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Hide Glue - Historical and Practical Applications by Stephen Shepherd


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Hide Glue - Historical and Practical Applications by Stephen Shepherd

 Modern adhesives have come a long way, especially when one considers that most of them have been developed after the Second World War.  The most common glues used in woodworking today are likely white or yellow glues and epoxy, with polyurethanes pulling in a close third. Before WWII, hide (animal) glue was used almost exclusively.  It's favor has diminished in the eyes of most woodworkers today, it's use relegated to restorers and "purists", for reasons I don't really understand.

The modern glues all work well, each with their own strengths.  Yet none, at least in my opinion, work as well as traditional hide glue.  Yet, I've seen it's use actually discouraged - something I find somewhat unsettling.  I remember reading one well respected epoxy protagonist's views of using it rather than hide glue for repairing chairs.  "It can fill gaps where the wood has worn or broken" was said, as well as "it can later be disassembled with 'gentle heating' ".  My first thought was how unfortunate for the future restorer such a choice would be.  I've never known an epoxy to release it's grip with anything close to what could be called "gentle heating".   Also, while it does have impressive gap-filling capabilities, a properly repaired joint won't require it.  I've restored several old pieces of furniture, some the product of later restorations using epoxies and yellow glues, others that had been assembled with hide glue.  The latter were always a joy to work on or to restore.  The former were nearly always frustrating in some manner.

There are hide glue advocates that remain, and Stephen Shepherd is one of them.  Mr. Shepherd is a learned woodworker, schooled heavily in traditional methods and materials.  He publishes an oft-updated blog at, which is a great resource for many woodworking tasks, and a must-read for any hand tool enthusiast.  He's worked as a "period" woodworker in a pioneer village, restores and builds traditional furniture and tools, and has published previous works on woodworking in the 19th century as well as some magazine articles.  His latest work, titled "Hide Glue - Historical and Practical Applications", is an attempt to educate today's woodworker on the uses and benefits of hide glue.

My opinion of it?  This is not a book that every woodworker will want to read - but honestly they should.  I don't believe there has been a book written about this subject before, at least not one with this depth by someone who actually knows and understands the qualities and use of hide glue with as much understanding of it as Mr. Shepherd.  It is an impressive collection of knowledge, covering the history of hide glue, to the chemistry behind it, to varieties and strengths available, techniques used, additives to extend open time or to waterproof the glue, and tips on using and even where to acquire it.

The book does have it's faults...  for a modern text, the author does tend to ramble and repeat himself on occasion, and it reads somewhat more at times like a collection of notes than as an ordered reference book.  There are some references to things that go unexplained that are somewhat bothersome.   For example - Mr. Shepherd in one section refers to an "extender" for a clamp - he mentions that he saw many illustrations of them in old woodworking tomes but didn't understand what they were for, until he finally figured it out.  Yet, I'm still left wondering just what they are, for there's nothing  that describes or illustrates them - and with the author's obvious drawing skills, this would have been a great opportunity for an illustration.  For these reasons I believe an editor could have cleaned it up and brought a bit more order to it. 

Yet, I the issues I have are truly minor - it is by far the most comprehensive text on hide glue I have ever read, and it's meandering prose isn't that bad of a read - it comes across more as that of a master teaching an apprentice as he works.  It's not a dry read either - there's enough interesting references and humor to keep it moving along well enough.  I will be reading it again - and again, I'm sure - as time goes on.  I can easily overlook the minor edits I've found with it, as I've already learned much more than I thought I would on my first time through it.

If you do antique furniture restoration, use hide glue, or even think you might want to - this is a must have book. For me, while I am learning quite a bit from it, it's almost like preaching to the choir - I think every woodworker would benefit from reading it, even if they don't believe in the hide glue mantra.  If you haven't been using hide glue, I suggest you give it a try - and get this book - I can't say it will convert you - but you will learn something from it, especially if you believe that woodworking is not machining.  Besides, you'll be able to tell all your friends that you loved your new book on the history of glue, and simply couldn't put it down - I know I couldn't (pg. 9)...  ;-)

It's available at for a reasonable price. Also be sure to check out Stephen Shepherd's web site - - you can see the articles in the Norse Woodsmith aggregator here, also.

I've also purchased "Shepherds' Compleat Early Nineteeth Century Woodworker", which looks incredibly interesting at first glance.  It's been out for many years now, and I've always wanted to read it - I'll be sure to post a review here when I've finished.