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I Learned Something New - Native American Woodworking  


Isn't it great to learn something new! This past Sunday we took my son to the National Museum of the American Indian for an hands on crafts event and then we wandered the exhibits.

When I think of Native American woodworking I mostly think of carved masks and totems. Which, depending on age and where they came from and their purpose range from simple to spectacularly sophisticated. Over the years and several visits (their collection is spectacular) I have developed an appreciation for how sophisticated the Native American level of craft can be. What I didn't know was that basic forms of furniture were also made. (and generalizing this is pretty stupid as Native American culture and crafts spans a couple of thousand years and hundreds of different tribes with different cultures and traditions. This first picture is of a stunningly beautiful box of bentwood, with ivory decorations. Sort of like a shaker box but made by Tiffany. Sadly I didn't have a pen and the picture I took of the caption didn't come out. It's 19th century I think.

This second image (sorry about the quality of the picture - through glass in a dark hall) is of what I would call a blanket chest (it's not a religious object). It gave me the idea for the blog entry because of the really subtle carvings. I have no idea of the construction. The picture does not do it justice.

A annoying thing about these pieces is the reminder, yet again, that I still have a long way to go.

A wall of masks. The one in the center is modern I don't know about the others but I think they are much older.
Finally we have another mask, carved into the marble of the building. The building the museum is housed in was the old Customs House which was built in 1907 (architect Cass Gilbert) and is one of the most spectacular buildings of the 20th century anywhere.

Note: In case you are curious I started making furniture because the stuff I liked I could not afford to buy. I also in general like making things. Museum exhibits make me curious about the world around me. I also find constant inspiration for both project ideas and just ideas about esthetic every time I wander through the halls of a museum. So I try to do that a lot.
Tags:Historical Subjects
Comments: 6
05/26/2011tom fidgen
Wow- that's a great bent wood box with the ivory-; )
thanks for sharing.
Couldn't agree more about museums for inspiration.
Speaking of inspiration, did the NYC wood working 'tour' idea ever pan out?
I'd be interested...

The tour has not happened yet. It will in the future but right now we are just too swamped to take on the planning and organization that a good tour needs.
05/26/2011Stephen Shepherd

The box [blanket chest] is called a kerf box and is made of three pieces of wood. The bottom is pegged or sewn on and the lid has a carved recess that fits over the side. The third piece of wood is the side(s), it is one piece of wood that is kerfed, a v shaped dado at the corners, the ends are mitered. It is heated up bent and sewn together at the corner. There is also a special kerf called the Boaz kerf that was used to bend and fold the corners on some boxes.

Check out the Native American section [page 115-129] Shepherds' Compleat Early Nineteenth Century Woodworker.

05/26/2011Mitch Wilson 
Let me recommend two other museums that provide similar experiences. The first is the National Museum of American Indians that is part of the Smithsonian down in D.C., which has been opened for five years or so now. Not only are the exhibits enlightening, but the building, built specifically for the museum, is stunning. The other museum, whose proper name I do not recall, is in Ottawa, Ontario. It first opened about 20 years ago and is a museum dedicated to the various Indian tribes that populate Canada. Another great experience. And while you're there, you can visit our friends at Lee Valley.
05/26/2011Joe Gourlay 
Joel, through you I've come to appreciate museums like never before. I also now look forward to (instead of dread) the family visits to New York, for this very reason.
05/26/2011David Fisher
I first looked more into Native American Woodworking after seeing some pieces at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. I would most highly recommend the book Cedar by Hilary Stewart. It is absolutely full of information on Native American woodcraft including masks, bentwood boxes, chests, bowls, and so on. Beautiful drawings and descriptions throughout.
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