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 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.
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’ :
- To directly give dexterity to the use of tools
- To execute exact work
There was also a larger, more ‘formative aim’ to the education:
- To instill a taste for, and love of, labour in general
- Inspire a respect for rough, honest, bodily labour
- Develop independence and self-reliance
- Train habits of order, exactness, cleanliness and neatness
- Train the eye and sense of form. To give a general dexterity of hand and to develop touch
- To accustom attention, industry, perseverance and patience
- 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.
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:
- Cutting with the grain
- Cutting against the grain
- 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.
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.
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.”
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.