Review: The Art of Joinery by Joseph Moxon with Commentary by Christopher Schwarz
Joseph Moxon's "The Art of Joinery" is one of the earliest texts available to the general public written on woodworking, dating from around the late 1600's. It's actually one part of a compilation of articles written by Moxon starting in 1678, and compiled into book form later, which was titled "The Mechanik Exercises or the Doctrine of Handy-Works". It's significance is really in it's age - it is such an early example of the methods used by woodworkers, that its study is at least somewhat warranted just for that fact alone.
This latest "edition" also includes commentary by Popular Woodworking editor Chris Schwarz, who has also edited the original text in places to help clear up some of the grammar used by Moxon (English was a different language then than it is now) to make it more palatable and understandable to today's reader. Since reading this book, I've been putting off doing a review on it... When it first arrived I was excited to read the book, and I really, really wanted to do a glowing review on an insightful interpretation of a significant historical text, but - I just can't do that - at least not completely.
Let me explain...First - on the original text and illustrations: I first read Moxon's "Art of Joinery" many years ago, and frankly found it frustrating and difficult to read. The language is so archaic that it is barely intelligible in portions, and worse yet the illustrations used are - well, just plain wrong in some cases. The text has several faults. First, Moxon can give some rather important aspects of woodworking rather short thrift, glossing over them without the reader gaining pertinent knowledge as to their function. He can then go on and on over a small item seemingly forever - taking paragraphs to write what a few short sentences can accomplish. For the artwork, some of it seems as if the illustrator and the author only barely communicated - and perhaps were not even from the same country (which may have actually been the case). Some is not labeled correctly between the text and illustrations and what is correctly labeled is not, well, not quite right or descriptive enough or is debatable as to whether is drawn correctly.
These issues can be somewhat forgiven just because of the age of the tome. Additionally, I think one must realize that Moxon himself was not a joiner, and was merely interpreting his observations and research into the trade - so while he may have had a keen eye and perhaps even a knowledgeable mentor, the final version of his writings were largely of his own interpretation, and the illustrations - done by yet another party - were further subject to interpretation.
On the commentary and grammar corrections by Chris Schwarz: I will applaud Mr. Schwarz for taking on this project to begin with. It's not a large text, but as I described above its rife with errors and grammatical difficulties, at least as far as the modern reader is concerned. He does a pretty fair job of interpreting Moxon's intent, at least for the most part. He does fail in a couple of spots, at least in my opinion.... One example I think is in his interpretation of Moxon's description of honing:
"Moxon, however, recommends you hold the tool in one hand with the working end facing up and the whetstone in the other. This is more like sharpening a knife than a woodworking tool, but it works, of course."
This is accompanied by this illustration:
I would submit that yes, using that stone in such a manner would be awkward. However, I doubt very much that many joiners of that era had such large flat stones... Substitute something smaller, likely shaped like any other rock with a flat spot on it, something that fits into the palm of your hand and suddenly, this method makes more sense.
That's not to say that I disagree with Chris' analysis as a whole - nay, I think he does a good job of it for the most part. I enjoyed reading his thoughts on each entry, and his attempts to bring Moxon into today's world and somehow make it more relevant. Unfortunately, ancient volumes such as these are a decidedly scholarly pursuit. Have you ever read Homer, or the ancient Norse sagas in their original form (OK, translated)? It's not easy. It takes time and study to glean both the intent and to understand the circumstances around that which they were written. More than some are willing to invest...
Chris has done some of the footwork for us, but sometimes I'm left wondering what his intentions on interpreting this book are. Of particular interest is his analysis of "S.16. The manner of planing and trying a piece of stuff square" and "S.17. To frame two quarters square into one another". Chris' Woodworking skill bears some fruit here, as he "re-enacts" Moxon's steps to square a board according to the former, following (generally) Moxon's text. But on the latter, on analyzing Moxon's method of mortising that he adds "Don't slavishly follow Moxon - try other methods". That's a statement that really belongs in a how-to book, not in an analysis.
In the end I think this book is best suited to those with a deep interest in the history of woodworking and period methods. To this end, I think Chris would have been better served to include a copy of Moxon's original, unedited text as an appendix. It's not a large amount of text, so it really wouldn't add all that many pages. But for those that are interested, this book is an entertaining read. If you are looking to gain some insight on early woodworking techniques, it's also not a bad reference, and the analysis' - for the most part - seem quite good.
For the average reader with only a mild interest, it's probably going to be a little tougher sell. If you want to learn more about woodworking in general, I personally would suggest later books by authors such as Paul Hasluck, William Fairham, or Charles Hayward. They are better suited for learning hand-tool techniques in general.
On the plus side, the book is far from being expensive. If you are curious, I suggest you read it for yourself. If nothing else, it's at least an insight into the ways of the world that came before, and the investigation of that always presents the reader with a reward. So while I can't give the book a "Must Have" status, I can recommend it for those interested in a modern take on period methods and writing.