This book has 3 stripes of goodness, near as I can tell. There are probably many more, but the three stand out for me:
1) A thorough, easy-to-follow understanding of how to start with a tree and end with wonderful, historically-relevant pieces of furniture
2) The story of two people's passions for their craft unfolding over their lifetimes
3) Countless woodworking tips that while founded in ancient technique are wholly applicable to any number of contemporary projects
For those unaware, Jennie Alexander "wrote the book" on green (that is, cutting a tree and immediately shaping the wood) woodworking many decades ago, albeit under the name "John Alexander". Her website says it better than I can: "people change, times change, wood continues to be wonderful!"
Co-Author Peter Follansbee had the good fortune of joining forces with Alexander long ago, and together, although seperately, they have both spent the subsequent decades researching, experimenting, examining antiques, and speculating. Using documented historical toolkits, in many cases they were forced to just use trial-and-error to see how to make these things. Eventually, they could compare toolmarks on museum pieces to their own replicas, and know when they were on the right track.
The book is beautifully published, in full color, and very importantly, on non-glossy paper. This is not some chintzy newsprint, but very faithful photographic reproductions which do not suffer the frequent flaw of harsh glare or white spots of light obscuring what you are trying to look at. Huge kudos to Lost Art Press for making this decision.
The book can be enjoyed in any of the above 3 ways, and likely more; those above are my personal 3.
For someone with zero interest in woodworking, this is still a fascinating tale of passion and geeky (in a good way) pursuit of truth. One can skim over the construction details and still find a beautiful story of friendship, respect, and maturation. The methodology used to suss out the hows and whys of 17th Century New England joinery is fascinating to watch unfold, and the hard examples are generous. It makes someone like me, with little personal interest in this exact backwater of woodworking, itch to get into a museum and see some of these pieces for myself. Time-saving tactics used by early joiners are shown in perhaps embarrassing detail, but they are redeemed (in my eyes) by also showing how these things don't matter: nobody looks at the bottom of a stool, the joints are still rock-solid hundreds of years later, and nobody would really even know what these "flaws" are if Peter and Jennie hadn't pointed them out. If you enjoy crime drama thinking, historical puzzle solving and imagineering, or simply a rollicking tale of intellectual passion (at the risk of boring the crap out of your "normal" friends if you try to discuss it), this is a book for you.
For someone interested in making furniture, this book delivers and then some. I do not live in a region where this type of furniture was common, and as the pieces discussed are wholly dependent on having large oak trees to harvest, I will likely never attempt the procedures depicted. However, I am so glad to gain an understanding of how these things would work if I did have access to such trees. The mechanical properties of green oak can still inform the overall understanding of wood as a medium, and the lengths artisans of the past have gone through to exploit (or roll with) these properties is informative even if not directly applicable to whatever local woods are available. I would be equally riveted by tales of using mahagony, teak, or cedar. Ok, well cedar is my local wood, so I would really like to see a book about using it, since its a pain. But I digress. What I took away from this is that even if you have no intention of felling an old oak and making 17th century pieces from it, knowing how it was done is certainly not going to harm your current understandings of woodworking, and I daresay it will inform them. I know my mind was spinning for a few hours after my cursory reading last night.
The 3rd element listed is perhaps a corollary to the 2nd, but even more important for general woodworkers. While the pieces discussed in the book are specific to oak, and green oak at that, there is still plenty for everyone to use elsewhere. Excellent descriptions of drawboring comes to mind. Another angle that I have been exploring recently is the idea of letting your tools determine dimensions. Make your mortises or holes be the size of the chisel you have, for example. Mark cut lines based on the joint itself, not based on some abstract diagram or cut list. Wrapping the modern mind around these utterly simple (almost subversively simple) concepts is crucial, and any works which can help the modern engineer step back into the real world of by-hand-and-by-eye is a great thing.
I would prefer to read through this book, build the projects presented, and then report on its efficacy, but I can already tell you that this is a title to watch. It will be cited over and over in coming years, and my hope is that we will also see a revival in green woodworking and furniture joined in these ways whether made with green oak or not.
My reviews of Lost Art Press books in general may sound overly fawning, but I assure you I have spent my own pennies on them and have no ties to the company other than deep appreciation. They are onto something: the modern geek's thirst for information, the modern aesthete's desire for well-designed material, the modern bibliophile's want for compelling books, and the modern woodworker's need for relevant instruction. These all combine into a polyhedron of delight in all of their works and this one might even raise the bar with its beautiful publishing style (and index!).
Nice work, to all involved, and please keep them coming!