Friday, August 30, 2013

Doing Time in the Joint: Introducing the Worshipful Company of Joiners

I’ve heard any number of definitions that seek to draw a line between the joiner and the carpenter. Some people say the joiner is defined by his lack of nails. Others by the outcomes: the carpenter builds bridges and buildings while the joiner builds finer things. In an episode of the Woodwright’s Shop, Roy Underhill defines the joiner by his tools, saying he becomes a joiner the moment he picks up a jointer’s plane.

The Oxford English Dictionary takes the "Defined by his results" definition: "A craftsman whose occupation is to construct things by joining pieces of wood ; a worker in wood who does lighter and more ornamental work than that of a carpenter, as the construction of the furniture and fittings of a house, ship, etc." and dutifully notes that it first appears in print from 1386.

Back in May, my favorite woodworking blogger The Village Carpenter wrapped up her blog and signed off, but not before she added me to her blogroll under "Hand Tools Only". When she did this, I was unaware of it and I'm somewhat amused to note that looking back, I haven't done much woodworking since she did so.

One of the reasons you haven't seen many wood chips fly is that I've been remodeling my kitchen (using power tools, I confess). The other is that I've been doing research and acquiring a box of tools that are as near their period form as possible. As always, I get by with a little help from my friends and it never ceases to amaze me how many people have taken on this project as if it was their own.

I've had leads on tools emailed to me and received tools mailed to me from as far away as Georgia (thanks, Noel!) and the UK (thank you, Douglas!). As you probably know, some of them I've revived from the slumber of ages and some of them I inherited.

At this point I've acquired enough tools to begin building the rest of the tools I'll need and for that I shall need joinery.

I guess it's high time I earned that link. 

Well, it's a good start, anyway...

In the Joint, Part One

In the 16th century, there were many joints that did not rely on nails to hold together and it was the joiner whose specialty was the making and execution of those joints. The key joint, in my opinion, wasn't the dovetail so prized by modern cabinetmakers, but the mortise and tenon.

At its simplest definition, mortises are holes and tenons are slightly smaller bits sized to fit inside the holes.  The tenon is then usually held in place by pegs or nails or in the case of knockdown items like trestle tables, a removable key.

If you think about it, that seems a bit weak, but it isn't.  Houses and furniture that was built in the 16th century this manner are still standing today. A bit closer to home, I'm talked before about the 16th century wheelbarrow I made using mostly period joinery, the key joints being four through tenons that form the chassis.

See those two tenons that are sticking through the arms of the barrow above? Those are the tenons that lock the whole thing together. Even the wheel is held in place by those two framing members...

All those pieces in the picture above are held together and square by those four tenons. Until I had to repair the wheel a few years after this photo was taken, there were two nails in the entire thing. The only reason I used screws on the wheel is so I could change it more easily.

Eight years later it looks like this...

That sounds fine and I'll admit that it looks a bit ramshackle, but bear in mind that we're looking at a farm and garden tool that I made out of $25 worth of crap lumber from Home Depot and when I wasn't using it to haul sandbags and lumber, it was parked under a tree for eight years.

No matter how much I loaded the thing down, those tenons held tight.

The pins holding the tenons in place are known as "drawbore" pins, which means the holes are slightly offset and the pin is being yanked in two different directions, preventing it or the joint being held from moving.

This is one of the only two nails in the piece.  I didn't need them. Not sure why I bothered to use them. It's just that I was new at the drawbore tenon and didn't really trust myself yet.

Cutting a mortise

These days, a lucky woodworker with a decent machine cuts these with a mortising machine, which is a hollow square chisel that is dragged through the wood by an augur running through the hollow center. Most of the time these days, I remove the waste from the hole using a drill and then square the hole with a chisel.

We'll be doing this chopping it out with just a chisel.  Handily, this is the exact chisel my grandpa used to teach me how to do this thirty-odd years ago.

I really need to make a new leather washer for that chisel handle.

Draw your square with a knife or a mortising gauge and make a series of small lateral cuts... 

Then, go in at a slight angle and remove the waste between each lateral cut, working with a nice, sharp chisel and working slowly to keep your edges square.

Rinse and repeat, working as deep into the wood as you need to go. Not all tenons need be through-tenons and there are a dozen or so ways to stop them short and lock them in using wedges if you're not up to the drawbore technique.

Not all tenons are shouldered, which is what the parts of the timber on the sides of the tenon in the illustration above would be called. The mortises in the embroidery frame pictured below are the same size as the tenon pieces and are kept in place by the pegs in the frame and the tension of the embroidery. We'll see more of it when we pull thread with the Worshipful Company of Broderers.

I brought up the frame because it handily illustrates how everything made of wood in the 16th century at some point passed under the tools of the guilds of joiners and carpenters. Every embroidery frame, every box, every building. So this is going to be a big one...

Want to learn more about Drawbore Joinery?

Read this article at WK Fine Tools by cabinetmaker and Popular Woodworking contributing editor Christopher Schwarz:

Peter Follansbee deals extensively with the mechanics of the drawbore in his book "Make a Joint Stool from a Tree" published by Lost Art Press.

~ Scott

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Kill It With Fire, Part Five: Cleaning the kitchens. . . summary and wrapup

"Cooking is a craft, I like to think, and a good cook is a craftsman -- not an artist. There's nothing wrong with that: the great cathedrals of Europe were built by craftsmen -- though not designed by them. Practicing your craft in expert fashion is noble, honorable and satisfying."

- Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential
No one begins something like this on a whim. And if I'm honest, the quote that started this insanity was just one of many pebbles that contributed to the avalanche. It might have been the first pebble, but I can hardly blame Mssr. Bourdain for all that followed...

I am tired. More tired than I have been in a long, long time. My new regimen of archery practice didn't help, and for my Elizabethan alter-ego, the invention of Advil is 390-odd years in the future.

Thankfully, I live in that future so I'm not reduced to gnawing on the trunk of the nearest willow tree.

I was an art major, which is a roundabout way of saying that I spent a lot of time working in restaurant kitchens. There wasn't much in Bourdain's book that really surprised me. Of all the oddball jobs I took through the 'starving artist years' that are so fondly spoken of by people who've never lived through them, the restaurant jobs were my favorites.

Was it noble, honorable, and satisfying, as he promised? I dunno. I wasn't a chef, the highest I ever got was prep cook. I certainly didn't make it to culinary school; I spent too much time as a dish dog, really. Nevertheless, the exposure to finer foods and the people who prepared them than I could afford on what they were paying me taught me to appreciate, to taste, food differently.

But this isn't a foodie blog any more than it's intended to be Scottie Goes to Ren Faire. I never really meant for the baking demonstrations at the Washington Midsummer's Renaissance Faire to change so drastically how I thought about this project.

I'm still slightly ashamed to admit that it didn't occur to me earlier to set up and attempt one of these trades at anything close to full production level.  How could I ever hope to understand the lives of my craftsmen forebears if I never stepped fully into their shoes?

We'll get to shoes soon, this is about... I almost said it's about bread. It's actually not at all about bread.  Anthony was right about that. It's about craft.

The WMRF demonstrations were always intended to be a sort of safety valve on this project. The faire was scheduled just past the midpoint in the project and I knew that by that time I'd have a fair idea whether or not I thought I'd make it by the end of December. (Though to be honest, I still don't know and you'll see why I've stacked projects as I have in the coming months.)

Like archery, baking was not something I ever thought to enjoy. In my home, I do all the cooking, but The Engineer did all the baking. Baking was too fussy for me, too much like science and not enough like art... or so I thought. It never occured to me that it would be baking that finally put me over to the noble, honorable, and satisfying side of the kitchens.

Those are The Engineer's hands in that photo above. It was also the first time in quite awhile that she and I cooked anything together. Until the recent remodel began, our kitchen was inhospitable to more than one person at a time.

There's finally room for craftsmanship. 

Photo & Digital Manipulation by Dan Hill - © 2013 Used with permission
By God, Tony was right about that. When Dan Hill posted that photo manip above, one of the first comments posted below it (by someone I have never met, mind you) was two words: "Naturally happy."

Bourdain spent the rest of Kitchen Confidential talking about how dog tired he got working the line, how strung out he was on various substances, how much the food business was a scam and how much was genuine, and how arduous the restaurant biz is is, but even now you can see in his shows how much he loved it.

I'm starting to feel that way about bread and baking.

Baking turned out to be more art than science, not as slavishly dedicated to the arcane formulae of moth-eaten texts as I once believed. When my hands were in the dough and our friend Becky had the ovens blazing and Kristin was scooping flour into the bowls while Becky's husband Douglas was working the rope line, charming the tourists with his English accent and well-rehearsed dialogue about the history of English baking... here was an element of jazz. 

And always the crowds lined up at the edge of our area, asking questions and carrying away my card or the address of this blog scribbled on a bit of paper. At one point, we scrawled a diagram and the URL for this project on a chalkboard and folks were taking photos of it with their phones.

I hope you found your way here without any trouble. I hope that you learned something that day at the faire when you stumbled across our mad adventure in the land of yeast and flour. God knows that we certainly did.

That Corgi was an excellent student...

The Oven's End...

The oven at the Washington Midsummer's Renaissance Faire site was never meant to last. Not only did we build it from the cheapest materials, we taxed them to their uttermost extremes. By the end of the last day of the fair, the cracks were no longer superficial. The ceiling and the framing around the door were beginning to deteriorate and I decided to bake a few final pies and call it a day.

We let the oven cool and went our separate ways to enjoy the fun and frivolity that we'd missed the other weekends of the faire due to tending our breads.  When the final cannon sounded the end of the faire, we gathered one last time around our hearth...

The Engineer had the honor of the first whack.

Then Becky and Douglas, who were so eager to leave they were already changed into civilian clothes...

Then it was left to me. It felt a little wrong, like putting down a family pet. It had stood us in good stead, generated far in excess of its capacity and kept going strong. But the heat and desolation of the days standing in front of it got the better of me and I let the hammer swing.

And soon it was all over.  It arrived at the faire site in buckets and would leave by the shovel full, loaded in the bed of my truck...

The final tally for our little wood-fired bakery: 220 loaves, eight pies, nine scones, two loaves of soda bread, and 1 apple tart, utilizing 1/2 bushel of apples, 80+ lbs of flour, and several gallons of ale. 

Thanks to my partners in floury crime: Kristin Perkins, Kelsey Fahy, and Becky & Douglas Norton. Thank you to Pat, Tracy, and Amy of the Washington Renaissance Arts & Entertainment Society (WRAES) and all the cast and crew of the Washington Midsummer Renaissance Faire.  I hope you enjoyed the bread we dispersed to your tables each day from our bakery.  Thank you to all the photographers that documented the events and kindly sent me their photographs and videos.

There is, as always a sense of melancholy as we end one thing, and a sense of hope as we embark on the next.
Stay tuned to this channel. I doubt this is the last time we will see the fruit of an oven such as this. I still have the one in my back yard, after all...

~ Scott

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Archery Practice with Robin Hood: Introducing the Worshipful Company of Bowyer Fletchers

This project is about the daily life and efforts of the common man in Elizabethan England. There are many and multiplying efforts to reproduce and study the military efforts of the time. This is not one of them.

However, there are certain elements of battle that cannot readily be removed from the life of the Elizabethan tradesmen, and it was especially to the benefit of those whose trades were the mastery of bows and arrows

In the Assize of Arms of 1252, Henry III decreed that all Englishmen "between the age of 15 and 60 years" would be required to keep, maintain, and practice with the longbow (Specifically "a bow and 4 arrows") for the defense of the realm. This was allegedly in response to the rise of games that took men's minds away from military things such as football and rounders. Though it was a repetition and expansion of an earlier law and was expanded by each ensuing monarch be they of the white rose or the red. By the reign of Henry VIII, the (c. 1541) rules had been laid down that all Englishmen should practice their archery for at least two hours every Sunday after mass under the supervision of an officer of the church.

Henry's break with the Roman church and the ensuing reformation in England put the British monarchy at odds with all of her surrounding Catholic neighbors (except during the short, unhappy reign of Mary Tudor) most especially Philip II of Spain. Even in an age when gunpowder was in the ascendancy, it remained the law of the land that for two hours every sunday, arrows should fill the air. A law that remained on the books (mostly unenforced) until 1863.

Which means that yours truly has been in violation of English law since the start of the year.

Though if you ask Robin Hood to teach you archery,
There are certain headgear expectations...

I want to make clear that I know nothing about archery. Sure, I grew up in a part of the country where bowhunting is practically a religion, but the last time I picked up a bow and arrows I was a cub scout and I don't recall being able to hit the hay bale that the scoutmasters placed twenty feet ahead of me. 

This experience cemented in my mind that archery was going to be near to the top of my list of Things I Am Not Good At.

So when I realized that in order to really breathe life into the world of the Elizabethan craftsman I'd need to learn to pull a bowstring, I did what any self-respecting artisan would do... I called Robin Hood.

What? Doesn't everyone have a professional Robin Hood on speed dial?

Well, I'm just lucky, I guess.

If you recall, you met my friend Patrick back when we were failing to produce a drinkable pint of ale. Thankfully, he's better at being Robin Hood than I am at being Samuel Adams, so I'm in good hands here. What's more, he had an extra longbow that he was willing to loan me and a yard large enough to practice archery in.

You know he's a good friend because he didn't turn me away when I turned up on a Friday morning without providing coffee.

As usual, his lovely wife was kind enough to take pictures and make fun of me on Facebook, so it's a win/win really.

Though I might've inadvertently given her an ulterior motive...

Things that surprised me:
  1. Longbows are essentially enormous semi-flexible sticks that taper at either end.
  2. The ends of the bow where the bowstring met the wood were actually made of horn.
  3. Did I forget to stress that these bows are only semi-flexible?
  4. This is more fun than I thought it would be...

With age, I was able to avoid hitting the inside of my arm most of the time and even hit the target five out of six draws from about ten paces. Not bad for a complete n00b... right?


The best part was around the fifth round of arrows when I was starting to get tired, but with some help from my teacher and our photographer, I finally started keeping my elbow down parallel to my shoulder and finding the rhythm of pulling the arrow from the quiver, nocking the arrow, and then releasing and repeating.

Whether or not I try my hand at bowmaking and/or fletching, I shall most certainly keep up my archery practice for the defense of God, Her Majesty and the Realm of England!


- Scott


All photos by JoNell Franz © 2013, and are used here with gratitude and permission.

Yes, Patrick is a real honest-to-God professional Robin Hood! He is also founder and president of Presenters of Living History, bringing hands-on history demonstrations into schools and organizations. Patrick and JoNell give kids a chance to make a tactile connection to history by participating in demonstrations and crafts from the renaissance through the American civil war. Aside from being two of my favorite people on the planet, they do Good Work showing kids that history IS NOT BORING. You can hire them or find out more about their work at

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Scenes from a Renaissance Bakery

The "Production Scale Renaissance Bakery" experiment continues...

There are certain fringe benefits of working an outdoor kitchen. The view, for instance, is quite often simply amazing.

This was the scene Friday evening on the edge of the Washington Midsummer Renaissance Faire that is dedicated to living history displays. A group of friends of ours who teach period games sits next to us and beyond that, the military encampment where Goode's Company of Foote and the Salle St George demonstrate the life and martial studies of a renaissance soldier.

By the way, I'm convinced that the whole "Red sky at night/sailor's delight" thing is a lie. I may not be a sailor, but even I know that a beautiful sky like that presages nothing but trouble.  Sure enough, six hours after this photo was taken, the temperature stopped falling and began to rise as a thunderstorm moved north out of the Mount Rainier National Park, split around the flanks of the mountain, and fell on us like the wrath of a vengeful god.

Now, contrary to what you might see on television shows like Grey's Anatomy, it hardly ever thunders or downpours in the Seattle area. We generally have too many mountains and too much water. Fronts that create thunderheads get snagged and chopped up on the peaks that surround our cities.

This storm front missed that memo.

Those of us who hail not from the placid weather patterns of the Pacific Northwest, but from the center portion of the United States where the weather frequently and actively tries to kill you, watched the clouds surround our campsite with some trepidation. While lightning danced across the surrounding hilltops, I sat with two friends (both also from the plains states) drinking beer and speculating about what it felt like to get hit by 1.21 gigawatts of electricity. As the rain started to fall, we began to retreat to our cars, urging our northwestern friends to do likewise. Better to weather the storm in a Faraday cage (which is what a car is, if you think about it) than in a canvas box suspended from lightning rods (which is what a tent is if you think about it, God help you).

I've known people who died sleeping in tents during a storm. I learned early in life the lesson "Thou shalt not mess with the storm".

So it was that the engineer and I spent half the night in sporadic catnaps amid the relative discomforts of a rain-drenched vehicle. So it was that once the storm passed and the day dawned (all assembled were thankfully unhurt no matter where they spent the night) it was a cranky and ill-tempered brood of bakers that greeted the morning's light.

Well... everyone except for that guy. I told him that naming his horse "DeLorean" wasn't going to be enough to get it up to 88 miles per hour...  
The things we'll do for the sake of a project, I swear.

A Day Weekend In the Life...

A baker's life is not one that allows for much in the way of sleeping in. We admittedly don't get up nearly as early as the bakers of yore since the festival does not open its gates until 10:00. But there's still precious little time for catching up on storm-addled dreams as the unrelenting mistresses of beer, bread, and hearth beckon.

I and my fellow bakers are up and tending our hearth by 7:00 in order to be ready to have bread coming out by the time the patrons begin filtering in.  In our first weekend at our new trade, we had nothing but trouble with an oven that hadn't yet dried to a point where it would give back the heat we put into it in an efficient manner.

Friday evening, I got to site early and rebuilt the oven's mouth, making it a bit deeper and doing what I could to increase the wall thickness (with mixed results). The reason I had a fire in the oven for that picture up top was to dry out the new cob I'd added. And that fire was the main reason I was still awake in the wee hours, sitting with soldiers and watching the approaching storm. A hot oven can't go under a tarp.

The oven was barely cool enough to get tarped when the storm rolled in and Saturday morning, condensation on the inside of the tarp had made a bit of a mess out of what was already a bit of a messy application of clay to the outside.

We over-compensated and fired it way too long, the result of which was burning the first batch of bread for the day because it must've been at least 700 degrees fahrenheit when we put the dough in.

Nevertheless, we got our feet under us and kept our hands in the dough all day, totally on Saturday alone more than our entire previous weekend's output.

For all the time I spend with tools, there are some simple things that I just didn't know how to do, skills that I might never have noticed my lack of were it not for this project. For instance, this year, I had to teach myself how to peel an apple or a potato with a knife instead of a peeler. (Turns out I needn't have bothered, when it came time to make the apple tart, The Engineer was already a dab hand with a knife... of course.)

At the end of the first day, we had totalled more loaves than we'd baked the entire first weekend. By the end of the day on Saturday, we'd more than doubled it.

I've been going to renaissance faires in one capacity or another for quite some time. They crack me up for both what they are and what the most assuredly are not. What they aren't is Living History in any sense. Faire is essentially a theatrical enterprise. Participants are either cast in specific roles or create their own and are expected to act the part. Historical fact plays second or third fiddle to entertainment and that's just how it goes. Welcome to ye olde theme parke.

People who cannot handle that don't last long.

This was my first real experiment in something that I think we can (I think) genuinely describe as living history. My crew spent the entire day either baking or explaining what we were doing to the onlookers. And boy did we draw a crowd. I explained the principles of oven construction hundreds of times. People are/were fascinated by what we were about, challenged me on what ingredients I'd have had and where I got them in a 16th century context.

As a card-carrying nerd, I'm not ashamed to admit it was some of the most fun I think I've ever had in public. We educated a lot of people, we made over 100 loaves of bread, and -- if comments are to be believed -- might have even inspired a minor oven-building boom in the Pacific Northwest.

Now that's what I call a job well done.

The Engineer channels a character from a Breugel painting as she measures out the flour for a new batch. She's even wearing wooden shoes though you can't see them here....

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Kill It with Fire Part Three: Fifty faire loaves and counting...

It may not always come across when I'm writing, but I'm acutely aware that it's one thing to play at a profession from days of yore, and it is another thing entirely to actually attempt to perform a trade at a professional level of production, not to mention quality. 

The baker's got big ol' pants, oh yeah...
It seems unavoidable that to do a single project or even a series of projects that touch on the tools and skills of a profession and then move on to something else imparts only a surface understanding of the real daily existence of the craftsman working night and day just to keep food on the table. I'm just one guy with one life to live. How different is it to brew five gallons of weak ale compared to brewing thousands of gallons of strong ale to meet demand and fill orders outstanding? Thimbles, pins, barrels, furniture, bread, tools, hats… all of these trade goods take on a different dimension when viewed from the perspective of mass production instead of one-off projects.

This past weekend, I found myself trying to really do this thing and it just might be my favorite thing I’ve done so far.

Awhile back I mentioned that a group I founded had been hired to create renaissance cooking and baking demonstrations at the Washington Midsummer Renaissance Faire. Originally we wanted to do a full-on historical cooking show, but it quickly became clear that was putting the cart before the horse. So it is that over the course of the last three weeks, I’ve been laboring to build another oven on the WMRF site and then this past weekend we used it to produce a lot of bread.

Eventually, I would still like this to grow into a full-on live cooking show. Sort of an Elizabethan version of Good Eats that delves into the what, why, and how of renaissance fare. At the moment, though, we have enough to do just coming to grips with the logistics and obstacles of cooking in a period manner in a period setting.

No lights no phones, no motor cars, not a single luxury…
It is pretty rustic, though. This is a picture of me
warming a cup of beer to a temperature 
that I
hope won't kill the yeast... with a hot 
tent stake. 

Okay, that’s a lie; it’s a renaissance faire, not a desert island. This is Seattle -- there’s a parking lot full of cars and you can’t throw a bun without hitting an iPhone. But we’re still baking bread with the heat from a fire while wearing silly clothes in the middle of a hay field.

This past weekend (after a slow start owing to an oven that hadn’t sufficiently dried out yet to really go into production) the Engineer and I produced fifty loaves of bread. The Engineer made eight loaves of the loveliest rosemary herbed bread and  and our compatriot Becky made a lovely apple tart. 

By the end of the weekend, we had furnished the tables of almost every other group at faire (apologies if we missed you) with delicious loaves of bread. And we've been taking orders for this weekend and accepting bribes to get higher on the delivery list. (I'm an artisan, not a saint.)

I don’t know how that stacks up to the output of a professional bakery. Small beer, I'd wager, but nevertheless I don’t personally know anyone outside of the baking profession that walks out into the middle of a field one day and decides to build an oven and bake fifty-odd loaves of bread all in one go...

Mine really is a very special and specific kind of insanity.

I have to admit that it hurt a little bit. Monday morning, my hands and forearms ached like nobody's business. A friend of mine who used to be a baker before giving it all up for the exciting world of certified accountancy laughed and said “Where do you think I got my Popeyes?” (I always wondered why his forearms were so big… I didn't ask about the anchor tattoos.) The skin on my hands is raw and feels callused from the heat and abrasion of the whole wheat and barley flour we were using. I have tiny blisters from burns I didn’t even notice until I got home and my head is still full of the smell of woodsmoke.

And I loved every minute of it.  I can't wait to go out there this weekend and do it all over again. Awhile back I said that coopering was the only job so far that I could picture myself doing as a vocation. Baking now officially tops that list.

I may have an addiction forming. Ah well, at least flour is cheaper when you buy it fifty pounds at a time...