Sometimes a search for one thing leads to the discovery of something more interesting and a change of plans. Friday night I was looking for a book and as I was going through my shelves I came across a small volume I hadn’t seen in a while. Woodwork Joints, by Charles H. Hayward had been tucked out of sight between two larger books and I pulled it out and flipped through a few pages. It was like bumping into an old friend and forgetting the task at hand to spend some time catching up. I spent several hours over the weekend going through the book, and remembered why it is one of my favorites.
The first thing I like about it is that there is absolutely no fluff; no introductory chapters on buying tools or setting up shop. Hayward dives right into common and not-so-common joints , how to cut and fit them with hand tools, what they ought to be like when you’re done, and what can go wrong. Except for the use of Britishisms such as “cramp” instead of “clamp,” the writing style is clear and straightforward, and there is more useful information per page in this book than in any other woodworking book ever written.
In addition to the text, the book is amply illustrated with both line drawings and black & white photos. The photos look dated because this book is rather old (and unfortunately out of print) but they clearly show how to hold the work and how to hold the tools. The tools and bench accessories shown in the photos are well worn , evidence that the advice given is based on experience. And the drawings are worth several thousand words apiece.
But my favorite thing about this book is the way the author uses the language. It reminds me a lot of getting instruction from my Scottish-born grandfather. In an understated way, Hayward lets you know when you should be able to figure something out or when you are behaving like a rookie. He gives you the choice of the techniques of the beginner, the competent but in a hurry carpenter, and the ideal of the “skilled worker” or “man of the trade.” He talks about “complications” that can arise when you aren’t careful and the “detriment to the saw” if you cut into a hidden screw. This all looks like step-by-step technical instruction, but it really is training to think like a cabinetmaker.
So here’s a technical book that improved the way I think, not just about woodworking but problem solving and processes in general. And Hayward goes even one step further in several places. When discussing problems with tenons, he gives an example noting that a particular problem is found: “in the work of a man who lacks confidence. He doubts his ability to cut his shoulders square, and rather than risk a joint which will not pull together owing to shoulders which are fuller at the tenon than at the surface, he deliberately undercuts them.”
Now we’re talking about character, and how a simple act like cutting a tenon can both reveal and develop traits such as reasoned risk-taking and good judgment. For me, there is a lot more to woodworking than making stuff, and what I learn about myself from the process is in the end more important than what I learn about the process. I’ve made tenons that look like the ones in the drawing, and I’ve learned to examine what went wrong in order to get it right the next time. Going back to this book one more time made me realize how much I learned from this book above and beyond fitting this piece of wood to that one. While this book is out of print, used copies can be found. However, mine is not for sale.