Woodworking by Jack Handy


I wonder sometimes if the reason old woodworking texts seem frustratingly incomplete to us is because there weren’t many words out there that could help one learn the craft.


Put another way: Why do most old woodworking texts begin with an exhaustive explanation of geometry and then refuse to tell us how to set up a smoothing plane?

— Christopher Schwarz

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33 Responses to Woodworking by Jack Handy

  1. blefty says:

    Maybe because of the great rift between traditional academic education and vocational education. We have an inferiority complex.

  2. fitz says:

    Because geometry is a hell of a lot harder than setting up a smoothing plane. But maybe that’s just my dyscalculia talking.

  3. blefty says:

    Not sure it is harder to do geometry, just different.

  4. pereqa says:

    I believe it is one of those things that comes with how society looks and works at any given time. Nowadays any 5 year old can download and set up apps on an iphone and whatnot. 150 years ago, any person that needed to, could set up a (wooden) smoothing plane or ride 5o miles on horseback nonstop. Nothing to it, it just depends..

  5. bsrlee says:

    Perhaps the author expected their audience to be fully trained in the setup and maintenance of their tools before they needed the extra knowledge of geometrical construction? Like how car manuals don’t teach you how open the door lock, change a tyre or even how to drive – its all assumed common knowledge.

    Its not even particularly modern, its been going on for millennia – Classical Greek and Roman ‘manuals’ don’t tell you how to set up or maintain the tools needed to make a column or a temple pediment, they just tell you how to set it out – your workmen are assumed to be already trained.

  6. Roger Hylr says:

    Geometry is harder than setting up a smoothing plane.

  7. Roger Hylr says:

    … and you know when you set up a smoothing plane incorrectly.

  8. woodworkerme says:

    on of the book I teach out of is “Bench Work in Wood by W.F.M GOSS” 1887 and it covers this and other thing well I love this book. a little hard to read at times but a Great book

  9. jonathanszczepanski says:

    I wonder if it has to do with the academic approach versus the craftperson approach.

    An academic deals in theories, formulas, and exacting numbers. Things like angles, chords, and tangents could be analyzed and hypothesized. A craftsperson would be concerned with the practical approach to get the job done. A craftsperson would be more concerned with something “looking” or “feeling” right, and they would use things like proportions and dividers to figure them out, and not algebraic formulas.

    The average craftsperson long ago wouldn’t use texts much, if they could read at all I would guess. The authors of old texts just might be writing in the vocabulary that they and their academic readers used, and not what the hands-on craftsperson used.

    It’s the difference between measuring a shaving with calipers or old groats. One works in a text book for academics, one works for someone making something.

    I dunno. Just a thought.

  10. Ryan McNabb says:

    A child asked me, ” What is the rain?”
    I replied, “Perhaps it is God’s tears.”
    “Why is God sad”
    “Probably because of something you did.”

  11. Jerry Palmer says:

    And some things which should have been forgotten were lost. History became legend, legend became myth….. until it past out of all knowledge …..(paraphrased)

  12. The face of a Woodworker can say so much. Especially the mouth part of the face.

  13. This is a rhetorical question, isn’t it?

    • beshriver says:

      no such thing with Chris…he’s like a dog with a bone…i would bet cash money he’s researching an answer… and he’ll keep researching until he finds the answer he likes.

  14. If you ever for some reason tried to bend a piece of kiln dried ash for a chair, and it broke, let it go, because man, it’s gone.

  15. Judith Katz says:

    they learned to use tools at their fathers knees (or grandfathers). geometry as a written down process was known only to the very few

  16. Narayan says:

    Oh, please. No need to be hyperbolic.

  17. Narayan says:

    Now you are just talking in circles.

  18. Ryan McNabb says:

    And the deepest quote of all…”May the Schwarz be with you.”

  19. jenohdit says:

    It’s a class issue really.

    It seems pretty common now to imagine some sort of past universal woodworker who did it all when really someone whose trade was something like chair bodger may never or only very rarely have made something as simple as a dovetailed box.

    Craft or trade training was specific, done while working, and limited to what was needed to make the thing the trade makes. Standard forms were made over and over by numerous makers with only slight variation. Innovation was measured in terms of generations and not often of individual makers.

    HIgh style furniture and interior decorating were responsive to architecture in the past just as they are now. That being architecture as a discipline distinct from building. The distinction is that one is driven by ideas and one by need, not that there isn’t crossover to some extent (please spare me that response).

    Architecture has been driven by theory for a very long time. There is continuity, but ideas evolve far more rapidly than craft traditions. Any maker who wants to respond to the architecture of his (or her) era is going to need some grounding in that theory and some skill in the practical application of that theory to the representation of furniture that is proposed to be built.

    The product of that theorizing is an image, not an object. Those books much like architectural treatises aid the craft of drawing according to particular guidelines and with enough technical knowledge to make things work. The maker of the image of a thing may be but often isn’t the one to ultimately craft it if it is to be crafted. The majority of designs have always lived only in paper space.

    Anyone with access to a book like that when it was published was likely accomplished at his craft and moved on up to a level where it mattered that he understand the theoretical aspects of design or came from a class that allowed him to bypass the shop floor stage entirely. Either way, he wasn’t in training in how to use a plane.

    Craft knowledge is tacit knowledge. Books are great but they don’t tell me what my plane should sound like. The study of the transmission of tacit knowledge is part of the larger subject of “design research” which is a pretty opened ended term. I don’t know of any specific study related to woodworking, but I’ll bet it’s out there.

    This is a study of the transmission of tacit knowledge among Sheffield (England) knife makers.
    It’s a very interesting project and I think provides insights into craft training in general. The information gathered was distilled into materials that were then the basis of a class which produced some really amazing projects. http://foldingknives.blogspot.com/

    This is the blog of the author of the study. She’s a woodworker with a PhD who lectures in Critical Studies. (sounds lucrative eh?)

  20. Anyone that cared about writing books didn’t care about using planes, and anyone that cared about using planes didn’t care about writing books.

    Until now, when we have supermen that can do both!

  21. Maybe it’s quite literally Euclid’s Bridge of Asses – the craft bits you learn with your hands on the tools, but if you are looking at a book at all, somebody obviously figured you might have the makings of a master woodworker. Especially the house carpenters needed the geometry to design various kinds of trusses.

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