My first introduction to handwork was in a formal class environment at the Totnes School of Guitar Making. In contrast, save for two week long classes through New English Workshop, all of my furniture building has been self taught through trial, error, and judicious amounts of reading. I’ve always been a voracious reader, and so it was inevitable that as I became more invested in woodwork I would start to build up a healthy reference library. A common question posed on forums and social media (as well as, you know, actual human to human interaction) is what woodwork books are worth reading, especially from the perspective of the beginner. Vic wrote a thought-provoking post on this very subject a couple of years ago.
This is why I need to build the boarded bookcase from The Anarchist’s Design Book – half of my woodwork library is currently languishing on this Billy bookcase from IKEA, and the remainder is still boxed up.
So, I thought it was about time that I threw my hat into the ring and offered up my five essential woodwork texts. This bost has been percolating at the back of my mind for ages, and to be honest whittling the list down to my top five picks felt like a really tough challenge. There is a huge volume of woodwork reading material out there, and it pains me to omit Roubo, Moxon, Hayward, or Krenov (especially Krenov). So this list is a starting point, and not a list of the only books you need to read. It also reflects some of my enduring pre-occupations with woodwork, namely how to make the crafts accessible to new entrants, which a woodworker more inclined to other matters, might skip. I’ve also focused on furniture making rather than lutherie (otherwise Bob Benedetto’s excellent book on archtop guitar making would have found a slot). But without further ado…
The Anarchist’s Tool Chest – Christopher Schwarz
The inclusion of this title will be a surprise to exactly no one. The Anarchist’s Tool Chest was such a pivotal book for me (and countless other woodworkers) when I first read it. Chris made a critical leap by linking the philosphy and practice – expressing exactly what it was about woodwork that appealed to me, and then identifying exactly how to go about it. And while the tool chest itself may have been a literary conceit, Chris offers a much needed antidote to the forums which insist you cannot build anything until you have a well appointed machine room in addition to bulging lists of handtools. The book thoughtfully guides you through a compact tool kit which will cover nearly all furniture building needs, and explains how to separate used tools worth buying from tool-shaped junk. In short, The Anarchist’s Tool Chest equips the reader with the motivation to make things by hand, and the means to execute those ideas.
If I could only have one woodwork book, this would be it. The following passage sums up the power of this book, and the thrill I still get everytime I lift the lid on my Anarchist’s Tool Chest: “The mere act of owning real tools and having the power to use them is a radical and rare idea that can help change the world around us and – if we are persistent – preserve the craft”.
The Joiner and Cabinet Maker – Anon
I’ve written about the The Joiner and Cabinet Maker previously, but it would be impossible to write this list without including this book, so it’s worth explaining again.
The story of The Joiner and Cabinet Maker follows a young lad called Thomas through his mid-nineteenth century apprenticeship, and covers in great detail three projects. The first is a packing box (which I also wrote about here). Then follows a school box at the mid-point of his apprenticeship, and finally a chest of drawers before Thomas becomes a journeyman. By following a progression of projects chronologically, we see Thomas start out with only a few tools and using them to learn key skills to build simple items, and then growing his tool kit and his skill set. Building along with Thomas offers an opportunity to build skills in a structured and organised fashion, and to invest in a tool kit on an as needed basis, organically and cost efficiently.
If you have never built anything out of wood, I would suggest starting with this book, and building all three projects in order, only using the tools and techniques mentioned in the book. That would give you a compact (and affordable) tool kit and a solid set of the fundamental skills needed to build a wide variety of furniture. I still haven’t built the chest of drawers from The Joiner and Cabinet Maker, but I plan on doing so as soon as I have a clear slot in my workshop calendar.
The Perfect Edge – Ron Hock
I’m not sure any subject in woodworking carries as much voodoo or conflicting information as sharpening. Which is nuts, because really sharpening is ancillary to the fun of working wood. Sure, humanity is wonderful in its variety, and there are probably folk out there who just sharpen things as a hobby. Me, I really like making tools blunt by using them (and then I have to sharpen them again, dammit). But it is nigh on impossible to do woodwork until you can sharpen properly – sharpening is one of the fundamental gateway skills. Fortunately, Ron has written a book which explains metallurgy, the science behind sharpening, and the various sharpening options, in a way that is clear and free of voodoo. I’ve never read any other books or articles on sharpening because I’ve never needed to – with Ron’s clear guidance I can get a razor edge on my tools quickly, and back to the business of working wood.
Making Things Work – Nancy Hiller
This book won’t teach you how to cut a perfect dovetail, or how to design your dream cabinet, but what it will do is give an incredible insight into the life of a professional woodworker. Nancy is an entertaining and thought-provoking writer who recounts annecdotes gathered over the course of her career with humour and insight, exploring why people are motivated to make things with their hands as well as the hard reality of what that career can entail. When I started formulating this list I knew I needed to include something which spoke to the why of woodwork as much as the how. Written from the perspective of a life dedicated to craft, and with a sharp eye for detail, this book fills that slot (and pipped The Impractical Cabinetmaker by Krenov to the post).
The Minimalist Woodworker – Vic Tesolin
Want to try woodworking but don’t have a workshop or a tool kit? Worried about the space and cost demands of embarking in the woodcrafts? Let Vic be your guide. I’m all in favour of anything that can lower the entry bar to woodwork, and Vic’s book should frankly be essential reading for all aspiring woodworkers. Through the course of the book, Vic explains how to set up a work space, identifies a minimal tool kit, and walks the reader through a series of projects building essential shop fixtures (a workbench, tool storage, and bench appliances) to develop the skills to use those tools. The quality of photography is great (poor photographs in woodwork books is a particular bugbear of mine – for some reason lutherie books often contain the worst photos, although I’m never sure why) and the book is written in Vic’s customary no nonsense style.