I first saw Shaker boxes in a pattern book on Shaker woodenware by Ejner Handberg in 1977 when I was teaching furniture making at Lansing Community College. Even as line drawings, these simple, elegant oval containers, crafted from cherry in graduated sizes, were intriguing. All boxes hold universal appeal, but to have them nest inside each other appeals to the child in all of us.
Up to this point, I had been a carpenter in residential construction for 10 years, and had spent another decade teaching social anthropology. Little did I know when I began to follow my curiosity in Shaker oval boxes that they would become the perfect avenue for expressing those three skills—working in wood, interpreting other communities' life and work, and teaching. But that is exactly what has happened to me over the last 15 years.
By specializing in Shaker oval boxes, I was fortunate to take advantage of three trends: a growing awareness of Shaker design, the popularity of woodworking as a hobby, and an interest in instruction in leisure activities. This combination opened the doors for freelance box-making seminars. By 19861 was teaching 30 workshops a year in many parts of the country, as well as in Canada and England. The participants make a nest of five boxes. It is fulfilling to be able to master the technique of making a box, and even more so to perfect it in making five. In the 12 years since the first box class, I have taught more than 4,000 people this traditional craft.
My memory of first attempting to build them is of bands breaking, bringing the project to an abrupt end. It takes more than line drawings to master technique. Visiting Shaker sites in New England, I recall a rare opportunity to watch box maker Jerry Grant at Hancock Shaker Village. He gave me a sample of the tiny copper tacks that are the hallmark of the box lap. These are as scarce as hen's teeth, as the expression goes. At the time, Cross Nail Company was the one remaining tack manufacturer, and made them only on special order. It took a minimum of 50 pounds to order, and with over 750 tacks to the ounce, that was an incredible supply. With 12 tacks needed to make a box, it also represented a lifetime of box making.
Today, Shaker boxes have become my life and supplying the box trade with quality materials now occupies more of my time than either making boxes or teaching. More than just being good business, making Shaker boxes has left me with the conviction that passing on our skills is a responsibility each of us must accept.
John Wilson taught social anthropology at Purdue before turning his attention to teaching Shaker box making full time in 1983.
His seminars have been held at the Smithsonian, in Shaker villages throughout America, and in England. He owns and operates The Home Shop on East Broadway Highway in Charlotte, Michigan.
June Sprigg reflects on
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