The Hancock Shaker Village – Simple gifts

I have heard and sung this song for thirty years and found many hidden truths in its simplicity.

 Simple gifts

 Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free

Tis a gift to come round where we ought to be

And when we find ourselves in a place just right

It will be in the valley of love and delight 

Where true simplicity is gained

To bow and to bend we shall not be ashamed

To turn, turn will be our delight

Till by turning, turning we come round right.

 The Shakers, vernacular artisans

The Shakers were not known so much for making highly refined furniture but durable, well made pieces designed without adornment and lightweight enough to be readily moved and so ensure domestic cleanliness. For us it’s always the pursuit of personal comfort. Their simple concepts of design became for us a specific style and a fashion statement. For them it was simplicity, wholeness and a way of life eschewing the Victorian excesses of the age. Where we live in an age of constant comfort, they simply looked for something to sit on, work from and sleep in. For us the rocking chair is a slouch-on-the-porch chair, for them it was a working chair not wholly different to our modern day wheeled version we use for typing in. Their rocking chair could constantly be pivoted to any direction and pitched to tasks of weaving or spinning or making baskets. Dead simple.

Glib comments of self aggrandizement

What we pass idle comments on on forums and blogs may well not be much more than mere idle opinion. I read in a recent forum where a man slated early furniture makers for not stopping at the depth line with saw cuts either side of the tails and pins. His dovetails were of course always pristine. He said that these early makers were “too lazy to stop.” This is something I have heard consistently for many years from other woodworkers, especially those that never did it for a living. They obviously validate themselves as craftsmen of a higher ilk and compare what they allowed themselves a day to do to those allowed an hour or so. Comparing their work to the work of those working 150 years ago is not comparing apples for apples. What this man and many others fail to realize is that many furniture makers had to dovetail between six and twelve drawers in a single day not one week or even a month, and that in some shops might include the drawer bottoms chamfered and fitted too. Secondly, they worked a large percentage of their twelve-hour day by candle light and not twin tube 8’ fluorescents on 6’ centres. Thirdly, machine work didn’t have an electric one-horse motor with a switch on it. Fourthly, eye glasses were extremely expensive and you couldn’t buy readers from the Dollar Store back then. Fifthly, (and I am sure I could add more) men worked into their old age and were not pensioned at 55 and 60 years old as many men are today. The poster never considered that the wood used by earlier craftsmen might well be pit sawn, circular sawn or bandsaw sawn or riven and then hand planed to flatness and thickness. Not at all the same.

Dovetail statements

I do make perfect dovetails and most of them without measuring and layout. I have done it long enough now to know my limits and work within them and my dovetails always fit perfectly. I have no excuse, I have made thousands of them and I make at least an average of four dovetailed corners a day. Here is a video showing me doing just that. On the other hand, I also lay out some of my dovetails, especially for show purposes and for the highly refined pieces I make. That’s who I am and what I do. Walking through the Hancock Shaker Village the other day I considered what the Shakers were doing a hundred and sixty years ago. The forum person described above would have likely condemned them too as sloppy or lazy for allowing their scribe lines to mark the face of the drawer sides with angles from the sliding bevel or dovetail template. Economy of systematic layout was obviously theirs and I suspect that no one back then was giving them a blank cheque to write in their own amount of pay. I wonder if our age of excesses might be nearer the truth. Perhaps to the Shakers, a man writing condemning forum comments might also be deemed lazy.

An amazing adjustable saw






In the machine shop of belt driven equipment I loved to see the take off power provided by a water-driven turbine under the floor of the workshop. Different cast iron machines stood as if waiting for men to come in and start their workday and so much of this type of equipment is still used by other religious groups such as the Amish and Mennonites. Watching it work didn’t leave me thinking how primitive compared to a our modern day push button models. On the contrary, I saw the Industrial Revolution square in the eye. But it was another development that caught my eye: What about this table saw with its parallelogram fence, sliding table and inclined height adjustment. I thought it was a well thought through concept all around. Simple adjustment, full width wooden rollers and a smoothly operating system seemed to make quite a neat machine really.

 Simplicity is gain

Below is a foot operated mortise machine, quick and almost silent

Of course we buy what we need ready made from Taiwan and they made what they needed in some circumstances we would find intolerable. We use machines that machine to thousandths, they relied on their eye and hand coordination even with the machinery they had at the time. I couldn’t help but admire what they accomplished in the years they worked in the Hancock Shaker Village. There was still that sense of peace I am certain they pursued even though they worked hard. I can contrast my own life working in the many workshops I have worked from. Though the machine is very much a part of my life, I find a different peace when I turn of the machine I used to dimension my boards and start to focus on the joinery. It’s as if I switch off my own internal switch and log in to a whole and complete world exclusive of the noise-invasive machine. At HSV I found myself absorbed into a world I knew too in my own life.

These are my dovetailed Shaker Candle Boxes I have never used any kind of machine to cut a dovetail and I rarely use machines for mortise and tenon or housing dadoes. Often they prove too slow, machine set-up time takes too long, and the risk of damage to my fine wood is too risky. I identify with the Shakers and many other period furniture makers in this one thing. I know and live in that peaceful world of hand work for much of my woodworking. No dust mask, ear protection, face shield or eye protection to separate me from my material. No coughing and wheezing from dust, no ringing in my ears and twenty-twenty vision. I feel thankful not boastful. I spend 80% less time sanding because I can use hand planes and scrapers on my wood surfaces.

Look at these Shaker panels in their doors. The Shakers were vernacular furniture makers. The resolved life in a lived-in world few today could ever conceive of. A famous Shaker song line says, “Where true simplicity is gained.” Simplicity in the ancient Hebrew language means singleness of vision. I like it when i am not distracted by diversions seemingly invented to make life fast, economic and easy. Can you imagine that it takes me two minutes to cut a dovetail joint by eye with perfect angles and absolutely gap free.  That goes with the line in the same Shaker song where it says, “Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free.” Mastering dovetails as I have by hand methods is very freeing. That’s why we focus on this joint on the first day of our workshops.

I heard the opening song resonate throughout one of the buildings as a group harmonized the words in a room above me. Many workshops take place at HSV, from choral work to building timberframes by hand, which I loved to sit and watch the other day. My how I love the past in my present day. Hand work is still my first choice.

One Comment

  1. I’ve been to Hancock several times. I always find it to be a peaceful place to while away a few hours. I’ve been to Canterberry in New Hampshire and Pleasant Hills out in Kentucky but I like Shaker Hancock of the 3 the best.

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