Book Review: The Woodworker, The Charles H. Hayward Years. 3 vols.

High above my workbench, I keep the back-issues of a woodworking magazine I subscribe to.  It takes up about 8″ of shelf space, but it grows by a fraction of an inch as a new issue arrives each month.  Eventually I’ll have to cull the pile, saving issues with articles that I will want to reread and throwing out the rest.  Wouldn’t it be nice if somebody took the time to compile the really good articles, especially the ones covering essential tools and techniques, and reprinted them in a bound book?

That is exactly what Christopher Schwarz & co. at Lost Art Press have done with The Woodworker, a magazine published in Britain and edited by Charles H. Hayward from 1939 to 1967.

Hayward Book Set

I first met Hayward’s work back in my graduate school days.  When it came to woodworking, I was both ignorant and broke, so at the end of one school year I used some of my remaining printer pages to print out a bunch of old woodworking books, including Charles Hayward’s How to Make Woodwork Tools, from various archive websites.  I three-hole punched them and put them in binders.  It wasn’t an elegant solution, but it was the only affordable way to hold these classic books in my hands.

Now the bulk of Hayward’s work is available bound in these finely printed books.  These three volumes contain over 1,100 pages of instruction and information on woodworking, focusing almost exclusively on hand-work.  A fourth volume is coming out in February, and it will cover shop equipment and furniture styles.  Volume four will add over 300 more pages to the set, bringing the total number of pages to 1,500.  (The pages are numbered continuously across volumes.)   The set retails at $37-$45 per volume, though I expect that you’ll be able to order all four as a set once they’re all in print.  You can order them individually from the publisher here.

The volumes are organized by topic, although the fact that they are made up of hundreds of self-contained magazine articles means that the organization is somewhat loose.  Here’s what you can expect in each volume:

Volume 1: Tools

This volume of about 450 pages includes articles on sharpening, marking tools (such as squares and marking gauges), chisels, hand planes (both metal and wooden), and hand saws.  There are also short sections on turning and veneering.  The volume also includes articles on basic techniques like planing and sawing, as well as a number of articles on relief carving and letter carving.  The articles describe the notable characteristics of well-made tools, as well as typical modifications and repairs.

Hayward The Woodworker v1

The sheer scope of the information in volume 1 is overwhelming, though this volume is perhaps the most repetitive of the set.  If you’re already familiar and comfortable with your basic tool kit, you could skip this volume.  But I don’t recommend doing that.  There is enough detailed information here on effective tool use that it’s well worth the sticker price.

Volume 2: Techniques

In this volume of over 400 pages, there are articles describing a wide range of hand tool techniques that a well-equipped woodworker should know.  It covers everything from shooting board techniques and creative clamp use to drawer and door construction, moldings, and cabriole legs.  Want to know how cut a stopped rabbet?  It’s here.  How to fit a door?  It’s here too.  How to affix a table top to its base?  Yep, it’s here.  Which nails to use for which job?  That’s also covered.  Plowing a curved groove for inlay?  That, too.

Hayward The Woodworker v2

In volume 2, the superb illustrations alone are worth the cover price.  The articles are very well written and instructive, but you can learn a whole lot just by looking at the charts and illustrations.  I enjoyed just flipping through the volume and reading anything that caught my eye.  Just now, I happened upon instructions for making a replacement handle for a socket chisel without using a lathe.  It immediately solved a problem for me that I had always struggled with before.  Now why didn’t I think of doing it that way?!?  (No, I’m not going to tell you what it is.  Go buy the book yourself.  You cheapskate.)

Volume 3: Joinery

This volume contains nearly everything from the popular but long-out-of-print book Woodworking Joints by Charles Hayward.  According to the publisher, however, this is much more than just a reprint.  It not only contains virtually everything that the original Woodworking Joints book included, but also includes many other articles that were never reprinted.  The articles cover edge joints, mortise-and-tenon, rabbets and dadoes, lap and bridle joints, miters of all kinds, and of course dovetails.  I never knew there were so many variations on the lap joint.

Hayward The Woodworker v3

As with volume 2, you can learn a lot from volume 3 just by looking at the illustrations.  But don’t skip the articles themselves.  Every article has helpful tips that make hand work simpler and warn you away from common pitfalls.  Although this is by far the slimmest of the volumes (only about 270 pages), it is perhaps the most packed with information.  Solid joinery is a cornerstone of woodworking, but it is often the thing that hobby woodworkers struggle with the most.  If you are going to buy just one volume of the set, this is the one to get.

Every good book should have little surprises that reward the reader, and The Woodworker is no exception.  The editors not only include quite a few period advertisements, but they also reprint many of the original magazine headings, complete with volume numbers, issue numbers, dates, and decorative illustrations.

I have two cautions for readers just delving into these books.  First, remember that the period photography is often grainy and of little help in illustrating the articles.  Our woodworking magazines have accustomed us to sharp, close-up photography, but don’t expect that here.  What we get instead more than makes up for it.  The pages are covered with Hayward’s own crystal-clear line drawings, as well as numerous charts and illustrations.  On balance, I much prefer illustrations to even the best photographs when it comes to learning techniques from a book.

Second, because the volumes cover nearly thirty years of publication, there is a good deal of repetition early on.  In volume 1, for example, there are about ten different articles on sharpening chisels and plane irons, all of them saying much the same thing.  After a while, I began to wish that the editors had left a few of the more repetitive articles out.  These books are not intended to be read through from cover to cover, but to be browsed and sampled over months and (I expect) years.

Hayward Book Set

Also, I must say that the organization does not always make sense to me.  On a large scale, the articles are sorted into separate, topical volumes.  But on a closer look, some of the organization seems haphazard.  For example, letter-carving is covered in volume one, Tools, whereas the articles on assembling basic tool kits are in volume two, Techniques.  The tables of contents in both books is titled “Tools and Techniques.”  Perhaps there was no perfect way to organize such a mountain of information into a reference encyclopedia, and since the volumes are available for sale individually, it makes some sense that the information be spread out across volumes.  But it makes it difficult to use these as reference books.

I love the historical perspective that these volumes give me.  Woodworking in Britain changed more slowly than it did in America, especially after WWII, and while power tools do appear in the books, it is assumed that most work will still be done by hand.  The articles on sharpening indicate that most woodworkers did not even own a bench grinder–a situation I was in for many years.  Unlike a lot of writers in today’s woodworking magazine, these authors do not assume that every reader will have a wide array of well-tuned power tools and accessories.  Instead, they frequently give instructions for effective work-arounds.  There are whole articles in volume 2 on what to do when you don’t have a standard tool and can’t just go out and buy it.

As a professional teacher of writing, I especially appreciate the authors’ clear, direct writing style.  You won’t stumble over vague, cumbersome sentences when trying to understand a technique the author is describing.  There are a few new vocabulary words to learn (e.g. what we call “clamps,” the Brits call “cramps”), but the writing is exactly like the tools and joinery it describes: straightforward, robust, and effective.

When asked for a one-volume introduction to hand tools, I will continue to recommend Chris Schwarz’s The Anarchist’s Tool Chest, but when asked for a comprehensive guide to woodworking with hand tools, I will be recommending The Woodworker: The Charles H. Hayward Years.  

Volumes 1 & 2

Volume 3

Volume 4

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