A place that has been on my bucket list for a number of years is Plimoth Plantation – the living history museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts where Peter Follansbee worked for 20 years, and cut his teeth as a 17th-century New England joiner. Sadly, most of the museum’s long-time reenactors departed in what seems to be a less-than-amicable split a few years ago, and Peter was among them.

Nonetheless, I decided to swing by on my way to Greenwood Fest a couple of weeks ago, and I wasn’t disappointed. Peter’s fingerprints are all over the place.

A few of his pieces (including the court cupboard and the chest with drawers pictured below) are housed inside climate-controlled buildings. These painted pieces are admittedly a bit garish to modern eyes, but they give you a chance to see the pieces as the would have looked when they were brand new, 350 years ago:


Most of Peter’s work can be found in the village: a collection of mostly one-room timber frame cottages. The buildings are as quaint as you can imagine: sheathed in weathered, riven oak clapboards, topped with roofs of thatched cattails, each one with a neat kitchen garden in the back yard. If someone had a bed-and-breakfast that was set up like this, I’d be the first to sign up!


The home’s interiors are dimly lit but surprisingly welcoming. There are no “fireplaces” to speak of – just a rocked wall in a corner where the cooking and heating fires are built. Some of the homes have real chimneys, but others just have a small vent atop the gables that keep the smoke moving out of the house. It was more effective that you might imagine! All of the homes were appointed with a bed and basic kitchen implements, not to mention a slew of joined oak furniture.


There were chairs of all kinds from basic joint stools…

…to proper joined and turned chairs:


Not to mention carved boxes of all kinds:


For me, the best part about the visit to Plimoth was the opportunity to appreciate the visual impact of Peter’s work in situ. When you see 17th-century carving as it is meant to be seen – i.e., in dim dwellings primarily illuminated by raking light from small windows or lamps – it makes perfect sense. The shallow relief carving stands out proudly in these conditions. The chests and cupboards looked alive in the humble cottages, as compared to similar pieces in the immaculately lighted and air-conditioned environs of the museum.

I was also reminded that homes from this period, with their hewn timbers and organic wattle-and-daub walls, were not deprived of texture as we are with our sterile sheetrock boxes. It doesn’t take much to stand out against a blank slate. These pieces that seem garish or “busy” against a plain background fit cozily into the more lively interiors of their day.

So, while I don’t necessarily intend to switch my focus to Jacobean carving after my visit to Plimoth, I can certainly say that it was an inspiring and informative visit. The chance to touch this furniture, to open doors and drawers, and to photograph (without getting yelled at) is a rare opportunity at any museum. I wished very much that I had been able to visit five years ago, when Peter and Paula the rest of the Plymouth Craft gang still inhabited the grounds. But it’s safe to say that their spirit is still present, and it will be for a long time.

Coming Back Down to Earth

If you follow the online greenwoodworking communities at all, then you’re probably well aware of the smashing success of Greenwood Fest in Plymouth, MA over the past weekend. Instagram, the Green Woodwork Facebook group, and Peter Follansbee’s blog have been aflurry with photos and positive comments since Sunday night. I was fortunate to be in attendance, and I can say without reservation that it was one of the most inspiring events that I’ve ever attended.

Really, I don’t even know where to begin. I still haven’t quite processed everything that I learned, nor fully appreciated the people I was able to meet. I met folks who have been a huge inspiration on my journey over the last few years, as well as folks who have slipped under my radar, but will now be certain to inspire me over the coming years.

I got to talk to Dave Fisher about bowl carving and lettering (more on that in a post to come):

Dave Fisher at the stump.
One of Dave’s incredible ale bowls. My wife promptly requested a bird-bowl when she saw his pictures.

I got to witness Peter Follansbee’s skilled and efficient carving first-hand:

Peter showing off his carved oak panel.
Peter takes advantage of any blank space that he’s given. I love his little scrub plane.

I talked with Tim Manney about steam-bending and chair-making. I’ve been absorbed with Windsors for the last year, but Tim actually got me excited about ladderbacks again. And if I ever build another shavehorse, it will be one of Tim’s design:

Tim at the shavehorse.

One of the folks that I was most happy to meet stepped in at the last moment when another presenter had to cancel. If it seemed that Darrick Sanderson was under-the-radar when the weekend began, he was certainly well-known by the end of the week. Of course I was already quite familiar with him – I’ve been following his work for about six months and I was delighted when he got added to the schedule.

You may remember him from a post a while back: The Best Spoon I’ve Ever Seen. Well, I must revise my previous post. Darrick brought a whole chest full of The Best Spoons I’ve Ever Seen. Seriously. Every single one of them was amazing. His productivity, his creativity, and his control over form is demoralizing stunning. Like Dave Fisher, Darrick is one of those guys who is at the forefront of his craft, yet still finding a way to drive it forward. It’s a bit humbling, knowing that I was happily carving away in my little silo for 6 years, making perfectly nice spoons, but not doing anything particularly impressive. Meanwhile, Derrick burst through to the front of the pack in a couple short years, and the rest of us have been struggling to keep up ever since. He’s a special talent, and I expect that his impact and renown will continue to grow over the coming years.

If I seem like I’m gushing, just feast your eyes on this cornucopia of spoons. (And oh yeah, did I mention he also does wonderful carved and pole-turned bowls as well? I told you, he’s impressive.)

Darrick Sanderson’s spoons and bowls.
Darrick at the pole lathe. I gave it a spin – lots of fun, but a bit intimidating when your first try is in front of a crowd!
Seriously, this stuff is ridiculously good. Completely knife-finished spalted beech serving spoon. I should have bought this one. Still kicking myself.

So anyway, that was my weekend in a nutshell. Like the title said, I’m still coming back to earth. Not quite there yet, but I’ve already been putting some things that I learned into practice. I have a feeling this was one of those events that will stick out in my memory for a long, long time.


Bodging in 1935

To brighten up your Monday, I though you might enjoy this wonderful film of English bodgers from just 80 years ago, making Windsor chairs in a manner that would be entirely familiar to chairmakers 300 years ago (and indeed, entirely familiar to me today!) One thing that strikes me about the film is the height of the lathes used by the turners. Having learned on a more conventionally-sized lathe, I’d have a difficult time working at shoulder height, though it would certainly lend a closer view of the work. Hope you enjoy the video as much as I did!


If any of you are on Instagram, you can follow me under the name a_riving_home.

I only joined a couple weeks ago, but I find it easier to post up-to-date progress reports of ongoing projects there, since they need not be accompanied by a wall of text as I’m wont to do here.

I do find it annoying that they insist on a mobile-only format for posting pictures, but it’s a convenient place to follow the work of fellow craftspeople.

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Rigorous Mortise? Nah, it’s easy…

I mentioned earlier this week that the pegged mortise and tenon is my favorite woodworking joint to make. One of the things that makes it my favorite is a feeling of competency and efficiency, and those are feelings that only come with practice. It makes a big difference when you begin a process with the expectation, rather than the hope, that everything will come together right.

I’ve been cutting mortises by hand since 2007, but it wasn’t until I built a commissioned Arts-and-Crafts office desk in 2013 that I truly felt comfortable with the process. That piece had over 100 individual mortise and tenon joints, more than half of them were through-mortises. Lots of practice, and plenty of time to refine my technique.

There are certainly no shortage of methods to try.

Christian Becksvoort pre-drills the mortises with a doweling jig and cleans it up with a sash mortise chisel. I’ve not found that pre-drilling the holes saves any time – unless you have really wonky grain, in which case the chisel will tend to want to follow the grain if you don’t pre-drill. Best to use straight-grained stock instead.

Chris Schwarz no longer uses this method, but he once wrote about a method of drilling a hole in one end of the mortise and then chiseling back from that hole until you reach the opposite end (the “Maynard technique”).

Peter Follansbee uses a traditional mortise chisel and starts by cutting a vee in the middle of the mortise, then working his way back to the ends. I really want to like this method, and I’ve tried it several times, but I find that my accuracy is compromised by switching the bevel back and forth like he does. I like to get my chisel in the right position and keep it there.

Which is why my preferred method is something along the lines of what Paul Sellers does. Actually, “along the lines” is dead wrong; I chop my mortises exactly like Paul Sellers does. Oddly enough, I had never even seen him chop a mortise under I was gathering links about different methods for this very post. Our only difference of opinions: he prefers a standard bevel-edge, chisel, while I prefer the traditional mortise chisel.

So, on that note, a change of plans. I had taken a bunch of pictures that were intended to demonstrate the method I use, but instead I’ll just post Paul’s video instead. If a picture’s worth 1000 words, a video must be worth 10,000.


Okay, I can’t resist a bit of commentary on Paul Seller’s methods. In all of his videos where he’s mortising something, he’s holding the piece in his face vise. That sure seems like a good way to add unnecessary stress to your vise and the screws that are holding it in place. I mortise with my workpiece clamped to the benchtop, directly over a leg, using a holdfast or a big handscrew. Like so:

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Also, I mark out only three sides of the mortise: the top, the bottom, and the edge that is closest to the face. The chisel itself defines the fourth side, so I don’t find it helpful to mark out the far edge. The only thing to watch out for with this method? Don’t chop your mortise on the wrong side of the line! Sometimes, when the mortise is close to the face (like in this example), it’s obvious which side to chop on. Other times, when the mortise is more centrally located, it’s not quite as clear. I have chopped on the wrong side of the line before, so I tend to draw a little squiggle on the side where I need to chop. (I don’t usually darken the scribe lines with a pencil, though- that was just for the picture.)

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My tavern table had 10 regular mortises and four double mortises. The last four that I chopped measured 2″ long and 1-3/4″ deep. Out of curiosity, I timed myself and found that I chopped them in 4-5 minutes each. It’s quick and painless once you’re familiar with the process, and there’s nothing quite like sliding a joint together for the first time and having it look like this:

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The Best Spoon I’ve Ever Seen.

I’ve mentioned a time or two the greenwoodworking group on Facebook. It took a few days to get adjusted to the barrage of spoons and other woodcrafts on my newsfeed, but my brain quickly started making connections between certain craftspeople and the work that they produced. One name that kept popping up repeatedly alongside gorgeously sculpted eating spoons was Derek Sanderson. I soon found myself looking at my own spoons, and I realized that they seemed quite dull and lifeless in comparison to his.

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get the same movement in the side profile that Derek has so clearly perfected. One can only learn so much from a picture, so I decided to order one of his spoons to see where the magic was. It arrived a couple of weeks later, and I was not disappointed. This little cherry spoon is a miniature sculpture, every little detail well-conceived and well-executed. It is, without question, The Best Spoon I’ve Ever Seen.

Let me lay out my argument. First, consider the top profile – very fluid and shapely, though it’s also the easiest part to get right. What’s not as easy to get right is the depth and shape of the bowl, but he nails this as well. It’s quite shallow but very comfortable, like a lollipop. I like how the heartwood/sapwood contrast splits the spoon in half – a very nicely chosen material.

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The side profile is really what makes this spoon stand out. It is so active and organic – almost as if the neck is under tension. The lower curve nicely mimics the upper curve, though less dramatically. And look how cleanly the neck was shaved – since the grain reverses direction here, this is the toughest part of a spoon to cut cleanly. There isn’t a single raised fiber here, and this is completely knife-cut. No scraping or sanding.

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The curve of the back is lovely and lightly faceted. The curve of the handle mimics the curve of the bowl, which makes it very comfortable to hold. It also makes the opposite ends of the spoon seem cohesive. I’m not sure how to say what I’m thinking, other than both ends “match” one another – they are variations on one shape. I’ve always used strong facets and straight lines on the back of my handles, but I realize now that it is just not as comfortable. I’m going to start trying some curved backs now.

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There is even a little bit of flourish at the tip of the spoon – a bit of chip-carving just adds some individuality. Also notice the very subtle chamfers on the sides. Those flow uninterrupted around the whole spoon.

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One final parting shot: compare Derek’s spoon, at top, to one of my spoons, below. I was very happy with my spoon until I looked at it alongside a superior example!

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If I had but one criticism about this spoon, I would say that the bowl is just a tad wide. It’s fine for me, but I have a big mouth. I doubt the spoon would be as comfortable for my wife. That hasn’t been a problem, because I’m greedy and I’ve been keeping the spoon at my office to eat my oatmeal every morning. My family is stuck with my good-but-just-not-as-good eating spoons, I’m afraid.

I’m not connected with Derek in any way, other than as a satisfied customer. If you’d like to own one of these, you’ll have to get in touch with him on Facebook or on Instagram – I don’t believe he has a website (at least not that I could find).


On Selling Crafts

I have made a lot of wooden things over the last decade or so. Tables, chests, chairs, benches, desks, beds, bowls, spoons, plates, vases, tools, floors, sheds, playhouses…you name it. When I stop to think about how much I’ve actually built, it’s a bit overwhelming.

A lot of that stuff is still in my house. I have very little furniture that wasn’t built by me or at the very least repaired/refinished by me. (One project that I’ve never seemed willing to tackle is a chest of drawers. Just so…many…boxes… So we still make do with ugly dressers, but one day I’ll address that shortcoming).

The next largest portion of my work has been gifted to family and friends over the years. It’s always a pleasure to visit with people who own my work to see how it has held up and aged over the years.

By far the smallest portion of my work are things that I’ve sold. Sure, I’ve sold quite a bit over the years, ranging from $10 wooden shotglasses to a $2,000 quartersawn white oak Arts and Crafts office desk. I have never been completely comfortable with selling things, though. A couple years ago, I came upon this article by renowned British woodturner Robin Wood that I think articulates my primary hesitance with selling craft work. The article is fairly comprehensive, but here is the relevant paragraph:

The difficulty many craftspeople have with price is this. You put your heart and soul into your work, when you offer it for sale it is not like selling potatoes or lemonade, it’s not just business, it is more like asking the public to pass judgement on you as a human being. If you put a high price and people sneer it feels terrible but if you undervalue your work that is no better for your soul. The trick is to find a fair price for the work and skill and then to find people who value and appreciate it.

That quote really got right to the heart of the matter and stuck with me. When I sell work, I feel compelled to make things to a much higher standard than I would require for an item that I planned to keep for myself. I aim for perfection in my work, but ultimately I am OK with small flaws and irregularity as the mark of handwork. For some reason, I don’t trust my customers to have the same appreciation so I always seem to go overboard with the work that I sell, and yet I’ve never been comfortable asking a price that would be commensurate with the skill and effort involved.

To worsen matters, most of the work that I’ve sold has been to friends and close acquaintances (not surprising, since I’ve never advertised anything). There is nothing inherently wrong with that, of course, but my difficulty here is feeling as though I should offer a discount for friends on work that I’m already in the habit of selling too cheaply. I would usually rather give the work away, because at least then I get to feel altruistic instead of like a poor businessman.

The end result of my unsatisfying history of selling work has been that I tend to find whatever excuse I can to avoid it. I have actually made a fair bit of money through my woodworking hobby (enough that is is a net gain and not a net drain), but very little of that money has come through the sale of craft work. Mostly it comes from wood sales (I always saw more than I can possibly use) and a smaller portion from old hand tools that I bought on the cheap and restored.

Fortuitously, I did have a good friend a few weeks ago who asked me about a sizable commission for her husband’s Christmas gift. She ended her request with the words “and don’t feel bad charging me what’s fair”. It was a much appreciated sentiment and I felt more comfortable knowing that she expected to pay full price for the work and not the “but-I’m-your-friend” discount that some people seem to expect. I was more confident in giving a quote that was fair to both of us.

In the end, it turned out to be one of my most enjoyable commissions, because I know the work is going to a couple who will appreciate it, and I don’t feel as though I short-changed myself in the process. (By the way, I’m purposely avoiding any discussion of what I made or who I made it for on the off-chance that her husband reads the blog.)

As these thoughts tumbled through my head over the last month, it occurred to me that my discomfort with selling my work for a fair price has bled over and caused me to avoid buying craft work at a fair price. I think that my tendency to discount the value of my own work has inadvertently led to my discounting the value of others’ work. I have this problem more so in unrelated crafts – I love pottery, for example, but my own collection of craftsman-made pottery is limited to a couple of inexpensive (but beautiful) coffee mugs. The more complex work is beautiful, but it just seems so expensive! Oh, the irony.

With woodwork, I can typically look at a piece and fully understand the time and skill and effort that it took to bring it to fruition. The problem here is that my first thought is not “I want to buy that!” but instead “I could make that!” Well, that’s really a silly way to think about things. There is no way that I can become proficient at everything. A good craftsperson can spend years focused on a single task and there is no reason that I should hope to replicate it without doing the same. Weaving an ash-splint basket and carving the ball-and-claw feet on a Chippendale chair are both “woodwork” but it is obvious that the skillset involved in each task are vastly different.

With that in mind, I decided to take some of the proceeds from my recent commission to purchase a spoon from a craftsman who has inspired me in many ways – Peter Follansbee. True, I’m a spoon-carver as well (and a pretty good one I think) but it’s been several years and I’ve still made no effort to learn the chip-carved decoration that Peter does on his spoons that I admire so much. Perhaps I never will, but that shouldn’t preclude me from enjoying it.

A very nice early Christmas present to me. Not a gift that was injection-molded in Chinese plastic and shipped 10,000 miles only to end up in a landfill by next year’s Christmas. I expect this little beauty to be my kitchen companion for many years.  And hopefully a lesson learned in valuing the work of a fellow craftsman.

Why Windsor Chairs?

My friend Jessica won last week’s spoon drawing. She is from just across the state line in St. Mary’s, GA, so rather than shipping the spoon, she offered to come pick it up. She and her husband Josh are cool people and we don’t hang out with them often enough, so we just made plans to spend the whole day with them instead.

Saturday morning, we went to “Pioneer Day” at the Okefenokee Swamp. They had a blacksmith, a spinner, a bowyer, a cane-grinder, and a cane syrup boil. My daughter especially enjoyed feeding sugar cane into the cane grinder. What kid wouldn’t love that? I enjoyed talking to the bowyer. His bows are made from Osage-orange, which wouldn’t have been the traditional wood for natives in Southeast Georgia, but he was from Arkansas, so it made sense for him. He even had a quiver of arrows made from riven white ash and turkey feather fletching. I’m not much of a hunter, but it was cool stuff.

I enjoyed the old Chesser Island Homestead. I remember going there as a child and admiring the log cabins and the roughsawn planks of the farmhouse. This time, I took notice of the furniture in the house. There were scads of ladderbacks, many of them in various stages of disrepair. A couple of them were quite nice, though. The chair on the left (below) had a seat of white oak splints, a material which – along with hickory bark seats – seems to get plenty of attention these days from books and modern chairmakers.

Honestly, though, the buckskin seat (in the middle) is as typical a seating material as any for old ladderbacks. Those things were all over antique shops in South Mississippi, and there were at least two of them in the Chesser farmhouse. Never seems to get mentioned much in woodworking books, though, presumably because it doesn’t come from a tree.

I also couldn’t help but snap a photo of the one Windsor chair in the house, a factory-made chair with a shapeless seat and stocky bamboo turnings. Yeah, it’s ugly. Much easier to make an ugly Windsor chair than a pretty one. Helpful to look at the bad ones too, though, if you aim to make a good one.

After we left the Pioneer Day festival, we all headed back to our home for some barbecued chicken (cooked over live oak and maple scraps, of course). I gave Josh and Jessica a tour of the workshop and we talked at length about the Windsor chair build. I know most people probably don’t even know what “Windsor chair” is, and even fewer (okay, many, many fewer) are as obsessed about them as I am. I must have gotten a little starry-eyed, because at one point Jessica asked, “So, why Windsor chairs? What’s so special about them?”

There are a lot of good answers to that question. Indeed, I’ve written about it before. but that night my answer was this: Windsor chairs are the only furniture form that I know of that can’t be improved in any way with power tools.

Sure, there are points in the process where you could introduce a power tool to gain some speed, but almost without exception, you will be giving up quality. The legs cannot be replicated by a machine with the same crispness as a hand-turned leg. A machine can make them all identical, but they will all be identically inferior. The seat cannot be shaped to the same organic look with a router or even a CNC machine. The spindles cannot not be shaved to precisely follow the grain – and therefore to perfectly preserve their strength – without the wedge, the froe, and the drawknife. Even the snugness and precision of the joints cannot be replicated without the continuous measurement and correction of the hand-made process. Joints are made to fit one another, not a plan a set forth by an industrial designer.

Last night, Peter Follansbee shared a link where master chairmaker Curtis Buchanan says it better than I ever could. You might as well listen to the guy who has made a few thousand chairs, rather than some dude who is halfway through his first:

Nothing’s like using the tools. Nothing. If I couldn’t make the chairs using these tools then I would find something else to make with these tools…

I could spend the next 30 years making continuous-arms and comb-backs and being completely content. And I think contentedness is very underrated. To me it’s a goal to be content, to be very content, just doing that same thing over and over and over again, which might sound boring to some people, but not to me at all. It’s just a lovely thing to come down here and do, day in and day out.

Click here to listen to the whole interview. It might just be the best 10 minutes of your day:

The Charcoal Burner’s Story

Fascinating film of English swill basketmaker Owen Jones making charcoal:

He has a website that you can visit here. Very cool, and very traditional, work.

For those of you who don’t know (and I’m assuming that’s most of you), oak “swills” are long, thin, pliant lengths of oak that are split from small trees. The technique was imported to the U.S. from Great Britain. Native Americans were were certainly familiar with the utility of split white oak as well, and the extant American style is probably a mixture of the two traditions (apologies for that ambiguous statement; I’m not a scholar here).

In any case, the process was widely used in pre-industrial America, but it’s especially linked to the Appalachians, where it survived to much more recent times than in other parts of the country (here’s a great book on that topic). In the U.S., we typically refer to the material as “splints” rather than swills. Baskets are the most common and familiar use for white oak splints, but they were widely used as seating material for ladderback chairs as well. I’ve woven a few chairs from the material, myself.

I like that Owen got into the charcoal-making to find a use for his waste wood. That’s a common problem we run unto as woodworkers. It’s incredible how much wood has to be removed to get down to the piece that actually goes into your furniture (or basket, in this case). Personally, I’ve found that my hardwood scraps make an awesome substitute for store-bought charcoal for grilling. I haven’t paid for briquettes in at least five years. This video has me itching to make some proper charcoal, though (albeit on a smaller scale). Grilling with wood scraps does have its shortcomings. Hope you enjoy the video as much as I did!