Everything Old is New Again

The New Traditional Woodworker

By Jim Tolpin

Illustrated. 175 pp. Popular Woodworking Books $26.99


Henry David Thoreau once remarked, “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.” A sentiment seemed to be shared by a growing number of woodworkers setting aside the comfort of power tools to embrace hand tools of old. I suspect many hand tool workers would relish the austerity of Thoreau’s Walden Pond cabin – solitude without the annoyance of electricity.

But then again Thoreau encouraged cold showers during frigid New England winters, and had little interest in the absurd indulgence required for “making a living.” He was an 19th century philosopher (among many other things) with little concern for selling what he made. A bold life, as long as someone else pays the bills. Taking inspiration from Thoreau, I’ll respond with “Philosopher” when folks ask me what I do. Sounds better than retired. Or unemployed.

One of the founders and faculty members of the Port Townsend School of Woodworking, author Jim Tolpin embraces this hand tool enthusiasm in The New Traditional Woodworker. After almost three decades as a “modern” woodworker – one relying on modern woodworking machines – the author has cleared his shop of the noise and dust of power tools so that he, in his own words, can focus on “Working Wood, Not Machining It”.

Unlike the sentiment expressed by a few strict hand tool adherents, Tolpin does acknowledge the challenge of generating a living wage without the help of machines. The “new” woodworkers turning to “old” traditions tend to be ones having time, and money, to invest without the need for immediate payout. These new woodworkers turn to hand tools for, quite simply, the fun of it, and Tolpin’s love of working wood certainly resonates throughout this expansive book. Readers who have never picked up a hand tool are immersed in tool selection, work shop setup, essential skills, and traditional processes. This is not a book of designs; rather a soup to nuts manual outfitting the reader, and their shop, for the building of fine wood projects without an armory of industrial machine tools.

Straight Edge made of walnut.

The New Traditional Woodworker starts with workbench requirements (enough to leave you wanting at least three benches in your shop), a dictionary like description of common, and not so common (bradawls and gimlets, anyone?), tools, wood characteristics, and a solid section on keeping those tools sharp. This last subject is one that really hobbled me on my first shot at planing. A cheap plane, or for that matter even a reasonably expensive one, needs to be sharpened before ever cutting wood. Nothing grinds the pleasure out of woodworking faster than a dull hand tool. And I’ll say it – sharpening is a pain in the arse. Buy a used spokeshave from Ebay for $30 and spend $200 on stones, plates, guides, grinders, jigs, and strops in an effort to get it razor sharp. But it has to be done, you need to know how to do it, and Topin shows you how. Glad that he also recommends a dedicated space for sharpening. Because if sharpening is a hassle to do, then you’re less likely to do it, and your work will suffer. Avoid this vicious cycle and find a place to keep sharpening tools out and ready.

My vintage Stanley no. 78 rebate plane working on a bench hook. Fun to use, as long as the blade is sharp.

Once the groundwork is laid out, the author dives into the first of over thirteen projects meant to put those tools to work building extremely useful shop aides (or jigs) all while learning critical woodworking skills. This book is well organized and methodical; each project focuses on the skillset, toolset, and process. And considering that over 30 pages are spent describing tools, the first project is a hint that outfitting a hand tool workshop can be expensive (still less than a similarly equipped power shop). For an elegant straightedge – which, conceptually, is difficult to think on since you end up building a…board – the tools introduced are a marking gauge, layout square, rip and crosscut handsaws, try plane, smooth plane, drawknife, rasp, file, low-angle spokeshave, and brace and bit. Whew. At the end of the book you’ve added an assortment of bench chisels, a back saw, bow saw, coping saw, tenon saw, paring chisel, bevel gauge, block plane, dividers, hand drill, scrub plane, shoulder plane, router plane, crank-necked chisel, auger bit, flush-cut saw, keyhole saw, and dovetail saw. Tool makers must be drooling. With few exceptions Tolpin reserves his recommendations to specific types of tools, not brands. From the photos tool owners will pick out a few prominent premium makes, including Veritas and Lie-Nielsen. Not all tools listed are required, and the author takes the time to suggest alternatives where appropriate. I turned to my Porter Cable jigsaw because I lacked a decent keyhole saw, used a power hand drill instead of a brace, made due without a crank-necked chisel, and reached for sandpaper rather than specialized rasps and files.

Tolpin himself doesn’t forsake all machines, or the need for certain machining. His own shop still houses a bandsaw and drill press. And while he provides a very easy to understand section on a six square process for truing a board, the author notes the convenience of purchasing properly dimensioned and surfaced wood. Doing so strikes a fair balance between the burden of acquiring and maintaining a jointer and planer, and the chore of hand sawing and planing every piece of wood that enters the shop.

Bench hooks built from construction lumber and scrap cherry. Ready for handsawing…

One issue with a book that wants to be everything for everyone is that it can’t be done. An earnest attempt to do so results in a multi-volume encyclopedia set, and a six foot tall bookshelf to hold them. In this single volume, 175-page book something has to be left out. So we’ll read that a handsaw is a tool that “separates a board into different widths”, while cambered and hollow plane blades are mentioned without any real follow up details. Tolpin does an admirable job preparing the beginner for work, this is simply the extreme challenge of condensing so much knowledge into the short space provided by a printed book. It’s why whole schools – such as his – are dedicated to the art of woodworking.

Tolpin also dips his foot in the Zen like state of hand tool woodworking. The subtitle of his book is “From Tool Set to Skill Set to Mind Set”. You must…be the wood – okay, not quite that esoteric. Rather the author explores concepts of hand tool efficiency, accuracy, and measurement. Instead of measuring out an exact ¾ in. mortise, the width should be based on the particular chisel being used, or what he refers to as “tool slaving”.

I do quibble a bit with his philosophy when it comes to cut lists – the thought being you shouldn’t have them. And for the most part he doesn’t provide them in his projects. Dimensions are based on geometry (yuck); ratios portioned out with dividers and squares. It makes perfect sense; most designs embrace the principle of the Golden Ratio. Decide on the size of the first piece and, based on geometry, everything else is calculated or derived from that initial sizing. I get that. He goes a tad further though, wanting a more arbitrary measurement to start out with, such as the breadth of your hand. Will I really ask my lumber guy, holding up my paw, “Got any walnut this wide and a third longer?” It only takes a quick scan of a cut list for a clue on what to search for in my wood bin. Which probably means my mindset isn’t exactly where the author wants it to be. Fortunately, each project has hand drawn diagrams with example like measurements, so even neophytes like myself can get started.

Winding sticks made of mahogany and possibly sycamore. Mystery wood pulled from the wood bin because it was around…five hands long.

Tools, techniques, and wisdom; The New Traditional Woodworker is an engaging, enlightening, and productive manual from an author well versed in the craft. Although machine tools offer speed and ease (and missing fingers), hand tools encourage the woodworker to enjoy a more leisurely, enjoyable pace. Follow Jim Tolpin’s advise and step closer to the wood, and away from the machines.

As rustic philosopher Thoreau once cautioned about the easy way… “The path of least resistance leads to crooked rivers and crooked men.”

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