I had a half-hour or so video chat with Derek Jones, the author of the new book “Cricket Tables,” to ask him about the form, what drew it to him in the first place, where the name came from, and where his online handle (lowfatroubo) originated. Grab a cup of coffee or tea and listen in.
Also, the book is now available for purchase in the store, and for 30 days, you’ll get a free pdf when you purchase the hardcover book. (By the way… I screwed up…and didn’t get that pdf up before we launched the book – so if you’ve already purchased the book, you’ll be getting a notification to download that free pdf sometime early next week. Sorry for my boneheadedness.)
Above are prototypes of two new tool-storage items – the Pencil Pocket and Plane Pocket – that we’ll have available in 2024. They are heavyweight canvas, with grommets that allow you to screw them almost anywhere in your tool chest, on your bench legs or back, or on your shop wall. They will be made across the Ohio River in Cincinnati at Sew Valley – the same people who make the Lost Art Press Chore Coat and Moleskin Work Vest. OK – enough with the product teasing. Sorry.
If you have a burning question about chairs or chair-shaped objects, best to ask it today – Chris won’t be here next Saturday; you’ll be stuck with me…so it’ll be all dovetails and cats. But today, we’re both here, awaiting your Open Wire questions.
Type your questions in the comment field below, and we will do our best to answer them. Comments will close at around 5 p.m.
The following is excerpted from Joshua A. Klein’s “Hands Employed Aright: The Furniture Making of Jonathan Fisher (1768-1847).” Fisher was the first settled minister of the frontier town of Blue Hill, Maine. Harvard-educated and handy with an axe, Fisher spent his adult life building furniture for his community. Fortunately for us, Fisher recorded every aspect of his life as a woodworker and minister on the frontier.
In this book, Klein, the founder of Mortise & Tenon Magazine, examines what might be the most complete record of the life of an early 19th-century American craftsman. Using Fisher’s papers, his tools and the surviving furniture, Klein paints a picture of a man of remarkable mechanical genius, seemingly boundless energy and the deepest devotion. It is a portrait that is at times both familiar and completely alien to a modern reader – and one that will likely change your view of furniture making in the early days of the United States.
[Jonathan] Fisher didn’t die an active cabinetmaker. About the time he recorded paying off his debt, his shop activity waned. By March 1820, when he wrote “I am free from debt to earthly creditors,” he hadn’t made a chair or a stand for almost a decade. He had reached the ambition of every frontiersman – in the most literal sense, he had built from the ground up a comfortable life for his family and himself in a thriving coastal community. As Richard Bushman has pointed out, “Beyond the physical side of comfort – warmth, good food, restful chairs, and accessible conveniences – comfort implied a moral condition achieved through retirement from the bustle of high life and retreat into wholesome domesticity.” (1)
With all the labor he expended to get to this place in life, Fisher appreciated being able to reap the rewards. Not every family was so fortunate, though. On one visit to a struggling family whose father had been recently imprisoned, Fisher sympathized with them when he wrote, “Mrs. David Carter had with her 4 little children, three of them sick with whooping cough. Not a chair in the miserable cottage to sit in and her husband recently gone to prison for shooting some of his neighbor’s cattle and she professed to believe him innocent … Oh when will the benign sway of pure Christianity banish in some good measure from this earth this mess of human misery!” For Fisher, the lack of a chair in the Carter home symbolized the family’s economic, social and spiritual poverty.
For Fisher, though, comfort was not simply about retreat from the “bustle of life” Bushman refers to – it had much more to do with contentment. On a visit he made to the exceptionally fine house of a Mr. Codman, “Mr. Fisher was greatly surprised by its beauty and luxury and exclaimed: Brother Codman, can you have all this and heaven too?” (2) Fisher wrote in his journal on one occasion: “So craving is the disposition of man, that his wants in general increase with his riches. And besides this, his anxiety increases for what he possesses, which is a farther source of unhappiness. If riches conduce not to unhappiness, what then is wanting to make me happy? I tread on as good an earth, as the richest, I survey as fair a landscape. And breathe as pure an air, as they; yes, and may contemplate the same glorious heavens; nothing is wanting to make me happy, as happy as man can be in the world, but a good heart, a heart that delights in virtue.” (3)
It’s not that Fisher lost interest in creative work. Instead, he fixed his focus on the production of his book, Scripture Animals (4), a compendium of all the animals mentioned in the Bible, complete with his own woodcuts. This project took dedication and more than 10 years of effort to complete. Not only is the volume a fascinating insight into Fisher’s mind, it is an incredible example of the attention to detail of which the man was capable. The homemade engraving tools, though crude and primitive in appearance, were delightfully manipulated to form the finest details of hair, feathers and eyes on the boxwood blanks.
It was only a couple years after the 1834 publishing that Fisher fell into the period of his life known to all as “the long sickness.” The inside of the small cupboard door (Cat#6, p 142) twice records the event by this name, and in his letters to family, the regularity of which the event was discussed suggests it was something akin to a near-death experience. This sickness was disruptive enough that he decided to retire in 1837 at the age of 69. The church agreed to give Fisher $2 per week for one year after his retirement. After this support ran out, Fisher wrote in a letter dated November 1837, “I am now thrown upon the kind hand of God, and the avails of my own industry. I think it probable that for the present I shall work on the farm and at mechanics, and preach now and then a Sabbath and a lecture in Bluehill and vicinity … As respects temporal concerns, I may remark that I have at present a competency. I owe but little, and I have about $200 due to me ….”
The “avails of his own industry” appear to have been sufficient for satisfying his financial needs – he credited manual labor with the restoration of his physical condition: “I am able to perform nearly all the work on my farm, cheerfully and with little weariness. My labor conduces to my health … The ax, the saw, the plane, the shovel, and the hoe may many times add life and vigor to our composition as well as add years to the number of our days.” He was, by 1838, in “almost perfect health.”
Throughout his furniture-making career, it seems Fisher benefitted from a monopoly in his rural market. Undoubtedly, some Blue Hill residents preferred to order furniture from “the westward” and have it shipped to Blue Hill bay because local options were limited. The only local furniture maker documented to have worked in the first quarter of the 19th century in Blue Hill was Fisher. In R.F. Candage’s Sketches of Blue Hill, he made a mention of the “old Curtis furniture factory” on the stream at the head of the bay. This is, apparently, a reference to Robert T. Osgood (a cabinetmaker) and Ezra Curtis (a wheelwright) who shared a shop there from 1835 to 1842, although no other period resource mentions the “factory.” (5) If Osgood and Curtis were making furniture at the head of the bay, it is probable that Fisher would not have been able to favorably compete with their efficiency in division of labor and waterpower. David Jaffe (6) has shown how the New England “move from craft to industry” began for chairmaking with countless small workshops operating “chair manufactories” on mill streams much like the one in Blue Hill.
Like most artisans, Fisher was driven by complex motivations that must be appreciated if we are to understand the role furniture making played in his life. His devotion to God was the core of all he wrote, did and made. For Fisher, the mere ability to work produced emotional gratitude: “Brisk S. mild and cloudy. Spent most of the day burning brush by the side of new field. While my hands were occupied in needful labor, I was led to exclaim in heart, hands, what a blessing they are when employed aright. The fingers are adapted to such a variety of useful occupations that they give man a great superiority over all other creatures.” This moment of reflection perfectly captures the relationship between Fisher’s manual, spiritual and intellectual activities. His manual labor provided the opportunity to ponder the glories of heaven and marvel at the beauty of the created order. The relationship among the head, heart and hands of Fisher were clearly intertwined and complex.
What was furniture making to Fisher? It was, in one sense, an avenue to indulge the artistic and creative impulse woven through the fiber of his being. In his shop, Fisher was free to design and build functional objects of beauty that still reflect his complex mind to this day. His furniture is distinctive for its perplexing fusion of micro-focus attention to detail and humble pragmatism.
Furniture making was also a way for him to make ends meet. With nine children at home, the demands on his pocketbook were real. His modest salary as a preacher was not enough to ensure everyone was fed and educated while continuing to develop his farm. Making furniture was one of the many services Fisher offered to his community. The surveying, book publishing, sign painting, pipe boring and even hat braiding were all important contributors to the flourishing of the Fisher family. The Puritan work ethic to “work with your own hands” forbid wasting time in idleness, and Fisher seems to have taken this seriously. His hands were ever employed aright.
1. Bushman, Richard L., The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities, Knopf, 1992, p 268. 2. Candage, Rufus George Frederick, Memoir of Jonathan Fisher, of Blue Hill, Maine (1889), Kessinger Publishing, 2009, p 224. 3. Smith, Raoul N. The Life of Jonathan Fisher (1768-1847) Volume 1 (From His Birth Through the Year 1798), self-published, 2006, p 42-43. 4. Fisher, Jonathan, Scripture Animals: A Natural History of the Living Creatures Named in the Bible, Pyne Press, 1972. 5. Hinckley, William, “The Weekly Packet,” Oct. 5, 1978. 6. Jaffe, David, A Nation of New Goods: The Material Culture of Early America, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011, p 189.
Have a great evening, and come back next week for more! (Comments are now closed.)
Chris and I are catching up after a fabulous field trip yesterday to the Berry Center in New Castle, Kentucky (highly recommended if you’re ever in the area and are a fan of Wendell Berry’s work, both literarily and as it relates to equitable and ecological farming). But that doesn’t mean we don’t have time for your woodworking questions!
You probably know by now how it works, but just in case: Leave your question (brevity appreciated) in a comment below, and we will do our best to answer. Comments will close at around 5 p.m.
Whether you are an aspiring professional chairmaker, an experienced green woodworker or a home woodworker curious about the craft, “Chairmaker’s Notebook” is an in-depth guide to building your first Windsor chair or an even-better 30th one. Using more than 500 hand-drawn illustrations, Peter Galbert walks you through the entire process, from selecting wood at the log yard, to the chairs’ robust joinery, to applying a hand-burnished finish.
And if you’ve never thought about building a chair, this book might convince you to try. Building a chair will open your eyes to ways of working wood that you might miss if you stay in the rectilinear world of boxes.
When you look at a pile of muddy logs it might be tough to know what is what. Beyond the species, there are a number of characteristics to look for in a log. These traits are usually a reflection of the life of the tree before it was cut. The best trees grow in the middle of a forest where they compete for light by shooting straight up to the canopy without expending energy by growing low branches. The protection of the surrounding trees also keeps the wind at bay. Trees that grow at the edge of the woods or in fields have no incentive to grow this way and tend to branch low and twist about – not to mention the likelihood of finding metal embedded from an old hammock bolt.
For the best return on your labor, only the straightest, clearest wood should come into the shop. I am quick to relegate inferior wood to the burn pile. Struggling with sub-par wood will quickly color your experience. The only wood in the tree suitable for chair parts is in the straight, limbless portion of the trunk, generally, the first 10′-14′. In some cases, a second cut above it may be suitable, but it might also harbor a few more surprises.
As a young tree struggles to reach the canopy, it will have some waviness to it. I call this the “reckless youth” stage, and just like with people, it’s usually best to avoid it or forget it. Once the tree reaches the canopy, it begins to add on layers that build mass and smooth the early growth into a more even shape on the outside of the tree. When you split the tree, you’ll see the transition from gnarly to smooth and note where the serviceable wood starts. Depending on how old the tree is when it’s cut and the growing conditions that it experienced, it can get to the point where no blemishes are visible from the outside. I like to choose logs with a diameter at the top of 16″-24″, rather than more massive trees. I have found that a violent “reckless youth” or other issues can be concealed beneath the larger mass. (Plus, larger logs are more difficult to split and transport.) Some species are more “honest” about their early years, such as red oak, whereas I’ve found white oak to be downright deceptive. Luckily, the medium-diameter trees that I prefer usually don’t have the time to cover major flaws completely. Also, by choosing high-quality, smaller logs, I don’t run into the troubles of long-term storage.
Besides obvious curves in the log, there are other details to look for. “Reaction wood” forms when the tree grows under stress, such as on a hillside. When you split this wood and release the tension, a lifetime of stress will express itself in warping and perhaps cracking. An off-center pith and uneven growth rings are signs of reaction wood and should be avoided. I also avoid logs that have a considerable taper along their length. Of course, the top of any log will usually be smaller than the base, but a large flare makes the log tough to work because the layers get thicker at one end. This means that you can’t follow the fibers and thickness the piece to a consistent measurement.
If the flare is just at the bottom and the rest of the log is more uniform, I simply cut off the bottom few feet and send it to the burn pile, rather than trying to split it.
One of the more insidious defects in a tree is a twist, and I say this because it isn’t always apparent. While a knot or defect in a log can be cut out or worked around, twist will run the length of a log, and you’ll fight it with each and every piece. To spot a twist in a log usually requires “sighting” down the length of one end, as though the log were a rifle barrel. It usually isn’t any one line in the bark, but a general appearance of the pattern creeping around the tree.
A slight twist is expected, but note it as a possible deal-breaker. Learning to work twisted parts into usable chair parts is tricky. So given a choice, stay away from logs with a distinct twist. A crack down the center of a log is normal, and it can sometimes help you spot a twist. If the crack is vertical on one end of the log and horizontal on the other, be wary and inspect the bark further. When the bark is removed, you will see the twist in the fibers when sighting from the end.
Hopefully, the folks you are working with will allow you to roll the log before committing to purchasing it. Often, you will spot problems that you can’t see from just one side or when the log is stacked.