The wonderful world of joinery

Those engaged in the art and mystery of joining pieces of wood together to make a chair, a table, a case of drawers, a cupboard, or any other useful piece of furniture, architectural feature, or household accessory, have a wide choice of “joints” suited to making such things strong and beautiful. Shaker woodworkers, like their counterparts in the outside world, demonstrated their mastery of mortise and tenon, rabbet, half-lap, dovetail, dado, miter, spline, finger, and tongue and groove joints. For a few specific purposes Shaker woodworkers used a particular method of joining pieces of wood that, while not unknown in the outside world, was not common. That method involved turning the common round mortise and tenon joint – that is inserting a round peg in a round hole – into a stronger joint by cutting threads inside the mortise and on the outside of the tenon and screwing them together like iron nuts and bolts. This joint, because it did not require glue, had the advantage of being relatively easy to take apart.

There are three common examples of Shakers using this joinery technique to great advantage – the pulls (or knobs) on drawers and cabinet doors, the omnipresent pegs (or pins) mounted in boards circling the interior of nearly every Shaker room, and window screws.

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Threaded Drawer Pull from Shaker Blanket Chest, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1830, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1958.10625.1

Pulls. Drawer pulls with glued unthreaded mortises and tenons tend to loosen over the years as wooden drawer fronts expand and contract year to year from summer to winter. The heavier the drawer the more the stress put on the pull every time the drawer is opened. The threaded mortise and tenon is a mechanical joint that relies on the interlocking of the threads rather than glue. Alternatives to threading the pull – used more in non-Shaker pieces – were to either leave the tenon long, protruding into the drawer, and put a pin through it so it could not pull out, or cutting a slot in the tenon and driving a wedge into the slot, flaring the end of the tenon so it was too big to pull out of the hole.

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Illustration of Shaker Threaded Pegs in Peg Board, 2017, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, drawn by staff

Pegs and Peg Board. Could anything be more annoying to the Shaker than grabbing his or her wrap from the hallway peg board and half-way across the door yard finding the peg on which it hung still tangled in the collar? Threaded pegs, like pulls, did not accidentally come loose from the board. Peg board was made in two parts – one piece of rough wood nailed to the studs that supported the plastered walls and a finished piece of wood that covered the rough board and the joint between that board and the plaster. The rough board had threaded holes to receive the pegs while the finished board had a slightly larger hole through which the peg could pass on its way to the threaded board beneath. In cases where this technique was used, the pegs actually held the finished peg board on the wall. Removing the pegs and peg finished peg board allowed rooms to be painted without having to worry about getting paint or whitewash on the peg boards.

Window Screws. In a number of Shaker buildings the windows were designed such that there was a thin board that overlapped the movable window sash. This board, much like the finished piece of peg board, could be tightened against the sash by turning a thumbscrew that passed through it but tightened into a board beneath. This feature made it possible to hold the sash open without using a stick or counterweights.

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Tap and Die, Church Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1840, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon: 1961.12900.1a,b

Making  wooden threads was done with two tools: a tap for cutting the threads inside the mortise and a die or “screwbox” for cutting the threads on the tenon. These tools would not have been common in every toolbox but specialized woodworkers may have invested in or made these specialized tools. For example, making spinning wheels, which Shakers in a number of communities did, required threaded tensioning screws for keeping the cord that connected the large drive wheel with the spindle where the fiber was twisted tight. Toolmakers made hand screws for clamping pieces of wood together that required long threaded wooden rods and threaded mortises and some woodworkers specialized in making large, one and one-half to three inch diameter wooden screws and nuts for large vises on cabinetmakers’ workbenches.

In the collection of Shaker Museum|Mount Lebanon is a purpose-made tool for threading the tenons on pegs for peg boards that also has a changeable cutter for doing the same for drawer pulls. The tool is thought to have been made at the Church Family at Mount Lebanon by Brother Isaac Newton Youngs, a clever mechanic and woodworker. Faced with the task of making tens-of-thousands of threaded pegs, it seems a worthy project for a clever brother.

There is one example in the Museum’s collection where one unidentified cabinetmaker used the “treaded mortise and tenon joint” in a less common way. Two tripod stands – candlestands – were made with their tops joined to their pedestal bases with wooden screws. Round cleats, screwed to the bottom of the stands’ tops have threaded mortises that screw on threaded tenons protruding from the tops of the stands’ pedestals. The Shaker cabinetmaker was probably thinking of the mechanical strength of the joint and not taking the stand apart for shipping – but it is a design worthy of consideration by Ikea.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Shaker “Ne plus ultra”

Swift Slat Planer, Church Family, Hancock, MA , Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon,1958.10733.1, Matthew Kroening, photographer.

Swift Slat Planer, Church Family, Hancock, MA , Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1958.10733.1, Matthew Kroening, photographer.

Beginning in the 1840s and continuing into the 1870s, the Shakers at Hancock manufactured expandable/collapsible yarn swifts for sale.  Among other occasional uses, swifts processed skeins of yarn into balls for knitting or crocheting.  A knitter faced with this task could ask someone to spread his or her arms and hold the looped skein as it was slowly wound off into a ball, or lacking a willing assistant, could place the skein over the slats of a swift, expand its slats (much like opening an umbrella), and, with the skein held securely, wind a ball of yarn without help.

It appears that, like oval box making in other Shaker communities, at Hancock swift-making fell to the community elders as it was work that could easily be put aside when their administrative duties took precedent. Elders Grove Wright (1789-1861) and Thomas Damon (1819-1880) are the two names associated with Hancock’s swift business and both are known to have been accomplished woodworkers. The number of swifts made by one or both of these two brothers averaged over 900 pairs per year between 1854 and 1860.

 

Swift Slats, Church Family, Hancock, Massachusetts, ca. 1860s, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 2012.11.3-.41

Swift Slats, Church Family, Hancock, Massachusetts, ca. 1860s, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 2012.11.3-.41

All of the pieces necessary for assembling a swift were turned on a lathe with the exception of the slats that held the yarn. Each swift required one or two of each of the turned pieces, but required twenty-four slats for the swift to be completed. Producing nine hundred swifts required over 21,000 slats. That arduous task apparently set Elder Thomas on the road to making a machine that would lighten this burden. His solution was to design and build a machine that took a rough-sawn piece of wood, smoothed its flat sides, made it the required thickness and width, and slightly rounded its edges – all with a single pass through the machine. His planning and construction of this machine paid off, for on October 10, 1854, he recorded in his diary that he, “Started a new machine for planing & edging Swift slats, it worked charmingly and bid fair to be the ‘Ne plus ultra’ in that line.” The remaining work of preparing the slats was relatively easy. Once the ends were rounded and it had holes drilled in it, it was ready for assembly. While we do not have production statistics for swifts made in years prior to 1854, when this machine was put in service, it is likely that the number greatly increased.

Swift Slat Planer, Church Family, Hancock, MA , Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1958.10733.1, Matthew Kroening, photographer.

Swift Slat Planer, Church Family, Hancock, MA , Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1958.10733.1, Matthew Kroening, photographer.

In the woodworking industry, machines similar to Elder Thomas’s machine are called four-sided molding machines and are commonly used to make decorative moldings for houses and furniture. The Shakers’ four-sided molding machine was purchased by the Shaker Museum|Mount Lebanon from the Hancock Shakers’ workshops in 1958.

 

Apostasy and carpentry: The tale of a shoemaker’s bench

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Shoemaker’s Bench, Center Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1845, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 1961.12839.1.

As shoemakers’ benches go, this Shaker example is a luxury version of a basic workbench. It has ample drawers for tools and a back rest and padded leather seat. Many of these benches only have trays fastened to the bench top to hold tacks, nails, and shoe pegs, with maybe a single drawer slung underneath for tools. The seat is usually carved into the top of the bench without much or any padding. Shoemakers sat low on their benches as they used their laps for much of their work – the knees being a suitable vise for holding something as irregularly shaped as a shoe or boot.

The quality of this bench speaks to why its proper name is a shoemaker’s bench rather than a “cobbler’s bench.” Although the terms shoemaker and cobbler are now used interchangeably, historically a shoemaker refered to the trained tradesperson who made shoes and boots, whereas a cobbler, as Webster informed people in his dictionary (1900 edition), was “A mender of shoes … a clumsy workman.”  This is much like what has happened to the differentiation between a tinsmith and a tinker – the tinsmith being the maker of tin ware and the tinker “the itinerant mender of domestic tin utensils … a clumsy workman; a botcher.” That being cleared up, this shoemaker’s bench has more to tell us about the Shakers than that they were well-shod by trained artisans.

On the bottom of one of the small drawers is a faint and partly obliterated inscription that appears once to have clearly read, “Dec. 1st 18__ Made by Richard B. Woodrow.” Richard Bushnell Woodrow was a member of the Second Order of Mount Lebanon’s Church Family (now referred to as the Center Family). He was born March 5, 1828 in Philadelphia. His mother Sarah Woodrow was a member of an experimental community in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. That community was founded in 1826 as the “Friendly Association of Mutual Interest” by as many as 300 followers of the English social reformer, Robert Owen. The community’s first members settled in the house that had been George Washington’s headquarters at Valley Forge. They wrote a constitution that committed members to industrious work and to share equally in the profits of that work. They had a commitment to equality between men and women. The experiment did not make it through the first year as a result of conflict between the Association members and the surrounding communities. As members looked for another opportunity to live in, some found their way to the Shakers at Mount Lebanon. Eventually as many as 30 of them came to live at Mount Lebanon’s North Family. Shakers such as John and Levi Shaw; John, Deborah, and Anna Dodgson; Abel, Israel, Sarah, and Jane Knight; Tabitha and Maria Lapsley; George Wickersham; Clawson Middleton; and Sarah Woodrow, satisfied with their new home, lived out their lives as Shakers, most of them as stalwarts of the North Family.

Three-year-old Richard came with his then twenty-four-old mother and was eventually placed in the children’s order at the Center Family as soon as he could be separated from his mother. At age 11, in an accounting of membership in the Church and Center families, he is listed among the boys at the Center Family. At age 21 he is listed among the brothers as a 5 foot 10 inch tall carpenter and mill-wright.  Brother Richard’s work was varied but generally of a mechanical nature.  In 1848 and 1849, he set up a foot-powered lathe, repaired the family’s waterwheel, built a wash-mill, put up eave troughs, made a “great cask,” framed the dairy house, laid floors; made portable bedsteads, a yarn stretcher, and a seeder for beet seeds; tore down the family’s old mill and framed a new one “pretty much alone.” In October, 1849 the Lebanon Shakers were confronted with a lack of space in their main graveyard. They decided to use an earlier graveyard to compensate. In doing so they dug up the bones of Father Joseph Meacham to reposition his grave. Brother Richard made the coffin to receive his bones for the re-interment.  This kind of work continued steadily until February 2, 1853 when “Warren Chase, Richard Woodrow, Louisa S[ears] and Fanny Crocker conclude[d] to forsake their Father’s house & seek asylum in some other region.” This was not Richard’s first decision to leave Shaker life. At age eighteen he had been one of eight young brothers and sisters who departed the Center Family in one of the most devastating rebellions the Shakers ever experienced. Unlike the other seven who left, Richard returned less than a month later, begging a new privilege, “after having humbly acknowledged his mistake in having left.”

Richard’s loss was devastating to the family. It was noted in a journalist’s commentary: “Richard was their principal carpenter & Joiner there, and left a heavy & important job, a large barn, partly framed, & has left no regular draft of it; and someone will have a hard task to get a clear idea of it, and doubtless the Chh will be obliged to hire it done.” Just prior to leaving Richard had completed making the 300 diagonal braces that were to be used in the new dairy barn. Louisa Sears and Fanny Crocker were caretakers of the young girls – another difficult job to fill. Warren, Richard, and Fanny had all lived together since childhood.

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Photograph (cropped), Center Family Barn (1853), Center Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1910, James Irving, Photographer, Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, 2000.21522.1. This is the barn that Richard Woodrow was in charge of framing when he left the Shakers.

Richard’s life in the world is sketchily documented. It appears that he and Louisa (or Loiza) Sears married in Burlington Township, New Jersey two days after leaving the Shakers. [Burlington County, NJ, Marriage Records]  Although  the particular circumstances and not, at present, known, Louisa Woodrow died on July 2, 1857 in Gloucester, New Jersey – according to recorded “New Jersey, Deaths, 1670-1988.” Two years after Louisa’s death, Richard married Elizabeth M. Paul in Clarksboro, New Jersey. They had two children, Mary L. Woodrow, born in 1863, and Howard H. Woodrow, born in 1868. Around this time Richard moved to Philadelphia where he worked as a carpenter and eventually managed a hardware store – jobs fitting of his Shaker training. Richard Woodrow died in the city of his birth on March 6, 1909 having lost Elizabeth five years earlier. They are both buried in the Mickleton Friend’s Burial Bround, Upper Greenwich, New Jersey, suggesting that he and Elizabeth were Quakers.

Although Richard’s post-Shaker life is certainly not completely documented, it is rare that it is possible to trace the lives of those leaving the Shakers to see how their Shaker life may have informed the remainder of their lives.

The shoemaker’s  bench was purchased August 5, 1961 at an auction of Shaker items collected from the Church and Center families at Mount Lebanon and owned by Darrow School. The auction provided funds to aid in the conversion of the Shakers’ 1824 Meetinghouse into the school’s library.

There is more to this story. The shoemaker’s bench is only one a half-dozen objects in the collection of the Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon that appears to be connected to the life and work of Richard Bushnell Woodrow. The rest of these objects will be discussed is subsequent articles in this blog.

No carpenter or joiner: Elder Bushnell’s blanket chest

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Blanket Chest, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1866. Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon 2003.1.1 Photo by Alan Lavallee.

In June 2001 the antique firm Courcier and Wilkins of Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts purchased a red painted two-drawer blanket chest. The piece had suffered moisture damage to several of its feet and, in hopes of salvaging the piece for resale, Courcier and Wilkins made arrangements to have the feet restored. When the cabinetmaker doing the restoration turned the piece upside down to work on the feet, he found an inscription written on the bottom of the drawer slide supporting the upper drawer. The inscription read:

“1866 Richard Bushnell Maker North Family Shaker Village Mt Lebanon N.Y. The first chest he ever made being no carpenter or joiner and now in the seventy-six year of his age – 1866.”

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Blanket Chest (detail of inscription), North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, 1866. Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon 2003.1.1. Photo by Robert Wilkins.

Although no carpenter or joiner, Elder Richard (1791-1873) certainly did a fine job at being one. The chest is well made and very much in the tradition of similar pieces made at Mount Lebanon. Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon, at that time in negotiations to acquire the North Family property, understood how important this particular piece would be in telling the story of that family and particularly of one of its most important members.

Richard Bushnell was born in Saybrook, Connecticut on November 19, 1791. He moved to New York City and learned the trade of making horn combs. When finished with his apprenticeship he set out toward Utica, New York to find a farm and a circumstance for himself. His travels brought him to New Lebanon, where he lodged for the night at a local hotel. He asked who lived in the beautiful hamlet he could see on the hillside. The hotel-keeper cautioned him about the “fanatical followers of Ann Lee,” but the curious twenty-two-year-old ignored her warning and went the next day to see for himself. The village impressed him with its order, cleanliness, and quiet – “there were no dogs, no loafers, no drinking saloons.” Elder Calvin Green noticed the “serious and thoughtful” young man at the public meeting and later investigating the grounds of the village. He invited him to rest and become acquainted with the Shaker faith.

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“Group of Shakers (detail),” Stereograph, North Family, Mount Lebanon, NY, ca. 1871. Shaker Museum | Mount Lebanon 1953.6118.1. Photo by James Irving. Elder Richard Bushnell is the man sitting in front of the fence with his hat on his knee.

Richard’s visit shaped the rest of his life. He quickly accepted the Shaker faith, put his business affairs in order, and in 1813 became a Shaker. As a Shaker Brother Richard was quickly identified as a strong force in the North Family. In 1821 he was appointed the family Trustee and six year later the Second Elder under Calvin Green, whom he replaced in 1832. Bushnell was known for his strong leadership, his frugal care of the family’s resources, and his hard work. In 1850, he set out 1,200 locust trees in “the Grove” for the Shakers to harvest as fence posts to use and to sell. Many of the locust trees still growing in the North Family are volunteers from Elder Richard’s first crop. In 1858 Bushnell resigned his Eldership at the North Family to stand as the Second Elder in the Lebanon Ministry, but “due to a nervous disorder” he never took up residence at the Church Family. He was apparently resistant to assume his new role in the Ministry and it was eventually decided he would remain at the North Family and take up making seed boxes. In 1861, working at the North Family Saw Mill, he cut off some fingers with the buzz saw, but apparently continued to be able to work with wood as evidenced by the blanket chest featured here.

Eldress Anna White wrote of Elder Richard Bushnell that he “was a spiritual father of the purest and holiest type, beloved by his family and held in highest confidence and esteem in the whole region where his life was spent,” and Elder Frederick Evans, who succeeded Bushnell as the North Family Elder, wrote, “A brother who I esteem as one of the best men now living upon the earth.”