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Preserving the lost art of historic woodworking

“I could blame my granddad and my father for it,” said Mark Johnston, speaking of his love of history, hand tools and historic buildings.

Mark Johnston demonstrates how to properly use an old tool at a talk at the Ames-Florida-Stork House in Rockford earlier this year. Photo by Karen Flaten

Mark Johnston demonstrates how to properly use an old tool at a talk at the Ames-Florida-Stork House in Rockford earlier this year. Photo by Karen Flaten

When Mark was just a child, his grandfather showed him his tools and gave him “a general idea of how they worked.” “He put the bug in me to find out more,” said Mark. Mark’s grandfather, although not a woodworker himself, had inherited them from his father. The collection also included tools from Mark’s grandmother’s family, who were woodworkers, furniture makers and carpenters. Mark was immediately fascinated by the tools, although it took some time before he learned how to use them, mostly teaching himself the techniques from books and television programs. When Mark’s grandfather passed away in the mid-1990s, it was Mark who inherited the tools.

Mark was also influenced by his father’s interest in railroads. Mark’s father was a history buff who collected railroad antiques and often took Mark on trips to look at old railroad depots and roundhouses. Mark grew to love looking at old buildings and became interested in how they were constructed.

“I have always looked back,” said Mark. As a boy growing up in Iowa, Mark remembers, he attended threshing bees and other historical demonstrations. Soon he began watching The Woodwright Shop on PBS, which teaches viewers the art of traditional woodworking. Hosted by Roy Underhill, a former master housewright at Colonial Williamsburg, the show has been aired nationally since 1981. Mark found the show interesting and began to read Underhill’s books about craftsmanship and working with hand tools.

It was a natural choice for him to major in History in college. Mark went on to complete a master’s degree in history at the University of Minnesota. Realizing that historic construction techniques and historic preservation is what really excited him, he then pursued a certificate in historic preservation.

With his love of hand tools and historical woodworking, Mark has carved out a niche for himself demonstrating the way furniture and cabinetry was made in the past. At a recent talk at the Ames-Florida-Stork House in Rockford, Mark showed how to create joints using a chisel and wooden mallet, asked for volunteers to learn to smooth a board using a hand plane, and demonstrated how a log would have been stripped of its bark in order for it to be used in home construction.

It was a warm day in July when Mark demonstrated the skills used to create furniture and cabinetry before electricity began powering tools. Even in the heat, attendees sat for nearly two hours, learning about the old ways. Afterwards, Mark welcomed questions, and visitors talked with him about their own hand tools or examined the tools he had brought along. One man complained about the difficulty of keeping the hand tools sharp and asked for suggestions.

“That takes a lot of practice,” said Mark, showing the man the techniques he uses to keep his tools at their sharpest.

Mark also does demonstrations at The Landing in Shakopee (formerly called Murphy’s Landing), and uses some conservation techniques on the buildings and furniture there. At the Maplewood Historical Society, Mark volunteers his time in maintenance and construction; occasionally he does furniture repair or restoration for individuals. Sometimes he works on houses or creates a handmade door for a building. He has even consulted at Historic Forestville, explaining how to interpret the tools in the collection, how to arrange a wood shop in a historically accurate way, and how to sharpen the tools.

He is also a member of the Minnesota Tool Collector’s Association, but he says he is not a collector. “I don’t want rare tools,” said Mark, “since I work with the tools, so sometimes I drop them and break them.” Instead, Mark enjoys meeting people who collect antique hand tools and finding out more about the tools and how they were used.

A member of the Society of American Period Furniture Makers (SAPFM), Mark again finds that his focus is a little different than most of the members. “They tend to focus on colonial furniture, whereas my interest is in the mid-19th century, especially pioneer days – nothing too highfalutin.” Again, his interest in the society is in learning more about traditional woodworking.

Doing woodworking with hand tools “is a lot more gratifying than working with machines,” he said. His demonstration shows how much he enjoys what he is doing. The audience is engaged and involved. Completed projects and small specialty tools are passed around so everyone can get a closer look.

But it is not just the woodworking that is rewarding. The interaction with the audience also provides inspiration. “People get so much out of these demonstrations,” said Mark. “Maybe they have their own tools, maybe their grandfather had the tools,” Mark continued. In Mark’s talks, the audience participates and often offers to help with a demonstration.

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