Monday, 29 June 2009

I Bought It, I Read It, I Don’t Get It.

There are three things in life that I truly love; a good read, woodworking and anything historical. Currently, I am building a small library of history books, I am building a small collection of vintage hand tools, and other than electronics, most of the purchases I make for my home are through antique dealers.

With this in mind, you would think that Christopher Schwarz’s current remake of Joseph Moxon’s “The Art of Joinery” would be right up my ally. It wasn’t. In fact, I was so bored with the whole thing that I truly struggled to finish it.

“For if the wood be hard, the iron must stand more upright than it need do if the wood be soft”.

The above quote is typical of Moxon’s “insights” into the historical “secrets” of woodworking. And that, I found, to be the rub of the book – there isn’t any, insights or secrets that is. What “The Art of Joinery” turned out to be for me was a very difficult and painful read to glean information that I already knew.

With the constant barrage of hype for the book on just about every woodworking web site and blog that I frequent, I was expecting it to be the be-all and end-all on everything to do with the craft. Throughout these sites, statements, such as “According to Moxon…”, or, “Listed in The Art of Joinery…”, are found so frequently and used so often to give credibility to one technique or another, that I was expecting the sales representative at Lee Valley Tools to lay a virtual “Bible” on the counter in front of me. Needless to say, I was more than a little disappointed when what he did present to me was the thinnest publication I have seen that wasn’t published by Hallmark, but once read, I was thankful it wasn't any thicker than it was. The two covers total exactly half the thickness of the entire book, which is only a ½ inch in total.

While I won’t blame Christopher for it, I do have to state that I knew I was in trouble with this purchase after reading his introduction which spans the first three pages of the book. While it is an explanation regarding what he had done with the original version, he also told me that Mr. Moxon hadn’t picked up a plane in his life and that his writings regarding those planes were going to be truly a pain in the butt to read. More importantly, though, Christopher told me, in that short passage, that I wasn’t going to get any “insights” into woodworking. Here, he stated that Moxon’s work was the equivalent of having, “watched the joiners at work for a few weeks and got to ask them some questions over a small beer”. To me, this immediately told me that there wasn’t going to be any revelations from this book because if I got to watch joiners at work for a few weeks, I’d be biting at the bite to get to work using the techniques I had witnessed over that time, not waiting to ask questions about them. Chris also pointed out, in these same first three pages, that he had “issues” with the illustrations provided in the book’s original form, as noted by his caption under the illustration of the workbench on Page 5.

What I did enjoy in the book was Christopher’s photographic descriptions of cutting mortises and flattening boards with hand planes. While informative, descriptive and an entertaining education into the processes used to achieve acceptable results in these two areas of joinery, I couldn’t tie Moxon’s work with Christopher’s. One was a historical narrative that told me very little, while the other was modern display of information and told me a great deal. It all left me feeling that the $16.00 would have been better spent towards the purchase of Christopher’s DVD entitled, “Building Furniture with Hand Planes”. It also told me that, while many things have not improved over time, but just changed, our ability to communicate with each other isn't one of them.

The bottom line is that the original version, while historical in nature, used incorrect illustrations, offered superficial descriptions of the tools used during that historical timeframe, was written in a language that today is difficult to understand and was all put together by a man who didn’t know firsthand what the hell he was talking about. As someone who is known for using the term, “stuff” to describe just about everything around him, the only thing I got out the read was the thought that maybe I should stop using it. Moxon’s consistent use of that term throughout was a royal pain in the butt and only served to show me that using it wasn’t cool in the 17th century, and is probably just as uncool today, but then again, I'm still using the term "cool", so what do I know?

I know it is bordering on the sacrilegious, and for that I apologize, but “The Art of Joinery” just didn’t do it for me.



    Having written an article on Christopher Schwarz's republication of Moxon's, "The Art of Joinery", and having read some of the comments made by a few, including Christopher himself, and as a result I think I failed to present my point about this publication in an understandable way. With that in mind, I would like to make a few clarifications, if I may.
    As a historical work, I completely understand the hype for Moxon. I "get" that it is, as Christopher pointed out, "the first English language woodworking book" published. I "get" that it gives an insightful look at the workbenches of the craft in the 17th century. The thing is, and the point I thought I made quite clear in my original article, is that I didn't buy the book for its historical significance. I bought it because I believed the hype.

    To quote my original posting, "With the constant barrage of hype for the book on just about every woodworking web site and blog that I frequent, I was expecting it to be the be-all and end-all on everything to do with the craft." Because this book is used so often as a reference, I was expecting a cornucopia of insightful descriptions of everything woodworking. I didn't get that with the book, and that is the point I tried to raise with the original post.

    To be as clear as I possibly can be about this subject, the remake of Moxon's "The Art of Joinery" holds the place of honour in regards to its historical significance to the woodworking community. It also possibly holds a great deal of historical significance to the publishing community as well. As for its significance for me - not so much. I am neither a traditional woodworker, or a woodworking historian. I am just a guy who likes old tools and like to build things with them. As a result, I am looking for books, magazine articles, DVD's and anything else that would teach me how to build those things a little better and with a little more accuracy. Because Moxon and I are coming at woodworking from different ends of the woodworking spectrum, the republication didn't do a thing for me and I found it a very difficult read that gave up no secrets for me and my hobby.
    The one line that, to me, states my original post's position, and the one I still stand behind, by the way, is, "It all left me feeling that the $16.00 would have been better spent towards the purchase of Christopher’s DVD entitled, “Building Furniture with Hand Planes”.

    I hope this clarifies my position.

    Peace one more time,



  1. That you for posting this. I've been debating buying this book and it sounds like my procrastinating paid off. Based on your information, I would have came away feeling like I wasted my money too.

  2. Thank you for this sincere review (is hardly to find someone in woodworking blogsphere who has the courage to criticise anything sponsored by Christopher Schwarz).

  3. Mitchell,

    You are not alone. Lots of people don't get much from Moxon. But it is the first English language woodworking book, and that is why we republished it.

    Drop me a line at and we'll get you a refund.


  4. Man, you guys are really scaring me.

    Kevin, I get very nervous when someone takes my word for something. I'm married. I'm not used to it.

    Alan, your welcome, although "courage" wasn't anywhere near my mind when I wrote it.

  5. Jumping into the fray...

    1. Joseph Moxon did know quite a bit of what he wrote. He was a maker of globes, maps and various scientific instruments. His knowledge covered the skills needed in working wood, metal, glass. He was an experienced typemaker (wood and metal), printer, publisher, etc. He, like most people of his day, was not an expert in everything. It was considered to be the 'thing' to be a well rounded Scientist (intelligentsia) which included knowledge of all things philosophical, physical and elemental. Even if said knowledge was not of great depth at times.

    Mechanick Exercises was intended to expose the secrets behind the trades involved in the building of houses, not the furntiture maker, who was often the joiner who helped to build the house. Furniture not being a particularly big item at that time.

    2. Yes, Mechanick Exercises is an historical document in many ways. Part social statement, part secrets debunker, part an example of political activisim. It presents a basis from which we can figure out why and how we do things now, particularly in wood. Which doesn't mean it's a primer in woodworking. If you don't have a particular interest in the history of the development of trades and crafts, the title, in any iteration, will not be for you. If your goal is to learn to make dovetails in a 'traditional' method, this is not the book that will do so.

    3. Example: Charles Hayward is taken to be the end all and be all of wood authors. Yet, he was not the first. There are authors who predate Hayward from whom he drew his training and writing styles. Reviewing their work gives the user insight into why and how Hayward chose to emphasize particular tasks.

    4. All that said, I'm a Bookman, Ephemerist, Woodworker, etc and that does colour my perception of things. However, I also don't jump to critique a title without first determining why it was written, for whom it was written and when. Richard Sennett wrote an amazing book on Craft which I would not recommend as a rule. He follows a very convoluted set of reasonings on the development of craft which gives me headaches. But if you want to discuss the origins and meaning of craft, his is the book to start with.

  6. Hey, Gary, if anyone would know that basis of a historical work, it would be you.

    I appreciate your comments.



  7. Mitchell,
    Your thoughts/opinions as initially stated needed no clarifications. They were clear & concise and appreciated by those of us who are not so focused upon the historical, but the practical.

    Thank you for this blog entry.