“on Saturday there was a policy of allowing people–anybody—to come in and use the shop…$1/hr…in the beginning people shared jobs, and we also shared wages.” JKM
One Saturday morning, in the fall of 1988, I wandered into a basement workshop on Emily Street, in East Cambridge, Massachusetts. This was a collaborative venture comprising half-a-dozen or more woodworkers who had individual workspaces while sharing a core of old industrial power tools. In fact, the shop was a true co-operative, officially known as New Hamburger Cabinetworks.
That morning, the only other soul in the place was Judy Kensley McKie, a nationally recognized furniture maker. Judy’s furniture had recently been featured in Fine Woodworking: graceful, elegant, carvings on a simple functional armature. She graciously allowed me to visit, ask questions and observe her work.
Later, I found a job working for David O’Shaughnessy, and the first task he gave me was installing a stair trim in maple and cherry, the parts having been milled by Nathan Rome, another woodworker at Emily Street. David was a real craftsman, blue-collar black Irish from the streets of South Boston. I’ve never worked for a better man.
During that time, I learned something of the fate of the Emily Street co-operative. It seems that a multi-national cabinet and furniture outlet (IKEA, if memory serves me well) had moved into the upper floor. The new tenant immediately sued New Hamburger Cabinetworks for some obscure reason, and a long court battle ensued. Ultimately, New Hamburger won the suit, but the legal fees, and a sharp decline in the building market, had exhausted their financial reserves. It may have done more damage than I knew, but in any case they disbanded and moved on.
I didn’t stay in Cambridge that winter, but returned to Fayetteville and rented a small shop space on Center Street, where I made cabinets for my mother’s kitchen, and two trestle tables on a Shaker pattern, one for a client and the other on speculation. I sold the second table, too, after almost burning down the shop with oily finishing rags.
During this time, I had applied to and been accepted by North Bennet Street, a craft school in Boston’s North End. So, I returned to Cambridge, hoping to begin school in the fall. That summer, I managed one visit to North Bennet Street, and gradually conceded to myself that it would not become a reality. While I was making a good living working for David, and putting some money aside, I could not afford to pay full-time tuition without having a full-time job. The classic workingman’s dilemma; not enough hours in the day, or dollars in the bank.
Another fall afternoon, I had driven north into New Hampshire, and found myself at Bud McIntosh’s shop near Dover. It was rather late in the day, and Bud’s son Lou was just closing up. “Dad isn’t here, but you’re welcome to come in,” he told me. I must have stayed there a couple of hours. What I remember is that Lou showed me how to drill the handle of an oar, and fill it with lead to balance the length and weight outboard. And I remember that he had the time.
Recently, a young artisan friend of mine, Daniel, was telling me that his father, a graphic designer, had taken up chair making. In fact, he was teaching classes with Brian Boggs, a nationally known furniture maker and teacher. Daniel’s father had created a workshop manual for the chair-making classes, and I was interested, so I asked Daniel if I might have a review copy. I was asking; if you are a graphic designer, and you have a template for a workshop manual, may I have a look? But, NO, that material is Brian’s, it’s proprietary, and I won’t share it with you. Noway, nohow! Gee, thanks. After I’ve shared freely with your son, taught him to carve a spoon; bought, sold and traded tools with him, you can’t just show me your workshop manual?
Where was I? Oh, yeah, did lawyers do this to us, with copyright and product liability and labeling and some asshole owning everything but the air we breathe? Or have we done it to ourselves, with the closed fist instead of the open hand? Where was the turning point, when we became exclusive and commercial instead of sharing what precious little we actually know with other craftspeople?