The Craft Classics in Just 5′ – Must-Read Woodworking Books
Fight woodworking ignorance 15 minutes each day.
Editor’s note: In the September/October 2017 issue (which mails to subscribers on Aug. 1), we have an article from up-and-coming makers on the books that have influenced their work and woodworking philosophy. Below is a similar article we ran in June 2011, asking established makers what they felt were the most important woodworking books, plus we included our staff picks. I’ve linked to our store for the ones we carry, some of which are now available only as eBooks, and to those from Lost Art Press. For titles that are out of print, I recommend Bookfinder.com, or better yet, your local used bookstores. Or, ya know, the library.
One thing that surprised me about the forthcoming article is that while some authors – James Krenov, George Nakashima, Roy Underhill and Bob Flexner– feature in both the list below and the “Young Makers’ Bookshelves” article, a lot of the titles on the upcoming list are new to me. So of course, I’ve ordered them (a disease for which there is no cure).
If you don’t see your favorites on here, please leave a comment with the title and author – If we get enough responses, I’ll compile a list and share it.
— Megan Fitzpatrick
by Christopher Schwarz
In 1910, Harvard University President Charles W. Eliot laid out a plan that allowed every man and woman to get the basics of a liberal education by reading for 15 minutes a day from a list of books that fit on a 5′-long shelf.
Called “Dr. Eliot’s Five Foot Shelf,” the 51-volume set of books were later renamed “The Harvard Classics” and are still a must-read list for people with ascots, pocket squares and elbow patches on their corduroy jackets. Eliot’s list is comprised of everything from Charles Darwin and Cervantes to Descartes and Confucius.
What does this have to do with woodworking? Every week – if not every day – readers ask us for book recommendations. What they are mostly looking for is a single woodworking book, that will cover everything they need to know about every aspect of the craft, that they can refer to for the rest of their lives. Oh and it would be nice if it were $10.
That book doesn’t exist.
But the idea of Dr. Eliot’s Five Foot Shelf inspired me to compile a 5′-long shelf of woodworking books that would make you a well-rounded and well-read craftsman. And though I have a sizable woodworking library, I also know that my interests are a little too narrow. I like traditional texts and traditional furniture.
So I enlisted the help of the magazine’s staff and asked them to bring in the books that they consider essential to their woodworking. Then I built a 5′-long shelf and we spent a long morning debating the merits of each book before we placed it on the shelf.
When the shelf was full, we called the list done. The results of that debate is the list of books that follows (publishers listed are for the editions we own). It’s by no means a perfect list. It is a list that would probably change a bit if we had the debate again in a couple months. Some of these are classics, some are contemporary. But these are the books that are first in our hearts.
“American Country Furniture” by Nick Engler and Mary Jane Favorite (Rodale).
“American Furniture” series, edited by Luke Beckerdite (Chipstone Foundation).
“American Furniture of the 18th Century” by Jeffrey P. Greene (Taunton).
“American Furniture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art” by Morrison H. Heckscher (Random House).
“American Furniture: The Federal Period” by Charles F. Montgomery (Viking).
“American Furniture: Queen Anne and Chippendale Periods” by Joseph Downs (Bonanza).
“The Book of Shaker Furniture” by John Kassay (University [U] of Massachusetts).
“Chinese Domestic Furniture” by Gustav Ecke (Dover).
“The Encyclopedia of Furniture” by Joseph Aronson (Crown).
“Fine Furniture for a Lifetime” by Glen D. Huey (Popular Woodworking Books).
“Furniture of the American Arts and Crafts Movement” by David M. Cathers (Turn of the Century Editions).
“The Furniture Masterworks of John & Thomas Seymour” by Robert D. Mussey Jr. (Peabody Essex Museum).
“Furniture Treasury Vols. 1 & 2” by Wallace Nutting (Macmillan).
“Greene & Greene: Furniture and Related Designs” by Randell L. Makinson (Peregrine Smith).
“Greene & Greene Furniture: Poems of Wood & Light” by David Mathias (Popular Woodworking Books).
“The Heritage of Upper Canadian Furniture” by Howard Pain (Key Porter).
“How to Build Shaker Furniture, Revised Edition” by Thos. Moser (Sterling).
“John Townsend: Newport Cabinetmaker” by Morrison H. Heckscher (Yale University Press [UP]).
“Mackintosh Furniture” by Roger Billcliffe (Cameron & Hollis).
“Making Antique Furniture Reproductions” by Franklin H. Gottshall (Dover).
“Making Furniture Masterpieces” by Franklin H. Gottshall (Dover).
“Measured Drawings of Shaker Furniture and Woodenware” by Ejner Handberg (Berkshire House).
“The New Fine Points of Furniture: Early American” by Albert Sack (Crown).
“Sculpted Band Saw Boxes” by Lois Keener Ventura (Popular Woodworking Books).
“Shop Drawings for Craftsman Furniture” by Robert W. Lang (Cambium).
“Southern Furniture 1680-1830” by Ronald L. Hurst and Jonathan Prown (Colonial Williamsburg Foundation).
“Studio Furniture of the Renwick Gallery” by Oscar P. Fitzgerald (Smithsonian).
“Flexner on Finishing” by Bob Flexner (Popular Woodworking Books).
“Understanding Wood Finishing” by Bob Flexner (Reader’s Digest).
Tools & Shops
“Restoring, Tuning & Using Classic Woodworking Tools” by Michael Dunbar (Sterling).
“Hand Tool Essentials” by various writers (Popular Woodworking Books).
“The History of Woodworking Tools” by W.L. Goodman (G. Bell & Sons).
“Japanese Woodworking Tools: Their Tradition, Spirit and Use” by Toshio Odate (Taunton).
“Handplane Essentials” by Christopher Schwarz (Popular Woodworking Magazine).
“Mechanick Exercises” by Joseph Moxon (Toolemera).
“The New Complete Guide to the Band Saw” by Mark Duginske (Fox Chapel).
“The Table Saw Book” by Kelly Mehler (Taunton).
“Traditional Woodworking Tools” by Graham Blackburn (Blackburn Books).
“The Wooden Plane” by John M. Whelan (Astragal).
“Woodworking with the Router” by Bill Hylton (Reader’s Digest).
“The Woodwright’s Guide” by Roy Underhill (U of North Carolina).
“The Workbench Book” by Scott Landis (Taunton).
“Workbenches: From Design & Theory to Construction & Use” by Christopher Schwarz (Popular Woodworking Books).
“The Workshop Book” by Scott Landis (Taunton).
“The Art of Japanese Joinery” by Kiyosi Seike (Weatherhill).
“Bob Lang’s The Complete Kitchen Cabinetmaker” by Robert W. Lang (Cambium).
“Cabinet Making for Beginners” by Charles H. Hayward (Drake).
“Cabinetmaking and Millwork” by John L. Feirer (Chas. A. Bennett).
“The Chairmaker’s Workshop” by Drew Langsner.
“The Complete Guide to Sharpening” by Leonard Lee (Taunton).
“The Complete Illustrated Guide to Shaping Wood” by Lonnie Bird, (Taunton).
“David Charlesworth’s Furniture-making Techniques” by David Charlesworth (Guild of Master Craftsman).
“Elementary Turning” by Frank Henry Selden (Popular Woodworking Books).
“Encyclopedia of Furniture Making” by Ernest Joyce (Sterling).
“The Essential Woodworker” by Robert Wearing (Lost Art Press).
“Illustrated Cabinetmaking” by Bill Hylton (Reader’s Digest).
“The Joiner and Cabinet Maker” by Anon. (Lost Art Press).
“Measure Twice, Cut Once” by Jim Tolpin (Popular Woodworking Books).
“Modern Practical Joinery” by George Ellis (Linden).
“The Perfect Edge” by Ron Hock (Popular Woodworking Books).
“Turning Wood with Richard Raffan” by Richard Raffan (Taunton).
“Woodturning: A Foundation Course” by Keith Rowley (Guild of Master Craftsman).
“Woodturning Design” by Mike Darlow (Fox Chapel).
“Woodwork Joints” by Charles H. Hayward (Evans Bros.).
“A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook” by James Krenov (Linden).
“The Craftsman” by Richard Sennett (Yale UP).
“Master Woodturners” by Dale L. Nish (Artisan Press).
“A Reverence for Wood” by Eric Sloane (Ballantine).
“The Soul of a Tree” by George Nakashima (Kodansha).
“Working at Woodworking” by Jim Tolpin (Taunton).
“Harvesting Urban Timber” by Sam Sherrill (Linden).
“Oak: The Frame of Civilization” by William Bryant Logan (Norton).
“Trees of North America” by C. Frank Brockman (St. Martin’s).
“Understanding Wood” by R. Bruce Hoadley (Taunton).
But I still wasn’t entirely satisfied with our list. I wondered if we’d read enough woodworking books as a staff to create a solid list. So we surveyed the readers of my blog (the results of that are on our web site), then asked many of the woodworkers who write for us to contribute lists of their favorite woodworking books. Theirs are below, in their own words (publishers have listed only on first reference; but if no publisher has been noted, the book is available on Google Books at books.google.com).
Kelly Mehler’s School of Woodworking,
(Editor’s note: Kelly is taking some time off from teaching; you can read more about him in this Great Woodshops feature: “Craftsmanship Done Safely.”)
“The Encylopedia of Furniture Making” by Ernest Joyce.
“The Impractical Cabinetmaker” by James Krenov (Linden), for his woodworking philosophy.
“The Book of Shaker Furniture” by John Kassay, for his precision drafting of a variety of Shaker pieces.
“Understanding Wood” by R. Bruce Hoadley.
“The Workshop” and “The Workbench Book” by Scott Landis.
“Classic Joints with Power Tools” by Yeung Chan (Lark).
I have not looked at them in ages but the very first books that influenced me were the Eric Sloane books.
And of course “The Table Saw Book” by moi ….
“Dictionary of Woodworking Tools” by R.A. Salaman (Taunton). How can one work wood without knowing what tools do what jobs? Great reference, but also a great work for browsing. You learn something new every time you open it.
“Planecraft” by John Sainsbury, (HarperCollins). An old classic on a critical tool. I don’t know that anyone has ever really improved on this book.
“The Old Way of Seeing” by Jonathan Hale (Mariner). Before machines began dictating how wood was worked and how it ended up looking, woodworkers saw the world very differently. Hale shows us how to see through their eyes. He opens ours to far greater understandings.
“Early American Furniture” by John T. Kirk (Knopf). Like Hale, Kirk shows how to look through different eyes.
“Understanding Wood” by R. Bruce Hoadley. The title says it all. How can you successfully work the material if you don’t understand it?
“Woodworking in Estonia” by A. Viires (National Technical Information Service). This is our share of the booty from the cultural exchanges of the Cold War years. The Soviets got models of our nuclear subs, and we got one of the best books on folk woodworking ever. Aside from showing how to make everything from wooden wheels to bentwood cheese boxes, this book is also an education in the way Eastern European history gets written. Imagine Eric Sloane dividing early American woodworking into feudal, capitalist and socialist periods!
“The Wheelwright’s Shop” by George Sturt (Cambridge UP). Here is the real deal. At the turn of the 19th century, a guy comes back from college when his father falls ill and can no longer manage the old family wheelwright business alone. He realizes that he has stepped into a vanishing world of “kindly feeling” when the “grain in the wood told secrets to men.” Thanks to Sturt, the old English way with wood is still alive in the pages of this remarkable book.
“With Hammer in Hand” by Charles F. Hummel (UP Virginia). Resurfacing like Brigadoon, the woodworking shop of the Dominy family was sealed up with the tools still on the benches and saws still sharp. Moved to the Winterthur Museum, the workshop is an open portal into village woodworking in early America. Hummel’s book takes it tool by tool, piece by piece, expanding our view with a true scholar/craftsman’s eye.
Joiner at the Plimoth Plantation (Editor’s note: No longer at Plimoth, Peter now teaches around the country and is the Arts & Mysteries columnist for Popular Woodworking)
The best tool book I know is still Charles F. Hummel’s “With Hammer in Hand: The Dominy Craftsmen of East Hampton.”
If pressed, I’d add Henry Mercer’s “Ancient Carpenters’ Tools” (Dover), then Joseph Moxon ….
For how-to, I lean toward green woodworking, my introduction to the craft. So John Alexander’s “Make a Chair From a Tree” (Astragal), Drew Langsner’s “Green Woodworking” and “The Chairmaker’s Workshop” are both excellent. Roy Underhill’s books come next.
A couple of many books from England: J. Geraint Jenkins’ “Traditional Country Craftsmen” (Routlegde) and George Sturt’s “The Wheelwright’s Shop.”
For furniture itself, mine all lean toward history, just as the previous books do. Here’s three titles, not a stick of mahogany in the lot of them. Oak all the way, just about:
Victor Chinnery, “Oak Furniture: The British Tradition” (Antique Collector’s Club).
Benno M. Forman, “American Seating Furniture 1630-1730” (Norton).
Frances Gruber Safford, “American Furniture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art I. Early Colonial Period: The Seventeenth-Century and William and Mary Styles” (Yale UP).
The annual journal American Furniture (edited by Luke Beckerdite) from the Chipstone Foundation is worth having. I never miss an issue. Ditto for Regional Furniture (editor Adam Bowett) from England.
And for sheer inspiration: William Coperthwaite, “A Handmade Life: In Search of Simplicity” (Chelsea Green). I continue to turn to Bill’s book; it hasn’t been on the shelf yet and I’ve had it for seven years or so. The poem “Dead Time” (about his canoe) resonates perfectly with what I try to do with woodworking.
There are two books that I would consider highly influential in my personal woodworking path. Darrell Peart’s “Greene & Greene: Design Elements for the Workshop” (Linden) and “Adventures in Wood Finishing” by George Frank (Taunton). Peart’s book kicked off my fascination with all things Greene & Greene. Peart does a fantastic job of covering history as well as practical techniques.
The Acanthus Workshop, acanthus.com
“American Furniture at Chipstone” by Oswaldo Rodriguez Roque (U Wisconsin P).
“American Furniture from the Kaufman Collection” by J. Michael Flanigan (Harry N. Abrams).
“New England Furniture: The Colonial Era” by Brock Jobe and Myrna Kaye (Houghton Mifflin).
“American Antiques from Israel Sack Collection” Volumes 1 through 10 (Highland House).
“Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State” by Clement E. Conger and Alexandra Rollins (Harry N. Abrams).
“Master Craftsmen of Newport” by Michael Moses (MMI Americana).
“Arts & Mysteries” columnist, (Editor’s note: While Adam is no longer writing about woodworking, you can read his blog entries from the past on our site.)
These are books that I think every period woodworker should have in his or her woodworking library.
Tools: I am inspired by tools, whether the tool is a good chef’s knife, a watercolor paintbrush or a lowly marking gauge. I find 18th-century tools particularly beautiful and elegant in their simplicity. To openly admit I am inspired by my tools makes me somewhat of a kook. But here, amongst friends, I suspect I am not alone. I’ve copied many tools in these books and sought tools that resembled these and been a happier person for it.
“The Tool Chest of Benjamin Seaton” (Tools & Trades History Society).
“Tools: Working Wood in Eighteenth-century America” by Jay Gaynor and Nancy Hagedorn (UP Virginia).
“Restoring, Tuning & Using Classic Woodworking Tools” by Michael Dunbar.
“Dictionary of Woodworking Tools” R.A. Salaman.
“With Hammer in Hand: The Dominy Craftsmen of East Hampton, New York” by Charles F. Hummel.
“British Planemakers from 1700” by Jane and Mark Rees (Astragal).
“A Guide to the Makers of American Wooden Planes” by Martyl and Emil Pollak (Astragal).
Inspiration/Projects: I derive inspiration for projects from many places: art museums, historic homes, even movies. The last two books on this list have beautiful pictures of furniture in the context of living spaces.
I find furniture takes on new meaning when separated from the sterility of an art museum (such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s American Wing. Maybe that’s why I prefer the museum’s period rooms). Jeffrey P. Greene’s book is perhaps my favorite of recent period woodworking texts for its ambition and helpful exploded diagrams of furniture in its appendix.
“Furniture Treasury” by Wallace Nutting.
“American Furniture of the 18th Century” by Jeffrey P. Greene.
“Williamsburg: Decorating with Style,” Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (Clarkson Potter).
“The Shaker Legacy” by Christian Becksvoort (Taunton).
Techniques: I use many techniques I “discovered” on my own. Many were things I learned from the Internet. At this time, I don’t think there’s a single great text on period woodworking technique. The edition of Moxon listed below would be my top choice for this category.
Period Documents: In addition to the books below, I recommend a thorough reading of Jay Stiefel’s report on the Account Book of John Head, available at the website of the American Philosophical Society (amphilsoc.org).
“The Gentleman & Cabinet-Maker’s Director” by Thomas Chippendale (Dover).
“L’Art du Menuisier” by A.J. Roubo (Bibliothéque des Arts).
“The Art of Joinery,” excerpted from “Mechanick Exercises” by Joseph Moxon (Lost Art Press).
“1772 Philadelphia Furniture Price Book” by Alexandra Kirtley (ACC).
“The Mechanic’s Companion” by Peter Nicholson.
“Tage Frid Teaches Woodworking” Volumes 1-3 by Tage Frid (Taunton).
“American Furniture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Late Colonial Period: The Queen Anne & Chippendale Styles” by Morrison H. Heckscher.
“American Furniture: Queen Anne and Chippendale Periods in the Henry Francis Du Pont Winterthur Museum” by Joseph Downs (Winterthur).
“John Townsend: Newport Cabinetmaker” by Morrison H. Heckscher.
“American Antiques from Israel Sack Collection” Volumes 1-10.
As a teacher I find Ernest Joyce’s “The Technique of Furniture Making” (Batson) invaluable, ’tho it is as far away from an enjoyable read as possible. Similarly Bob Wearing’s “Essential Woodworker” (Lost Art Press). Bob is one of the only people who ever gave insight into traditional English technique. I believe the lack of similar books is due to the apprenticeship tradition of teaching, where nothing was ever written down.
I greatly enjoyed “Handplane Essentials” by Christopher Schwarz – particularly the punchy style and refusal to accept traditional lore without close scrutiny and experimentation.
If it’s not too presumptuous, I also enjoy my own books. Largely because I have forgotten how difficult they were to write and the effort of preparing the examples and props. I think they address many of the practical issues of furniture making.
Port Townsend School of Woodworking, ptwoodschool.com
(Editor’s note: Jim is teaching at a number of places these days, and is no longer on the staff at PTSW – though he’s still in the Pacific Northwest. These days, he’s staying busy with George Walker collaborating on books (“By Hand & Eye,” By Hound & Eye) with George Walker, and writing the By Hand & Eye blog.)
This is a list of books that have had a profound influence on my life in woodworking. Each one has inspired and informed me in ways that made me a more skilled and successful artisan.
“A Museum of Early American Tools” by Eric Sloane (Funk).
“Foxfire” (series) edited by Eliot Wigginton (Anchor).
“The Complete Woodworker” edited by Bernard E. Jones (Ten Speed).
“Hand Tools: Their Ways and Workings” by Aldren A. Watson (Norton).
“Restoring, Tuning & Using Classic Woodworking Tools” by Michael Dunbar.
“How to Build a Wooden Boat” by David C. “Bud” McIntosh (Woodenboat).
“The Furniture Doctor” by George Grotz (Doubleday).
“Adventures in Wood Finishing” by George Frank.
“How to Build Shaker Furniture” by Thos. Moser (Drake).
“The Wheelwright’s Shop” by George Sturt.
“Design Matters” columnist,
(Editor’s note: George is still our Design Matter columnist, and these days he’s also known – along with Jim Tolpin – as one of the authors of “By Hand & Eye” and “By Hound & Eye” (Lost Art Press); the two write the blog “By Hand & Eye,” and are collaborating on another book.)
You can bookend my 30 years of woodworking with two volumes. Roy Underhill’s “The Woodwright’s Shop: A Practical Guide to Traditional Woodcraft” (U of North Carolina P) marks the beginning. Today, Steven W. Semes’ “The Architecture of the Classical Interior” (Norton) makes sense of all the conflicting mishmash of “design speak” tossed about. Hope I have another 30 years in me so the Semes book will someday be a midway milepost in a long, rewarding journey.
“Repairing and Restoring Antique Furniture” by John Rodd (Van Nostrand Reinhold).
“Antique Furniture Repairs” by Charles H. Hayward (Scribner).
These are the two best books on methods of doing proper wood repairs to antique furniture. Unfortunately, both are out of print so you have to find them in the secondary book market.
For the most part, furniture restorers/refinishers/conservators in the United States lack the necessary hand-tool skills to do proper wood repairs. But avid readers of Popular Woodworking Magazine do possess the skills. Like me in the 1970s, you just need instruction on how to go about it. These books provide this. They greatly influenced the techniques I use in my shop, and many are shown in the “Repairing Furniture” video/DVD I made for Taunton.
My absolute favorite book on woodworking is “Cabinetmaking and Millwork” (second edition, revised) by John L. Feirer. Although the photos are dated, the content is right on and very accurate. This book covers it all. I do wish I would have had the opportunity to meet John.
My second favorite book is “Designing Furniture From Concept to Shop Drawing: A Practical Guide” by Seth Stem (Taunton). Seth is a friend of mine and his book opened up a lot of doors for me as I was learning to give a voice to my own furniture style.
“Encyclopedia of Furniture Making” by Ernest Joyce. A lot of furniture makers think this is the best book but I disagree. It is a wonderful book but I have found some of the information not as informative as it should be. Still it is one of the better books out there.
“Table Saw Techniques” by Roger W. Cliffe (Sterling). This book was the first book written on table saws and definitely has the most information. Again it is a little dated but anyone who has written a table saw book since has plagiarized from Roger’s book.
“The Encyclopedia of Wood” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. What I like about this book is that it is very technical and is not for the fainthearted. It explains wood and wood movement and defines all the testing standards.
The Home Craftsman Series by Charles H. Hayward. This series includes books on joinery, jigs and fixtures, finishing and carving. They are well illustrated and very informative.
“The Complete Manual of Wood Veneering” by William A Lincoln (Scribner). Again, it is a little dated, but when it comes to veneering he knew what he was doing. He was a true craftsman and it shows in his writings. PWM
Chris is the former editor of this magazine, now a contributing editor, is the editor at Lost Art Press. Editor’s note: You’ll find many of the books I (Megan Fitzpatrick) find influential in his store; most of them were published since the above article was first published.