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Country Woodcraft: Then and Now - a Behind the Scenes Look
By Jim Dillon

I started writing a review of Drew Langsner's new book, Country Woodcraft: Then and Now, but quickly realized my relationship with this book is too complicated for me to even pretend to have an unbiased opinion. So, as someone who has already spent lots of time with it, I'm here to give you a peek behind the scenes of the making of this big, important book from Lost Art Press.

I have taught classes at Highland Woodworking since 2000. In 2013, I got the chance to be a student for a change, and went to Country Workshops, in the North Carolina mountains, for a ladderback chair course. Ten students came to the Langsners' farm, slept in guest quarters on the property, ate communally under a timber framed shelter, and worked hard every day. We started with a log, and using hand tools, made ladderback chairs in six days. I was hooked! After a couple decades of cabinet work with tablesaws, planers, routers, and random orbit sanders, this different way of woodworking, which many now call "green woodworking", got me excited. And having taught hundreds of students at all ability levels myself, I recognized a great teacher in Drew. I signed up for more classes, then Margaret came with me for a class called "Cooking with Louise," and by the time Drew and Louise retired and closed Country Workshops in 2017, we and the Langsners had become family friends.

The Country Workshops shop building, seen from the garden.

Drew is the kind of person, and teacher, who never stops thinking of ways to do, and make, things better. In 40 years at Country Workshops, his teaching and his approach to carving spoons and half-log bowls evolved dramatically. The way he equipped his mostly hand-tool shop also developed to better meet the needs of his students. The world changed too, as high-quality hand tools became more available, and woodworkers took to using them more. Fortunately for us, when he retired, Drew decided not to simply file away all he had learned through these changes.

Just before opening Country Workshops, Drew had published Country Woodcraft in 1978. By 2017, two of his other books, The Chairmaker's Workshop and Green Woodworking, (also available at Highland) had been reissued with revisions, but Country Woodcraft had a broader scope than those. Revising it in light of all the developments over 40 years of teaching and working seemed like a good way to share all he had learned.

Drew deciding how to crosscut a fresh log into bowl blanks.

I was thrilled when Drew suggested I might be able to help with some photography and editing. He suggested that for the spoon and bowl carving chapters, I should join him in the shop for a couple days, and document each process from cutting down the tree to finishing. You can see a couple of my "outtake" photos here. Drew has added a lot to these chapters, and the methods he shows here represent the final, best versions of the bowl and spoon classes at Country Workshops. They also differ from what has become the "orthodox" way of doing things among the green woodworking communities on social media — not to say either is right or wrong, but that even an experienced carver will find this book thought-provoking.

Drew and Jim at the bench.

Our time in the shop was delightful. Sure, I worked hard to document the process, but at the same time I was getting a one-on-one version of a Country Workshops class. Drew was quite patient with my requests to freeze, or take an extra stroke with a gouge, so that I could get a better angle or dodge a shadow. He had very specific ideas of how the images should complement the text, and I think we got it. Our shop sessions ended with us both tired out, but happy with what we'd done.

Once we got down to the nitty-gritty of editing, I realized this wasn't just about updating the spoon and bowl chapters. If you've read other reviews of this book, you know they're being highlighted, and justifiably. Drew has packed in a lot of specific information about how his shop has evolved through the years — everything from what a blacksmith taught him about sledgehammer handle length, to how his sharpening method has evolved, to a very non-traditional workbench design he made for students and has ended up using for most of his own personal work. Drew added step-by-step instructions – along with measurements and drawings – for making that workbench, his "Z-Mule" shaving horse, and even your own slojd knife!

Willow for baskets, and lumber, stored in the loft of the
shop building at Country Workshops.

Another big change is that the new version is packed with beautiful color photographs. The black-and-white illustrations of the original remain, but the new photos, printed on heavier, glossier paper in Lost Art Press's high quality approach, do an excellent job of giving us a "Then and Now" look at how photo and print technology have changed since 1978.

Willow for Louise's baskets waiting for use.

Drew poured himself into this project for two years. Country Woodcraft: Then and Now is not a quick rewrite based on memory! It is a 400-page masterwork of tremendous scope. The breadth sneaks up on you because the detail draws you in close. I found this happening to me time and time again as I proofread. When I finished the chapter on shaving horses, I felt like I had just read a book on shaving horses. Then I glanced at the list of chapters still to work on, and realized that Drew Langsner had succeeded in immersing me in his world. What pleasure it gives me to realize that I can re-immerse myself whenever I want, by getting out my copy. And I'm sure I will.

The view from above the buildings on the Langsner place
on a frosty morning.

The gardens, viewed from the shop building.

Finally, I'll use my perspective as a friend of the author to say a little bit about the "why to," since the book is hyper focused on "how to." The projects Drew guides you through are homely items in the best sense, meant to be used in your daily life. The "Now" sections focus on how the methods have been refined by 40 years' experience. The flip side of the coin is that these projects stand the test of time. When you visit the Langsner house, you're surrounded by objects you recognize from Drew's books. The baskets, spoons, bowls, chairs and table get used every day: not out of a sense of duty, but because they work well and bring pleasure. It's not practical to have everything you own be handmade, let alone make it yourself. But once you've carved yourself a spoon, and used it to eat your oatmeal in the morning, and noticed how it appeals to the eye; the hand; and even the ear, for how quiet it is compared to a metal one; it might get you to thinking. And then doing.

Table set for dinner. Handmade objects become old friends
that join us for our daily meals.

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

Jim Dillon has been teaching at Highland since 2000. His day job is as Cabinetmaker at Fernbank Science Center, building exhibits. He was self-employed as a custom furniture maker for 8 years, and before that, taught college English. He finds that coaching other woodworkers to develop their problem-solving and hand skills is an inspiration for his own work.

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