Highland Woodworking
Country Woodcraft: Then and Now
by Drew Langsner
Review by J. Norman Reid

What we have here is an unusual book. Country Woodcraft: Then and Now is the second edition of a long recognized classic, a pioneer in its field, a welcome re-release for a new readership and, most likely, the old readership as well. Normally, a second edition incorporates revisions and new material and blends it with the original content so the changes are seamless and therefore unrecognizable. That's not what Langsner has done here. Instead, what's original and what's new are clearly identified by different typefaces and by new color photos to supplement the original black & white illustrations. The "then" materials are interwoven with the "new" content so the text flows smoothly and approachably. The result is a greatly enhanced treatment of the subjects Langsner wrote about in his original 1978 version.

This way of doing things has some significant benefits for the reader. It makes indelibly clear where Langsner's practices have changed over time due to experience, the availability of labor-saving tools, lifestyle changes imposed by evolutions in technology and the economy, and the aging of his own body. It highlights safety considerations at strategic points throughout the text. It incorporates the learning he has accumulated from visiting teachers at his Country Workshop classes, from fellow woodworkers, and from many of his inventive students. Finally, it's a darned interesting way to carry off a major update that will work for readers both new and old.

The book is arranged in the same sequence as the original edition. It commences with what Langsner terms The Fundamentals. First is his review of the basic tools of country woodcraft: cutting tools, striking tools, froes and saws. A new section details how to make a sloyd knife. Another addresses using the tools effectively. A third offers a sharpening master class. A brief chapter on materials follows. After reviewing the types of cuts of lumber and some species of useful woods, a new section considers growing your own materials. A succeeding chapter discusses the process of felling trees, axe work, splitting techniques, and how to build a sawbuck.

Part II, entitled The Workshop, centers on using the wood once the timber has been felled. A major chapter on shaving horses includes significant new material detailing a series of advances in the design and functionality of this instrument so essential to country woodworking. Another chapter covers clubs, mauls, and mallets and reveals his changed preference for steel headed mallets in place of wooden ones. Frame saws, back saws, and especially turning saws all have their place, but Langsner reveals his preference now for chainsaws for heavy cutting. Likewise, in considering tool handles, he notes that a jointer-planer and bandsaw are now part of his labor-saving practice. After briefly reviewing wedges and gluts, he turns to workbenches, showing the laminated plywood bench he finds satisfactory for his own work. He then demonstrates how to build a springpole lathe, a tool with which he has a love-hate relationship.

Part III opens the presentation of projects with agricultural implements. Hayrakes are first, followed by the beautiful but more difficult-to-make hay forks. A careful read of this section will alert the reader to his offer to send a free set of square cut channel nails in exchange for an SSAE (hint: page 163). A new sidebar discusses froes and notes that Lie-Nielsen now makes and sells a pair of froes of his design. If you need a wheelbarrow, a brief chapter describes how to make one. Similarly, you can follow his lead in making a Swiss milking school, a shoulder yoke, a land slide, a bull tongue plow, a spiked tooth A-harrow, a field drag to break up clods, and a poke, a yoke-like device to prevent horses from ignoring fences.

Part IV continues the projects with chapters on household handcrafts and furnishings. First is a stick broom like those he observed during the time he spent in Europe. Making bark boxes comes next. White oak baskets are then described: making the splits, designing the baskets, creating the ribs, base, and shaping are all described. Square or rectangular base baskets, round base or spiral work, and round frame egg baskets are illustrated.

One of the major chapters in the book—and a chapter that's been greatly enhanced with new materials—describes making spoons, spreaders, and ladles. There is enough material in this chapter to comprise a small book in its own right. Langsner offers instruction on carving two models of spoons, as well as butter knives and serving ladles, among other implements.

Another major chapter is devoted to log bowls and this chapter, too, could easily comprise a small book by itself. Included is a discussion of tools, the procedure for hollowing the logs, and a major new section on design. Langsner also discusses sawbenches intended for use in bowl carving, then provides advice on things to do and things to avoid. Final chapters address trestle tables, a small bench he calls the handy bench, and pine whisks—green wood decorations fashioned from the fan-like configurations of new growth, especially from white pine trees.

Eight appendices complete the volume. Here new material is offered on oil finishes, riving in thirds, a primer on axes, and chopping stumps with legs. The most intriguing addition is the concluding appendix in which Langsner describes his new focus, now that he is retired from the Country Workshop classes, which features artistically inspired bowls, geometric forms, artistic creations from found wood, and even large-scale decorative art from lightning-splintered trees.

This 377-page volume is a major resource for any woodworker who aspires to what Langsner calls country woodworking, which includes both green and dried lumber. Certainly, any woodworker new to this style of work will want this book as a guide to best practices and a source of plans on what can be done within this medium. But seasoned country woodworkers, even those who own the original volume, will find the extensive updating valuable. I'm proud to add this book to my personal library. Even though I'm not a country woodworker, there is much value as well as inspiration in Langsner's discussion of these tools and techniques. It may yet lead me to carve some spoons or a flat bowl for kneading bread—one of my favorite side activities. If you have the slightest interest in these tools or technology, you'll find this book both informative and, more likely, essential.

Find out more and purchase Country Woodcraft: Then and Now
at Highland Woodworking

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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