Chris Schwarz's Blog

Oak: The Frame of Civilization

Sometimes the best woodworking books don’t have a single word of advice on how to cut a joint, build a cabinet or rub out a finish. Instead they are the kind of book that will pry your eyes open to see how our craft is connected to history, culture and the fabric of modern society.

“Oak: The Frame of Civilization” by William Bryant Logan is a sweeping and breathless series of vignettes that examine the relationship between oak trees and man, from a fen in Cambridgeshire to the tanner’s stinking vat of hen dung to the defeat of the Spanish Armada. It is a narrative that ranges from deeply personal, such as Logan’s experience tasting acorn jelly (“like touching a slug”) to intensely historical, such as an examination of coppice woodworking in early Europe.

At first, woodworkers might not see how this historical examination of the oak’s place in history is important to those of us who regularly saw, split and hew it to make chairs, cabinets and the like. But after a few chapters it becomes clear that we are part of this extensive root system that the oak has made through our daily lives. The oak is the ultimate provider, from the acorns that fed people in Europe and North America to the barrels that provide our wine, the tannins that preserve our leather, the ships that explored our world and the building blocks of the walls of our greatest structures, such as Westminster Hall. In fact, oak’s role in civilization cannot be overstated.

And now oak provides one more gift to the home woodworker: joy in the work with our hands. Man almost destroyed the world of ships and charcoal and barrels that was built by oak and replaced it with metal, oil and plastic. But we and the survival of our craft are evidence that oak has not lost its grip on the world.

Highly recommended reading.

Christopher Schwarz