On Wednesday morning I shipped out my last commission furniture piece for a long time. Perhaps forever.
Last year I closed the ordering form on my personal site. And since then I have worked through the backlog of orders, chipping away until Wednesday when I dropped off a crate at the depot across the river.
For the last 10 years, commission work has been a third to half my income. The other half is writing and teaching. Commissions kept us afloat as we paid Madeline’s tuition at Ohio State and Katherine’s at Spalding University.
During the last three years, Lost Art Press, the commission work and the number of new designs in my sketchbooks took root, bloomed and became overgrown. And last year I had to make a choice.
Double or triple my prices for commissions to (likely) reduce them. As I build vernacular-inspired pieces, and I have a strong proletariat streak, that didn’t feel right.
Hire people to help out on both the commissions and shoulder some of my responsibilities for the press. That would put me back into managing other people’s work on a day-to-day basis. I’d rather get a simultaneous root canal/vasectomy without even an aspirin. I want to do the work, not manage it.
Shut down commissions and build work on spec.
I chose door No. 3.
In the coming months, I’ll occasionally list a piece for sale here on the blog. Lucy and I have decided we can afford the hit to my income (thanks to a debt-free life). This will free me to write and edit more books, build furniture pieces that have been struggling in the birth canal and to stay outwardly sane.
I’ve enjoyed working with customers since I took my first commission for a Shop of the Crafters Morris chair in 1997 from a couple in Texas. Since then, I’ve built some crazy stuff that made me a better woodworker. And I’ve met some people I now call friends.
I’ll miss some aspects of commission work. And now I am about to get into the truck and head to the lumberyard to build something for… who knows?
Eastern Kentucky is the most beautiful part of the state – and the most poor. Ravaged first by the lumber industry and then coal mining, the land and its people are surprisingly resilient. When visitors come to Kentucky and want to understand the state, I drive them east into the mountains.
It’s also an area rich with a cultural heritage in art, music and furniture making. And for the last 50 years, Appalshop has been recording all aspects of the culture with fascinating short films.
During the pandemic, Appalshop has made all of its videos on its streaming platform free to rent. This is a remarkable chance to browse and watch the organization’s films from the 1970s to the present day.
You can see all the videos available here. To rent them for free, click the “apply promo code” link at checkout and enter: watchparty.
Of special interest to woodworkers: Watch “Hand Carved,” the fantastic film about chairmaker Chester Cornett. Also, check out “Chairmaker,” a film about Dewey Thompson and his rocking chairs. There are also films about quilting, bluegrass, coal mining, hip hop in the mountains, and civil rights.
If you find films you like, they are inexpensive to purchase, usually about $5. And it helps support a great organization.
GreenWood, which trains woodworkers to create products using sustainable woods and help get them to market, has a new program that can involve you directly. Called Artisan EcoTours, it’s an opportunity to travel to Puerto Rico and work with craftsmen Michael Fortune and René Delgado to design and build a small table or stool over five days using local wood – and to spend three days exploring and learning about the island’s ecosystem.
The tour was originally planned for May of this year but was postponed because of the pandemic. GreenWood is now making new plans for the tour and has produced a video on the tour that is well worth watching.
I have long been a fan of GreenWood’s work, which has many successful projects under its belt since it started in 1993. Read about some of them here. Heck, you might even own the result of one of their projects, which helped create and export 1,000 turned mallets from Honduras that are now sold at Lee Valley Tools. You probably also know of the organization’s president, Scott Landis, who is the author of the classics “The Workshop Book” and “The Workbench Book” (Taunton Press).
You can read much more about the EcoTour and sign up to receive more information here. You can also follow GreenWood on Instagram to learn more about its good work.
I’ve been asked many times for a driving tour of Covington, Ky., the 19th-century city where we work and live.
I have yet to give one.
After 10 years of stalking the streets of this town, I’ve discovered a weird link between your land speed and the architectural detail of the houses. No matter how slow you try to drive a car through an old neighborhood, it’s too fast to experience pre-Depression-era architecture.
You figure this out when you walk the streets of an old neighborhood every day. The houses were designed to be observed by pedestrians or people on horseback. The detail on these houses stands up to a good two minutes of exploration by passers-by. Bracketed cornices. Eyebrow windows. Transom windows. All these things get lost when you hit about 15 miles per hour.
My cynical mind links our cars with our architecture. If you are going to see a house for a mere 2 seconds, it’s OK if it looks only like a facsimile of a good design. In fact, you can make all the houses in a neighborhood look similar because no one is going to get a good look at them anyway.
Unfortunately, I sometimes feel like a Ferrari when I walk through a museum. I have to fight the urge to get to my destination, which is to see everything the museum has to offer. If I don’t force myself to plod slowly and stop every now and then, I know I’ll miss something important and perhaps life-changing.
Lucy and I toured Fort Mackinac in Michigan, a British and American fort on a small island in Lake Huron. Virtually all of the furnishings in the fort were high Victorian and reflected the structures’ heyday during the late 19th century. The furniture was mostly cheap stuff. Manufactured. Uninspired. And there was piles of it.
After 12 rooms of the stuff, my eyes were exhausted, and I got lazy. We passed through the enlisted men’s barracks, and I spotted an attractive and graceful chair. It was clearly a shaved ladderback. And the feet had been drawknifed to a smaller dimension, much like ladderback chairs here in Eastern Kentucky. And…
At that moment a family barged into the room with a bunch of kids who swarmed the place. None was wearing a face mask (which was required), and so we retreated like animals to the next room. I forgot about the chair.
Later in the tour we poked through the quartermaster’s store and saw some of the specification sheets used to procure goods for the fort. One of them showed a shaved barracks chair, just like the one we had seen an hour earlier.
But again, I was moving too fast. People behind me. People in front. And I didn’t make the connection until we were out of the fort entirely: There was an Army specification for a shaved ladderback chair. I saw the spec. I saw the chair.
That would have made an interesting blog entry: comparing the detailed military spec sheet for a shaved chair to an actual example. But instead, you got this drivel.
When I design and build a piece of furniture, it does not belong to me any more than the birdsong of the warblers outside my shop door.
Since the start of my furniture career in the 1990s, I have never claimed ownership to a single design. The world is free to copy, adapt, interpret, sell and (I hope) improve my best efforts. And the world has occasionally taken me up on my offer. I’ve seen my published designs show up in furniture catalogs and galleries all over the United States.
And I’m fine with it.
I suspect my attitude comes from growing up and living in the areas of the United States that are steeped in traditional mountain music. The first half of my life was spent in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, and the second half has been spent living in the hills of Kentucky. In these places (and other mountain communities), traditional string-band music – guitar, mandolin, fiddle and banjo – is something you can still hear regularly at neighborhood bars, church picnics, school fund-raisers, weddings and funerals.
By tradition, this music does not have a strict sense of ownership, other than the fact that it belongs to everyone who can play it or sing it. When I visit the Comet bar on a Sunday night, the band might play songs that were first recorded in the mid-1920s in Bristol, Tennessee. But these songs came from Scotland, Ireland, Africa or France hundreds of years before. Tonight they sound new, like they never have before. And next Sunday, they will sound a little different. Verses will be added or removed. A second singer might add a counter-melody.
The furniture from these mountainous places is treated in the same manner. Farmers in the Ozarks and Appalachia have long made ladderback chairs during the cold months (this is a quickly dying trade). These chairs might look identical to the untrained eye, but if you open your eyes, you will find immense variation. The arrangement of the sticks, the curve of the backsplats and the shape of the finials at the top of the back posts are as good as a notarized signature for identifying the maker. And if you look at enough of these chairs, you can see traits handed down through generations and via geography.
Copying the work of others and adapting it has long been the predominant way that furniture and vernacular musical forms have been kept alive and fresh for hundreds of years. Bob Dylan’s song “Maggie’s Farm” is a rewriting of his song “Hard Times in the Country,” which is a rewrite of the song “Down on Penny’s Farm” by the Bentley Boys from the 1920s. And who knows where they got it.
Is “Maggie’s Farm” less fantastic because Dylan swiped a traditional song? Or (I would argue) is it more fantastic because it transformed a song about sharecropping into an electrifying statement against the Vietnam war?
Is Jennie Alexander’s iconic chair from the book “Make a Chair from a Tree” – the most comfortable and lightweight chair I’ve ever sat in – less amazing because it sprung from the mule-ear ladderbacks on thousands of porches in Eastern Kentucky?
This tradition of observing, copying and creating anew is the fertilizer for people to make new music and new pieces of furniture. If you take that tradition away, you risk handing over our music and furniture forms to the people with the most money or the best lawyers.
Plagiarism lawsuits are nothing new in music or furniture. The Music Copyright Infringement Resource (an effort by the law schools at George Washington University and Columbia) traces plagiarism claims in popular music back to 1844. Furniture plagiarism has been litigated in this country (the United States) for as long as our Patent Office has existed.
What has changed is that these lawsuits, especially in music, have increased dramatically in the last 30 years.
As a furniture maker, I sometimes lie awake at night worrying that I have unconsciously ripped off another furniture maker’s design, and that I’m going to be sued. And so when I write about a new piece, I acknowledge every influence I can think of. In fact, I’ll even acknowledge influences I haven’t seen.
I know that sounds weird and wrong. So here’s an example: Several months after I designed and built my Staked Worktable for the book “The Anarchist’s Design Book,” I found an antique Swedish table built on the same principles that had the same feel to it. Though I’d never (knowingly) seen the antique table before designing my version, I decided to include a drawing of it in my book and acknowledge it as a likely ancestor of my design.
Why? Because it probably is.
My table’s design emerged after looking at hundreds and hundreds of pieces of medieval furniture – lots of square worktables with tapered legs, thin tops and battens below. In my mind, I simply reversed the tapers on the legs, dressed up the battens to be sliding dovetails and changed the overall proportions of the top from 1:1 to 2:4.
The maker of the Swedish antique probably saw similar medieval tables – they’re everywhere in books and museums – and made the same small leaps that I did.
And so I can’t possibly claim credit for my design or any of the other designs that flow from my pencil and onto the workbench. And so I don’t. I give them away.
But wait, what about the books I write? Aren’t those copyrighted? Indeed they are. Sometimes by the publisher and sometimes by me. But I’ll be honest, I’ve concluded it’s all a farce. People steal my work all the time. Every one of my books is available for a free download on bit torrent sites run by hackers. I don’t have the money, time or people to stop them. And so – for books written by me, at least – I don’t.
Recently, I’ve come to grips with this reality, and that’s one reason why my latest book, “The Anarchist’s Workbench,” is covered by a Creative Commons license that allows people to reuse and adapt my work. I hope to move all my other books into a Creative Commons license in the future as well.
I am sure that some of you are thinking my ideas about giving away designs are unrealistic. What about the big furniture company that outright steals a design from some impoverished individual maker? Surely that poor woodworker is entitled to sue the big corporation for redress.
I do not propose to change our laws or system of jurisprudence. Egregious cases of theft probably should end up in the courts, and it’s likely the party with the most money will win in the end. Or at least get their way for a small fee.
Instead I am merely arguing that to maintain and grow our rich furniture heritage, we need our traditional system of borrowing and loaning designs (and melodies). And one way to do that is to allow your own designs to be freely copied and interpreted.
Consider the following questions:
Do you want to spend your time threatening to sue people, or do you want to spend that time making and building furniture?
Are you so bereft of ideas that you cannot come up with new designs or iterations?
How likely is it that you will prevail in the world of copyrights, trademarks and design patents?
How much money do you really need?
Can you say from the heart that your design is truly original and did not spring from the work of the millions of woodworkers who came before you?
Oh and one more question. Aren’t there enough songs about “John Henry?” Henry was the fabled Black steel-driving railroad worker who beat a steam-powered drill in a tunnel-drilling contest, only to die from the exertion.
I contend there can never be too many songs about John Henry. Or too many ladderback chairs, trestle tables, chests, stick chairs or milking stools.
And the only way to guarantee that is to give yourself in to tradition.