Foundations of Better Woodworking, by Jeff Miller - Book Review
by J. Norman Reid
Though its title refers to "foundations," this is no introductory book on woodworking. It is, rather, a guide by a master woodworker to principles and practices that will help you achieve continual improvements in your woodworking. As such, it fills an unique spot in woodworking literature.
Miller begins with a basic review of the characteristics of wood that affect how it needs to be worked, especially grain direction and movement. He next considers body mechanics—how to hold and use your body effectively for working wood. His focus includes balance, control, height of the work and what he calls the "woodworking stance." This section is followed by one on seeing better that addresses lighting, the viewing angle and determining your dominant eye. The section concludes with a brief comparison of observing vs. seeing. The impatient reader will be tempted to skip through this section to get to the inevitably attractive discussion of tools that follows. But the careful woodworker will linger here to absorb the importance of these basics for achieving the highest quality results.
The lengthiest section of the book is a review of woodworking tools that not only covers the variety of tools available—useful to beginning woodworkers especially—but also integrates consideration of safety, body positioning and how best to use the tools to achieve quality results. Among the hand tools Miller reviews are chisels, handplanes and planing techniques, marking knives and gauges, scrapers, hand saws and, yes, even sandpaper. An extended discussion of power tools—table saws, jointers, band saws and routers—follows.
Next come a series of shorter chapters on key techniques—sharpening, measuring and marking, using lines, and assuring that work is flat, straight and square.
The final chapters address the potential for growth as a woodworker. A chapter on learning discusses both learning from your mistakes—which he regards as essential and at the same time desirable—and techniques for fixing some common errors and flaws. This is followed by a brief essay on getting feedback from your tools and your results and by other short sections on the importance of practicing and experimenting and on learning from others.
Overall, the book makes up a comprehensive treatment of the aspects of woodworking that must be mastered in order to realize the finest results. Miller's book treats topics often overlooked or ignored but that, taken together, can make a large difference in the quality of your wood products and your ability to achieve your best.
The book is highly illustrated throughout with excellent photos and drawings that supplement and enhance the text in communicating Miller's messages. These graphic enhancements easily make it one of the best instructive books in the market.
My critiques are few. On page 101, Miller demonstrates the proper hand positioning for a European style jointer, a technique that would be extremely unsafe if used with the American style jointers that predominate in this country. Though he discusses American style jointers on page 98, greater attention to safe usage would have been helpful to more American readers. Miller omits consideration of thickness planers and also the comparative advantages of carbide cutters vs. knives in jointers and planers. And he leaves out treatment of design principles, something at which he is an acknowledged innovator and master. But these omissions are only minor detractions from what is otherwise an excellent addition to woodworking literature.
Woodworkers at all levels will benefit from this book. Beginners who study and apply the basic practices from the start will progress more quickly to quality products. Intermediate woodworkers with some experience in making things will find many helpful guides here to enhance their builds. Miller, a master woodworker and teacher, also has much to communicate to those who have accumulated considerable woodworking experience, and they too will profit from a review of his methods.
In sum, in this book master woodworker Jeff Miller shares his hard-won knowledge of techniques, practices and behavioral approaches with woodworkers who want to progress beyond building things toward the mastery of woodworking. It is a book worth reading at least twice—first to get the lay of the land and then to incorporate Miller's methods into your own practices. I will use it in my own work and recommend it to you with confidence that it will be a valuable addition to your library.
Purchase your own copy of Foundations of Better Woodworking today!
Visiting Atlanta? Attend Jeff Miller's upcoming Designing and Building Chairs Class from 11/2-11/3.