Dismantling the Past

A box I made without laying out the dovetails, measuring them or using a dovetail template. Sapele and poplar.

As a general thing I find undoing another man’s work humbling. You tap parts apart, break glue lines a man joined together a hundred or two hundred years ago and there you find a chisel cut and a man’s name written in cursive script that flows in a way most young men and women no longer know. The man was a working man, a workman, a man who knew nothing of telephones, let alone smart phones and devices. Most smartphones last a year or two–the man’s work beyond 150 and possibly 500. I found little trace of flawed work but work that demanded effective cuts resulting in skilled speed. My dismantling reminded me that speed came from as many free-hand cuts following imagined lines as possible. The dovetails, all of them freehand cuts, no measuring and no templates, like mine on this box. I made this to show how a box could be dovetailed freehand for a video in under an hour in 2011. Not just dovetails, round-overs, recessed hinge setting and applied finish too. I could make choices. I am a freeman. The man making these had no choice. There were 10 men waiting for this job if he was slow, sick or grew old. In the man’s day there would be little time for show offs. It would be work for 12 hours. No 36 1/2 hour weeks for him. Try 12 hours a day, six days a week. I suppose back then there was no need for specialised cycle gear and gyms to exercise muscle seldom never used. There was something honest inside the work although the joints should have been tighter, better fitted. It was mostly glue that told me the story. Brittle, hard, amber coloured and shiny, shining like glass as I exposed the bottoms of the hand-chopped mortises. The hot animal hide glue too made you work quite quickly, as if in the bosses pay. But then, if an apprentice job, the man would goad you to move quickly, before the glue “globbed up” and stopped flowing.

In a YouTube video I showed how to use a finish nail as a drill identically sized to the nail you would nail with. Someone said which furniture maker would use nails. He was full of pride. Look back in history and there would be no one working with wood didn’t have need of a well-placed, well-driven nail. I let the comment slide. Nails were a great invention. They just shouldn’t be used in the place of joints as is common today. So in and throughout these pieces there are indeed nails. Some nails worked in place of clamps. This is what the arrogant pup wouldn’t know. Screws too have long since been used as temporary clamps until the glue sets. It’s just that the nails and screws weren’t always removed because it was often cheaper to leave them there than to take them out. There was a time when nails were very expensive, screws too. So you see, nails were commonly used in many areas of woodworking craftwork. Usually only where necessary. A lip round a table rim would be glued and pinned, heads punched and then wax filled, bees wax, before staining and polishing.

Another arrogant man said once that his dovetails were better made than the old timers, but then I pressed him on time. His joint took hours, this man’s minutes. You see it’s not apples for apples. There was no job protection back then. No worker’s rights as such. The saw kerfs do not speak of carelessness but pressure, economy and directness. He may have had no choice. He brought home the income for a family of five or more. It was a condition. So I’m humbled again, working through the dismantling to discover two tenons side by side where no one would know but the man who made them. Saw cuts on the cheeks, no paring. So the tenons are established and both slide into twin mortise holes and never part again until now; here in my hands I see a man’s work unfolding in mahogany. I feel proud to follow in the steps of skilled workmanship. My craft belongs to me and I am at peace. It’s skilled, uncompromised, honest.

27 thoughts on “Dismantling the Past”

  1. English cabinetmaker, Jim Kingshott, had some enlighning anecdotes about his workshop experiences in the “old days”. You could be “sacked” for wearing glasses or sitting down, and you were fined for every stray tool mark.
    He was once given a bit of dovetailing to do. Fifty drawers! You can bet he wasn’t given a couple of weeks to do them!

  2. Denis Bedford

    Enjoyed reading this article very much, Paul.
    Humility itself is a long lost art!

  3. Alan Prescott

    I wonder how many know the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs or have read “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists” and have some idea bout just how hard life has been in the past for the common working man (and woman).
    Paul’s apprenticeship sounds to have been quite a good one but many apprentices were used as (effectively) child slave labour before before legislation controlled it.
    For all it’s faults we are living in a much easier and enlightened age and and it’s up to us to ensure that those days never return.

  4. Steve D'Avella

    Paul, I am often excited for the days I can share your words with my boys when they are old enough to understand them. I have worked with my hands my entire life. Now as I am getting older and slowing down, I am learning the art that you teach and that has been lost for so long. I thank you for the time you spend writing and sharing with us your thoughts. Not only for passing along lost skills of craftsmanship but a respect and understanding for men long gone. My grandfather is now 98, lives near by, and I often pause after reading your words and think of the things he has seen and the things he has made in his life. My generation has become so lost in flashy tools and gadgets we have missed the beauty in making something of quality. Thank you for slowing us down and pointing out all that we are missing. I pray you are blessed in your work as I am by it.

  5. Phill N LeBlanc

    men leave behind their art, like Van Gogh or Mozart. But they also leave behind their sweat and honor and humanity in every-day work. Not just woodwork – the past is all around us. Makes me wonder what I’ll leave behind.

  6. Walter Ambrosch

    Thanks Paul,
    Brilliantly put once again.
    We have today gone so far from the reality which was woodworking as a trade. As you wrote “His joint took hours, this man’s minutes.”.
    That’s where as we say the rubber meets the road in everything.
    While we should always chase perfection, there is that fine line between getting something done and how good id good enough.
    Peace. W

  7. Paul, were apprentices who were just starting to learn joinery told to work fast (even if not perfectly) and accuracy would come with practice? Or, were they told to work as slowly as needed to be accurate, and speed would come with practice?

    How much of speed do you think is skill vs. confidence? Does speed really come from doing operations quickly, or does it come from not scratching your head wondering what the next step is, so it’s more a matter of moving along consistently?

    Thanks for your insights.

    1. Paul Sellers

      They received a clout for every failed stroke so learned quickly. Dead simple. I got the same! I was a quick learner. Some rough handling along the way but I made it through and learned never to be cruel myself.

  8. Mark Baldwin

    Makes me wonder what the old timers could have done if they could have taken their time.

  9. John Cullinan

    Paul, once again words of deep wisdom. I spent 8 years doing night school in woodworking. We used hand tools, taught by a great woodworking teacher Tony Martin. I then discovered power tools and speed. But lost satisfaction and quality. I am now returning to hand tools. Buying planes, saws, hand routers, combination planes, rebate plane, shoulder plane and so on. The first project will be a shooting board, then a dovetail template then who knows but I am looking forward to the challenges and achievement in the future.

  10. Love your blogs Paul. As a craftsman I appreciate your honest opinion on workmanship. My co workers and I often laugh while flipping through magazine articles of how to cut a better dovetail, “use this new jig, or this even better jig, or try this new technique!” I wonder how many beautiful projects have met their fate by a jig malfunction or not being properly set up? And for what those jigs cost you could buy 5 dovetail saws and still have money left over! It’s still easier and faster to just cut them by hand the old fashion way and keep moving! My dovetails are not perfect yet, but every time I do them I learn something new and get a little better! I often get people telling me they are going to start their own company and build furniture, so I start quizzing them about how they are going to do that and they talk about all the power tools they are going to buy and do this and that. When I start asking them about hand tools they don’t know anything about chisels or block planes or anything else for that matter about hand tools, they think their power tools will do it all for them.. A note on nails, look at traditional Japanese toolboxes. They used nails on their work as well. Nothing wrong with nails when used correctly.

  11. I wonder what the old man’s jig looked like that he used to cut those tenons? I jest.

  12. Gail Millard

    I find the comments interesting. Would the craftsmen who used a Stanley 45 plow plane have been criticized by older master craftsmen who only used a chisel? All through history all craftsmen have used tools which advanced their craft. This was pointed out to me by a master blacksmith. Most consumers of items done in iron think that hammer marks are a sign of a true blacksmith. They are wrong. The sign of a real blacksmith is to leave no hammer marks. A craft today, in my opinion is built on a philosophy and your attachment to it. You also have to remember that in the “old days” you might have been apprenticed out without regard to whether or not you liked what you were doing. Here in the U.S. We are rather pampered. By that I mean we have never had to relocate with only what we can carry and we have never been invaded.

  13. Did it do any harm to be so strict, I don’t think so . Discipline and pure hard work seem to be forgotten. You had to earn your wage and work hard, which I’m sure created fine woodworkers. Its so soft today, every body has ” rights” and there own special needs, but back in the day hard work was done and respect was earned.

  14. Wooden Thumbs

    Sadly our respect for those who went before is all but gone in our world today. We know so little it gives us the false impression we know everything. The hubris of modern humanity is staggering.

    1. Paul Sellers

      When a sister-in-law once told me how much she loved everything about IKEA I realised how much of a problem we were currently living in. Dismantling that kind of admiration can be difficult.

  15. Skill – the original dovetail jig!

    We live in a time where precision and apparent perfection are common so we compare our efforts to the output of machines. Imperfection looks out of place but belies the creation of an object. The key is to be as near as perfect in a human way.

  16. Karl Chandler

    Work like this is AWE inspiring! Thanks much for sharing. If only I had this man’s skill>

  17. As a young man I had the good fortune to have teachers who gave me guidance. Teachers who guided us in everything from what to wear to work, what to carry in our tool boxes and in our tool belts. We were dressed down for sitting cross legged in front of a project we were working on an for standing with our hands in our pockets. We cut thousands of pipes and chopped hundreds of holes in cement walls. Most importantly we watched quietly while the Master or Journeyman worked. We learned.

  18. William Spanfelner

    Accountability and pride are great values and give fantastic value to the articles we really desire. Today people will pay for those qualities. A lovely article as always.

  19. As I read this, I can’t help but to think of my grandfather who was a tailor. Conscripted into the Russian army at age 14, he made army uniforms. As a small boy, I watched his skilled hands thread needles, mark cloth with soap and cut long straight lines with shears in a tiny shop at home. His hands more skilled than his ability to speak english. He was an old man. And I wonder what his life was like when he was a young man making fur collars that went into officer’s collars while he wore rags on his feet.

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