Was the Author a Genuine Joiner?

Nothing drives a trained journalist crazier than an unanswered question.

As you probably know, the book “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker” doesn’t name the original author. He (and it almost certainly was a “he”) didn’t put his name on the book for a variety of reasons:

1. Perhaps the work was too “lowbrow” for someone of high station. 2. The original publisher, Charles Knight, didn’t want the author known for some reason, or Knight simply didn’t think it would help sales of the book. 3. The work was written by someone with zero credibility.

Now, before you cast your lot in with one of these three theories, here are a couple other data points. For starters, many of these “Guide to Trade” series of books from Charles Knight were written anonymously. “The Printer,” one of the other truly notable books in the series, has a fictional point of view much like “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker,” but it has no author listed. As do many other books in the series.

So “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker” wasn’t an anomaly in the “Guide to Trade” series.

Could the author have been someone who didn’t know jack-crap about woodworking? I think the evidence is mixed here. Though the language and the book’s “trade practices” match up with many other accounts, there is some evidence that some things are awry.

Point 1: Which comes first: The groove or the mortise? When Thomas the young apprentice is building the “Chest of Drawers,” he builds an elaborate frame-and-panel chest back. It’s a lot of work. Maybe too much work. As I noted in the book, I haven’t seen any chests from this era built like this. And, as Don McConnell from Clark & Williams, pointed out: The order of operations in building the back is odd.

Thomas plows a groove to hold the panels. Then he cuts the mortises. Trade practice was (and still is) to cut the mortises first and then plow the groove second. This procedure has a lot more forgiveness built in than the way Thomas built the back.

In other words, the process didn’t ring entirely true.

Second point: The book’s discussion of dovetailing the “Chest of Drawers” is odd in a few points. Though the book insists that pins are cut first, the book then explains an operation where cutting pins first is just silly: Dovetailing three rails into the top edge of the carcase sides. It’s foolish to cut the pins first here.

And while we are on the topic of dovetails, the language used by the author was a bit odd to me at one point. Though “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker” calls the joint a “dovetail,” the joint is separated into “pins” and “the holes that the pins fit into.” Other accounts from the period separate the joint into “pins” and “tails,” just like we do today. It’s just odd.

I don’t know what all this adds up to. Honestly, most of the language and techniques line up with what we know of trade practice in early 19th-century England. But the exceptions do stick in my craw.

I have some ideas about how to track down the author and am working on it now. None of them are easy or fast. So does who wrote the book really matter?

— Christopher Schwarz

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12 Responses to Was the Author a Genuine Joiner?

  1. james says:

    "So does who wrote the book really matter?"

    It depends on who you ask, to me no, it does not matter. The important thing for me is, does it capture a true snapshot of woodworkers in early 19th century england.

  2. Terry says:

    Chris, I think the real question here is: Does not knowing if the author was a joiner driving you crazy as an author..or as a joiner?

  3. james says:

    There is another possibility, since there was a series of "how to" books, they were "ghost" authored by a professional writer in collaboration with various artisans/tradesman. That would explain why some of the technical details are not quite correct.

  4. jacob says:

    I’d guess that the book was written by one author but may well have been re-edited, revised and even re-written, by numbers of people working for the publisher. If the publishers actually commissioned it in the first place (a common practice) they may see it as ‘their’ book, the actual author being just a detail.

    It’s an on going tradition – I know of at least one well known (modern) woodwork book which was not written by the author named on the cover. It was compiled by a large team including writers and illustrators, most with no prior woodwork knowledge. The ‘author’s’ role was first as a ‘name’ and second as a consultant.

    Then there are the inevitable typo’s and the downright misinformation missed by proof readers and editors.

    Some books are not even written or commissioned but start life as a proposal from a ‘book packager’ who will then seek out a publisher and some writers.

    This is all commonplace and the only conclusion is that one shouldn’t take as gospel anything you read!

  5. I think Jacob makes a good point. I would think it entirely possible that the "author" was functionally illiterate. It may also have been the case that he had a bit of a strong accent as far the publishers were concerned.

    Regional dialects are less pronounced today than they probably were in the past, but imagine a Kentuckian conversing with his New York publishers.

  6. Bjenk says:

    Inconsistencies in the material could indicate more than one author. In the spirit of a trade series, this could be the collection of information gathered by a single editor who approached several craftsmen to complete this volume in the series.

    I’m speculating.

  7. I think it’s difficult to know or say how much the author knew about the trade. On the one hand, there is an awful lot of information in there that makes a lot of sense from the perspective of someone working only with hand tools. For example, the little to no mention of tiresome thickness planing. They had access to rough sawn boards thinner than 4/4, which is also mentioned at one point, and which would eliminate the "chore" and tedium of planing 4/4 stock to thinner dimensions. It’s also clear that there was no 4-squaring of stock going on. To someone using only hand tools, 4-squaring every piece of stock is completely ineffecient. And while some of the "Step by Step" may not seem entirely accurate or effecient (i.e. your dovetail example), I think it’s clear that whoever described the processes knew something about joinery. He may not have been a shop master, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he didn’t know jack-crap about woodworking.

    Regarding the plowing of the groove before chopping the mortise, I do this all the time. I think it makes it very easy to get the mortise aligned with the groove this way. As long as your plow iron and mortise chisel are the same width (or at least close), it works fine. It may not be "Trade Practice" but I’ve not seen a lot of references that would state it must be done otherwise. In addition, "Trade Practice" would likely be more prevalent in urban shops where guilds would encourage the sharing of information. At the same time, I would wager a guess that between shops, and especially in a truly rural shop, the mechanics likely developed their own ways of doing things. I think it’s safe to say that just like today, there was really no one way of doing things. You could say that today "Trade Practice" is to cut the mortise on a hollow chisel mortiser and the groove on a table saw, but I think we all know that there is more than one way to skin a cat.

    Does it matter if the author wasn’t a joiner himself? I agree that it depends on who you ask. Joseph Moxon wasn’t a joiner, but he wrote about it. Does that make his work any less important? Perhaps "The Joiner and Cabinetmaker" was done in a similar manner. If someone else actually authored the book with a "real" joiner consulting on it’s content, maybe the author got some of his notes mixed up. "OK, now did he say that the pins were cut first? And what was the other part of the joint called again? I can’t remember, I’ll just call it the holes for the pins, they’ll get the idea."

    In the end, I think we need to keep in mind that while there is some good information contained in the book, it wasn’t written to be a complete how to for shop practices, so we shouldn’t expect to find difinitive answers to all of the mysteries of the craft contained within it. If the book gave up all the secrets, why would one need to go through an apprenticeship ;)? I interpreted the intent of the book as a way introduce someone with no knowledge of the trade to what they MIGHT expect to do and learn as a joiner’s apprentice. And for this purpose, I think it served its intent well.

  8. AAAndrew says:

    I’ve also cut the groove before the mortise, especially when I was making a frame and panel using 1/4" panels. I have a dedicated wooden plane that is from a tongue and groove set that works perfectly for this. I use this to set the distance and width of the groove, then use the sides of the groove to help me keep my mortise chisel registered in the same line and vertical. I also use the same groove plane on the other side of the piece for marking out where to start cutting the mortise on the other side as well, if I’m doing a through mortise. It’s faster and more accurate then setting up a marking gauge. I use the tools to determine the placement and size.

    And from what little I know of the publishing industry, even well into the 19th century there were whole streets of scriveners eking out a living writing piece work. They were paid by the page and size of page (quarto, octavo, etc…), or so much for a book, so much for a pamphlet, so much for a reference work. Some were quite good and specialized in certain types of production, if your book was ghost written it was most likely someone like this, a professional writer about trades. Some were generalists who would tackle any topic, whether they knew anything about it or not. (today they’re called TV pundits)

    As long as other evidence points to it being a relatively accurate description of the practices of the time, it’s overall good, and a worthwhile secondary source. I’m waiting for the delivery of mine and am anxious to dig into it.

    Thanks to all of you for bringing it to life.

  9. John says:

    Yes, I am going to join Bob and Andrew on this issue of the groove first. I have had the same experience where the groove allows the mortis to line up by placing the mortis chisel in the groove and deepening.

    Yes? I am not sure how the other way has more forgiveness in it, but then again I have not done a lot of them yet.

  10. Rick Yochim says:

    Chris,

    From a purely woodworking perspective, I don’t think it matters who authored the book. By omitting the author’s name, it appears the publisher felt the message was more important than the messenger.

    If the information given or the book’s readability was suspect, I doubt that it would have made much of a difference to the readership had the author(s) been cited. The reviews would have been bad and even fewer copies sold. Fortunately this is not the case and for the most part it was (and is) useful woodworking knowledge conveyed in a pleasant and readable manner. So I think your third criterion regarding author credibility is more a reflection of our modern sensibilities than something given importance back then.

    That said, I completely understand why it would matter to a woodworking journalist and historian who it was that actually wrote this book. And I hope you find out too. But for me, knowing the author will neither enhance nor detract from the quality of the work. It, like a lot of really good furniture, seems to have stood well enough without a signature.

    (Piling on here, but I plow my grooves before chopping mortises too. And for exactly the same reason as Bob stated.)

    Stay curious.

    Rick Yochim

  11. ChrisF says:

    I’m curious about the mortise/groove thing as well. Why is it more forgiving to do the mortises first?

    I suppose it would let you cut the tenons first, then lay out the mortises, then flush up the show surface, and finally cut the grooves referencing from the show surface. Is that it?

  12. Gary Roberts says:

    There was also a certain ‘gentleman of leisure’ spirit to authoring a book anonymously. James Lukin did this quite a bit. Those in the know knew from whence the book came while the author could sit back and revel in the not-always-well-kept secret. Without copyright laws, ownership of a title was more a matter of prestige, which might be not what a person of gentle aspirations would want to be known for if that prestige derived from trades or craftwork.

    Gary

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