My day was filled in the “seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness” October brings though not in my native England. Yes we had rain, but it was made the more lovely by visiting The Hancock Shaker Village again.
My day off was spent on a return visit to the Hankcock Shaker Museum. Though I felt like an English interloper from Manchester England, I derived a lot of pleasure in the reality that the way I was trained was identical to the way the Shaker craftsmen and women passed on their traditions of artisanry. Apprenticeship was a wonderful thing I now lament the loss of as we buy from other continents what could still be made locally. This thing we call progress tramples under foot the hearts and souls of men and in the UK we refer to certain types of work as soul-destroying work.
In the old or ex-tannery is the woodshop and it reminds me of my own woodshop and my tools. This was the heart of Hancock village woodworking. Furniture making, which of course was as much joinery as it was furniture and as much woodworking as any specific craft within the various woodworking craft trades, included a wide range of built in cupboards and shelves of every imaginable type, shape and size. It pleased me to despecialize the array of titles we were given to use through the decades of the last century and see the whole as simply woodworking or working wood.
Dismantling the various pieces in my mind by what I examined and observed gave me the deeper insights to joinery hitherto hidden from the superficial gaze most people get. Haunchless mortise and tenon joints on doors and panels told me that the beads were removed at the shoulders and yet the precision of hand cut coped corners made me aware of their care and concern for the shrinkage and such that takes place at mitered internal corners. This then told me more. Not readily evident was the care of drying and seasoning the wood they used. With all of the wood stacks now long gone there was not much to examine with regard to drying sheds and such. What was evident to me was something no one talks of today and that is the harmony of air dried wood.
The Shakers observed an absolute essential we have utterly lost sight of in our modern-day mass-making. They recognized the value of not only drying wood but allowing it to season. One thing that was most evident in just about everything I saw was the minimized shrinkage between and within all of the components. This suggests to me that wood was milled and rough-cut, stickered and air-dried, and then further allowed to season, probably for several years regardless of thickness. As a boy I was taught to make sure wood was seasoned and not merely dried. We didn’t talk in realms of kiln dried only but seasoned and dried.
The reductive process of working wood
Woodworking was a reductive process of conversion, seasoning and drying. In the days and the places of Shaker workshops this cyclical process of conversion, seasoning and drying was acknowledged as the symbiotic absolute essential. How do I know? Well, shrinkage tells me a great deal about our forebears and the work they made from wood becomes apparent. Whereas the interior woodwork of all the buildings at HSV is exposed to minimalist heating, there is still shrinkage and expansion within woods used for making doors, boxes and cabinets. Typically, these early makers used European woodworking methods and technique and techniques I still use over 200 years later. Recessed rather than overlaid doors are more European than American and most cabinets made in the US are face-fixed and hung or overlaid because this system requires no fitting at all. It’s fast, efficient and dead ugly, but today it’s the US standard. European styling was to recess the doors and drawers within the superstructure of the cabinet which required careful fitting and craftsmanship. When doors and drawer fronts are overlaid they look clunky, but this then allows the wood to expand and contract at will according to atmospheric exchanges of moisture. In kiln dried wood, this exchange is rapid. The wood is dried but not seasoned and their is no regional acclimation taking place in wood because today of course our wood is shipped state to state and country to country. Locally grown and sources wood sold and worked in a local economy meant the wood stabilized to the local sphere it wood occupy throughout its life. The Shakers were conscious of their environment, recognized the limitations of their sphere, and worked within that sphere. What they created was essential to life itself and so they were not clamoring to create fashionable pieces but down to earth, fit-for purpose goods that expressed order in the making and that orderly making was from the tree to the finished room in which the work would finally occupy its space.
At the end of my visit today I concluded that there was minimal shrinkage in all of the pieces I saw. Shoulder lines on doors were remarkably tight. The same doors, both large and small, fit within their frames with 1/16” tolerance everywhere I went and so too drawers within their recesses also. I loved the fact that so much was made from softer woods and that the work was so very vernacular to become Shaker styled.
For those who like to read John Keats:
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.