Chris Schwarz's Blog

From My Vault: 'Spons on Carpentry & Joinery'

My
woodworking library is the backbone of the work I do in the shop. My
books on furniture design train my eye to appreciate (and perhaps to
draw) well-proportioned pieces. My books on tool techniques keep me out
of the weeds when trying new joints or unfamiliar tools.

But
it’s my pre-industrial books on the craft that fuel my passion for work
itself. These dusty, torn and faded books have done more to open my eyes
than any one teacher in my life. Like old friends, these books are
different every time I encounter them because I’m a different
woodworker with different interests and desires.

One of the
foundation books in my library is “Spons’ Mechanics’ Own Book,” a
702-page work on many types of hand skills, such as mechanical drawing,
gasfitting, glazing and paperhanging. And because our pre-industrial
world was made of wood, there are large sections on woodworking,
including joinery, veneer work and cabinetmaking.

The E. & F.
N. Spon publishing company first began publishing this book in the 19th
century; the earliest edition I can find is from 1873, and it’s
different than a lot of the books in my collection. Instead of being
written by one author, the publishing company used dozens of outside
experts to amass the best and most detailed knowledge available at the
time.

As a result, this book is much less like reading one
person’s opinion and is more like reading about what the common trade
practice would be. That’s gold.

This year, we decided to reprint
the woodworking sections of Spons in a paperback “print on demand”
format. So I culled the 276 pages on woodworking from the book. Then we
sent the book to our scanning service, which scanned every page at a
high resolution and cleaned up the background of the scans to make the
text crisper. They also enlarged the text by 25 percent to make the text
more readable for aging eyes, such as mine.

We cleaned up the
scans some more here in our art department, renumbered the pages and
designed a new cover. The book is off to the printer today and should be
shipping out in about two weeks. We are calling this reprint: “Spons on Carpentry & Joinery.”

Want to download a 30-page PDF sample of this great book? Click the link right below. This is the section on saws.

W1335_Spons2.pdf (3.25 MB)

Why is this Book Valuable?
I
keep Spons near my desk for a couple reasons. First, it’s an invaluable
reference when I need to look something up about hand-tool woodworking.
Want to know the rules for filing handsaws? It’s in there. How to
store, use and true a grindstone? What a bobbin bit does? How to prevent
rust with household chemicals? Plans for basic household and workshop
furniture? It’s all in there.

But it’s more than just a
reference. Spons is a window into the world of the 19th-century
craftsman. I enjoy just picking up the book and reading the section on
woods used for joinery. The descriptions are far more colorful and
useful than the dry reading you get from the U.S. Forestry Service.

For
me it’s fascinating reading to learn the differences between the
English oak of legend and American, Italian, French and Russian
varieties. Russian oak, for example, packed with far more medullary rays
than American varieties. Or that hornbeam is prized by bootmakers for
heels because the nail hole would close up after the nails were removed.
Cool stuff.

But most woodworkers will spend their time reading
about the tools – how to set them up, care for them and use them. You’ll
get recommendations as to what makes a good hammer, how big your mallet
should be, how to use a narrow ripsaw for slightly curved work.

If
you are building a woodworking library – however small – I think that
Spons belongs on your shelf. So I am pleased that we can bring it to you
in a format that is easy to obtain and read. You can order your copy of
“Spons on Carpentry & Joinery” in our store for $21.99.

— Christopher Schwarz

8 thoughts on “From My Vault: 'Spons on Carpentry & Joinery'

  1. Duane Lindsey

    Two questions: why does he state that people of his day didn’t like the highly polished plates on saws? The information that you gave on using a shinny saw plate to ensure that your cuts are square is priceless.

    Does this book have information on incorporating a carpenter’s axe in your work? I’m interested in the possible uses of that tool for speeding up hand work and would like some more info. on many uses of that tool.

  2. Russell Bookout

    I’m curious if anyone has run into a saw with setscrews, as mentioned adjacent to figure 299, to adjust the handle angle on a saw? It seems an interesting idea…

  3. Christopher Schwarz

    Matt,

    Most 19th-century texts take some getting used to. I consider Spons to be fairly accessible, though I can easily remember having difficulty with it at first. If you think this is tough, try reading Randle Holme…. But like learning any language or skill, it’s a slog at first and a breeze once you are accustomed to it.

    Bottom line, the information is there and it is gold. And in many modern texts, you just have pretty pictures.

  4. Matt Cianci

    Chris,

    Thank you for the free excerpt…just a few thoughts though…

    I printed it out last night (with great anticipation, btw…I mean, it was the section on SAWS!!!) and quickly took it home after work and devoured it….well, devoured is a bit strong…let’s just say I digested it. And it left me with heart burn!

    Now, I’m judging only from the 30 page section you posted, but it is very technical. Indeed, this was some heavy reading! And this is coming from someone you loves reading 19th century texts on saws (Hodgson, Grishaw, etc.) I was expecting something a little more narrative. I’m not complaining, mind you…there was great info in this section, great indeed. But I think it would be important to note to a prospective buyer/reader that the book is a technical, almost academic approach. You can tell it was compiled and written by a group of people, much like a school text book would be. It lacks the narrative transitions that most authors labor to inject into their prose.

    Anyay, just my $.02. Chris, perhaps you can elaborate as to the rest of the work….is it similar, or am I judging unfairly?

  5. Gary Roberts

    How great to see Spon’s tome back in print! I have two editions, the earlier and a 1900 that contains a few new chapters on steam power.

    It really is the standard reference to which most other 19th and early 20th C authors referred.

    I may just buy a copy to save wear and tear on the originals!

    Gary

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