Monday, November 26, 2007

Snippets on Shakers

A friend and I are giving a presentation on Shakers (or, the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, as they called themselves) to the Howard County, MD Woodworkers Guild this Saturday, so I'm busy preparing notes and organizing photos.

I have a special affinity with the Shakers, whose religious movement began in 1747 by a woman named Mother Ann (Lee), maybe because some of their basic tenants are in line with my own: honesty & integrity, industry & diligence, prudence & economy, humanity & kindness, cleanliness, order, humility, perfection, and equality of the sexes, to name a few. "Shakers" was a derogatory name ascribed to the Believers because of their worship practices where they were found to whirl, tremble and shake. Okay...probably my similarities with them would stop there.

The Shakers' principles influenced every part of their daily lives, labor, and furniture design. Highly skilled craftsmen built chests of drawers, tables, sewing desks, chairs, and other things, that were based on contemporary designs of the time, but that were pared down to their most basic elements of simplicity, proportion, scale, hierarchy, and pattern, forcing the observer to notice the design fundamentals, unencumbered by ornamentation and superfluous extravagance.

Shaker furniture was built on a scale not seen in worldly design, because it was made for their communities, each of which often consisted of several hundred people. So, we find built-in cabinetry with 860 drawers at the Enfield Shaker Village in New Hampshire, trestle tables over 20 feet in length, workbenches that were 18 feet long (sweet!), and tailoring counters that were 6-12 feet long and 4 feet wide, with drawers on all sides. Highly efficient and industrious folks who possessed exquisite craftsmanship.

I could go on and on about the Shakers, but I'll post more some other time. I will leave you with this tidbit: Tabitha Babitt, a Shaker woman, is credited with inventing the circular saw...

...and these photos: taken on my trip to the Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, MA. (Note to my woodworking friends: Yes, that is THE workbench.)


Frontier Carpenter said...

On benches

What do you thinks important in a good wookbench. My interest in woodworking is historical (17th -18th Century) so I like to use hand tools primarily. I designed my bench based on the Dominy bench and writings from the Workbench Book. I still need to finish the vise but the planning stop and holdfasts have performed well. My bench weighs a ton and doesn’t move when I plane or chop mortises on it. My bench wont win in any beauty contests but I love it!

Kari Hultman said...

Ron, your workbench sounds excellent! Don't worry about beauty—that's way down on the list of considerations when designing a workbench. Beefy-ness & weight (what you have) should probably be #1. You're way ahead of me since I haven't built my workbench yet. It sounds like you consulted good sources in designing yours, since you build period pieces. I'd love see photos. Feel free to email me directly.

For me, personally, I'm looking to build a version of Frank Klauz's bench. The shoulder vise will work great with handcut dovetails and the tail vise will work great when hand planing. Beyond that, it will be a matter of building shooting boards, a deadman, and other things to enhance the bench's performance.

Thanks for commenting!

Unknown said...

Very interesting!

Shazza said...

'Tis the gift to be simple,
'tis the gift to be free,
'tis the gift to come down where you ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
It will be in the valley of love and delight.

A favorite Shaker tune.

Kari Hultman said...

That's a great Shaker melody. I also like their mantra, "Hands to Work and Hearts to God."

Identity Mixed said...

The Shakers have always interested me too. As have the Amish... the real ones - not the ones you have out by Lancaster. The ones at the western end of the state and into Ohio and beyond are fascinating. Everything they believe about their God they try to live. And they make really cool rocking chairs.

Kari Hultman said...

I believe the Amish (I think originally Anabaptist?) started their communities about the same time as the Shakers. However, the two have some significant differences. Here are a few:
1. Shakers embraced technology. The Canterbury Shakers owned one of the first cars in the state and had electricity before the state capital did.
2. Shakers were celibate. (Which was not the reason they died out.)
3. Shakers lived in community.
4. Shakers believed in equality of the sexes.
5. Shakers were inventors, often improving on existing technology. For instance, they invented the flat broom, "tilter" chairs, peg racks, and were the first to package seeds for sale.