Monday, March 4, 2013

Book Review 2: "The New Traditional Woodworker"

So this second review will be a lot more positive than the first one.

The same disclaimer as last time applies:  I am, if no longer a beginner, then nowhere near a master.  Not even a journeyman.  I have a little experience, a lot of theoretical knowledge, and loads of opinions.  So take these reviews with a grain of salt.

First Thoughts:

The second book I got was "The New Traditional Woodworker", by Jim Tolpin.  Again, let's get the first response out of the way:  I quite liked this one.

"I didn't think I would need to write another book on woodworking" starts out Mr. Tolpin.  "I figured the ten other books I wrote on the subject pretty much covered it..." 

As you might expect, Mr. Tolpin figured out he was wrong.  All those earlier books focused on power tools, and he found he wanted to write one on hand tools.

While much of the information in the book is fairly general, Mr. Tolpin covers a lot of ground in a fairly limited amount of space.  I think his decisions about what to include and what to leave out, while not always the ones I would have made, were mostly good ones  He manages to cover enough information that someone completely new to hand-tool woodworking would probably be able to at least figure out how to get through it, and someone with power tool experience would have no trouble at all.


Let's talk for a minute about the structure of the book.  The book is roughly divided into three sections.  The first is what you might call philosophical:  the mindset involved in using hand tools, and why you might want to acquire that mindset.  The second is equipment:  descriptions of types of tools.  The third section is project-based:  tools you can make for your shop.  Now, for a bit more detail.

1) Philosophy

"My five-year-old son learned in less than ten minutes how to cut accurately to length using a backsaw and bench hook.  The dog, however, took a little longer..."  (p10)
This section was the shortest, and is the one I have the least to say about.  Mr. Tolpin talks a lot about why you might want to work with hand tools, but it all boils down to things other people have said:  it's quieter, it's cleaner, and if you're not trying to mass produce, it's usually more fun and not all that much slower.  I like it, but if you're reading the book you probably already know most of it.  He does talk a little about shop layout here, as well as types of benches, but it's mostly old news and not very technical.

2) Tools

"When you pay home and garden store prices, what you get are tools that are -- how can I put this delicately -- garden variety." (p29)
This is where the real content begins.  Mr. Tolpin discusses both general classes of tools and specifics within those classes.  The classes he uses are:

  • Layout Tools
  • Tools for Changing the Size of the Board
  • Tools for Creating Planes and Angles
  • Tools for Joinery
  • Tools for Shaping Edges
  • Tools for Smoothing the Wood
  • Tools for Making Holes
  • Tools for Assembling Parts
  • (Non-Human) Powered Tools
  • Sharpening
For each of those categories except the last two, each is broken down into smaller subsets ("Tools for Laying out Curved Lines") and specific tools ("Marking Gauges").  For each tool, there are three sections:
  • What They Do:  This section explains exactly what the tooldoes, why you want one, and gives some specific examples of use.
  • How They Do It:  This has details of how the tool is designed, and sometimes why it's designed that way, and how you make use of it.  Sometimes that's simple (marking gauges) and sometimes it's a little more involved (bench planes), but he keeps to a fairly low level of detail here.
  • Which Ones You Need:  This is basically a bare-bones list of the minimal kit you're going to want of this particular tool, with some sketchy explanation of why.
As seems to be common among hand-tool woodworkers, the two places Mr. Tolpin compromises are a bandsaw and a drill press, both of which speed up and simplify things that are hard or tedious with hand-tools (ripping or resawing long boards, cutting long curves, or drilling large numbers of accurate holes).  

As for sharpening, he covers the basics.  What is a sharp blade, why should you grind a blade, why is hollow-ground easier to sharpen, and things like that.  He uses a combination of sandpaper, waterstones, and powered grinders and sanders, depending on what he's sharpening, and gives at least enough information to get started.  I cant' really judge the accuracy of a lot of his instruction here, because I don't use any of those methods these days.  For what it's worth, nothing he said struck me as inherently wrong, just not the way I do things.

3) Projects

"Because it is your body that is providing the energy source for the tools (all 1/5th horsepower of it!), the ability to sharpen and properly set up or configure a tool becomes paramount..." (p73)
Mr. Tolpin starts this section with a lot of general information, including a chart on "Handtool-Friendly American Furniture Woods", with comments, species name, specific gravity at 12% moisture, stability, strength, and hardness.  He also includes information on selecting wood, why it warps, and how to figure out which way it warps.

He then moves on to the projects.  In order, they are:

  • Straightedge
  • Try Squares
  • Winding Sticks
  • Face Planing Stop
  • Bench Hook Pair
  • Edge Planing Stop
  • Sticking Board
  • Workbench Tote
  • Oiling Pad (probably the simplest project in the book!)
  • Diagonal Testing Stick
  • Vise for Sharpening Saws and Scrapers
  • Sawbench Pair
  • Waste Backing Block
  • Drawing Bows (for drawing curves)
  • Sticking Board for Dowels
For each project, he moves through a similar set of sub-sections to the tool section.  He starts by explaining what the thing is used for, and why it will be useful to you.  He also lists what skills he introduces with the project, and what tools it uses for the first time.  In several cases, the project uses the tools from earlier projects, and the skills generally advance from the first project to the last.

Mr. Tolpin then goes through the process of actually building the thing.  For some projects -- like the Oiling Pad -- that takes up about two paragraphs.  For some, like the bench hook pair, that's 15 pages of detailed text and photos.  His approach mostly works for me;  there are a few places I find his explanations to be too vague or too in depth, but since everyone has a different background, I can't say how it will work for you.  In general, I'd say anyone with a little experience should be able to work through all the projects in order.

The Projects section ends with a description (again, with photos) of the process of squaring and truing all six sides of a board, which is a nice addition. 

Final Thoughts:

So what else is there to say about this book?

There are a few problems with it.  The big one as far as projects go is the old paradox of woodworking:  you need a square to make a square, and the same holds true for a lot of projects here.  It's hard to figure out if your straightedge is true if you don't have a straightedge, it's hard to build a sawbench without a good place to make cuts in large pieces of lumber, and so on.  Mr. Tolpin does make some good suggestions about how to work around some of these problems, but there's only so much you can do about others.

The only other real complaint I have about the book is the editing.  There are a number of typos, misuses of apostrophes, and things like that.  Does it detract factually from the book?  No.  Will most people notice them?  Again, no.  But sloppy editing in a published book bothers me.

The book is somewhat limited by space;  there are places where the discussion of a tool or project is a little bit sketchy, but if he'd gone into full detail about everything this would have been an encyclopedia, not a reasonably priced book.

Overall, I can happily recommend this book.  It's got a lot of good information in it, and it's mostly well written and useful.

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