Two book reviews

I’ve been down in the basement every evening for the last couple weeks, acquainting myself with the various triumphs and frustrations of woodworking.

I don’t know why I do this – I’m always suddenly deciding “Hey! That would be a cool hobby!” and boom, I’m off and have accumulated a hundred dollars worth of tools and learned tons of new skills and amassed yet another list of half-finished projects. I already have like twenty hobbies: gardening, cooking, cleaning (is it a hobby when you make some of your own cleaning products?), pottery, knitting, sewing, reading, blogging, homesteading … I’m sure there are others I’m forgetting. Why do I do that?

Oh yeah. I’m poor. But I want nice things. So I learn to make them myself. Hence the books I’ve reviewed below.

This little book has come in awfully handy these last couple of weeks:

Getting Started with Woodworking by Aimé Ontario Fraser. Alerted to its existence by a friend of mine, I first got it from the library and then realized I needed to have a copy of my own.

I am a pretty big fan of this book. The author starts out by telling you the ins and outs of the various tools you need to have around the shop; why one tool might be better than another; what sizes of what kinds of chisels to buy and when to buy things as a set; which tools you should spend the money for and which you shouldn’t bother with. (Hint: a router features heavily in a couple projects, but a table saw doesn’t make it into any.) In each class of tool she tells you which size and style she finds herself reaching for most often, which when distilled can make a kind of skeleton shopping list.

Once she’s introduced you clearly to the tools and methods involved, she plunges into projects. First is the simple handmade box, next an Adirondack chair, then later comes a table, a bookshelf, and a drawered cabinet. Each project introduces a simple set of new skills and builds on the skills learned in the preceding projects; it’s very like a textbook in that way. In fact the author did teach woodworking classes for many years.

I bought it because these projects are actually useful; Sofía needs a toybox, which could be an upscaled version of the handmade box once I’ve made them. We don’t have any pool chairs, so the Adirondack chairs will be perfect. The plans for the coffee table, she claims, are easy to upscale if you’d rather have a dining table. Guess what – we have no dining table. And the bookcases… well, I’ve already gone over that.

The book isn’t perfect. I’ve already found a few disappointing mistakes. In the first instruction ever given, she instructs you to cut the wrong size board (the 3.5″ board, when it should have been the 5.5″ board). She also instructs you on how to polish your chisels by asking you to buy 8 ascending grits of wet-dry sandpaper and gluing them, one sheet to a side, onto two sheets of glass (do the math.) Second, because she’s been a woodworker for so long she tends to call for fairly specialized tools…. or maybe my local Lowe’s is just particularly crappy. (I couldn’t find a Japanese backsaw, or panel clamps, or a honing guide for sharpening my chisels.)

Still, I’m having fun and learning tons – namely that yes, I can actually be patient and do fine (ish) detail work when I care about it.

Regardless, it is way better than the book that I bought along with it:

I think the Dummies series really dropped the ball on this one. Woodworking for Dummies is written by a guy that tells you that he wants to start from scratch; later in the introduction he refers to himself as a tool collector and a gear junkie. That might be ok, I thought; surely he’ll start from the bottom and explain the basic techniques before he gets into using the specialized equipment – the Dummies books are good at that sort of thing.

Wrong. Although there’s a whole mini-chapter listing his assumptions – among which he tells you that he assumes that you want to learn woodworking from scratch – he never tells you that the entire book depends entirely on your already having a basement or garage workshop full of power tools. He assumes at every step that you have a table saw, a router, a router table, a compound miter saw, a drill press, a jointer, and a 12″ planer.

Not once does he mention the simple, traditional way of doing things with handheld tools, except to snidely deride it and say he does it “the faster, easier way.” Everything in this book is written for an audience that has already accreted ten thousand dollars worth of power machinery. But here’s the catch: how many people do you know that buy that many specialized power tools before knowing how to cut a straight line on a table saw? As far as I’m concerned this book is fairly worthless. Dummies, my faith in you is shaken.

One Response to “Two book reviews”

  1. Luke Says:

    Yeah for hand planes! I bought a bunch of 30+ year old hand tools for paddle making back in AR, that I’m just busting out again. There is nothing like making a GIANT pile of curlies from a good hand plane. Though, I really need a bench top grinder to get a nice edge on my plane blades.

    Booyah! Can’t wait to make it out there sometime to checkout the house!

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