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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.

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.


Table Height Poll

Table Height Poll

The results are in! We took a very unscientific poll at last month’s Open Studio Tour. With three tables each at a different height, I asked visitors to sit at each one and choose which table felt most comfortable for dining. Twenty-eight people participated out of the forty or so who came to the studio over the weekend. Here are the results:

Table Height Votes:

28 ¼” …….12 votes
28 ¾” …….. 5 votes
29 ¾” …….11 votes

So the lowest table wins by a single vote! But with the disparity between the lowest and the next highest only ½”, the middle height got less than half the votes. The highest table was essentially tied with the lowest throughout the weekend.

In general, we are comfortable with what we are used to.  Several people commented that a certain table felt “like the one at home.”  Some visitors found that the lower tables were better for breakfast, while the taller was appropriate for dinner. One interesting hypothesis buster is that tall or short, the height of the person did not seem to correlate with table preference.  (Read our family’s recent, dramatic experience with different table heights here).

In general the lower the table, the less formal its feeling.  And generally in our culture, breakfast is less formal than dinner. Furniture standards imply this, with standard heights for dining tables between 28 and 30 inches. Desks and committee/board tables (bored tables?) are recommended to be 30” high.

How can we use this in thinking about our furnishings?  I usually design a piece for a specific purpose, with a patron who has a preference for a certain style, feeling, or degree of formality. As the poem above implies, tables are central to our lives and serve a host of different purposes, depending on their setting and the culture of the home in which they reside. Although I have used a standard 30” for my table heights for years, I will now consider where in the range a table should fall, based on the family it will reside with. Breakfast nook? Formal sit down meals? Young children’s snacks and art projects?  Power dinners with Wall Street executives or UN Representatives? Pot luck suppers with the neighbors?

What do you look for at your table?  Do you build community, lego creations, business deals, poems, connection with your family?  How does your table serve as the center of your life? Leave a comment on the blog and keep the conversation going.tea table 2, small

Kitchen Table Evolution

Our kitchen table has been around for about twenty years.  Jason built it in college, as a worktable to use to finish his “senior plan” (like a thesis).  After college, moving into a cabin only about twice the size of the table, he lent it to some friends who were getting married, and had more space in their lodgings.

When we moved into our house ten years ago, we finally had the space for a large kitchen table, so we borrowed it back and began to use it as a worktable.  Within a few years it became our eating table as well, once there were four of us sitting at meals.  (Jason rounded the corners after one particularly painful head-bump on the corner by one of the children).  And when the children began to have schoolwork, the table was the central workspace for that too.  Gradually, the finish has begun to wear off, a couple of scars have appeared, and it has literally taken its place at the center of our household.

table at the center, small

Recently, after one of those discussions about table manners that other parents might remember, we decided to try something radical.  Jason fetched a saw from the shop, flipped the table on its side and cut 2″ off each leg.  The results were transformative, informative, and dramatically altered the way all of us feel when sitting at our table.  The children are infinitely more comfortable.  They can use their silverware more easily and gracefully.  The can hold their sandwiches over their plates without tipping the plate toward them.  They are less wiggly, and less likely (I didn’t say unlikely) to tip their chairs.

The adults, however, are more likely to slouch, and while our elbows aren’t on the table as much, it is more work to sit up and a noticeably longer distance from plate to mouth.  I’d say that this has made a critical difference in our family life in terms of easing the table-manners struggle right now, but this table is destined to become our project table and not our dining table sometime in the next few years, when our house grows to permit us to have more than one table, and when the heights of half of our family gain a few inches.

All of this drama has gotten us excited to see what you think, feel, and prefer regarding table height.  Come to Open Studio Tour this weekend to try out tables of three different heights, discuss the differences, and vote for your favorite.  If you can’t make it to OST (or even if you can), measure the height of your kitchen or dining room or work table and send us an email to let us know how tall it is, how comfortable to use, and how you like it.

New Custom Furniture Website

We’ve been working to utilize some new, stunning photographs taken last fall of Jason’s Breakfast Table and Chairs, and of his Liturgical Pieces that reside in the Saint Mary Magdalene Chapel at Saint Michael’s Episcopal Church.


To that end, we’ve built a new website, and are working to learn the necessary technological feats to keep the site a little more current to reflect our projects and happenings.  Erica will be working regularly on this aspect of the business.

If you’d like to be kept abreast of our Open Studio Tour schedule, alerted to gallery openings and shows, and receive tidbits about studio furniture, sign up here for our new bi-monthly email newsletter, Shavelings.

Enjoy the website, and be in touch.


Breakfast table detail, small

Tapping In

maple woods, small

For the past two weeks, we’ve been spending long days in the woods, working with living trees.  Each winter’s end we do this, venturing out on snowshoes to visit each maple tree.  As we distribute sap buckets, we pause to put our arms around some of the trees, measuring their girth to determine whether they will get one tap or two.  Then, a few hours later, we return with a drill and once again find ourselves looking up, appreciating the height and grace of each tree, checking the health of the overhead branches, looking closely at the bark to find the evidence of previous years’ taps, and judging the tree’s health and the best spot to make this year’s holes.

Our work with wood throughout the year springs renewed from this time of connection with the living forest, with the trees in their home on our hillside, amongst the moss and stones, woodpeckers and spiders, snow fleas and breezes.  Sugaring weather involves everything from balmy blue skies to a roaring gale complete with sleet and snow, everything from melting snow to the delicate sharp crystals of ice forming at the rim of the bucket as the temperature plummets at sundown.  The trees, older than us, wiser than us, firmly rooted in the rocky hillside yet swaying as they stretch toward heaven– the trees are the medium of our livelihood.  What we build grew, first, before it knew saw or plane or chisel or tung oil.  The wood remembers, and brings some of that forest-wisdom forward into the new forms, into our homes and lives.

spalted drawers, 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.


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.


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