Thursday, August 18, 2016

A few of my favorite (wood working) books and videos

There are a lot of woodworking books out there:  some are good, some are bad, and some are just weird.  Last week, someone asked me what books I'd recommend, and I had to stop to think about it.

After consideration, here are some of my favorites.  This list isn't anything near exhaustive, nor am I making any claim that everyone who wants to be a woodworker should read them.  They're just what comes to mind when I think about what books have been valuable to me, in no particular order.

1) The New Traditional Woodworker, by Jim Tolpin.  For my full review, click here.  Jim Tolpin looks a lot at how to set up a functional workflow, and what tools are necessary if you're going to use all (or mostly) hand tools, and includes directions on how to make some basic jigs and tools you'll want.  This one is fairly easy to find, and an excellent starting point.

2) The Anarchist's Toolchest, by Christopher Schwarz.  For my full review, click here.  I'm always a little leery of recommending this one, despite how much I like it.  Chris has a weird sense of humor, and a philosophy that's a little unusual.  That said, I really like his theories on tools and tool use, and I think there's quite a lot of value in the book overall.  His tool list gives not only what he recommends, but why, which I found very helpful.  Overall, I think he gives a pretty good basis for hand tool work.

3) Working Wood 1 & 2: the Artisan Course with Paul Sellers, by Paul Sellers.  Paul Sellers was the first person I got to watch doing hand work in person, which left me with a soft spot for his teaching style.  The book walks through basic tools, and then starts working on projects (a spoon, a stool, a dovetailed box, and a few other things), covering the three basic joints, what tools to use, and so on.  He definitely has an anti-machine bent that comes through in the book, but there's more than enough good information in the book to be worth reading past that.  I also strongly recommend watching his videos, which are mostly available on YouTube.  He mostly does a very good job of explaining what he's doing, and they're fairly short.

4) The Joiner & Cabinetmaker, By Anonymous, Christopher Schwarz and Joel Moskowitz.  This is a good look at what woodworking was like before the era of common powertools.  There were mills to produce boards, powered by water or steam, but an individual shop wasn't likely to have anything powered on hand.  The book walks you through the work of an apprentice in a good joiner's shop, and talks about tools, their use, and habits that a good woodworker should get into if they want to be successful.  Later in the book, Schwarz goes through each of the projects presented in the original text, which is also quite useful.

5) Anything by Roy Underhill.  I love his writing style, and while he's frequently short on details, there's enough information to figure out what he's doing.  I think his videos are stronger, and some of the more recent seasons are available through the PBS website (  He also teaches classes, if you're lucky enough to live near him.  The Woodwright's Apprentice is probably the book of his I appreciate the most, but everything I've read has been worth the time.

6) Woodworking Forums.  There are a lot of good forums out there, and even if you never log in to ask a question, you'll learn a lot from reading them.  At the moment I mostly visit,, and  And if you have specific questions, there are always people with answers on those forums.

As I said, this is nowhere near an exhaustive list.  It's really just my first reactions when someone asks me what to read.  They've been helpful to me, though, so they may also be of use to you.

There's one key thing to remember, though:  Nobody has all the answers.  Woodworking is, in many ways, an idiosyncratic hobby, and different people will find that different techniques work for them.  If you don't like the way one author has you cutting dovetails, find another author.

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Tuesday, August 2, 2016

How you work determines how you think.

We've all heard it:  "When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."  It's sort of true, though.  One thing I've realized as I worked more with hand tools, and which I've mentioned before, is that a lot of things are simpler.  Not necessarily easier, but simpler.

I was just reading someone's blog posts about making a "Milkman's Bench", and they were talking about needing to be sure the grooves they milled for the tail vise were exactly 1/2".  "Why?", I thought.  "Just cut the tenons on the moving part once you've done the grooves, and the exact size won't matter at all!"  Except that's harder with power tools.  If you're cutting your tenon with a dado stack, you need to know exactly how high to set the blade, or you'll run into trouble.

In a different post, they were thickness planing to make sure that the pieces were exactly 1 5/8" thick.  "Why?", I asked myself again.  Well, because the parts are being made from a cut list.  If you're cutting everything from a list, then doing assembly, it's a lot easier to make sure everything is identical before you start doing assembly.  In non-machine work, it's kind of irrelevant what the actual size of any of the parts is, because it's trivial to just size each piece to fit the one before.  Maybe you end up at 1 11/16", or 1 7/8", but it doesn't really matter.

For me, it's now easier to treat dimensions as a guideline, an ideal that I don't really need to achieve unless I'm building a piece of furniture to fit a specific space.  Other than that... So what if I'm a few sixteenths off? I'm going to plane everything flush when I'm done anyway.

Now, please don't get me wrong.  This isn't a condemnation of power tools, or a statement that people are in some way "wrong" for building to exact dimensions.  If you're using power tools, it really is a better/easier way to work.  I think a lot of hand tool workers would be baffled by the idea of cutting everything to exact tolerances, and the power tools folks would be baffled by our failure to measure anything precisely.  Neither way is better.

The point is that the tools we use determines how we think about things, and how we approach problems.

I'm not dead yet!

The splint is off, the occupation therapist tells me I'm so close to 100% that there's nothing more she can do to help, and my back is recovered enough that I can consider time at the workbench without cringing.  All that means that it's time to get back to work, and to writing!

I have a few projects in mind for the next couple of months, and two of them tie neatly into the "Woodworking on $1.50 a day" series.  Those two are a Japanese-style toolbox and a small, portable workbench (the "Milkman's Bench", from Popular Woodworking).  I'll definitely be doing writeups of those.

The third is, potentially, an enormous nightmare.  I'm looking at replacing some of my old particle-board shelf units with Jefferson book-boxes, which is a LOT of dovetailing.  I'm initially looking at two stacks, probably around 12 boxes or so.  If they go well, though, I may be trying to make enough for all of the books in our house... I've got no idea how many books that actually is, but I'm pretty sure we broke 3000 paperbacks quite a while ago. So I'll have to consider carefully before actually starting this project.

In any case, I hope to be writing something meaningful again soon!