New Friends for your Bookshelf and your Workshop

There’s a lot of valuable information you can learn about the traditional woodworker’s craft – and I’m speaking to those of you who steal quick peeks at your host’s antique furniture and go cross-eyed after countless hours pouring over old furniture plans. Like me, you may have also found yourself thinking, “what would my friend Roubo do” or “what’s Joe Moxon’s opinion about that?” while contemplating which tool, which joint, or which “whatever” to use on one of your own projects. Well, frankly, I found some new, younger friends that offer the same wisdom but with explanations (not to mention illustrations) that actually make sense!

Before I go further, you should know that I do believe Roubo and Moxon have given us valuable insight into some of the earlier tools and methods of traditional woodworking and I greatly respect their work. I also believe that if we are to act as traditional woodworking historians, we owe the craft its due diligence in terms of following its progression to where it historically stops – in the early 1900’s. With the exception of large furniture manufacturers, there were still plenty of small shops still making a living with hand tools in the first decade of the 20th century – as well as trade schools teaching how to use them.

I’ve compiled a short list of some of the texts I’ve found helpful in getting around the workbench. All of these titles can be downloaded for FREE in multiple formats from www.archive.org and other public digital archives.

1. Forty Lessons in Carpentry Workshop Practice, pub. 1896. Charles F Mitchell and George A. Mitchell

2. Modern Cabinetwork: Furniture and Fitments, 3rd Ed. pub. 1922. Percy A. Wells

3. Jobbing Work for the Carpenter, pub. 1914. E.H. Crussell

4. Early English Furniture and Woodwork, Vol. I&II. pub. 1922. H. Cescinsky and E.R. Gribble

That’s a pretty good start to a wide range of traditional woodworking techniques around the turn of the 20th century. Keep learning!

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Is the Woodworker’s Craft also Art?

Tools of the trade
Craft or art?

I’ve recently been trying to distinguish between the “craftsman” and his or her creations and the “artist” and his or her creations – as it applies to woodworkers. Is a piece of furniture a work of art produced by an artist whose medium is wood? Or, is it simply the culmination of varying design processes, followed by the application of a learned set of mechanical skills to create a wooden object? This distinction is important to me because I have always considered my work to be art.

These questions first arose for me when I complimented a fellow woodworker on one of his custom cutting boards. After I had referred to it as “a work of art”, he was quick to correct me saying, “It’s not art, it’s craftsmanship. Art is not made to be functional, it’s decorative.” In that case, I know a lot of people with “decorative” cutting boards and rolling pins. . .

What are the differences between the artist and the craftsman? As a starting point, let’s define them.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines art as, “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power”. Alternatively, a “craftsman” is defined as, “a person who is skilled in a particular craft”.

So, this explanation does seem to verify that art is for the purpose of visual interest, i.e. decoration, but the definition for craftsman is very broad. If furniture is craftsmanship, not art (and by extension the furniture maker is not an artist) then what practical values do carving, inlay, and marquetry serve other than to be visually interesting and appreciated for their creative beauty? And if a craftsman is a person who is skilled in a craft, is an artistic painter also a craftsman? How about a sculptor or carver?

Perhaps the real distinction lies not in the furniture itself, but in the person who creates the original design work. For example, a joiner or furniture maker who makes sticks of moldings based on an architect’s design patterns is certainly making something that will be visually interesting, but he isn’t actually creating anything himself, is he? If art is defined as the application of creative skill and imagination, then the architect is the person who deserves the distinction as an artist since the molding pattern was conceived of his own creative ability. By contrast, the joiner or furniture maker who follows someone else’s design without deviation is most certainly a craftsman and not an artist as it takes considerable skill, but no imagination.

The furniture maker who designs and creates his or her own work, however, is both an artist and a craftsman. In the process of designing an original piece, the artist is using creative skills and imagination to achieve some sort of reaction to their work. This intent to elicit a response to the furniture is the very foundation of a “style”. The intent of the William and Mary style was to break away from the massive, imposing features of the earlier Renaissance period. The embellishment and ornamentation of the Adams, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton styles present an unrestrained opulence representative of the highest class of European and North American citizenry. Even the Shakers had a style that speaks to us with simple lines and modest reserve. When my woodworker friend designs a pattern for a cutting board, he is developing a style which will say something about himselfand the person who owns his work. It is this distinction that qualifies him, partly, as an artist.

In the end, art is in the eye of the beholder anyway. It’s completely subjective and if a person tells you that your woodwork is “art”, take it as a compliment to your creative imagination.

Antique English Oak Chair Repair

Chair before restoration
One of my recent repairs was that of an old “Jacobean style” chair (I’m using quotations here because it’s notactually a chair from the Jacobean period, but an old copy). When I first saw the chair in the drafting room of the historic home it occupies, it was upright and complete, although it did lean a little. Upon closer examination, it was completely unsound and all of the joints except for one on the stretchers were loose or broken. The only thing holding them together was the seat webbing!
Loose stretchers
Broken stretcher rail
Broken leg joint
In order to disassemble the chair, the upholstery around the seat had to be removed as did the webbing. This proved to be a tedious and time-consuming task since there were hundreds and hundreds of large staples that had to be gently removed so that the upholstery fabric could be reused. For this job I used a tool called a tack-lifter. In the picture below you can see the layers of cushioning and webbing used for the seat support.
Carefully removing upholstery and filler

Once the upholstery and webbing were removed, the chair could be dismantled and the joints could be repaired. Though the chair was styled as Jacobean (1603-1690) the dowel joinery certainly places it somewhere after the introduction of woodworking machines (1830-present). There are other clues in this chair that point to its creation somewhere in the first years of the 20th century.

All of the dowels and dowel holes were worn beyond re-use and had to be re-cut and re-bored to ensure a tight fit. All the joints were re-glued with hot hide glue as they had been originally.
Since the jute seat webbing had to be removed from the chair frame, new webbing had to be stretched over using a tool called a webbing stretcher. Unlike the previous upholstery, I used traditional tacks to fasten the webbing in the French style of covering the whole frame with webbing in a herringbone weave pattern. In the pictures below, you can see that there are no spaces between the webbing and the tacks are arranged in the traditional “W” or “M” pattern.
Jute Webbing applied in the “French” style.
After the webbing was in place, the seat cushioning was placed on top, then the decorative fabric was pulled over and worked until the surface was smooth and uniform. Finally, the decorative double piping was hand stitched around the perimeter to finish off the edge of the frame. The final touch ups included matching some discoloration with stain and gluing a loose finial on the chair back. You can see a video of this restoration onYouTube.
Repaired English Oak Chair

A simple farmer’s finish that’s fit for fine furniture

I sure do miss the country. I grew up as a city boy on the mean streets of a concrete jungle, but after spending my college years in Vermont and a few months living with my wife in rural Virginia, I’ll admit the sweet song of the country got me. Everywhere I looked was lush forest and rolling hills, fields of farmland and grazing cows. The air is sweet and the accents are sweeter. Yet, the country wouldn’t be “the country” without the ubiquitous old red barn that still wears its ancient red coat of milk paint. Milk paint goes back all the way to the Egyptians (along with inlay, veneer, and gold-leaf, to name a few), but my interest in it lies with our American history. Paint in its basic form is a wood preservative to protect it from the elements and add durability. If it makes it look nice, then so much the better. It was popularly used by farmers because it could be made with inexpensive materials, most of which could be acquired directly on the farm, and it is darn durable!

There are three main ingredients to milk paint:

  • Skim milk
  • Slaked lime (hydrated lime, builder’s lime – but NOT quicklime)
  • Powdered pigment for color (usually red iron oxide and earth pigments)
  • and linseed oil for exterior applications
Within the last 30 years or so, there has been a resurgence of interest in milk paint, especially with the “shabby chic” crowd for refinishing old furniture. It is also non-toxic and environmentally safe.
There are probably as many ways to make traditional milk paint as there are old red barns, but I found one recipe that I think is the easiest to make and use.
Here’s what I did using three of the ingredients above:
  1. Pour half a quart Skim milk into a jar with room to add ingredients.
  2. Put in 2 tablespoons of Hydrated lime and stir well.
  3. Put in at least 3 tablespoons of powdered pigment (I found that blue and red chalkline chalk works excellent) You may need to increase the amount depending on how dark you want the color to be.
  4. Apply the milk paint with a natural bristle brush
  5. After 48 hours, seal the milk paint with Danish oil or Tung oil. Otherwise, the milk paint will be susceptible to water and dirt. Wait 12 hours between coats. Up to 3 coats is best.
Milk paint ingredients and painted chest
Milk paint ingredients and painted tool chest
If you want to see how I made my milk paint, please watch my YouTube video featuring guest artist Stacy Frost.
If you have questions or would like to share your own experiences with milk paint, please let me know!