The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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Old ways of working wood


Last month I needed to order a few items from Amazon.com. My order total fell just a bit short of free freight, so I added Alex Bealer’s book ‘Old Ways of Working Wood’ to the list, which only cost me around $2.00 after taking into account the deletion of the freight charge. The book sat untouched since it arrived, but a mild bout of insomnia on Saturday night led me to pick up the book and read it, which I did in one sitting-almost cover to cover. As far as woodworking books go, it was okay. I’ve read better, and worse. But something did surprise me, or rather, something didn’t surprise me.

‘Old Ways..’ was published in 1980 I believe. In literary terms, thirty-four years is hardly a long time, but it was written by a member of the G.I. generation. So we do at least have a perspective which is 3 generations removed from today. With that being said, Bealer’s views on hand tool/traditional woodworking are very similar to quite a few acclaimed new books that I’ve read over the past couple years. In fact, you could say that those books are almost identical to Bealer’s work. The message in ‘Old Ways’ is no different than in several “must read books that blew me away!” Here is the truth: There is no new woodworking information, it’s all been said before many, many times. While furniture may change in style, the way it is built has not really changed in hundreds of years. We, as woodworkers, are using the same joinery and virtually the same tools that have been used since the 17th century. The moral: There are no new woodworking books, and there haven’t been in a long time.

Would I recommend Bealer’s book? Not really. It’s not bad, but I liked Roy Underhill’s ‘ The Woodwright’s Guide: Working wood with wedge and edge’ much better, and both generally contain the same information; Underhill’s book was more fun to read. As far as woodworking books are concerned, I don’t know if I can see myself purchasing another new technique book. The older books are generally less expensive, and contain the same, if not better, information. While I’m all for supporting new authors, I do expect at least some new information, not information that has been rehashed over and over again for more than three hundred years. So while my “discovery” was hardly shocking, it did leave make me wonder about the future of woodworking books, as in, how many times am I going to read the same old thing in every new book?

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7 Comments

  1. reinis says:

    One could make the same observation about numerous things. E.g. algebra, calculus, geometry, etc. have been around for centuries, yet there are new books written.

    • billlattpa says:

      I can live with new titles for any field of study, as long as the books are an improvement on the subject, not just the same information written the same way it has been hundreds of times over. Thanks.
      Bill

  2. gman3555 says:

    True…new information is rare. What to be on the lookout for is how that information if presented. Some are more clear than others and some are more entertaining to boot. I actually enjoy the older books. The point of view is untainted by the modern mode of thinking.

    Of course I’ll buy just about anything Lost Art Press puts out. Their books tick all the boxes for me. Great information presented in a quality product.

    Greg

    • dzj9 says:

      Yes, they put out interesting products. But it’s translations, reprints, re-branding…

    • billlattpa says:

      I’ve found that I like the older books as well-I enjoy the “language” they are written in. I like the Lost Art Press books firstly because of how they are made and how they look. At that, two of my favorites: With the Grain, and The Joiner and Cabinetmaker, are both reprints of older books.
      As far as new woodworking books I’ve read-technique books that is-Christopher Schwarz’s first workbench book was really good in that it presented some old ways of bench making in a new way. Another good one from LAP was By Hand and Eye.
      I’ll give LAP credit for understanding that a lot of the best information is already out there and has already been done at a high level. They are at least smart enough to understand that they don’t need to reinvent the wheel.
      Thanks.
      Bill

  3. Andrew says:

    Most literary work is derivative at some level – including how to stuff. I can tolerate the rehash only if it brings something new. A new design, a new perspective, or at least something with a little humor.

    • billlattpa says:

      If it’s enjoyable to read them I’m fine with it. For instance-I liked Roy Underhill’s last book, which was basically a reprinting/rehashing of some of his older material, and much like an Eric Sloane book. But the book was enjoyable to read. As far as Bealer’s book, I’ve seen at least half a dozen new books echo his thoughts almost word for word, something one of my English teachers would have yelled at me for “copying from the textbook”. I even grabbed one of my books to compare the two.
      It’s not even so much that newer books are basically echoing older books, it’s the fact that there are many out there who think that some of these new books are ground breaking, when in fact they’ve been repeated many times over.
      Thanks.
      Bill

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