My Books, My Teachers

As a woodworker, I have come of age in the second wave of the Hand Tool Renaissance. Older woodworkers were introduced to hand saws and hand planes by craftsmen like Tage Frid and James Krenov, whose books exemplified a “blended” approach to woodworking. Much of their work was done with machines (Krenov was particularly fond of dowel joints), but because of their European training, they didn’t hesitate to use hand tools when they needed to.

Novice woodworkers now have access to a much wider array of books on using hand tools. Some are focused on a single tool such as the hand plane, while others provide instruction on using many basic tools. I am glad that I began learning to work wood with hand tools just as more books were becoming available to novice woodworkers like myself.

After taking a couple classes from Paul Sellers (then at the Homestead School of Woodworking), I began working wood in earnest. At the time, I was a graduate student short on money, so I couldn’t afford additional classes or new books. I relied on whatever our local library had or could get. These are some of the best books I found:

Roy Underhill. The Woodwright series. I had never watched an episode of The Woodwright’s Shop when I pulled one of his books off the library shelf at random. Flipping through it, I saw hand tools at work on nearly every page, so I checked out the whole series and devoured it, book by book.

Drew Langsner. Country Woodcraft. Langsner’s book was obviously born of experience. He was making things he needed out of wood, and while his work was usually graceful in form, it was above all simple and functional. Although my life as a graduate student was very different from his as a homesteader, we shared the need to make things out of wood in order to survive. He made cow pokes and drag rakes, while I tried to made bookshelves (we both made wooden spoons), but he reassured me that I, too, could make what I needed using a few simple tools and good material.

Michael Dunbar. Restoring, Tuning & Using Classic Woodworking Tools. The cumbersome title aside, Dunbar’s work was invaluable for me as an aspiring woodworker. Faced with an array of expensive new tools, and not a few cheap, poorly made ones, I quailed. How would I ever be able to smooth wood effectively without a $400 smoothing plane? Could I ever afford a $300 set of chisels? I had begun working wood because I wanted to build things I could not afford to buy, but now it seemed that I also couldn’t afford the tools I needed to do passable work. Dunbar showed me a different way. He patiently explained how to bring an old, wooden hand plane back to life and how to restore other tools like auger bits that I might find jumbled in cardboard boxes at antique stores. If Langsner encouraged me to get out my tools and make things, Dunbar convinced me that I could afford to do so.

Aldren Watson. Hand Tools: Their Ways and Workings. After being inspired by the above three authors, I needed more specific instruction about how to use each of my new tools to their fullest potential. As soon as I picked up Watson’s book in a shop, I knew I had to buy it. The book is very clearly written and precisely illustrated with line drawings. It covers the usual subjects: saws, planes, chisels. But it also covers slightly more obscure tools like drawknives, and it even has chapters dedicated to common tools that are frequently misused. I had no idea there were so many ways to use a flathead screwdriver or a wire brush! Watson has some quirks, such as recommending a jack-rabbet plane for all-around work. (Having three good, vintage planes is easier to deal with, and probably cheaper given the price of vintage jack-rabbets in usable condition.) But overall, he showed me how to get the most out of my small but growing tool chest.

WoodNet. Much as I love books, sometimes they can’t give you an answer to a specific question. Soon after taking a couple joinery classes, I stumbled across WoodNet, an online woodworking forum with a sub-forum dedicated to hand tools. I jumped in immediately, both asking and answering questions there. When I had specific questions about certain tool operations or wanted recommendations about current sources of tools, I had a bevy of opinionated woodworkers ready with a wide variety of answers. Having been trained to do library research and evaluate the reliability of sources, I was not bothered by the contradictory bits of advice I was given. Rather, I enjoyed the variety of responses, and I quickly learned which members’ recommendations I could trust.

Since then, I have discovered one old book and two new books that have broadened and deepened my approach to woodworking. I wish these had been available to me when I began working wood

The Joiner and Cabinet Maker. This anonymous book from the 1830s has recently been reprinted. After having read Underhill and Dunbar, I found that many of the operations described in this book were already familiar, but it added many more. I enjoyed the book’s asides on the relative availability and price of good wood and good tools, and I found its depiction of the social atmosphere of the workshop almost as fascinating as its descriptions of woodworking techniques. For a literature professor, it was an added bonus to learn so much about the day-to-day life of the working class in Victorian England.

Chris Schwarz. The Anarchist’s Tool Chest. When this book came out, I already had plans to build myself a large tool chest, having long outgrown my two small ones. Nevertheless, I hesitated to begin building. I had sketched out some rough plans, but I had many design questions about the details, so I decided that, if I was going to invest the time and materials into making a chest, I should consult an expert. Schwarz’s book was exactly what I needed. He answered all the questions I had, plus several others that I should have had. Although my own tool chest deviates significantly from Schwarz’s in many of its construction details, it is still the closest I have ever come to building a project from a set of published plans.

Peter Follansbee and Jennie Alexander. Make a Joint Stool from a Tree. I have to confess a small disappointment. After reading the book, I found that I had already learned much of the information from a 30-minute episode of The Woodwright’s Shop in which one of the authors, Peter Follansbee, walks Roy Underhill through the process of making a joint stool from raw, green timber. Nevertheless, the book explains many of the finer points of the process while warning against potential pitfalls. While I haven’t yet made a joint stool, I did recently make my first project using glue-less joinery: a joined gate for my dog’s pen. It features deep, double-drawbored mortise and tenon joints. Thanks to the authors, I have finally overcome my phobia of working in green wood.

I have read a lot of other woodworking books since I began, but these are the ones I go back to again and again. They are also the ones I recommend to other aspiring woodworkers.

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One Response to My Books, My Teachers

  1. Steve Massie says:

    Steve another great blog and this is one I can relate to very much. I have read all of the books as well as own all except a couple from Roy Underhill ( I have most of his ) and the one with Peter Follansbee and Jennie Alexander. I haven’t done any wood working with green wood yet nor do I own any of the tools for working green wood at this time. Well I do own a draw knife and a couple spoke shaves but I don’t have a hatchet, fro, az etc,

    I am also an avid reader and especially anything that has to do with wood working and as you know I to am mostly a hand Tool Guy myself. I enjoyed this blog very much, thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts and advise on books etc.


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