Highland Woodworking Wood News Online, No. 163, March 2019
Book Review: The Intelligent Hand
by David Binnington Savage
Review by J. Norman Reid

The Intelligent Hand, by the recently-deceased David Binnington Savage, is a distinctive and aptly titled work by a highly accomplished cabinetmaker. This impressive book, published by Lost Art Press, fills several important niches in woodworking literature. First and foremost, it's an autobiographical account of the life of an exemplary cabinetmaker. In reading it, you'll come to appreciate a life well lived by a man who overcame many challenges to become the accomplished artist that he was.

In addition, the book is a treatise on design. The classically-trained Savage held that the design of his pieces was perhaps their most important quality, even more important than the technical perfection he insisted upon. But this is not a design book. There are no designs here to copy. Rather, it's a reflection on the principles of design and a template for how they can be incorporated into the work of any cabinetmaker.

It's also an illustration of a career working in the spirit of the Arts & Crafts movement. It's not a history of that movement, nor is it a recitation of iconic designs that emerged from it. Rather, it's a story of a man who lived and worked in its tradition of one-off, human-centered craftsmanship. Savage’s work was indeed the spirit of the English Arts & Crafts movement embodied.

A strong subtheme focuses on developing and maintaining good client relations with well-heeled patrons who could afford to pay high prices for work well-executed. As Savage notes, satisfied clients become clients for life and thus an important part of a steady revenue stream.

Savage also describes many aspects of how work is done in the Rowden workshop he founded in Devon. This includes the tools he preferred, preparing and sharpening them and using them. There is, in addition, a nice section on proportions and the importance of Greek architecture to design.

The final sections of the book provide a step-by-step illustration of the design and construction of an innovative and, frankly, daring desk and chair of Swiss pear he built for his wife.

Who will appreciate this book? First of all, it's a beautiful book, hardbound, slip covered, and well-illustrated with many color photographs and drawings. And it’s an homage to the spirit of an exemplary woodworker. For those reasons alone it should have broad appeal. But it will be especially rewarding to those who seek to work on their own as professional woodworkers and who will profit from solid advice on how to develop and maintain significant client relationships.

In addition, anyone who's interested in the execution of contemporary Arts & Crafts furniture will find this book fascinating. Woodworkers who seek inspiration in creating innovative designs will find plenty here to stimulate their juices. And overall, there's a strong life lesson here that will not fail to inspire many readers.

I found it a fascinating book to read, and one that gave me many ideas and much inspiration. I think you will find the same.

Find out more and purchase The Intelligent Hand by David Binnington Savage

J. Norman Reid is a woodworker, writer, and woodworking instructor living in the Blue Ridge Mountains with his wife, a woodshop full of power and hand tools and four cats who think they are cabinetmaker's assistants. He is the author of Choosing and Using Handplanes. He can be reached by email at nreid@fcc.net.

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