Skip to content

Henry Ford and Small Town America

August 26, 2013

It’s been a while since I’ve written much. I have been going down to the farm and done some work on my most recent armchairs and a couple benches. But since I don’t have much new to add on the woodworking front, I thought I’d share my reaction to a documentary I recently saw on PBS. I suppose it is only tangentially related to Blog because I sometimes write about the idea of living in simpler times and it is MY reaction to the show.
As you may already know, although my family is from New England, I grew up (went to elementary, junior, high school, and college) in Michigan. As kids we were presented with certain heroes. Some were the same heroes kids of that era were presented with anywhere – the founding fathers, astronauts, and various men of invention and industry. At that age, I could think of few things cooler than getting a patent for an idea that would change the world. There were men like Thomas Edison, or the Wright Brothers, and of course Henry Ford. Henry Ford was OUR hero. He had made Michigan king of the world. Outside of the Bo Schembechler (look him up if you are neither a Michigander nor a Buckeye) there really was no one higher in the pantheon of Michigan heroes. One thing I learned about Henry Ford is true and I must give him his due on one account. He realized that if he paid his workers a decent wage, they would have enough money to buy things, like one of his cars. So early on, he treated his workers pretty well. But that, of course, changed.
Henry Ford’s image took its first hit in my eyes in college. There I took a twentieth century American history course and learned about Ford’s less than heroic side – his anti-Semitism, union busting, social engineering/fascism, Nazi sympathizing, etc. And that tarnished (to say the least) image has been mine ever since. But recently I watched a PBS American Experience devoted to Henry Ford and remarkably was able to muster a bit more bile for the man. I want to start by saying American Experience is just great, GREAT television. I have never watched a show that I did not find enlightening and entertaining. I never plan on watching it. I’ll just be channel surfing, run across old film of men building Hoover Dam, or Mt Rushmore, or people struggling against the Hurricane of 1938, or whatever, and I’m hooked. As for Henry Ford, firstly, there was his treatment of his son Edsel Ford. Henry was a teetotaler and thought everyone else ought to be. Henry liked rural life and the out of doors and had a camera crew follow him around documenting his rugged outdoorsy-ness for the newsreels. Henry prided himself on being the boss. He made the decisions and thought it a sign of weakness to consult, collaborate, or cooperate. Edsel was everything his father wasn’t. He was kind. He was a natty dresser and a socialite. He drank. He understood that people might want to buy a car in a color other than black, and a style other than the model T. He was also willing to listen to others in order to get things done. He would collaborate with other managers. He even tried to get his father to listen to the workers and allow unionization. All of this behavior earned Edsel his father’s complete and utter disdain. Eventually, Edsel died of stomach cancer. He never told his father how sick he was and Henry attributed his illness to a weak character and too much partying. As sad as that was, there was something that bothered me at least as much.
Henry Ford grew up in rural America. He idealized rural America. As his automobile factories grew and grew, they destroyed more and more of the rural landscape he had grown up in. This culminated in the unimaginably large River Rouge plant in Dearborn, MI. (That plant alone is worthy of a documentary or two and I encourage you to look into it, as I wont spend the time here.) Henry looked around and said to himself, “I miss the little town I grew up in.” So he built Greenfield Village – a 120-acre rural recreation of his childhood home. It included the house he actually grew up in, many other homes, a one-room schoolhouse with real students and a teacher, a farm, farmhouses, and small workshops (including the Wright Brothers’ bicycle shop and Thomas Edison’s laboratory – it took me years to figure out that Menlo Park was in NJ and that the shop had been moved to MI).
Now, you may ask yourself, “What’s wrong with that? The public was allowed in. It was educational. Why shouldn’t the guy be allowed to build his own personal village?” Well, I’ll tell you what bothers me so much about it. Because, Henry Ford, perhaps more than any other man was responsible for the death of the small town and small town life. His factories and their appetite for raw materials raped the land. With the advent of cars, towns no longer required all the little shops and stores that allowed people to make a small town livelihood. Cars led to roads, led to more cars, led to highways, led to the end of mass transit and rail roads. Suburbs and exurbs, and all manner of urban sprawl were made possible by the automobile. I freely admit that if he hadn’t done it, someone else or others would have done it, but he did it. And when he looked around and saw what was happening, he didn’t work to stop what was happening or even to say, “Oh look what’s happening. Look what I have done. That’s bad. If I miss my little hometown, other people are probably missing theirs too. It’s a shame but I guess that’s the tradeoff that comes with progress.” No, he just makes millions and millions of dollars destroying the countryside for everyone. And when he finds he misses it he builds himself his own little town and pretends the enormous change he wreaked upon this country never happened.
If only he had spent as much of his time and energy (not to mention considerable wealth) on preserving actual small town life and culture as he did creating his own personal simulacrum thereof.

The Air was Moist

July 13, 2013

I went down to the farm this morning. It was drizzly, but rain never made an unambiguous appearance. I knew my dad would be there and was thinking about how different his childhood on the farm would have been from children’s today. No worries about UV levels, deer ticks, west Nile virus. All he had was pre-antibiotic infection, the Depression, and U-boats patrolling off shore. I suppose it was ever thus.
I went down today, despite the forecast (chance of rain or thunderstorms) because I was worried that the humidity might have done to my tools down there what it had to the tools in my school shop, that is rust them. The tablesaw (yes I sometimes use a tablesaw) had several spots of rust on its cast iron top just from the humidity in the air, and I was afraid of what I might find in my tool chest sitting there on the ice barn floor. But those tools were all fine and I left them down there another week.

I spent most of the day finishing the legs for the walnut bench I am in the middle of building. Because of the extreme humidity, I have been concerned about making the legs fit. The walnut splits beautifully, and if I hammer the legs in too tightly I risk splitting the slabs wide open. But if they are not tight enough, they will be small when the humidity drops at summer’s end. I did two things to try to address this issue. Time will tell if they work. Firstly, I did not use through tenons, as I usually do. I used my auger which cuts about a 1 ½” diameter hole and bored the hole about two inches into the 3” bench.

Using an auger to bore holes for the legs.  Note the bench is joined at an angle so the leg can be perpendicular to the bottom of the side but the legs will be splayed.

Using an auger to bore holes for the legs. Note the bench is joined at an angle so the leg can be perpendicular to the bottom of the side but the legs will be splayed.

This should make them less prone to splitting and means there will be no holes in the bench’s top. Then, when cutting the tenons, I shaved down their sides so that they would not exert splitting pressure on the grain. I then felt free to hammer them home with plenty of force. If they do shrink, they are beefy enough that I should be able to put pins in through the sides of the bench or even try a fox joint. That is a joint that is wedged from the inside. It is very strong, but unforgiving. If you screw it up, it is hard to take apart and try again.

This is the so called Fox Joint.  Was the tenon is driven into the mortise, the wedges expand the tenon and hold it in place.  Mine would be the same idea only round.

This is the so called Fox Joint. Was the tenon is driven into the mortise, the wedges expand the tenon and hold it in place. Mine would be the same idea only round.

Lastly, I decided to take the two halves of the seat apart and replace the dowels I had holding them together. The old dowels seemed a bit loose, so I made three new ones. Each is about 6” long, with a 1” bit of bark in the middle. I made them by cutting a 2 ½” tenon on each end of the 6” twig, leaving 1” untouched in the middle. Once they were pounded in fully, only the untouched twig part is showing. This took some serious pounding (humidity again) but the results look good to me.

Three new dowels for joining two sides of the bench.

Three new dowels for joining two sides of the bench.

New dowel in place.  Note the bark is visible.

New dowel in place. Note the bark is visible.

Two sides joined with new dowels.  The foreshortening makes it appear that they are not evenly spaced, but there are even.

Two sides joined with new dowels. The foreshortening makes it appear that they are not evenly spaced, but there are even.

I am hoping to use my little forge to make two large U shaped “staples” to pound into the ends to hold it all together (if things shrink and become loose) and they may also double as handles. But that will have to wait until it gets cool enough for me to consider firing up the forge.
One of the things I realized this week is that my reading habits have an annual rhythm based on the sports seasons (most of all the baseball season.) During school I read a bit during the football season. The radio broadcasts are only once a week, so most evenings I can read. But when the baseball season comes along and I stop reading until school gets out, whereupon I read a lot more during the day. This summer, I have already read one book about the battle of Bunker Hill, one on the battle of Gettysburg, half of one book about time travel, and ¾ of a book about debilitating anxiety. Some time over the next few weeks I am going to try to write a bit about some or all of these. You don’t need to know that, but if I announce it, I may be more likely to do it.
So, here’s hoping for dry air and abundant produce. Cheers and check for ticks!

Another Armchair, Another Bench

June 22, 2013

The farm was quiet today. Warm and quiet. The farm stand was open and there were plenty of customers getting there beautiful early summer veggies, fresh eggs, and all sorts of plants for their own gardens. But most of the folks didn’t make their way around the corner and down to my shop. That’s fine. It was a very productive day. I finished a second armchair. I spent most of the day weaving the seat with manilla rope.

Here's the pair

Here’s the pair

The seat and lashing the backrest took most of the day. I also brought down two halves of a cedar log I ripped last week. I had cut a walnut log on our bandsaw at work a couple weeks ago and even ran it through an electric planer. As a result, I was feeling I was getting a little far removed from the hand tools. So I decided to rip the cedar log by hand.

When my students are complaining about sawing through a piece of wood, I often tell them to keep at it. It may be slow going, but when you stop and complain it doesn’t get done at all. I wasn’t complaining (no one was around to hear me) but I certainly did stop … often. But eventually I got through it and it should make for a pretty nice bench. The walnut should too, though I haven’t yet decided what sort of legs to give it (any thoughts?)

Bisected walnut log for bench

Bisected walnut log for bench

Another visitor, seeing the cedar bench stock, expressed her interest in the future bench. Again, natural born businessman that I am, I panicked. “Oh no”, I thought, “I haven’t even built it and it’s gone.” This is not how I am going to make my fortune. I was wondering later, how real artists (not just hacks like me) could ever bear to give up their work. “How did Van Gogh part with his work?” I asked my incredulous wife (the beautiful and forbearing Lisa) to which she replied, “He had to eat.” That is what it comes down to. I go out into the woods, and pick out these trees in just about the least efficient way possible. I get to know the twigs individually and then spend time with them and put them together to make pieces that please me. I make a point of doing as much of the work by hand as I can, looking for what is curious or strikes my fancy in each project. I get to know my furniture as individuals and I don’t do it for a living. If I were producing machine made furniture out of milled stock from a lumber yard, and doing it for a living, I don’t think I’d feel the same way. And if I were doing it for a living, I couldn’t afford to. All that said, when someone does buy a piece and they appreciate it and what I am trying to do, it is very satisfying. On the other hand, when I am hanging out in this barn built by my grandfather on this property owned my ancestors. And I have visitors to chat with about furniture, and the farm, and craft, and art, and life, it is at least as good as when I sell a bit of furniture. It may even be better. And that’s really why I am doing this.

And Now, a Word From My Uncle

June 8, 2013

This will be a little different this time round. My cousin Lydia passed my most recent post along to her father, my Uncle Peter. He was kind enough to write me and send along HIS recollection of haying in an era slightly before my own. I always enjoy hearing from him and I thought you all might as well, so I am reprinting his email to me.

Hi Malcolm,
I greatly enjoyed your reminiscence of haying which Lyd forwarded. My memories, of course, go back a generation earlier when traction was supplied by horses for cutting, tedding and raking, and by oxen which pulled he hay wagon. At some point I was deemed competent enough to drive Charlie while we either raked the freshly cut hay into windrows, or later, after it had been kicked and dried, in to piles ready for loading. Driving, on reflection, implies that the driver is in charge and knows what he is doing. The reality, I suspect, is that Charlie did as much driving as he did pulling, while I had a lovely time relishing my new responsibility.
My father was particularly insistent that he, and no one else, do the mowing. He also insisted that the dogs be kept in the house while he was mowing, a practice which persisted into your time and was due to a horrid accident which happened when I was still an infant: he ran over our boxer named Arco cutting of all his feet. On a happier note, during my youth I don’t remember his agonies over weather which you recall so vividly, and which persisted until heart problems forced him to quit mowing. Perhaps the weather was more predictable in those days or I simply was too young to notice his handwringing. In any event, the advent of the hay drier was like a gift from heaven and the roar of its kerosene fired blower became a familiar racket during summer nights.
Of course when I was small, he did not have a bailer. Instead, the loose hay was forked onto the wagon as the oxen sauntered from one pile to the next. Building the load, however, was something of an art form, requiring considerable skill. The maestro (Bill Kirboy, a life-long farmer from Vermont who with his family lived in the farmhouse which later became Bill Walsh’s home), stood atop the pile directing the exact location where each forkful was to be placed. A properly built load could then be taken apart, one easily lifted forkful at a time, as it was unloaded into the loft. Once in the loft, however, skill was replaced by simple brawn applied by the likes of me, as the hay was piled close to the ceiling in no particular order. Hot, dusty, and itchy, just as you describe, but bordering on sheer misery for those who were afflicted by hay fever. Your uncle Frank suffer so severely that he was kept out of the loft. One final memory. During WWII, German submarines patrolled the coastal waters, sinking ships to a fair the well. Stony Beach, now known as Sherbrook’s Beach, became so oiled that we could hardly find a clean spot to sit on, and one of our favorite objects was a stove-in lifeboat washed up beyond the high tide mark. Blimps were the military’s response. One or sometimes two could be seen from the beach almost every day cruising slowly over Boston Harbor looking for subs. Lacking any armament themselves, including depth charges, their task was to alert biplane bombers stationed at Squantum Airbase, when a sub was spotted. The great rubberized sacks that covered the bales packed into the wagons with slotted bottoms through which the heated air blew, of course, resembled blimps.
As you can see, your well-written memories have stirred a batch of my own. It was fun, and thank you for the opportunity.
Uncle Peter

I certainly want to thank my uncle for sharing his memories of summer, and also my cousin Lydia. Not only for passing my post along to Peter, but also for bringing us lemonade when we were sweltering under the hot sun, haying. It is a small irony that the two cousins who remarked on my post last week were not included in it because the females in my generation were not included in most of the farm activities when we were young. This was an injustice for which I feel no responsibility, but do regret. And it is a great pleasure to see how egalitarian the farm is today. The head farmer is a woman. Many of the volunteers are women. Many of the campers are girls. My cousin Emily is just as likely to be out in the woods with a chainsaw as her brother Justin (which i am thrilled to say, my daughters think is totally bad ass.) And of course my Aunt Jean is one of the hardest working people the farm has ever seen. So, there you go. A lovely example of preserving the past and changing with the times.

One Week Later and Thirty Years Ago

June 2, 2013

Last week I was blissfully enjoying the last bitter winds of an unseasonably cool springtime. This week is another story. Today is the third and I certainly hope the last in a string of 90-degree days. Even if one could not feel the temperature, one can see it as one drives along Quincy Shore Drive and Wollaston Beach. Firstly, there are the pedestrians. In winter, they trundle along like so many lethargic atoms. The tiny energy input of the low sun leaves them moving along in their dark winter clothes. But as the sun grows stronger in the spring, they speed up. Electrons jumping orbits, their colors brighten from blues, browns, and blacks, to greens, oranges, and reds. Their speed increases as well, from plodding to striding, and jogging to running. Of course the analogy in far from perfect, and in today’s intense heat the colors may have been brightest, but the pace was back to plodding. The bay was shimmering, and the merest breeze created tremolos upon the water’s surface. In the distance Hull 1 sluggishly spun as if bogged down by the soupy air.

The new armchair, with the back support freshly oiled.

The new armchair, with the back support freshly oiled.


In any case, I can take care of a bit of business from my last post. Here is a picture of the armchair I had been talking about. It is now more or less finished, although I am contemplating re-enforcing the lashing that holds the back support with a wooden peg through the joint. I don’t believe it’d come off, but it does move a bit.
The farm was quiet today compared to the past two weekends. Even last cold and rainy Saturday had more visitors than today. I decided to start another armchair using green wood, as my supply of seasoned wood is very low. I have always understood that one may put dry tenons into dry mortises, green tenons into green mortises, even dry tenons into green mortises. But one must never put green tenons into dry mortises because the green wood will shrink and the tenon come loose. I know this last point from personal experience. I made a table once with a seasoned top. I had two beautiful legs of seasoned wood, but needed a third leg and (being impatient) used a piece of green wood. Initially it fit perfectly. Two days later there was a 1/16th inch gap and the leg fell right out of the top if you lifted it.
So I am going to try to make an armchair entirely out of green wood. At least the rope seat should hold things together. I’ll let you know how it goes.

The hot weather reminded me of the summers I spent down on the farm in my teens. My grandfather was still haying, he liked to feed his horses his own hay though it could be expensive to do so. He’d have to mow when he was sure to have three or four days of hot dry weather, because if it rained on the cut hay it would rot in the field. Of course, if he let it grow too long without cutting it would turn to straw and be worthless for the horses. He’d watch the three lunch time weather forecasts, the evening forecast, refer to the almanac, consult his own barometer every day, and seemed to listen to everyone’s guesses (I think he placed particular weight on the opinion of his barber, but I might be wrong on that). On those rare occasions when they all agreed, he’d cut the hay. This is where he did a lot of knocking wood, and avoided any mention of precipitation. Then he’d let it sit 24 hours or so before he tedded it (that is kicked it up and put it into wind rows. Depending on how dry the hay had been when he cut it and how dry the air was this might go on for another day or two. Then we’d bail it. The boys (me and my cousins, et al) followed the hay baler as it sputtered and lurched its way along the wind rows. One of us would run ahead and pitch the hay into the baler’s maw, while the others rode on the wagon and caught the bails as they came off the conveyor and stacked it in the back of the wagon. It was hard, hot work, but in the barn today there are photos of the days when men pitched the unbaled hay up into the tall ox-drawn wagons and I imagine that was a good deal hotter. If the hay was dry enough at that point (Jimmy Dolan would stick his hands deep into the scratchy bales to test their dampness) we could put the bales into the barn immediately. If they had any moisture in them, they might begin to compost, creating enough heat to spontaneously combust. But more often that not we would put what was in effect an enormous hair dryer over the two wagons and blow hot air through the bales (the wagons had slatted floors so the air could pass through). This, of course required kerosene to heat the air and made the process much more expensive. When it was time to load the bales into the hay barn we pulled wagons up to the hay barn and stuck another conveyor belt on the hay wagon’s tailgate just below the hayloft window The belt clanked and clattered. And if you didn’t load the bales properly they tumbled back down the conveyor, or worse they fell apart and showered the loader with fifty pounds of hay. Up in the hayloft we scurried back and forth filling the barn. At first it was a long run from the window to the back of the loft, but as the barn filled the distance grew shorter. We stacked the bales about seven tiers high. Although we were less supervised up there (it was hard for my grandfather to climb the ladder, and Jimmy loaded the hay) we knew we had to stack the bales well or they’d come crashing down and that was a serious no-no. This was a summer ritual all through our teens and it was exciting to feel our muscles grow each year, and see our tans, and feel exhausted at the end of a long day of really hard work. Most of all, I felt like I was part of a tradition that had been going on at the farm for more than one hundred and fifty years in my family, and for hundreds of years on that piece of land. I loved it. I will never forget the hay dust sparkling in the sunlight shining through the hayloft window or the trip to the ice pond at the end of the day where we swam the dust off ourselves. Sometimes we’d swim in the ocean, which was a hell of a lot colder, and while it felt like a punch in the nose, the salt never felt refreshing to me.
But yesterday on my drive home from a prematurely blistering day on the farm, I saw folks out on the rocky beach at the bottom of Forest Ave. A far cry from the crashing waves a week ago.

Folks sunbathing.  Note House on the little island on the right.

Folks sunbathing. Note House on the little island on the right.

A Chilly Day in May

May 25, 2013

Today was raw. The ocean was choppy and dangerous looking.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The wind was out of the North Northwest all morning, and it was drizzling much of the time. In other words, just the way I like it. However, as it is May 25th, I know many folks do not share my peculiar tastes in weather. In addition, it was the second weekend of the Holly Hill plant sale and I know they would have liked warmer, and perhaps sunnier weather, if not both. For me, however, it was just fine. Instead of having my furniture out in front of the shop and hanging out in the morning sun, I moved most of my stuff back into the shop and enjoyed my thermos of coffee under the cover of my ancient ox barn. It was all very cozy, and I had plenty of visitors. Despite the rain, many seemed more interested than usual in chatting about the furniture and farm. So for me it was an excellent morning.
I finished up the big armchair I featured in my last post. Foolishly, I didn’t take a picture of it completed. (I’ll try to remember next week.) Almost every visitor I had took a turn sitting in it, and went on about how much they liked it. I began to worry someone might buy it or ask me what I was asking for it. How’s that for being a businessman? I seriously worry that folks will buy the pieces I like. On my drive home, I spent most of the drive trying to figure out how to go about pricing my work and why I worry more about selling some pieces than others. I don’t have to worry about the cost of materials, so the only cost is my labor and creativity. I don’t keep track of how many hours I work on anything, so even if I wanted to I could base prices on an hourly rate. And charging for my creativity seems oddly conceited. So sometimes it is about how much time it takes to build them, but not always. The first piece I sold that I really regretted saying goodbye to was a table called

Crazy Legs

Crazy Legs

“crazy legs”. It didn’t take long at all to build, but I have yet to find twigs like those I used to make it. And I think the moment I sold it I knew it would be all but impossible to duplicate it, or at least to duplicate the aspect of it that I most enjoyed. So, the conclusion I reached is that it is not the difficulty of building a particular piece, but of duplicating pieces that I really like.
Cedar bench

Cedar bench

As pleased as I was to sell the big cedar bench I sold at last year’s Holly Day Fair (I very was happy with the price I got, and that the buyer was so happy with it) I knew that I was unlikely to ever find a piece of cedar like the one it was made of, and therefore it would be all but impossible to duplicate. I know that finding the materials for another armchair will not be that hard (nor will it be trivial) but it will be fairly challenging to duplicate, because it was a fairly challenging chair to build. And so it is absurdly scary to see so much interest in a piece that I completed less than 12 hours ago.
The one type of furniture that has consistently sold since I began this has been benches, and the last of mine sold this morning. It was a small one that I built a few years ago. But now I have none, so I guess that is what I’ll work on next, at least after I finish up the table I started after I finished the armchair the morning.
As I was leaving the farmer asked whether I had seen the huge tree that had come down in Peck’s meadow. On my way out, I took a look and at first glance it appeared to be an impressive and possibly useful chunk of wood. But as you can see from the second picture, it fell down for a reason, and I don’t know whether I will be able to get anything out of it (especially since it is nearly incased in poison ivy vines).

And so I drove home in the cold drizzle, and pleased to see that the lights were on at Fenway. So I turned on the radio to listen to the game and thought about all those poor soggy people sitting in the weather that I like so much.

p.s. Every now and then I see or am directed to videos or websites in which people do things that are so cool, or brilliant, or in some way amazing that it pisses me the hell off. I know i should just look at them and say, “Cool!” or “Brilliant!”, or just be amazed. But all i can do is think, “Damn, i am never going to be able to do that.” Well, here’s another one of those sites. Enjoy.

wooden wristwatch

Now that i have looked at this again, i see that it doesn’t really explain that the only metal in these wristwatches are the mainsprings. Everything else is wooden. (The mini clock mechanism has a few metal parts) By the way, he’s self taught.

Long Time Gone

May 19, 2013

One thing I really don’t like is when people don’t keep up their blogs and websites. I have been doing a terrible job of adding new material to my site. That is not because I have not been productive lately. In fact, I have been quite productive (at least in terms of furniture.) But, for some unknown reason I have not be able to get myself to post pictures or blog entries. So, I will try to rededicate myself to keeping things more current. If I can’t than perhaps I will stop the blog biz.

That said, here is my latest piece. It’s a bit sturdier than most of my work. Originally, my idea was to build a love seat, but it turned into a nice heavy armchair.

armchair I still need to finish the back support, which you can see in this picture is not yet oiled and has a lighter color than the rest of the piece.

The seat is made of Manila rope purchased from Knot and Rope Supply inc. I don’t like having to buy supplies, but when I do buy them I like buying from places like this. They just sell rope and rope related supplies. It looks as though it would be a really cool place to visit.

Yesterday was a glorious day in Eastern Massachusetts. The temps were in the mid-70s and clear skies throughout the morning. It was a perfect day for the Holly Hill Farm plant sale. The plant sale has actually become so successful for the farm that it has been expanded and this year it will be held over the course of two weekends. There are even a couple members only sales, so check out the Farm’s website.

The drive down to the farm was a bit of an adventure. There was a road race along Wollaston Beach, and moments before I arrived I saw the authorities place an enormous Detour sign in my lane. I was shunted off the main drag and onto the back roads of Quincy shore. That one detour sign, though very large, was not big enough to direct drivers all by itself. But the one sign was to be the only sign the city of Quincy was willing to spare for the job, and I drove with many other lost souls around and around, attempting to keep the Sun to my left and weave my way about until I ran into rte. 3a. Now, if you are in a situation wherein rte. 3a is your salvation, well, my friend, you are in a bad way. So, I arrived more than a half an hour later than I would have liked to and the farm was already bustling. I opened my shop and put out my wares and got to work on the new chair. I had quite a few visitors, some relations and some old friends and quite a few folk I’d never met before, which all suits me fine. Hillbilly at Harvard (my favorite Saturday morning radio show) was on for a full four hours and it was sunny enough that my radio could run on its solar panel rather than cranking the spring that works as a cloudy day backup. All in all it was a beautiful day, I expect it was a successful day for the farm, and weather permitting I am looking forward to making it down there again next week.

Tragedy in New England

December 15, 2012

Today was a beautiful day in New England. I drove down to the farm, as I so often do on Saturdays. I admired the clear blue sky and deep blue of the ocean highlighted by the white caps that accompany steady North winds such as we had today. I spent a bit of time cleaning up my shop and prepared to go out into the woods where, for a brief while each week I can pretend it is an earlier time. In my woolen clothes, carrying my ash splint backpack, loaded with my axe, hatchet, and saw, I can play at being an eighteenth or nineteenth century woodsman. Sadly, thoughts of the twenty-first century insistently intruded on my fantasy. Yesterday, also in New England, parents lined up outside a school and waited to see whether their child would come out alive. Twenty children did not. Great big bloody holes were blasted through their tiny bodies and through the lives and psyches of their families and those of their classmates. This contrast between the horror of the news and the peace and quiet of my imagined sojourn to the past got me to thinking about the gun control debate.
All scholars of and believers in sacred texts hold the original meaning of their texts in the highest regard. Whether studying the Bible, Torah, Koran, or the US Constitution, true believers view their documents as infallible and sacrosanct. Certainly several members of the Supreme Court feel this way about more than one of these documents. So, let us crawl into the heads of those gentlemen of the newly American landed gentry and try to imagine the frame of mind of the Framers. They have all lived under a despot, in fact some have even offered their leader, George Washington, the chance to be the King of the United States. Some say some pretty fiery stuff. Thomas Jefferson said, “The tree of liberty must be watered with blood” or some such thing. (Of course he said it a couple years before the French Revolution, and I think he was more careful with his rhetoric afterwards.) In any case, there was genuine reason to imagine that their rulers might become tyrants. Truly, there are some people today who continue to believe that to be the case, but after more than two hundred years of continuous democracy, I think we’ve proven it unlikely. So here is my compromise suggestion. We can ignore that whole “well regulated militia” business. I mean, if the Supreme Court can ignore it, who am I to do otherwise. (Perhaps it was just a typo, or an quill-o, or whatever they had back then. Maybe it was just a misplaced part of some other amendment. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peacebly to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievences A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State.” That doesn’t look right, but then I’m not a constitutional scholar). Anyway, we’ll ignore that militia business and guarantee everyone’s right to bear any arms that are of a type that existed up to 1800 (this is pretty generous since that is well after the Constitution was ratified, but this is the Holiday season and I am in a giving mood.) Then, if you want to legalize automatic, semi-automatic, extended clip, armor-piercing weaponry, all you have to do is pass a constitutional amendment. Think I’m being unreasonable? That I should know that the Framers could not foresee changes in killing technology? Times Change? Well frankly, I agree with you. The founding fathers could not possibly have imagined weaponry that would have allowed one man to wipe out half the Continental army by himself, and maybe just a handful more to take care of the state militias (Oops, I wasn’t going to bring up militias was I?) They could not possibly have imagined that every year thousands of people would slaughter one another, not in righteous wars for freedom, but in senseless massacres of innocents. There is no possible way they could have foreseen or would have condoned the present situation. If the Second amendment is the law, then the law is an ass. And if the Supreme Court believes that the current state of affairs is what the Framers had in mind then the Supreme Court is an ass as well. Either the Second amendment needs to be understood very differently or it needs to be repealed. Tragedies happen. They even happen to the very young. Tornadoes, disease, and floods can strike randomly and we can only do so much. But when month after sickening month, men and boys use high-powered weapons to annihilate thousands, and we do nothing, we have to look at ourselves. When they say “guns don’t kill people, people do”, they are right. People with guns kill people in staggering, mind boggling, mind-numbing numbers. We can get rid of the people or we can get rid of the guns. Grieve for the families, then tell your democratically elected representatives that you are sick to death of the senseless slaughter, and you want to see reasonable, real gun control enacted.

Two beautiful days on the farm

November 18, 2012

I know it’s been a long time since I wrote anything for the blog, but it seems harder and harder to reconcile writing about using hand tools, working in the woods, and making things by hand with my general dislike of computers. Every time I drive down to the farm I imagine what I might write about and even begin a monologue in my head, but by the time I get back, writing is the last thing I want to do. That said, the last two times down I did have some observations.
A week ago, Veterans Day Monday, I drove down and saw something I’d never seen before. On the stretch of Jerusalem road that overlooks the ocean, there is a beach house just before one turns (in typical New England fashion, one turns right from Jerusalem road onto Jerusalem road and the road one had been on becomes Atlantic avenue) away from the ocean and up to the farm. I saw a bit of beach with a 20 to 30 foot fishing vessel resting high and dry on the pebbles (it is not a sandy beach). At lunch with my Aunt Jean I learned that the boat had been blown off its moorings during Hurricane Sandy and drifted from Gloucester beaching itself (more or less unharmed) in Cohasset, some 30 miles away. It’s difficult to see in the little snap shot I took, but you can see it and the backhoe that the owner has hired to try to dig a trench to allow water to get underneath, and float it away.

Boat on the beach

It must have worked somehow, because it was not there yesterday. And yesterday, I was driving back at high tide, with the brisk north wind, the waves were breaking so high in the beach I am not sure they would have needed the backhoe. It’s been a while since I’ve seen breakers like those. But I suppose it is better to get the boat off the beach under more controlled conditions.
Both days the weather was beautiful, but contrasted in temperature. Veterans Day was warm enough to wear a tee shirt. My cousin was down as well, and we cleared a few of the many post-Sandy trees that had fallen across trails. We also shored a couple small bridges that had partially collapsed not due to storm but to time. It is always great fun to work with my cousin and it is a shame that our schedules do not coincide more often. The weather since Monday has been the sort during which one would not find it surprising if it began to snow. It’s been raw and cold enough for sleet if not actual, with that slate gray sky, which makes one wonder if one has enough firewood split. The sun came out this weekend, but the temps were only in the forties and fifties. I was dressed in several layers anticipating a chilly day in the ox barn, but the ox barn is on the sunny side of the barnyard, and working on this and that in the sunshine, it was not long before I had stripped down to a tee shirt again. The difference was that whenever I left my sunny work area I had to put on another shirt or feel the chill immediately. I am working on small items (spoons, coaster, etc.) for the Hollyday Fair in early December and finishing up an oak bench that I recently put together. Speaking of recent projects, I have been using my lathe at work. I know it’s electric, and there is nothing I’d rather have than a human powered lathe, but it’s all I’ve got. I was visiting another cousin last month when she showed me some large wooden balls that her boyfriend had brought back from Europe. They were approximately five inches in diameter, and she or he asked whether I knew how they were made. They were most captivating. They had a wonderful weight to them and it was impossible not to spin them in one’s hands. I knew they had to have been made with a lathe, but exactly what the steps would be was a mystery to me. So I decided to give it a try. I began with a walnut log about 14 inches long. I trued it up and measured its diameter (about 5inches). I then drew a circle with the same diameter on a piece of stiff paper and cut out inside arcs to use as a template and began cutting away at the blank so that I had a circle of the same size, at least along one axis (perpendicular to the log). The final steps are the real trick. Normally a lathe is attached to the wood one is turning by two spikes (or centers) one drives the wood (the live center) and one the simply supports the wood and spins along (the dead center). These leave holes in the wood and there were no holes in the balls I had been shown. But my buddy Thomas at work confirmed what I had suspected, there is a special sort of center for doing exactly this sort of work called a cup center. As the name implies, a cup center is cup shaped and it holds the work by friction but does not leave a hole in the work. After making the piece as spherical as possible on the first axis, I took the work off the lathe, cut the excess from the ends, used the belt sander to smooth the ends round, and put it back on the lathe between the cup centers. By turning and sanding and frequently changing the axis, I was able to come up with a pretty neat replica of the originals. It is also a great deal of fun (as is most turning) and the only barrier to making more is that I do not have many logs of sufficient diameter (not to small not to large). I have made a couple smaller cedar balls and I will try to make more for the sale in December, but I’m keeping the big one.

Walnut ball

I recently received an email from a rustic furniture company in Michigan. They asked whether I’d post a link to their website if they posted a link to my. Clearly we work on very different scales, but what the heck so on my links page you will now find a link to their page.
Next week is Thanksgiving week. I will probably be down on Saturday, though typically it is extremely quiet, my daughter will home from her first semester at college and that is one of the things she’d like to do. So here’s hoping the fine fall weather continues and that all of you have happy, healthy, and joyous Thanksgivings.

Sassafras

September 26, 2012

For years I have admired the quirky Sassafras saplings that grow all over the Holly Hill Farm wood lot. It’s fast growing and the trunk often twists in the most interesting forms. It is just the sort of wood I’d love to incorporate into my furniture except for one thing. It’s extremely brittle. I don’t know whether that is because it is so fast growing, but Stag Horn Sumac shares both these characteristics. And any Oak, the slowest growing trees around are anything but brittle, so it makes sense to me. In any case, while cleaning out the ox barn (my shop) I ran across a few old pieces of Sassafras that I must have collected before I was aware of the brittleness issue. These pieces were seasoned at least a year, perhaps longer, and they felt much sturdier. So I shaved off the outer bark (first with my drawknife, but that kept diving into the wood, then with a spokeshave, which gave me more control) and had some very handsome walking sticks. I also had a lapful of marvelously fragrant shavings.
Sassafras was long used medicinally. During colonial times it was one of the most important exports that America had. It has fallen out of favor since the discovery that one of its essential oils is safrole, which is considered a carcinogen. But it had been used as a stimulant, a pain reliever, an astringent, and a treatment for rheumatism. It was also used to treat the skin lesions that came from syphilis. It was made into a tea and was the root in root beer when combined with molasses and fermented. Nowadays, root beer is made with a synthetic sassafras flavoring. It has also been used in Cajun cooking as a thickener for soups and gumbos.
If you are walking through the woods and see a tree with leaves that look like dinosaur footprints, take a leaf or small twig and crush it with your fingers and give it a sniff. If it smells a bit like root beer you likely have a sassafras tree. (Other trees that have a fragrance worth finding are Beech – if you’ve ever chewed Beech Nut gum, it’ll take you back- and Red Cedar will remind you of hamsters, if you are old enough. Of course there are others like balsam, but I don’t use that for my furniture.)
After shaving off the outer bark, I gave them a quick sanding and a coat of oil. Unfortunately the oil blocks the aroma, but it gives it a richer, darker color.
So, I am reassessing sassafras and this winter I will be on the lookout for more sassafras to collect and season, and maybe some will end up making crazy table legs, chair backs, and who knows what else.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

%d bloggers like this: