The Dresser Design Progresses Nicely

The close of 2017, between Christmas and New Year, was a quiet time really. Colder days, mostly frozen and wet, with some fogginess too, seemed all the more to isolate me from the world at large. Crossing the Thames river to work meant bridges were often shrouded in misty swirls, as if the deep river was breathing into the rising sun. Unlocking my workshop door reopened yesterday’s silence of peace and quiet and the work I did each day without the usual gathering of others I’m usually with. Traveling along quieter roads too had that ‘left-behind’ eeriness to it, but then when I saw my work waiting on and around my workbench I felt a settledness in being on my own. It was as if my life was arrested. For decades now this has been my life. One time I’m immersed in people, the next immersed in silence and loneness. I’m never lonely. These pockets are always dynamic. It’s where I live and breath and have my being. It’s also what I live for in so many ways and I love it.

Prototyping has become all the more meaningful to me and I use pine as a less expensive wood type for this. Whereas, yes, prototyping is usually very interesting to me, it’s also much  more than that. Mostly the world has changed drastically and people seem less engaged in the making of things and therefore less apt to care about finding the kind of meaning I and others experience in developing ideas and thoughts into a finished piece and that saddens me. I don’t mean that nobody does, just that a large percentage don’t. Few people have the ability to engage in the making of something these days and I think that that’s why great bake-offs have such an impact and that people like to watch human hands take an amorphous unknown and make it into something that counts. I don’t often use the word fun as my US friends often do because I suppose I take my work more seriously than self-entertainment. Work has always been serious in that it’s how I earned and still earn this thing called a living from and worked for the pennies to feed and clothe everyone in my family. You see I like the seriousness of work I suppose. Not that I don’t like a laugh or to joke, but I also enjoy the sobriety of work and never would I shun sobriety.
Throughout my work life I’ve actually always enjoyed the risk of things without the guarantees of receiving a regular fixed wage income. Mostly it’s because it challenged me to make things work and this risk was always integral to my work. It meant I had to rely on myself differently than others might. It meant I had to use my wits and skills to take raw wood from even a tree to develop the stages resulting in the finished designs I created. Perhaps it’s actually more primordial in the sense of hunting and gathering, growing and harvesting was the day to day survival in times past. Instead of hunter-gatherer I was maker-seller and this was due to cultural shifts perhaps in some measure dictating the adaptations we make to make this thing now called ‘a living’. If I didn’t work, my family would bear the result, so I never didn’t work six days in a row at the bench and my family never went short. I must say though that ,whereas I might not use the term ‘fun‘ as others might, I still find work highly stimulating, vibrant and then, even more important, fulfilling. The demand for creativity in the work itself has always really mattered to me. Nothing else has sustained me like work. It has always elevated me beyond the high tors (in the original sense of the word) when I climbed rocks, or canoed rivers and lakes, or when I bivouacked and worked in other more high-demand spheres. My work still retains the essential elements of challenge for me, and in a wide range of ways that people generally might never experience, or see only on rarer occasions.

So working on the prototype here has allowed me to create a few surprising elements I am enjoying developing. Mostly they surround the kind of joinery most machinist woodworkers never experience but it’s even more than that. I have built into this project some aspects that guarantee accuracy levels allowing each dovetail joint to interchange position with one another even though that’s not actually necessary. And then too I have done the same with the mortise and tenons too. Why? Because I can. Of course all I have done is hand cut and if you see the time lapses we will be incorporating you will see I have used a range of different tools perhaps less traditionally used. For me this is the serious side of my decision making at the workbench, in the rhythm of work-life economy in terms of time and then energy too.

Critical thinking has always been important to a working craftsman’s lot. The luxuries many see as a right today were not allowed to me because of the demands of my work and that has been true through the centuries. I find this true for the amateur woodworker too in that they may have the tools the wood and the desire but time is the greater premium for them. Especially is this so in the USA, where work demands are so high. So many of my reasons for doing what I did in terms of economy are still governing those who can only work wood in their private time because their private time is so scarce. These past days I have added my considerations to show the progression of the work when I switch say from using a regular 14″ tenon saw to another saw type or skip the use of one tool to another.

Things come at a price

Whereas many people take for granted the techniques we introduced 20 years ago as being the norm, but in many ways they were quite brand new at the time we introduced them. That’s actually what I wanted. Normalising is part of what we aim for. Take the knifewall for instance, I mean the term. Knifewall has indeed been adopted by many and that shows that people better understand the concepts of the work we do. When machines are so efficient we had to come up with methods that at least matched the machines in terms of accuracy. We knew that machines created ease but at the same time impossibility. Whereas the wealth and expectation of say the US made things possible for all, there was still a massive percentage of people who could and would never own a battery of machines and a machine shop with all the dedicated equipment needed. This would make woodworking impossible. Yet magazines that in times past basically promoted machine methods began to at last cotton on to the reality that there is an alternative reality they actually missed or dismissed for decades.

Hand tool woodworking has clawed its way back into realms of true reality and made woodworking vibrant and alive for everyone again. And of course most are starting to see that hand work is far more therapeutic, opening up many benefits without it being at all exclusive. Those without pots of spare or disposable income or cash are now achieving equal results and equality with those that do. But you know, for most people, they didn’t altogether see that the knife actually created a wall in a cut line so much as a mere marking as in the use of the term marking or striking knife. That’s changed and we did something that changed all that. The router for trimming tenons is another one of those concepts. Now many enjoy this simple adaption that so guarantees the perfecting if tenons.

As the Craftsman-style Rocking Chair series comes to a close this month this coming project brings concepts new and old to unite the best of the past with the present and future. Some of you work in a 6 foot by 6 foot box room in East Manhatten, Birmingham, England and Bangalore. We have pretty much proved that you can making most things in such a space because reestablishing hand skills makes that possible. Remember to that it has been the escalation of machine use over the past 50 or so years that has precluded the new and emerging generations from learning real woodworking. I am as ever referring to children in woodworking of course. I am not anti-machine at all. I am anti whatever precludes others from gaining ground be that children or anyone else. I like machines and understand them and their importance to us as much as I do hand tools. It’s not an either or for a large segment of society, but you can achieve equally wonderful results with hand tools and own the therapy it brings to your life if you learn to become masterful in their use. I think it is always important to remember this too; universally, the finest levels of hand work ever accomplished, and I mean absolutely unparalleled by any and all methods, came in the pre-machine era of around the 1700s. What we have accomplished so far over say the past decade or so is only the beginning and whereas we are all enjoying the change that’s taking place, others are now standing on our shoulders to take it to a new level.  I look forward to their accomplishments as I grow in my now senior years. The baton is being passed day after day.

18 comments on “The Dresser Design Progresses Nicely

  1. “tradition is not the worship of ashes but the preservation of fire” or similar translations is what comes to mind Paul. Quote by Gustav Mahler.
    Thank you and your team for continuing to provide us the foundations to work from.

  2. I woodwork in an 8×14 shed in Yellowknife, Canada using techniques learned from Paul and his team. No windows and rarely above 12 degrees in the shed in winter but every time I go in their I’m smiling! Thank you!

  3. Working now in a tight low ceiling basement in Vermont producing a large storage cupboard for upstairs in sections. Crackle of the wood stove,..shearing of the plane. ‘Fun’ is an applicable word and of course ‘Satisfaction’. Very thoughtful blog!

    Appreciated reading your use of the term ‘Cotton On’ Paul. Those Americanisms will stay with you as do my Anglicised phrases that pop up from past history. Made me chuckle.

  4. I am very much looking forward to this series, Paul. I am only now in the process of making a European-style workbench based on your videos and blogs, having previously used a rickety Ikea fiberboard dining table found on the street with a $20 Harbor Freight vice. My wife is expecting soon and the thought of one day making a dresser for our child fills my heart with scintillating joy. Seeing the joints I have made improve over time is a huge reward in itself. I think some of those woodworking magazines and television shows take the attitude that the tools (machines) are just a means to an end and that only the result matters. When I see those fine knife lines progress into a perfectly accurate and beautiful dado or develop into an straight and stately crosscut, I see and know that the rewards are received all throughout the process of making. What a tremendous blessing!

  5. Just to clarify………… is it a chest of drawers or a dresser?

    In this part of the world (Wales) a dresser (originally corrupted from ‘dressoir’) is about six feet tall, often open fronted and intended to display crockery.

    It would be very good indeed – and challenging – to make a proper dresser!

    • I understand Welsh dresser but the term is only valid in Wales so not really valid nomenclature around the world. Dresser in the larger audience of the USA is something that holds clothing hence dress and dresser. Makes more sense.

    • Interesting. I love different vernaculars. I live in the US in the state of Alabama. My grandparents who’s grandparents immigrated from the Appalachians, would switch from chest of drawers (they pronounced it Chester drawers) to dresser. No real reason they would just call it both.

    • In my part of the world (Queensland) also, a “dresser” is a piece of kitchen furniture as described by Y Saer. It is sometimes referred to as a “kitchen dresser”. Such a piece of furniture conforms with the Concise Oxford Dictionary’s definition of the word “dresser” as being a “kitchen sideboard with shelves for dishes etc.” The dictionary notes that the word, as an Americanism, means “dressing-table”. The SOED states that the word has been employed in the English language since 1552 in the sense given in the COD.

  6. One of my sons came over yesterday with a six foot long finger jointed pine board to use as a shelf. He was frustrated because my shop saw will only crosscut a 48 inch length and he needed a longer shelf. I laughed, cleared my bench and hand cut the width, 24 inches. He stood the cutoff piece on it’s cut edge, and it remained standing when he took his hand away. That close to 90 degree result off the hand saw comes from many years of practice. A stately crosscut indeed!

  7. Man i wish i could just work with paul for just 1 day I’m building you workbench right now all by handtools and I admire the way you go about doing things im self taught besides learning from you paul and i progress so far very well im far from being a good craftsman man but all i can do is learn and i want to thank you so very much for taking your time to teach because without finding you i would have thought i needed all these machines i have all the handtools that i really need and it works and its alot more gratifying to do things by hand i think anyway thank you sir for all you have done for everyone hope to.learn more soon i have your book working wood 1 an 2 about to but the essential hand tools book soon have a great day and a happy new year

    -Jon-

  8. Its not what you make, it’s how you make it. As Paul always says. In my house there are afew thinks I made prior to wwmc came into my life they have no joinery some don’t even have any real wood. They were quick and easy to make and they do the job I designed them to do, but I look at them with an air of disgust the only saving grace is I didn’t pay a Chippy to do them. I will , in time replace them. Thank you for everything Paul and team happy new year

  9. thank you Paul. I am a semi retired stair builder from Dudley in Australia. I was taught to use hand tools and continue to do so and though I am forced to use machines for so much of my work, the important parts, especially wreathed and scrolled handrails, still require me to use my hand tools, and it makes my day as I use them. Love what you are doing. Keep on keeping on. God bless you. All the best for 2017.
    David Lindsay

  10. Life can be so unfair. In the US they have wonderful and evocative place names like Yellowknife whereas we in the UK get landed with Slough and Sidcup.
    I want to live in Yellowknife! I want to have an address like Commanche Way, Sunset Strip or Dodge Boulevard! Not Privet Drive or Furze Gardens.
    Sigh.

  11. All my life I have lived with a Yorkshire dresser which belonged to my parents, accompanied me to America and back, and now lives here in Lewes. A dresser was used to “dress” the table, and held dishes and cutlery. The thing you use in the bedroom to dress yourself is a dressing table, and usually has drawers but no shelving.

    • Having lived extensively on two continents I feel I understand more than say when I simply lived in England. I went there and heard terms i might then have considered misused but soon came to realise terms weren’t really owned by the British if they were applied by a different culture defining itself from many previous cultures through those who migrated there to create it. Now that we have greater freedom in traveling and living in countries belonging to others we become influenced by that country in some measure but then we too influence that country in different measure. Culture never really stands still in its development and its developing. This is important. So a dresser from Cumberland may well be known as a Cumberland dresser but if it mirrors a Welsh dresser it may well change name. So it is with a “chester drawers” and this might be so even in the spelling if no one influences it differently. I love all of this and the interaction this unintentionally provoked. Thank you everyone, very much!

  12. That was a profound and fascinating article.

    It is rare to find such insight in the modern secular world into what it means to be a person, and what it means to be a worker.

    Paul you have given me faith.

  13. I believe the term chester draws is incorrect. It should be ‘chest of draws’. Makes more sense that way. Thats the way we spelt and pronounced it just down the Mersey from you in Northenden !!!

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