Thoreau and the Wooden Tray


Not long ago, a friend referred me to an unabridged entry in Henry David Thoreau’s journal.  Here’s the first paragraph:

October 19, 1858:

Barrett’s apprentice, it seems, makes trays of black birch and of red maple, in a dark room under the mill. I was pleased to see this work done here, a wooden tray is so handsome. You could count the circles of growth on the end of the tray, and the dark heart of the tree was seen at each end above, producing a semicircular ornament. It was a satisfaction to be reminded that we may so easily make our own trenchers as well as fill them . To see the tree reappear on the table, instead of going to the fire or some equally coarse use, is some compensation for having it cut down . The wooden tray is still in demand to chop meat in, at least . If taken from the bench to the kitchen, they are pretty sure to crack, being made green. They should be placed to season for three months on the beams in a barn, said the miller.

That inspired me to grab my axe, adze, and a maple log.  Thoreau leaves out some details about the appearance of the trays he saw in the room under the mill, so I filled in my vision with the basic form of this serving board I  made a couple years ago.  Then it was to the chopping block.


After splitting the log in half at the pith, I had laid it on my workbench to scribe double lines on each end.  Using the workbench as a reference assures that the lines on both ends are in the same plane.  then I split the majority of the waste away with a froe.   The swirl in the bark was a clear sign of an internal knot, but this was the log I had available.


I hewed away most of the material from both faces with an axe.


Then continued with the axe to straighten up the edges a bit.


After connecting the lines from the ends along the sides, I trimmed to the line with the axe, but just along the edges.


Because the fibers were all over the place around that big knot, I worked across the grain with the adze to flatten the field.


I went ahead and marked the ends square….


…then trimmed them with the axe.


Material to the sides of the eventual “feet” was removed with the adze.


And that’s it for now.  I’ll let it season, then finish if off with some final carving of the surfaces.


According to Thoreau and the miller, it should be three months in the beams of a barn.  I don’t have a barn, so there it is tucked up below the ceiling of my workshop, destined to tumble onto my head when I least expect it.

Triggered by the trays, Thoreau went on in the journal entry to serve some food for thought.  Chew on it as you wish:

I was the more pleased with the sight of the trays because the tools used were so simple, and they were made by hand, not by machinery. They may make equally good pails, and cheaper as well as faster, at the pail-factory with the home-made ones, but that interests me less, because the man is turned partly into a machine there himself. In this case, the workman’s relation to his work, is more poetic, he also shows more dexterity and is more of a man. You come away from the great factory saddened, as if the chief end of man were to make pails ; but, in the case of the countryman who makes a few by hand, rainy days, the relative importance of human life and of pails is preserved, and you come away thinking of the simple and helpful life of the man, -you do not turn pale at the thought, – and would fain go to making pails yourself . We admire more the man who can use an axe or adze skillfully than him who can merely tend a machine . When labor is reduced to turning a crank it is no longer amusing nor truly profitable ; but let this business become very profitable in a pecuniary sense, and so be “driven,” as the phrase is, and carried on on a large scale, and the man is sunk in it, while only the pail or tray floats ; we are interested in it only in the same way as the proprietor or company is .

— Henry David Thoreau, Journal, October 19, 1858.

It’s worth remembering that Thoreau had experience working in a factory, albeit manufacturing pencils rather than pails.  In fact, his innovations to the processes, including those for grinding and mixing graphite, were vital to the success of the Thoreau family pencil business.

This entry was posted in adze, axe, green woodworking, historical reference, quotes and excerpts, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Thoreau and the Wooden Tray

  1. Rudy Everts says:

    Very nice work! I look forward to seeing the finished piece. Hope it doesn‘t fall on your head in the meantime!


  2. William Auld says:

    Excellent as usual. Going to be a beautiful serving board!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. maydanlex says:

    Can’t help but be excited when David Fisher blogs. As a 59 year old carving rookie I get inspired and greatly benefit from the useful knowledge found here. Thanks for sharing your talents David.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. hiscarpentry says:

    I love Thoreau. There is a quote that I often use when I’m working on an exterior of a building. He said this while building his cabin at Walden pond “To make perfectly impenetrable.” He was beveling the edges of the sheathing boards so that water would run down the outside and not be able to make its way in. There is obviously so much to learn from his writings.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Bob Easton says:

    Pith is certainly not a defect for this piece of maple. It will b a gorgeous tray.

    Thanks for yet another lesson!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. John Breiby says:

    Dave, what a beautiful job! I love the striations from your adze. Will you leave it flat on top or hollow it out a little? I realized while reading your Thoreau quotes that although I’ve heard the term “trencher” all my life as an archaic word, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a live one. Years ago I had a really large white birch, one chunk of which became my chopping block, and another piece I made into a serving tray, which we use for turkey or ham on holidays. The brown heart-wood shows a nice contrast from the outer wood. Thanks for sharing your process.
    (I tried to post a similar message an hour or so ago, but a thing popped up saying “site unavailable,” or something. So apologies if you get this twice)


    • Dave Fisher says:

      Thanks John. I planned on flattening the top after it dries, but a shallow hollow might be interesting too, especially if it serves as a true “trencher”. We’ll see how it moves during the drying. Glad to hear your birch serving tray is performing well.


  7. Marie L Pelletier says:

    a friend of mine tipped me off to the book The Thoreau You Don’t Know: What the Prophet of Environmentalism Really Meant–By Robert Sullivan
    good book and worth reading–he places Thoreau in the socio-economic as well as political context of the time and it’s a personal look as well–it’s well done.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: Revisiting Thoreau’s Tray | David Fisher, Carving Explorations

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