170 years of tech book publishing, demonstrated

By Simon St. Laurent
February 16, 2010 | Comments: 2

Some of the most fascinating technical writing I've encountered recently was written 170 years ago. How is that possible? And just how different was it?

The Joiner and Cabinet Maker is a recent re-issue of a long-forgotten 1839 book on an apprenticeship in woodworking. Unlike most books of the time, it covers the first few steps into woodworking in detail, rather than providing a vague general description or covering only advanced techiques. This reprint, though, goes beyond the usual simple reproduction or even explanatory notes. It includes notes, yes, but also a detailed introduction, a recreation of the projects in modern prose and photographs, DVD slideshows, SketchUp diagrams, and an appendix on the techniques used to print the originals. Though it is intended as a book about woodworking, it also does a tremendous job demonstrating changes in technical writing.


Technical writing addresses a wide variety of audiences today. Even just within what remains of the computer book market, we have books written for absolute beginners, for developers getting up to speed with specific environments and challenges, and for experts polishing their skills or contemplating how it all fits together. We have books for senior citizens learning new technologies in their retirement.

In the 1830s, the potential audience was far smaller. Publishing was mostly targeted at a well-to-do audience, or at least an established audience. What publishing there was on woodworking was often general, for the interested gentleman who wanted to know how his furniture was made, reference, for gentlemen who had to explain what they wanted or masters setting rates, or higher-end material like pattern books that assumed the reader already knew the details of construction.

Printing was expensive, so well-off audiences were certainly easier to reach profitably. Even this book for newcomers cost "1 shilling, which was about two hours work for a skilled joiner working in a good shop." (22) Literacy was spreading, so it was at least plausible that there was an audience for this book. From its second printing on, it was even joined by others in the "Industrial Library." (That library included Governess, Confectioner, Gardener, Bank Clerk, Groom, Lady's Maid, Baker, Tailor, Nurse, Shepherd, Ploughman, and more.)

Perhaps most confusingly from the perspective of today, there simply wasn't a DIY movement, either. As Joel Moskowitz explains:

In England, more than in the United States, this idea of craft being something worth doing [outside of work] developed in the second half of the 19th century. Several things had happened. In the second half of the 19th century, post-Industrial Revolution, a middle class emerged that has time and money for hobbies. Philosophers such as John Ruskin and William Morris touted the concept that craft was redeeming, that performing tasks themselves was noble, and that hand work - the same disappearing crafts that were poorly paid - was a noble occupation. And as a hobby, hand work was a noble pastime. (21)

All of which, I have to admit, would have made me very nervous about taking this book to a publisher in 1839 in the hopes of convincing them that it would sell. The market Moskowitz suggests - "Think Bob Cratchit" - would have had to spend one of their fifteen weekly shillings on the book. Why? To decide if one of their children might succeed as a joiner? Perhaps. Cratchit's oldest daughter was apprenticed to a milliner, and Cratchit was certainly literate.

Moskowitz suggests that this audience was indeed hard to reach:

There is a distinct possibility, actually a probability, that this book was a flop and was neither profitable nor well-known at the time.... Because I am not aware of any copying... in other books, because it is rarely mentioned in the popular literature and because originals are rare, I must conclude that even if the book was a popular success, it never made it into the mainstream woodworking literature or the school workshop textbook literature... Even if the series was a commercial failure we have to commend the publisher for optimism. (22-3)

Today, the book may still be unusual, but I suspect it will actually sell more copies in this edition than in its 19th century editions. Though hand-tool woodworking appeals to a relatively small group of people, those people are often well-connected to each other and have discretionary income. The book's unique combination of old stories and a modern retelling are a pretty appealing combination today.

Writing Styles

Probably the easiest way to demonstrate how much technical writing has changed in 170 years is to present a single paragraph from the original (broken up into smaller chunks, admittedly).

The chest is now ready to receive the drawers, but before proceeding to describe the way of making them we will set it on its legs, which will make it look more like what it is intended for. The legs are eight inches high, and are seen in their proper places in fig. 4.

But to shew better how they are made, we have drawn one of them in fig. 9, to a scale of double the size, and with the inside towads us. The two large side pieces are eight inches long at top, and eight deep, as before said; and made of inch deal. At bottom, the length is narrowed off to only two inches, not in a straight line, but in a curve as pretty and tasteful as the workman can contrive. Thomas spends a long time before he can satisfy himself with the pattern, but fits on one at last which seems both strong and elegant.

By taking them in parts, two of them may be cut out of a piece of wood eight inches wide and about eleven inches long. For this purpose a frame-saw is used; that is, a saw with so narrow a blade that it will go round a curve easily, and from its being so narrow it is obliged to be set in a frame, which takes hold of it at both ends, and keeps it stretched tight so as not to bend or break when used. With this saw, Thomas cuts out the curve of one of the legs; and when by the rasp and file he has finished it up to his mind, he uses this one to mark all the others by, which ensures their matching one another in pattern.

For each of the four legs, two of these pieces are mitred together, as we described in [p.93]. To strengthen the mitre, which is glued and sprigged together, a strip of wood an inch square is glued all down in the inside corner, and sprigged also to the sides. It is better to leave this corner piece a little longer than the sides, to project perhaps a quarter of an inch below them, so that if the floor on which the chest is to stand be a little uneven, a small piece may be cut off one leg or other, as may be required.

They are fastened by glue and sprigs; or, which is better, by screws through the thinnest part of the sides into the chest bottom, and by a couple of sprigs driven in slanting through the upper part of the corner piece. The legs should be placed with the two faces flush with the faces of the chest at the corner. They may be farther strengthed two blocks of wood to each; an inch square, and as long as there is room for, glued into the corner, and sprigged both to the leg and the chest. These blocks are shewn in fig. 9. It is not usual to put in so many sprigs in making and fastening on the legs; but then they soon come off, and have to be glued and sprigged at last, with the chance of having been broken first. So Thomas thinks it best to make a good strong job of them at once.(122-4)

This paragraph takes up roughly a page and a half in the reprint, if you remove the modern notes and picture. In Christopher Schwarz's modern retelling, it takes approximately five pages of prose and text, three and a half of which are photographs. The text may also be a page and a half, but with the supporting photographs, it can be much lighter and considerably more personal:

The base is quick work - once you settle on a pleasing shape. Like Thomas, I spent some time striking arcs on scrap wood until I was pleased with the look of the S-curve shown in the book's illustration. This is a fairly unusual detail to my eye - I've not seen it on any high-style English furniture that has made it to the United States. But I do like it.

Once I had a shape I liked, I used that foot as a template to lay out the other feet on my stock. I nested the feet together to save material, and I cut the miters at the ends of the boards before cutting out the shape of the foot. Cutting the miters on a longer piece of stock was easier than cutting miters on short pieces.

Then use a bowsaw to cut the feet to shape and clean up your work with rasps.

Gluing the miters might seem like a daunting task, but I was taught an easy way to do it using a modern convenience (packing tape). Here's what you do. (314)

Even before you reach the packing tape, it's clear that everything about the writing is different.

Beyond that, of course it wasn't possible to create a DVD in the nineteenth century. Chris Schwarz uses the DVD to create slideshows of each of the projects, letting us see the pictures in color and providing less formal narration than in the book. One piece of this that I'm sure would have amazed the original writer is the SketchUp files, which provide three-dimensional drawings of each of the projects. (You can even get some enhanced SketchUp files for The Schoolbox for free.)


The author of The Joiner and Cabinet Maker is anonymous. Although Moskowitz writes that "as it rings true about the writer's time as an apprentice," it's not even certain that the author was a joiner. In a blog entry, Christopher Schwarz points out some details that don't seem quite right, some approaches that are impractical, and some terms that seem odd. He does wonder, though:

So does who wrote the book really matter?

In technical publishing today, it nearly always matters. Much of the credibility for the reprint comes from its authors. Moskowitz has extensive background in old tools and practices, and runs a tool company in Brooklyn. Christopher Schwarz, while he was trained as a journalist, has built a strong reputation over years editing Popular Woodworking and Woodworking magazine, presenting at shows, and writing books. They're both people whose books I would buy without worrying about quality problems.

In 1839, however, it may be that the publisher hired a writer to work with a joiner or joiners. As the book was anonymous, as were several in the series, it's clear that they weren't worried about the author's reputation being a critical component of the process. The publisher's brand, the position as part of an Industrial Library, or the uniqueness of the subject matter could well have mattered more.

Today I often wonder whether people outside of publishing notice the logos on their book spines, and read the copyright page to find out who exactly brought them this book. O'Reilly has, of course, gone to great lengths to brand our books, and other technical publishers often use well-known covers for series. Dummies is a long-running classic this way. We don't, however, generally publish books without crediting authors. Anonymity today is something much more common on the Internet than in print.

The publisher of the current edition, Lost Art Press, is built largely on the reputation of one of the authors, Christopher Schwarz. I'm amazed and impressed that F+W Media, his employer at the magazine and publisher of several of his other books, lets him run a small press on the side for projects like this one. It's possible that they don't see a market in 19th century technical books, but operating this way burnishes their reputation among woodworkers with an interest.

Printing and Distribution

One of my favorite "Further Readings" of the book is an essay by Jeffrey S. Peachey that looks at the printing of the first three (1839, 1841, and 1883) versions. The picture of the three versions side by side shows at a glance how differently they were structured. Peachey explores in greater detail how their manufacture changed drastically over the course of fifty years, while the price remained the same: a shilling.

The plates remained the same, except for some additional material tacked at the end of the 1883 edition. It was issued by three different printers, however, and sounds to me like it was a "midlist" title. It had a wide enough audience to be worth reprinting, but not so wide an audience that it set sales records. The small number of surviving copies doesn't suggest huge sales either.

The modern edition has been re-typset, allowing the addition of footnotes, and more than doubled in length from the extra material included. It is still a hardcover, though with a new decorative cover based on the packing crate project, and casebound. They didn't jump to the latest in publishing excitement, however, passing up print on demand for a traditional offset run of casebound books. For collectors, they even went to older methods, issuing a leather-bound edition in a short run of 26 copies.

Perhaps most interestingly, they didn't leap to what I'd thought had become the standard means of easy retail book distribution - Amazon. The Joiner and Cabinet Maker simply isn't available through Amazon. At first I was a bit startled by this, as my default place to hunt for specific books is Amazon. The more I thought about it, though, the more it started to make sense. I'd found the book through Lee Valley Tools after all, a woodworking store. If I'd encountered it elsewhere, it would most likely have been through a woodworking-centric forum, likely even Christopher Schwarz's own blog at Lost Art Press or Joel Moskowitz's blog at Tools for Working Wood. They, of course, both sell the book.

We'll see how this plays out. Given that Amazon's been generating fear and loathing with some larger publishers - the Macmillan trainwreck and Rupert Murdoch making noise about Harper Collins - I wonder how long Amazon's status as the central point to hunt for books (and other merchandise) will last. A few months ago I would have had to shake my head over someone not listing their book with Amazon, but today it seems a more reasonable path.

In the meantime, I'll continue to enjoy the book. If you want to see what I thought about its technical content, not just its form, see my review at WoodCentral.

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What a wonderful piece, Simon. It made my morning knowing I'm not the only one out there interested in the history of technical documentation. It's sort of tangential but I suspect you would love Leo Marx's "The Machine in the Garden", which is all about how technology and industry merged with what had originally been the pastoral/agrarian origins of America.

I'd love to see a 19th century equivalent to "If architects had to work like programmers", http://www.netfunny.com/rhf/jokes/93q1/architect.html . It would probably be equally fascinating to this review (and presumably the book reviewed), but I don't imagine such would still be extant.

Jonathan Hayward

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