Joshua A. Klein, ed. Mortise & Tenon Magazine 1 (2016): 1–139. Numerous color and bw illus. $24.00.
Woodworking magazines have been subject to all of the same market pressures as other paper-based periodicals, with similar results—several have ceased publication in the past several years, with declining readership for many of the others. So when Joshua A. Klein of Sedgwick, Maine, editor of the new annual journal under consideration here, started talking about a magazine devoted entirely to working wood solely by hand, using only traditional techniques and tools, with a special emphasis on conservation and research, I was a bit skeptical of the underlying business sustainability. And of all of the market niches, even combining the various interest groups, this seemed a remarkably thin sliver. His blogs, both at The Workbench Diary and at Popular Woodworking’s Shop Blog, have long had a following, and his writing on woodworking, life, and technique has been insightful and compelling. But a magazine?
At 144 pages (counting several pages of a sponsor directory at the end), Mortise & Tenon Magazine (or M & T) is a tome of the heft of Architectural Digest, with the added benefits of higher production values and better paper. Adorning the journal’s elaborate wrapper, secured with heavy thread and sealed with a red wax seal, is a paper label which proclaims, in the style of eighteenth-century prose, “SUNDRY ESSAYS relating to FURNITURE” along with a description of the new magazine and an engraved illustration of furniture forms taken from the trade card of Kneeland and Adams, cabinetmakers of Hartford, Connecticut, printed in 1793. Such an elaborate treatment almost suggests that a vanity publication is enclosed, especially when you encounter the thin wood shavings from a period plane scattered throughout the packaging. But if the “Manifesto” which opens the conversation is any guide to what might follow, we are all in for an interesting journey. It clearly states that the magazine is not a DIY compendium, or a place for tool reviews. What it endeavors to create is a conversational platform and gathering place for makers, conservators, and scholars—one of the few places where these three interwoven, but quite disparate, fields are opened for scrutiny.
Starting with his first article, an interview with Jon Brandon of Brunswick, Maine, a nationally known furniture conservator, and continuing with another interview, this time with Phil Lowe of Beverly, Massachusetts, one of the top makers and teachers in the country, he sets the tone. Probing, detailed, and focused, the interviews develop the backstories as well as provide an introduction to the life’s work of these individuals. What is important? Where do you find inspiration? How do you evaluate the pieces you have contact with, and how do you make decisions about them? And these interviews, combined with the later interview with Gerald W. R. Ward, a museum curator and writer for many years at several institutions (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Yale University Art Gallery; Winterthur Museum; and so on) silhouette the three groups that are targeted.
The spaces between the three professional interviews are filled with luscious photographs with deep, inky blacks and high contrast, which reproduce superbly on the high quality matte media. And with equally compelling narratives that serve to enhance the understanding of the interrelationships among the disciplines. The photos of a federal-period secretary from Boston (pp. 48–57), without captions but in complete undress, show the “hand of the maker” and the details of construction that many will never get a chance to see, yet which are crucial to a fuller understanding of the piece. It is not intended as anything but a chance to look at a piece, perhaps not as one of the “masterpieces” as defined by Albert Sack, but rather as one of the hundreds of lesser works that comprised the majority of the furniture made at the dawn of the nineteenth century. It forces one to look at the secretary with fresh eyes in order to assess the design, the intent, and the methods of the maker in a time long since passed.
A tutorial on carving by Al Breed follows the development of the feather patterns in an eagle and includes a discussion of tradeoffs made and methods used to create this icon of American design. Detailed enough to enable the reader to follow his process and create the work, and thus of use to makers, Breed’s analysis is equally enlightening to the scholar of the period piece. Breed’s essay is preceded by a discussion on the introduction of classical design into the lexicon of the eighteenth-century maker. This article by woodworker George Walker explores how that language is used in contemporary practice.
The interview with Charles Hummel of Winterthur, the author of the definitive book on the Dominy workshop, housed at Winterthur (and the most complete cabinet shop to have survived from the 1700s), highlights the new discoveries made in the past ten years by this active researcher. It is, however, much more of an insight into the passion, the creativity, and the overarching love of the field by a person who has been actively engaged in it for more than half a century.
In the center position is an article by the editor about creating a reproduction of a piece of grain-painted Maine furniture, finely detailing the construction methods, the speed of work, the workmanship of risk, and the choices that he made in making this reproduction federal-period card table. Klein’s presentation of his work—an effort that is partly a project of making, but also partly one of researching and conserving the original—illustrates the decisions that he is making along the way, as well as their impacts on the piece, on our modern-age perception of the design and coloration, and on the maker. He is working in the old way, seeing with knowledgeable eyes, and yet analyzing the results with a contemporary sensibility to financial solvency and effectiveness of technique.
Finally, Klein bookends this inaugural edition with a profile of Freddie Roman of Littleton, Massachusetts, a member of the next generation of craftspeople to take on this challenge. Freddie is one of a small but growing group of makers who have the intellectual bandwidth and the skills to combine these three disciplines and communicate the results in a social media context. He is a restorer and a conservator, and is able to share his love of the craft and his knowledge of the field with others on a level that resonates with a younger demographic. This group is critical to the furtherance of the craft and scholarship once the current aging cohort is no longer able to carry the banner. With Klein, Roman, and resources like the Yale Furniture Study (also profiled in this issue of M & T) available, I am looking forward to seeing the second and further issues—not only as a paean to hand tools and methods, but as a vehicle to spread the appreciation for the craft to an ever larger audience.
Fort Point Cabinetmakers, Boston / NH Furniture Masters Association