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WoodCentral's Book Reviews
The Joiner and Cabinet Maker

The Joiner and Cabinet Maker
by Anonymous,
Christopher Schwarz
and Joel Moskowitz

Lost Art Press: 2009
Hardback, 373 pp., $34.00
ISBN 978-0-578-03926-8


    Popular Woodworking editor Christopher Schwarz and Tools for Working Wood proprietor Joel Moskowitz along with a small group of other helpers have taken a little-noticed 19th-Century book on a woodworking apprenticeship and transformed it into an accessible and fascinating guide to hand tool woodworking. It's not just for neanderthals, though – I think any woodworker reading it will enjoy the look backwards and re-examine their own practices after comparing.
    The Joiner and Cabinet Maker, originally published in 1839, tells the story of an apprentice, Thomas W., in a joinery shop. He starts out rather anonymously, watching the fire, managing the glue-pot and straightening (expensive) nails; but, he graduates over time to helping the journeymen and building his own projects. The book, apparently intended for prospective apprentices, tells a fairly detailed story over the course of a hundred original pages, with another ten pages at the end tacking on later updates about tools.
    If all Schwarz and Moskowitz had done was reprint that book and bring it to wider attention, they would have been doing a great service, but they went much much further. First, there's an opening introduction by Moskowitz, which tells the story of the book's history and explains the context for the book. He introduces materials, wages, social structures and the fundamentals of how an apprenticeship worked. That sets the stage for the original book, which he richly annotates with notes explaining details and comparing past practice with more recent practices.
    When you finish the original book, there's still more to come. Schwarz presents the three main projects of the book again, in modern language, with many more photographs and more modern tools – though still all handtools. (The one thing I wish they'd added is a third telling of the projects done with power tools, if only to complete the contrast.) Schwarz's section is considerably longer than the original book, but moves much more quickly as it contains many more photographs, and 21st-Century prose. The accompanying DVD includes narrated slideshows of Schwarz's work on these projects, bringing them to life yet further, as well as SketchUp diagrams for each project.
    At the very end, a moving epilogue by Moskowitz explains what Thomas has to look forward to in his career, there's a bibliography, Jeffrey S. Peachey describes the physical changes among the various editions of the book, and an appendix presents joinery price lists from the time.
    When I first ordered the book, I was hoping for a pleasant bit of nostalgia, a look back at the practices that brought us here. I got that, but I also found a lot of challenges in the book that made me rethink how I look at wood and work – even dream of working – with it. To explain some of that, I'll take a look at a few kinds of the subjects covered in more detail.

Technique
    Most of the information we have about woodworking before 1850 is either advanced (like Nicholson) or vague on details (like the Chippendale patternbook, as well as the many surviving price lists). This book is a unique discovery precisely because it spends lots of time on how exactly its hero builds his relatively simple projects.
    There are only two pages of figures illustrating the projects in the original book, on pages 44 and 112 in the reprint. Woodprints were difficult and expensive, and so nine figures appear on these two pages. The story of the book includes a good deal of technical detail – though told in a somewhat difficult-to-digest form – as this excerpt should demonstrate.
    The sides and ends are to be cut next; and as the box is to be only six inches deep, a strip more than two inches wide will come off along the piece of board which remains. Now, as this is a considerable length, about five feet eight inches, Thomas thinks it will be much easier to saw it across first into the four lengths for the sides and ends, and then to cut each separately to the proper width, than to saw all along the board at once; so he marks one of his ends accurately across the wood, and takes up his saw to cut it; but before he begins he thinks once more.
     "Stay, I have to make my cross-strengthening pieces for the top and bottom out of the strips I cut off from the sides and ends. How long will they need to be made? As long as the outside width of the box, and that is, fourteen inches and two halves, fifteen inches. But I am going to cut the ends only fourteen inches, the inside measure, as the sides wrap over them, so the strips off them would be an inch too short for the cross-strengthening pieces, and those off the sides would be four and a half inches longer than need be. I see I must cut off this strip the whole length of the board before I saw my sides and ends across, and I am very glad I thought of it in time." (71)
    Table saw users are, of course, thinking that removing a 2-inch strip from a 56-inch long board is an easy rip, but that wasn't such an easy answer here. Thomas breaks out a chalk line - as Christopher Schwarz says in his recreation of the project:
    Ripping can be tricky and tedious, so it's best to have a good line to work to. Thomas lays out a chalk line. I haven't used a chalk line since I left the farm in Arkansas, but I was happy to get reaquainted with the chalk-line tool (and buy a cool bottle of chalk dust).
    Snapping a chalk line is a more reliable way to get a straight line on rough stock than using a panel gauge. And when your edges are unreliable as reference surfaces, chalk is the way to go.
    When you rip a board, take your time at the outset. And raise the saw up high - a 60° angle is faster, and you won't get the same blow-out that you'd get by using this high angle in a crosscut. Eventually, you'll become a ripping machine (or you'll buy a bandsaw). (182)
    That's just a tiny taste of the two tellings. There is much much more here, from gluing to working with rough boards to dovetailing to mortising and tenoning and laying out drawers. Schwarz spends some extra time on dovetails, finding the angles used here surprisingly low, and explaining other options. One of my favorite oddities is the term "blind of one eye" for half-blind dovetails, which get used in the last project, the chest of drawers, as Thomas's work improves toward journeyman status.
Materials: Wood, Nails, Glue
    One of the first things this book teaches is just how precious all of the materials are. Nails are expensive enough that it's well worth apprentices' time to straighten all but the most ornery bent nails. Glue is strictly hide glue, needing careful maintenance over the fire, with squeeze-out returned to the pot. And wood, even the cheap "deal" (likely pine) used for most of the apprentice projects, is expensive. Even shavings are sold for starting fires, and apprentices who want to practice have to find small bits in the scrap bin. Need a handle for a tool? Sure, you can make one, but you'll be paying the master for your materials.
    While they use far more nails than I'd expected (and a few very expensive screws for hardware), and hide glue is their best and only alternative, their relationship to the wood feels the most different to me. This was an age in which the main planers were people, though planing machines were starting to appear in mills. Warped wood could create huge problems, as problems we could fix in moments today meant potentially hours of handplaning, or just choosing a different piece of wood.
    How did they avoid all that? Moskowitz explains in the notes:
    In 1839, wood would initially be bought from the sawyers and sawn for its intended task. This was the practice if the shop master bought a tree and hired sawyers to cut it up, or if the the wood came from a lumberyard. A shop would rough-cut and dry drawer stock of 1/2" or thinner quartersawn stock, carcases of 1" wood. And so on. (30)...
    Chances are good that in 1839, unless Thomas really lived far away from an urban center, the wood he used was machine-sawn. But small shops didn't have powered planers (very high-tech at the time) so any dimensioning and planing would have to be done by hand. It was in everyone's interest to saw the green lumber so that it would dry fairly flat. With machine-sawn wood there came a decline in the quality of boards simply because you didn't have the practiced eye of a sawyer thinking about how to saw a log during the process, but as Thomas doesn't complain at all about problems dressing the lumber, we can assume that no matter how the wood was rough-sawn, it was picked based on being mostly flat after drying, which saves a lot of labor. (60)
    So even in 1839 – and the book was likely written based on even earlier memories – the quality of wood was falling, thanks to the shift to machine sawing. Riving wasn't really an option for large boards like those discussed here, though I'm sure it continued in chairmaking and other crafts. The highest-quality approach to sawn wood was careful work by a sawyer; but, failing that, wood selection makes a huge difference, as does rough-sawing to a wide variety of dimensions. Material handling and selection is much more important, because fixing those problems is painful.
    The book also brings home just how connected these shops were to a worldwide network of wood supplies. It's just the high-value mahogany we're used to thinking about; but, in a note, Moskowitz points out a secondary wood:
    Wow! Imported American ash is inexpensive enough to be a better, less-expensive alternative to a native species? Talk about globalization in the days of sail! (134)
    Wood, even secondary wood, was a precious enough substance to justify long journeys. And even the leftovers had value, as the masters would sell the chips to people for use starting fires.
Tools
    The most explicit discussion of tools in the original book comes at the end, when a misfit addition that was intended to update the book for the 1883 edition comes off sounding like a tool catalog. It does, however, convey the excitement around the many developments in hand tools over the course of the 19th Century, including new types of drill bits, saws, metal handplanes and vises.
    Throughout the rest of the book – in both the original and in the new material – tools are strictly a means to an end. Folks reading to find obscure new tools will largely be disappointed, though Chris Schwarz notes at one point that "If you were thinking of skipping the Packing Box, please reconsider. Here's some bait: You get to buy a new tool, the two-foot rule." Pretty much everything else should be familiar, except perhaps to power-tool purists: chisels, saws, planes, gimlets, straightedges, and so on. Admittedly, I'm thinking about rip saws more seriously than I ever have before.
    The primary lesson about tools in this book is that they, like the materials Thomas uses, are precious. The book's only real villain, Thomas' fellow apprentice Sam, shows his evil by leaving his tools unsharpened, his sharpening stone hollow, and his bench cluttered. Even though Sam graduates to journeyman it is clear that he won't go far, for:
    Sam... now is a journeyman with a set of tools of his own; and a very good set they are, for a rich old uncle gave them to him to set him up in business; but they will not long be worth much, for Sam has already lost some and broken others, and sharpened so few that they are mostly in very middling order. (106)
    Tools aren't just something Thomas buys – they are something he has to earn. The shop has tools, including a shared set for apprentices, but accumulating tools is one of the slow but important tasks apprenticea have to accomplish before setting out as journeymen (unless, of course, they have rich old uncles). His first tool is the two-foot rule mentioned above, and he slowly moves into a set of chisels, for which he makes handles out of wood he buys from the master.
    Next, he makes a mallet and a simple box to store his tools, which he marks with his initials using a metal stamp. By the end of his apprenticeships, he's accumlated the tools he'll need to go out in the world, and, perhaps more importantly, the habits needed to keep them working well.
Apprenticeship vs. DIY (The Do-It-Yourself Approach)
    This book revolves around the long slow path of a seven-year apprenticeship. Seven years? That seems like either endless drudgery to learn a basic set of skills or a wild extravagance of time. People teach themselves these skills today, or go to three month or two-year intensive courses, or maybe a four year program that includes a lot of material beyond woodworking. The idea of a formal apprenticeship – which survived longer in Europe and Japan – is hard for a lot of Americans to take seriously. Even in the 1800s, it was a hard proposition, as Joel Moskowitz illustrates with this quote from an 1884 autobiography:
    "When the Union Delegates called upon me to insist that none but men who had seven years' apprenticeship should be employed in the works, I told them that I preferred employing a man who had acquired the requisite mechanical skill in two years rather than another who was so stupid as to require seven years' teaching. The delegates regarded this statement as preposterous and heretical. In fact, it was high treason. But in the long run we carried our point. (36)"
    Despite these attitudes, apprenticeships still exist, formally or informally. Christopher Schwarz reflects in his opening section on his apprenticeship in newspaper journalism, which offered a similarly long slow path toward writing real articles. Looking back, I served a similar long apprenticeship (without realizing it) in technical writing.
    Neither of those, however, was as explicitly an apprenticeship like the one Thomas serves, which is bound by a contract his parents sign with his master. The influence of guilds, though waning, still exist at this point, and Joel Moskowitz notes that "Woodworking was probably one of the few jobs in the [book] series where an outsider could get in." (23-4)
    So what exactly did Thomas get from spending seven years in a joinery shop for modest pay, that he couldn't have learned by reading, watching videos, or even taking an intensive class? Aside from the fact that those weren't really options in 1839, I would point to these:
  • It's relatively easy to learn techniques from classes and books, but it's not easy to learn habits that way. Habits require repetition, watching to make sure that you do things the same way until they really set it.
  • Relationships with other workers. Working by yourself, or even sharing a space with other people you only occasionally interact with, limits your points of view. In Mr. Jackson's shop, Thomas interacts with other apprentices and journeymen on a regular basis. He gets to see how they work, work with them, and absorb their practices and habits.
  • A steady progression of skills. The basic skills Thomas learns at the beginning - tending a fire and maintaining the glue pot - provide a foundation for work he'll do for the rest of his life. Working with firewood prepares him for the finer work he'll do later, and managing the glue pot teaches him about a critical material. Dovetails aren't the first thing to learn, and helping with others' projects prepares him to work on his own.
  • Participation in a functioning business. Some shops do better than others, but here Thomas has the opportunity to work in a place with workspaces, supplies, tools, and a steady flow of customers. Even as an apprentice he has a chance to make a name for himself, building on the reputation of his master's shop.
    DIY – the path I've chosen for my own learning – offers none of these benefits. True, we do talk amongst ourselves in woodworking forums and sometimes in person, and there's a vast quantity of information on tools and techniques, but none of these things are the same as working with, and for, people for a long period of time.
    I think it's pretty clear that The Joiner and Cabinet Maker tells a rosy story of a woodworking apprenticeship, but it stays well within the realm of the plausible. In the modern side, Christopher Schwarz's work with his eight-year-old daughter Katy makes clear just how much kids can and want to do, adding another dimension to the apprenticeship story.
Conclusions
The Joiner and Cabinet Maker is a unique and valuable book, both for the information continued in the original book and for the additional material Moskowitz and Schwarz have provided. I expect it will change the attitudes and perhaps the technique of any woodworker who reads it, helping us to see once again the value of our work, our shops, our materials, and our relationships with other woodworkers.
Where to Buy It
The book is not available on Amazon, but you can get the book from a variety of woodworking-related sources:
. . . Simon St.Laurent