Appendix 4: A Century of Woodworking Manuals

Cultural Role of Woodworker's Manuals


Background for Chart posted below:

The data given decade-by-decade below come from Worldcat database searches for books on woodworking. Worldcat -- a database of library records for books, serials and other similar publications -- contains over 50 million entries.

(Note: Rather than Worldcat, in her Manly Meals and Mom's Home-Cooking, Jessamyn Neuhaus, page 321, uses the Library of Congress's "Experimental Search System" for creating a similar charting to mine, but for the publication of cookbooks. I have yet to use the ESS unit, but think it worthwhile, primarily because the LOC obtains, through the Copyright Act, a single copy of every book published in America.)

Search command = WorldCat results for: su= “woodwork*” and yr: 1901-1910 [etc] and la= “engand ((dt= “bks”) or (dt= “ser”)).

From my survey of over a century of woodworker's manuals, the rough equivalents of Joy of Cooking are John Gerald Shea's 1944 Woodworking for Everybody, and R J DeCristoforo's 1953 Power Tool Woodworking for Everyone. When I have time, I will try to determine what is the primary woodworker's manual purchased in the 1930s. This is important, of course, because starting in 1934, with the formation of the National Homeworkshop Guild, literally hundreds of individual clubs are organized throughout North America. (A reported 500 chapters by 1936.)

Setting a modest 20 members per club, the mathematics is clear: nation-wide, at least 10,000 active amateur woodworkers, which is an appealing market for woodworker's manuals. (From my knowledge of American publisher's, profits can be made on sales of under 2,000 copies, and for most commercial publishers, 2500 copies of a title is a standard figure.

In the chart below, notice that the reported numbers of imprints for the 1930s, 321, exceeds both the 1920s, with 282, and the 1940s, with 310. I have yet to find the evidence, but I believe that with WW II being declared in 1941, the National Workshop Guild collapsed. In my investigation so far, I haven't discovered the smoking gun evidence yet.

Beginning with the 1950s, the steady growth in numbers of titles, decade-by-decade, is nothing short of phenomenal: growing from 416 to 1238, and from 1901-1910 to 1991-2000, a six-fold increase.



English-language publisher's output of woodworker's manuals, 1901-2000

Books and serials: 1901-1910: 194           serials:            5 

Books and serials: 1911-1920: 298           serials:            3 

Books and serials: 1921-1930: 282           serials:            9 

Books and serials: 1931-1940: 321           serials:            19 

Books and serials: 1941-1950: 310           serials:            31 

Books and serials: 1951-1960: 416           serials:            26 

Books and serials: 1961-1970: 567           serials:            22 

Books and serials: 1971-1980: 962           serials:            23 

Books and serials: 1981-1990: 975           serials:            47 

Books and serials: 1991-2000: 1238         serials:            30 



First published in 1944, Shea's Woodworking for Everybody is

1944: John Gerald Shea and Paul Not Wenger. Woodworking For Everybody. International Textbook, 1944.

Indexed in Index to Handicrafts, 1950

This splendid woodworker's manual tells us many things about how woodworking as a hobby was growing in the 1940s. Early in the decade, an estimated 10,000,000 American men were summoned into military service through Conscription/Selective Service regulations. However, the top age was 35, meaning that there were many men, older than 35, left at home. What did these men do? Some, of course, especially farmers had their daily lives affected by the nation's war effort only in minor ways, -- say, like the impact of rationing of key foods, such as butter -- but others -- who lived in cities, were drawn into the nation's deployment into the War….


FIRST SCHOOL EDITION First printing, September, 1944 Second printing, January, 1945 Third printing, August, 1945 Fourth printing, June, 1946 Fifth printing, July, 1947; Total copies publsihed by 1947, 21,000.  

I don't think it is an exaggeration to claim that the four editions of this woodworker's manual make it one of the most significant documents of the woodworking "movement. Shea, himself, in the "preface" to his 1970 4th edition, recounts the numerous events of  that movement, and how his manual meshes with it.  

PREFACE [to 4th edition 1970]:


When prefacing a new edition of a book which has been in print for over one-quarter of a cen­tury, the author's first impulse is to express a resounding thank you to the thousands of people who have made his work so enduringly popular. But with this expression of gratitude comes reflection on the changes which both the book and the world have undergone in the years since the original edition was published. For the world, this quarter-century spans the advent of the atomic bomb, many major wars, and the fantastic accomplishment of men walking on the moon.

And the book, born in the turmoil of World War II, has also changed. At first, it was designed essentially as a school textbook -- and used in industrial arts and vocational education classes. In this role, it was adopted by many state boards of education. Shea -- the author -- claimed that he was gratified by the part it played -- and still plays -- as a practical educational medium.

Then, during the immediate postwar period, this work was more generally used by homemakers. Many of its new readers had only re­cently returned from the rigors of military com­bat and were eager to settle down and apply their creative abilities to the peaceful pursuits of building and furnishing new dwellings. Thus, as the book advanced into its 2nd Edition, additional material was offered to help new home-makers with their domestic woodworking activities. This gave birth to a tandem "trade edition" which soon attained circulation equal to that of the original textbook edition.

Meanwhile, with the dawn of the nuclear age, all things started to change—even the techniques, tools, and materials of woodworking. So much so, in fact, that anybody examining the fourth Edition of Woodworking for Everybody and comparing it to the first and second Editions will find very little of the text and photographs re-main the same. Actually, about the only original elements are the animated chapter headings and caricatured tools, which seem to have endeared themselves to readers as "friendly Gremlins" ever since the book was first published. But aside from these creepy characters and the "Safety First" sketches and standard line illustrations, little else of the original edition remains.  

The present emphasis, it will be noted, is onthe many new tools and materials which have appeared in recent years to facilitate do-it-your­self enterprise. Recent inventions and modifi­cations of power tools alone demonstrate the competitive acumen of tool manufacturers to engineer something safer, lighter, and more efficient. (Indeed, each new edition of this book had to be "retooled" to keep abreast of constant changes.)

Such advantages as shockproof insulation, unbreakable casings, and vari-speed control of motors have made power tools -- particularly the portable models -- safer, more durable, and eas­ier to use. Stationary woodworking machines, too—especially the combination machines—are now designed in detail for increased convenience of operation and greater functional efficiency. Even the cutting blades of hand and power tools may now be treated with the miracle "Teflon S" to reduce friction and ease operation.

In order to highlight a few of the new materials and accessories now available, the first chapter of this edition has been devoted to brief exploration of these helpful auxiliaries. There are many others to be found at your building supply dealer.

There have also been minor revolutions in methods and materials of wood finishing. Some of the new finishes, described in Chapter 7, go on easier, look better, and last much longer.

Woodworking projects -- whether they be furniture or utility items -- have also changed with each new edition of this book. Thus, with the exception of a few ageless designs (mostly colonial antiques), former projects have been replaced in this edition with new designs, fashioned to meet today's needs.

So, in presenting the 4th Edition of Woodworking for Everybody, it should be observed that despite an almost complete revision and updating of contents, the purpose of this book remains essentially the same. As with the first edition, this is intended to serve as a practical guide and book of instructions on woodworking practice. It is hoped that this up-to-date edition will serve today's readers as effectively as the earlier editions served in their time.

John G. Shea Greenwich, CT, March 1, 1970.

1952: John Gerald  Shea and Paul Nolt Wenger. Woodworking for everybody.         Scranton, Laurel Publishers; distributed by Grosset & Dunlap, New York.     1952, ©1944       187 p. ill. 29 cm. reprint of 1944 edition.

In the jpg below, on the right, is the entry of the Shea manual in the International Textbook Co (Laurel Publishers), as published in the 1953 Publishers Trade List Annual.

1953: John Gerald Shea and  Paul Nolt Wenger. Woodworking for everybody. 2d ed. New York ; Toronto [etc.] : D. Van Nostrand,  1953. xi, 207 p. : ill. ; 29 cm.

Conveniently juxtaposed together, the 1952 version of the 2d edition and the 1953 version of the 3d edition give us something to ponder. Why? Early in the 1950s, is a 3d edition of a book following so quickly the issuance of the 2d edition? Here are some thoughts: the 2d edition was selling at a fast enough pace to warrant issuing a reprinting, in antipation that all 2d edition copies would be sold before the 3d edition arrived on the market.


1953: DeCristoforo, R J. Power Tool Woodworking for Everyone. Dayton, OH: Shopsmith. A 4th ed published in 1989.

At age 33, Decristoforo evidently was commissioned to write the Shopsmith manual early in the ‘50s decade, because this  first edition came out in 1953. After a long, successful career of writng on woodworking, Decristoforo died at 83, in 2004. Among writers on topics of amateur woodworkers in the last half of the 20th century, DeCristoforo is probably the most prolific.


This title seems to be his earliest book. The Worldcat bibliographic database – it lists the holding of libraries worldwide -- registers 87 hits for books authored by DeCristoforo, but because of the nature of how individual libraries catalog their books, you cannot conclude that he wrote over 80 books, but the number isn’t far off.


In Reader’s Guide Retrospective database – its coverages stretches back to 1890 -- DeCristoforo’s first article, on metalworking, is 1947 (It wasn’t until the early ‘50s that the push for amateur woodworking was launched.) From my calculations, DeCristoforo was 26 in 1947, a young age to begin writing professionally, but evidently, he had a talent, because he spent his whole career writing, mostly on woodworking topics.) In all, Reader’s Guide registers 187 entries under his pen.


According to the entries in the Reader’s Guide Retrospective database, he didn’t start on woodworking topics until 1952, which puts him in sync with the do-it-yourself movement.


The Shopsmith manual itself was remarkable for its depth and comprehensiveness in showing how many woodworking operations the Shopsmith combo tool performed. The volume is over 300 pages – there are ten chapters -- with almost every page containing at least one photo or illustrative diagram, but often up to 5 or 6.


In the later ‘60s I acquired a 1947 Shopsmith model – 1947 is the year the Shopsmiths came on the market – with a very low serial number, that I used for several years. Soon after buying the Shopsmith, I located the DeCristoforo’s manual, and benefited many times from consulting it. (Although I no longer use it, since my Shopsmith is an antique in the genre of combo woodworking tools, I will not part with it.)