The Artisan of Ipswich by Robert Tarule is a book that doesn’t pop up as often as The Joiner and Cabinetmaker – or the Village Carpenter, but for me it is one of the best historical books about wood and woodworking. I had the pleasure of interviewing Shannon Rogers (The Renaissance Woodworker) on the show and we had a great hour going through what makes this book so special.
This book was an incredible find for me relatively early in my hand tool career – I’d never read anything like it that focussed on Shop based research. It feels in many ways that this set the groundwork for Author’s such as Christopher Schwarz and more recently Joshua Klein. When I looked at the format of the Lost Art Press version of The Joiner and Cabinet Maker it’s hard not to immediately think about The Artisan of Ipswich. So I feel in a way that this book by Robert Tarule helped shape the way of writing of some of the best woodworking authors.
I also found interesting in the book is the theme of how Thomas Dennis was likely to solve problems in a specific manner which was a result of his apprenticeship in a long tradition. This struck a chord with me as in one way, learning from indirect experience minimizes errors, but at the other extreme, its only practical experimentation and repetition that develops our skills. It seems to me that one of the downsides of the internet, is that while it allows beginners access to a range of material – really the only way to get good at techniques is to do them. And to do lots of them. It feels sometimes that there is so much obsession with doing things the best way, rather than getting on with things and learning to do it well “any way”.
Whenever I read historical accounts I am reminded that a joiner in the 17th century had to work fast. The ways of doing things efficiently were hard-wired into his head, so work was repeatable, and accomplished almost without thought. I often hear how hand tools are “slow”, but my experience has been different. I find that doing different things quickly is very possible with hand tools. This past weekend I had lunch with a friend of a friend, and he found out I was a woodworker. He mentioned they were doing a team building and he needed some tools, one thing led to another and he was looking at pictures of my tool room. And he was a bit taken aback at the lack of power. Turns out he wants to strip a bunch of pallets and make some benches. I reckon if we raced on one or two maybe 3 benches I’d beat him with a saw, plane, hammer and some nails. Possibly beyond this he would gain an edge on me – but frankly I have no desire to make 4 benches for my house.
If you want to hear more Shannon’s history and learning from his work at the Steppingstone Museum, and why I believe this book is one any woodworker would benefit from reading, you can listen to the full podcast here: