I’ve hesitated to write this blog entry because it will seem self-serving. But by now, all the people who visit this blog have made a decision. Either you’ve bought “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker” or you haven’t.
So I’m not trying to change your mind about the book. I really don’t care either way if you buy it. In fact, if you want to borrow my copy to read it, drop me a line. I trust woodworkers to send it back.
Today, April 4, is one year to the day that I threw myself into this project like a virgin into a volcano. I’d read the original 1839 text about three or four times. I’d bought $300 worth of white pine and another $300 of black cherry harvested from an Indiana cemetery. (Yes, I do worry that the wood is cursed.)
As I stood before the pile of wood in the shop I wondered if I was doing the right thing. It would be so much easier just to republish the original 1839 text with some quick historical notes. That finished book could be at the printer in a matter of a couple weeks. Instead, I thought it would be a good idea to test the original text by rebuilding the three projects by hand, just as Thomas – the hero of the book – did.
There was no guarantee that I’d learn anything from the process. In fact, there really wasn’t anything presented in the 1839 text that I didn’t already know how to do quite well by hand – mortising, tenoning, dovetails, stock prep, carcase construction. I’ve been comfortable with all those hand operations for some time.
So I was looking for something else when I started slicing into the pine to make the Packing Box, the first project in “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker.” But I didn’t quite know what.
Let me spoil the ending: I did learn something that I now carry with me every day. But I didn’t realize it until the book was published and mailed out to readers. My little moment of insight came months later when I was building a reproduction of a small side table for the White Water Shaker Village.
Unlike when building projects for “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker,” there were no “rules” about how this Shaker table got built. I could crank up the CNC machine (if I had one) and barf out the table. But I didn’t take the machine route. Sure, I used a couple machines to get the legs into shape. Those were a nightmare.
But almost everything else was by hand. Why? Because I knew this table had something to teach me, even though I had no idea what that something was.
I know this is starting to sound like an Escher drawing so let me short-circuit the spiral. Hand skills develop differently than machine skills. I can say this because I have both. Hand skills develop in strange ways that aren’t linear.
When you learn to saw – really flipping saw – you learn something else other than tracking a line. You learn what perpendicular is. Not theoretical perpendicular. Real gut-check perpendicular. You can look at anything, and and your perpendicular senses start tingling when things are just right.
And that makes you awesome with a chisel, moulding planes and the brace. Learn to saw, and the quality of your mortises take off.
Oh and so does your ability to prepare stock by hand. Once you know perpendicular, you quickly learn flat and you learn to sense right angles. So stock prep becomes easier. You don’t need to try your stock with winding sticks as much, you can feel, hear and quickly see when your stock is twisted, cupped or bowed.
So “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker” made me a junky for this stuff. Somewhere out there are a set of tasks that will unlock my ability to saw curves the way I want to saw curves. So when it came time to build my next workbench, I decided to give up the machines as much as possible. Not because of something about personal hand-tool purity. Far from it.
I just want to be better than you. And this is the fastest way to get there.
— Christopher Schwarz