Reviews / Comptes rendus - Paul B. Kebabian and Dudley Whitney, American Woodworking Tools

Reviews / Comptes rendus

Paul B. Kebabian and Dudley Whitney, American Woodworking Tools

Martin E. Weaver
Heritage Canada
American Woodworking Tools. Paul B. Kebabian and Dudley Whitney. Boston: New York Graphie Society, 1978. 213 p., ill., colour plates, biblio., index. ISBN 0-8212-0731-8. $27.50. Reviewed by Martin E. Weaver.

1 In an earlier review of this book for Heritage Canada's magazine I wrote "this is a beautiful book, if you are interested in tools, history, design, art, woodworking antiques, collecting - the range is enormous -this book is for you." When I was asked to review the book for Material History Bulletin, I went back and read it again trying to look at it through the eyes of an historian of cultural material or as a museum specialist.

2 Anyone working on collections of woodworking tools in Canada can find that they are dealing with a bewildering assortment of tools primarily from Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. Some tools will be hybrids with, for example, manufactured plane irons from England and plane stocks made locally from yellow birch. The task of investigating, recording, describing, and eventually cataloguing such tools is essentially aided by reference books. Obviously the best aides are experience and knowledge but even the most expert in the field need their books.

3 Paul Kebabian, a past president of the Early American Industries Association* and current Director of Libraries, University of Vermont, has joined with Dudley Whitney, an English-born illustrator and photographer, to produce a book on woodworking tools - a book which has quite clearly been a labour of love for both of them. Both author and photographer are tool collectors and most of the illustrated tools come from their personal collections, the remainder belonging to friends and relations.

4 They have created a book which takes an authoritative and beautifully illustrated middle line between the contrasting approaches of the publications of Ken Roberts and his publishing company of Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire, and the more simple sketchbooks of Eric Sloane.

5 One major feature distinguishes American Woodworking Tools from many other good books on tools - the colour illustrations, 31 colour plates full of rich tones of brass and mellow, hand-worn hardwoods. Combine these with 167 excellent black and white photographs and line drawings and one has a good reason to own the book. Museum staff can get much information on form, dimensions, purpose, techniques of use, and technological development for all the major woodworking tools that they are likely to encounter as well as for a number of tools which they may not.

6 The introductory chapter nicely sets the scene for the book and discusses woodworking tools as part of the cultural heritage. The book includes references, bibliography, and index, features which are indispensable to a reference work but which are often omitted from illustrated books of this type.

7 The otherwise good balance of the book wobbles a bit in the second chapter which is devoted to a fast, thirteen-page "Historical Overview." This is an express tour through the antecedents of American woodworking tools, starting with the discoveries of the Leakeys at Olduvai Gorge and galloping on with fleeting glimpses of Stone and Bronze Age developments in Europe, Mesopotamia, and Egypt and the later developments of Greece and Rome. Certainly more relevant antecedents could have been examined.

8 Two other approaches might have been adopted here, thereby increasing the value of the book. The first would have been to examine in one chapter the tools of Europe immediately prior to and during the major years of the colonization of North America. By contrasting features and qualities which distinguish European from North American tools this study would have demonstrated the processes of development. A second approach would have been to conduct a similarly brief examination of the woodworking tools of the indigenous cultures of America prior to colonization.

9 Some inside advice on the recognition of certain descriptive features would also have been most useful. Two tempting examples are from the captions for figure 4 ("...forged by blacksmiths from worn-out files") and figure 32 ("forged by the blacksmith from a scythe blade..."). We are not told how one arrives at these conclusions by examining the artifacts.

10 Period tool catalogues or modern facsimiles offer another approach to the study of tools. In this context an interesting puzzle appears in comparing figure 148 with item 1787 on page 74 of the Edward Preston and Sons Ltd- Illustrated Price List, Sixth Edition of July 1901 (reprinted by Ken Roberts, January 1979, ISBN 0913602-30-2.) What appears to be the same hammer with spiked poll is described in American Woodworking Tools as a "bung pick" under cooper's tools, and in the Price List as "handled coal hammer(s), wrot steel face and point." Obviously there are pitfalls in tool studies but this should not detract too much from the book under review.

11 American Woodworking Tools is a well produced book and there is much to be said for its basic organization which runs through the range of tools, axes, adzes, percussion tools, etc. and then examines the tool cabinets of the various trades, from carpenter and sawyer via joiner and cabinetmaker, to wheelwright, carriagemaker, and cooper.

12 I still long for a luxury edition of R.A. Salaman's Dictionary of Tools Used in the Woodworking and Allied Trades c. 1700-1970, illustrated with colour plates and large format black and white plates of selected examples. It will probably never happen and even if it did probably no-one could afford it. For the moment American Woodworking Tools provides an interesting alternative.

The Early American Industries Association is the leading organization of American tool collectors and students of the historical technology of tools and toolwork. More information can be obtained from:

The Early American Industries' Association
Old Economy
Cambridge, Pennsylvania 15003
U.S.A.