And finally we come to volume 3 in my multi-blog review of Shaker books. So far we’ve had the good, the mediocre, and the very very bad. Let me finish with a recommendation for a book I think is the book on Shaker furniture.
Now this book has no plans. If you’re looking for step-by-step instructions for a project you’re better off tracking down any of the million or so magazine articles that are out there.
There is no special dialogue about the wondrous nature of wood, the bond a craftsman feels to nature when working by hand, or any flowery prose declaring the Shaker beliefs to be a panacea for all of today’s ills or that the Shaker furniture is the only true way to channel those miraculous healing powers. If you want philosophical BS like that, well I just can’t help you.
What it is is this:
The Book of Shaker Furniture by John Kassay. First published in 1980, it’s still being printed today. You can get a new copy at Highland Woodworking but the smart money will find one of the readily available used copies.
John Kassay, the author, is trained in furniture design and construction (as well as photography and drafting). Despite this, you won’t find any condescending chapters, not even a paragraph, telling you what a saw is, or what the end-grain of walnut looks like compared to cherry or oak. He doesn’t try to teach you 7th grade woodshop skills either – no little pictures of butt joints, no tails vs pins debate on dovetails. After a description of the different shaker communities and an explanation of how their craftsmen worked, it is all Shaker furniture. He researched thousands of pieces of authentic Shaker furniture and picked multiple examples of each piece – beds, shelves, boxes, baskets, bins, dressers, sideboards, chairs, racks, screens, tables of every type and more. If a shaker built something, he’s got a couple examples in his book. The book flows from one section to the next and each section focuses on one particular type of furniture and follows the same genral pattern. For example, he starts with beds.
The bed section has a half dozen different styles of shaker beds. Each one has a clear photograph, a description of where he found it, who built it (if known) and when, what it’s made of (and a lot of the pieces used multiple types of wood in just one piece) and measurements. Next he’s chosen the one bed (some sections he chooses one piece, others he chooses a few) and gone into greater detail. He shows incredibly detailed draftings from different profiles and detailed measurements of each piece with a special focus on any tapered or curved pieces wherehe leaves no guesswork as to what radius a cove or bead might be, or what taper a leg is. If there is any joinery that he found noteworthy he includes a detailed sketch of it. If you want to build a shaker-style bed there is enough information from these six beds to take and scale the designs up or down, fill your need but still keep the proper elements. And if a particular type of joinery or building method consistently failed – like he found cracks in the same place every time – he points that out too so you know not to make the same mistakes they made. For sections like wardrobes or free-standing closets he even gives a detailed parts list for the pieces he chooses to highlight.
After the last chapter (tables) he has a very short appendix where he lists the breakdown of types of wood used in the different Shaker communities. I found it interesting that although the majority of the magazine articles on Shaker projects call for cherry, cherry was actually the least used wood. For the eastern Shakers the most common was spruce, and for the western communities it was hickory.
And in the same appendix he also provides a list of all the museums and communities from which he gathered his information so if you want to continue with your own research you have a guide to point you to the real stuff, and won’t be stuck relying on all of the misinformation that has been printed on the subject in order to make a quick buck (see blog #2 in this series).
And that’s my review of the Shaker books in my collection. The opinions expressed are mine but you are free to feel the same way because I am never wrong!
PS: I went looking for pics of the inside and stumbled upon this guys book review where he too thinks this is a great book. And he’s got more info on the author John Kassay. It turns out he was in WW2 and earned a purple heart and bronze star!
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