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The Joiner and Cabinet Maker

The Joiner and Cabinet Maker

Authors:  Anon, Christopher Schwarz, and Joel Moskowitz

ISBN: 978-0-578-03926-8

Available through The Lost Art Press (with DVD here);  Tools for Working Wood; and Lee Valley.

Published 1839; 1841; 1883 (w/addendum), and 2009 (expanded edition includes 1883 addendum and added commentary, notes, and instructions)


First published in 1839, The Joiner and Cabinet Maker is an instructional text on the life of a young joiner's apprentice, and tells the story of a fictional young apprentice by the name of Thomas, starting with his applying for the position and his initial duties in the shop.  Eventually, Thomas builds a client a small packing box, then a "School Box", and finally a simple dresser.  The author goes into great detail on all of these projects Thomas completes, giving us one of the earliest, intimate views of early 19th century woodworking procedures and techniques.

There are essentially three parts to this book I would like to look at in this review.  The first part is the original text of the book (along with a precious few illustrations).  Then there are the parts added by the additional authors, both of whom are very well known to modern hand tool woodworking enthusiasts. The second part of this review covers what author Joel Moskowitz (of Tools for Working Wood and The Museum of Woodworking Tools) has added, which include an introduction and a brief explanation of the conditions of the joinery trade as well as explanations of what tools were commonly available and used at the time.  Joel has also taken great pains to add footnotes to the original text to add relevant facts of interest to today's reader as well as help better explain what is being referenced in the story.  The next part will cover author Chris Schwarz's (of Popular Woodworking and Lost Art Press fame) contributions, where he reproduces the three items that the main character makes in the book, investigating the methods used during the time. offering instructions and suggestions of his own as well as a full set of plans from which they can be built.


1.  The Original Text of "The Joiner and Cabinet Maker"

I enjoy a good book - and I enjoy having a good reference book, though with those, I'm more likely just to read the part in which I am interested at the moment, usually because it references what I happen to be doing at the time. 

For hand tools, older texts and authors are almost the only way to go when referencing hand tool woodworking (however I did just receive a copy of "The Essential Woodworker" by Robert Wearing - while I haven't read it yet, it looks promising).  Authors like Charles Hayward and Paul Hasluck holds a lot of sway with me not only because of their content but the fact the material is written in such a way that it's interesting. 

Not all older texts are so readable, in fact many - if not most - are quite disappointing, with only a few nuggets of useful information. I must say, I do have some trouble with Moxon's The Art of Joinery, one of the oldest woodworking texts (I reviewed Chris Schwartz's edition here) for a few reasons.  First, the language is so very arcane that it's actually hard to interpret.  Secondly, it's fairly obvious Moxon himself was not in the trade. 

Another example often heralded by some as a great early example of woodworking text is The Wheelwright's Shop, by George Sturt.   I've never been able to finish it - it just seems to go on and on  and on and on (like me?), so much so that I just can't get through it.

Needless to say, I was a bit apprehensive about ordering another archaic tome on woodworking, but with the good job Mr. Schwartz did with Moxon, and the enthusiasm he and Mr. Moskowitz expressed for it piqued my interest enough to give it a shot.  I'll get to their parts in it in a bit, but first I want to get to the main event, the original work they are re-publishing.

The books of the era in which "Joiner" was written were often verbose almost to the point of inanity (as with "The Wheelwright's Shop" (I'm sorry, but I was built up so much to that book, I can't help myself).   If you've ever read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, a great example of the writing style popular around the time when "Joiner" came out,  you know that verbose writing does not always have to be excruciating, though it takes a knowledgeable as well as masterful author to make it work, especially when you consider today's audience.

There was a reason for this; this was the start of the golden age of the written word.  Before cameras and more modern printing methods, illustration was expensive and often hard to get correct - the writing that had to convey everything.  "Joiner" has only a very few illustrations, just enough to convey what was needed.  The rest is all done through words.

Why is that important?  Well, if you've ever tried reading a poorly written textbook, you know what a waste of time it can be to suffer through.  But a good one... they can make the difference in learning and make doing it enjoyable.  It's a rare author that can bring all that to the table.  Try to explain a procedure using only text, and make it an enjoyable - you can easily see how difficult it can be.

It really is a shame we don't know who the author of "A Joiner and Cabinet Maker" is - because he was a very good wordsmith, as well as a knowledgeable woodworker.  It is not as wordy in the romantic style of the period as I feared it would be. I wouldn't say the author  uses a 'modicum' of words, there is still a slightly romanticized fancy to the writing - but his descriptions to the reader are complete and they are enjoyable.

It is, as I've inferred, an idyllic story.  Rather than a simple reference book, the author has chosen to tell a story, complete with a small cast of characters, including:

  • Thomas, the main character - a boy of about 13 years whose apprenticeship we follow; 
  • Thomas' parents;
  • Mr Jackson, the owner/master of the Joiner's shop that hires him;
  • Robert, the journeyman joiner Thomas would like to become; 
  • Sam, a slightly older fellow apprentice who provides a counterpoint with his misdeeds and slovenly ways;
  • old Thomas, a masterful joiner nearing the end of his career
  • Mr. Green, a client of the shop
  • Master John, a young boy from a well-off family who is a client, someone that serves as an example on how Thomas can build a personal, ongoing relationship with a client.

You can see there are characters that each act as models to aspire to, to contrast, and to serve as the typical people an apprentice might be exposed to.  The characters are so archetypical that I was reminded of characters from an Ayn Rand novel...

The story follows Thomas from his first days through most of his apprenticeship and covers his initial duties, what he does to better himself, and the first few projects he builds and the circumstances that surround them;  These include a simple packing box made for Mr. Green in short order; a "school box" for Master John which is more involved but still quite simple; and finally a utilitarian set of drawers.  Each project builds on the skills of the previous, and adds new challenges Thomas must overcome.

The explanations of the processes Thomas follows to build these projects are quite complete and descriptive and are really what is valuable about the book.  It's obvious the author was a woodworker of some skill, as he describes the building of the three projects with a good amount of detail.  It's likely, in my opinion, that he was a joiner's apprentice himself.

The author describes the best way for Thomas to better himself when starting his apprenticeship through practicing on scraps and firewood , in caring for and respecting his and other's tools, and by not following the way of the careless Sam, who just can't seem to do anything quite right.  Robert serves as a mentor and example of a journeyman joiner.  Old Thomas is the highly respected master who only shows up on occasion but does masterful work and serves as an example of the far end of a joiner's career.  Mr. Jackson serves as the hard but understanding task master which Thomas will either work for over the most of his life, or perhaps become should he start his own shop.

Even Thomas' parents make an appearance, as when he receives his first pay, Thomas does the right thing by giving a portion of it to them in return for his board and room they have so lovingly given him.


2.  Introduction and Contextual Notes (Joel Moskowitz)

Just because of how much things have changed in the last couple hundred years, the original text can seem a bit obtuse at times, and the situations can come off as rather odd.  Joel Moskowitz counters this by adding an introduction that sets the stage, explaining the context of a joiner's shop in 1839 and how it contrasts and relates to today.

He has also taken pains to add footnotes to the original text to help explain and clarify things that might be confusing or culturally significant to the time period.  There's also some explanations of the business and working conditions, and what tools were available to the joiners of the time and their costs.  Mr. Moskowitz also adds some counterpoints to the idyllic nature of the text by injecting some reality into it - not everything was raw wood and roses for everyone in the day.

There's also some discussion and description provided on the prices and costs of the time, the trades themselves, and the castes that existed at the time, which really helps in putting the story into context.

Additionally, there's a chapter at the end added by (I believe) Jefferey S. Peachey, whom I believe to be an expert on historical books and their printing and publishing methods.  It's an interesting examination of the books themselves - the differences between the editions, how they were each printed and bound, and how these books were originally used.


3.  Construction of the Projects from the Book (Chris Schwartz)

Popular Woodworking editor Chris Schwartz adds a great deal to the text by actually building the three projects mentioned in the book, using hand tools and processes similar to what Thomas used in the book, but with tools one will find in a modern hand tool shop, the type of which I think most of the readers of this book will have (or at least have access to).

He does so in the spirit of the original book, using the projects as an opportunity to learn (and teach) the hand tool methods for building them.  There are many photos and illustrations added, which help to show the process in much better detail than the original publications allow.  He also adds his knowledge about to the process, and compares methods Thomas used to how he would do the same thing.

Each project includes plans, measurements, and builds on the previous, just as the original book.  Mr. Schwarz provides explanations of materials and methods that make each more understandable to today's woodworker.


Summation

I enjoyed this book immensely, and learned from it.  It's a good introduction to using hand tools in woodworking for beginners, and has good reminders of the correct way to do things for the more experienced.  As I expected, the original text is a little hard to read (though is enjoyable, none-the-less), and I was impressed with Joel Moskowitz's additions.  It's apparent he has a great deal of knowledge on the subject and has obviously put a great deal of work into the research of the book and the conditions and tools of the time.

An example of a great footnote he provides that I learned from is on how to properly set a chisel in a handle, something he obviously feels strongly about. I did learn he does not condone using the heating of a tang to install a chisel handle (calling it "terrible information" and something which I have done myself) when installing handles because of the potential for losing the temper of the steel and because the charred wood left behind would crumble in short order.  While I have to agree with him, In my own weak defense I can say that I only heat the end of the tang and that I do not drive the handle all the way home with the tang heated, leaving the last bit to be driven home after I've cleaned out the charring and the tang has cooled, finding this method easier for fitting the shape of the tang into the handle.  I've had handles installed in this manner that have lasted 20+ years...  But again, it's a weak argument, Mr. Moskowitz is correct in pointing the proper method out.  Right or wrong, the way I have done it is simply the way I was shown, and it's refreshing to learn (or at least be reminded of) the correct way.

Chris Schwartz's part was also enjoyable and educational to read.  Indeed, Mr. Schwartz is fast becoming one of my favorite modern woodworking authors - his skills and knowledge of woodworking are obviously top-notch, and his writing style is enjoyable and instructive.  There are several items I learned from his part, such as his using a shallow rabbet for the inside of the tail board of dovetails which help line up the edges which I found very interesting.  

From my point of view, I can only see two parts in which I would like to have seen done differently.  First, he doesn't use hot hide glue, which would have been how the originals were made.  I really am a believer in hide glue, I've found the few disadvantages to using it are easily overshadowed by it's benefits.  He does use hide glue (the bottled variety) at least, but not for as much as I think he should.. In the end, the glue is a small thing, and really is personal preference.

One other thing that stuck in my head was the hinges he used for the school box.  Not so much the hinge itself (though it was rather homely IMO), but the fact he left such a large gap between the box and it's lid when the box was open.  It's one of those things that was drilled into my head when I was taught - that space should be as narrow as is feasibly possible, and that is mentioned in the original.  But hey, it's another very minor thing, and I'm nit-picking.

I would recommend the book to anyone interested in hand tool woodworking.  It's a good learning tool for beginners, for sure, but is also a great refresher for more experienced woodworkers.  I've always thought that even if you are a power tool user, a good knowledge of the basics of hand tool usage can only make you a better woodworker, as you are more intimate with the wood and gain knowledge of it that you simply cannot get from machining it.  I'm actually considering making the three boxes just to further learn and polish my own skills, as I'm sure I need it (as can be proven by my most recent dovetails).  If I do (and it's a big "if" right now, as the list of things to do is exceedingly long), I'll be sure to post it here.

 

Leif

 

Comments

Comment: 

great review, I agree with all of your points and your minor criticisms as well.

Comment: 
Thanks for taking time to posting this review!