the creep

To be sure, she looks pretty good for 200 years…


Justice may be blind, but her dentil hygiene is impeccable.

In the heart of a town’s center, deep in the very bowels of an abandoned gem, Plymouth’s 1820 Courthouse has secrets to share…


We met with Bill Keohan, of The Community Preservation Committee, to tour the Federalist-era building and its additions.


Burial Hill– “DO NOT ENTER”. If you insist.

Plymouth is building a new Town Hall.

To make space, the original courthouse will remain, but two of the later additions behind it are slated for razing.

Our goal was to save some of the historic elements of the additions before work began. While some of our salvage may end up in the new town hall, they will at the very least spared the dumpster.

As we entered the abandoned buildings, there was a vague sense of oppression.


Maybe it was the empty halls and offices, the apocalyptic ambiance of a building vacated for a decade, combined with recent news and pandemic fears.

Maybe it was the layered angst of centuries of the accused and the guilty who once roamed these hallways–or were held in their cells.


Regardless, we jumped to work while the light was good.

Several quarter-sawn oak doors graced the 1884 addition to The Courthouse-


We carefully removed these well-made and gorgeous doors-


and queued them up for storage.


The addition also boasted marble floors. We wrested these up with flatbars, gently coaxing each stone out of its mortar bed. We only broke a couple.

The marble tiles were laid with such precision in the lime mortar, you couldn’t squeeze a credit card between them.

And though the tiles originally came off the gangsaw with varying thicknesses, the floor itself was dead level.

Each tile was custom fit.


Michael was struck by the amount of work–quarrying, cutting, squaring, hauling, etc–that went into this floor.

Several pieces bore marks on their underside; some were clearly location marks, though others were more cryptic:


Perhaps they will find a home in the new Town Hall.

We took a couple of detours amid our labors to better understand the history and stories held captive in these old walls…


The 1884 addition was home to a jail.


Some would say that this was inevitable.

And fashion was chronicled on the women’s room doors in the 1960’s courthouse addition–a boxy, institutional Eisenhower-esque building, as Bill called it.


I see Elizabeth Montgomery –

Downstairs, an iron door was painted to look like wood. The detail was exceptional.


Clearly not quarter-sawn iron, however.

Our walkabout also led us to the adjacent former County Treasurer’s Office, now used for storage. The basement of this building was Plymouth’s closest cousin to a catacomb. It was dark, dank, foreboding, and not without interest. Some people are drawn to the cobwebs and dark places. There’s history there.

At one end, we saw a “white oven”, with its separate coal-fueled combustion chamber. Paula Marcoux, food historian and author of Cooking with Fire, found this of particular interest.


Prison rations were likely baked here, as there were no shortage of jail cells in these abandoned buildings-


Wrought iron/wrought in jail.

Back upstairs, we took a peek at some old evidence which, perhaps, had once been the focus of attention among 12 jurors-


From a distance, the pictures were almost amusing; at the very least they brought about a sense of nostalgia.


I hope no one was hurt, up to and including the 8-track player.

On top of the pile on their way to storage were some even older documents-

Someone bought a sickly goat which died and they wanted to be reimbursed with a cow…or something, said Bill.


But some evidence was utterly infused with creep, and filled our imagination with the horror of a crime which may have been:


I didn’t want to know any more.

Our day’s work done, and before the afternoon’s light faded,  we crept upstairs to the attic and cupola of the original courthouse.


The building’s ventilation system was as simple as it was aesthetically pleasing.

This grate allowed fresh air into the main courtroom-


You can almost hear the pleas of the defendants on their way to prison.

The faces of the carrying beams bore evidence of the not-quite perpendicular marks of a sash-saw.

Due to their length, however, there was no way they could have been sawn in The Hatch Mill we are currently restoring. Old Decker’s mill can only take 12-footers.


Sap was still bleeding from the timbers:


There was plenty of reading material, if your tastes run to 1000-page legislative documents and 19th-century directories.


And if you’ve ever wondered what the less-public rear of blind justice in an alcove (see picture at top of post) looks like, here ’tis:


The statue was tied in with metal bars and hardware.

We were momentarily blinded by the light as we ascended into the courthouse cupola-


…where we had a breathtakingly unique view of downtown Plymouth and the harbor beyond-


For several moments, we stood in the light, high above the ghosts of the judged and the condemned.

This is what Justice would see if she was shed of her blindfold.

But she must remain blind, even as she shares two centuries of stories with those who see.





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Years of academy training wasted…

and other picked up pieces…


…and other craft is ultimately an exercise in patience.


Working on some old window sash recently with my wife-who has INFINITELY more patience than I do–it occured to me just how much I had to recalibrate after a summer of swinging axes, running saws, and pounding chisels. I learn a lot watching Kim work. It’s not so much a gearing down–the work is just as intense. It’s more like taking a breath, observing smaller detail and using a smaller grouping of muscles. I tend not to yell as much when I’m repairing windows. So much can be accomplished with patience. I wish I had more of it.


…is a ball and stick game played with a tennis ball cut in half and a broomstick. Follansbee used to play this urban game on the mean streets of Weymouth, MA.

In ye olden tymes, we’d dust off the dregs of a long day, find a wall to pitch against, and play this game with an old shop broom.

This traditional street game needs to be taught to our youth, even those from the verdant cul-de-sacs.

Here’s the windup and the proof that even joiners can throw a pretty good curve:


PF showed no mercy pitching to his kid. Watch out for the chin music rook!


…of Follansbee…

Got an old, Elizabethan reproduction spring-pole lathe turned green oak bowling pin made by a renowned joiner/lecturer/author lying around but no time to bowl?

Try this at home!


It’s a mallet AND a dessert topping!


…of beards–

After a while you start shaving just so people stop dropping change in your coffee cup.




…should market his innovative, recycled edge-tool covers.

Here’s an orange juice container covering the end of a little adze-


Keep your edge sharp–Now with extra pulp!

And here’s a tasty IPA package securing a saw blade:


Hoppy, yet with a gullet.


You’re a bum!


A friend thought Will bore an uncanny resemblance to Bill Spaceman Lee.

Wedge Bramhall

…was a great Plymouthian who left us this spring.

While his name suggests otherwise, he was anything but a divider.

If you’re in the neighborhood, stop by Bramhalls Country Store before they close for the season this Sunday, October 12.



…kept us busy canning tomatoes on the home front.


Nothing like homemade pasta sauce during the zombie apocalypse.

The grapes have been particularly sweet this year and there are lots and lots of acorns on the way.

The squirrels are going nuts.

And at a local living history attraction, autumn leaves are falling on old friends.

If you’re happen upon this image of Pret à Pilgrim, take a selfie and send it to BLUE OAK.

We’ll award something appropriate to the most creative submission!


Old friend Alex caught up with 2-D Pret.

On-sitely humor:

That’s like a Finnish carpenter putting a Dutchman in a French door.

-Joe Chetwyn


My kid

…demonstrated his understanding of irony the other day:


More beards–

This guy. Have you seen him?




Red and white oaks can get along, so can we.



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Just another day’s work for Bob

BLUE OAK made a video of Bob Reimel’s work custom sawing pine boards to make them look as though they were sash-sawn.

With some adjusting of the band saw’s teeth and a small angle between saw and stock, Bob can work magic with that Wood-Mizer.

Here’s a side by side comparison to a new band sawn board (left) with an original up-and-down sawn board:


And here’s the video:


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Yes we cant

We need sheathing for our Hatch Mill project.

Its roof and walls will be covered with flat sawn boards.

But they can’t be just any sawn stuff.


Michael laying up new roof sheathing on the old mill.

Because we’re restoring an 18th-century sash saw mill, and the original sheathing boards were made by an up-and-down saw, we can’t in good conscience just lay up circular sawn material with their characteristic arcs across the board’s face. Sash sawn boards are identifiable by their regular and almost perpendicular saw marks–not quite pit-sawn, not quite band-sawn, and certainly not circular sawn.

And yet, we haven’t a working sash saw.

Enter Bob Reimels:


There are 50,000 Wood-Mizers, but only one Bob Reimels.

He is, The Saw Whisperer.

Bob’s out of Middleboro with a keen sense of wood grain, saws, and history.

He’s an affable fellow, with an old Yankee lilt to his tongue and a frame built for projects and work.

A few Thanksgivings ago, I had the pleasure to pit-saw with Mr. Reimels. He’d brought his family out for a visit to Plimoth Plantation and we made some snarky comment about him professing to be a sawyer. He jumped into the pit, immediately took hold of the box on the end of the saw, and proceeded to outsaw all of the younger men in attendence, even though he had never used a pit-saw before. The way he used EVERY tooth of the long pit-saw, the angle which he set the first few teeth to the grain, and the efficiency of his cutting showed us how deeply he understood both saws and their relation to grain.

It was quite remarkable.

So it was without hesitation that we called Bob out to help us approximate the marks of a sash saw using his portable Wood-Mizer saw mill.

Dean Copeland–also a thoughtful historian-sawyer–sawed out the cants of white pine at his mill, Copeland and Sons Lumber Co. A cant of wood is a length of timber that has been sawn with a flat or multiple flats to stabilize the timber for further processing. A can’t of wood is when the timber is so knotty and so dry that we dare not go at it with our dull chisels, saws, and axes.


In the back of Dean’s yard, Bob and I set up for a day of band saw work.

Bob goes over each log with a metal detector. There might be nails or battleships in those trees.

You can’t always trust a cant.

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of pine?


Unlike metal detecting at the beach on the 4th of July, there’s no fun finding metal in saw logs.

He’ll get hits from time to time. There was a 6 penny finish nail deep in the heart of the morning’s second pine. What the dilly!? Nail gun hijinks? Pre-nailing baseboard?

Later, Bob and his metal detector found what was likely an old piece of lead shot or bullet. The soft lead didn’t hurt the saw, however. And the pine seemed impervious as well.


Back to sawing: We had about a dozen cants to saw into 1″ boards and a few 2″ planks.

The nice thing about sawing with Bob is his attention to detail.

He is acutely aware of the history we are trying to reflect on the face and edge of each board. So he’ll saw tapers from Dean’s tapered cants–old boards don’t always have parallel edges. He also put a small wedge on the near-end of the cant in order to replicate a small angle of the saw to the board face. This slight angle is commonly seen in sash sawn stuff.


Edges are jointed as well, using the same angled block to approximate the right saw marks. No detail is too small for Bob.


This rids the board of much sapwood as well, which is much quicker to rot in external application.

After several cants and a few hours of sawing, the blade began to vibrate a little more than usual in some “angry grain”, as Bob called it.

A dulling blade creates more heat in the kerf and leads to more sap left on the metal. It also wanders a little more on the face of the board leaving an uneven surface.


Some big, hard-boiled egg gets a look at a pretty face and bang, he cracks up and goes sappy- -Carl Denham, King Kong

Some of the sap can be taken off with a stick to get a little more sawing out of a blade–


But with a couple of cants left to saw, Bob knew it was time to change up.


With a flick of his wrist, Bob took the open loop of the removed saw blade and instantly folded it within itself to a third of its size. He could make serious coin doing this trick at Faneuil Hall.

Bob sharpens his own blades. The saw set and tooth angle changes according to the material.


As he set the blade–guided by feel and experience as much as anything else–he spoke of the micro-fractures that occur in the saw’s gullet and how filing those out helps to keep the blade from breaking.

Bob is a smart man.

The day’s haul:


As we rounded home in our sawing, a local woman stopped by and asked Dean out in front if he knew of anyone who could saw some small white birch for a display in her store. The stock was far too small for Dean’s saw, but he thought Bob might be able to help.


This was utterly spontaneous and unplanned. It was a treat to watch Maria describe what she wanted from the birch and Bob improvise ways to accomplish this.

Bob had never sawn anything like this on his Wood Mizer before.

But as a result of Maria’s good nature and Bob’s patient generosity and skill, there was no questioning a successful outcome. And several wedges and shims and careful sawing later, Bob had sawn out just what Maria wanted for her store.

This wasn’t a surprise. Whether it’s pit-sawing, band sawing, or sawing out aesthetically pleasing store displays, Bob’s one of those humble fellows who just gets it. And though it was the end of a long day of sawing, there was never any doubt he’d help Maria out with this tricky but doable project.

Yes he cant.


Maria was VERY pleased and gracious.

These days, Bob saws mostly for fun. He enjoys what he does and he does it very well.

He will go back to continue his work volunteering to restore an historic outhouse in Middleboro.

Just another day for The Saw Whisperer.



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up down up

There’s a lot of love for the old saw mill down off Union Street in Marshfield.


So much so that the town has put the mill on its flag.


The Hatch Mill was originally a water-powered grist mill built in 1752. It was one of several mills in the area called 2 Mile.

Sometime around 1810, Joal Hatch built a sawmill on the site.

The sawing was done with an up-and-down saw, often called a sash saw because of its boxy similarity to a window sash.

It left perpendicular marks on the faces of boards and lumber.


A few decades later, a larger box mill was added onto the sawmill.

This mill made boards for the boxes in which shoes and boots were shipped, including those worn by soldiers in the American Civil War.


Decker Hatch was the last sawyer at the mill. He sawed there even into his 80’s.

Water always powered his saw, though by the last time sawing was done there around 1965, Decker was using a large circular saw, not a sash saw.

For the replacement timbers and boards, we are using material from another sawmill just down the road. Dean Copeland does great work at Copeland and Sons Lumber Co, though his saw is powered by more conventional means.

While we have worked, more than a few neighbors have stopped by with memories of their fathers buying boards from Decker Hatch. Some of these boards were used to make skating rinks just down the road.

Others have told us stories about working with Decker when they were young, stacking sawn stuff out in back of the mill. They say the mill would sometimes close on days in late summer when the water in the pond was too low to power the saw.


Friends have come from near and far to help us restore The Hatch Mill.

This is a noble act of a community who sees the value in preserving the last mill on Two Mile–not just to venerate history but to teach the future.


This project owes very much to Roy Kirby.

And on a perfect September day last week…


photo by Marie Pelletier

…we all raised the first wall.

To several in attendance, this simple frame was as symbolic as it was structural.


There aren’t too many water-driven sash saw mills around anymore.

People are drawn to this little nook in MarshVegas.

They know it’s a special place.

IMG_20140806_095148 (1)

Someday soon, there’ll be the unmistakable sound of an up-and-down saw working timber into boards again–

–so long as there’s water in the pond.


And the stewards of The Hatch Mill–those who refused to let it die–will be there telling stories and sharing their work with those who would have otherwise never known–

–in this small, but not insignificant corner of the world.


 BLUE OAK will get to the specifics of the mill and its restoration in coming posts. 

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Everyone should have a Mister Johnson in their neighborhood

You know Mister Johnson.


He’s the “retired” guy who lives down the street with his wife.  He wears navy blue work shirts and pants. That shirt is always tucked in. His hands are working hands, and his hair is whiter than snow. His glasses habitually slide down his nose, and his voice is gravelly with a strong south of Boston cadence which refuses to be homogenized by tv, the internet, and convention.

His children are long-fledged, but his small yellow ranch on a little lot in Manomet is brightly decorated with each holiday–Halloween, Easter, and especially Christmas. People slow down on busy route 3-A to view the angels, the penguins and the candy canes. His yard is more crowded with Christmas elves each year, it seems. Some might say it’s gauche or even an eyesore. But his enthusiasm and his joy are undeniable. To him, such seasonal decor is a gift to others, to the community.

When our boys were little and we’d walk down to the bus stop next to his house, he would often come out and ask the kids about their homework or hockey.  I don’t think we ever learned his first name. To me and mine, he’s always been Mister Johnson.

He tinkers. He’s always doing something. A couple years ago, a younger family member came and spent the weekend helping him fell some oaks and pitch pines in the corner of his property. There he raised a little metal workshop and turned up the soil for some tomatoes and pumpkins. Some nights, as I drive past his house on my way home from work, I hear pounding metal. Other nights, later in the season when work brings us home in the dusk, the workshop is silent but the glow of florescent light spills out of the windows. He made a 4-foot tall lighthouse for his friends–a retired policeman and his wife– across the street. Just a little yard ornament for a fellow retiree.

He drives an old beat up Chevy whose rich exhaust reminds me of the 70’s.  I see him driving everywhere around town. In a world full of sleek GMCs and Toyotas and Dodges, his scratched and well-worn ride stands out a quarter a mile down the road. There goes Mister Johnson, I say to whomever might be in my own truck at the time.  There is almost ALWAYS something in the bed of his truck, unless he’s just returned from a scrap metal delivery.

Mister Johnson is the go-to guy when it comes to scrap metal. He drives 45 minutes to Hanson with a load–and he tells me he’s had as much as a ton of it on his truck.


Mr Johnson shows us Polaroids of an epic scrap metal pick-up. Note the refrigerator on top of the tool box.

My wife and I had fallen into a full-court cleaning mode. Years of detritus had accumulated in the back of our yard–the old box springs, mattresses, metal gutters–they had all found their way behind and next to a shed. It was an archaeology of sorts, digging through the stacked piles of children’s bikes,  discarded tvs, and garden hoses we once had the noble intention of making into soaker hoses but never got around to. Life.

We hid our stuff–our junk and our memories–in the furthest corner of our own property; forgotten, as life continued around us fast and furious.

But today was different. Perhaps it was because this was the first Sunday after our own eldest son had fledged. Maybe we felt the first tangible stings of an empty nest. For whatever reason, we had time and inclination to address that place where hornets nest, where mice hunker down, and where the grass grows tall. Forgive us, dear south-facing neighbors, for having left you with such an uninspiring view of our discarded Salvation Army upholstered chair lo these several years.

Our digging led to sorting which led to a pile of metal. As we drove  down our little road with a heap of old couches and rolled rugs tied down in the back of our pickup to be delivered unceremoniously unto the difficult to manage waste facility, we happened upon Mister Johnson and his wife pulling into their little ranch. My wife and I thought the same thing: Let’s ask Mister Johnson if he wants the metal for scrap.

“Hi Mister Johnson. Do you still collect metal and would you like some?

“Yes I do”, he said.

“Do you take aluminum too?” I asked, thinking of the pieces of old gutters on the margin of our wood.

“If it’s metal I take it,” he replied.

“He’ll clean you up!” said Mrs. Johnson, cheerfully, from the cab of that Chevy.

He backed into our narrow driveway and across the lawn where our kids used to play wiffle ball and expertly parked between two semi-dwarf apple trees. Our dog, Bogey, gave him the hey, i’m not sure who you are bark. Mister Johnson is the guy who carries dog biscuits in his truck to give to dogs who just aren’t sure why there’s a gentleman noisily throwing scrap metal into the unlined metal bed of his truck. Bogey made a friend today.


You know Mister Johnson. He’s the guy who takes away your scrap metal and the physical memories you are finally willing to let go of.  He’s the guy who brings you a plastic bag of tomatoes when he comes to pick it all up.

The weeds have got the better of me this year, he told us, speaking about his tomatoes. He said the manure from a local pig farm had too many weeds in it and he won’t use that again.

He’s seemingly happy in retirement, doing all the small things that turn little or no profit but which benefit a neighborhood richly. There’s a timeless sense to it all. In his work clothes and beater truck he reminds me of my own grandfather. Change the color of the photos to sepia or black and white and they could be from the 1960’s or earlier.

There are a lot of Mister Johnsons in the world, humbly picking away at the odds and ends of our lives. They enrich our community, and are part of the ties that bind a neighborhood.

I hope your neighborhood has a Mister Johnson.


Oh right…Harry. That’s Mister Johnson’s first name. And his wife’s name is Myrt.

Harry and Myrt.

We’ll see you next time, Mister Johnson.



Area Plugs

How you doing?

It’s late notice but…

You’ve got your tomatoes in; you’ve done your mock fantasy football draft; you’ve pretended the sink wasn’t full of dishes…

What to do?

Well, in less than two hours The Cooking Channel’s, MAN FIRE FOOD will be featuring the fabulous Paula Marcoux and her new book, Cooking With Fire.


See Paula work cooperatively with fire in a way heretofore unseen since Jimi Hendrix went nuts on his guitar!

See how the cinematography of Savory Pond and Pret and Paula’s backyard plays out on National TV!

Here’s a nice write-up on the show by Storey Publishing:

That’s tonight, 8pm, EST.


The episode should be available on the web and re-broadcast sundry times.

We’ll keep you posted.

Speaking of Pret…


When he’s not cutting a beam’s end square for a restored sash-saw mill–


–he’s shredding honky-tonk with his banjo and his band, The Dinghy’s.

They’ll be playing at The BBC Cedarville this Friday night, August 22nd.

Tell them you read this on BLUE OAK and they’ll be like, what?

The Dinghys are one of the best bands south of Boston. They’re comprised of a couple of carpenters, two electricians, and a few ex-pilgrims, among other notables. They are most def worth a little trip if you’re in the 508 or 617.

No band has more fun in a live performance.

Hope to see you there.

I’ll tell you all about our new sawmill project…





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Playing marbles

If you give an artist a paintbrush…


She’ll paint things–

Like pillars made out of pine. She’ll paint them to look like marble.

And if she paints the top-


She’ll want to paint the bottom.

Before the brushes are cleaned, she may as well paint other things–

Here’s a panel with an Elizabethan-inspired sign of the zodiac.

photo 1

I’m a Pisces and I like a short walk to the pub–Pen Austin

And another…

photo 2

And more still, until all 12 signs are ready to be put in the heavens above.

photo 1

To fix them in the heavens above, they’ll need to fashion a frame for the panels.


And the panels will need those painted pillars to bear the weight of the heavens.





photo 4

If you make the over and above, you’ll need a stage below on which humans may do their business on this mortal coil.

So, with a little help, the New Napkin Stage is raised by the players.


Their leader will need a proper vantage from which to view the proceedings.

He’ll gain a balcony.

But a balcony wants railings and railings want support.

So they’ll call upon a bearded joiner to turn 45 balusters on a spring pole lathe.


These are made from green oak, in the style of the sort turned by a German woman for Shakespeare’s Globe in London.

These, in turn, were made in the style of those wrought 400 years past.

She turned 500 or so.

Once the bearded guy takes his foot off the lathe and the balcony is set up, the other bearded guy can take it all in.

photo 3 (2)

Things began to make sense.

photo 4 (2)

Once the pillars are painted, the heavens secured, and the stage fashioned, the players and their leader will want to perform plays.

And if they perform, they’ll want people to come see them.

So they’ll plug their play and make room for everyone to come see it in a special place against a river in an old mill town.

On the Piazza

Photo by John Riedell–

And some of the people will see the marble pillars and wonder how they were made…


If you give an artist a paintbrush…



The Worcester Shakesepeare Company’s production of Shakespeare’s, The Merry Wives of Windsor continues Thursdays-Sundays now through August 24th:

Pen Austin is a plasterer/artist from Leicester, UK and Nantucket, MA. Her work is the best. Never challenge her to an arm wrestle, however. 

This year’s work on the stage builds on last year’s– for further info, contact MLB Restorations at 1 508 277-4468

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Hewing in The Yard–a motion picture

It’s 2:23 long. It’s a video of guys chopping with axes.

Maybe you need a new hobby…I don’t know.

But at the end there’s a sweet “football” maneuver by Nigel,  who just may be the greatest  dog in the world.

Plus, there is reggae.


On another note…


…there’s nice write-up about Peter Follansbee and his new work situation by Chris Schwarz of Lost Art Press:


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hewing post


It’s about relationships-


Of axe to oak.

Of edge to grain.

Of hands to helve.

Of Advil to every 6 hours…


Walk the Line

I have a confession to make…

I went to England and had a thing with quercus robur. She was knotty. She had a really big heart and I LIKED it.

Please don’t tell quercus alba or quercus rubra about this.

I love American white and red oak. They are the meat and potatoes of my trade. I am nothing without them.

I went to England on business. But I was caught up in her foreign, insouciant air, and the way her delicate leaves reflected the morning sunlight. She would wave to me from an open field and I stared awestruck at her beauty. Maybe it was the cask beer–but have you seen her fetching knot patterns? I don’t know. It was just a fling of the axe, I swear. It was a tree-tryst.

The bevel made me do it.

Oh American oaks, I’ve come home to you, with open and cramped arms, axing your forgiveness. Please don’t leave me for tomato stakes or pallets.

But English oak, why must you beguile this wayward Yankee so?


You Hew and Cry

There’s been a whole lot of hewing this year. If I was filling out a job application, I’d have to write “Hewer” in the space provided, if I could get my fingers to hold a pen.

You think about things when you hew so much. You begin to see the process a little more for what it actually is. You begin to speak the language of the ancients when you hew day after day. It’s really a form of time-travel, this hewing business.

But to hew, to really hew, you need to go through fire.

There’s the physical torment-

The knuckle below your middle finger will never become calloused. Get used to the bloodletting. Some mornings, just when you think it’s about healed, you hit that nice square corner you just created. Before the workday starts, you almost want to just get it over with and use a hammer to knock off yesterday’s scab. (There must be so much blood on ancient timbers. Some kid from MIT should figure out how to extract DNA from ancient house timbers, go all Jurassic Park and create a carpenter using a  14th-century genome sequence).

Your arms and back cry mercy and it’s not even first tea yet. You try various positions to find just the right stance. Sometimes you just lie down and stretch. Or walk away in disgust.

And the mental games soon follow-

There are several thousand swings and misses. Is it just me?

Come ON, you tell no one in particular as you miss the line by a quarter inch. No, I don’t have Tourette’s. 

The line seems so impossibly narrow. How on earth can you be expected to hew to that atom’s width of a line?? Oops, missed again.

The grain will change in direct proportion to your budding confidence.

You have Ally McBeal fantasies about embedding a broad axe into your shin while Al Green croons.

Tell me once again how much more there is left to hew?


1 of 5 pages.

If you want to hew, to really hew, you’ve got to be committed.

Keep your axe sharp, clean the dirt off your bearers, and take a deep breath.


A musician learns the scales and the changes before soloing. It’s mundane and tedious and oh-so necessary. Your first attempts at hewing will feature stop cuts, undercut faces, and a line which is anything but walked. It will look like a Cub Scout on Twinkies has been let loose with a dull hatchet.

But you watch how others hew, how they change the angle of their axe to the grain. You get a feel for the rhythm and pace of the work. You begin to look differently at the timbers in old houses, both the refined and the utilitarian. What does the final face need to look like? How does my axe affect that? The tribulations of a long-dead carpenter begin to resonate with you.


Score marks below the plane of the hewn face; circa 1663, Bristol, UK

It’s a constant adaptation of a moving axe to changing grain. But there isn’t much time to think about it when you’re actually doing it. You’ve practiced your scales and chords–now you’re beginning to just play.

In time, your faces are square to each other and in wind along their length. You have begun to see plumb and square even as you build up a muscle memory for the process.

As with any piece of music, there are dynamics throughout the work. Sometimes you stand menacingly over the prone oak. You hold the axe towards the bottom of the handle for greater leverage and you strike down with great violence and send large pieces of sapwood and heart flying. It’s brutish and efficient and teetering on the edge of chaos. At other times, the same axe in the same hands is choked up towards the head and is played with delicate precision. You finish a side by taking off translucent shavings as if planing. The distinctive sound of a sharp edge finishing an oak face is a different part of the arrangement.

The broad axe is a wonderful instrument.


Chris, Ant, Andy, and Justin scoring and hewing and making crisps.

You cannot stress or overcompensate trying to hit the line. When it’s right, you just do it.

But even seasoned hewers are not always in a zone. You may give several hours of pedestrian hewing and missed lines for an hour of focused, Zen-like prowess.

And when you’re locked in, it’s magic. It’s Bobby Orr going coast to coast to score unassisted. It’s Keith Jarrett becoming one with his piano. You don’t want to stop. You have built up the physical strength to work through gnarly grain. When you’re in that place, you know exactly where the edge of the axe will land. You play the grain while hewing as if reading music or improvising. It’s worth all the misery and tedium because frankly, it’s sublime.

Which came first–the blowout at the bottom of a hewn face or the chamfer?


In the flora analysis, oaks will be oaks, whether they’re red, white, or blue. Take a splint from the hewing, put it in your mouth and taste the wine. You’ve earned it.

For a direct connection with the material, there’s nothing like hewing. Your relationship with the tree and its grain will lead you to a more elemental place. And that experience will follow you through all other aspects of the work–the planing and sawing, the cutting and assembling of joints.


I’ve been hewing for a couple of decades and I’m still learning. On this trip, I really began to understand my broad axe. We’ve been friends for years, but in England she was in her element. She taught me things. I was a little slow at first, but she was patient with me as I realized how she was meant to approach the grain. Physically and mentally I was prepared. All I had to do was hold her and let her take me where she would.

I love both English and American oaks. There I’ve said it.

But my true love, I suppose, is my axe.


It’s about relationships.







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