Faithful Reproductions for the Faithful

This summer I’m building a few reproductions of pieces from the White Water Shaker Village that I will donate to the village’s caretakers. I want these reproductions to be as faithful as possible, but I’m wondering just how far I can go on faith.

Take, for example, this 13′-long bench. It’s all in walnut and nailed together with cut nails. The curves in the base are clearly cut with some sort of turning saw with a little rasp work behind. The notches for the aprons were sawn out.

So far, so good.

I think the top piece was milled on some sort of reciprocating saw. The marks on the underside are too regular to be pitsaw marks. They’re not planer marks (like I’ve ever seen). And they are certainly not circular saw marks.

Is somehow reproducing these marks on the underside important? Or should I treat it like I would treat any non-show surface – fore plane it and call it done?

In other words, I want to use fairly authentic methods. I’m just not sure how far I should (or even can) take this.

We’ll be publishing plans for four of these White Water pieces in Popular Woodworking and Woodworking Magazine in the coming year. This bench is the simplest project. The other three projects should get your heart thumping pretty hard.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Chris Schwarz

Publisher of woodworking books and DVDs specializing in hand tool techniques.
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15 Responses to Faithful Reproductions for the Faithful

  1. David Barbee says:

    I did a build of some shaker benches a while back. I wasn’t trying to reproduce the authenticity though. It was a great project and remarkably strong. As far as the underside of the bench, I think fore plane and forget it would be appropriate.

    What about finish? I think it would neat to see you guys try and authentically reproduce their recipes for finish. I have a book somewhere that shows the recipes for varnish and their paints. I didn’t even recognize some of the ingredients. I’m sure someone family with 19th century chemicals could enlighten you.

    David Barbee

  2. Matt Boutte says:

    I assume you didn’t fell the tree that produced the lumber…so you’ve already deviated a bit from "authentic methods". I think the goal should be to strive to be as authentic as possible, but no more.

    Matt

  3. Christopher Schwarz says:

    Matt,

    Felling the tree and drying it are always an option. I’ve done it a few times — a side benefit/effect of growing up in the Ozarks.

    It is, however, unlikely that one person did all these things to create this bench. So I only want to produce something good and true.

    Chris

  4. The Shakers were practical people (except on the subject of making babies). They probably would have used modern power tools if they had been available at the time as long as they didn’t compromise on quality of the finished product. To be "authentic," you need to reproduce the form and function of the piece, not the process.

    And most important, to be authentic, you should practice the woodwork as a form of prayer. Because to the Shakers, working with wood was exactly that.

    If you’re interested, I wrote about this subject here: http://clearheartblog.blogspot.com/2009/03/religion-in-wood-shakers-continued_10.html

  5. David Cockey says:

    Consider making the benches such that a reasonably knowledgable person in the future could determine they were not Shaker made. I assume you wouldn’t want the pieces you make confused with originals in ten or twenty years. Different treatment of non-show surfaces than the originals can help with this.

    Sounds like the boards were cut with a power reciprocating frame saw. These were common before large circular saws became common. The saw marks look somewhat like bandsaw marks but distinctive.

  6. J. Watriss says:

    Ditto what Joe said. Technological regression for the sake of being true to the folks who brought us the circular saw seems an odd sentiment.

    But I bet if you were really stubborn about it, You could con Roy Underhill into helping you combine a flywheel (for your regularity) with a ceiling mounted pole (like one used for a lathe) to add tension, and suspend a frame saw between your ceiling and the wheel.

    It might be the most godawful experience you ever have, but it would make for a hell of an article.

  7. I guess it just depends on whether or not you are trying to reproduce the exact look and feel of the original. If you wouldn’t think of using anything but hide glue and cut nails to be "faithful", it seems to me you should be figuring out how to reproduce those marks even if you don’t use the same method they used.

    If you decide to make a water or steam powered reciprocating mill, I, for one, would love to see the sketchup plans. If you make a saw like J. Watriss suggests, I might even try to follow your plan (you will be publishing one, I assume!) and make my own.

    Best wishes.

  8. David says:

    The comment about "if the Shakers had access to power tools, they would’ve used them" is absolutely correct. And absolutely beside the point. In an historical recreation, you’re not recreating the attitude of the original inhabitants – you’re reproducing the atmosphere in which they lived for modern visitors.

    And doing that without reproducing the methods and to some extent, the work environment is impossible. Otherwise, a framework bench with a top made of plywood would be far more stable in the long run – and far more inappropriate.

    There are some historical places that still use period tools to produce goods for the sake of demonstrating the methods. I rather suspect there’s some water-powered mills around that could provide you with frame-sawn lumber. They weren’t producing lumber, but Norm Abrams visited a water-powered, overhead line shaft driven factory making turned oval picture frames that was still in operation, though the method had been outmoded nearly 100 years ago.

  9. Chris F says:

    Personally I think trying to reproduce tooling marks that exactly may be unnecessary. I’d probably either bandsaw it (to get similar marks) or else fore plane it and call it done.

  10. Mike Siemsen says:

    The original maker left the sawmill marks on the bottom. You could do the same and not be so concerned about the type of mill. Just remember to put on you right sock first and your right pant leg and your right shoe and your right shirt sleeve while thinking about god.
    Mike

  11. Chuck Nickerson says:

    I’ve spent some time thinking about this, and I know what I’ll do in the same situation (which I soon will be). When you donate the pieces, you should include a 1-page write-up explaining all your choices, whichever way you go. That lets the piece be a teaching tool even in its inauthentic aspects. Also, if someone in the future knows how the marks were made, they’ll know to include a note with the file, and possibly get in touch with you to explain. If the sheet’s not there, they may just think you were lazy and not know they have knowledge to share.

    Chuck

  12. Tom Dugan says:

    I really don’t know whether leaving the underside unplaned was standard Shaker procedure, but I doubt it. It seems to go against their attitudes toward work as I remember them.

    If you want to use authentic methods, then I would at least foreplane the underside as was done with much if not most pieces from the period, even if they are not Shaker. And if in doubt, a quick call to Hancock or Chatham may be in order to find out what the SOP was in those villages.

    The only thing I’d caution about is making it such that it may not be distinguishable from the original piece a couple of decades from now.

    -T

  13. Bob M. says:

    Wait a minute, I thought you were the "blended" method woodworker. If you want authentic period recreation, isn’t that Adam Cherubini’s turf?
    :)

  14. Paul says:

    Hi – I didn’t know where else to post this, so I am doing it here.

    I just finished a traditional saw bench that I learned about from your site! I used Horse Logged Maple from my home town. I didn’t use an screws (or metal) and relied on dowels (and glue). Anyways – I thought I would share –

    You can see a photo of it on my blog – and if you click on the photo it will take you to some more detailed shots.

    All the best!
    Paul
    thewoodwright.blogspot.com

  15. BRANDON ULLAND says:

    What a cool dilemma!

    I remember as an apprentice at the A. Hay shop I had the opportunity to reproduce an Irish influenced table with shell and flower carving in the knee. I thought the question "How authentic should it be" was a difficult question to handle at the level you are suggesting. I know the journeymen and master of the shop feel the same anxiety. It is difficult to slow down and ask important questions, as you have above and to put yourself in the position of the original maker.

    Excluding our interpretive duties, Mack always tried to get us to imagine just as you have, as a starting point, who the piece might have been built for? If a price was attributed to the work and other works in the same school, perhaps the question: what economy might the cabinetmaker have used in the production of the piece? Did he use many secondary woods? Do those woods match? What does the finish reveal? Are there chisel marks in the surface? Saw marks left? What type of joinery? What type of fasteners? Indicators of unseen surfaces or economy of work, or perhaps both? Perhaps the joinery and finishing of the piece will reveal a level of sophistication indicative of a journeyman, perhaps that of a beginning apprentice?

    Those marks on the underside of the bench? I think you have it pegged! I remember reading an unpublished article by Harrold Gill, formerly a CW Historian, which mentioned steam powered reciprocating band saws used in the Chesapeake during the 18th Century, though his research was somewhat antiquated when I started apprenticing, it is totally a reasonable hypothesis for a 19th century piece.

    I understand table saws were being developed in the later years of the 18th century but didn’t a Sister Shaker patent a type of table saw? How inventive!
    Chris, Always an enjoyable read!

    –Brandon Ulland
    Former Cincinnatian
    Formerly of the Anthony Hay

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