A branch of leaves

Or how we how we generalize the specialization in woodworking.

I have been working with wood in the historical reenactment field for about 25 years now. A lot of that was trying to create form without understanding the function, but a good bit has been about trying to understand why the function works the way it does and how the technology influences the form in the first place. This inevetably leads to a multitudes of different directions and rabbit holes to delve down and try to understand things.

One of the major hurdles to overcome in working with wood to recreate historical objects is that modernly we see woodworking as an all encompassing field and if you are competent at one aspect, you only need a little practice to be competent in another. Our ancestors knew better. A wheelwright, was not a carpenter, was not a turner, who was not a cooper.

Sure, they all make articles for daily use and all work with wood, but the knowledge and the tools were different. Sometimes it was a matter of scale of the tool, a hatchet vs a broad axe, sometimes it was a question of a trade specific tool such as a croze for a cooper.

Our ancestors knew the trades as a fact of life and were respected members of society, they were people who apprenticed from an early age to learn the intricacy’s of their trade and often labored a lifetime to master them. Learning not only how to construct the product of their trade, but how to select the materials for it, how to use the tools and maintain them, and also a method of learning that would allow them to pass on that knowledge when it became time to do so. Sadly much of that information was lost as craftsmen would die before they could pass on that knowledge. Or a craft died out for lack of use or being rendered obsolete by new technology or materials.

Some of the greatest challenges to a modern woodworker in trying to create era appropriate items is finding examples to study and base our work on, or if we can find them, they are badly degraded and marks of construction have been lost to time. Once we find the project its time to source the materials. Can the appropriate lumber be found in your area, if so can you afford it? If you can find the right material, does it have the suitable characteristics for your project? Trying to recreate a 15th century slab top table is hard if you can’t find board that are wide enough in your area. Then there is time and tools, I link the two because often modern tools allow us to produce results that would take those years of apprenticeship to produce with period appropriate tools. That is assuming you can find out what tools are appropriate to your project and then find them.

By necessity the modern reenactment woodworker is a generalist. The demand for 15th century chairs is not high enough to allow you to devote yourself to full time creation of such a specific finished item. We don’t have the social framework and the options for cheaper substitutes means it will be a hobby for most. With this in mind you only have the training and work time you can acquire in your spare time when you aren’t working the job that pays your bills. The flip side to the equation is that if you do make those 15th century chairs, you put more time into it and the price will be higher. The saying you can have it good, fast, or cheap but only two is eminently appropriate to this situation.

With a table saw I can rip a board in half in a mater of minutes. With a hand saw It could take an hour. My drill press allows me to set up a jig to create perfectly placed holes that are accurately spaced and angled, by hand with an auger each hole needs to be measured out and marked, and the skill to keep the drill squared up takes time. Don’t forget to factor the time it takes to drill holes by muscle power rather than electric power. All of this extra skill and time adds up to extra cost. My 15th century chair done in a manner consistent with 15th century tools will have gone from costing hundreds of dollars, to thousands.

A hidden obstacle to woodworking is space. How many of those 15th century chairs do you need? How much room do you have to store them? Assuming you have a way to to finance making those chairs, do you want to have them hanging around? If your livelihood doesn’t depend on making 15th century chairs, how soon until you are bored of making the same thing over and over?

Time for a change! Lets make buckets. New tools, new books, new project. Our ancestors didn’t have such ready access to information, trade secrets were jealously guarded. If you as a furniture maker began to make buckets to sell, the guilds often would impose fines on you for encroaching into their field. For our 15th century chair maker to decide to switch to making buckets would have been nearly imposable. If they aren’t making chairs, they aren’t making money to survive.

This specialization means it is more difficult for us to follow methods from the past, the infrastructure to provide the components for each step don’t exist. You as a modern recreationist need to learn skills that your predecessors would not have dreamed of in many cases.

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