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JOEL Joel's Blog

India Day and Woodworking In Other Cultures


India Day and Woodworking In Other Cultures 4Last August, after having an early lunch of some most excellent chicken curry at the India Day Festival in Madison Square Garden I began to wonder what tools were used for woodworking in India before the British arrived. I have no idea.

Continental Europeans use slightly different tools than the English but the difference is subtle. Tons of highly specialized tools were used for professional work in all the pre-industrial trades all over Europe, but the tools have died out. Documentation however exists. Very little documentation in English about tools other than English tools exists.

Both Japanese and Vietnamese tools started out in China, although the Japanese took the tools to new designs. Japanese tools of course are very popular in the US but I don't know any book in English on the history of Japanese tools, although Toshio Odate's "Japanese Woodworking Tools" (currently out of print) is the seminal book in English on current Japanese tools.
The only important book in English on indigenous crafts of China is "China at Work", first published in 1937 by Rudolf Hommel it covers dozens of crafts and has never been equaled. I am reliably informed that there are several major historic Chinese works on the subject of woodworking that have never been translated.

Jennie Alexander told me about "Woodworking in Estonia" with the hope I could figure out how to get it reprinted. I failed, the institute in Estonia that originally published the work is still around but they did not reply to my query. The current English edition was translated by the CIA in the early 1960's but the third generation pictures are terrible.

Finally, "The Traditional Crafts of Persia" by Hans E. Wulff was begun before WW2 but only published in 1967. It only peripherally has any information on woodworking. Certainly there should be something somewhere on woodworking in the Persian and Arabian kingdoms but I don't know where to look.

Back to India.

I can pretty much guess that with the British colonization and importation of British goods the native tool makers would have had a greatly reduced market. By the same token there are tons of really fabulous distinctive Indian woodcarving and cabinetry from the all periods. My question is how do you go about making this stuff? And were there special tools used? Are there any books on traditional crafts that I just don't know about - Stuff that hasn't been published in the US. I know on YouTube there are tons of videos made all over the world showing techniques that are unfamiliar in the west.

This is important for several reasons: Globalization has meant that traditional crafts are dying all over the world and knowledge is being lost. In the US with our more and more eclectic tastes, exposure to more design and craft traditions means more options for making interesting stuff.

I leave you with a request. If you know of any books or other material or media, about traditional woodworking crafts, especially tools, from other parts of the world drop me a line. The English Industrial revolution produced great tools, (and in many cases drove other distinctive tools to extinction) but other cultures also did great woodworking and without their specialized tools the work will be lost.
Join the conversation
12/13/2011 Lewis E. Ward
Woodcarving a British magazine had several articles on woodcarving and woodcarving tools in South Asia, Southeast Asia and other areas. Issues were from 8 to 16 years ago. I will do some digging.
Jeff Bloomberg who use to own Kestral Tool can provide the history of the Northwest Coast Indian art.
12/13/2011 Luke Townsley
I can appreciate the importance and the difficulty of this endeavor.

When I lived in the Dominican Republic, I tried to get some information on traditional woodworking there. I also tried to delve into Spanish furniture styles.

I didn't spend a lot of time on it, but quickly realized it would take a lot of digging and probably wouldn't turn up a whole lot.
12/13/2011 jg
I had the privilege of watching both wood and limestone carvers on a recent trip to India. Three aspects immediately stood out. First, the speed and precision of work. Speed was especially impressive because "speed" in this work is really about what engineers call 'Power'. They were able to use significantly more force with high precision than I've seen here in the states.

Second, very few tools are used. I saw one man making an ornately carved bed using only a 'roughing gouge' and a paring knife. There was no standing around considering the problem: it was knife to wood the whole time. It looked disturbingly similar to watching a CNC mill carve out parts.

Third, "ground work". The mode of labor is not standing at the workbench. The posture is either squatting, using the ground as the work bench, or sitting, using the feet as a vise.

For all this, the work is gorgeous, sculptural, both stylized and realistic. What is also impressive is that the quality of work turned out by a 15 year old there is far superior (and much faster) than what you see from most adults here.
12/13/2011 Jeremy
Very good thinking, a history of tools from around the world! That would be a useful set of resources.

So it looks like:
English - covered well
Cont. European - needs translation
Estonian - covered
Russian - ???
Chineese - needs translation
Japanese - some, needs more
Other Oriental - ???
Indian - much needed
Persian - much needed
Arabian - much needed
Polynesian - ???
African - ???
Australian - ???
South American - ???
Native American - ???

There are likely other significant cultures I've missed, and also some that might be combined?
12/15/2011 Bill Fleming
Simon Winchester's "The Man Who Loved China" is a fantastic story about the life and work of Joseph Needham. Needham document many areas of Chinese technical development in many fields. His work is published in several volumes, not sure if there is one specifically on wood working or whether it is covered within another volume. At any rate "The Man Who Loved China" is a great read and a real eye opener on the foundations of what we know as civilization.
So who might be hypothetically interested in info about woodworking tools in Russian (possibly some other former USSR republics) or woodwork in general if I can get it and translate it?
Thank you.
05/19/2012 Kittu
Hi I am an Indian living in US and have had quite an interest in woodworking. For an urban educated Indian opportunities of learning almost nil.

Indian arts and crafts require learning by observing the master. That is a full time job usually crafts runs in communities and are transmitted father to son.

Workworking castes are usually called "Badhai". These caste system still exists though many of the present day carpenters ie those who do work for home and construction industry may now not belong to the caste. They have had no formal training.

Traditional wood working is mostly relegated to specialized carving, toy making and usually depends on tourist & curio trade. There are certain areas which are known for certain types of wood products.

In the last 30 years I have seen that there is a general decline in the quality of carpenters/ cabinet makers and furniture makers as small industries have taken over with cheap non-traditional work delivering really shabby products.

I have been a hobby wood worker last few years. I will be moving to India in a few months. I will probably have a cabinet making business as a primary or secondary occupation in India.

I will try to travel and find out the traditional tools used. There might be some mention in old texts of woodworking tools. One of my distant relative is an nationally awarded wood craftsman. Like some artists he is very temperamental I will try to tap him on that issue.

Only problem is that as a wood worker I'm just a beginner and I have used hand tools only occasionally. Though of late I have taken some time watching Roy Underhill. Had I had access to his books or videos 20 years back things would have been different!!

Anyway if you are interested in collaborating I can do some leg work once I'm in India.
I am interested and very curious what you will dig up once you are back in India.
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