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Book: The Intelligent Hand - a review

Sgian Dubh
Every woodworker approaches the subject with a point of view: simply to get things made, driven by an interest in the use of historical tools, as strictly hand tool woodworkers, as either a professional or an amateur, or motivated by design issues and problems to solve, and so on. Whatever sets us on the path to make things in wood and keeps us motivated, I think it’s always useful to be willing to explore what motivates our fellow practitioners, and this is where David Binnington Savage’s The Intelligent Hand comes in, and recently released by Lost Art Press.

Here is a UK based and well known furniture designer maker, and teacher who offers an interesting point of view. The book is, listed here in no particular order, a mixture of biography, philosophical musings, design methodology built upon an artistic background, drawing as means to express ideas and develop a personal library of forms, practical methods of working wood, client relations, tying up of loose ends, and so on. He is at turns chatty, reflective, opinionated, and explanatory, has his own way of working, generous to those that have helped or worked with him, and acknowledges his influences.

Personally, I found particularly interesting the sections of the book that delved into his past and how he got to be a furniture designer and maker. This is the part where he discusses personal issues and his limitations (a stammer, for instance); musings upon such subjects as historically well known movers and shakers in the art and design world, industrialisation and the nature of work, along with his background in the arts which morphed into combining that with furniture making leading up to the challenges of running a business, sometimes successfully, and sometimes not so.

There are discussions across a range practical subjects; essential tools such as planes, scrapers, chisels, saws, benches, sharpening. Then there is a walk through his approach to the designing and making of a desk and chair with reasoning for decisions taken on materials and methods. Finally, David looks to the future of his workshop and school and reflects upon where he’s been and where he’s at.

Do I agree with everything he says? No. Nor will most readers I suspect. On the other hand, he’s not afraid to say it as he sees it, and if you are challenged from time to time, which I was as a relatively experienced (but not well known) furniture designer maker it’s an opportunity to reflect and to evaluate what he says to see if he might be right, and I might be wrong, or vice-versa. If you are fairly new to the subject but possess a desire to develop your own point of view and philosophy, here is a book, along with other sources of information of course, that I think would be beneficial to read.

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