New Traditionalism

My thoughts on Jim Tolpin’s nondogmatic starter book

So, a short apology. It was a little ambitious of me to think I’d get the review up in a day. If you follow my instagram you know I’ve got a lot of travel this summer. I’m currently in Kansas City, grading AP Literature exams. I read something around 100 today. There’s no excuse except that a man’s gotta eat. But let’s get to the point.

If I were to start my education in this craft over again, I feel like I’d only need two books: the Anarchist’s Design Book and New Traditional Woodworking. The ADB teaches you how to build sturdy set of furniture. NTW teaches you how to do everything before and after that.

I stumbled into woodworking through InterLibrary Loan. While working on my Masters I learned that no one at the library questioned if the books I wanted were “legitimate” research or “just for fun.” Wisely, they don’t recogize that distinction. And I don’t remember exactly how, but one day, I walked out of the library with Jim Tolpin’s book.

It was gorgeous. The rich red tinged colors of the design and the wood tones of the photography sucked me right in. The hand drawn sketches had personality. And the “story” of the book was the yin to Schwarz’s yang (or have I got that backwards?). I’d already found the Anarchist’s Tool Chest at this point, and enjoyed the thumb-in-your-eye contrarian fun. But, much as I admire that style, it’s not me.

Jim Tolpin gave me the story of woodworking that resonated with me. His Port Townsend sensibility was familiar. I’ve spent some time sailing on the Puget Sound, and the laid back hippie craftsman–though it might get scoffs–seemed like an  echo of the Thoreau of the Journal that I think of as a good friend. Someone I could not only relate to and wanted to have a beer with, but a persona I could imagine myself inhabiting, a role model of sorts.

Tolpin’s story of a craftsman is more internal than some. Forgive a well worn cliche: it isn’t so much about the products as the processes. More about the satisfaction he guides readers to is in knowing how to do a job, and do it well. The book is basically a set of instructions for shop appliances, and yet each one is carefully designed to be both functional and beautiful. If you’re going to make your own stuff, why not enjoy the whole process? Why not make your shop warm and beautiful, too? As my sailor friend used to tell me: “You know you’re doing it right when it looks beautiful.” Tolpin told me, and modeled for me, a plausible story of that sort of livable grace.


The books had a few flaws for me, mostly in that it doesn’t seem to have been written for those of us on a budget. There are lots of glamour shots of expensive tools: endgrain shooting planes, toothing planes, a slick plow plane, that I will probably never own. But there are generally work arounds provided, and the explanation and step by step photographs of the procedures more than make up for it. The few places that I’ve encountered that leave me stumped are inevitably my thickness of head and not the fault of the text or photos.

I haven’t met Tolpin, though I’ve watched some of his videos at He seems as quiet and peaceful as his writing. I hope to achieve that composure someday, and maybe I can learn it if I get a chance to attend a class at the Port Townsend School of Woodworking.

This book continues to be influential to me. I checked it out three times from the library before I finally caved and bought it. I have no regrets.

Next up (though probably not tomorrow): Walden.


A New Project

Two of my bookshelves

First off, what an amazing and humbling thing to have such a great (okay, sometimes great and sometimes inflammatory to the point of seeming allergic) response to my essay in Full Stop. Reading the comments, both on the Full Stop website and on the Lost Art Press blog was by turns cheering, frustrating, and confounding. I won’t bother arguing point by point with various commenters, but I will say that I am encouraged by how much diversity of opinion exists among those who identify as woodworkers (esp. handtool woodworkers). One key thing I learned is that mentioning the name of Karl Marx (briefly in a several thousand word essay) is still enough to derail the whole argument for some. There’s a valuable lesson there–some ideas might suffer from attribution. But really, go read some Marx. As one commentor pointed out, attributing Communism and the acts of Lenin and Stalin to Marx is like attributing the Inquisition to Jesus. Marx was a deeply ethical, careful thinker.

But, back to my new project. The response to my essay, along with Nancy Hiller and Megan Fitzpatrick’s Instagram posts about their bookshelves and several wonderful emails, has gotten me thinking about my books. Admittedly, it wasn’t hard to get me thinking about my books, since I’ve devoted my life to being a scholar of literature (a.k.a. “overeducated buffoon” to one axe-grinding commentor). I chose to go to grad school not because I thought it would be a plum way to get a living–in fact it means seven years of no savings, sub 20k salary, and constant stress. And chances are I won’t ever land a faculty job; less than half of literature Ph.D.s do (though it’s good work if you can get it). Instead, I decided to get a Ph.D. because I have a deep belief that our lives are driven by the stories that surround us. And I wanted–needed–to understand those stories, especially the ones from what still seems to be the pivotal moment in American history and identity: the mid 19th century.

At root, this goal of understanding stories stems from the premise that stories are fundamental. We want certain things because we have stories about them. We do what we do because of stories. That’s why we make things from wood. Because we have a story (or many stories) about what it means to make things from wood. That’s why we want to take vacations to Hawai’i. We tell ourselves that it’s pleasant there (and it is!). But we also know that going to Hawai’i has some social value–we have a story about “making it” that includes beach vacations, Mai Tais, and tan lines. We know the value, to ourselves and others, of having those personal and shared stories of joy and pleasure (after all, memories are just stories we tell ourselves, and psychological experiments has shown its not very hard to make memories of things that never occurred). So we have all these stories, most of which are given to us and all of which share a certain architecture, and then we tweak them and live them and try to realize them.

So my new blog project, for the next several weeks (while I’m not home with access to my little workshop) is going to be book reviews. I want to write a bit about the stories that my books have told me about what good work is. That might mean work with wood. It might be more abstract and philophical takes on work. You’ll get my little reviews of Jim Tolpin and Hannah Arendt, Henry David Thoreau and Christopher Schwarz. I don’t know where it will lead, but I hope you’ll check back.

Tomorrow: thoughts on Jim Toplin’s The New Traditional Woodworker.