Fun Reading: 'The Carpenter's Tool Chest'
“A craftsman is one who understands his tools and uses them with skill and honesty. It does not matter whether his tool is a chisel or a planing machine, it is the work that he does with it that counts and you today can be as good a workman in the carpenter’s craft as any who ever lived if you will learn to know your tools and to use them well.”
– Thomas E. Hibben
When it comes to learning woodworking, sometimes it’s nice to treat yourself like a child.
While researching old tool chests for a future project I kept stumbling over a book in people’s bibliographies: “The Carpenter’s Tool Chest” (J.B. Lippincott) by Thomas Hibben. On a lark, I picked up a copy last week, even though it kept showing up as a piece of non-fiction for juveniles.
The book is indeed for children. The Junior Literary Guild recommended it for boys and girls age 9 to 11 when the book came out in 1933. But as soon as I opened the book I was sucked into it and spent the weekend devouring its contents.
“The Carpenter’s Tool Chest” is designed to introduce children to the world of hand work, and Hibben explains exactly what each tool is used for in simple terms. But what really hooked me was the way that Hibben explained the craft and tool development from pre-history to the early 20th century.
The book opens with a series of delightful plates that trace the history of each form of tool from its earliest known forms to the modern day. The simple hand illustrations by Hibben (his father was an artist) are obviously based on photos and illustrations from earlier works. You’ll see Andre Roubo’s try square in there as well as some familiar pieces that are obviously from Joseph Moxon, plus some that are taken from works of art.
And though there is no bibliography to the book that will allow you to track down all his sources, the plates are still great fun to look at. His two plates on saws show the parallel development of frame saws and our English/Dutch-style saws, and how both Eastern and Western cultures used both forms of saws. The evolution of the hammer and gouge are also particularly interesting.
After illustrating and explaining the functions of all the tools, he takes a stroll through history that starts in the Stone Age and explains the woodworking tools that were in use then. Then he walks through the Bronze Age, Iron Age, Middle Ages and Renaissance. There are hundreds of illustrations and fun facts (such as why the use of adhesives were banned by governments for a time in the Middle Ages).
Woodworking scholars will discount this book because of some of its notable errors , he calls a marking gauge a “measuring gauge,” and his drawing of an eggbeater drill shows a tool that would work only in M.C. Escher’s dimension. And new scholarship would poke some holes in his timeline.
But still, what a cool book. The original is beautifully printed on nice heavy stock. It’s great fun to read. And it puts our craft in a historical perspective that I think a lot of us don’t think much about. The history of humanity and wood are as intertwined as the kudzu that tangles the farms of the South.
Hibben himself is an interesting character (read more about him at the Bear Alley blog). Born in Indianapolis, he studied architecture and engineering and had a fascinating life overseas until he was cut down by a heart attack.
I won’t say this book is a must-read tome for woodworkers, but if you stumble across a copy in a used bookstore, it’s definitely worth picking up. My copy is going into the hands of my 8-year-old daughter.
– Christopher Schwarz