Country Ways and Workings: In Memoriam Aldren A. Watson, 1917-2013

When I first began to work wood seriously, I pillaged the local libraries for books on hand tools.  I found books by Roy Underhill and Michael Dunbar, but the first book on hand tools I bought was Aldren A. Watson’s Hand Tools: Their Ways and Workings. 

As soon as I opened up Watson’s book in a store, I knew I had to buy it. The book is very clearly written and precisely illustrated with line drawings.  It is rare to find an author who draws and writes with equal facility and precision, but Watson was one of them.

Hand Tools 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.  Most importantly, he proved to me that I didn’t need a shop full of expensive equipment in order to make useful things.

Watson Books 2013 - - 2Unbeknownst to me, Watson wrote two other books on woodworking: Country Furniture and Furniture Making Plain and Simple (the latter of which is out of print).

Country Furniture is a wide-ranging book about furniture made from the 17th to the 19th century by amateurs and semi-professionals in New England.  Watson describes these furniture makers as resourceful, independent craftsmen working with locally-sourced materials in small shops in or near their homes.  They used a relatively small but varied set of tools and did not hesitate to modify and re-purpose tools when necessary.  While professionals made fancy furniture for the rich in the large shops of Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, these country craftsmen built furniture largely for themselves, and at their best, their furniture was no less refined or durable than the products of their urban counterparts.

If Watson’s account of these country craftsmen sometimes seems romanticized, it is nevertheless well-supported by historical documents like letters, diaries, and estate inventories.  Watson’s book details each aspect of the country furniture maker’s craft, from the town he lived in and the lumber he used to the tools and techniques he employed to make furniture for himself.  Like his Hand Tools book, Country Furniture is lavishly illustrated with Watson’s own line drawings.

Watson Books 2013 - - 1

Watson passed away earlier this year, but I look forward to meeting him again as I read and reread his woodworking books.  You can read his daughter’s tribute to her late father on her blog, here.

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6 Responses to Country Ways and Workings: In Memoriam Aldren A. Watson, 1917-2013

  1. Brian Eve says:

    Aldren Watson’s books are great. I learned a lot about using a bit and brace just from reading about it in his book.

    He will be missed.

  2. I was just reading Hand Tools earlier today. Then I spent an hour on the internet looking at available vintage jack rabbets.

  3. I second everything you said. Aldren Watson was a great writer and illustrator. I purchased his Hand Tools book a while back and believe it to be one of the best for beginning woodworkers. I am planning on buying his other books soon.

    Good post, thanks.

  4. Dave says:

    I haven’t read this material. But I do have a jack rabbet with knickers I have used on some large projects. Now I want to read this material. Thank you for sharing.

  5. I really enjoyed Hand Tools, I’ll have to look for the other two!

  6. Pingback: Colonial Craftsmen, by Edwin Tunis ~ 50 Years Later | The Literary Workshop Blog

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