How many graduate programs feature a lesson in axe-wielding during the first week? Mine did. And I loved every minute.
I had enrolled in the Winterthur Program in Early American Culture (since renamed as the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture) at the University of Delaware, and I thought I was in heaven. My professor, Ritchie Garrison, was trying to help our class understand the physical skill and effort that had gone into each of the pieces we would study over the next two years, so he had organized a craft project in which we each would participate, starting with an axe and a log.
Ever ambitious, I threw my hat in the ring with the dovetailed miniature blanket chest group. We learned how to cut dovetails, plane molding, and (especially in my case) fix mistakes. I had spent enough time in my dad’s woodshop to have a basic appreciation for the skill involved in crafting pieces of furniture out of wood using only hand tools, but this definitely elevated my understanding of and respect for the careful eye for proportion, detailed understanding of materials, and sheer strength of upper body that was required for successful furniture construction.
One of our first tasks was to take turns running the molding plane down the strip of wood to create the base molding, the piece that runs above the feet of the chest. Of our group of four, three were women, and I was probably the least athletic of the three. Though my inner feminist protested, I had to admit that reasons beyond social/cultural convention would have limited the number of women in cabinet-making throughout history: the common workbench and tools are definitely more suited to the (typically, biologically) stronger upper body of a man. Pushing the plane down the length of a 5-foot strip of wood to produce a smooth, evenly shaven strip of gracefully carved molding was harder than it looked. Basically, success in this endeavor required forcing a curved blade to displace a consistent amount of solid wood at a steady pace. I was thankful that our much more experienced professor was willing to do the bulk of the work, after we had made a healthy, instructive attempt.
The dovetails presented the opposite challenge: strength was replaced by precision. I did alright, but the number of holes I had to fill after my saw veered off-course was definitely higher than production standards. After I filled my mistakes, I decided to leave my chest unpainted, as a visual reminder of lessons learned.
I was interested in craft before I arrived at Winterthur; in fact, it was one of the factors that drove me to apply to their graduate program. But going through two years of collection study in the Winterthur Museum drove me to pursue examples of craftsmanship even more vigorously. Whether my own imperfect efforts or the skillful displays of others’ talents, I love finding obviously handmade objects for our apartment whenever possible. And I keep this chest on the shelf to inspire continued improvement in my own craft-oriented hobbies (because from that example, there’s no way to go but up!).