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Summer  Catalog

Book Review:
Highland Woodworking's
2024 Spring/Summer Catalog

by J. Norman Reid

When the latest Highland Woodworking catalog landed in my mailbox, I immediately retired to an easy chair for a delightful hour of exploration. For although the catalog’s fully packed 80 pages offer just about any tool a woodworker could want or need, an excursion through the catalog is more than a shopping trip; it’s an adventure.

The folks at Highland have worked hard to make each catalog more than a set of offerings with options and prices. And they’ve succeeded admirably. Their friendly catalog is both informative and entertaining. And I find it impossible to browse its pages without discovering a new tip, bit of history, or unfamiliar tool that excites my interest.

As an educational exercise, take these as examples. In the bandsaw section, you’ll find an explanation of resawing with a bandsaw. Never done it? No problem. This mini guide will help you set up your bandsaw to get great results from the get-go. Don’t know what blade will give you the best results? They’ve got advice for that too.

As you linger, you may come upon a bit of philosophy that applies equally well to woodworking as to life. Ralph Waldo Emerson proudly exclaimed that “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” This noble aspiration can be the basis for evaluating a bandsaw blade, as the catalog demonstrates, or for that matter any tool in the shop. Is it useful? Does it perform honorably, as expected for its intended function? Does it treat the wood you’re working on with compassion? Does it live up to its expectations and is it justified in being in your shop? Does it make a difference that counted when called upon? Has its life—like yours—been “lived and lived well”? Good food for thought and action.

But wait, there’s more! When hand planing, do you sometimes get tracking marks on the wood surface? In the handplanes section, you’ll find advice on cambering your blades to address that problem, one that’s especially troublesome for newer handplane users.

Do you know the proper way to install router bits? Unlike a drill bit, you don’t want a router bit to bottom out when you insert it in the router. To learn why, and how to properly insert a bit, Highland has provided a helpful section that explains it fully.

Do you know how to make the crooked (board) straight? It takes a jointer and a planer to accomplish the full job. The section entitled The Benchtop Workshop explains how and why and leads you to benchtop tools that provide alternatives for you to consider if you are just starting out to equip your shop.

But though the Highland catalog is an educational experience, it’s far more than that. It’s friendly, approachable, and fun. In the catalog you’ll find bits of history about the foundation of this iconic store, about its introduction 46 years ago, and about historic offerings like John Gould’s wooden handplane making class offered in June, 1980. That’s a lead-in to the announcement of renowned woodworker Gary Rogowski’s lecture and class in which students not only craft a high angle block plane of wood but also make their own oil-hardened blade in class. Past stories have focused on Jimmy Carter’s association with Highland, among other interesting articles. The catalog has a decided family feel to it. And that’s because Highland is family—literally. Chris, Sharon, Kelley, and Molly—the Bagby family—along with their longtime staff—are what help make this catalog, and the company it represents, so eager to help woodworkers everywhere do their best work.

It goes without saying that the Highland catalog is well packed with an amazing array of tools. Browsing the catalog is like walking down the aisles of a candy store, making it hard to resist filling a hole in the woodshop’s arsenal of equipment. Highland offers the big tools, of course—table saws, bandsaws, lathes, and workbenches, among other things. But where it really shines is in smaller power tools, like a full line of Festool products, hand tools from Veritas and Lie Nielsen, a wide range of other specialty producers, along with an almost unimaginable array of accessories. A walk through is sure to turn up something essential you never before knew existed. What’s really nice is that the Highland folks not only take the time to describe their products but also to explain how and why they’re useful and how to get the best from them.

And all this is no accident. The catalog’s design was inspired by The Last Whole Earth Catalog from the 1970s. That explains its educative, explanatory, approachable qualities, as well as the delightful encounter one has when reading it.

Throughout the catalog you’ll find queries from readers with answers to their common and sometimes challenging questions. The catalog’s appearance and usefulness are greatly enhanced by hand drawn illustrations by Michele Grenet, whose work has graced the catalog covers since the early 1990s.

While the printed catalog is intended to inform and entice, it’s also available in digital form online. In our increasingly digital age, now that phone ordering is growing less frequent, the online catalog provides a quick and easy way to make ordering one click away.

As I reflect on the catalog, I’m drawn to think back to Emerson’s statement, quoted earlier, that the purpose of life is to “have lived, and lived well.” The Roman philosopher Seneca expressed a related thought that’s also worth pondering: “It is not that we have too short a time to live, but that we squander a great deal of it. Life is long enough, and it’s given in sufficient measure to do many great things if we spend it well.”

This thought leads me to consider how I use my time, both in the woodshop and elsewhere in my life. What great things am I creating in the time allotted to me? How can I use my limited time to its best effect? In the woodshop, where much good and meaningful work can be created, the Highland catalog is doing its best to help us all achieve our best. Now, how well we use this great resource, and our precious shop time, is up to me, and to you.

J. Norman Reid is a woodworker, writer, photographer and woodworking instructor living in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains with his wife, a woodshop full of power and hand tools and two cats who think they are cabinetmaker's assistants. He is the author of Choosing and Using Handplanes: All You Need to Know to Get Started Planing by Hand, and co-owner of Shenandoah Tool Works. He can be reached by email at jnreid45@gmail.com.

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