Editor’s note: This weekend I had the privilege of working with Ernie Conover at the Northeastern Woodworkers Association’s “Showcase” in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Ernie, shown in the photo at left, helped judge the furniture show and taught hand skills during the show. Ernie has many books and magazine articles to his credit and runs The Conover Workshops. During our weekend together, Ernie noticed I was selling copies of “The Essential Woodworker.” Ernie then opened his laptop and showed me a review he’d written of the book in 1991, which he kindly allowed me to reprint here.
“The Essential Woodworker” by Robert Wearing is available in our store for $23.
— Christopher Schwarz
Soon after embarking on the reading of “The Essential Woodworker” I was a young student again. Only this time I was not shrugging of “as unimportant” the basic skills and techniques that are “essential” to being a top quality woodworker. I would like to kid myself that “The Essential Woodworker” was a review, however, I learned much!
Top educator and craftsman, Robert Wearing, prefaces the book with an astounding premise, which becomes the basis of the book. That is, that there is a multitude of books and articles available to woodworkers, but that the vast majority of these are far too advanced. They all neglect basics. Therefore, “The Essential Woodworker” is totally dedicated to hand woodworking basics. It is a primer designed for struggling neophytes working alone-without the aid of a teacher.
“The Essential Woodworker” succeeds admirably in its purpose. Anyone (machine or hand tool woodworker alike) who works through the clearly written text, with myriad of photos and fine illustrations, will gain much! All of the illustrations are done by the author in a clear, perspective drafting style that is most elucidating.
Mr. Wearing also subscribes to a thought that I have long held. Namely, that high quality woodworking is impossible without the use of bench planes. In the first chapter, he goes into the sharpening, tuning and use of these essential tools, along with a host of other basic skills, in detail. In succeeding chapters he explains the basic skills involved in table, carcase, and drawer/box construction. Chapter 4 on drawer construction was really written some years ago by Mr. Wearing’ mentor, Cecil Gough. The author explains in the Introduction, “that he cannot improve upon his tutor on this subject.” Finally in Appendices A through I Mr. Wearing presents detailed plans for a host of jigs, fixtures and work aids.
American readers will have to do some translation of terminology. For example half blind dovetails are lap dovetails, wood is timber and rabbet is rebate. Even the author loses sight of basics, and occasionally refers to skills and practices not covered in the book. For example the art of using a plane in a shooting board is not covered, however, the reader is several times instructed to “shoot” the ends of timbers.
Robert Wearing has given me some startling ideas reference teaching. Mastery of woodworking is not a progressive line starting with basics and ending with Zen mastery, but rather a ring joined immutably. The task for instructor and student is to break into this ring at a juncture where basics are mastered but interest in not lost. “The Essential Woodworker” does this admirably. As for Robert Wearing, I can only think of the lines from Julius Caesar, “Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus, and we petty men walk under his huge legs and peep about to find ourselves dishonorable graves.”
— Ernie Conover