Joshua Klein was born in Appleton, Wisconsin.
“I was always the art kid,” he says.
He wasn’t much into sports and instead spent his spare time painting, drawing and playing music. He was content with Bs, spending less time on achieving perfect test scores and more time on creating things of beauty. In high school he attended a charter school with a focus on art. Half of his day was spent taking art classes along with dance, music and theater.
“That really was pretty formative for me,” he says. “It legitimized my interests.”
Although his parents were supportive, Joshua said many of his peers were more interested in sports – that is, until he was surrounded by likeminded peers at the charter school. That experience set up his life trajectory in a way, which has been, essentially, exploring different forms of art.
Joshua grew up in a typical Midwestern suburb and had a conventional upbringing.
“I don’t say that disparagingly,” he says. “It was a blessing to us.”
Joshua’s father worked for Pierce Manufacturing, building fire trucks. He started out in the engineering department and later moved to sales. His mother stayed home to care for Joshua and his two younger brothers. She did some babysitting as well.
Joshua’s father was skilled at drawing, handy around the house and built the family some furniture in his basement shop, but has never considered himself a furnituremaker. Joshua remembers his father drawing for his engineering job in the early years, and says that influenced his own interest in visual arts.
But kids are kids, and following footsteps or building skills for work as an adult seems unnecessary when adulthood feels like a lifetime away. “I was basically just a snot-nosed kid who didn’t really have any interest in what my dad was building in the basement,” Joshua says.
Throughout high school Joshua played guitar in several bands.
“We were terrible, of course, but that was pretty fun,” Joshua says. “I was pretty faithful to that. We had multiple practices a week and we’d play shows and we had merchandise and we’d do recordings, all that stuff. That was pretty fun to do. I was pretty dedicated to the electric guitar all throughout high school.”
The genre? “We actually played really loud, distorted, hardcore screaming music. So lots of very aggressive-sounding music – there was thrashing – it was pretty wild, pretty loud stuff.”
At 17, still in high school, Joshua did a 180. “Basically I was very, very hardened and very bitter toward Christianity,” he says. “It just seemed like a bunch of hypocrisy to me, and I didn’t have any time for it. I was actually quite vocal and aggressive in high school toward Christians.”
But Joshua had a few Christian friends and he realized they didn’t fit the mold of who he thought Christians were. In fact, he was impressed by them. And through conversations with them, talking about the relevance of the Bible in this century, he reconsidered.
“It pretty dramatically changed my life,” he says. He stepped away from his “dark, dark, dark music stuff,” he says. “It basically reoriented my whole framework of life.”
So much so that after high school, Joshua attended Calvary Chapel Bible College.
“I wanted to have a firm spiritual foundation for my decision making, and if I got married someday I wanted to have that firm foundation,” he says. “So I felt like that was the first thing I needed to do, get established spiritually, and then pursue career things.”
The best way Joshua can describe Calvary Chapel Bible College is as a Christian ashram. “It wasn’t a seminary, per se – I wasn’t getting rigorous academic theology study although there was definitely a lot of study of the Bible but it was sort of a personal growth kind of time.”
Joshua studied there for a year. It was a two-year program, and he was taking it (and paying for it) one semester at a time. There, he also met his wife. They fell madly in love, he says, and made plans. But after two semesters of college, Joshua was out of money.
“I needed to make money to go forward with anything in my life,” he says. So he worked for a year in the metal fabrication department of Pierce Manufacturing, where his dad worked, to save up. Then, he and Julia got married.
“During that year I was pursuing a lot of different options,” he says. “I wanted to work with my hands and at the time I really loved music, and was very dedicated to it. So, I thought, you know what would be really cool is if I could learn how to make guitars or repair guitars. That would be the coolest job ever.”
On their honeymoon Joshua and Julia went from Maine, where they got married, and drove up through Canada to Minnesota. They found a place to live and Joshua enrolled in a guitar program at a technical institute in Red Wing, Minnesota, where he learned how to make and repair guitars.
“I basically think of that as my introduction to woodworking,” he says. “I learned how to do woodworking building guitars, highly precise, highly micro-scale kind of woodworking. And which is probably a good thing, because I was focused on a thousandth of an inch of adjustment. So that was good, but it didn’t quite suit me, it wasn’t quite the thing I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
While at the tech school Joshua took a tour of the National Institute of Wood Finishing, located on the campus of Dakota County Technical College in Rosemont, Minnesota. Much of the focus was on furniture restoration and, as someone who thought something from the 1950s was ancient, the work this school was doing on antiques – on pieces built before the advent of power tools – blew Joshua’s mind. He was hooked.
So after one year in the guitar program, Joshua switched and studied furniture restoration for a year at the National Institute of Wood Finishing.
By this time Joshua and Julia had decided that they wanted to settle in Maine, which is where Julia grew up. While dating, Joshua had met Julia’s family in Maine, who lived on the Blue Hill peninsula, right below Bar Harbor on the coast.
“It’s vacation land,” Joshua says. “Totally gorgeous. … This place has such an art culture. It’s very rural and tucked away but so many really interesting people either summer out here or they retire out here.”
The area is also considered a hot spot for the back-to-the-land movement.
“Scott and Helen Nearing, and Eliot Coleman and a lot of other people, real foundational people, this is their neighborhood,” Joshua says.
This community’s strong local farming and homesteading culture appealed to Joshua. There are also a lot of antiques in Maine, and so Joshua’s change in study made a lot of sense for a lot of reasons, he says. He had a viable career option in sight.
But before moving to Maine, Joshua landed what he thought might be his dream job in Nashville, Tennessee – he was hired in the finishing department of a small custom guitar shop. It was a short stint.
“Basically, we tried it,” he says. “It wasn’t a great fit. It was interesting, but it wasn’t for me.”
By this time Julia was pregnant with their first son. “Let’s just go home,” Joshua says. So in 2009 Joshua secured a job in a cabinetmaking shop and three days prior to their move, as he was loaded up their U-Haul, he got a call. The shop had a huge job that fell through and they lost six months of work. They couldn’t hire him.
Upon their arrival in Maine, Joshua was hired by his father-in-law, a carpenter, just so he could pay some bills. Although stressful at times, the experience of trying to put pieces together and simply figure it out ended up being great, he says.
“When you’re self-employed you have freedom,” he says.
So in addition to working alongside his father-in-law, Joshua says he also was able to start building some furniture and restoring antiques. And then, after working for his father-in-law for a year and a half, Joshua hung out his shingle and opened up his own shop.
“Instantly I was booked up,” he says.
He told his father-in-law he was going to take some time off, just to further establish his own business and work through his initial job orders. “But I never worked for him again,” Joshua says.
The ease of getting customers surprised Joshua. “It caught me off guard,” he says. “Basically, I showed up at the right time that there was a gap. There was no one around that was doing this type of work for at least a decade. So, there was this backlog of work that needed to be done.”
Also, because the Blue Hill peninsula was an established vacation destination at the time, many of the summer homes which were being bought up were filled with antiques that needed work. Word of mouth spread quickly in the small, rural area. Still, Joshua placed a small black-and-white ad in the local newspaper, just to feel legitimate, he says. And it did make him feel more legitimate, even when clients were approaching him on referral.
Laying Down Roots
Joshua and Julia were renting a small house when Joshua, with a stack of woodworking books and a desire to be part of the back-to-land movement, built his first piece of furniture. His workshop was a tiny garden shed out back, which also held things like their lawnmower. He made a small, painted, two-board top pine table with tapered legs.
At the guitar-making school, Joshua had been taught how to do highly precise and mechanized work. He had learned how to sharpen hand tools for very precise tasks. Because the entire school’s curriculum centered on guitars, the process of how to get boards out of rough stock and turn them into a finished piece of furniture had not been discussed. Rather the school’s teachers focused on complex router jigs and technical mechanical operations.
“It didn’t really fulfill me, for what I was after,” Joshua says.
Joshua loved seeing tool marks on furniture and every time he did, it reiterated his desire for a different type of work.
Once he began taking his own clients in Maine, most of whom contacted him for restoration work, Joshua filled his free time with learning how to build furniture and tools using pre-industrial methods. He owned a few power tools – a table saw, drill press, router and band saw. He knew how to sharpen hand tools, and the basics of using them. But what he really wanted to do was work with a rough board all the way through a completed project using hand tools only.
Eventually he rented a shop from Julia’s grandmother, a small carriage shed, 14’ x 17’, located next to a stream. In it he kept a workbench, a tool chest and the object he was working on. There was a large picture window with old wavy glass with a view of a massive multi-family garden. “It was quite an inspiring setting,” Joshua says.
Joshua and Julia bought the property they live on today, 11 acres on a dead-end road, seven years ago. They bought the house and land from old friends who were doing homesteading and had been working on the house for 10 years. “Basically, we bought into their progress,” Joshua says. “We jumped in where they left off.”
But Joshua and Julia’s vision when buying the land was to eventually build their own house. “We wanted a handmade house,” Joshua says. “We ultimately decided, because of our love for history, that we wanted to restore an old house.”
So about three years ago they bought an 1810 Cape Cod a half hour away. The house had fallen into disrepair and was going to be bulldozed. “It had a gorgeous mantel, all the original moulding, there was no plumbing in the house, very minimal electricity – it was basically untouched,” Joshua says. “It was such a beautiful thing it would be a tragedy to see it go. So it was perfect for us.”
They spent an entire summer documenting and dismantling and labeling every board, every joint, everything. They took the entire house apart and put it in storage, and are now making plans to perform a massive restoration on it, on their current property, in the next few years.
The land Joshua lives on has a small pond with a stream at the back of the property, and it’s mostly wooded with a few small fields – basically, it has a little bit of everything.
“The major selling point for us was that the way the property is situated there is a perfect area for a workshop right at the road that is separate from the house,” Joshua says.
This allows Joshua to work from home, while still keeping home and work separate. Because Joshua and Julia are active in homeschool and homesteading, Joshua says their yard and driveway are filled with kids (they have three sons) and chickens, and is simply not suitable for customer traffic. But with this separation he can still hear his son practice his trumpet and yet, when customers visit his shop, Joshua and Julia’s house is out of view.
Joshua’s shop is an old 24’ x 26’ 1-1/2 story house frame that was built around 1790 in Vermont. He found a company that dismantled old homes and restored them – they had done that to this one and, after seeing it on their website, Joshua thought it would be perfect for his shop. So he bought it and the company brought it to his property, where there was a raising that lasted an entire week. The company put the boards on the rafters, shook hands and then left. Joshua and Mike Updegraff – Joshua’s co-worker an editorial assistant at Mortise & Tenon magazine have been working on it ever since.
The Birth of Mortise & Tenon Magazine
Joshua founded Mortise & Tenon magazine in 2015. The inspiration came from spending every day in his conservation studio taking apart antiques to repair them and putting them back together again. Joshua found himself filing all this information he learned about the process away, simply because it differed so drastically from his work at the guitar-making school.
“It broke all of the conventional dogma that ‘good work looks like this’ or ‘don’t ever do that’ – all those rules that existed for the last 200 years,” he says. “And so I got really interested.”
At the same time Joshua was learning how to use hand tools.
“And I heard a lot of people telling me that hand tools are slow, and that it’s a romantic way to do it but it’s really not practical,” he says. “But then when I looked at the furniture it actually looked like it was done very fast. The tool marks were actually quite interesting looking.”
In addition, Joshua was reading journals of journeymen who detailed what they charged for the time they spent working and the time they took on various tasks was so fast. Something didn’t add up. Modern woodworkers were insisting hand tools were slow, but records from the past proved otherwise. Why?
M&T grew out of an old blog that Joshua was writing exploring this question. “It was a personal blog, about my life and gardening, but it also had a lot of shop stuff,” he says.
But Joshua was growing tired of his blog. He wanted something that would be around for a while, something crisp. He considered making a print version of his blog but then he wanted contributors to share what they were learning. What would that be? he thought. He realized, laughing, that what he was dreaming up already existed – it’s a magazine.
So then he shared his idea with a bunch of people. “They all said I was insane,” Joshua says, “and that I shouldn’t do it because ‘print is dead’ and ‘there is no market for that kind of thing.’”
Chris Schwarz was one of the people Joshua consulted with “and he probably wouldn’t say he told me I shouldn’t do it but he did warn me,” Joshua says. “And so everybody else is saying, ‘Yeah – that would be cool if it would work but I don’t think the market is going to support that.’”
Joshua took all this information and advice and ignored it. He got printing quotes for 100 copies. “I wanted to figure out the smallest print run I could possible do, and how much it would cost,” he says.
Why move forward despite the well-intentioned advice not to? “I just really believed in it,” he says. But he wasn’t willing to take a financial risk for his family. He has no trust fund, no investors. “I was just this dumb poor kid that wanted to start this thing,” he says. “So how was I going to do that? How was I going to make this thing sustainable right out of the gate?”
Print proved impossibly expensive but then Joshua realized that if he is going to sell a magazine dedicated to hand tools, he was probably going to have to connect with people outside of Blue Hill.
“So I got one of those newfangled smart phone things and did some social media stuff, trying to connect with people,” he says. “I remember getting on the Internet and searching, ‘How to use Instagram.’”
He learned and through Instagram and Facebook he really began connecting with people. Eventually he shared his vision for the magazine and took pre-orders six months in advance for Issue No. 1. This direct sales to customers helped him gauge the print run. “That’s how I felt confident that it wouldn’t sink my family and I thought, ‘Well, I got to try it.’”
Joshua describes it as the magazine he’s always wanted to read. There’s no advertising in it. It reads like a journal. It’s hefty. There’s beautiful photography and solid research – both in and out of the shop.
The first print run, gauged on the initial pre-orders, was 5,000. Joshua assumed this would give him enough copies to also sell back issues over the next few years. And while the size of the print run compared to pre-orders didn’t provide him a massive profit, it did allow him to pay the bill.
But there were no back issues to sell. To fulfill the orders Joshua and friends wrapped each issue, along with a wood shaving, in brown paper sealed with wax. As they fulfilled orders, images of the magazine began appearing on Instagram. Interest grew quickly and he sold out before they finished shipping.
Today Joshua’s print runs are 10,000 and the magazine is published two times a year. Fulfillment still works the same way (brown paper, wax etc.). To get it done Joshua throws a big party for about 30 friends and family. Over a Friday and Saturday they help him with fulfillment, and he and Julia feeds them. On Monday morning Joshua fills a U-Haul with all the magazines and drives them to his local post office.
“The heart of it for us is, and so much of the goal of Mortise & Tenon is celebrating the joy in manual labor,” Joshua says. “So for us, this is just like that. We’re all standing side by side, shoulder to shoulder, wrapping magazines. It’s relatively mindless work so we’re just talking, having amazing conversations for two days straight and gorging ourselves on great food and we’re just having such a blast.”
Inevitably, fulfillment will someday have to change. Joshua says he knows that and already there are ways he could it do it more easily and more cheaply, but right now, he says, it’s just too fun.
Hands Employed Aright
Joshua spent five years working on “Hands Employed Aright: The Furniture Making of Jonathan Fisher (1768-1847).”
“I was not trained as a historian,” he says. “I went to a trade school. It was very hard for me, very hard to do this kind of work. Because every single sentence in that book could be wrong. I think it’s a lot easier in books that say, ‘This is how I do it in my shop,’ because I’m right. But with that book every sentence could be wrong or not have the right nuance to be accurate. So it was really honestly grueling, it was really hard work, but I was obsessed for five years. My wife is so pleased this book is done because I was just immersed in it.”
Joshua was so focused on the book that by the time it published, he needed time away from it. So he poured himself into M&T. Only now is he willing to look at his book again, an act he finds interesting as he now has a different perspective on it.
“I don’t have regrets with the book at all,” he says. He’s also beginning to realize how deeply his research for this book shaped his thinking about woodworking. “It completely transformed my whole thought process, the questions I’m asking about historic work, my aspirations with what I want to do with woodworking in my life, and it totally changed my trajectory, forever I think.”
As a merger of historic research and hands-on woodwork, M&T has been the perfect outlet for him to explore this new way of working. Joshua and Mike now spend about half their time in the shop and the other half writing and editing articles, and doing graphic design work. The two met in a homeschool co-op. Mike had been woodworking for 10 years and was looking for a change. At that time Issue No. 1 of M&T had taken off, and was completely consuming Joshua’s life. He was working 90 hours a week on M&T but also had a backlog of furniture projects he needed to finish. So Joshua asked Mike for help in the shop, repairing furniture. Mike started part-time, pretty quickly moving to full-time. And pretty soon after that, Joshua said he needed help on the magazine full-time.
“He’s super skilled, super talented and so basically he was able to jump right into Mortise & Tenon,” Joshua says. Now the workload is split 50-50 between the two of them – they do everything together.
The two also have additional freelance help, including Jim McConnell (content editor), Megan Fitzpatrick (content and copy editor) and Grace Cox (customer service, shipping and administration).
These days Joshua is also dabbling in instructional videos and some other book ideas, but M&T is his primary, long-term project. He no longer does furniture conservation – the last project he worked on was more than two years ago. “Not because I dislike it,” Joshua says. “I love it. There are just so many hours in a day, in a week, and I want to be available to my family some. So I cut it off.”
Building is still deeply important to Joshua. He’s structured his business so that half of his year is spent building things. Of course, the last two years have been spent building the shop itself – doing trim, window glazing etc. Joshua calculates they have about six more months of work on the shop, and then he’ll have more time to explore, research and build.
“Furniture projects primarily for me are the exploration of the process, not about getting more furniture,” he says. “I have a bunch of antiques and I have a bunch of stuff I made and I don’t have room for any more furniture.”
These days he makes furniture and simply passes it off to other people. He’ll occasionally take commissions but usually only exact replicas so that he can also take the time to research it, learn about it and report on it. “My primary goal is research,” he says. “I love learning about things and then teaching about it.”
Joshua describes himself as a very independent person. “I’m homeschool, homestead, home business,” he says. “I guess I’m just wired that way.”
At school, he struggled with assignments not chosen by him that had to be done a certain way and had to be turned in at a certain time. But if it’s a project of his choosing he pursues it passionately, becoming obsessed (his word) and unable to stop researching it.
It’s similar to the relationship he’s had with theology. For many years, after school, he got very deep into theological research (particularly in the Reformed tradition) and, to some degree, he still is, he says. But that same deep research now also applies to woodworking.
“I like researching and asking questions and discovering,” he says. “I think doing woodworking research at the bench is, frankly, the better way to do it.”
The years Joshua has spent researching both theology and woodworking intersect on the subject of work – its value and what the Bible says about it – and he has spent a year and a half focused on that.
Joshua’s spiritual life and interests, and professional life and interests, are all connected right now.
“Working with your hands and how that relates to the head, heart and hand thing – it’s all intertwined,” he says. “And that’s what I learned from Fisher, you can’t really compartmentalize it. That’s part of what I learned from Fisher is to try and say so-and-so was just a woodworker or to try to define their identity in just one aspect just oversimplifies it.”
Joshua gets up at 5 a.m. and does an hour to an hour-and-a-half of research, reading and studying. He then spends the first two hours of his day doing farm work. He and Julia have goats that they milk, chickens that they raise for meat and for laying eggs, and they’re expanding their vegetable garden. He arrives at his shop at 9 a.m., joining Mike who is typically already there. Then it simply depends on what’s needed to be done. Maybe it’s editing manuscripts or shooting the next cover for the magazine or building something.
“I think it would be fair to describe the work as always different,” he says. “Mike and I work as a team with whatever is going on so there might be a situation where we’re working in the shop and we hear my son’s trumpet through the woods and then all of a sudden the goats start screaming through the woods and one of them jumps the fence and gets electrified and they all run down into the woods and you have to go catch them and bring them back in. It’s honestly like a circus around here. A typical work day has nothing typical.”
Mike heads home around 4 p.m. and from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Joshua typically works through email and begins thinking about the next day’s tasks. He leaves the shop around 5:30 p.m. and is then home with the kids. He doesn’t work on Saturdays and Sundays.
Evenings are family centered. Joshua hangs out with the boys while Julia makes dinner, and because his children are young, he often fixes something in the house that had been broken during the day. He reads before bed.
The youngest of Joshua’s three sons is 2 but still, the boys have a workbench in the house, with rasps, spokeshaves and handplanes. Joshua says he regularly finds little piles of shavings around the bench.
“I moved out to rural Maine because I wanted to be with my family,” Joshua says. “We started the whole thing by asking ourselves, What kind of life do we want to have? What do we want to do day in and day out? How do we want to raise our kids? What will life be like when the kids move out? And this is the kind of life we want – connected to nature, connected to farming, connected to handwork. And so we have the business stuff, Julia has her piano stuff [she teaches], I have Mortise & Tenon, so there’s a lot going on. But we always come back to: What kind of life do you want to live? Do we always want to be out in life chasing things? Do we want to push M&T and try to get it to grow, grow, grow? But it’s about satisfaction and family and raising our kids.”
And in 10 years?
“I just want to milk my goats,” he says.
Joshua and Mike have been asking some hard questions lately. Mortise & Tenon is going all the time. Take the packing parties, for example. With growth, they simply aren’t sustainable. And Joshua finds that distressing.
“I don’t have visions of conquering the woodworking world,” he says. “I just want to make my own magazine and have my garden. I’m not resisting success but I don’t do any advertising, I’m not a salesman, I don’t try to push it. It’s just the natural growth of it. I just want a quiet life in rural Maine. That’s my goal.”
Joshua talks about Patagonia, and how they only grow 1 percent a year. He talks about strong growth rather than fast growth and how he wants M&T to still be around in 75 years.
“It really changes the way you think about your work,” he says.
At the time of our interview Joshua was re-reading “A Handmade Life: In Search of Simplicity” by William Coperthwaite as part of his more-recent deep immersion into the intersection of modern technology and society. In the book Coperthwaite doesn’t preach anti-technology but rather focuses on humane technology, technology that’s good for us.
And that’s what Joshua has been diving into – the relationship of working with one’s hands, modernization, machines and smart phones. While he says he’s been sharing some of that in his publishing, he sees this as becoming a strong message or theme in M&T.
Joshua, though, is human. Self-sufficiency is a myth, he says. With farming, they do it because they love it and they simply grow enough to keep them happy. With three young children, teaching them to be helpful on the land takes time and, honestly, distracts from productivity. So Joshua isn’t uptight or rigorous about living off the land. Rather, the family simply does what it can, focusing on what brings them joy. They hope to take their hobby and let it grow, knowing that they’ll have more help from their children in the future.
In the meantime, Joshua and Mike continue to work on Mortise & Tenon magazine being mindful of their purpose statement, which speaks not only to the publication, but both their lives: Mortise & Tenon exists to cultivate reverence for the dignity of humanity and the natural world through the celebration of handcraft. You can read a detailed blog post about this here.
After talking about beauty for a bit, Joshua talks about Proverbs 27, which Fisher mentioned a lot in his journals: “You do not know what a day will bring.” In addition to this bit of inspiration, Joshua lives by his purpose statement, trying each day to “cultivate reverence for the dignity of humanity and the natural world” through handcraft, his farm, the soil, being at home with his family, loving his kids, attending church, worshiping, singing and reading the Bible. … I’m just on a journey, trying to keep my head on straight, doing what I love and trying to make sense of it along the way.”
— Kara Gebhart Uhl