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?