“I am pretty sure IF a woodworker in the 17th century would have had access to a table saw – he would have used it.”
Recently the above quote was included in a string of comments to a post Chris Schwarz wrote about the joint stool book. http://blog.lostartpress.com/2012/09/07/without-a-scrap-of-crap/
I hear this line of thinking again & again when people see the way I work and hear some of the reasoning behind my methods. It doesn’t bother me much when people express this idea, but I think it’s pretty much meaningless. I decided to add my two cents’ worth – here’s some of it.
I make reproductions of seventeenth-century furniture from England both Old and New. I have no interest in going back in time to the 17th century. (What? No Grateful Dead? Arrrrgghhh…) But I love the furniture from that period. For nearly 25 years I have been fascinated by this work, and the idea that it can be made with timber containing a significantly higher moisture content than what many of us are used to. In my on-going study of this work the idea has been to understand what it took to make this stuff in the first place. That means using a tool kit that is as close to the period tools as reasonably possible. I have some handmade tools, but nowhere near a full set. Probably never will have…most of my toolkit is a mixture of 19th-21st-century tools.
Now about the notion of studying period pieces for reproduction purposes. I have no qualm with folks who want to use tablesaws and other “modern” (I dislike the term “power” – my hatchet is quite powerful…) tools. If that’s how people want to work that’s fine with me. But that hinders your understanding of period furniture work. Usually you can see in a finished piece if the work was machined, even when skimmed by hand as the final finish. I am not interested in going whole-hog back to the 17th century. I like comfortable shoes, I have a nice anti-fatigue mat at my bench…I have done woodworking with the raking light from the windows versus electric light. I like it, but my shop is not my own, so that’s out of my hands. Overhead light I find annoying. But for the edge tools and the wood – I try to get them closely aligned with period practice. I study surviving pieces in detail whenever I get near them. I continue to find things on pieces that I have known for over 20 years.
To understand the significance in the period of a carved joined chest, we should know something about how much time it takes to make it. The most direct and effective way to gather that information is to make many of them, in something close to a period manner. Only then will we get it. My friend Ted Curtin made his first joined chest umpteen years ago at Plimoth Plantation. If I remember correctly he said it took a couple hundred hours. If he had stopped at one, then we’d have a skewed view of the chest’s worth. Over time, Ted got fast (til he became a school teacher!) and he & I reached a point at which either of us could make a chest in about 60-75 hours.
I’ve specialized in using green, riven oak. I have built joined work using pitsawn oak, millsawn oak & other woods, air-dried, kiln-dried. Quartersawn, flatsawn and in-between. All of it. My preference is riven green oak. It’s the best there is.
(way back I did a post about pitsawing at Plimoth, including a short snippet of me back in the pit after many years… http://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/2010/02/05/pitsawing/ and here’s recent stuff from the guys on pitsawing. No summer work for me, that. Winter only http://blogs.plimoth.org/rivenword/?p=3855 )
I nowadays buy a log from the sawmill, and use a chainsaw for cross-cutting the 2-foot diameter oaks that I tend to use. I have in the past felled trees and cross-cut logs this size with handsaws. I don’t intend to do it again. That means once a month or so for about half-an-hour I use a “power tool.” I hate the use of them, cantankerous to start and maintain. Loud, rumbly & noxious. But worth it to get the log to length. My preferred method is to get someone else to take the chainsaw to the log. Once it’s cut to length and I have split it into quarters, I do any further cross-cuts with a handsaw.
But in the woodpile and the shop, handtools are the way to go for me. It comes down to how I want to spend my time. Personally, I have no interest in working with machines. I dislike the noise and the dust. I’d much rather spend my time listening to the sound of a hatchet over that of the tablesaw, a plane over a planer, and so on.
I have been lucky beyond imagination in that I make my living doing woodworking that doesn’t have to meet a bottom line. I build furniture in a museum. People pay money to come see, among other things, my work. But, if this were not my living, I’d be like many people out there on the web – working wood with hand tools for my enjoyment. Period. I often maintain that if I had to sell my furniture to make my living, it would not work the way I do it.
I’m not trying to convert anyone from machines to hand tools. I think that for the amatuer it’s a great way to work wood, but all I am doing is showing folks how I do what I do. What people do with that information is up to them. Sort of a “Take what you need & leave the rest” situation.
While I was thinking about this subject & writing this post, I came across a short piece I wrote when Woodwork magazine did a feature on my work…I’ve posted it as a page here, and if you’d care to go back & see what I wrote in 2004 have a look. http://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/hand-tools-green-wood/