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I’m generally hesitant to review woodworking books for several reasons, one good one being that books are written by people (at least I assume that they are), and people sometimes get offended. Of course being the sensitive, empathetic guy that I am, I try not to offend. In this case, however, the book I am reviewing is/was written by a person who has passed away, so I don’t think I can hurt his feelings in that regard one way or the other.
So being inspired by a book review that Greg Merritt just published, I’ve decided to give you a very brief review of The Woodworker: The Charles H Hayward Years, Volume I, which is being offered by Lost Art Press.
Let’s start out by saying that this book is a very nice looking book. That is an understatement. It is perhaps the most attractive woodworking book I’ve ever seen. If you happen to be a woodworker like me, and you’ve happened to build a few bookcases for your house, you might want to have books such as this one sitting on the shelves of those bookcases simply because it looks a lot nicer than your wife’s collection of Janet Evanovich paperbacks. I’m not above a little pretention I will freely admit. Having this book on my bookshelf happens to make me look smarter to the casual observer, and when you have the tattoos that I have it’s definitely a good thing to have something to counterbalance some of the more uncouth parts of my appearance.
For those of you who may not be aware, Hayward wrote for The Woodworker magazine, and this volume is a collection of his articles (this particular volume focusing on tool related articles). As far as the content of the book is concerned, I have scanned through the entire volume and read approximately three quarters of it. Happily, the drawings and photos in the book look great, which is a good thing, because often times scans taken from older sources don’t always look so hot. The book is also well organized in the sense that the sharpening, planes, saws articles etc. are grouped together in an easy to read format. Another nice surprise is the fact that Hayward is easy to read. Much of his stuff was written from the late 1930’s to the 1960’s, and while that is hardly the stone age, there is certainly a generation gap there. So in that regard this volume is as easy to read (in the sense of language/semantics) as anything currently written about woodworking. More importantly, this is a reference book first and foremost, and meant to be used as such. I would even go as far as considering it a woodworking encyclopedia of sorts.
As far as the actual content is concerned, here is my opinion: If you have subscribed to woodworking magazines, read a lot of woodworking books, or both, there is likely a lot of information here that you have seen elsewhere. Conversely, there is also some stuff that I’ve never seen in print before, such as several very good saw-sharpening articles, and an article about the Record 050 combo plane (that one really resonated because I was just given one not so long ago). I understand that I am trivializing it, but I’m also not trying to review hundreds of pages word by word. There are dozens of articles on individual tools and their maintenance and use, it would be too time consuming (and boring) to go through them all and tell you exactly what I think about each. Suffice it to say, there are many things that I would agree with Hayward on, and a few that I do not. For instance, Hayward apparently is a big fan of hollow grinding his plane irons and chisels, I am not for the most part. That being said, he presents a nice article on how to hollow grind while using a self-cranked bench stone that I found very interesting. But that is why we read, isn’t it? To learn to think for ourselves.
All in all, I highly recommend this book, not only as a boatload of woodworking knowledge wrapped up in a small package, but also as a historical record. Under $50 for hundreds of woodworking articles is pretty nice price anywhere. As I said earlier, this also happens to be one of the nicest looking woodworking books I’ve ever come across, and if nothing else it looks really great on my bookshelf. And if you don’t think that is important, you’ve never met my wife.
I spent the past ten minutes defending my position on “anarchy” to a commenter that didn’t happen to agree with what I had to say on a book review. Don’t get me wrong, the comment wasn’t mean spirited or condescending, at least I don’t think it was, but rather it was just a simple disagreement. I put some thought in my answer, as it was obvious that the commenter took time out of his day to read my review of The Anarchists Tool Chest and write a response to it. I felt that I owed it to him (or her) to reply with some thoughtfulness.
Anyway, the real reason I noticed the comment was because I happened to be checking out ‘Campaign Furniture’ from Lost Art Press and considering whether or not I should purchase it. I was hoping to find a review or two of the book just to see what they had to say. I generally don’t put a lot of stock into book reviews because books are so subjective; ten people can all read the same book and will offer ten different opinions on it. However, because woodworking is a much more specific/polarizing topic, I find that woodworking book reviews can sometimes be helpful if you happen to find that right person/people to objectively write them. In my brief search I didn’t come up with anything, but that may not matter all that much for the time being.
The truth is that I’m a sucker for woodworking books; good, bad, or indifferent. I generally like them all, even the books that I hate, because most of them give me ideas in some way, shape, or form. I’ve purchased four books from Lost Art Press and I’ve mostly enjoyed each of them. Furthermore. I really like the actual books themselves, which are well made and happen to look nice sitting on a book shelf. At the same time, like many of the woodworking Anarchists of the world are supposedly doing, I too am trying to eliminate my credit card bills. I’m not doing it because I’m on some crusade, but because like most people I would like to be debt free at some point in my life. Though the book isn’t what I would call expensive, it would mean using a credit card to purchase it. Even with the siren song of ‘free shipping’ luring me to purchase (and I’m a sucker for free shipping-a contentious subject among the Anarchist heirarchy), I may just have to hold out until my credit card is paid in full, which probably won’t be until the end of the summer.
Either way I’m still on the fence. I don’t have strong feelings on campaign style furniture one way or another. I don’t plan on making any in the near future, if for any other reason than I can’t afford the woods to make it with. For me, I’m much more interested in the campaigns that the furniture happened to go on. Still, it is a woodworking book, and from what I can tell it’s a nice looking one, both inside and out. As much as people have somehow come to the conclusion that I am at odds with Christopher Schwarz (I’m not), if I am purchasing a woodworking book I would like it to be from his company, as I know that I am least getting a well made product. So I might bite the bullet and order the sucker, or maybe I’ll just rent Ghandi.
Last week I received my copy of By Hand & Eye from Lost Art Press. I’ve just about finished reading it and something has compelled me to comment on it. The book is co-authored by George Walker and Jim Tolpin. Because this book is a text book more than anything else, it is not easy to review, nor is it easy to judge after just one look. My first impression is that it is a very good book. It is the first “new” woodworking book that really has made me think since Christopher Schwarz’s first workbench book. That isn’t to say that the woodworking books I’ve read in the meanwhile haven’t been good, or even just okay. I try to take just a little bit from everything I read. By Hand & Eye is more than just a little bit of information and tidbits; it is a guideline on learning the art of furniture design. I won’t go as far as calling it a crash course, because it is not. This isn’t the type of book you read once and put it back on your shelf for a few years. This book is a book to be referred to, this book is the book you take out when you are working on your next sketch.
Before I go on, I am compelled to say this, though very reluctantly. Jim Tolpin is one of the authors of By Hand & Eye. I have two other books of his and I didn’t particularly care for them all that much. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy what he did here, I did. In fact, a section of the book, which I believe was written by Tolpin, that explains using a sector in conjunction with dividers was the clearest and most concise writing I’ve ever seen on that particular topic. But the fact of the matter is there is something about Tolpin’s writing that rubs me the wrong way. Before I continue, let me be clear and state that this is in no way a personal attack of Jim Tolpin; his accomplishments speak for themselves. At that, his accomplishments may be the very reason that he rubs me the wrong way, and that is because in every article/book I’ve ever read of his, it seems to me that he loves to just throw his resume’ out there for no apparent reason. I can’t seem to figure out why he feels the need to do this. I’ll be the first to admit that I like to brag a little bit; just about all of us do on some level. We may brag by posting a photo of a project we’ve just completed, or something we are still in the process of building. In the last sections of By Hand & Eye, there are several projects by Tolpin highlighted, and rather than just letting them and their proportions do the story telling, Tolpin feels the need to point out why those projects that he built “by hand” are so fabulous. And this part I only say to be completely forthright, but the projects highlighted in the book, while all very nice, are nothing special.
Before I finish, I would like to point out that Jim Tolpin is a far, far more accomplished woodworker than I will ever be. He’s written more than a dozen woodworking books, runs a successful woodworking school, and has made a living being a top notch craftsman for years. I don’t feel “right” criticizing what he’s done, but I am doing it out of total honesty. Does this make me a jerk? Perhaps, but I am an honest jerk. As far as By Hand & Eye is concerned, would I recommend it? I would, in fact I would highly recommend it. I’ll take that a step further: if you are a woodworker who is interested in designing furniture, or you are a woodworker who is simply wondering how and why furniture was and is designed, I would tell you to stop what you are doing, go over to the Lost Art Press web page, and order this book immediately. For under $35 you are getting a highly informative book that also happens to be really well made and look great. I can’t say enough good things about the title.
In other news, I just finished spending the last of my guilt-free tool money. I picked up a new Starrett 6″ combination square, a new set of dividers to replace my old beat up ones (partially because I was inspired by the book), a new rasp, a new saw file, and the hinges for my blanket chest. I purchased the items from both Lee Valley and Traditional Woodworker. I spent around $175 including shipping, but I picked up some high quality tools that I really could use. In that sense, it feels good to spend the money on items I know are useful, as well as top quality. The construction phase of my chest should be completed on Sunday morning. After that, I have to convince my wife to help me do the finishing work. So all in all, it’s been a good year of woodworking.
At long last I picked up some of the stock for my next project: a storage chest. I picked up the material for the legs and part of the stock for the case sides. At the lumberyard, I inquired about some wide planks, sixteen to twenty inches, and I was told that they didn’t have any in stock, but that I would get a phone call if some became available. Because I am neither a professional woodworker or carpenter, I don’t have dealings with a lumberyard on a regular basis, so I’m not sure if that phone call will ever come. In any event, they did have twenty-inch wide edge glued panels in stock, and because this chest is somewhat of an experiment, that is what I purchased. The stuff is nice and flat, and also clear. I’m not sure how well it would stain, however. My wife believes that I should wait until it’s completed to decide on the finish. That may be a good idea, but I’m not too keen on staining an edge glued panel, clear or no. I have an idea that the grain patterns will be muddled, though maybe gel stain could correct that problem at least somewhat.
In other news, along with just finishing up Salem’s Lot, I’ve been reading through two woodworking books that I recently purchased from Amazon: Making & Mastering Wood Planes by David Finck, and Tool-Making Projects for Joinery and Woodworking by Steve A Olesin. Though I’m not sold on making my own tools (as an amateur woodworker) just yet, the topic has intrigued me somewhat, especially the making of wood planes. Thus far, I’ve completed three wood planes; two were from kits and one I made from scratch. I’ve found out a few things during those projects: I enjoyed making the planes; a decent woodworker can make a serviceable plane at home, and making a truly world class plane is not easy. The last one bothered me for a moment or two, but then I realized that as long as the plane works then it really doesn’t matter all that much. Of course I would love to be able to make a plane/work of art or two. But at the moment I don’t have the tools or the time to dedicate to it, not to mention the fact that there is quite a bit of furniture that I would like to make in the meanwhile. Still, a shoulder plane featured in the book by Steve Olesin really caught my eye, and I can see myself making an attempt at it once my first chest project is finished.
While we’re on the subject of books, I’ve said before that I’ve yet to read a woodworking book that really blew me away. I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no such book. While I do enjoy reading woodworking books the majority of the time, I know that like in music, theory can only take you so far. That being said, much of what I do know about woodworking I first learned by reading a book or two. It is good practice, especially for a guy like me who only gets to woodwork a few times a month. I’ve considered two books for future purchase, both from Lost Art Press: By Hand & Eye, which is a furniture design book, and To Make as Perfectly as Possible, which is a translation of the 18th century masterwork by famed French woodworker, Andre Roubo. A book on design sounds interesting because I prefer to design my own furniture, or at least take tried and true designs and make them my own. The Roubo book I’m still not really sold on, at least as a woodworking book. I’m sure that there is good information in it, but for me it would serve more as a history text than an instructional one. In any event, the Lost Art Press books are such good quality/nice looking books that it is difficult not to purchase them just for that reason alone.
So I am still in the hunt for a paradigm altering woodworking text, though like I said, I really don’t believe that one exists. In my opinion, woodworking is finite mathematics, and the toughest equations have already been solved, and more importantly those equations cannot and need not be altered any further. That is why I believe that the classic furniture styles: Queen Anne, Federal, Shaker, and Arts and Crafts among others, have endured for such a long time; they don’t need any changing. Of course there is modern furniture, or contemporary as it is sometimes known. Well I don’t care for contemporary furniture, not even a little. I’ve seen wood furniture made to resemble rubber, or plastic, or built into shapes that bring to mind lego blocks. I cannot wrap my mind around taking the natural beauty of wood, which most woodworkers are trying to highlight, and trying to make it look like something else. That in a nutshell is why I believe that there aren’t any woodworking classics waiting to be written; they already have been!
I purchase woodworking books as reference points, and hopefully to pick up a trick or two, but I’ve found that really and truly learning to become a better woodworker only begins in the books. Trying to copy the old styles has been a key for me. Just like making a plane has helped me understand how they really work, trying to make Arts & Crafts furniture designs of my own has helped me become a better furniture maker. The A & C style came to it’s pinnacle probably a century ago, and that is all I really need to know. That book has already been written, I just need to keep on reading it.
My lower back was acting up this weekend. It hasn’t acted up in a while and during that time I was happy. This past weekend was a different story, and I knew that anything remotely strenous I did would have sent me over the edge into the magical land of back spasms. This left me in somewhat of a sticky situation. My second table was just about finished, and I knew that whatever I did I wanted it ready to be stained on Sunday morning. So I took a chance and decided to finish the work and hope for the best.
I started by making the drawer. It was a simple task and finished quickly, as I had the parts cut already and it only needed to be assembled. I built it in the same fashion as the drawer for the first table, with cut nails and glue. The hard part, as usual, was fitting the kickers for the drawer. I had to plane each down, first with the Jack plane and then the smooth plane, in order to get the fit I wanted. That is easier typed than done. It took around twenty minutes to get it right, which is a lot of planing and fitting and planing and fitting. I can also proudly say that I ended up with two pretty nice and dimensionally even boards. I checked my work with a combination square and found a nice flat surface. I attached them to the table with glue and clamps. I then sawed some cleats to be used for attaching the table top. I drilled the pilot holes and counter sink holes with a hand drill, but once it came to actually attaching them to the table I used glue and my little cordless Dewalt. It was a two-hand operation so the little eggbeater wasn’t an option. While the glue was drying I sanded the outside of the drawer box. I very nearly made a big no-no and planed it with the smooth plane until it dawned on me that the drawer was nailed and not dovetailed. The last thing I wanted to do was introduce my plane iron to a cut nail. Cut nails have no place meeting plane irons; they should just stay in their own neighborhoods where they belong.
So while the glue was drying I also did a little work on the top. I planed the edges with the smooth plane for finish and also took a few very light passes on the top just for good measure, so it came as no surprise when I left a plane track. It was very minor, but rather than try to plane it out I used a random orbit sander to knock it down. Once I had the top finished I removed the clamps and waxed the runners and kickers, and also the drawer sides, as they wont be finished with a stain. The drawer opens slickly with no rocking or sticking, like a banana peel over greased ice. In fact, it was almost too slick, because when I picked it up to bring it into the yard I tilted the table a bit and the drawer nearly flew out and popped me in the face. So with the slick drawer finished I screwed in a stop point on the runners so the reveal would be the same as the sides. The difference between this table and my hall table is that the drawers aren’t supposed to be hidden, so I didn’t make a big effort to have the drawer sit and look just like one of the aprons. There is a gap on each side of the drawers for both tables, roughly 3/16th of an inch. I was shooting for 1/8 but I am satisfied because the drawer fronts took a bit of trimming to get them where I wanted. With all of that finished, I attached the top to the base using pocket screws in the cleats I had added. With that I was done. Both tables are finished now, though only one has a finish on it. I’m frustrated but there is nothing I can do. My shop time for the weekend was limited, and with my back already hurting I didn’t want to push anything. With rainy weather expected here for the next few days I am shooting for Friday to get the finish and poly applied and hopefully call these tables complete.
Last night, while resting my back, I decided to do a little woodworking reading. I’m sadly at the age where a book can’t have the profound influence it would if you had read it as a teenager. My days of reading A Catcher in the Rye, or the Great Gatsby, or anything by Hemingway and becoming inspired are gone. Not that I don’t love to read, I still read all the time, but it’s not the magical experience it used to be. I’ve yet to read a woodworking book that has really blown my mind. I’m hoping that book is out there somewhere, but I haven’t found it just yet. Most woodworking books don’t seem to offer a lot of new information. I’ve found that the content of most woodworking books has been repeated either in a different woodworking book or a magazine at some point, or vice versa. I still think they are valuable, but I usually start reading as a skeptic.
The book I was reading last night is The New Traditional Woodworker by Jim Tolpin. I’ve had the book for over a year and I actually did already read it. It may be the only woodworking book that made me angry after I read it. My anger wasn’t directed at the book, or the author, but at the reviewers of the book. Many big names in woodworking called it “An apprenticeship in a book” or “Must have addition to your woodworking library.” After reading the book I had to completely disagree with just about every review. Again, not because it was a bad book, but it wasn’t nearly the book it was made out to be. So last night I decided to give it another try, and came away with nearly the same conclusion I had after first reading it.
The book is billed as an introduction to hand tool work, in particular if you are a woodworker who is transitioning from power tools. Toplin first makes the claim that hand tool woodworking is much less expensive than power tool woodworking. That’s debatable, but okay. My only gripe with that statement is the nice color photo of Tolpin’s hand tool wall in his shop shown in the book, which shows easily $20,000 in tools. I don’t know about you, but if I had $20,000 I could set up a nice power tool shop with money to spare. That being said, I don’t want to make this about power tools vs hand tools. I’m through with that. Those of you who read this blog probably have noticed that I use handtools much more than the powered version. My table saw and possibly random orbit sander are probably the only power tools that see a significant amount of use in my shop. You’ve also probably noticed that every tool I’ve purchased over the past 10 months has been a hand tool. I say all of this just to point out that I’m not biased one way or the other. I am just trying to back up my statement, the same way Tolpin probably should have done when he made his tool cost claims.
I had one major problem with this book. The book has some very nice photos of Tolpin’s shop. In it Tolpin has a high-set joinery bench, and lower set planing/traditional bench, and an even lower assembly bench. If you’ve read my blog before you will know that I am a big advocate of such a set up, especially the assembly bench, which is something I would love to have considering my back situation. The benches all look great and seem to be well constructred. So what is the problem? There isn’t a plan for one of them in the book! Tolpin gives some rough dimensions for the benches but that’s about it. For a book billing itself as an introduction to hand tool woodworking and setting up a hand tool shop it needs those plans. Maybe the author assumes that the reader already possesses basic knowledge of bench design if he/she is reading a hand tool book. If that is the case I think it’s a big assumption to make.
The only other real gripe I have with the book is the section on tools. There are nice color photos of a large assortment of woodworking handtools, from saws to chisels, to planes. Each section has a description of each tool and what it’s used for. That is fine but there are precious few photos of the tools in action. I would have liked to see more photos of the joinery associated with each tool. You can get nice color photos and explanations of what a tool does in any decent tool catalog for free. Another area where the book falls a little short is in the sharpening section. There are six pages dedicated to sharpening, about half photos and half text. The explanations of the sharpening techniques shown just aren’t concise enough. I have a book dedicated solely to sharpening; maybe a lot of woodworkers do. Again, perhaps the author assumes that as a person interested in hand tools will automatically have some type of sharpening system in mind. Another big assumption to make if that is true. Sharpening may be the most important skill a hand tool user needs to obtain, but it is glossed over a little too quickly for my taste.
Though I have some complaints with the book it also has some good points. The projects section is excellent. There are several shop projects designed to be made by hand including a face planing stop, a nice pair of bench hooks, and an edge planing stop. These would all be very useful shop additions as well as projects that most beginners could complete fairly painlessly. Another nice shop project is the pair of sawbenches that Toplin uses. They are well designed to be used in conjuction for ripping, the first set of it’s kind that I’ve seen. Also included, among other projects, is a saw sharpening vice and a small tool tote. I think of everything in the book the projects section is the most thought out and worthwhile.
Overall I can’t call this book a must read, but I wouldn’t call it worthless either. In my opinion, the descriptions of the tools are for the absolute beginner, and yet the book assumes that a beginning woodworker has no need for workbench plans of any kind, especially when the benches shown all seem to be excellent. That and the lack of action photos knock one star and a half off of this book. Still, the projects section makes up for some of the lacking chapters. My advice for a new woodworker reading this book would be to pick up the Lee Valley woodworking catalog and read through that, and then go on to the projects in The New Traditional Woodworker. Of everything, they make this book worth owning.
I think that nearly all woodworkers share a love of trees on some level. Though I grew up in inner city Philadelphia, I was lucky in the sense that I was not far from Fairmount Park and the banks of the Schuylkill River which did and does have some beautiful parks and trees. Even better for me was the small piece of land that my dad and uncle owned in western Pennsylvania that they used for hunting. In between the large cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburg, Pennsylvania is very much a rural state with vast farmlands and large state owned forests. When I was a boy I would go with my dad and spend a few weekends a month living in a small cabin in the woods. I knew little about trees then, save that some were evergreen and some lost their leaves in the fall. But it was enough for me to be surrounded by them that I knew that I enjoyed trees and had a respect for them. Now, I am lucky in that I live more than 30 miles outside of Philadelphia in a small town where everybody has trees in their yards and most of the streets are lined with them. Even better, I am just a short car ride away from several large state parks, including Valley Forge and French Creek, where you can take a real walk “through the woods”. Even better still, my wife’s parents own a fairly large piece of land in the mountains of upstate Pennsylvania with countless thousands of trees. Everytime we go to visit I can spend hours just walking the grounds and trying to indentify the different trees that cover the landscape. Though I’m hardly an expert, I’ve gotten better, but it’s always bothered me as a woodworker that I don’t know more when it comes to picking out trees.
My in-laws land alone is probably home to 100,000 trees or more, and that doesn’t include the many miles in each direction surrounding the property. You don’t have to look far to find Oak, Maple, Pine, Cherry, Ash, Walnut, Shagbark Hickory, Birch, and Apple among others on the land. I’ve come to know them mainly by their leaves, though I feel that a woodworker should be able to identify a tree also by its shape and bark. Some of the woodworking books I own show photos of sawn boards of different species of woods used in furniture making. They also may contain brief descriptions of their characteristics and workablility. But such a broad topic isn’t easy to condense into just a few pages. So when Christian Becksvoort’s book <em>With the Grain: a Craftsman’s Guide to Understanding Wood was released for purchase I ordered a copy that arrived a few days ago. I feel that in order to grow as a woodworker I should at least have a basic knowledge of the resource that my hobby depends on. So for the past few days I’ve been looking over the book and so far have really liked what I found.
With the Grain focuses on North American trees used for furniture making and is basically broken up into 5 sections: Anatomy, Identification, Management, Sawing, and Working with the finished boards. The anatomy section deals with the make-up of a tree, how it lives and grows. The identification section uses silhouette images and drawings of leaves, twigs, and fruit to use as guides for indentifying common North American furniture trees. The management section deals with the growing and harvesting of trees for use as a woodworking resource. The sawing section examines the different types of saw cuts used to turn trees into boards and how and where those boards are used in making furniture. The final section deals with the joinery used and the reasonings behind it when making furniture.
With the Grain does contain charts detailing moisture content and specific gravity and density and other scientific data, but it isn’t overloaded with them. In my opinion, it is in basic terms a true woodworkers guide to trees and wood. While the science of tree growth is certainly an interesting topic, as a woodworker I am more concerned with understanding and selecting the best material for the furniture; With the Grain is a great resource in that aspect. My favorite section is the chapter on identifying trees using their silhouette and leaves. Thirty furniture trees are listed in order from simple to complex structure with descriptions of the tree, where it grows in North America, and how it is used in the woodworking sense. In less than an hour I learned more about tree indentification, grain patterns, and practical wood usage than I have in more than three years of woodworking. The book would even be a great resource to bring along if you happen to be taking a stroll through the woods, and I can already see myself doing that on my next trip upstate. The only thing missing for me was a map of North America highlighting where each tree may be found. Though that part isn’t necessarily important in the woodworking sense it would have been nice just for general knowledge. The book even looks great, is hardbound, and easy to read.
All in all this is an easy book to recommend for all woodworkers, both rookie and veteran. It contains a good deal of easy to digest information and is a great resource for quickly and easily learning about trees and how they are turned into a resource for making furniture. You don’t need to be a botanist or a dendrologist (.25 cent word time) to appreciate this book. With the Grain is written by a woodworker for woodworkers, and will help any woodworker better understand the medium that we work in.