Get Woodworking with the Classics

So if you’ve decided that you want to pursue learning how to work with wood with hand tools, one of the best recommendations I can make to you is to study the classics. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the books on the subject put out by contemporary authors. However, even if the book is all about working with hand tools, most of the more modern books (like those written in the last 50 years or so) still have some obvious power tool influence. The problem with this, as I see it, for woodworkers that really want to learn to do things primarily by hand, is that some operations described in the contemporary works on the subject are approached as if the person was using machines, even though they aren’t. This can be very misleading to those who have not studied older texts and older woodwork, and often leads to the assumoption that hand tools are slow and inefficient. This is simply not true when traditional methods and techniques are understood and employed.

This is where studying the classic texts and period furniture and other woodwork really become important for someone wanting to really be able to work efficiently with hand tools. The main difference with the older texts is that those authors didn’t have power tools to work with, so the methods they describe are all based solely on working traditionally with nothing more than a sharp hand tool. Similarly, the classic furniture of the 17th and 18th centuries, being built 100% with hand tools, is very telling of methods and thought processes employed while the maker was building the piece. Even if you have absolutely no interest in building period furniture yourself, studying the forms and the historical texts is a great way to understand the traditional processes. Once the tools and the methods and the joinery are understood in theory, it’s very easy to take those traditional methods and adapt them to a more contemporary furniture form, if that is more your taste. Going the other way, however, trying to take a machine operation or type of joinery designed around a machine, and adapt it to be done with hand tools, usually leads to frustration, confusion, and right back to the assumption that hand tools are slow and inefficient.

So to get you started, here are two great English sources for traditional trade knowledge:

Joseph Moxon, Mechanik Exercises…, published in the late 1600s. The 17th century English can be a little hard to get through if you aren’t used to reading it, but after working through the first dozen or two pages, you get used to it. This is one of the first, if not THE first English language book on the early tools and trades. One thing to pay attention to is how few tools are discussed in the section on joinery. It really gives one an appreciation for how much can be done with very few tools.

Peter Nicholson, The Mechanic’s Companion…, published in the early 1800s. This book has some similarities to Moxon’s book, and in fact it was based upon Moxon’s book. However, Nicholson goes into much more detail in many of the sections than Moxon did, and he also includes more tools and more information than Moxon did. This version is also a little easier to read if you have trouble with Moxon’s 17th century English. Nicholson’s English is much closer in dialect to modern English.

These two texts are free through Google Books and will get you off on the right foot if your goal is to really become effecient working wood with hand tools. If you read these books and then go into your shop and try some of the techniques described within them, you’ll have a great foundation to discovering and understanding the lost arts & mysteries of traditional woodworking.


12 thoughts on “Get Woodworking with the Classics

  1. I am intrigued by the concept that contemporary authors and teachers may unwittingly carry with them machine-based approaches, even when they use hand tools. Could you provide concrete examples? Not by naming teachers or authors, but by naming specific approaches or tasks.

    I know Adam Cherubini and perhaps others have pointed out that period makers may not have surfaced all sides of a board to the same degree. Other examples?

    • A few off the top of my head:

      -“Four-squaring” every board
      -Shooting square the ends of boards destined to have tenons cut on their ends
      -Using lots of stopped joinery (e.g. stopped dadoes, stopped rabbets, stopped grooves)
      -Leveling the bottom of a mortise
      -Planing every board to a predetermined, measured thickness (e.g. plane all your stock to 3/4″ thick)
      -Planing every board to exactly the same thickness
      -Over use of a ruler with graduations way finer than necessary
      -Improper/non-use of a reference face & edge (i.e. gauging off of both faces and assuming they are perfectly parallel)
      -Using a single gauge setting for marking all 4 corners of a case piece or drawer (or at least doing so without checking that the setting is appropriate for all four corners).

      It’s not that these things are wrong. Obviously there’s no harm to the project in doing these things (perhaps with the exception of the last two), it’s just that most of them are unnecessary time wasters carried over subconciously from experience using machines. Many of these things are the prime reasons hand tools are often perceived as slow. It is often necessary to unlearn a lot of the power tool mentalities when learning to primarily use hand tools, not because there is any fault to those processes, but because those processes just aren’t effecient or necessary with traditional methods.

      As for the last two bullets, doing these two can have serious repercusions later in the project as the actions are based upon assumptions the we simply cannot make in hand work. So these two aren’t so much about efficiency as they are about doing precision work.

      • *Very* interesting, thanks Bob! In my own hand-tool journey, I’ve learned some of these, but some are new. In partcular, it certainly makes sense that one needn’t shoot the end of a board square when it’s destined to be made into a tenon, but I guess I had been doing it anyway.

        I designed a recent project with stopped dadoes and then did the project with hand tools. The other joinery (dovetails and tenons) went fine, but the stopped dadoes were a real pain, and I was underwhelmed by the result. I won’t repeat that mistake!

        Your last bullet (using a consistent reference face) is something I picked up from reading Robert Wearing’s Essential Woodworker. That was a real aha moment for me.

        Great stuff, thanks Bob.

  2. Thank You! It drives me nuts when I see a hand tool woodworker with the same mindset as a power tool guy. One thing I had troubles on when I was beginning was surfacing and dimensioning my lumber. I don’t think some people grasp the idea that if only one face of a board is going to be seen, there is no need taking the time to smooth the other surface! It was your video about getting a board flat and true that really got the point through for me, and it really does speed things up. I hope to do a long write up on my blog about this when I get the time. Right now I’m experimenting with how far I can actually go with half way dimensioned boards. So far I haven’t had to process a board on all six sides square and true to each other on the whole nightstand I’m working on, and haven’t found a need for ever do it.

  3. Bob,

    I like your recommendations for reading. Peter Nicholson was an extraordinarily capable person, skilled in mathematics and architecture. The more you look at the book, the more you realize how sophisticated it is. Question: Nicholson followed Moxon by a century. Is there anything comparable for 1912? A lot of us have hand tools from about that time.

    Under your influence, I have transitioned from about 90% power to about 30% power. I differ from you in that I am probably going to stay at about that proportion. I have laughingly called my best friend of many years a Luddite and I think I will put you in that category. However, I benefit tremendously from your all hand tool approach. The result is the opposite of what concerns you. I use power tools from a hand tool perspective, as “tailed apprentices” to use Chris Schwarz’s term.

    I don’t think there is any reason to be defensive about hand tools being slow and inefficient. In some cases they are. So what? So is having a garden, riding a bicycle . . . The point you are making is that hand tools are not as slow and inefficient as people think when they use them as machine tool replacements. In addition to the satisfaction of working with hand tools, they more than make up for it in versatility.

    I learned all of this from your tea table project. It was a real eye opener and brought about a permanent, fundamental change in how I approach woodworking. The fact that I rough cut the legs on a bandsaw is completely irrelevant and didn’t detract from your core lesson in any way.

  4. Nice post Bob and very good advice. I’ve found the joinery sections to be very informative both with regard to technique as well as tools used. Hand in hand with my interest in hand tool work goes an interest in foot powered lathes, both pole and treadle. While there are a lot of examples out there of people who’ve build their own, some good, some not so good, there were a few nagging questions that remained in my mind as I’m contemplating whether or not I want to forward with this. So, about a month ago, I picked up both Moxon and Nicholson to see what they had to say about things and I can tell you, it was a real eye opener. I think our modern minds and habits tend to make us over complicate these things. The techniques and machinery used back then was really so much simpler and straight forward then we’re willing to accept. Amazing work was done with simple tools. I found that, both with joinery and with turning, body mechanics was very important.

  5. Bob, I love your pragmatic and low key approach – really refreshing. Some good points you raise and some good original references.

    Some other books I like are: Modern Practical Joinery by George Ellis; Woodwork in theory and practice by John A. Walton; and anything written by Charles Hayward of course!

  6. Bob, that’s a good take on the topic. I couldn’t agree more. Hand tools absolutely have a stigma about being “so slow.” Were we making 100 plywood cabinet doors, sure it’s slower. The truth is that by the time a person installs a dado blade for a carcass it’s already done with a plough / dado plane.

    As far as power tool tendencies, I think it goes beyond developing poor hand tools techniques. I also a see a lack of vision in furniture with exclusively power tool builders. The only way I can explain it is to assume they do not look past the apparent boundaries of flat surfaces and straight lines of the table saw – while hand toolers are more apt to conceive a design first and THEN let the tools take them there.

    Those old works are certainly important, it took several years to quit listening to modern interpreters and get to the original sources. It certainly gives a different perspective. There is an abundance of old manuscripts available on-line and even several from as late as the turn of the century worth looking at. The University of Michigan has a TREMENDOUS on-line collection of books.

    You won’t find Roubo’s work there but there are several related books in foreign languages for people less comfortable in English.

    Jean Becnel

Comments are closed.