Pre-industrial

My work with Mortise & Tenon Magazine has given me plenty of intellectual congress with the idea of pre-industrial woodworking over the past year, but this week I became even more intimately acquainted with the idea of working wood without power. After devastating Haiti and slamming into Cuba and Florida, Hurricane Matthew made its deliberate way up the coast of the Southeastern United States and spent some quality time with North Carolina on Saturday and Sunday before heading out to sea leaving us without power for about 48 hours.

Forty-eight hours doesn’t sound like much, and honestly we got off easy compared to what others have suffered so I won’t complain.  Those two days without current taught me something though; that the world of pre-industrial woodworking offers less romance than we might imagine. This has nothing to do with efficiency. You can do very efficient work with hand tools using pre-industrial methods. This also is no comment on the serenity of the pursuit because hand tool woodworking does offer a quiet and contemplative retreat from the cacophony of the modern world.

What amazed me this week is how much time “life” takes when you have to live more deliberately (and without electricity).


It is obvious that working hours are fewer because you are dependent on natural (read: limited) or artificial (read: expensive) forms of light. Burning midnight oil was a more costly investment for the pre-industrial craftsman. When we go about hand tool woodworking these days we can work hours that were never meant to be worked because we’re generally in well-lit shops with cheap and (seemingly) endless energy resources.

Energy is no problem, and neither is information. Most of us carry out our apprenticeships virtually. We work at the bench with supercomputers in our pockets that put the first lunar landing capsule to shame, and finding the answers to questions is often a split second trip to Google. Even if you still prefer paper books to smartphones and tablets, you can put together a useful library at far less expense than generations before us.

Beyond that, however, the revelation for me was how much time it takes to live. By this I mean how much time it takes to cook, clean, and look after others when those tasks are also accomplished by “pre-industrial” methods. I don’t know why this shocked me. I’ve done plenty of camping in my time. At least enough to know that there always seems to be a continual flow of activity from one task to the next – from tending the first morning fire to falling dead-asleep in your sleeping bag at night. There is time for leisure, but it fits into the ebb and flow of the day differently.


Without power I found myself putting coffee on the camp stove to percolate (admittedly industrial implements) and taking those few minutes to mark and carve out recesses for the hinges on my Dutch tool chest. After making breakfast (and spending the morning in recovery efforts) I worked in a few moments to add the details to the chest lid and fit it to the chest. Somewhere in between trying to save the food in our freezer and locating more candles and batteries, the day passed and it was night again and time to rest. Good for the soul, but it slows progress. Even if these two days were not a pure analog to life in a trade before electricity, they were certainly a new (and less romanticized) window into that world.

Perhaps pre-industrial woodworkers had to be even more efficient than I thought.

 -JM 

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