There isn’t enough written in English on the woodworking of the Chinese, who have a long and amazing woodworking and technological history. But today I’ve been gobbling up “China at Work” by Rudolf P. Hommel (MIT Press, 1937), which focuses on tools used for making other tools (blacksmithing), food, clothing, shelter and transportation.
Unlike other contemporary writers, Hommel lived in China for several years, had enormous respect for the culture and his aim was “to investigate and not criticize.”
His book covered Chinese material culture before the country became industrialized, and the book is simply fascinating.
Of course, I’ve been deep into the woodworking section of the book and there is lots to learn.
Throughout the book, Hommel features photos of the typical low Chinese workbenches used in many of the trades. And then he shows the photo above: Fig. 362. Carpenter’s Bench Stop. Of the stop he writes:
To hold a board in place when planing it, the carpenter uses an instrument like the one shown in Fig. 362. The two spikes pointing downward are driven into the bench or the top of a wooden horse. The board whose surface is to be planed is laid flat upon the work bench and its edge is pressed against the two end spikes of the stop. To plane the narrow edge of a board, the board is set upon edge, pushed between the two legs of this bench stop and thus held firmly in place. The length of the two parts, held together by an iron rivet, is 6-1/4 inches. The bench-stop was photographed in the Native City of Shanghai.
There are lots of Western planing stops that are driven into the benchtop, such as a planing knife. Yet I am not aware of any Western stop that works like this Chinese one. It’s quite clever.
Hommel’s book is, on the whole, quite interesting. And it was a difficult one for him to research. At the time he lived in China (1921-1926 and 1928-1930), the Chinese had an “innate aversion” to the camera. “This extended not only to photographing the people but also to their belongings.”
Add to that the fact the Chinese were also offended by Hommel’s ruler, his task was difficult.
“The taking of measurements with a footrule was almost as offensive to the Chinese as the taking of photographs.”
I still have a couple hundred pages to go with this book, but wow.
— Christopher Schwarz
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