Speaking as someone who has read too many woodworking books, there are a few archetypes: the project book (“Birdhouse Bonanza”), the tool book (“Router Rodeo!”) and the black-turtleneck-and-beret books on why me make things (“My Mortise is Deeper than My Soul”).
Nancy Hiller’s new book “English Arts & Crafts Furniture” is none of these books. But you probably knew this because Hiller’s name is on it.
Instead “English Arts & Crafts Furniture” is one of those rare books that rewrites the history of the Arts & Crafts movement (it’s not just a reaction against industrialization – plus slats ‘n’ oak) while making you laugh and occasionally blush. She delves deep into the personalities that shaped the movement – John Ruskin and William Morris, plus the makers Harris Lebus, Ernest Gimson and the Barnsleys. And she presents three projects that are directly tied to her narrative thread.
It’s quite a trick, actually. It turns out that Hiller has written a project book with some very good information on tool use that happens to make me wonder about my motivation for making furniture for sale (now, where did I put my beret?).
Among her other feats of legerdemain: Hiller’s research is impeccable and copiously footnoted, yet the book is a breezy read. Despite the high level of craftsmanship displayed in her project pieces, Hiller manages to slough off her ego by profiling all the people who helped her along the way to make these incredible works – the stained glass maker, the woman who made the rush seats, the guy who make the hardware for her sideboard. And she manages to pack an incredible number of ideas and beautiful images into a book that is just 144 pages long.
If the book has any failings, I’d say that the illustrations could be improved. While there’s enough information to build the projects (and that’s all that matters), the line drawings don’t match the gorgeous photos, layout and typography. The book has some beautiful and expensive touches – the full-color endsheets match the wallpaper on the cover – but I kind of gag when I see advertisements bound into the back of a book. Those, however, are personal problems.
In all, this is a rare woodworking book. The kind of book that makes me jealous that I didn’t write it myself. (Or at least come up with Hiller’s fascinating way of combining biography, history, sociology, workshop instruction and butt jokes.)
So buy it, even if you think you don’t like English Arts & Crafts (though you probably will after seeing the movement through Hiller’s eyes). And buy it because it supports this kind of work that has become rare in the woodworking field. Most woodworking books these days have more gimmicks than gumption.
“English Arts & Crafts Furniture” is available from ShopWoodworking and other retailers. However, Hiller will make more money if you buy it from ShopWoodworking or directly from her at her upcoming book tour.
— Christopher Schwarz
P.S. If you are particularly charmed by the side chair in the book, Hiller will offer additional plans of the chair. Those will be available through her website.