Nowadays the Museum of Modern Art, aka MoMA, is well known for a rarified take on expensive modern art. I try to go visit MoMA several times a year (natives and savvy tourists know when the $25 admission fee is waived) and often feel frustrated by the insularity and smug self-consciousness of the art. Interestingly, at its inception MoMA very assertively proposed a very different model. It conceived of itself as a place whose mission was “educational in the broadest, least academic sense,” in the words of Alfred H. Barr, Jr., MoMA’s founding director.
I own an intriguing book published by MoMA in 1951, “How to Make Objects of Wood,” in keeping with this mission.
The book was the third in the series, “Art for Beginners,” which was “planned as a means of self-instruction for persons working on their own and as an aid for the teacher in directing large groups.” The authors of the book included Victor D’Amico, a progressive educator who began working as the director of MoMA’s Education Project. In that capacity created several outreach programs, including MoMA’s War Veterans’ Art Center and its successor entity when the veterans’ center disbanded in 1948, the People’s Art Center.
The book’s other two authors, Kendall T. Bassett and Arthur B. Thurman, were affiliated with War Veterans’ Art Center; Bassett was also affiliated with the People’s Art Center.
I must confess that I was struck by these entities’ names, which certainly evoke another era. MoMA has an extensive education program to this day, but the activities, which include a lovely program for kids and on-line and in-person classes for all ages, really focus on art appreciation. Hands-on craft is generally restricted to kids' projects. I couldn’t find MoMA classes for adults that promoted craft as something to do oneself, rather than something to admire when an expert creates it. But the War Veterans’ Art Center and the People’s Art Center promoted the idea that art could be made by all sorts of regular people. Rather than just copying what was in a gallery (the traditional museum approach), students at these Centers worked in a workshop to develop their craft and creativity.
According to this press release announcing the War Veterans’ Art Center’s first art show, “The Art Center has a twofold object: to give veterans an opportunity for personal satisfaction in creating some form of art; and to provide preliminary professional training in the fundamentals both of fine and applied art.”
The center, which was founded in 1944, 15 years after MoMA’s founding, was open free of charge (for both instruction and materials) to all returned service men and women. The press release described the center as “ a place where returned service men and women not only learn but produce painting, sculpture, ceramics, industrial design, jewelry, silk screen printing, graphic arts and allied subjects.”
The first year’s divisions included Design Workshop; Drawing and Painting; Graphic Arts; Jewelry and Metalwork; Lettering, Layout, and Typography; Orientation; Sculpture & Ceramics; Silk Screen Printing; Wood Engraving and Book Illustration; and Woodworking Design (taught by Kendall T. Bassett). A typical student was a veteran who prior to the war worked as a farmer but “doesn't want to go back to farming and has decided that our class in Woodworking Design offers him an opportunity to develop a new vocation.” Another student mentioned by the administration suffered an eye injury in combat and was cautioned to avoid heavy labor. “Attracted by the class in Woodworking Design, he came to the Center where he hopes to learn to make toys and small furniture, thus using his skill without physical strain.” Response and Responsibility: The War Veterans' Art Center at the Museum of Modern Art (1944-1948), a master's thesis written about the center, noted that veterans were screened but allowed to enroll at any point of the class and proceed at their own pace at projects that were organized for increased complexity -- a system Victor D’Amico developed specifically for veterans, although it has obvious echoes in progressive child education generally.
In its excitement about its individual-centered approach, MoMA proposed to distribute pamphlets directly to veterans for self-instruction; the publication project then grew into the “Art for Beginners” series, a partnership with Simon & Shuster for publication of books for the general public. How to Make Pottery and Ceramic Sculpture, published in December 1947, was the first. I have that book and another book from the series, How to Make Modern Jewelry in their 1960s paperback editions. (The series includes another book, How to Draw and Paint.)
What did the books have to say?
How to Make Objects of Wood is a notably straightforward book. There isn’t chat about the philosophy of woodworking. The text, which addresses design and construction techniques, and the numerous black & white photographs and sketches, all come right to the point.The tone is encouraging in its matter-of-fact belief that the reader can accomplish a great deal if he or she follows the instruction. The participants from the War Veterans’ Art Center were, after all, experienced at following commands.
The projects start out with a joint and eventually graduate to a desk and dollhouse. You can do it, the book suggests. We believe in you.
Although MoMA’s progressive centers had broad support from its trustees, including members of the Rockefeller family, they withered away with the retirement of their chief champion, Victor D’Amico. The redemptive project of making “objects of wood,” as the humble title called them, was forgotten.
Nowadays we have plenty of veterans, plenty of art museums and a profession called “art therapy” that requires a master’s degree. But we don’t teach woodworking at museums, and we generally separate therapy from vocational training or just evening education. Programs like the War Veterans’ Art Center or the People’s Art Center ended up unable to survive the absence of their charismatic leader, but the ideas they represented deserve a resurrection.
The overwhelming number of handsaws that we see in the wild are 26" long and made by legendary companies like Disston, Alkins, or Simonds. There were many other companies making handsaws, but these were the Big Three. And they all made very good saws. Of course, a restored beat-up 50 year old saw probably won't be as nice to use as a never-touched classic saw, but overall the historical choices of steel, tooth pattern and handle design were excellent. These saws were made by people who knew what they were doing, feeding a market that know what it wanted.
Or did they?
In the late 19th century, Warren Bundy of Minnesota City patented a B.M.T. saw tooth design which was put into manufacture by the Montague-Woodrough Saw Co. The BMT's basic concept was miniaturizing the specific design features that made fast-cutting timber saws so compelling - deep gullets and specialized raker and cutting teeth - and modifying them in smaller back saws and handsaws for use in carpentry. This resulted in a kick-ass, fast-cutting saw that blew through material. The execution wasn't free of complications. The BMT saw cut fast but left a marginally coarser surface than did a fine handsaw. The tooth pattern was irregular and could not be sharpened in mechanical sharpening machines like a Foley Saw sharpener. And Montague-Woodrough Saw Co. was tiny compared to the Big Three, making it a challenge to get the saws into distribution.
So the saw design died on the vine.
But let's give a fresh look at these problems. The distribution issue was a fact of 19th century sales and marketing. In order for the saw to be popular, it really needed a big company behind it and it didn't have one. Nowadays the current saw market is a specialty market, and manufacturers of all sizes can get access to customers in all sorts of ways. The marginally coarser surface turns out, upon further examination, to not be a big deal. In general, the main use of any handsaw nowadays is to break down stock so the final edges and ends can be shot for accuracy and the surfaces planed. For regular framing the cut quality is more than very good with little or no splintering out.
The most important reason the saw never caught on, in my opinion: Sharpening! Hand sharpening the saw isn't particularly hard. In many respects, it's easier than sharpening a traditional pattern saw. The company saw fit to include sharpening instructions etched into the side of the saw. A customer could use regular saw files, but the saw couldn't be sharpened in a machine. So on a construction site where all the sharpening services used filing machines sharpening, a BMT pattern saw would be a big deal. Not so today. A computer controlled setter makes setting the saw straightforward work. The saw's pattern of teeth is a little confusing, but hand filing is routine. The BMT is actually a pretty easy saw to sharpen.
At the first Handworks show in 2013, the late Carl Bilderback, gentleman and saw expert extraordinaire, brought a BMT pattern backsaw by Montague-Woodrough Saw Co. and showed it around. Timothy Corbett, TFWW's designer, was working the show with me and was very intrigued. He was working on a knotty problem. We had said for years and years that we would not manufacture a panel saw unless we could make something better than Disston did in the 1920's. We experimented with taper grinding, tensioning, etc. We could make a good panel saw but nothing really better than Disston. I don't feel bad about that: Disstons in good shape are really good. We thought there might be an interesting market for a "hardware store saw" - you know the kind of saw you put in your tool box, take to a jobs site, to a lumberyard, and so on. The blade was only 16" long, which I though was too short for regular work, but otherwise it made sense. The saw's design had a few cool tricks - using a handle that turned it into a square and ruler was also pretty fun - that made the saw especially useful. In our eyes, the big competition was the cheapo saws you get at the big box stores for a few bucks. The handles are crude and uncomfortable, and the teeth can't be resharpened, but they crosscut like a demon. And rip horribly. We thought there might be a market for a nice saw that could rip and crosscut well. But what would be the tooth pattern? The basic rip and crosscut patterns that Disston and others used are fine and dandy, but they don't crosscut as fast as a big box saw (especially in a shorter length). This is where Tim was when we arrived at Handworks. Carl's saw got him thinking.
The actual tooth pattern we ended up using on the hardware store saw isn't a BMT pattern. It's a variant Tim came up with that works a little better, and needs almost no set. We send a prototype to Carl for his comments, and showed the final design to Carl at the 2015 Handworks. He was really pleased that his work and research was able to inform modern toolmakers. The Montague-Woodrough Saw Co in the pictures was a gift from Carl to Tim.
But getting back to our original point. We find in the shop we have a tendency to grab a hardware store saw for all sorts of stuff. I had thought it would be too short for "serious work" but I have to say I was wrong. As you can see in the video below, it cuts fast, doesn't splinter, rips and crosscuts very well, and is just convenient. I just didn't feel the need to go into my toolbox ( a good ten feet away) to get my regular full sized saws anymore. The extra features of the built-in square and ruler have come in handy, but the shorter length means it's easier to store, transport, etc. I don't feel I am going too slow and need a longer saw. Of course a longer saw in the same pattern might be nice, but it would be inconvenient, and I am debating if my two full sized saws that are mounting in the lid of my toolbox should be replaced with one hardware store saw freeing up space for a sash saw.
I don't have a way of predicting certain how popular this type of saw tooth would have become if it had been marketed by a bigger company and was easier to machine sharpen using a 19th century technology, but I think it would have had a much bigger, well deserved impact. I can certainly celebrate it today.
When I was first studying woodworking, I was taught that the Ancients (any cabinetmaker in the 18th or 19th centuries, but mostly the 18th century) would use really narrow pins as a decorative touch and also to show off their skill.
In the 1990s it became fashionable to use a fret saw to remove the waste between tails. This led me to the following questions:
Did anyone use fret saws in the 18th century to remove waste between tails?
Is there another reason for narrow pins?
Some baseline facts that would argue against the idea that fretsaws were traditionally used to remove waste:
In the 18th and early 19th centuries, fretsaw blades were hand made, usually by the craftsman using them. Marquetry and inlay makers started the day by making a blade. It would make no sense for a run-of-the-mill apprentice cabinetmaker to use a fragile, hand-made fret saw blade to remove waste. Moreover, blind dovetails, which of course are very common on drawers and things, do not lend themselves to having the waste sawn out.
No matter how you remove your waste, you want a clean chiseled baseline. The main reason for removing the waste with a saw is so that afterwards you can just put your chisel on the scribe line and push. The chisel will cut true and perfect. If you don't saw out the waste (with a fret or coping saw), when you chisel straight down on the scribe line, the mass of wood behind the bevel will push the chisel forward and past the scribe line. I was taught a simple and elegant solution: just start chiseling a hair in front of the scribe line and then stop when the chisels moves onto the scribe line.
I should note that I don't have anything against using a fret or coping saw to remove waste. But I am postulating is that in the 18th century it doesn't seem likely that this was done. Times of course have really changed. Today we not only have inexpensive fret saw blades that work well in thicker wood, we also have flush toilets and the option to use both modern conveniences, or one, or neither: it's up to you.
If you chisel your waste out and you use narrow pins, the narrowness is dictated by the smallest chisel you own. Since there are many examples of dovetails with pins that taper to a point, it is hard to believe that chiseling out was practical. Also, if you have ever tried it when the pin was narrow, you know that the waste just clogs up the space. It wedges in place and makes the task a slog.
Here is what I have been doing for the past couple of years: After I cut the tails out, I waste out the material between the tails by sawing straight down with my dovetail saw. This quickly clears enough material so that chiseling to the scribe line is easy. I need just two tools - a saw and one narrow chisel.
On soft wood, a thicker, less expensive saw works very well. You just clear the waste in fewer strokes - just the thing for an apprentice. But as one works in harder wood, the thinner kerf is easier and faster to push accurately and makes more sense.
As far as I know, there isn't a historical record to prove or disprove my theory, although maybe this blog will shake some informed comments. I do know, however, that this method is FAST. For a professional 18th century cabinetmaker, especially an apprentice grinding out drawers, it's efficient.
With narrow pins, you get wide tails. Drawers are mostly blind dovetails - you can't saw them anyway - but it's a lot faster to have narrow pins and wide tails than it is to have even sized pins and tails, because the pins get wasted away with the saw cuts. It's just as much work to remove the waste to fit a wide tail as it is to remove the waste to fit a narrow tail. You just need a wide chisel to match.
A few blogs ago I promised a class in hand tools. Two sessions of my dovetailing class are now on the event schedule BLOG,(973,here) and here. My goal is to teach hand tool usage as a practical thing, not magic. The tools we will use are very, very simple. I'm not trying to show you how you can make one prefect dovetail given enough time and equipment; I'm trying to show you that training your hands to cut straight isn't that hard. It's just like any sport that requires hand-eye coordination. We start at the bottom, and develop hand skill via a combination of simple technique, feedback on what we are actually doing, and practice. My goal is that by the end of the class every student will be producing credible work and be on the road to do greater and more complex work as their skills mature. Just in time for their 18th century apprenticeship.
You can register for the class here.
Time flies when you are having fun! Yesterday was the tenth anniversary of my very first blog entry. I started my blog because everyone was doin' it, doin' it and we didn't want to be left out of the blogging trend. Also, we were about to move to Brooklyn from Manhattan and there was a lot of news to report. Over the years I have written on just about every woodworking topic I could fathom. I try not to write about the same thing again and again, but as we all know I do it anyway.
It's been a tremendously rewarding experience for me on several levels. Of course I think the blog helps drive traffic to the website, but on a personal level it's made me a much better writer, gave me an excuse to investigate things I would not normally feel justified to do, and - most importantly - when I write about a subject, I get to think about it in depth, and learning more is very rewarding. It makes me happy when people come up to me and tell me that they read my blog. If you write and people read your stuff - it's a perfect world, and what more can you ask for.
The biggest problem I have today is that my time is limited and I don't have the luxury of research that I used to. That being said, I like to think woodworking is an broad subject and I've only scratched the surface. I would be remiss it telling you that up to a few years ago I pretty much wrote every word of the blog, with help from Sally, my wife, to make sure the grammar wasn't embarrassing. However in the past few years Sally has come to the rescue on more than one attempt and ghosted a fair number of entries. I think the rule of thumb is, if the spelling is good and the writing compelling, it's a good bet that she had a real hand in authorship. I don't feel bad about this - I feel wonderful that I get such support from my family. Nobody works in a vacuum, and magazines have staff.
I do have a request: if you have a favorite entry, or a post you remember fondly, I would love to find out about it. Maybe we will do a "Greatest Hits" page.
Thanks again for all your support.
PS Even as I look back to 10 years of blogging, I'm looking forward to July 29th, when master luthier Ian Kelly will be visiting our Brooklyn showroom and carving Spanish Cedar into the neck of a guitar. He'll be using a Gramercy Tools rasp, a spokeshave and sandpaper, and of course his own skill. We hope folks in the NYC area will stop by and you are all invited! Ian will be there from 1 - 5 pm.
My mother bought this bookcase sometime in the 1940's, I think. It was sitting in my parents living room for over 40 years before they downsized and gave it to me. I brought it to the shop because my apartment already has too much stuff but I liked having it around. In our former location I had an office and had room for the bookshelf and a need for a place for my tool books, but at our current location I've struggled to put it to good use.
I still love the bookcase but I admit it's now in the way.
What continues to charm me about the bookshelf? I'm old enough to remember Scandinavian modern BI -- that is, Before Ikea. I had a Wim & Karen bed. Blond wood, simple and elegant lines. Nowadays the Scandinavian look has been co-opted by Ikea - though to be fair Ikea has also rummaged extensively in Japanese and other nationalities' aesthetics - so much so that some people assumed that the pricey Wim & Karen furniture was Ikea's. But Ikea stuff never had the details of this bookcase.
I love the carved in recessed handles of the glass doors.
I love the glass top. Were the mod-century owners expected to put a highball glass on their bookcases? Of course. No wonder they needed a glass top.
Historically, this piece dates from the early days of "modern furniture". Unlike a modern piece, everything is solid. The shelves are pretty thick but chamfered at the bottom to give the appearance of a lighter design. That's a good trick and worth remembering. Since this is the early days the shelves, pins are turned metal, not stamped out.
I find the details at the bottom - a base that mimics the main carcass but is upside down, very interesting, and the large miters at the corners perfect for a peice that is modern in look but not really in construction.
The bookcase is in pretty good shape, albeit with a lot of nicks and dents. So it might need some refinishing. The glass is in very good shape and moves smoothly on its track, which of course is the key. If you are interested in having it for yourself, $199 or Best Offer takes it away. (Actually, you will need to take it away. We will not ship it though we will help you pack the glass for safe transit.) If it doesn't move in a week or two, off it goes to a charity thrift store and later into a new home of admirers.
In other news - this Saturday is my free sharpening class and on Saturday July 29th master luthier Ian Kelly has volunteered to come to the shop and Carving a Guitar Neck for us and anyone who want to see how it's done. Lutherie is one of the most interesting branches of woodworking where everything is a combination of science, craft, & sculpture. So that's going to be real exciting and it's free.
|Back in the 1980's, when I took my first class in how to cut a dovetail, we used the following tools: saw, mallet, chisels, pencil, marking gauge, sliding bevel, square, and some clamps. We didn't use a dovetail gauge but set the sliding bevel to the appropriate ratio. We laid out the entire joint with a knife and pencil. I was taught to chop the waste out with a chisel - sawing the waste out wasn't common at that time. The lessons were slow and careful. The hardest part was sawing straight. |
More modern instruction might add a fretsaw to the list of tools for removing the waste.
I have two problems with this approach. In the late 18th century thin, fragile, fretsaw blades were hand made, usually by the craftsman. They were not tools you would use for the rough work of chopping waste. The combination square hadn't been invented but wooden squares were common. Pencils not so much. Tools were expensive, and while an apprentice would use the master's tools in the beginning, as you can see in the Joiner and Cabinetmaker, written in 1839, the idea of using lots of specialist tools wasn't common.
I also cannot imagine that the step-by-step instruction that we have today were used. Apprentices learned by paying attention, and mimicking their betters.
In a typical blind dovetail drawer, the pins would have been very narrow and the tails wide. While some folks have written that this was a style and done for aesthetic reasons, I disagree. If you make your tails wide enough, and with tiny pins, it's really easy to waste away the bulk of the waste with a few extra cuts of the dovetail saw. (Note: in the picture above the pencil lines are just there to make sure I cut the tails in the right direction. The lines aren't guide lines for the saw - or straight). Chopping with a narrow chisel to the line then finishes up the job. Regarding the drawer fronts, with the sockets for the tails you can't use a fretsaw for much anyway; a wide chisel makes quick work of the waste. Chopping a space for a tail in a blind mortise is about the same amount of work no matter what the size of the tail.
Dovetailing drawers was considered junior work.
A question: By trying to emulate the sparse 18th century toolkit of an apprentice or journeyman, and cutting out some of the extra tools and steps, would it be easier to teach a novice how to do this basic joint?
The answer would seem to hinge on the ability to consistently saw straight coupled with accurate layout. Everything else is pretty easy. But perhaps all activities needing hand eye coordination are similar? Golf, Basketball, Ping-Pong: All of these sports are about practice, not specific instructions for throwing a ball in each individual case. Once you master the basic hand motions, instruction can make you more efficient, and planning can make you more effective.
Back to the workshop.
If I asked you to fill up a glass with water and walk across the room with it, it wouldn't be a big deal. Humans as a group tend to try to stay level and straight. The same thing is true with woodworking. As a test, I asked some people in our store - both people who aren't woodworkers and those who are - to try to cut straight. We didn't mark out anything. The cut needed to be square on the top and sides. In the photo above, the marked cuts are by one person who had never done this before. The first cut was with a gent's saw. It's off a little. The next cuts were with our dovetail saw and they were spot on. Finally, the last cut was made with the gent's saw, but with a little instruction on how to hold the saw. It's dead on too. (The other cuts in the wood were made by different people in the past weeks mostly to test saws and don't have anything to do with this experiment.)
I'm wondering if the difficulty beginners have in cutting dovetails is that we think too much. The adult education tradition for woodworking comes out of school instruction, often teaching a roomful of students who are mandated to be there. This is very different from teaching a small group of adults who WANT to be there.
I am working hard on offering a class in basic joinery that relies on amplifying skills that we all already have - like carrying a glass of water without spilling.
So far the class tool kit consists of a saw, a square, a marking knife, a marking gauge, and a chisel or two. I honestly believe that our dovetail saw makes it easier for someone to saw straight, but I also don't want to require everyone who takes our class to buy one of our saws if they don't want to. But a gent's saw - which is the next easiest thing - is affordable. I'm still working on the schedule, pondering whether it should be just a class in cutting a dovetail or a series of classes over several Saturdays (or weekday evenings) in which we grind, sharpen, learn to saw, and then make a dovetailed box.
By the way our last two all-dayclasses, Modern Furniture Construction - Making a Kitchen Cabinet and a Building a Zig-Zag Chair went great and we are doing a second section on Modern Furniture Construction - Making a Kitchen Cabinet on July 8th. There a couple of seats still open click here for details.
On July 15th, I am repeating my popular free class Sharpening 101. You are all invited.
|The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the blog's author and guests and in no way reflect the views of Tools for Working Wood.|