Seek and Ye Shall Find

The Essential Woodworker

By Robert Wearing

Illustrated. 253 pp. Lost Art Press LLC. $29.00 (Hardbound)


Sometimes you’ll get directions that can only be followed if you kinda knew how to get there in the first place. It’s the type of help that demands a person already have a general lay of the land so they won’t require every little detail spelled out.

Robert Wearing’s The Essential Woodworker is a bit like that. It’s a solid book packed tight with sage advice. But to keep from getting lost the reader better come to the workbench with a basic understanding of woodworking. Although not so vague as gas station directions of “ya just turn right there where George and Velma’s old henhouse burnt down”, it also doesn’t burden the audience with beginner like instruction for every facet of woodworking.

Originally published in 1988 and brought back into circulation by Lost Art Press in 2010, The Essential Woodworking is a masterful text directed at the hand tool enthusiast. The subtitle is “Skills, Tools And Methods”, and is a stunning amount of material covered in what feels like a relatively small book (even though it’s over 250 pages long). Wearing starts with basic skills with woodworking tools – the hand powered type -  before turning his attention to standard construction techniques for tables, carcasses, and boxes. Along the way covering mortise and tenons, dovetails, miter joints, and all manner of cabinet making.

Generally, I found the first half of the book to be the most valuable for someone who, like myself, has a modest amount of experience with hand tools. Wearing’s walkthrough of the hand plane was invaluable. As I mentioned in my discussion of Doug Stowe’s Illustrated Guide to Box Making, Wearing's orderly process of deconstructing the plane, handling the tool, practicing on scrap wood, and eventually producing a flattened board was clean and well thought out. Read, learn, and apply.

It’s when the author dived into carcasses that I struggled to stay on course. His focus shifted to cabinet making skills, and since I’ve had little experience in this area it required me to reread passages in an attempt to fully understand each of the steps. And that’s because this book is a brick. Dense, tight, and at times cryptic. Completely devoid of any superfluous text. Which is usually a good thing, unless concepts don’t receive enough focus to fully flesh them out. The problem was I had to work too hard at it. Not that I have anything against hard work; for some people it’s a virtue.

This difficulty was exasperated by a structural element of the book. Ever have someone hand you a map quickly sketched out on a napkin? Those scribbles could be mountains, or railroad tracks, a river, road, gulley, alley or a herd of mountain goats. The illustrations in The Essential Woodworking (except for a handful of black and white photos) are simple line drawings, and there’s just so far you can go with line drawings, even if you include 300 of them. Photos add depth, especially when a series provides multiple angles. Line drawings loose subtleties. A glass fronted door oddly looked just like a solid door. Visual learners are left behind. Understandably, glossy photos add significant cost to a book without guaranteeing they actually help the reader. But a good picture is certainly worth a thousand words.

And unless you’re already well versed in British English, traversing the terminology can be a slog through the English Channel. Wearing speaks of glasspaper (sandpaper), cramping (clamping), sash cramps (bar clamps), sawbench (table saw top, I think), wobble washers (tapered washers), cutting lap dovetails (half-blind dovetails), rebates (rabbets), loose tongues (hidden splines), and a diagonal lath (most likely diagonal testing stick). These translations can be jarring - as when he spoke of cutting a rebate with a circular saw. The immediate visual image conjured tripped me up. Apparently there was some editorial corrections made, a discussion of a miter jig mentions both “table saw” and “sawbench”. These little nuances can slow down the reading.

Yet even with these distractions the author easily moves from covering complex techniques to providing simple and clear advice, such as his helpful guidance on gluing, or his approach to tenons. For this all important joint he advocates starting with the cheeks and then cutting the shoulder. When going shoulder first I had the tendency to overshoot and slice into the cheek, a mistake I hope to avoid in the future. There are also nine appendices tacked to the back that include some seven different jigs, and a few more pieces of advice.

There is a pdf version of this book, which I think would be a real shame since you would miss out on the high quality of the printed copy. The hardbound version has a simple, unadorned cloth cover with the sections (called signatures in the publishing world) sewn in, which means that over the years the pages should remain between the covers. It’s a book that just feels nice in the hand. This fourth printing of the revised edition does contain a few typos (two diagrams labeled 483), which I probably wouldn’t have noticed if it wasn’t for the fact that I had to study the diagrams so darn closely.

Even with all its little quirks, The Essential Woodworker is absolutely great for filling in any missing methods, fleshing out classic techniques, and reinforcing fundamental woodworking skills. It’s a book certain to be used throughout the woodworking years.

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