There can be no doubt Shaker investment of work resulting from faith-wrought conviction developed a way of life we will never see again. It’s not surprising that the group faded away to become mere memory following some of the unusual teachings they proscribed to. But looking beyond celibacy, separation and other aspects of Shaker life, it is evident that they pursued a measure of collective unison that brought joy to their work and relationships within that creative sphere. Their existence was indeed countercultural. It was in no small measure that they were both eschewing the excesses of the then modern era of new luxury whilst ate the same time presenting work methods as forerunners that laid paths to more industrious processes that soon became cyclical methods of work aspects such as stock preparation using mechanized production the like of which we use today. What is also evident is that, despite the use of planers, bandsaws, lathes and tablesaws driven by line shafts for turbine power, they still relied heavily on traditional hand methods for joinery and surface finishing.
Though sandpaper was around, they seemed not so dependent on it as woodworkers are today. Surface planing was the order of the day and the convex plane iron reflecting in surfaced artefacts mirror exactly how boards were planed with successive side-by-side strokes that brought the finished surfaces. This would seem to me an economic decision in the high-demand agrarian culture they live and survived in. In our modern day alternatives we strive for super-slick and highly refined surfacing, grain-filled to reflective perfection and of course textureless sterility. Smoothness is the order of the day. Rub your hands across Shaker furniture and you will be surprised at the contrast. It’s not that the surfaces fall short or that they are rough, more that they fit both the era and the the lifestyle of more a country life rather than the refined town or city living they separated themselves from. The Shakers were not trying to so much be something but were in essence exactly what they wanted to be. They had in fact “turned, turned and turned” until they “came round right.” And in my view this is what made them right and relaxed and even joyous. No longer did they strive for fashion, recognition and in their eyes the ‘worldly’ fame that many strive for relentlessly.
They had found themselves and discovered rest. Yes, of course they needed to make money, I see absolutely nothing wrong with that, but I believe that that was almost secondary to the way of life they chose.It was lifestyle when all was said and done; a separation if you will from the excesses we so seem destined to pursue the illusion of in our everyday world today. In our lives, we tend to amass the very best tools money can buy to array them on shelves that bespeak our illusion when in reality, in our hearts, we just want to be or become real woodworkers. We so often compete with one another to be the best, the fastest, the most well known and the most alone. Instead of sharing we keep to ourselves. We work independently and thereby alone. Hide our knowledge and keep what’s ours to ourselves. In the worst cases we compete against ourselves. In that case of course we never win because we never find complete satisfaction.
But, you know, there is an alternative. We too can strive to find balance and economy of time and resources. There is no shortage of second hand tools and equipment wherever you source them from. With a little patience and for very little money you can equip your life outside of the workday in which you earn your living to discover something of what the Shakers had. They did in fact have something of a conveyor belt mentality to work, but it was also very balanced. See here a message to us penned in 1855 by the hand of the man that made the chest. Obviously this message mattered to him. Admittedly they were not bombarded with machines the way we are today when every magazine tells of a zillion ways to machine cut simple dovetails, tenons and dadoes. I heard yesterday of someone building a tool cabinet to house his hand tools and telling of how much he loved his hand tools. He then went on to show how to cut dovetails on a tablesaw and make the cabinet with machines alone. It seemed so ironic to those watching the video that that would be the case and I suspect that he did not have a hint about the statement he was really making. Anyway, finding balance is critical to our wellbeing and we have to find that balance before it’s really too late. If we pursue only machines we may never find the kind of satisfaction and fulfillment I am talking of. If we do, we will discover a restfulness in our work we never knew existed. We will join the ranks of Shaker craftsmen and women whether we do it to make a living or not. Ask yourself this. Did you start woodworking to become a machinist, or did you see hand planes and saws slicing wood and dovetailing and think, “I would love to be able to do that.”?