The following is excerpted from “Woodworking in Estonia,” by Ants Viires; translation by Mart Aru.
It’s one of Roy Underhill’s three favorite woodworking books, but you can’t buy a copy of it for love or money. Translated into English without the author’s permission in the late 1960s, “Woodworking in Estonia” has been a cult classic ever since it first surfaced.
It is, according to Underhill, “one of the best books on folk woodworking ever” and covers the entire woodworking history of this small Northern European nation from pre-historical times through occupation by the Germans and Soviets up through Estonian independence.
The author, Ants Viires, devoted his life to recording the hand-tool folkways of his country without a shred of romanticism. Viires combined personal interviews and direct observation of work habits with archaeological evidence and a thorough scouring of the literature in his country and surrounding nations.
If all this sounds like a dry treatise, it’s not. “Woodworking in Estonia” is an important piece of evidence in understanding how our ancestors worked wood and understood it more intimately than we do. Viires records in great detail everything from the superstitions surrounding the harvesting of wood (should you whistle in the forest?) to detailed descriptions of how the Estonians dried the wood, bent it, steamed it and even buried it in horse dung to shape it for their needs.
Lost Art Press spent more than two years bringing this book back to life. We contacted the author before his death in 2015 to secure rights for the first authorized English translation. Using the 1996 Estonian edition of the Estonian book, we commissioned a new English translation.
We also obtained the rights to the original photos and drawings. The 1969 unauthorized translation used poorly reproduced images, likely mimeographs, which were murky and dark. This edition contains more than 240 crisp, original photos and line drawings.
The use of the plane presumes a base on which the item being planed is fastened. For a long time a simple low working bench, in Avinurme, “tööjärg” (Fig. 56) served for this and on which also other woodwork was done. In places such benches are still used, particularly in Avinurme or elsewhere where home industry has persevered. The older generation throughout the country still remembers planing on the simple bench. The typical Avinurme workbench has two holes at one of its ends, and the board to be planed is fastened either against or between pegs driven in these holes, so that the person planing sits astride on the bench (Fig. 57). In other places there is often only one stick at the end of the bench. Mostly there are two holes next to each other near the middle of the bench and the board is fastened on the bench so it is possible to plane the edge of the board (Fig. 58). Sometimes there is a square hole in the center for the inverted wedge when holding the plane steady and jointing the edge of a board (see Fig. 94).
So the carpenter’s bench (“höövlipink,” also “kruupink, tisleripink, puusepa pink”) as we know it today is no older that two or three centuries. It became known in the village later still, and its actual appearance can be placed within living memory of the older generation, i.e. at the end of the 19th century. Of course, there may have been estate carpenters who had acquired benches somewhat earlier, even a century or more. The rapid development of village cabinetmaking in the second half of the 19th century brought the bench into the village. The story of carpenter Juhan Kaseoks (born 1866) of Keila is characteristic:
“I didn’t have a carpenter’s bench earlier. About 30 years later  there was a little more. Ikmelt Jaan’s father, whose name was Prits, he made the first one. His father was as a very good carpenter. He even started to sell them. Masters bought them from him. I was working at the manor, I naturally had one too. My father-in-law, Maerus, did that work, and he had one too. But households didn’t have them. There was a bench instead of it.”
After the example of carpenter’s benches people from villages started to build at first simpler benches. So, for example, people remember how they provided an end screw to an ordinary low bench. An old-style carpentry product, a planing bench now preserved at the Estonian National Museum (Fig. 60), uses natural branches of the tree skillfully applied in critical functions. Also a bench with screws represented a certain stage of development. Kusta Sinijärv (born 1866) of Karja remembers: “In my childhood we already had a real carpenter’s bench with a screw. At first it had one screw, with one screw at one end. But now the bench has two screws, with one screw also at the side. The side screw came there about 50 years ago [ca. 1900]. An older planing bench (with a side screw) but without a lower drawer has been shown in Fig. 59.
So the carpenter’s bench developed into a generally obligatory carpentry tool. Only the Avinurme woodworkers who make wooden containers still use the old benches. Chairmaking joiners in Avinurme, however, use the up-to-date joiner’s bench.