Highland Woodworking Wood News Online, No. 172, December 2019
Book Review: The Joiner & Cabinet-Maker - Historical Reprint
Review by J. Norman Reid

Just in time for the gift-giving holidays comes a pocket-sized reprint of The Joiner & Cabinet-Maker, the now-classic tale of a young English lad apprenticed to learn the trades of joining and cabinetmaking. This slender paperbound volume of 115 pages is a 2019 reprint of the original by Lost Art Press. Presumably an exact copy of the original in its size as issued, it is remarkably clean of marks and printing errors, making it quite pleasantly readable. The book itself is a charming account of the work of a 13 year old English lad apprenticed to a small woodshop in the first half of the 19th century. On its face, the story illustrates how woodworking was done in a country woodshop in that time and place. But the book is much more than that. It documents the methods and tools used in that time to carry out a variety of woodworking tasks, giving it particular historical interest. And, moving throughout the text are cautions and reminders about the value of exercising care in all that one undertakes, whether in woodworking or in life.

It is the story, then, of a young boy, Thomas Watson, apprenticed to a reluctant Mr. Jackson to serve a seven-year term of work to learn the trades of joiner and cabinetmaker. He begins his work tasked at simple jobs, first keeping the shop tidy of shavings, then tending the fire to keep the glue hot and ready for use. In doing the latter job, he learns to use the axe, first to prepare firewood, then to ready wood for use in building boxes. He progresses to tending the glue pot and straightening bent nails so they can be reused at a savings to the shop. He later learns to turn the grindstone at a steady pace for other workers to sharpen their tools, and he develops skill at flattening the rubstone by which some workers polish and hone their tools. As he advances, he is sent out to job sites to obtain measurements for pieces such as corner cabinets. All the while, he learns to select wood and dimension offcuts, thus teaching himself the types and uses of different handsaws.

By the time he has worked in the shop for one or two years, he has taught himself by trial and observation how to do a good many basic tasks. And so, it is that by chance he is given the job of constructing a packing crate that none of the seasoned workers have time to build. He selects the needed wood, measures it to the correct size, then learns the importance of thinking through the whole production process before beginning to avoid errors that would waste both time and materials. Most important, though, is learning how well it is to live by the rule "is it as good as I can make it?" rather than "it will do." His performance on this task earns him the commendation of Mr. Jackson and a more favored place in the workings of the shop.

Next described is his construction of a finer chest to hold the possessions of a schoolboy who'll be sent away to school. This chest, fitted with a hinged lid and hasp, is dovetailed, a new skill he's built in odd free moments of practice, and which, unlike the packing crate, is planed smooth inside and out. The chest includes a moveable box inside to store small items used by its recipient, who is well pleased with the result.

By his fourth year, Thomas is beginning to earn a small salary, part of which he gives to his father for room and board, he being an out-boarder, unlike some apprentices who board with their masters. With his remaining funds, Thomas first purchases a two-foot ruler, soon followed by a set of chisel irons for which he fashions his own handles, the usual practice in English woodshops. To use with these, he then crafts a beech mallet of his own design. Finally, he constructs a simple box in which to store his growing set of personal tools until he is prepared to build a proper tool chest.

His next project, like the others described in detail, is a small chest of drawers. He employs some new joints in making the chest, mortises and through tenons, half-blind ("one-eyed") dovetails, rabbets and grooves cut with the plow plane.

His final project, which takes him further into cabinetmaking from the related but separate trade of joinery, is to build a mahogany chest, the faces of which are veneered. The final product is French polished after the usual custom of the time. And then, the book concludes, having closely followed Thomas's progress as he develops his skills and evolves as a near-journeyman and a valued asset to Mr. Jackson's shop. An account follows with an exploration of how Thomas or a similar lad might profitably spend his time off work, walking in the country, reading, learning to draw or developing other useful knowledge such as arithmetic.

The projects Thomas undertakes are described in enough detail that the reader can, if desired, replicate them. The proper use of the tools and the conduct of procedures are carefully described, making the book a good guide to proper hand tool woodworking. Though conveniently small, the print is likewise small, which may challenge some elderly eyes. My own, however, no longer young, had no trouble consuming this enjoyable book. The tome is an interesting and informative introduction to some of the unfamiliar English woodworking terminology. I learned, for instance, that the English term "rebate" is there pronounced "rabbit," which explains the North American transliteration of the term as "rabbet." I guess. There are other diversions from North American terminology, but these will pose little misunderstanding, for the basic woodworking practices are the same on both sides of the pond.

Beginning cabinetmakers can do worse than reading this book for guidance in attaining excellence. Historians of woodworking will find this —one of the few accounts of period woodworking practices— enlightening and informative. Armchair woodworkers will discover a delightful account of the growth and development of a beginning woodworker. Hand tool enthusiasts will find here much good instruction to guide their practice. This was my second read-through of this account. I thoroughly enjoyed and was inspired by it. I suspect you will be as well.

Find out more and purchase The Joiner & Cabinet-Maker - Historical Reprint
at Highland Woodworking

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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