WoodCentral's Book Reviews
The Art of Joinery

The Art of Joinery
by Joseph Moxon
with commentary by Christopher Schwarz

Lost Art Press: 2008
Hardcover, 93 pp., $17.00
ISBN 978-0-615-25279-7

     Yesterday in the mail I received a Christmas present, an autographed copy of Chris Schwarz' remarkable book entitled The Art of Joinery. This book is a re-publication and commentary on the Joinery section of Joseph Moxon's Mechanick Exercises, ca.1703. The significance of this book, as Chris says, is that it is "...the earliest English-language text on woodworking."
     Reprints of Moxon are hard to find at less than $100 each; in fact, they're hard to find at all. If you have ever been frustrated and perhaps annoyed by reading back-and-forth discussion of Moxon on forums, without being able to refer to the book yourself, Chris has solved that problem. For anyone interested in historic texts, this book is a steal at $17. (CLICK HERE to order.)
     Here are a few ruminations on why I think this book may be a good fit with your shelf........

     This book is much more than I would have expected. The approach is at once careful and bold. Chris has taken care to preserve the authenticity of the original, by retaining the olde-tyme turn of phrase and period references, such as Moxon's reference to groats and shillings as measures of shaving thickness. At the same time, he has made the book more readable to modern eyes, by shortening Moxon's run-on sentences, providing brief glosses (in the text) of obscure words, and changing the ubiquitous 'f' to 's'. Where Moxon says, "..Its Iron muft be fet very fine, fo fine,....", Chris translates "Its iron must be set very fine, so fine...." Chris has made clear which words are his glosses, and which are Moxon's original. These on-the-fly glosses make reading easier because you're not stopping to mull over whether you need to research that word or not. Chris' editorial changes have the subtle effect of removing the obstacles and friction from our reading, while still preserving the sense of time and place of the original.
     The book is also bold. After each section of Moxon's text, Chris does an analysis. This is helpful for at least two reasons. One, Moxon's text does not always match up with his graphics--Chris tries to resolve the discrepancy where he can. Second, the analysis brings the text more alive to us. For example, after Moxon describes all the tools on the workbench, he takes us through the exercise of four-squaring a board, in a lot of words but no pictures. Chris then gets out his tools and performs an illustrated "work along with Moxon." He performs each of Moxon's steps, with photos and an extended discussion comparing Moxon's method with current methods.
     A word on graphics: Chris' book reproduces Moxon's graphics far more cleanly than does my 1970 Praeger edition that I bought for $100. Furthermore, as an aid to reading, Chris enlarges individual planes, bench appliances, and other tools from the original plates, and intersperses them at appropriate places in the text, sparing the reader the hassle of constantly referring back to Plate 4, plus having to find a magnifying glass to actually see the tool being discussed. This addition makes the text and graphics flow along together, and allows one to maintain focus while reading. When you're reading Moxon's long treatise on the fore plane, you're looking at the foreplane, not thumbing back to Plate 4 to find it.

     Those with a historical bent will enjoy Moxon, just to get the 17th century take on the tools of the trade. I'm in that crowd.
     However, there is a deeper value as well. Very, very few of us forum denizens ever served an apprenticeship in woodworking, let alone hand tool woodworking. Many of us had our "apprenticeships" in other trades and professions. Then we come to woodworking, thinking we're smart and will quickly master it. We try to sort through the world of catalogs and tool choices and sharpening jigs and listen to what Chris describes quite wonderfully as peoples' "...idiosyncratic ways of working with hand tools...," trying to make sense of it all.
     Chris' starting point is that actual trade practice, as performed when hand tools were the only tools, is the bedrock and touchstone for our hand tool practice today. Moxon's world is a world without sharpening jigs -- though he hints at ways that workmen jigged with their fingers -- without adjusters on hand planes, and with just three wooden bench planes. Flatness was judged by eye and by trial against a matching board. Edges were jointed, or "shot," by eye and trial. Miters were adjusted with a strike block plane in one hand, and the stick in the other hand. Yet the tools Moxon shows and describes are instantly recognizable to us; we have modern equivalents of each one at our own benches. Wood is still wood. Flattening a board by hand is the same proposition to us as it was in Moxon's day. The same can be said for edge jointing, mortise chopping, and tenon sawing. We truly are trying to do the same operations described by Moxon three hundred years ago!
     So, for us, living in a world where competing tools and methods are marketed heavily, actual trade practice has this recommendation: This is how it was done by people doing piecework against the clock and against customers' expectations. Trade practice, in its era, was the definition of economic efficiency as applied to wood working. And, since nothing has really changed, the baseline of trade practice is a good place to start when evaluating each new method and tool that comes to our attention. And Moxon's treatise is the very first English-language text on trade practice.
     Bottom line: This book is an excellent acquisition for those interested in historical texts, and for those interested in studying tools and trade practices and how they evolved over time.

. . . Wiley Horne
Dec. 17, 2008
[NOTE: Wiley is the co-moderator of the WoodCentral Hand Tools forum. Please visit the forum for in-depth discussions of hand tools and electron-free woodworking methods and practices.]