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.

Homesteading in July

Sometimes, homesteading takes over and the shop sits quiet for a month or so.  We’ve been mowing, raking and hauling hay, timbering and sheathing an addition on the house, and haunting the local swimming holes, lakes and ponds.  The garden is a part of most days, either as a chore or a reward, often both.

My Waterfall Mirror, pictured below, will appear in a show in the Card Room at the Vermont State House from August 15 through October 26.  Stop by The People’s House and see a collection of finely crafted pieces from members of the Guild of Vermont Furnituremakers.

From the deck of our addition, we look out on our kingdom and feel that we’ve been set down purposefully in this time and place.  The work is ceaseless, the rewards boundless.  The cool shop awaits.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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

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.

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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.

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