Every “getting to know…” feature is a real privilege for me, and I am indebted to each of the participants who give their time to answer questions for Over the Wireless. This month is a very exciting instalment. Taking the hotseat is the driving force behind one of the most singular, and important, woodwork publications of the present day, not to mention a woodworker who has tirelessly given back to the community, and offered countless insights into a different approach to handtool work.
So without further ado, let’s get to know… Joshua Klein.
- You trained as a luthier, right? What lead to the move from lutherie to furniture conservation?
I did. Ironically, I started out as an amateur musician interested in finding a steady career in the music industry. I liked the idea of working with my hands and thought repairing instruments might be a good fit. I went to a lutherie school but, frankly, was less than enamored with the specialized jigs for machinery to make each precise cut. Even though I didn’t have any other woodworking experience at the time, it felt more like a machine shop than a woodworking shop. I guess it just felt too precise for my personality type and interest. To further expand my skillset, I attended the National Institute of Wood Finishing in Rosemount, MN and trained under Mitch Kohanek. It was through learning to preserve old finishes that I fell in love with historic furniture. Although we learned many aspects of wood finishing from conventional finishing technology to conservation work, I gravitated toward the preservation end of things. Seeing the history of an object recorded in the marks and wear of an old surface really resonated with me and so seeking to understand and preserve that story became my passion. I think the richness of American furniture history pulled me away from the interest I had in 20th century guitars.
- To my knowledge Mortise & Tenon is unlike any other woodwork publication available, and fills a very specific space. What prompted you to create this very singular publication?
I’m not going to lie… I got bit by Schwarz’s Anarchist’s Tool Chest bug when it first began circulating. Through that reading I became increasingly interested in exploring the viability of using only hand tools in the shop. This developed in my mind because, as a furniture conservator, I saw so many of the originals whose construction looked nothing like the uber-precise modern machine-made reproductions I saw. Through this examination of the originals it dawned on me that most folks today that pooh-pooh hand tools as slow and arduous do so because they’re unfairly assuming modern machine tolerances. I knew I had to find a way to share this information with woodworkers who were interested in giving hand tools a fair shake.
As a furniture conservator, I occupy a unique (and sometimes awkward) place. I’ve always felt like I was straddling two spheres: I spend a lot of time around curators and antique dealers and at the same time have a lot of woodworking friends. I’ve learned so much from each but found that it seemed these worlds don’t interact much so Mortise & Tenon came out of a passion to connect these dots. My belief is that by looking closely at the originals we can understand how hand tools were used efficiently by our ancestors. This is the way we can rediscover hand tool only woodworking to be viable option for woodworkers today.
- The first issue of Mortise & Tenon has (very rightly) caused a lot of excitement. What do you have planned for M&T issue 2, or the future of M&T more generally?
Issue Two is already under development. I have authors started on pieces and most of the rest of the content is planned out. As far as future expansion or development is concerned, I feel like I can’t say for sure. M&T is definitely a worthwhile and sustainable project that will continue. The magazine has been getting way more interest than I ever anticipated and it’s been an immense amount of work to keep up with. I’ve hired some friends to help keep this thing running. We hope to begin releasing this publication twice a year after a couple more issues. We’ll be at woodworking shows and other events throughout the year. Who knows? Maybe in the future we’ll be putting on our own events. We’ll just have to take it as it comes.
- You are also writing a book on the 19th century minister and furniture maker Jonathan Fisher (due to be published by Lost Art Press). Tell us a little about that book and the research process. Fisher sounds like he led a multifaceted life, as do you – do you find him to be a kindred spirit in that regard?
Jonathan Fisher was a furniture-making minister in Blue Hill, Maine working in the first quarter of the 19th century. The house he built for his family is now a museum filled with furniture attributed to his hand. When I first visited I thought it was neat until I learned that his chest of tools survived in another Maine archive. Then I was intrigued. After a little more inquiry, I discovered that not only was there all this furniture and the tools used to produce it but that there are 35 years of daily journal entries documenting everything he did each day. Then I was thrilled. It was the realization that no furniture scholar had ever been made aware of this rare survival that made me obsessed. The past few years, the Fisher museum has graciously given me access to the collection for regular examination. The book I am working on for Chris and John is looking at this unique survival of a skilled but part time furniture maker serving his local rural community. I want to mine this story for all the gems it has for today’s woodworkers. I think many people will resonate with Fisher and find inspiration in his work. I know I definitely find a kindred spirit in Fisher. I also have many interests and so I find his proficiency in all of these areas inspiring.
- As if you weren’t busy enough with your furniture conservation business, M&T, and the book on Fisher, last year you also bought a 200 year-old house and promptly dissassembled it for the purposes of rebuilding it on your homestead. How is the rebuilding process going? And can you tell us a little about the rationale for relocating an existing historic property?
Doesn’t everybody do that? Kidding. No, I don’t know. My wife and I are hopeless antiquarians. This local gem of a central chimney cape cod was going to be bulldozed because the sills and first floor joists were totally rotted out and no one was willing to put the effort in to restore it. We didn’t have the heart to let it go. We had been shopping around for a house to raise our boys in and the timing worked out. I hired a crew of guys to help for a few months. There are many hundreds of photographs and drawings and every joint is labeled and documented. It’s safely stored disassembled for now. This year we will begin the multi-year process of restoring it to its original glory. The trim was almost completely untouched original Federal and Greek Revival trim. All the original doors and hardware were there. There was minimal electric wiring and the house never was plumbed. Because it was pretty much original it was a perfect candidate for a historically sympathetic restoration. We feel very blessed to have it.
- A respect for, and immersion in, traditional techniques and work methods seems to be the common thread that binds together your furniture practice, M&T, the book on Fisher, and your homestead. What is it that draws you to traditional ways of living and furniture making?
I guess I have fallen on my face too many times when I ignored the wisdom of those who have gone on before me. For me, any way to connect to simple and traditional lifestyle choices is a very grounding thing. I am not all about eschewing modern society but I do think we all know very well that sitting on our butts staring at a screen all day is not a very human way to live. We are all creative beings that need to connect to our community around us and I guess I think of community as a transgenerational thing. If we are going to try to solve problems all our ancestors faced already or use the tools they used, maybe we should ask them to give us some pointers. I think we might all be a bit better off.