A couple weeks ago, Mike Updegraff and I had a Mortise & Tenon booth at the Fine Woodworking Live event. During that weekend, attendees asked how long my Jonathan Fisher book project had been under way. Someone said they hadn’t heard much about it and so, when I recently started talking about it, it seemed out of the blue. I used to write about it on my old blog, The Workbench Diary, but because I’ve been buried in work the past couple years, I didn’t have time to blog much about the research.
So here’s a quick history of this project: I began the research in 2013 with a trip to a local house museum (Fisher’s house). The president of the board gave me a tour that highlighted the furniture as it was my main interest. He told me Fisher’s most recent biographer commented that it astonished him no furniture scholar had taken notice of the collection. That confirmed my sense that this was an important and rare story.
Over that winter, I photocopied the transcription of Fisher’s 40 years of journal entries and read every book that gave Fisher a passing mention. I studied the furniture thoroughly but hadn’t been able to see the rest of the tools at the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, Maine. I had no idea what was there or even if there was anything significant. After months of research in the house, the board president made some passing comment about how one of Fisher’s descendants was a tool maker in Maine. My ears perked up. “A tool maker? Where in Maine?” “Oh I don’t know. Warren, I think. He’s got a lot of people working for him now, and I understand he’s doing pretty well. Nielsen or something… Lie-Nielsen, I think.”
Go figure. Thomas Lie-Nielsen is a descendant of Jonathan Fisher.
That first email to Tom was surreal. Tom replied he hadn’t been to the house in years and didn’t know much about Fisher’s furniture or tool making. He was intrigued by the findings, though. At the same time, the Lie-Nielsen Open House was coming up and Chris Schwarz and I had discussed visiting the Hulls Cove Tool Barn together. With these plans converging at the same time, we booked a visit to the Farnsworth to see the tools for the first time. I met Tom and his daughter, Kirsten, Chris, Deneb Puchalski, and Julia Kalthoff (from Wetterlings Axes) that morning.
We met for the first time in the waiting area, and as we walked down the hallway to the room where the tools were set out, I had a knot in my stomach. Was I wasting everyone’s time? What if there was only a broken saw or farming tools? I had no idea what to expect.
We walked into the room to see two large conference tables covered in woodworking tools – most of them stamped with Fisher’s name. I was stunned. We walked around the table trying to soak it all in. Most of the museum tags said “Wooden Object” with an accession number. Until the woodworking nerds showed up, no one there knew exactly what they were looking at. We spent about an hour making observations and speculating about anomalies but the whole thing was a surreal blur to me.
The next day, the same crew drove to Blue Hill to meet me at the Fisher house. I gave them the tour and showed them the furniture. After the tour, most of them had to get back to Warren to get ready for the Open House, but Chris and I spent that afternoon together. On our way to the Tool Barn we talked about many things but especially this research. I told him I was hoping to put this into a book someday and asked some advice about the publishing industry. He began to explain the industry but then just came out with, “John and I would like to publish it.” What do you say to something like that? I probably fumbled and said something stupid but I knew at that moment that the project was real. Over the next few days, Chris blogged a few times about his visit and we signed a contract. “How long do you need?” he asked. I told him I needed three full winters.
Thus began the serious research. Because I had wanted to do some research trips, I received two grants to make them happen. The Early American Industries Association and the Society of American Period Furniture Makers each generously awarded me funds for those trips. I went to the Winterthur Museum and spent a week with Charles Hummel (author of “With Hammer in Hand”), a couple days at Old Sturbridge Village, and had several trips back to the Farnsworth to examine the tools. I also had some research done at the Dedham Historical Society.
Then, as I worked on the manuscript during the next couple years, the blogging fell quiet about the topic. There was enough to blog about with M&T, but I was still working on the Fisher book in the background. It wasn’t until this past winter that I was able to block out several months to finish the manuscript. As you may have noticed, during this winter, the research began to resurface.
I am now in the last few hours of working out the changes in my manuscript. I feel relief coming on. This will end up being a four-year project for me. Don Williams told me in the beginning that it would take me somewhere around five years to complete. At the time, I couldn’t fathom it could take that long. But time flies.
— Joshua Klein, Mortise & Tenon Magazine