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JOEL Joel's Blog

Work Vs. School - Tom Brown's Schooldays


Work Vs. School - Tom Brown's Schooldays 4One of my favorite books growing up was "Tom Brown's Schooldays" written by Thomas Hughes in 1857 it is a fictional account of a boy going to Rugby, a boarding school in England, in the 1830's. It's a great entertaining read and has been in print since publication. I mention it primarily because it takes place when Thomas Arnold was the headmaster at the school and introduced a revolution in teaching that we feel today. Before Arnold elite schools taught mostly reading, Latin, rhetoric, and other lofty subjects of practical use to nobody. An academic education was a finishing cultural touch and had little to do with a profession or anything practical except the clergy. Arnold introduced practical subjects like modern history, math, and science and his influence began the shift to formal education in all subjects including teaching crafts and woodworking in schools.

Having children, especially boys, study woodworking in school - even if they were not planning to become joiners or cabinetmakers began in the 1860's, reached it's peak around 1900, and slowly disappeared from schools in the last 30 years or so. Probably the best implementation of this type of practical, craft teaching came with the Sloyd system of teaching which started in Finland in 1865 and spread worldwide to this day.

What is important from a woodworking standpoint is how learning woodworking switches from a few basic techniques that you could learn on the job to a myriad of complicated formula that needed to be emulated in a class. The goal of an apprenticeship as described in the Joiner and Cabinet Maker was to take a kid who demonstrated some aptitude or interest in working with his hands and make him a pro over the period of a few years. The goal of the academic approach was (and is) make it possible to train any kid (or adult) in the class no matter how ham-handed and at the end of a fairly short period of time have some benchmark for measuring progress. The benchmark might be a simple project or a test in various techniques.

I've been reading "Our Workshop: being a Practical Guide To The Amateur in The Art of Carpentry and Joinery." by Temple Thorold. Published in 1866 it's one of the first books about teaching woodworking using a typical classroom approach. I kind of stopped reading it by page 32 when he gave really erroneous information on how to use a marking gauge. "The point should not project more than one thirty-second part of an inch , or it will make a deep unsightly mark." (If you can't control the pressure on the gauge no matter how long a pin the gauge has you really don't know what you are doing and you shouldn't be writing about it - Here is a link for the normal way of using a gauge.

In any case what struck me about this book, and just about every succeeding book for schools or amateurs on the subject of woodworking is how removed the instruction is from actual shop practice.

"The Joiner and Cabinet Maker" (1839) tries to teach by describing what went on in a real joinery shop. While some have taken issues with some of the details here and there in the book it's pretty obvious that one skill builds on another, and there is no attempt to teach theory. There are no lessons in the book per-se, just joinery jobs of increasing complexity. Practice makes perfect. Tools are purchased carefully and only as needed. In "Our Workshop" we first get a huge list of tools one must have, followed by detailed examinations of operations from a theoretic standpoint. Dovetailing is described near the end of the book, and it's implied that instead of being a standard quick joint of the professional apprentice, it's something tricky and needs careful attention. In the J & C Thomas does his dovetailing pretty easily after learning to saw straight and lay out things accurately. Here we get a very modern approach that might be great for teaching a class, but pretty useless if you need to earn your living at a bench.

I hinted earlier on the reason for this change in attitude. Books written for amateurs or as teaching guides need to impress people with the breath of subjects covered - Giving exhaustive detail on a technique is a way of showing the writer's or instructors depth of knowledge. A teacher isn't supposed to just say - "it's easy, you just need to practice". The technique needs to be dissected. The second reason for the change is that unlike a joiner who needed to show they could earn a living the goal in the classroom was instruction that guaranteed success at the expense of fluency. The student went away happy if he could sharpen a chisel or cut a joint. It didn't really matter how long it took or even the cost of the tools, since there was no economic balance. I do think that now we get carried away with the minutiae of a process, not the practice that builds dexterity and memory into our muscles. There is an argument that older people don't have the time to spend learning by repetition, and modern techniques make it easier to achieve success. That is certainly true, but I also think we sell ourselves short. It may take years to be a master craftsman but most basic skills can be learn pretty fluently with just a modicum of practice.

Our Workshop: being a Practical Guide To The Amateur in The Art of Carpentry and Joinery." is currently being reprinted by the Toolemera Press. I cannot recommend it as a good course in woodworking but I can recommend it as an important window into how woodworking was taught to amateurs in the 19th century. The author was a well known woodworking writer. Of course if the style of writing appeals you can still learn from it and if I didn't already own a copy I would be ordering one now.

Join the conversation
02/09/2010 Gary Roberts

You are spot on that this title, as with so many titles of the first 8 decades of the 19th Century, was written for the amateur. There was no such thing as Manual Training or Vocational Education. Trade & craft skills were passed on by word of mouth and by demonstration (not even getting into the problems of illiteracy outside of the 'gentry') and often closely guarded as trade secrets.

There was a rise in amateur work as an acceptable past-time for educated folk beginning in the first quarter of the 19th C. Fret-work, ornamental turning, metalwork, etc. were considered to be a good way for the boy or man of quiet means to pass the time. Women were mostly relegated to textile work that produced usable or pretty items. Turning is a good example of the problem of finding critical material on this early skill. Most of the 19th C books on turning are written for the ornamental turner and not for the average home woodworker.

It's a pity there are so few books of that time period that address the trade secrets. Luckily, there are some good titles that were written by amateurs, engineers, builders and educators that provide a welcome window into the crafts, if from the standpoint of the amateur who did not have to survive on the proceeds of the craftwork. For that matter, most 'technical' books were priced outside the reach of the average worker. H.C. Baird Publishers were the first to popularize trade titles at affordable prices and held the majority of the market for decades. Not necessarily a good thing as that might have prevented other publishing houses from getting in on the act. Ginn & Co. and Ward Lock were a few of the competitors but they never succeeded as did Baird.

But it wasn't until the Manual Arts Movement (roughly 1890-1930, developed from the Arts & Crafts Movement, that books addressing more technical aspects of crafts appear. Which is a major pity. Given that the authors of the 19th C and early 20th C books were writing from personal experiences or acting as editors for serial publications, it's safe to say the contents described skills handed down by the work-of-mouth, guilds and apprenticeship systems.

Would that the Manual Arts Movement had begun a few decades earlier.

I have yet to pinpoint who Temple Thorold was. I have another work of his on woodturning and a few serial articles on machinist work but that is it, so far. James Lukin is a good example of the skilled amateur who popularized crafts during the later part of the 19th C. He was an amateur who loved crafts and loved writing about them, having authored many titles on related subjects.

I'll stop now as I can go on forever on the topic of books. My apologies for lecturing on your blog! You should see what happens in person...

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