wife and I. Technically she was correct, but I didn’t consider 70’s panelling, tile floors, and porcelain pull chain fixtures a finished downstairs, but I also knew that the rooms had some potential. We actually lived with it for a few years. Eventually one day I gutted it, re-wired and reframed it, and the rest was history. From that time on I haven’t used the miter saw all that much, but it was there when I needed it. Funny thing is that about a month ago I came across a clearance at a Sears hardware; they had a very nice fine finish blade for next to nothing. So I purchased it and threw it on the miter saw, just in case, and it payed off.

Though I don’t consider the saw a woodworking tool it has a few good points. It can cross-cut a 13″ wide board, and after messing with it a little it cuts with good accuracy. With the brand new finish blade on I was able to cut the side panels of the carcase to finish width without splintering the plywood, which had worried me a little. I also used the miter saw to cut the top and bottom panels of the carcase to rough length; I then finished them on the table saw with a crosscut sled. After that was finished I layed out the dados for the case assembly.

Those who read this blog on a regular basis already know what happened with that operation. I had planned on making the dados with a router but I could not get the long case sides properly clamped to my workbench, so I cut the dados using a stacked dado cutter on the table saw. Normally that is how I would do it anyway, but I felt it would be easier with the router considering that the side panels are longer than 6ft, and not fun to maneuver around a table saw bed. But, in the end I’m glad I used the dado blade. On the first set up and test cut I managed to get a perfect width dado, the first time that’s ever happened for me. With that accomplishment the case pieces were dadoed and assembled quickly. After that I turned to drilling the holes for the adjustable shelves.

I use a Kreg shelf pin jig when I’m adding adjustable shelves to a project. It works accurately, and is under $40.00. Because you can only drill five holes at a time without reindexing the jig, it is a bit slower than a full-sized unit. But it’s also well under half the cost so I can deal with the trade-off; If I were making furniture for a living it may be a different story. The nice thing about the jig is that the 1/4″ bit that comes with it is a good quality one that doesn’t tear out the wood and really clears the chips out of the holes. The compact size makes it easy to store, and even with only five holes being drilled at a time, I had the entire case done in less than 10 minutes.

With everything cut and ready to go I glued and screwed the case then set it aside to dry. During the case assembly I was thinking that this project won’t have much hand work. The joinery for the case was cut on the table saw. The only handwork there was during the case assembly was cleaning out the dados with a router plane and a chisel. I’m going to put in arches, which I will cut with a jigsaw and clean up with a spoke shave. The top will be done as a glue up and I will probably hand plane that.  The case will also have three face frames, one on the face obviously, and one on each side to simulate a raised panel look. I’ve already decided to assemble the face frames with pocket screws and glue. I’m sure that there are some who will scoff because I’m not using mortise and tenon joinery. But I just don’t see the need for it on face frames. If I were hanging doors on the frames I probably would use M&T joints, but I’m not. Sure, pocket screws may not be as strong a joint, but I will personally guarantee that the only way this case will come apart in my life time is if it’s being moved, falls out of the moving truck, and gets hit by another moving truck.
So for right now the only thing I’m unsure of is the back. I dadoed the back to accept either a full plywood sheet, or 3/4″ wide boards tongue and grooved. The plywood would be more cost-effective but at the moment I’m leaning towards the tongue and grooved boards, maybe even chamfered boxcar panel style. If I have the money I think that’s how I’m going to do it. I have really high hopes for this piece. I hope it lives up to them.

Nice and tight dado joint.

My little girl wanting badly to stand in the case.

What is an Anarchist?

This morning I received an Email from a person whom I don’t know nor never met. This person informed me that he enjoyed an online review I posted of The Anarchists Tool Chest. He then added that I do not know what an Anarchist is. He may be right. I sent him an email back to him telling him that very thing. I always thought that an Anarchist preferred or sought the right to govern oneself over official or social rule. My definition may have been hazy, so I checked the old standby, Merriam Webster, and this was what I found: An Anarchist is:

1: a person who rebels against any authority, established order, or ruling power
2: a person who believes in, advocates, or promotes anarchism or anarchy; especially:one who uses violent means to overthrow the established order

If you take my word for it, I think that my definition was fairly close to the mark. I copied and pasted this word for word from Webster’s website so I didn’t fudge the words in any way to my benefit. I am guessing that the fellow who sent me the email didn’t like that I mentioned in the book review that I didn’t think Christopher Schwarz was an Anarchist. He felt the need to subtly tell me that I was wrong. Tomato, Tomaahto. So while maybe I don’t know what an Anarchist is I think I might know what an Anarchist isn’t….feel free to jump in….

A person who walks to work rather than drives isn’t an Anarchist; He’s a person who may want to exercise, or enjoys walking to work.
A person who reads rather than watches television isn’t an Anarchist; She’s a person who would rather read.
A person who grows his food rather than buys it at the supermarket isn’t an Anarchist; That person is a farmer or gardening enthusiast.
A person who buys his tools at a flea market rather than new isn’t an Anarchist: He is thrifty, or cheap, or maybe he likes fixing old tools.
A person who makes is own furniture rather than buys it isn’t an Anarchist: I would call that person a woodworker who likes to build things.

I could be wrong about all of those things, but that is what I believe. I also believe that there are no real Anarchists in America. When you wake up in a country with a two million strong military, police and fire companies in every township, maintained roads and highways, WiFi, cable TV and public libraries and schools (I could go on and on and on but hopefully I made my point) and you enjoy some if not all of those benefits, you are not an Anarchist. Sorry, you aren’t, not in the least, not even a little. In fact, it’s somewhat insulting to some of history’s real Anarchists, some of  whom weren’t the best people who ever walked the planet, but others who risked all they had in the attempt for real change.

As Americans we are what we are, right or wrong. There are a lot of things that I don’t like about this country, but there are many things that I do. I don’t need to take my love for woodworking and slap some kind of whacked out definition on it for me to validate it. I don’t need to scare people by telling them that woodworking is dying,; last I checked there are millions and millions of woodworking hobbyists. Can’t we woodwork and just leave it at that? Is that wrong? Can’t we woodwork anyway we like without being called Anarchists or Conformists?  To paraphrase Elaine Benes: I don’t have any Anarchy, I don’t want any Anarchy, and I’ll never be an Anarchist. If you want to be an Anarchist, join the Taliban. Otherwise, just call yourself a woodworker.

Sic Semper Tyrannis

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