Living In A Golden Age

I have no doubt that we are living in a Golden Age of furniture-related craftsmanship. If you do not share my view, it might be because you are distracted by the nagging suspicion that civilizationally we are not living in a Golden Age, but rather we are living in, no, locked inside of, a fetid portable toilet of culture teetering precariously on the precipice of disaster, knowing that sooner or later, probably comparatively sooner, the cliff will give way and the septic tank we are locked inside will go over the edge and we will be doused with excremental effluvium as the box tumbles down, hurtling towards the chasm that is the coming Dark Age.  (Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump?  For the President of the United States? Seriously?  Give me another blue pill.)  Hmm, that might be a topic for a conversation at another time.

Back to this Golden Age of furniture craftsmanship.  For most of my adult life I have been studying the historical furniture-making trades in on manner or another.  While I was/am usually trying to gather more information to assist my decision-making in the restoration and preservation of historic furniture, I have learned enough that I have come to the conclusion that right now more fine furniture is being made than at any point in the past.  The numbers of excellent furniture makers is huge and increasing, as reflected in the burgeoning growth of organizations like the Society of American Period Furniture Makers, vibrant networks of furniture making and woodworking guilds and clubs, thriving literatosphere including magazines, blog sites, and enterprises like Lost Art Press, complimented by a legion of passionate researchers and innovators rediscovering the special knowledge of the past and creating new knowledge all the time.

While I was at the Smithsonian a couple times a year I would get a call, usually from an interior decorator, about which line of antique replicas was the best for her current project.  My reply was to exhort the inquisitor to do a little searching as the proximity to a fine custom furniture maker was certain, and that these makers would produce instant heirlooms rather than mere manufactured replicas.

The same quest for excellence, in both quality and quantity, has become abundantly manifest in the tool world.  When I started in the trade more than forty years ago I knew of no source for new, high quality precision woodworking tools.  Those that were available and known to me were inferior.

Now there are literally dozens of tool-makers providing superb tools.  Some are larger scale broad spectrum providers while many are single craftsmen working to exacting standards.  A brief, cursory search can find them.  Others are concentrating on specific tool forms; for example there are probably a dozen hand-plane makers and at least a half-dozen saw makers.  When I chat with them at woodworking events they all seem busy and booked, with horizons expanding before them.

As with other human ventures, some of these tool-makers are out at the edge, squeezing out every last iota of quality from their efforts.  In this context I think of former saw maker Andrew Lunn and current plane maker Konrad Sauer, both friendly acquaintances of mine.  Their work is so refined in quality that it is almost different in kind.  I’ll offer two personal anecdotes to reflect on this.

Three years ago Jameel Abraham held the first French Oak Roubo Project (and don’t get me started on the renaissance of interest in historic work benches, of which I am fully guilty) and we were gathered for a barbecue at Ron Brese’s home, Ron himself being a plane maker of the very first rank.  Ron had been assiduous in collecting tools of his fellow contemporary tool makers, and for the occasion he set out several magnificent dovetail saws on the bench and invited us to try them at our leisure.  The first person stepped up to the bench and began cutting, and the rest if us just clustered and chattered in the shop.  A few minutes later came the sound of a saw that was so magnificent that literally every head in the room snapped around to focus on the sawyer and the saw.  Each of the saws in the sample set were great, but this one was of a completely higher level and you could tell just by the sound.  It was Andrew’s.  Sadly for me he has withdrawn from the world of saw making and the prices of his saws, when they do change hands which is not often, places them outside my realm.  But all is not lost as there are a host of sawmakers pursuing this level of quality, and the gap is getting smaller all the time.

The second story is from this past spring’s Lee-Nielsen tool event in Covington, Kentucky, concurrent with the grand opening of the Lost Art Press World Headquarters.  I’ve blogged about this event before.  Konrad was set up with a few of his planes, including a new one (new to me at least).  I don’t play with tools much at these events as I know 1) they are all magnificent, 2) I don’t really need them, and 3) even if I did want one I might not be able to justify their expense.  Any, my friend and fellow Studleyista Sean Thomas asked me, “Did you try that new plane Konrad brought?”  It was in the general form of a jack plane.  I had not, and at Sean’s encouragement I picked it up and took a few strokes.  Sean can confirm that I literally gasped at the performance and feel of the tool.  It was that good.

I am not trying to kiss up to Konrad but merely indicating the place of the toolmaking craft at the moment.  Yes his tools are setting the standard, but there are a posse of plane makers hot on his heels.

Who benefits from this?  We do!  We may never be able to afford one of Andrew’s saws or Konrad’s planes, but we will be able to consume the products cascading down from a whole cohort of makers producing tools that were simply not available before, each of them inspired by and in competition with these standard-setters.

In an upcoming blog “My Dovetail Saw Gets A Baby Brother” I will recount how this cascade washed over me recently to a wondrous effect.