In the evening hours of Wednesday, February 3, 2016, Alice Thurleen Kennedy, 64, lost her final battle with ovarian cancer. Angels await one of their own beautiful immortal souls coming into the light. Luminous transcendent joyous affirmation of life she is gone to be with us forever.

Born October 9, 1951, in the sign of Libra, fourth child of Paul McGee Kennedy and Lola Herring Kennedy, Alice was a talented artist and an exceptional teacher. She graduated with honors from Fayetteville High School, and received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Fine Arts from the University of Arkansas, with minor in Education.
She is survived by brothers Lewis Kennedy and Paul McGee Kennedy, Jr.; sister Ann Warren; husband James Michael Langford.

Alice lived by the Golden Rule; a generous and loyal friend, a formidable adversary. Well-read, widely-traveled, she had a gift for finding humor and humanity in every situation; battling terminal cancer with a sense of her own beauty grace and dignity in the face of insurmountable odds and the vastness of medical ignorance; fighting disease with yoga laughter and organic vegetables, surrounded by friends and family.

Services will be held at Mount Pleasant Cemetery, near Guy in Faulkner County, Saturday, February 6, 1:00 pm; and at Bell Gable Chapel, near Fayetteville, February 13, 1:00 pm. In lieu of flowers, please donate to a charitable organization with an holistic or humanitarian objective.
Plant flowers. Teach your children well…teach them the constellations planets phases of the moon; so that they will know when to plant when to harvest why we celebrate life and death as a cycle. We are all part of that great kaleidoscopic astral wheel. Let’s roll.

Knowing that you would return
Filled with the wildness of nature
And folding your dreams about you turn
Rising to the light
I moved quietly through the morning
Fog and deep shadows
Trying without words to tell you
I am not a hunter
I am a seeker like yourself
Knowing also our strongest bond is
The distance between us
Welcome home.



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The fourth box, with mahogany liners glued in place to provide a gluing surface for the bottom panel.  This box, and the others, represents an essay in energy conservation.  All the wood used has been laboriously salvaged from furniture pallets (to, hopefully, make better designed, more durable furniture).  The boxes are intended to receive Matt Ross’s collection of Japanese woodworking tools.  And so, energy…and intent.

Embodied energy…I first encountered the concept in the 80’s, after the first major embargo on Middle-Eastern oil by OPEC.  The context at that time was historic preservation, a backlash to the excesses of “urban renewal”.  It takes a certain amount of BTU energy to make a brick, or a board, or a piece of re-bar…and that energy is forever embedded in that piece of material.

Sort of…back in high school, we were taught the law of conservation of matter and energy:  matter can be neither created nor destroyed, but only changed in form.  So, now we know that the energy that fired those bricks was not really recoverable (it mostly became CO2) and that the brick is just a brick after all.  There was something fine, in a Ruskin and Morris sense, about the embodied energy argument, though.  The human element.

Now, we have LEED, a rather clever marketing scheme used by architects to convince clients that they are oh-so-savvy about energy and environment; glibly ignoring the real costs of cement processed in China without a thought to worker or environment; using concrete, welded steel and plate glass as though those materials could somehow be rendered “organic”.  The calculus of energy efficiency begins later, after the final punch list, metering the utility bills.

The energy that I’m concerned with is the concentrated intent of the blade smiths who forged those Japanese tools; to subdue and employ that energy in a most ambitious undertaking.  I have been searching for a place in which to teach and practice woodworking.  This is a beginning.  There’s an acre of ground, an ideal building site in the back yard, and the property backs on a public park.  The house, with a bit of sweat equity, will be a workshop (isn’t every house a workshop, somewhere along the way).


2650 North Old Wire Road, Fayetteville, Arkansas, US 72701.

Everything to the left of the entry door is a black hole.  Literally.  The rest of the house sustained smoke and water damage. I intend to use that source of positive energy embodied in the tools, in the boxes, to balance the negative energy in the charred and smoky mess waiting to be cleared away.   Moving excited electrons along a copper wire, or believing that money exists as a flash of light along a glass fiber, that’s all commonplace and pedestrian today.  Time to move along…there are other forms of energy.

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A Small Tool


The tools that I use at my workbench are mostly things that I have made to suit my own purposes, such as this scraper.  The stock is a piece of Mexican rosewood culled by a xylophone maker years ago, the blade was cut from an old handsaw.  I have a personal affinity for slotted oval-head screws…So, five easy pieces…and I only paid money for the screws.


The inspiration for this was a chair maker’s devil that I bought at an antique tool show, a lovely piece of lignum vitae with a brass wear plate, shaped to scrap a chair rung round after the spokeshave had done its work.  This one has a flat (or nearly flat…there may be a bit of brass or boxwood there in the future) sole, with a slight crown in the blade.  My sharpening methods vary with the tool and my mood and whatever comes to hand, this one usually gets a quick touch with a file and a burnishing over a hard Arkansas stone.  All it needs is a fine burr.


I despise using sandpaper, and will go to great lengths to avoid it.  When I have managed to more-or-less flatten a surface with hand planes, but there are still a few nagging rough spots around the knots, this little fellow puts the final polish on.

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(This post is part of a conversation with Henrik Lutzen; about why we pursue craft skills.  If you happen to read this, please comment.)


I believe there’s way too much focus on tools and technique, with less attention to design, ethics, and finding a common ground. For starters, I believe one of the easiest ways to establish that we share the same basic information is by sharing the books that we have found useful. (We could begin by writing brief reviews of what we consider to be essential or important books, for instance) By now, most artisans working in ‘shall we call it’ residential scale building trades should be familiar with A Pattern Language. Furniture-makers will likely have read James Krenov’s books; those interested in Japanese woodworking will have read Toshio Odate.

My reading list goes back to when I dropped out of college in the mid-80’s, and includes The Wheelwright’s Shop, John Ruskin’s Nature of Gothic, David Pye, and the English Arts & Crafts Movement.
Next came timber framing: English Historic Carpentry by Cecil Hewett, The Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay by Abbot Lowell Cummings, Silent Spaces by Malcolm Kirk. Boatbuilding by Howard Chapelle, also Skin Boats and Bark Canoes, and Lance Lee’s incomparable Barns, Beams and Boats.
Obviously, this is a short list, but the point I’m trying to make is that shared literacy is meta-cognitive. We may have widely different impressions of the same book, but should still be able to acknowledge a coherent work that stands alone, in much the same way as a painting or building or piece of furniture. Artisans tend to be eclectic and self-educated, at least more than most. (“…consider the man of average intelligence…” Twain)

I won’t pretend to know precisely what compels someone to hand-cut through-tenons, or through dovetails, but I believe it’s at least in part because we want to see and experience a sort of honesty in our made environment, in a way that sheetrock or 3-D printers may not be able to satisfy. So, what (and who) has influenced and shaped your sense of design, ethics, philosophy, etc.? Books, tools, boats, buildings, furniture… I believe that each of us will ultimately realize a curriculum vitae and a bibliography, in making the effort to reach out and to explain ourselves over these great distances. That, I think, is why I started the blog and continue to pursue it.

People who can actually perform high-value-added work are rather rare (perhaps always have been) and seriously undervalued in today’s world. I would like to see how this tracks from my generation to yours, for example, and how (in terms of influences, education, etc.) that has come about (by direct master-apprentice relationship, or alternatively through reading, videos, workshops…).

The first book I had was an old 1920’s copy of Audel’s Carpenter’s and Builder’s Guide, and later Feirer and Hutchings Cabinetmaking and Millwork. Both were instructive only in the mechanical aspects of work, never leading toward any sort of design skills. Not until Fine Woodworking came out in the late 70’s; and then Krenov’s books, which were just unbelievable. The best you could get before that were Bonanza and Sunset books, or Popular Mechanics. The better quality publications that had been available during the Arts & Crafts movement were long out of circulation by then.

Cultural Literacy (that’s what I’m calling it, for now): a sort of intellectual shorthand. There isn’t a lot of room to argue with Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, for instance, and it pretty much transcends language barriers. Thoreau (in Walden) illustrates his point with a story of two boys: one boy (with his father’s help) makes his own knife, while the other boy’s father buys him a knife. “Which would be more likely to cut his finger?” he asks. How much more profound; if we are able to understand the social and architectural implications of the Parthenon, or Ise, or Great Coxwell (all superb examples of their kind) summed up in a phrase?

Craft has that sort of power; if we insist that our language be as unrelentingly precise as our joinery.

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New Beginnings

As the winter solstice approaches, I find myself taking stock of the past year and looking forward to projects and enterprises in the next.  A genuinely disappointing episode with a would-be apprentice who took on a job way beyond his abilities, then refused to pay me for doing most of the work, is slowly grinding it’s way through the courts.  That knocked a big hole in my summer, in the middle of which I lost my brother-in-law after a long, painful struggle with liver cancer.  In September, we lost our dear friend Matt Ross, and I’m really pissed off about that.

Matt was just about the only person with whom I could have wide-ranging conversations about woodworking with hand tools, building small boats, the eccentricities of timber framing and neighbors.  How sharp is sharp?  How thin, or thick, is a shaving?  And he left all these wonderful tools behind, my responsibility to sort and sharpen and find uses for…

IMG_1990This door has opened an entire realm of possibilities.  Matt built this room from rough limestone gathered off the farm, hewed beams from red oaks that he felled himself, and never got around to finishing this opening (a bum knee, chronic pain; an obsession with hand-forged, laminated steel blades).  I was supposed to be helping him hang a different door there when he died.  Turned out, Sheila didn’t really want that door after all, so I built this one to suit.  The frame is 2″ thick Douglas fir, set into 4 x6 pine jambs.  Blackberry the cat is happy with the cat door, and on sunny days the upper panel hinges inward as a sort-of Dutch door.

All this involved re-routing water and propane lines through that cut in the concrete, and removing part of the 6 x 8 oak sill and concrete foundation inside to make room for a 4-panel farmhouse door.  The house is well on its way to being handicapped accessible, should that ever be necessary.  Now, on to the Japanese tools.

“The Zen sect saw the distinction between the One and the Many as a necessary defect of language, or more precisely, of the intellect, and maintained that Nirvana exists here, now, in everything, but that it can be apprehended only by a direct intuitive grasp, and that intellectual approaches can lead only to partial, and hence false, understanding.”  Arthur Drexler, The Architecture of Japan (1955 Museum of Modern Art) p. 205m

“While Japan has been, since the eighth century, a land dotted with Buddhist temples, wooden structures that are usually rebuilt as before when they are destroyed by fire, the most extraordinary notion and practice of historic preservation are applied to the Shinto shrines in the forest of Ise.  These are exceedingly simple, seventh-century buildings made of soft-textured cypress beams, standing on raised platforms and having crossed end-rafters and thatched roofs.  They appear modeled after storehouses for rice from earlier times.  Each one is set on a rectangle of carefully laid out stones.  Next to one side of this rectangle is another, identical rectangle of stones.  Every twenty years a team of carpenters arrives, and on each empty rectangle, they construct an exact replica of the building in the adjoining space.  Using only hand tools, they cut the cypress beams with immaculate precision and leave the finished work unpainted. 

“When the new building is ready, Shinto priests perform a nighttime ritual during which the gods and the sacred objects are moved from the older building to the new one, at which point the older one is carefully dismantled so that the remaining beams and other materials, considered spiritually as well as materially valuable, can be sent to other Shinto shrines in the country that have need of replacement pieces.  The teams are made up of older, experienced carpenters together with younger ones whom they are training, the very ones who will be in charge of another reconstruction twenty (or nowadays perhaps forty) years hence.  This practice began in 690 and has continued ever since, except for an interruption that lasted for a century and a quarter; in 1993 it was carried out for the sixty-first time.”  Paul Varley, Japanese Culture (2000 Honolulu) pp. 17-18

Ise by Kenzo Tange, Yoshio Watanabe, and Noburo Kawazoe (1965, Zokeisha Publications Ltd.) is a stunning photographic documentation of the 1953 rebuilding of the temples at Ise.  What is not immediately apparent; that there are two temple precincts, several miles apart, and thus two separate and complete building processes going on, becomes clear through the maps, text and photos.  The appendix shows two similar Shinto temples that have not been subjected to this generational cycle of rebuilding, but have instead been carefully maintained, one from 1744, the other from 1346.

I will get back to work on the boxes directly…meanwhile it isn’t too late to put those books on your Christmas list.  Meanwhile, we still desperately need to have a dialogue about the continuation of craft culture (particularly woodworking) in America.  Too much attention focused on How we do work simply distracts from the larger, more important question Why?  Rearranging the deck chairs will not save the ship from sinking…


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Coping Shoulders


One of the primary applications of scribing gouges is in making timber shoulders fit waney edges.  This is a straining beam that engages a brace on either end, but the joinery is still a brace mortice, layout at 45º to the axis of timber.


English framers call this “double-cutting” a shoulder, then scribing to fit.  Keep those reference marks parallel…



Matt Ross made this chisel some years ago, inspired by a French example.  I can’t say for certain that the cranked handle and flared corners were made just for this purpose, but it damn sure does the job.


This gouge, all told, has cost me something in the neighborhood of $6k so far, but that’s another story for another time, as is the owner’s mark.  The maker’s mark, at the top of the photo, appears to be RUST, which I believe to be an early 19c English maker.


The owner’s mark, J L CRIST, was stamped twice.  I imagine him to have been a distant relative of the JESUS H CHRIST whose name I have heard invoked so often in shops and on building sites.  Believe what you will…   There are a lot of gaps in the historical record;  I believe that most people just want a good story.


The result, as always, speaks for itself.


Final assembly, pulled tight with come-alongs and straps, measured and diagonals checked, ready to mark draw-bores.  You probably can’t see it, but there’s a string with gage blocks stretched across the shoulders.  This was the trickiest setup I have ever worked with, one click on any ratchet affected everything else.  Precise measurements, btw, are facilitated by driving 3d galvanized box nails at measured points on the layout lines.  3-4-5 for post to beam fit-up; check parallel then pull diagonals on bents.

Recently I was sent a link to a paper titled  The Invisible Tools of the Timber Framer  Well worth reading, but still doesn’t quite reach the bottom of the toolkit.  There are a few tricks in fitting tight shoulders in timber, some of them useful for smaller-scale work as well.  Fitting up irregular stock into mortice and tenon is a challenge, getting a snug fit at the shoulder being the final test.  Dividers help, down to an interval of ⅛” or so, but even the sharpest point jumps and scratches along.  For a quick reference, use a “half-pencil scribe”.  Lay the pencil flat on the receiving timber and draw the point across the meeting surface.  Work parallel to that line.

One of my essential tools is an old 12″ combination square blade with it’s own hand-sewn leather sheath for protection.  I use it as a feeler gage in fitting shoulders, along with a collection of 6″ blades of different thickness.  I also use a Starrett tapered gage, about 3″ long, and several maple and boxwood wedges that make up my gap gages.  Wooden wedges are especially useful when working the underside of a timber assembly; a quick pencil mark across, measure the resulting thickness, map the result.  A sharp mill knife (or something equally robust), a steel straight edge, a carpenter’s pencil shaved to a chisel edge (for lighter work, a regular #2 shaved flat with a block plane and pared down), a #705 ink pencil followed by a spritz of water will leave an indelible green line.

Chalk has it’s place in fitting up, but one must be careful of the mess it leaves behind.  David Pye used the term “offer up and fit” which is particularly the case in fitting a shoulder to an irregular surface.  As the shoulder approaches an ideal fit, I leave a margin of ¼” that will actually contact the surface, then slide a piece of coarse sandpaper through the joint.  The resulting scratches show a marked contrast to chisel or gouge, and paring away those marks will result in a tighter and tighter fit.  This is where those scribing gouges really shine.


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