Book Review: Saws, Planes and Scorps by David Heim
Review by J. Norman Reid

If you are looking for something a little different in woodworking literature, you have found it. If you’re a hand tool woodworker, or simply a lover of fine quality and artful tools, you’ll be especially pleased by this recent publication. What makes this book unique? The book’s subtitle says it all: “Exceptional Woodworking Tools and Their Makers.” The book is, as this suggests, a collection of vignettes of artisan hand tool makers, both prominent and less well known, their offerings, and their methods.

I must issue a disclaimer at the start of this review. The small company I co-operate with Jeff Fleisher, Shenandoah Tool Works, is among the businesses featured here. But the mallets and birdcage awls we make occupy but a small portion of the book’s space, and my delight at reading this fine book seems unlikely to have been much affected by the pleasure of seeing our products so celebrated.

The volume opens with longer portraits of four major hand tool makers: Lie-Nielsen, Lee Valley, Bridge City Tool Works, and Woodpeckers. Each portrait examines the origins, product lines, and marketing strategies of the makers. From them, we gain a better understanding of what motivates their drive to excellence and an appreciation for how they conduct their business. Confession time: though I own many tools from three of these makers, I was only marginally aware of Bridge City Tool Works and had never seen any of their tools. However, after reading their portrait, I was seduced into buying my first Bridge City tool. Yes, this book may well be dangerous to your pocketbook!

Following the four introductory sketches, the book delves into a wide array of artisan tools, grouped into chapters. Within them, each maker is treated to a two to three page spread with a short text that introduces the maker—most of whom work on a solitary basis making tools they love with exquisite care. In all cases color photographs display their wares, showing both their variety and quality. The essays allow the reader to feel a personal connection to the maker and one comes away with a sense of what drives him or her to excel at what they do.

The range of tools and makers Heim includes is large. It begins with workbenches and vises, then measuring and marking tools, handsaws and handplanes. This is succeeded by chapters on hammers, mallets, and chisels; spokeshaves, drawknives, scorps, and travishers; and concludes with adzes, hatchets, and knives. I’ll not try to convey the details of each section nor the variety of offerings available. I’ll leave the delight of discovery to you, the reader. But let me just say that I was surprised at the number of producers of whom I was not previously aware, just as I was intrigued by the high quality their makers are able to achieve.

For me, the joy of reading this book was the delight of discovering the rich variety of maker-produced tools available to us. So many intriguing options are well-hidden and known to only a relative few by word of mouth. For me, the book serves as a guide to finding more of what’s out there than I knew about. And it gives me a good opportunity to compare makers and their tools as I consider my own future purchases. But, as I said earlier, beware! What you find may tend to loosen your grip on your wallet.

The book is hardbound and letter-sized with many full color photographs and is a quality production in its own right.

So, to whom will this book appeal? First of all, any woodworker looking to add to their tool collection will find this ability to compare the wares of individual makers serves as a catalog of sorts, a lead to sources they may not have known about. This is particularly true for those of us who prize owning unique, special, hand-made tools for our own work. But even if you don’t think you’re in the market for artisanal tools, it’s a fascinating read for anyone who simply loves finely crafted tools.

As for me, I’ve got my eye on several other tools I just encountered here. And in my case, this book greatly enriched my understanding of and appreciation for the fuller range of maker tools that are out there. I think, for hand tool woodworkers, Heim’s book makes it clear that now is a great time to be alive and working wood.

Find out more and purchase Saws, Planes and Scorps
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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