Monday, March 4, 2013

Book Review 3: Civil War Woodworking

The third in a series of book reviews.

The same disclaimer as usual 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:

This review is of Civil War Woodworking, by A. J. Hamler.  It's not quite the same as the other two books I've reviewed so far.  Those were really focused on teaching you about hand tools, and how to use them.  This book, despite discussing projects from before the age of electric power tools, assumes the use of power tools almost exclusively, and doesn't talk much about technique.  Instead, it's a collection of 17 plans for furniture and camp equipment from the era of the American Civil War.  

Overall, I like the book a lot.  Several of the projects are now on my "Try to get around to this sometime" list, and some are on my "Do this as soon as your new shop is set up!" list.  While the suggestions for how to use power tools to achieve results that look like they were done with historically accurate tools occasionally irritate me ("Look, if you'd just use the right tool, you wouldn't HAVE to spend time making it look right!"), that wasn't the focus of the book, and I was able to ignore it. 

Now, on to the details!


The book is basically divided into two main sections, plus a list of references and resources at the end.

The first section begins with historical information, and a discussion about "authenticity" and the idea of a "historically correct" campsite.  I enjoyed the discussion, and found some of it useful in a general sense, but I really wanted a book on woodworking:  Going through the first section (about 10 pages) had me a little concerned that this was going to be a book about reenactment, with a few nods in the direction of woodworking.  Starting around page 11, there's discussion about historical woodworking, and how the stock and tools have changed since the Civil War (spoiler:  not as much as you might expect, advent of power tools notwithstanding).

The real meat of the book, for me, starts on page 28, with the first of projects.  The projects in the book range from the quick-and-dirty (five-board bench, hardtack crate) to somewhat more complex (officer's field desk, Lt. Kelly's camp chair).  Some of them build on earlier projects:  the field desk, for instance, is designed as dividers and modifications to a hardtack crate, since that's how some of them would have been built.

One detail I enjoyed was the sidebars:  for instance, in the section on building a hardtack crate, Mr. Hamler included a recipe for hardtack.  Do you need one?  Probably not.  Does it have anything to do with woodworking?  Nope!  But it's an interesting addition, and if you're really planning to do reenactment, having hardtack available might be useful, so why not have some?

Each of the 17 projects begins with a description of its historical provenance:  where Mr. Hamler found the description, where the photos (if any) came from, and how it would have been used.  For some things -- most notably the hardtack and ammunition crates -- he is able to quote Army regulations on construction technique and sizing.  In other cases, he has existing historical artifacts to draw from, or sometimes just photos.  One of the projects on my "Do it soon!" list is Lt. Kelly's camp chair, which he found three photos of from different angles.  While the original is almost certainly long gone, the photos gave enough information to produce a good replica.

From historical information, Mr. Hamler moves on to materials and construction.  For the most part, standard 3/4" stock is perfectly usable, but Mr. Hamler pushes the idea of using different sizes.  Why?  Well, because 3/4" wasn't really a standard, historically.  So if you're going to use it, that's fine, but it shouldn't be everywhere.  That's one of his complaints about the camp furniture that's so common with reenactors;  too much of it is made from standard sized lumber.  Once he's explained what lumber to use, he moves on to layout and technique.  This is possibly where the book is most lacking.

Mr. Hamler is mostly concerned with historical information.  That's not a bad thing, necessarily, but it means that many of the projects are a bit sparse on construction detail.  There's plenty of information to figure it out if you have a little experience -- I didn't have any trouble reading between the lines, and I'm barely an apprentice, skills-wise -- but don't expect layout diagrams and cut-lists like you'll find in a woodworking magazine.  They don't exist, for the most part.  He does discuss each component necessary, and the joints used, and usually in quite a lot of detail, but the instructions are sometimes a little disjointed.  Really, though, that's my only complaint with the book, and I certainly feel confident that I could easily come up with a plan for any of the projects in the book.  And if I can, then anyone with the skill to use the necessary tools should really be able to.

Final Thoughts:

So what else is there to say?  I highly recommend the book for anyone who wants to do reenactment.  Whether they're planning to build their own furniture or not, there's a lot of excellent information here.  If you plan to build camp furniture for Civil War reenactment, I'd say buying the book is a no-brainer.  There's good historical information, there's good construction information, and the photos give a clear sense of how things were actually used.

But what if you're not a reenactor?  Well, then it gets a little more iffy.  I'm not, and I don't expect to be.  I'm still planning to do a few of the projects:  that camp chair would go quite nicely on my front porch, and the stool would make a nice foot-rest to go with it, or just as extra seating.  While I don't need a folding camp mirror, I have friends who would probably enjoy having something like it as a simple portable mirror.  I've already got a five-board bench on my porch, made by my grandfather, and making another to match it would even out the porch quite nicely.  So sure... if you're not into reenactment, but you are a woodworker, you may well get value out of the book.  I certainly have, so I can recommend it whole-heartedly.

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