Tag Archives: Boston Sloyd School

Sloyd Workbench — Larsson Adjustable Workbench

Hello My Fellow Sloyders,

Recently we’ve talked a bit about the Sloyd Tool Cabinet and it’s contents — but with all these tools on hand and a book full of models to build, where do you actually build them?

I’d like to introduce you to a slightly more famous cousin to the Sloyd Tool Cabinet — the ‘Larsson Improved Adjustable Workbench’ or more commonly known as a ‘Sloyd Bench’.

Larsson Adjustable Bench from November 1908 Sloyd Record
Larsson Adjustable Bench from November 1908 Sloyd Record

This workbench was designed by Gustaf Larsson the principal of the Boston Sloyd School in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and manufactured by Chandler and Barber to Larsson’s specifications.  The bench was the result of Larsson’s experiences at Naas, at the Boston Sloyd School and at  the North Bennet Street Industrial School. It draws upon design elements found in traditional continental European benches but was scaled to the needs of a classroom setting and had to accommodate both children and adults.

The Sloyd Record: Issue No.1 January 1904 -- Boston Sloyd School Alumni Newsletter
The Sloyd Record: Issue No.1 January 1904 — Boston Sloyd School Alumni Newsletter

How do we know so much about this bench?

In some ways it is fairly well documented in old tool catalogs, like those of Chandler and Barber — the premier supplier of ‘Sloyd System’ benches, tools and supplies and in other advertising. In addition, a fair number of these benches still survive which is a testament to how well they were built and how many of them were produced. While the North Bennet Street Industrial School catered to training immigrants and younger students in its earliest days, the Boston Sloyd School focused on teaching the teachers of Sloyd. Teachers would come to the school, learn how to teach Sloyd to students and then go back to their municipalities to teach Sloyd to the local population. So with diplomas in hand these new teachers often wanted to order the same or very similar setups to what they learned on. This was the genesis of many manual training programs in the United States.

Chandler and Barber Sloyd System Supplier Ad from January 1904 Sloyd Record
Chandler and Barber Sloyd System Supplier Ad from January 1904 Sloyd Record

Above you can see one of the many ads Chandler and Barber took out in Sloyd related publications — in this case the ‘Sloyd Record’ which was the alumni newsletter of the Boston Sloyd School. Chandler and Barber seemed to be the most prolific dealer in this space, but just like today there was a lot of competition. You’ll see ads from Hammacher Schlemmer (they used to specialize mostly in tools and hardware back then), lumber dealers, publishers and other similar companies trying to get a piece of the apparently semi-lucrative Sloyd pie.

Buy the best -- buy a Larsson Bench from Chandler and Barber
Buy the best — buy a Larsson Bench from Chandler and Barber

The competition got so fierce that some of the Chandler and Barber felt it was worth mentioning how others got burned trying to save a few dollars going with a competitor’s bench of inferior quality. Don’t be a part of that sorry lot…..

Larsson IMproved Adjustable Sloyd Bench as seen in 'A Textbook Of Working Models Of Sloyd' By Gustaf Larsson
Larsson Improved Adjustable Sloyd Bench as seen in ‘A Textbook Of Working Models Of Sloyd’ By Gustaf Larsson

What made this bench so special?

Beyond being the brand name bench associated with Sloyd pioneer Gustaf Larsson the bench did have some novel features. If you look carefully in the picture above you can see a set of hinges on the cross member of the base (near where you see the word Pat.Aplc..). Why would anyone want hinges on their bench? Essentially you could take the top of the bench off, flip up or down those blocks, re-install the bench top and be able to accommodate both children and adults in the same workspace. Over the years several models of bench were associated with Larsson’s name, including the popular No. 5 model shown here, another larger model designed for 2 students to share a workspace, and even a clamp on vise which could be used for light work when attached to a sturdy table.

Beyond being a reasonably stout bench, it could be ordered with wood or metal vise screws, a few variants of removable tool rack (which made it easy for instructors to see if all the tools were put back in their proper place and in good condition), vise and dog hole configurations and similar tweaks.

Larsson Improved Adjustable Bench as Seen on Craigslist (Thanks to Gary Roberts for the link)
Larsson Improved Adjustable Bench as Seen on Craigslist (Thanks to my friend Gary Roberts for the link)

During my time at NBSS over the years I’ve had the chance to work at some of these benches a few of which seemed to survive in the darker corners of the workshop department. At the time I didn’t realize the history of what I working on — I thought it was just another old workbench which had seen better days and was propped up to accommodate taller students. At this sort of old bench I first learned to layout and cut a proper dovetail and it was well suited for the task and you could fit a fair number of them in a modest sized classroom. The benches were commonly bolted down into the floor which made up for the lack of mass when compared to a full sized bench. As a joiner these days I am used to working from a much larger bench as I work on a bigger scale, but if you are tight on space or find a good deal on a used model, it would be a great place to start on your path to more enjoyable woodworking.

In your travels, if you see any of these benches, tool cabinets or Chandler and Barber catalogs from the early 1900s, I’d be interested to see or hear about your findings here on the blog or via email.

Take care,

Traditional Sloyd Tool Cabinet

I recently had the opportunity to make a post to the Popular Woodworking online community which is edited by Dan Farnbach the PWM online editor.

Below is an extended version of that first post:

Bill Rainford -- Preservation Carpenter, Joiner, Instructor
Bill Rainford — Preservation Carpenter, Joiner, Instructor

Bill Rainford is a young and driven craftsman in whom I think you’ll find a lot in common. Voraciously self-taught at first, Bill went on to graduate from the Preservation Carpentry Program at one of New England’s premier craft schools. He now teaches workshops at that school (North Bennet Street) and serves as adjunct faculty at the Boston Architectural College, in addition to developing his own body of commissioned work, building his blog and holding down a day job in software. I want to welcome Bill to the community as an occasional guest writer. He’s going to bring us a little history and several techniques from his area of expertise, which he describes as traditional joinery –though Bill’s skills do not fit neatly in just one category.

We may also do a project plan over the course of the next few months. Please welcome Bill by reading this newsletter and then visiting his blog! Of particular interest is Bill’s recent collaboration with Roy Underhill – more on that at the bottom of this e-mail.


What Sloyd Did For Me and My Woodworking Apprenticeship

Part of what made my training in preservation carpentry so rewarding was the way in which it was taught.  We followed a system of educational handwork derived from what was originally developed at Nääs in Sweden and known as the ‘Educational Sloyd System.’ Sloyd is the Swedish word for ‘craft’ and most commonly associated with skilled manual craft work. In the early years of the school in the late 19th century, there was a strong need in Boston and America as a whole to help new immigrants learn the skills needed to acclimate to this new country and develop skills to support oneself. This Sloyd System trained students by building a series of useful models/items each of which introduced basic tools and skills, built confidence to tackle more advanced work, and fostered the ability to evaluate your own work and push yourself to reach new levels of accomplishment.

Elementary Sloyd Training in traditional woodworking techniques
Elementary Sloyd Training based on traditional woodworking techniques

When Otto Aaron Salomon wrote ‘The Theory of Educational Sloyd‘ (page 7) he described the goals one should strove for in teaching and learning within this system.

The focus was not simply the ‘utilitarian aim’ :

  1. To directly give dexterity to the use of tools
  2. To execute exact work

There was also a larger, more ‘formative aim’ to the education:

  1. To instill a taste for, and love of, labour in general
  2. Inspire a respect for rough, honest, bodily labour
  3. Develop independence and self-reliance
  4. Train habits of order, exactness, cleanliness and neatness
  5. Train the eye and sense of form. To give a general dexterity of hand and to develop touch
  6. To accustom attention, industry, perseverance and patience
  7. To promote the development of physical powers

The goal of all this training was not just to help find a job, but to help round out the person. Students may never pick up a tool again, but they will forever have the knowledge of how to make and evaluate things with your hand and your eye and appreciate the labor of others – something I often feel is lacking in members of my generation.

Sloyd Knife grain direction exercise
Sloyd Knife grain direction exercise

Students in this sort of program would often start with a simple block of wood and a Sloyd knife and learn to make controlled cuts. From this modest exercise they will absorb 3 of the most important lessons a woodworker will ever learn:

  1. Cutting with the grain
  2. Cutting against the grain
  3. Splitting wood

From this most basic of exercises students are able to make usable objects like a pencil sharpener, letter opener, penholder etc. which they are able to keep, evaluate and use. As the training progresses the students will have more freedom to implement their own designs and apply the skills they have learned.

Fast Forward to Today

This sort of learning by doing, ability to be self critical, self-sufficient, and continually push oneself is still present at the school. In the current programs at NBSS students work under the supervision of a master craftsman who will start with the basics and guide students through their training. By the end of the 1, 2, or 3-year program, depending on major, students will demonstrate proficiency in many tasks, and while there is always more to learn they will be well situated to seek out and tackle the next big project.

After graduating from my training, I remained interested in Sloyd and did further research on the topic. I learned that many of the benches and hanging tool cabinets designed and produced for early Sloyd programs were based on the designs of Gustaf Larsson of The Boston Sloyd School and produced locally in Boston. Some of the benches are still in use by the school and you can find some second hand every now and then on eBay, but the hanging tool cabinet was news to me.

Sloyd Tool Cabinet Advertisement from the late 19th/early 20th century
Sloyd Tool Cabinet advertisement from the late 19th/early 20th century

Shortly after learning about the Larsson tool cabinet I made a serendipitous discovery at a local pawn shop in New Hampshire – I actually found one of these cabinets and in very good shape given its age. All the hardware was intact, and only the front door was rebuilt. It was clear that this cabinet was used for a very long time by someone who cared about it, as the replacement door inherited the hardware and layout of the original.

My antique Sloyd tool cabinet
My antique Sloyd tool cabinet

I am working on a reproduction of this piece, and will be presenting parts of that project here and on the Popular Woodworking blog. Future posts will include a bit on how the cabinet was made, interesting details on the tools that once inhabited this cabinet, as well as notes and prices on modern equivalents. If there is interest I will also make some explorations into some of the Sloyd exercises which can help improve your own hand skills.

Roy Underhill is a fellow Sloyd enthusiast and has been inspirational to me in my research. I caught up with him this week and he offered even more wisdom on the topic, saying:

“Everyone human likes to move, so we came up with yoga, dance and sport to make movement more engaging and expanding. So too with woodworking and Sloyd. The exercises of Sloyd can bring every modern woodworker along a thoughtful path of liberating discipline, of progress and accomplishment — and reconnection with the good feelings of our ancient craft.”

Using your Sloyd Training
Using your Sloyd Training

If you’d like to join me in re-connecting with the joy of our ancient craft of woodworking I will be taking some classes at Roy’s Underhill’s ‘The Woodwright’s School’ in Pittsboro NC this July 9-12. The first class is Making a Traditional Jointer plane with Bill Anderson and the second class is Making a Traditional Metal Namestamp with Peter Ross. Both of these classes are a great way to learn some basic Sloyd skills and experience the satisfaction of using a high quality tool you made yourself for years to come. If you’d like more information on one or both of these classes, please check out my post on this topic here. If you are interested in attending, please do not wait to sign up — there is a minimum number of students needed to sign up by mid-June in order for the classes to run.