Chris Schwarz's Blog

Permanent Collection: “The Essential Woodworker”

Editor’s note: Every few days I’m asked for a bibliography of the essential books for a woodworker who is interested in working with hand tools. I often dash off a list of books that are at the top of mind. Usually it’s five or six core titles with a few oddball ones thrown in that are probably the result of my diet.

So I’ve decided to codify this list and explain a bit of reasoning behind my choices. The first few books are home runs, things that shouldn’t be out of print ever (but sometimes are). One more thing: These aren’t books for a hand-tool purist. I blend machinery for the coarse operations with hand tools for the truing and finishing tasks. My reading list reflects this sensibility.

“The Essential Woodworker” by Robert Wearing

As Robert Wearing eases you into his book during the introduction, you will be both encouraged and alarmed. “The Essential Woodworker” is indeed a book on hand-tool basics and covers all the basic furniture-making tasks necessary to build tables, cabinets, doors and drawers. That’s the encouraging part.

What is alarming is that the stuff in “The Essential Woodworker” is material that is rarely covered in magazines, books or classes. In other words: This book is a good part of a nutritious diet in a world of Snickers bars.

“The Essential Woodworker” begins with a chapter on basic operations: sharpening, planing, sawing and boring. Wearing teaches his techniques mostly with hundreds of simple and clear line drawings, though there are a few black-and-white photos scattered throughout.

With the basic skills wrapped up, Wearing launches into a chapter on building tables and stools. Good choice. Tables are an excellent project for beginners. As Wearing introduces each essential skill, he shows you how to accomplish each task at the bench. This information is like a slice of fried gold. This book is the one that taught me how to clamp up a table base to my bench to work the aprons. It showed me how to size door parts without measuring. It taught me a better way to make hinge mortises that I still use today.

After mastering the table, Wearing moves onto basic carcase construction, with particular emphasis on dovetailing the carcase components and fabricating backs that are far more interesting than what you read about in most books. In other words, there is detail here that you just don’t find elsewhere.

Then Wearing finishes up with designing, building and fitting drawers. By the end of the book’s 160 pages I think I’d learned as much from this book as I’d learned from 10 other books purporting to “essential” for the hand-tool woodworker.

Are there any downsides to the book? Well, I think you can skip the parts about doweling carcases together, that’s a technique that I don’t cotton to (for all the effort required in doweling, I’d just dovetail it).

“The Essential Woodworker” is widely available. In addition to Amazon, check bookfinder.com, abebooks.com, powells.com and alibris.com to find a copy. I paid $8 for mine, you shouldn’t have to pay too much more.

– Christopher Schwarz

10 thoughts on “Permanent Collection: “The Essential Woodworker”

  1. Tim Banks

    It appears resellers have decided this book has become a ‘rarity’. 5 months after Christopher’s blog entry, the price has risen from his suggested $8 to be closer to $80. At such elevated prices, is the book still as essential? I would love a copy, but my wallet is not as enamored as I am…

  2. Gereon Lamers

    What a gem of a book! Thank you, Chris, for pointing it out to us! Looking forward to the next instalments of The Permanent collection.

    Gereon,

    who ordered the book only minutes after reading the blog entry and is now founder and (self declared) president of: AWWAWAS.com (Aspiring woodworkers against WAS.com)

  3. Gary Roberts

    I’ll also chime in with "Tage Frid Teaches Woodworking", a three volume slipcased set. He passed away just 2 years ago. I have always appreciated his down-to-earth, sensible approach to woodworking. No fuss, no mythos, just tried n true methods that get you to the results you want. The set is not cheap, but for $40-$50 you get three volumes of everything wood.
    Gary

  4. Jason

    Thanks for all the suggestions. Chris’ recommendation came in at the bargain price of $8.50 used, so I went ahead an ordered a copy. Thanks again.

  5. Brian Ogilvie

    I like:

    The Precision Handcutting of Dovetails: With a Sequence to the Authors Fifty Years As a Planemaker and User by Cecil E. Pierce (Hardcover – Aug 1995)

    but it is expensive now and hard to find.

    –Brian

  6. Michael Rogen

    The best way that I found to help learn about dovetails were from two DVD’s, Hand-Cut Dovetails and Mastering the Dovetail Saw, both by Rob Cosman. He is a very good teacher that easily comes through his DVD’s. I believe that Chris gave Rob’s Rough to Ready DVD a very favorable review if my memory serves me.
    Michael

  7. J.C. Collier

    Don’t forget addall.com, it queries ALL of the other book finders and can be used for in-print as well as out-of-print titles.

  8. Christopher Schwarz

    Jason,

    I’m not going to be much help here. I’ve read a lot of books on dovetailing and have never found one to be the holy grail of the joint. I probably like Charles Hayward’s "Woodwork Joints" (the next book in the Permanent Collection) best.

    Chris

  9. Jason

    About a week ago, I decided to give hand cut dovetails a try. I’ve cut a dovetail a day for 10 days so far, but I find that I’m repeating some of the same mistakes and am unsure of what to change to correct them. Is this a good book for that?

  10. Swanz

    "Well, I think you can skip the parts about doweling carcases together, that’s a technique that I don’t cotton to (for all the effort required in doweling, I’d just dovetail it)." I agree, unless I’m using dowels for aesthetic reasons, as in sone Krenov style wall cabinets.

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