Utility Dovetails – Nancy Hiller on furniture in the wild

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These dovetails (which Jim McConnell joked may have been cut with an axe) are rough in the extreme, but the drawer still moves smoothly after many decades in use.

Whenever we stay in holiday cottages I find myself drawn to the old pieces of furniture you usually find in these places. I open the drawes to check for fit and look at the dovetails, peek inside casework to look at joinery and for evidence of whether the maker processed their stock by hand. As I’ve written about before, such pieces can be a useful education in furniture that was made for daily use by ordinary folk, I have found that such exploration can be really useful to illustrate, and ground, the principles that Joshua and the team write about in Mortise & Tenon. The Cotswolds cottage we stayed in earlier this month was stuffed with furniture that had clearly been made by hand, for daily use rather than for a high-end market. Two pieces in particular caught my eye – a small dresser in the dining room, and a desk in the lounge. The draws of the dresser still moved smoothly and without wracking, which pointed to solid construction. But on examination the dovetails of those draws were quite rough (to say the least). Thinking that others may find this real world example to be interesting, I uploaded a photo to Instagram, and what followed was a fascinating conversation about “utility dovetails” and furniture in the wild. 

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The desk in our cottage. At some point in time someone had decided to fit this brass drawer pull, preventing the lock from being used. I wonder why they did not patch in the lock hole, or place the pull a little higher to completely hide the lock?

Now, I can wax lyrical about my thoughts on utility dovetails till the cows come home. But what I thought would be more interesting would be to offer some insight from a woodworker at the top of their craft. And so, in a very first for Over the Wireless what follows is a guest post, and I am honoured to welcome Nancy Hiller to the blog. As well as being a professional furniture maker, Nancy is one of my favourite woodwork writers – her latest book “Making Things Work: Tales from a Cabinetmaker’s Life” is essential reading for woodworkers and non-woodworkers alike, and her blog is full of thought provoking insights. So dear reader, please read on. 

 

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Nancy’s chest of drawers

A training in craft is a lesson in dissatisfaction. As craftspersons we are taught to internalize the message that we could, and should, always do better. Never mind the pots with minor defects in their glaze, the chairs whose turned finials are not a perfect match. However eagerly you long to exclaim “I made a chair!” you’re taught that these things are but means to an end: that great day when you will produce a Flawless Specimen, presumably the first of many in your career. For now, you must hold your head high as you hurl these personal indictments onto the bonfire.

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One of my favorite pieces of furniture is a chest of drawers I bought at an antiques store in Reading (the English town, not its Pennsylvanian equivalent) circa 1984. At least a century old by now, it’s made of deal, a nondescript softwood, with knots and other characteristics usually considered defects. It was originally painted; traces of finish still linger in the cracks. By the time I came across it, a dealer had dipped it in methylene chloride stripper, which did the joints no favors. And yet it has held together over its three decades in my possession.

I love this chest of drawers, not least because it’s a mass of contradictions. It was made from defect-riddled paint-grade wood, but aside from the top, which is attached with nails, it was built with traditional joints cut by hand. Sliding dovetails hold the drawer rails in place. Stub tenons support the runners. The drawers themselves are dovetailed front and back; their bottoms, along with the cabinet’s back, are also solid. Altogether it’s a strange meeting of coarse and fine, at least by our own day’s standards.

What endears the piece to me most is the dovetails’ imperfection. They taper to a fine point, a mere saw kerf wide–typically considered a mark of high craft. Yet the gauge lines were left in place. What’s more, many of the kerfs go well beyond those lines; and some of the joints have gaps. If I produced a set of dovetails similar to these, I would feel obliged to consider tossing the drawer into my version of a bonfire, the woodstove that heats our house.

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Utility dovetails in the chest of drawers

These dovetails, which were clearly made by an accomplished craftsman intent on getting the job done, remind me that in the universe of making things, utility is no less worthy a goal than fine craft. Amidst the relentless drive to do better, it’s easy to lose sight of the grace that characterizes our very ability to make things, however imperfectly, not to mention the blessings offered by even the most basic material artifacts. Yes, the things we make reflect who we are, at least to a degree; and who wants to be defined by radical imperfection? But there’s a conceit in being so wrapped up in the tightness and proportions of a joint that we lose sight of the bigger picture, which includes those who will use the things we make.

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I often find I can’t look at a piece of my own work without focusing on the parts that should have been done better. Even as I tell myself it’s alright to be less than perfect, I feel a pang of self-loathing. Sometimes I get a chance to visit a customer’s home years after I’ve completed a job. I see a table or a set of built-in cabinetry serving its purpose in its intended setting. And I am able to appreciate my work separate from its reflection of its decidedly flawed maker. It’s a valuable corrective, revealing my self-flagellation as a form of vanity.

This is one of the wonders of making. In the end, it’s not about perfection. While craft entails much character-building struggle, it’s also a practice of learning to accept our failings and appreciate our role as makers who bring useful objects into the world.

 

How I “Met” John Brown

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I never got to meet John Brown. Truth be told, I didn’t hear of his name until several years after his death. But I’m starting to feel like I know the man.

My first introduction to John Brown, and to Welsh Stick Chairs, was as I imagine it was for many woodworkers, a blog post Chris wrote. These unusual chairs were nothing like I’d ever seen before – theirs was a dynamic form, suggesting a feral energy coiled within the sticks, waiting to spring out. I was intrigued, but at that time focusing on lutherie, so I mentally filed the chair away for another day. A little over a year later and John Brown was again mentioned on the Lost Art Press blog, this time in the context of his influential, if hard to find, book Welsh Stick Chairs. Then I bought a copy of The Anarchist’s Tool Chest, and opened the cover to find a dedication to John inside. I was just starting to think about building furniture in addition to my usual workshop diet of lutherie, and my interest was piqued, but I still knew precious little about John or his chairs.

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Welsh Stick Chair in yew, by John Brown

All of that has changed in the past twelve months since I joined the team for the Life & Work of John Brown. The chairs still fascinate me, and I cannot wait to start building some with my co-author Chris Williams. And I feel that I am starting to know John a little. Over the past year we have combed through all of John’s articles for Good Woodworking, his book (yes copies are still out there if you search for them, yes you will get gouged for a tatty second hand copy), his article for Fine Woodworking, and his correspondence. All of this is a great starting point for getting to grips with John’s passion for hand tool work, his vision of the Anarchist Woodworker, and the importance he placed in the Welsh-ness of his chairs. But all of that only presents half a picture – it tells you how John perceived himself and his work, a perspective which is incredibly important. But unless you have exceptional self awareness, your writing and correspondence will never tell the reader how other people perceive you.

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Welsh Stick Chair with carved back panel

And so I’ve spent the weekend on a research trip to deepest Pembrokeshire, where John spent many of his chair making years. This trip has been revelationary, giving my understanding of John context in terms of both space and relationships – we saw the house he lived in when he first started building Welsh Stick Chairs, and the countryside that he wrote so passionately about in Good Woodworking. We also spent time with some of John’s family and friends, talking about John’s path as a woodworker and chairmaker, and his motivation and philosphy in craft, trying to understand the man behind the Anarchist Woodworker. One of the joys of carrying out interviews is not just answering the big questions you came armed with, but the incidental details, or stories that you never thought to ask. Yesterday I sat in a Welsh kitchen, enthralled while John’s first wife unveilled the very first thing John had made from wood – a simple lidded cotton box held together with small tacks, and which is still in use today. It was a powerful reminder that even great makers do not start out building masterpieces – they have to start with simple projects just like the rest of us.

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The first item John built as a woodworker – this cotton box is 61 years old. The path John took from this cotton box to his final chairs is a fascinating.

There is a responsibility when writing about someone other than yourself. To write with integrity, you must approach the subject both sympathetically and honestly, critically but without judging. Above all, it must be accurate. In many ways this is not dissimilar to researching and writing history (one of my very first loves), only in a much more modern setting. Tracking down answers to our questions, and uncovering what should be a rich and vibrant narrative, is thrilling. We won’t be writing a full biography of John Brown – that would take several volumes, and much of it is not relevant to John Brown the chairmaker. But as someone whose craft was more than just what he did with his hands, he is in many ways indivisible from his work. And so we are going to tell the story of Chairman Brown, and to hopefully prompt a well deserved re-evaluation of his impact on the craft.

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The domed stick ends are one of my favourite details on this chair.

Yesterday would have been John Brown’s 85th birthday – a fact that I did not learn until after we arranged the field trip several months ago. But it felt very apt that on what would have been his birthday, I finally saw several of John’s chairs in the flesh for the first time. Running my hands over the smoothed arms, feeling the rough-sawn surface of the underneath of the seat, and yes sitting in, John’s chairs transformed for me a lot of his writing from abstract concept to real craft. These chairs have power, very much like the words of the man who made them. This is a power, and an ethos, which we hope to convey in the Life & Work of John Brown.

I cannot wait to bring you all along for the journey.

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Of course, I had to sit in the chairs.

A Packing Box in the Wild

I’ve written before about how when a project leaves my workbench I tend not to write about it again. Maybe that is entirely natural – it is very satisfying to write about the process of making, and there is an easy narrative arc to writing up projects and the insights offered by standing at the bench. But I do think that seeing projects once they have been released from the workshop, into the wild, can give a new context to the build process, especially when someone else is using something I’ve made.

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The Packing Box loaded up and ready to go to Tom

When I made my first Packing Box from the Joiner & Cabinet Maker I did not have a particular use in mind for the box itself. It was a project I had wanted to build for three years, and I could see that there was a lot of lessons hidden within what was ostensibly a simple project. And so I approached it as a training exercise. But when I finished the build I discovered that the Packing Box itself was really quite charming, and instead of letting it languish unloved in a corner of the ‘shop I wanted to find a worthy use for it. After some weeks of pondering, I filled it with craft beer, mix cds, and an OtW tee, and sent it off to my good friend Tom Richards to say thank you for the outstanding work he had done on creating the branding for Over the Wireless.

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Occasionally since last summer I’ve wondered what Tom did with the Packing Box. And suddenly last week a series of photos popped up on Instagram, showing a familiar forest of clinched nails. It turns out that Tom has purposed the packing box as a memory box, holding several decades of gig tickets, cards, mix cds, and other precious ephemera he wants to keep safe. When I mentioned to Tom that I’d seen the Packing Box on Instagram he replied to me that he had thought “how perfect for the box of a ‘memories box’ be one of the memories itself”, which was incredibly touching! Tom kindly agreed to share a couple of photo of the Packing Box here on the blog.

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Tom is now using the packing box as a memory box holding gig tickets and other precious ephemera

I’m intending to make writing about projects that have escaped into the outside world more of a feature of the blog (all of which will be captured under the “In the wild” category on the right hand side of the screen). Hopefully we can get a conversation going about projects that have left the workbench and found their way to other people – something which Shaun’s excellent blog post already started several hours ago!