Author: Jason

Dovetails With Stories

Dovetail from my walnut jete table
Dovetails on a sea chest from the 1860’s
I recently had the opportunity to take a close-up look at the dovetails on this sea chest, which I estimate to be at least 150 years old. The tails are at a steeper angle than those that I usually employ– making for a stronger joint, but with a higher potential for failure should the sides of the tail shear off.  To survive the ravages of passage by sea, the corners are nailed as well as dovetailed.  This chest was clearly made to survive a rough journey, and it has stood up well.

I was asked to repair the top, where the area below the hinges had ripped out, and to make a new lid for the interior till.  It was a treat to examine and restore the handiwork of someone of my own ilk from six generations ago, and to imagine the stories that have accumulated inside.  It lends me a glimpse of someone years from now enjoying my joinery and working to maintain and restore the furnishings I’ve built. I can only, humbly, hope that we are taking such care of the world as to make that possible in 150 years, and that you my faithful customers are filling your drawers and chests with stories.

Refining the Curves


_DSC0031I have been working lately on refining the design for my signature piece, the jete table.  This spring I made a new version out of walnut with much slenderer legs.  This gave the whole table more lightness, but kept the curves as inviting and graceful as ever.

I have always been inspired by the shapes of pre-industrial tools:  plow handles, scythes, axes, and hayrakes are some of my favorites.  Echoes of their curves and swoops may be found in my favorite contemporary designs.

Before our things were manufactured, woodworkers (and others) would build a piece from start to finish, using a range of skills and an understanding of the whole arc from source to eventual user.  Perhaps because I participate in that traditional role, sourcing my materials and customers from the land and community around me, taking the wood from the forest through milling, drying, and finally building, I appreciate the aesthetic of old tools as much as I do the process of using them to make elegantly curved, sturdy furniture. 

In my studio, I make furniture primarily with hand tools, at a walking pace, to the beat of my heart or the song I’m singing, with sunshine or rainsong coming in the windows.  I use my knowledge of the forest and my familiarity with you, my faithful customers.  This process is the best way I know to honor the Earth and the natural and human communities that support us all.

A Different Type of Shavelings

Each year in March, as the trees are stirring and beginning to dream of Spring, but before they fully awaken, we take to our woods and begin a different rhythm.  Jason takes the drill from tree to tree, examining the bark for signs that last year’s tap has healed, then he makes a hole in a healthy, accessible spot low down on the trunk.  The kids and I follow with tool belt pockets laden with spouts.  We check the ground for a telltale trail of shavelings from the drill, then we locate the hole (sometimes it’s already dripping with sap!) and “tap” in a spout with a bucket hanging on it.
A line of maple trees with sap buckets along the woodsroad at Sweet Rock Farm.
We enter the pace of the woods, the world of sleeping trees.  It’s a welcome change after a winter of plans and indoor work, to emerge into the plane of the immediacy and infinite patience of the land.  We are reminded that the trees don’t check the weather forecast; they simply respond to the weather as it occurs around them.  We are reminded that the animals dwelling in the trees have been putting up with winter for the past several months, too, tunneling, chewing, stamping, making trails and leaving scents and shelling nuts.  We are reminded that these trees have lived here for more than a hundred years, this March falling into the context of a hundred other late-winter-seasons they have known.  A day that the sap runs or a week that it doesn’t run is a blink to them, survivable, even normal.  The sap is their lifeblood; its abundance is more important and yet less of a concern to them than to us, who work to harvest it for six weeks each year.  Sometimes I think I make the trees smile indulgently and yawn, as I run out one more time to check whether the sap is running.
Maple sap drips from a spout into a bucket in the sugarwoods.
After living for twice or three times a human lifespan, potentially giving sap each spring for most of that time, a tree can be harvested and sawn into beautiful, enduring lumber.  Their great, slow, spreading generosity reminds us to slow down and enjoy the sweet season.

…and then we’ll get back to work in the shop and garden, while this year’s taphole shavelings decompose into the forest detritus.

 

Cold Weather Visit with Old Friends

After a few days of sub-zero weather, I stopped at a customer’s house to evaluate a sofa which needs some alteration. Having spent over an hour looking at the sofa, a settee, a couple of Windsor chairs, a bed, a deck chair and an old secretary, we made some conclusions about what to do with the sofa. Clearly, we have been stuck inside at home for too long!

orv desk small

The most interesting piece we looked at was this secretary/desk. This is a Federal cherry affair probably of country origin with some modifications to the fold out writing surface. I had seen this piece before, but not these little interior drawers. Leather loops act as pulls on an otherwise standard dovetailed drawer. The bottoms, however, showed an enlightening story.

orv drawers2

 

 

These drawer bottoms had handsaw marks across there width, but only partway down the length. The remaining length had been planed smooth. Lining up the two drawers back to back showed that the saw marks are on opposite sides and the point at which they are planed off match exactly. As well the scrub plane left some tear out, showing the grain runout going toward opposite sides.

Clearly these bottoms were resawn from the same piece of pine, set in a vice, sawn about half-way, flipped over and sawn the rest of the way from the other end. The saw cuts did not line up. Thus, perfectly matched opposing saw marks / plane tracks on the finished drawer bottoms.

Not a surprising method. Modern woodworkers do the same today, but use a bandsaw to cut all the way through and a power planer to quickly smooth the cut. There is, however, plenty of thickness as shown by the steep beveled edges. Why did the joiner of old not plane the whole piece smooth. Today’s market might consider this a job unfinished.

Of course, we live in a different time. We have machines that very quickly do that work. It changes expectations of acceptable craftsmanship. Joinery is expected to be perfectly tight. Surfaces are expected to be perfectly flat. Even inside, where nobody looks (except other woodworkers,) there is an expectation of perfection and fully finished wood. Quite the opposite from pre-industrial woodwork. It helps to understand these differences when evaluating today’s handwork. Perhaps interior woodwork with saw marks might not be acceptable, but rough scrub planing of those surfaces could be. Should studio furniture makers working primarily with hand tools be held to the same standards as a company with suitable machinery for such perfection?

Alas, so many have perfect surfaces, but are assembled with sub-standard joinery techniques. This is where I scream, “Enough!” I will not make junk that looks good. I will make something that lasts, and looks good. But don’t expect me to bring the underside of a table to the same level of finish as the top. It is a waste of time, energy and money. I will not assemble all my chairs with dowels and screws. I will use square ended mortise and tenons and dovetails that have shown their strength for thousands of years.  That is not to say I won’t use screws and dowels, rather, that I will use these when and where appropriate. Pine bookshelves come to mind. As do the backs of cabinets (which I will not french polish!)

Well, I didn’t mean to rant!  It is fun to see how someone else does their work.  What can I learn from the tracks of my woodworking predecessors?   Little mysteries that keep the mind nimble and a good visit with friends to boot.

 

Tree Ring Dating: Dendrochronology at work on your house!

Dummerston Bridge, small

Erica’s uncle, Chris Baisan, is a dendrochronologist working at the timber003, smallUniversity of Arizona.  A combination science and history expert, he has used his science of tree-ring dating, dendrochronology, to help develop the construction histories of older buildings in Southern Vermont and the surrounding states (To see the buildings he has worked on, look here).  I have worked with him several times over the years, learning about the sample-collecting end of this process, and enjoying the thorough and nuanced histories that Chris puts together to synthesize his research with recorded history.

This spring, Chris and I decided to formalize this partnership in order to offer the local (Southern Vermont area) public a chance to utilize Chris’ expertise.  We now offer tree-ring dating of historic structures, a service to folks with older buildings and an interest in developing the historical evidence that lies within the structures.

Here, in Chris’ words, is how the whole thing works:

Basic tree-ring anatomy

Many trees and woody plants in temperate regions produce annual layers of woody tissue commonly referred to as “tree-rings”. Growth layers in the stems of such plants, when viewed in cross section, form a series of concentric rings – thus the name tree-ring. In coniferous species (pine, fir, spruce) the “ring” or layer is made up of light colored “earlywood” or “springwood” terminated with a dark layer of small, thick-walled cells called “latewood” or “summerwood”. Hardwoods also produce growth layers or rings, but the tissue is anatomically and visually different than conifer wood.

pine closeup, small

Growth in woody plants can be thought of as a series of cones stacked one upon another, like a stack of paper cups. Once formed, the tissue is immobile: a nail driven into a tree will remain at the point and height where it was driven while becoming slowly embedded in the tree as the stem adds new layers each year. Most wood cells remain alive for a few months before dying and becoming empty tubes used for the transport of sap or water in the stem. Only a thin outer skin beneath the bark remains alive. This skin is known as the cambium. A radial sample from the center, or pith, of a tree to the bark will contain a complete series of growth layers making it possible to determine the age of the plant at that height. The longest record, and the age of the tree, can only be obtained at the base of the tree. A radius from high up among the branches will yield a shorter record, as it lacks the early layers of growth produced as the young tree was growing to that height.

Basic Dendrochronology

Tree-ring dating of wood samples relies on matching growth patterns in a sample of unknown date with the pattern in a known standard, or “chronology”. Growth patterns useful for dendrochronological dating are produced by yearly variations in climate that favor or disfavor the growth of trees in a region in common with each other. Variations in growth due to events that only affect an individual (death of a neighbor, loss of limbs or top in a storm for instance) are not helpful and may obscure the common “signal” or pattern. In some cases individual variation may prevent successful tree-ring dating of a sample. Tree-ring chronologies are region specific, and often species specific as well. Conditions favoring the growth of oaks in a valley may not be so favorable for spruce on a mountain top.spruce001, smallscar_hemlock001, small

For successful tree-ring dating the following requirements must be met:

(1) Annual layers or “rings” present and identifiable.

(2) Growth pattern due to external factors present and identifiable.

(3) A known standard or tree-ring chronology containing the record of typical growth for the region, species, and period of time in question must be developed or already available for comparison.

(4) Sufficient number of rings present in a sample for the pattern to be uniquely identified as belonging to a particular period of time, based on comparison with the known standard.

Number 4 is variable depending on the strength of the common growth pattern. Generally, 80 to 100 years is desirable at a minimum, and the longer the sequence, the better. Dating chronologies are generally developed by sampling living trees in a region of interest using an increment borer. Growth patterns are compared and averaged together to maximize the common pattern and eliminate individual variability. Tree-ring chronologies have been developed for many species in many temperate regions of the world. Some of these are available through the International Tree-Ring Data Bank maintained by NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and are available on the World Wide Web.

Sampling historical structures to provide tree-ring dates

In order to date the construction of a building with wooden elements the following requirements must be met:

(1) Species used in construction must be suitable for dendrochronological analysis (spruce, hemlock, oak, or ash are some examples)

(2) Local timber must have been used, or the place of origin of the wooden elements must be known. (3) Samples with an intact bark surface must be obtained (these samples document the year and season of harvest). Milling by sawing or shaping with an ax or adz will remove the outer rings from some or all portions of a timber or board. At least some samples from the structure must have the bark edge, or “waney” edge as it is sometimes called, in order to obtain a construction date. The bark edge is smooth, often has a distinctive color, may have galleries created by engraver beetles, and may, or may not have bits of bark remaining.

(4) The samples must have a sufficient number of rings to provide a reliable date.

Additionally:

(5) Local construction practices including typical season of harvest and the length of the milling and storage process known (this appears vary from a few months to two years for 19th century Vermont).(6) Known history of the structure and area should be noted.

(7) In buildings with a history of repair or construction with re-used material the details of construction, milling or shaping, and juxtaposition of timbers should be examined and noted at the time of sampling.

Ideally as many samples as possible should be obtained, each with a large number of rings and the bark edge present, and each a complete cross section of the timber. For a given timber, three samples might be obtained – one from each end to be sure that the maximum number of rings is obtained, and perhaps a third from a point with the bark edge present. Practical considerations will often preclude such through sampling and a single timber. Often a “core” from an in-situ timber removed with a hole saw, with the bark edge present, would be a typical sample. In a well-sampled structure many elements would be sampled, and not all would necessarily have the bark edge present.

 

cores002, small

Since the maximum number of rings is also a criteria, and local procurement of timber often meant harvest from a single or small number of forest stands, the samples from a structure can be integrated to form a more complete unit. Suitable samples might be obtained from a variety of elements including siding boards, rafters, structural timbers, floor or ceiling joists, etc. As tree size is often poorly correlated with tree age, a smaller element may turn out to have a larger number of rings, and thus be more “datable” than a large timber. This is particularly true of spruce, a common construction wood in 19th century New England. A four-inch board may have over one hundred rings, while a large 12 inch square timber may have only forty.

 

To read further on Chris’ process of accessing and using the growth patterns in timbers and beams to research the history of a house or barn, look here.  Other articles, including the fascinating reports on the history of the Guilford Church and the West Brattleboro Apartment Buildings, are available on the Tree Ring Dating page of our website.  Barton_farm_house, small

Natural Rhythms

 

On my walk this morning, I met a neighbor shoveling out the entrance to her driveway .  As we visited, we were both appreciating the three feet of snow and the cold weather that’s going along with it.  She mentioned how “the pace of things” makes it hard for people to cope with the extra work of snow clearing, driveway sanding, and firewood hauling.

plowing 15sm

Ever since that conversation, I’ve been appreciating the pace of our days this February.  We live on a road of a steepness and with ditches such that if it’s snowing, we stay home.  We rise and care for our animals, then make breakfast, then go to work–here at the kitchen table or up the hill at the shop.  After lunch we get out for a walk, a ski or a bout of sledding on the driveway.  Sometimes we’ll hitch up the horse and go out to break a trail or deliver some manure to a garden pile.  Between storms, we plow, shovel, bring another stack of wood into the shed, clean out the woodstove, air out the house, see friends, play outside as much as we can, stock up on gas for the generator, dig out the mailbox, go to the food co-op.  Then it snows again.  This is the natural rhythm of life in February.

Wintersunsetsm

Visiting Jason at his shop on a snowy day, I am struck by another way in which our life is paced to a natural rhythm.  The rhythmic “whisp” of the handplane along an eight foot board, shaping a molding from a square edge, is a steady, whispered tempo.  The saw in the miter-box, which has taken the place of the chop saw, has a more mundane but steady up-and-down groan.  As Jason carries a board from one bench to the other, planing, sawing, then marking out a tenon, clamping it and sawing again, then taking up the chisel and mallet, I realize that he is cultivating a pace that is compatible with a beating heart.  His hands are quick and familiar with the tools, his grip is sure and efficient, but not rushed.  The furniture he is crafting is born to the rhythm of the saw, chisel, and plane, and will carry with it into his clients’ homes an echo of that rhythm.  Furniture that was made by the muscles and bones and heartbeat of a skilled person, and not so much by the precision of a loud motored machine or the incessant press of an electronic device, conveys that human tempo not only in its looks but in its being, in the presence it carries into the world. I wonder, if Jason made a table in February and then made one just like it in June, whether you could read the difference in the look or feel of the finished piece.  This is the true unique value of custom-made studio furniture, a beauty not just affecting the eye but the life of the user.   It is my hope that in this small and slow, one-at-a-time way, we can spread the blessings of the human pace of life on our hill, as a balancing measure to the rush and press of machine-or device-driven work that can dominate our lives.

Erica

Round Table

 

BWA party8I have long wondered what I could do to make this world a better place. I have always felt that my creations enrich the lives of those who come into contact with them, through beauty of design and materials. I have only recently realized that I my furniture can bring people together – which encourages a healthy community.

I have been a part of many vibrant communities. In all of them food brought us together. Even in college, we worked independently on our theses, but when we sat down to eat, we talked together about what we were learning. Farmers, of course, grow food, but weary farmers sit around a table and eat and talk and create friendships and beyond, bonds that are hard to explain with mere words.

I have started building round tables with chairs as shown above as a way to encourage this kind of community.  The photo was taken at a Brattleboro-West Arts holiday gathering.  (Thank you, Marta.)  After dinner, folks sat around talking.  Even at this small cherry table there are two different conversations happening.  Too bad I only brought two of my chairs.  Those plastic folding ones are horrible for one’s posture.

This is a gathering at Brattleboro’s new  gallery, Mitchel Giddings Fine Art.  Paintings in the background are by Steve Lloyd, sitting second from left.

 

Holiday Sale & Hand-Craft Fair

Come choose from a variety of hand-crafted, locally made gifts of woodenware, hand-wrought iron, and carvings. Items for sale include garden tools, candle sticks, bowls, plates, spoons and more.

See live demonstrations of woodworking, blacksmithing, and European chip carving. Learn about hand-hewing timbers and traditional timber framing techniques, and visit with people who use their hands to create beauty.

Exhibitors include:Jason E Breen, Woodworker; Chad Mathrani, Timber framer, Vermont Natural Homes; Erik Newquist, Blacksmith; Mike Weitzner, European chip carver and stone mason.

All ages welcome.

Rain/sleet/snow date Sunday December 7

Something I Can Hold On To

Blacksmith Erik Nequist  asked me this summer to turn handles for his hand-crafted garden tools.  After consulting on the design and a few prototypes, he asked for thirty for his first run of tools.  Some are shown below.    I like how the wood and metal compliment each other, both visually and texturally.  That texture is something not found in mass produced pieces.

IMG_8319

For this small production run I was happy to be involved.  There is just enough variety in the finished shapes to keep it interesting for me.  After turning ten or so, I was able to turn one in about five or six minutes.   I then had to fit it into its socket with a pencil sharpener sort of tool I made special for the purpose.  Lastly, I oiled the hickory with boiled linseed oil.

This photo is from a small show he did this past weekend in Brattleboro.  On December 6 he will have a display at my studio and demonstrate his blacksmithing.  I am hosting a small Hand-Craft Fair that day from 10 -4.  I will have turned bowls and plates and other small pieces.  My neighbors Chad Mathrani, house-wright and Mike Weitzner, chip carver, will also be on hand demonstrating their crafts.

More information  to come.

Statehouse Show

 

Last week I brought my son Jonas and a Jete table up to Montpelier.  The Guild of Vermont Furniture Makers was invited to the statehouse to put together a show of our work for the late summer and foliage season.  Here are a couple views.IMG_7891IMG_7892

 

 

This is in the “Card Room” on the way to the cafeteria.

 

 

 

Besides setting up the room, which several Guild members helped with along with the curators, we all had time to see the statehouse.  I had never been inside before, only out on the lawn, usually in the rain, with a sign, or enjoying music.  Jonas and I both felt welcomed and at home in “the people’s house,” as they call it.  I’m not sure what impressed him most.  Paintings of the Civil War, the painted glass skylights in the same room, and the fantastic architectural carving all caught his attention.  Probably most anticipated was the gold dome.  It did not disappoint.

state house stepsThat’s Jonas on the steps.