Highland Woodworking Wood News Online, No. 160, December 2018
 
Mechanic's Companion
by Peter Nicholson
Book Review by J. Norman Reid

Most readers will be familiar with Joseph Moxon's Mechanick Exercises, the first English language book on woodworking and other trades. Less familiar, though, is Peter Nicholson's Mechanic's Companion, which first appeared in 1812, more than a century after Moxon. Given that Nicholson appears so much later, aside from the famous Nicholson bench, why should we be interested in this volume?

For one thing, Mechanic's Companion is more detailed and comprehensive than Moxon, including much more written detail. Unlike Moxon, Nicholson had been apprenticed as a cabinetmaker and became an architect and thus had more direct personal experience with his subjects. Nicholson's language is much easier to understand. And his writing is accompanied by some 40 detailed line drawings that give a good look at the tools and concepts he describes.

This volume, the first release from Megan Fitzpatrick's newly-formed Rude Mechanicals Press, is a reprint of the 1845 edition of the book. Though a copy of the original, the text has been cleaned up and slightly enlarged, making it easily readable. Printed on heavy acid-free paper with a sewn binding, the book is covered in blue cloth with a silver foil image of the Nicholson bench. As the publisher states, this book is intended to durably outlast the life of its owner.

The book's 333 pages offer a series of treatments of practices in the building trades as they existed in the first part of 19th century England. Covered are carpentry, joinery, bricklaying, masonry, slating, plastering, painting, smithing and turning. The volume opens with a presentation on practical geometry, which serves as background for several of the trades.

Each of the sections proceeds in a similar manner, with descriptions of the tools employed in the trade, discussion of methods and definitions of terms used. The latter is particularly useful for understanding the names of tools and techniques now largely unfamiliar to us.

The sections on carpentry, joinery and turning, which make up half of the book, will be of particular interest to woodworkers. But there is much to be learned about the other trades, such as slating, now a largely lost practice (but one in which this writer once engaged).

Along the way, the reader will find tidbits of information of practical value; for example, how to use handplanes of various types, how to “kill” knots with applications of fresh lime and (gasp!) lead-based paint, and the positions of the chuck for making elliptical turnings. A close read will uncover other items with current application.

This beautifully-produced book will especially interest students of early woodworking tools and practices, as well as those whose curiosity extends to other building trades. For those interested in collecting early works on the mechanical arts, this compendium will make a sound addition to their libraries.

Find out more and purchase Mechanic's Companion by Peter Nicholson


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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