I spent some time yesterday hewing and carving out a bowl from a too-large-for-a-spoon crook. Cherry. It was great fun, so now it will dry and perhaps I’ll even finish this one. I dug out another that is now dried, and worked that along a bit too. I have collected a range of bowl-carving gouges, and recently I re-purposed an unfinished box with a drawer to house them.
The box is from a few years ago, and involves much conjecture. Not my favorite way to build furniture. Tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera). It’s about 8″ high, 10″ wide and 15″ long.
Here is the sliding lid slud back a bit…
Inside this section is a cross-piece with slots to fit individual gouges. this piece is just friction-fit into the box right now.
Here you see there are two end boards nearest the camera – the carved one slides upward to access the drawer below the box compartment. It has a tongue/rabbet at its back face – riding in a slot cut on the inside faces of the box sides. A little hollow gouged out gives a place to grab it to lift it up.
here is that piece removed, showing the bottom of the box compartment, and the drawer below.
Now a view showing the gouges in the box and those underneath in the drawer. No divider in the drawer. (yet, or maybe never)
requisite drawer detail.
Unfinished chip carving. it’s all over the box…some finished, some not.
someone will have fun when I’m long gone trying to figure out what happened here. Why was this box not finished, but it looks like it was used…
If I get to make another of these sort of boxes, I’d like to see an original first. One thing I’d change is I’d plane the stock just a bit thinner. This is 3/4″ standard issue boards – I’d aim for 5/8″ thick. this seems clunky. Part of why I gave up on it. But it makes a nice place to keep the bowl gouges…
You have to see this stuff to believe it. When I tell people that pre-industrial furniture (almost without exception) is rife with tool marks, overcuts, and even tear out, I get the sense that some people don’t believe me. They think that there’s no way that the wonderful antiques they’ve seen behind velvet ropes in special museum lighting could be as rough inside as I am asserting. I’ve heard some say maybe I’m just talking about vernacular furniture made by farmers.
I understand the skepticism because this kind of workmanship flies in the face of modern woodworking dogma. But I’m not just talking about a few slap-dash anomalies. These kinds of tool marks are exactly the bits of evidence that antique dealers rely on for authentication. From the nailed together chest to the elaborately carved highboy, this stuff is normal, par-for-the-course pre-industrial workmanship.
This discussion reminds me of an occasion in which I was demonstrating how I chop a mortise. As I was working, I was prying off the top edge. I explained how it is ok to pry off the top of the mortise (but not the bottom) because it had no structural implications and would be invisible in the assembled joint. I said, “No one will ever even know it is there.” One listener, visibly disturbed, blurted out, “But you will!” Sometimes our values conflict with our ancestors’.
I’ve decided the best way to inform our woodworking consciences is to persistently publish photographs of period workmanship. For this reason, every issue of M&T contains a photo essay of period furniture with measurements listed. To show period workmanship in all kinds of furniture, we are consciously documenting different forms. There was the secretary in Issue One and the drop leaf table in Issue Two. In Issue Three, we will be looking at two period high chairs: one 18th century and one early 19th century. There are similarities and there are differences between the two. Although the slat-back 18th-century chair was clearly more hastily made, they both retain riving and tool marks.
For some, the handful of photos in each issue aren’t enough. As we’ve done previously, we will also be offering separately an eBook with all the photos from the shoot. We’ve been getting great feedback about these eBooks of photography and so we intend to keep that going.
We hope that publishing this information contributes to your growth as a woodworker. Don’t take my word for it. You can see this stuff with your own two eyes. These photographs might just be the best way to unburden hand tool users from the strict tolerances of industrial machinery.
Stay tuned for tomorrow’s announcement of the next article upcoming in M&T Issue Three...
Once, as a way of summing up his feelings on Che Guevara, my college history professor warned, “All of you wearing Che T-shirts are the first ones he would put against the wall.” I assume he meant to criticize my classmates for their devotion to radical politics, but in retrospect it seems equally apt as a criticism that they were not devoted enough. And while I’m not fond of summary executions, that interpretation seems more to the point today, because the tendency to reduce politics to a matter of acquiring certain properties has only grown.
Social justice campaigns are key facets of the world’s most rapacious brands, so of course corporations and capitalists would find ways to subsume politics to the market. There’s even a certain appealing logic to it: issues like climate change and white supremacy are so pernicious, so pervasive, that what else can you do but buy organic T-shirts, witty mugs, and flashy bumper stickers? Even critics of this most capitalist brand of activism tend to offer only a different, supposedly more authentic kind of consumption as the alternative. Don’t buy sloganed shirts at the mall, prove your conviction by purchasing them directly from marginalized communities! Subscribing to the New York Times isn’t true activism, buying a Safety Pin Box is!
Though of course we should welcome material benefit going to the oppressed, doing so through purely market-based methods means accepting the right-wing ur-narrative. If it really works, then justice really does come from entrepreneurship, and if only we got our branding right, we could have full communism tomorrow.
There’s always some asshole trying to profit from any worthwhile endeavor, and left-wing politics isn’t any different. If the problem ended there, we could have our mocking fun and move on. But even today’s most genuinely praiseworthy political movements fall into the same fallacies. They may not hock material goods, but only because they hock immaterial ones — knowledge of your privilege, your identity as an ally, some life-changing awakening. What else would you expect from the generation that champions “‘experiences’ over stuff?”
Take Standing Rock. In a report from the last days of the protest, Awl pal Jay Caspian Kang concluded: “Dissent can propagate quickly now, but it also means that every protest, however specific and physical in its conception, ultimately gets reduced down to a generic feeling.” It’s those feelings we increasingly cling to, in the way we might also cling to a branded, organic cotton throw. And because the protests did not stop the pipeline, “the historic legacy of what happened at Standing Rock,” as Kang said, “will have to be parceled out through small, personal victories.” Not, the implication goes, by stopping future pipelines.
The same thing happened at Occupy Wall Street: big claims about ending inequality morphed into reflections on what individuals learned, how they’ll remember it. The Women’s March was praised and condemned both for how individuals felt in its crowds, not whether it’d help a movement take power, as Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor has argued. The final measure is what experiences, memories, knowledge individuals acquired, and little more.
Of course, these things do matter. But if they are all that matters, then that douchebag in college who would only quote Das Kapital was more enlightened than you, and the corporate HR departments paying thousands for antiracism trainings organized by boutique consulting firms are the militants in a new world order. To state the obvious, that’s simply not true: self-satisfied proselytizing is a dead-end (and not just for its pedagogical failings), and your payroll rep isn’t the harbinger of an egalitarian utopia.
What’s missing in these views is everything outside of an atomized individual’s scope — structural inequalities, massive wealth discrepancies, the distribution of power — and any sense of whether we can change what we find there. This brand of personal politics can offer insight only into how individuals experience those structural problems, not into the construction of the problems themselves, and thus not into how we can overcome them. We’ve abandoned politics for consumption. We have a host of personal essays when what we need is one good, compelling manifesto.
That doesn’t mean we should echo those dudes on campus carrying Das Kapital who ramble on about how if only people had class consciousness. People went to Standing Rock and Occupy and Ferguson to address specific, widespread problems; we fall back on personal victories because we keep losing, and if any experience or idea was powerful enough to defeat the cops and their dogs and the rest of the Right’s tools, we wouldn’t be losing in the first place. And with Trump and his band of Disney-villain Republicans leading a blitzkrieg of regressive campaigns, we’re only going to keep losing unless we figure out a better strategy.
Ironically, Marx still has the most compelling answer, precisely because he insists class consciousness isn’t something individuals can develop on their own. All his talk of the proletariat as the agent that would overcome capitalism wasn’t because he thought the working class was somehow more oppressed, or more aware, or more intelligent than any other oppressed people. His point was a strategic one: what is important is that when the masses entered the factories, they were, for the first, time working side-by-side in one place with, well, the rest of the masses. There were lots of them working together, building relationships, and they were doing so in places they could use for leverage — stop the coal mine or the one train track running into a city in 1860 and you suddenly find yourself with a lot of power. It’s not that we should fetishize the proletariat, it’s that Marx’s logic was sound; we must find the places where we can turn existing relationships into sites of power. To stop commercializing politics, we must start politicizing daily life.
But there are some creative, grassroots approaches to organizing that are rebuilding the kinds of community that can wield power. A number of municipalities around the world have responded to resurgent right-wing movements by forming “rebel cities.” They’re creating minimum-wage laws, antidiscrimination ordinances, and similar local legislation to support their citizens. But those cities could go further, taking a cue from the sewer socialists, who, back in the early 1900s, created publicly owned utilities, grocery stores, and more. Do that, and simply by living in the city you’re helping fund community endeavors. Add in experiments with public banking, new public housing, and expanded community programming, and these cities could spur a robust, integrated community that could form a base of power from which to grow.
Local politics can often devolve into politicking and influence peddling, especially when state laws prohibit cities from enacting any strong legislation, so new democratically run, cooperative, community-owned developments are key. Nowhere is that clearer than in Jackson, Mississippi, where Cooperation Jackson has been creating a network of worker-owned businesses. In these cases, political organizing is built in the fabric of the community: if your neighbors get their child care from a worker-owned cooperative in the neighborhood, backed by a community credit union, then child-care becomes an explicitly political issue that the co-op can leverage. The same is true for unions, as the Chicago Teachers Union showed when they went on strike in 2012, stopping life in the city and earning broad community support. The fact that Cooperation Jackson has used these projects to build a base for a movement that just won its second mayoral election is proof that these approaches can build power in traditional political arenas as well.
With Trump’s nativist corporate agenda looming, it’s also important to build underground networks to protect the most vulnerable, who are essential parts of our communities. That means organizing neighborhoods — especially gentrifying neighborhoods — to physically interrupt deportations and protect the undocumented, granting sanctuary in the short term and creating ways to recognize their residency legally in the long term. It means creating groups that can help women get safe abortions if Roe v Wade suffers a fatal blow, or in places where abortion is functionally outlawed thanks to TRAP laws and other right-wing legal tricks.
These approaches help bring a political register to the problems people are already living, where they’re being lived. It’s turning a lunch-time bitch-fest with your coworkers into a union meeting, providing some organization to help it grow and knitting individuals into collectives with power. It’s more essential than ever, because Trump reigns only if Thatcher still does, too: the only way a chintzy, billionaire real-estate developer could fashion himself as a populist revolt in the first place is if there is no alternative to capitalism. Resisting Trump without resisting Thatcher’s legacy leaves us with the meager comforts of new T-shirts, memorable experiences, and fragile identities. To win more than that, we must transform our already existing community bonds into the core of a political movement, whether through state-supported programs or — when voter suppression and gerrymandering prevent us — institutions we build ourselves.
Matt Hartman is a writer from Durham, North Carolina.
Against Personal Politics was originally published in The Awl on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
This past weekend, I taught a 2-day workshop at Lie-Nielsen we called “Cut the Cord: Build a Table with Hand Tools”. My goal for the weekend was to instill a pre-industrial mindset and approach into the minds of the 15 students in attendance. The project was a taper-legged table from rough cut white pine (a simplified version of the table in our upcoming "Tables" video in our Apprenticeship series ). They needed to work fast - no time for fussy nitpicking. To set the tone, we looked at some examples of pre-industrial work and then watched a brief early 20th-century film of Swedish woodworkers. They were all blown away at the workmanlike pace these guys kept. Then I sent them to their benches with a stack of lumber.
The students worked their butts off. Most of them had never done woodworking like this before. At the end of day one, there was a mountain of shavings that I’m told surpassed any other workshop they’ve had. I was impressed.
The heart of this class was learning efficient stock prep with hand tools, working with reference faces, and drawbore mortise-and-tenon joinery. It was fun to see students relieved to find that usually the most efficient way to do each step is also the simplest. I joked about how my approach was “very scientific” and “calculated” as I undercut most everything and ripped wood off with the foreplane.
At the end of the second day, many of the students were drawboring their joints. If we had a few more hours, we would have had several standing tables. It seems everyone went home happy and exhausted. They told me they learned so much and were so glad they came. Mission accomplished.
I loved this class and am working to refine it to make it even better so that students can get even more out of it. There has been some talk about possibly doing it again next year. No promises but it would be fun.
Thanks to Tom and Deneb at Lie-Nielsen for having me. I am honored to be able to teach at such an incredible hub of knowledge and skill. If you can make it out to any of their workshops, I highly recommend it.