beauty and idiosyncracy

As if you needed another reason to get your name on the list for the inaugural issue of Mortise & Tenon magazine, I have to say that in the editorial work that I have been doing for this issue I have learned something with every turn of the page.

Without giving anything away, one of the ideas that I have encountered in Martin O’Brien’s article Distinguishing the Marks of an Artisan is the idea that there is beauty to be uncovered in the idiosyncrasy and in-exactitude of pre-industrial furniture, and that some of this beauty comes from the “workmanlike” character of the pieces.

The scope of his writing is certainly much broader than this, and the idea of a piece of furniture being “workmanlike” is certainly not unique to him, but I have carried it with me over the past few weeks considering what it means for a piece of my own work to be “workmanlike.”

The idea, in it’s simplest form is that time is money and wherever time can be saved on parts of the construction that will never be seen in normal use, surfaces bear the evidence of that thrift. This means drawer bottoms with saw marks, plane tracks on the underside of tables, etc. For the pre-industrial craftsperson building to a schedule and price point, concessions like this allowed them to feed their families and still produce good work.

For the most part, I am not building against the clock. I do not make my living with saw and plane for the time being, and so I do not have to rush to produce a finished product against a schedule and price point. So for me, does that mean my drawer bottoms ought to be like glass off of the smoothing plane? Or, should I leave my “fingerprints” on the work in unobtrusive ways for future generations to wonder at?

Case in point:

My middle daughter has inherited a child’s rocking chair. This was mine at one point. It was also my father’s before me and his father’s before him. It may go back one more generation but I have no proof of that.


If you look carefully at the carved stiles in the fanned back you can see inconsistencies in each of the stiles witnessing to work by hand and not machine. As individuals they are irregular. As a whole they are beautiful. The in-exactitude does not detract from the form here, but enhances it.

If you turn the chair over you can see what I mean by “workmanlike.” Though the craftsperson took great pains in carving the visible parts, the invisible parts still bear the saw marks of the rough work.


The marks don’t detract from the piece at all. Honestly, they’re beautiful.

I don’t want this to come off like a commercial for the magazine because it’s not. It doesn’t really need a commercial. The work will speak for itself, but doing this editorial work has my head swimming in new ideas and I’m hopeful and confident that reading the finished work will do the same.



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