The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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On Woodworking Books.

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I made a rare visit  to the doctor’s office this past week. It was nothing serious, yet at the same time it was enough to get me to go to a doctor’s office. Either way, while in the midst of the prerequisite second waiting period, I relieved the boredom by looking at some of the posters hanging on the walls in the examination room and I noticed that all of them contained many photos. Considering that most posters are just large photos this was hardly mind blowing, but the content of the photos is the compelling factor.

While in that waiting room it occurred to me that medicine is very much a visual art. Of course you can call a medical doctor with a description of symptoms and they can probably come close or even very close to the mark in regards to a diagnosis, but a visual examination is generally far more precise. And this little revelation led me to write this post.

Not 20 minutes ago I was going through a few woodworking books doing some research for what I hope is an upcoming project. To be forthright, I have a love/hate relationship with woodworking books. Currently, I count 37 books dedicated to woodworking on my bookshelves (I had more at one point but donated quite a few to the local library) and I have an issue with most. That doesn’t mean I don’t like them, it just means that just as we are all imperfect, so too are all of those books. And their biggest source of imperfection is the lack of photos.

Woodworking is a visual art, and woodworking books have too many words, and that is the problem with nearly every woodworking book ever written. A photograph in a woodworking book is worth a chapter of written description. In fact, I believe the ratio of photos to pages should be a minimum of 1 to 1. It’s simple really; trying to describe the process of building furniture using words borders on stupidity. It doesn’t work.  I read the instructions for attaching a lid to a chest and I honestly wanted to burn the book…yeah, I am not kidding. And this is not made up, I picked up my cell phone and watched Paul Sellers attach a lid to a chest and any confusion was instantly gone. Have I attached lids to chests before? Sure. That isn’t the point. The point is I paid money for an “instructional” book that somehow complicated the extremely simple act of attaching a lid to a chest.

Maybe you can blame it on bad writing, or maybe attaching a lid to a chest is something that really cannot be described in words; I don’t know, but I do know that there was not one freaking photo of the process on those 2 pages; not one….And a photo would have been a hell of a lot more clear than 4 paragraphs of nonsense.

And perhaps the worst part is that it gets worse. Read a description of sawing dovetails, or creating complex angles, or maybe worst of all: sharpening…I can almost guarantee that if  you were not confused it will make you so. And now I know why I haven’t purchased a woodworking book in years.

For the record, I am hardly an anti-intellectual. I love reading, and I am at this very moment surrounded by many hundreds of books, all of which I’ve read, some of which I’ve read multiple times, and most of which I’ve loved to the point that they have become part of my lexicon. But of the 30+ woodworking books currently sitting on the shelves of my little library, I can count on one hand the number of them which consider “keepers”.

Why the vitriol? After all, they’re just books. Well, for the first time in more than 6 months I have considered making full-sized furniture again. And when I went to those books to find inspiration I found myself not energized but frustrated; I found myself remembering why I stopped blogging about woodworking. And it made me realize that it’s about time to take all but a handful of those books and throw them in the donation bin at our library. Then again, in doing that I may be doing nothing more than contributing to the frustration of other woodworkers in the area, and that is the last thing I want to do.

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5 Comments

  1. Quite on point. The worst are the old woodworking books, I could never make any sense of anything written before the 20th century. We live in the instructional video age, and for the better! Maybe we are still waiting for the right medium that will be able to consolidate written words and videos and images into something which is not a… erm… web page. 🙂

    • billlattpa says:

      I’ve felt for a long time that most woodworking books are far too wordy. It really came into focus while I was waiting in a doctor’s office and noticing that the medical field, a profession which obviously requires a great amount of both theoretical and practical study, uses photos as one of the main resources in diagnosis. Or to put it in woodworking terms, you can spend several pages worth of writing trying to explain a mortise and tenon joint, or you can show a photograph of it and it becomes far more clear.
      I think I said in the post that the ratio of photos to pages in a woodworking book should be 1 to 1. I believe that should be the bare minimum.
      Of course, a photo without a proper description can be just as worthless as having no photograph at all. But, I feel that verbiage in a woodworking book should serve as a supplement to the photos, not the other way around.
      On another note, just this morning I deposited 9 woodworking books into the local book donation bin. At the least I am hoping they may inspire somebody to take up woodworking. And who knows, maybe somebody else will find them more useful than I did.
      Thanks!
      Bill

  2. Sylvain says:

    I have known craftsman who said “you have to steal [the tricks] with your eyes (while you pretend to swipe the workshop floor).”

    Video are nice but tend to show what happens at the cutting edge of the tool. “You don’t see the all picture”. how to stand, how to hold the tool etc.

    Sometimes you need experience to understand what the author intended to say even if your experience might be different then what the author explains.
    I remember going to a WordPerfect course (in the 90’s) without text processing experience; it was not very effective but a second course was much more interesting after some practice

    Theoretical knowledge (video included) will never replace hands on training and practice.

    I suppose a book with lots of pictures is still much more costly to produce then text (in old books pictures, if any, were produced by engraving which were sometime all at the end of the book).

    And a good craftsman does not automatically makes a good teacher. Sometimes you have to use a few different approaches to convey a concept.
    Sylvain

    • billlattpa says:

      I mentioned in another reply that as far as woodworking books are concerned, the written portion of the book should serve as a supplement to the photographs and not the other way around, at least in my opinion.
      That being said, photos do need to be explained properly otherwise they are worthless. But to me a good woodworking book has two functions: explaining theory (the joinery for the most part, but sharpening, wood movement, etc.), and if it is a project book, demonstrating the steps for making a specific piece of furniture. In either case, I believe that clear photographs accompanied by a concise description is far more helpful than long winded descriptions without any visual context.
      I feel that most woodworking writers should subscribe to what I call the Scottish School of Writing: which is explanation in as few words as possible.
      Thanks!
      Bill

  3. Ellustar says:

    Reblogged this on SEO.

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