I have been researching what type of furniture the Average Joe, early American had in their home. These pieces were built to fulfill a need and not to show off status. Oftentimes they were built quickly, in between other projects necessary to survive like fences to keep livestock in, a roof to keep the weather off, a door to keep out the cold. The "country" furniture maker was commonly not a cabinetmaker, but just a guy trying to provide for his family and eke out a living. Even the specialists in the small village built utilitarian pieces because this is what their customers sought.
This research brought me to a great book by Aldren Watson, "Country Furniture." Like all of Mr. Watson's books, it is impeccably written with beautiful illustrations that inspire you to get out to the shop. The book covers not only the furniture that was built but why. It takes an intimate look into the lives of the Countryman and what motivated him to build what he built. I must admit to feeling great admiration for these highly versatile people able to survive on their own and off the land.
The opening chapter of the book paints a very realistic picture of what the settler or colonist faced when arriving on North American shores. Coming from England where sawn lumber and tool makers abound, the Joiner is suddenly faced with the a continent of forest. Wood, wood everywhere and not a single board to be found. These Countrymen were capable of building their homes, clearing their farmland, and building the furniture they needed direct from these forests.
I have always been a history buff. It is one of the things that got me started in hand tools. That side of me can't help but feel some nostalgia for this simple style of living. Just do what you need to do to survive and maintain a life that is dependent on no one…then I wake up and think about the incredible backbreaking work required and settle down further in my easy chair to take a nap.
In today's society it is next to impossible to live this way. No matter where you go or how "off the grid" you get it seems that you will need to pay someone something to live. So I can only dream about this time and enjoy the amazing illustrations that Mr. Watson provides us in this great book. Of particular note to my fellow hand tool junkies out there is this four-page spread of a typical Countryman shop.
Call these images quaint, but they evoke a sense of warmth and of self sustainability that is truly inspiring. This may not be everyone's bag but in my every increasing desire to minimize my tool set and simplify my shop, this book speaks to me. As is typical with Watson's books you will find many gems hidden in the text. And for those of you who just like to look at the pretty pictures, you will love it. I know I spent some time in the lathe section scrutinizing the drawings as I'm designing a treadle lathe right now. Every time I take a look I get another idea. Heck just this morning when I was taking these pictures, this little guy popped out at me:
Call me crazy, but this would be something fun to build and play with one day.
In any case, this book has been re-issued so many times that you can pick up a copy pretty inexpensively. While you can buy it new for about $18 on Amazon, if you search eBay, AbeBooks or Amazon's used section you can find it for just a few dollars.
This "Hand Tool School" series is provided courtesy of Shannon Rogers, a/k/a The Renaissance Woodworker. Rogers is founder of The Hand Tool School, which provides members with an online apprenticeship that teaches them how to use hand tools and to build furniture with traditional methods.
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