In the workshops of others

As I was editing the copy for Mortise & Tenon Magazine last December I had the pleasure of reading through some wonderful material long before the words went to print. Of all of the great articles in that magazine, one immediately captured my imagination – the piece by Martin O’Brien about what to look for when discerning the marks of artisans and craftsmen with regard to antique and historic furniture.

I don’t own anything especially valuable and historic in the sense that we generally use those words. George Washington never sat in anything at my house. But I do own a few pieces with a little family history attached and one of those pieces is this cradle.


It has been in my family for at least five generations. My mother would have you believe it came over on the boat from Ireland. Having used the cradle in close quarters and knocked my shins on the runners a few times I would find that hard to believe, but from time to time I do get interested in its provenance. I would love to know when it was made, where it was made and by whom but the best I will likely ever be able to muster is some general dates and ideas about what the answers to those questions might be.

I have reliable family history that places my great-great grandfather in this cradle. I do know that the Irish side of my family came over through New York, but promptly landed in Pennsylvania a generation or two after that. The cradle likely comes from there.

Whoever made it had a skilled hand and a good eye for proportions. The decorative scrolls on the top and the tight (angled) dovetails suggest this wasn’t just slapped together by an amateur. You can still make out the crisp layout lines on some of them even after multiple attempts at refinishing.

There have been some repairs to the runners that were most likely knocked off at some point. (Don’t tell my mom, she’ll have you believing that they took them off to get it on the boat and put them back on in the new world.)


These battens were added when the repair was made. Notice the saw mark from trimming that batten flush. I can still hear the person saying “eh, that’s on the bottom. No one will ever see that.”


Everything is good and solid so there’s no real reason to repair it further or undo former repairs. That would just erase the history anyway. And speaking of history, there’s the paint left over from my grandfather’s “improvements” to the cradle that my own father stripped to remove what was presumably lead paint.

My dad was a wonderful man, but not skilled at this work. He did what he could, but left paint in the grain and covered it in a couple of coats of tung oil or wiping varnish.


Now that the cradle is mine and it’s up to me to figure out what to do with it, I sought some expert advice, and who better to ask than the man that sent me off on this journey.

I contacted Martin O’Brien to tell him about the cradle and ask some questions and he very graciously invited me to bring it by his workshop the next time I was in the area (which isn’t often, but happened last Friday). Nearly all of the information you just read came from his examination and our conversation.


Let me first say that Martin was a gracious host and I felt honored to be in a working cabinet and conservation shop. I guess that’s what you would call it. Martin explained that although the percentages change, a portion of his work is always restoration or conservation and only occasionally does he get to build new things from scratch. It was neat to see several things in progress at once. On one worktable was an antique chair that most of us would pass over in a junk shop, but held enough historical significance that it was to be restored for display in a museum with several replicas to be made. A second table held a scroll box in the process of being built and on yet another was a table built by Thomas Day awaiting restoration.

The out-feed bench from the table saw served as a makeshift examination table where Martin eagerly investigated the cradle. Although the body of the cradle seems to be Walnut, he pointed out the secondary woods (poplar and pine for the bottom and stretcher) as a good way to place the cradle in a time and place. We looked at the nails and the “repairs” as evidence of the hands that this cradle had passed through and considered its current state.



That took us over to the finishing area of his workshop where he gave me an education in possibilities for removing the current finish and re-finishing.

Because my late father had done the last re-finish, he also suggested ways to keep and improve the current finish.

I’m always interested in how other people set up their workshops, and Martin explained that his was just sort of a compilation of the best ideas he found in other people’s workshops. I’m sorry to say that some of the pictures came out a little blurry, but I have to confess that I felt a little self conscious when I asked if I could take a few pictures of his workshop for the blog. Even in that Martin put me at ease telling me to take as many pictures as I wanted.

I have to say that of all of the wonderful things that have come from working with Joshua on Mortise & Tenon, this opportunity has been an absolute highlight and a reminder of the importance of building relationships within the craft. The internet is great, but I learned more in the hour and a half that I spent with Martin at 237 South Broad Street than I could have learned in days on the web. Not only that, but I got to meet a great guy and someone with a real passion for the work he does.

Thank you Martin for your kindness and gracious hospitality.



One Comment Add yours

  1. I love how family heirlooms so often seem to have dubious oral histories attached. My office mate in grad school had a guitar that his grandparents swore belonged to Amelia Earhart. My wife’s grandmother lived in a house that had been in the family for its entire existence, dating back to 1850. The main bedroom contains a suite of Victorian furniture that her grandmother claims was ordered directly from London in the 1870s. At first, I was skeptical of the claim, since the primary wood is yellow-poplar (a distinctly American wood) throughout. Now that I’m more fully aware of the immense timber trade between the US and England during the 19th century, I would give the attribution more credence. I need to take another look at the furniture next time I’m there to see if there’s any more evidence of its origin.

    In any case, I enjoyed the story about your own family heirloom. That’s a lovely crib – I built one very similar when my daughter was born – and I would agree with Mr O’Brien that it is most likely of American origin, given the wood species and the family history.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s