In part 1 of my Shaker Books blog I linked to AbeBooks. If you’re like me and still prefer the real thing over the e-version, then it’s a great place to shop. There’s another bookseller I just discovered last month. They’re up in Canada but they ship to the US by driving over the bridge and mailing from the US Post Office. They are Antiquarius and I recommend them for anybody in the US or Canada.
There are two more Shaker books in my collection to review. I know some of you have short attention spans so I’ll devote this blog episode to just one of them:
How To Build Shaker Furniture by Thomas Moser. (Copyright 1977, published 1980. Remember that.)
My opinion in a nutshell: Worst Book Ever. Some of you know Mr. Moser as being God’s Gift To Shaker Style. More astute readers know him as the factory owner who mass produces shaker-themed furniture commanding a high price due to his ability to sell himself as an “artist.” Now you’re asking yourself “Self, if Joe dislikes the guy so much, then why did he buy the book?” Well I bought the book before I knew what it or he was all about, so I went in blind. I bought the book, hated it, and put it aside. Years later I saw the name Moser being touted as the next great thing in Shaker furniture and remembered the book. I had to check twice to make sure they were talking about the same guy. Oh well, it’s amazing what a good marketing agent can do for a career. So let me break down this book chapter by chapter and show you why I hate it.
Chapter 1 starts with a paragraph titled “The Creative Process.” A more truthful title would be “Philosophical Egotistic Bullcr@p.” (PEB) Here’s a hint for you readers – when a how-to book opens with a quote from Ulysses you just need to close the cover and walk away. Anyhow, that paragraph is followed by about 14 pages – mostly stock photos – on the history of the Shakers. It is the same information found in just about every other book on the Shakers, and every single website devoted to the Shakers. Now there’s nothing wrong with background, but there’s nothing special about what he gives us in this chapter.
Chapter 2 is “Materials” it too starts with some PEB titled “A Covenant with Wood” where he attempts, and fails miserably, at channeling Krenov. But that mindless rambling is just a prologue to the rest of this disaster of a chapter – an agonizing 10 pages where he describes the difference between hardwoods and softwoods, lumber grading, a description of common wood species, and how it is cut and dried. (Yes the exact same information that is found in chapter 2 of every woodworking book ever printed since the invention of the printing press.) There was a glimmer of hope when a page with nothing but drawings of shaker pegs popped up. I thought we might be getting somewhere, but no. Those pegs stood alone with little explanation, and were followed by more pages describing the different types and grits of sandpaper. That is followed by more generic drawings in case you don’t know what a hinge looks like or you don’t know the all-important differences between a common and a finish nail. Yes. He actually devoted space for a drawing of two nails. At this point you think you’ve hit rock bottom but you’ve still got pages and pages of pictures showing you what circular saws (and blades), shaper cutters, rasps, jigsaws, routers, power drills and other tools look like.By page 65 we hit the line drawings explaining what a lap-joint or a dado is, and a picture with caption on how to use a panel clamp. Then it’s back to the tools as we learn how to safely make a cut on a tablesaw. It’s important to note that there is no “How To” in this chapter. You don’t learn how to make a lap joint on the tablesaw, you just see a picture of each one so in the future if you’re walking down the street and a runaway tablesaw flies by with a board on top of it you can point to it and loudly exclaim “Look. That’s a Tablesaw. And that board has part of a lap joint on it!”. My not-so-humble advice to would-be builders of shaker furniture is this: If you don’t know what a circular saw is, or what a butt-joint is, then you probably should start with something simpler, like maybe a pop-up book with 2-3 words per page. (And then the saw says “buzz buzz” And then the drill says “whirrl whirrl.”) And instead of a Shaker washstand, maybe set your sites on one of those napkin holders, the kind with a board and four dowels sticking out of it.
But the final insult to our intelligence comes in the final chapter when Mr. Moser finally gets to the actual “How To Build Shaker Furniture.” Remember those measured drawing books I mentioned in episode 1, the ones that were printed in 1973? Well here they come again. They looked so alike I put the books next to each other and had a hard time finding any differences. I guess since the author of the first series was dead and couldn’t sue him, the author of this book thought he could “borrow” a few pages and nobody would notice. To that original measured drawing he added a couple rough sketches of some joints with a vague caption of what it’s supposed to look like if he’d have hired a professional to draw them. And then he throws in a stock black and white photo from a museum so you will know what it’s supposed to look like if he had told you how to make it.
So that’s my opinion on this book. I give it zero splinters out of ten. If you are looking for a book on the history or philosophy of the Shakers, then any other book with Shaker in the title will provide you with better information (except for maybe a book titled “Wooden Salt Shakers from 15th Century Albania, a Pictorial Journey”)
Final note: If you are looking for basic woodworking how-to information, how-to use a certain power tool, how to tell the difference between wood, oak, or dried mashed potatoes, then there are 27 million better books on the subject. If you are looking to actually build a piece of furniture in the Shaker style then this book will NOT help you do that. If you are looking for an example of how a well-timed publication, no matter how poorly written, can propel you to woodworking stardom, then you might find some insight here.
Really Final Note: There is a “revised” edition of this book. I haven’t read it. Based on my experience with the first book, and what I know now about the author, I am of the opinion that any revision or reprint is merely an attempt to keep his name fresh in the buying public’s mind. And unless it comes with an apology and a refund check for the first book, there is nothing that he can present on the topic that isn’t covered elsewhere.
Next, and last, I’ll be talking about a book on Shakers that I actually enjoyed and would recommend. Yes, it does exist!
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