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Workbenches: From Design And Theory To Construction And Use (Popular Woodworking) Hardcover – November 7, 2007
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About the Author
Christopher Schwarz is the editor of Popular Woodworking and Woodworking Magazine and is a long-time amateur furniture-maker and hand-tool enthusiast. He began working with wood at age 8 when his family members built their first home on their farm outside Hackett, Ark., using hand tools because there was no electricity. After studying journalism at Northwestern University and The Ohio State University, Chris became a newspaper reporter but studied furniture-making at night at the University of Kentucky and joined the staff of Popular Woodworking in 1996. In addition to his duties at Popular Woodworking, Chris writes about hand tools for The Fine Tool Journal and has four DVDs on traditional hand tool use produced and sold by Lie-Nielsen Toolworks. He teaches handwork at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking and Kelly Mehler's School of Woodworking.
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Top Customer Reviews
I've read a number of books and articles on workbenches (notably the ones by Lon Schleining and Scott Landis, which are valuable for what they are: surveys of various styles of workbenches, with info on how to build a few of them). This book is different. Not just a little different. Radically different.
Schwarz is not just a good writer. He is an extremely good writer, vastly better than the majority of writers about woodworking; better than most writers, period. He is not merely capable of explaining things clearly, or of organizing his text coherently. His writing is actually enjoyable to read. He has the ability to combine highly technical information with a kind of narrative structure, within which personal experience, historical research and theoretical conceptualization come together almost seamlessly. One could describe the book as almost an essay in the classical, Montaignesque sense: a personal, spiraling account of a particular subject, whose compelling structure takes the reader along on a wide-ranging voyage of discovery, and makes the reader a companion of the author as he works out his own thinking. However, this should not be understood as saying that the book is in any way vague, for it isn't. I mean to underline its powerfully engaging quality. I believe somebody who wasn't a woodworker, who had no plans whatsoever to construct a workbench, would enjoy reading it.
Schwarz is also a gifted scholar and theoretician, a trait not typical of woodworkers, of writers about woodworking. The evidence of his thorough research and profound thought on his subject abounds in the book. His conceptualization of the workbench as a tool for holding lumber so that its 3 different surfaces (edges, faces, and ends) can be worked is a recognition that you won't find anywhere else, and one that animates the entire book. It may sound simple, even obvious, but so does the second law of thermodynamics.
The book provides designs and construction overviews of 2 very different benches, which may seem a paltry number of options. It is not. Schwarz has distilled years of research and bench-building into these 2 designs, and offers plenty of options along the way as to how one might alter them to suit one's own purposes. The illustrations are abundant, clear and useful. Numerous sidebars provide detailed and helpful insight into a variety of sub- or side-topics (eg. Find a source for yellow pine; Pattern-maker's vises: friend or foe?; The Stanley No. 203 - better than a peg). The index is extensive.
Anybody familiar with Schwarz from his hand-tool courses and DVDs knows that he is a formidable woodworker and teacher. Those qualities resound through this book, as does his engaging ability to be personal, as does his earnestness, as does his good humor. I've always learned easily from him, and this book continues that trend.
The first bench I ever built was from an article of Schwarz's called "The $175 Workbench," published in Popular Woodworking in 2000. I still have it, and use it every day. I will be building another one soon, using an adaptation of one of the designs outlined in this book; this book which will accompany me along the way, like a friend. Perhaps this sounds a bit loopy, but read the book and tell me you don't share the feeling.
My biggest complaint is that in "Workbenches: From Design And Theory.." he focuses most of his energy (intentionally or not) on trying to help you pick the perfect configuration for a traditional hand tool bench...but as soon as he starts building it's all table saws, drill presses, and electric planers.
I'd still recommend the book, but for beginners trying to do traditional hand work I'd point to Paul Seller's youtube channel as a companion to the book. Sellers posts high quality videos that are lengthy, detailed, and should offer all the basic hand skills you'd need to build the bench you eventually design without power tools.
Now obviously my claim that this is the best woodworking book of all time is a darned strong claim, and strong claims require pretty strong evidence to back them up. This is what has slowed me up on writing this review. First, I'm not as good a writer has Chris is, so however I try, I'm afraid my review won't do his book justice. Second, I got this book when it first came out, and just loved it immediately, but I wasn't sure exactly why. Since then, I have re-read the book several times and I think I now have it figured out.
This really isn't a book about workbenches, but rather a book about workholding. Now workholding might seem like a rather pedestrian subject, certainly not as exciting as the latest golly gee whilikers gadget or jig, but it is fundamental. Like sharpening, good workholding makes learning new skills or learning to use new tools far, far easier than it otherwise would be. I would go further and say that the truly fundamental skills are those that make good work even possible. And, after having been a hobbyist woodworker for over 25 years, I have slowly come to realize that workholding is indeed one of those fundamental skills.
Now the fact that this book is well-written and addresses what I consider an issue of fundamental importance in woodworking may explain why I rate it highly. Indeed, when I mentally review my list of favorite woodworking books, the ones I keep returning to, they are nearly all concerned with developing fundamental skills in such things as tool preparation, sharpening, etc. But this fact alone does not explain why I rate this book to be at the very top of a select list of extremely good books. What brings this book to the very very top of the list is the fact that the author is, so far as I am aware, the first to present a systematic, deeply thought-out, and well-researched treatise on this subject. Thus, Chris gets extra points for having the genius to recognize how fundamentally important this topic is.
The book is virtually encyclopedic in its treatment of workholding for hand-tool woodworking. The author does not, however, address the needs of either the luthier or the patternmaker. And I suppose Chris really should master these two vocations in his spare time so he will have additional material for the second edition. Neither does Chris address workholding and set-ups for machine woodworking (or for machinists on milling machines for that matter). But he does do an absolutely superb job of presenting workholding methods and the equipment necessary (workbenches and their accessories) to implement them that are useful for hand tool work in cabinetmaking.
The first time I read this book, I kept exclaiming to myself: "Yes, yes! that's exactly it!" My reason for this reaction is that I've been working for years on a modern commercially available workbench. I've made all kinds of stuff with this bench including entry doors, interior doors, and a full set of kitchen cabinets. But I've found the workbench somewhat awkward to use and inadequate for much of my work, and I've gradually been becoming more and more dissatisfied with it. I've considered replacing it numerous times, but I never could quite get motivated enough to do the hard thinking and research necessary to figure out what features would make a workbench work for me and why.
Chris has done all that hard work for us. The book is almost scholarly in nature (as a Professor in my day job, I appreciate that!), and is clearly deeply and thoroughly thought out. It is indeed impressive. One conjecture I have since reading this book is that Chris must be largely a self-taught woodworker who did not learn "the one best way" at his master's knee. Only someone who had to figure out things for himself could possibly have had the idea for this book. Only someone who was deeply committed and quite intelligent could possibly have written it.
The book is profusely illustrated with photographs, and that is the source of my only minor complaint. Sometimes photographs obscure relevant details rather than bring them out as do well executed line drawings. (To see an example of the sort of line drawings to which I refer, please take a look at any of David Charlesworth's books.) And I am afraid that this book could have benefited from having a few more line drawings in place of some of the photographs.