SEDGWICK — It’s a cold afternoon in December and Joshua Klein is seated at a long tavern table, sipping a mug of tea. His editorial assistant, Mike Updegraff, stands at a computer nearby, editing an article for the next issue of Mortise & Tenon, the magazine Klein launched in 2016.
“The goal is to explore woodworking before the industrial revolution,” says Klein. “You can make this style of furniture with machines. But from a process standpoint, it’s very different.”
This is the home of Mortise & Tenon, housed in a salvaged and reassembled 1790s barn built in Pawlet, Vt., which Klein and Updegraff are working to restore. It’s cozy inside, despite the plastic covering several missing windows, which Klein attributes to the “really tight envelope” constructed around (but not touching) the barn’s frame. There’s no electricity or lighting downstairs, because Klein prefers to work with natural light, which he says highlights the contours of a piece of woodwork.
Lately, the father of three has been trying to slow down. The past few years have been busy: there was his furniture restoration business, Klein Furniture Restoration, dismantling the former Jordan Homestead in Ellsworth, starting the magazine, a podcast on hand tool-centric furniture making, restoring the barn and oh, researching and writing a book about Jonathan Fisher, the first settled minister of Blue Hill who supplemented his income by building furniture.
“Hands Employed Aright: The Furniture Making of Jonathan Fisher (1768-1847),” is part conservator’s catalog, part history, part biography. “All the richness of that story, it’s all there,” says Klein. “It’s a very human picture of what it was like to make furniture in 1796.”
Fisher kept several decades of meticulous diaries, written in a phonetic code that he developed himself and was translated in the 1950s. “It was this huge puzzle,” says Klein. “I had to start from square one.”
Klein began by photocopying the translated diaries, which are available at the Blue Hill Public Library, and highlighting any references to furniture making that appeared. With his own shop knowledge and access to Fisher’s tool archive and body of furniture, Klein spent hundreds of hours examining and documenting the “secondary surfaces,” the undersides and insides of the minister’s furniture. The result is a book that touches on Fisher’s life and on his process, as well as incorporating excerpts from his diary, the history of Blue Hill and an extensive catalog of Fisher’s furniture and tools.
The approach and idea behind the magazine is similar, says Klein, who described it as the “Merger of insight of makers and scholars and conservators.”
Updegraff chimes in with an example. For the sixth issue, he is at work on an article about efficiency of the supply chain and the value of taking a piece of furniture from tree to finished piece. “There is no connection between the woodworker and the tree,” says Updegraff. “There’s this really deep connection that is kind of lacking today.”
The biennial publication has exceeded all of Klein’s expectations. The first issue sold out all 5,000 copies, and Klein and his staff now pack and ship upwards of 8,000 around the world.
“To call Mortise & Tenon a magazine, is like calling the 42- line Gutenberg Bible a prayer booklet,” wrote one reviewer. It is hefty, printed on thick, uncoated paper, clocking in around 144 pages. There are no advertisements (the reason for the higher price tag of $24 per issue), and the pages are filled with spare, elegant photographs, which staff shoot themselves. Subscribers receive the journal wrapped in brown paper and stamped with an M&T wax seal.
“It’s supporting two families full time,” says Klein, looking somewhat incredulous, as well as three part-time staff.
But publishing is a new venture for the former carpenter and has come with its challenges. “I moved out here because I wanted to be homesteading and tucked away,” says Klein, but promoting Mortise & Tenon has required him to be connected in a way he hadn’t envisioned.
There’s navigating social media (Mortise & Tenon has over 62,000 followers on Instagram) and buying a smartphone, which Klein says he resisted but has come to rely on. “It’s a good tool. You’ve got to be able to draw a line.”
Klein was raised in Wisconsin with a father who was “all-around handy,” but didn’t come to hand tool construction until after high school. “I watched TV and screwed around with my friends.” He dabbled in building guitars, but found the work “highly mechanized.”
“Machines have a place in this world,” says Klein, but “I wanted to work with my hands.”
“In an age where everything is very, very perfect,” he continues, blemishes tell a story. “I’m always disappointed when you see the reproduction” of a piece of furniture that has no tool marks on its undersides,” says Klein. “There’s nothing left. They’ve sanded it all away.”
“I’m really drawn to the human element of it,” says the former carpenter. “I look at those tool marks as sort of breadcrumbs of the process. You can look and see the personality of people.”
His mission, Klein says, is to restore the “almost lost knowledge” of hand tools. He plans to one day hold tuition-free classes in his shop, with students trading labor for lessons. But Klein does not want to confine crafting with hand tools to a quaint, meditative hobby, and he wants to dispel the notion that pre-industrial woodworkers were working slowly and meditatively, with few mistakes. “They were working fast and hard.”
The goal for the magazine and his woodshop is similar. “Try to balance historical with present-day practice.”