Document 10: Working With Tools

Harry J. Hobbs. New York: Leisure League of America, 1935

See text of Chapter I: FUN IN A WORKSHOP

Working With Tools is a 95-page publication of the Leisure League of America. The book's author, Harry J Hobbs, over about three decades, wrote numerous books dedicated to woodworking, including becoming co-author, in 1975, of the authoritative Know Your Woods: A Complete Guide To Trees, Woods, And Veneers. In 1931, Hobbs is named "Associate Editor" of Home Craftsman -- more details in 5:2 -- in the third issue of HC, when editors are first identified by name. (Before that, it is simply "Your Editors" -- the reason for this is not known right now, but since, initially, HC is an organ of the Walker-Turner Machine tool firm, it might have simply been corporate policy.) Later -- not sure of exact date -- Hobbs became editor and publisher, a post that he held until sometime around 1961. 

(My experience looking up biographical information on woodworkers, professional and amateur alike, is abysmal. Some well-known writers -- such as John Gerald Shea and R J DeCristoforo -- have brief entries in Contemporary Authors, but are featured there because the are writers, not woodworkers. But -- take a person such as Ray Dewalt, who patented the Dewalt radial arm saw -- some very noteworthy persons in woodworking are not accorded even an entry in Who's Who in America or any of that firm's regional spin-offs.)

Below is a piece written in 1961:

"How to Live Longer and Enjoy It", from the Home Craftsman 29 March-April 1961, pages 44-45:

    How to Live Longer and Enjoy It

    A few years ago a scientific group known as University Research Corporation came up with some facts that are right down our alley.

    While observing the effects of worry and tension they took a hard look at ways to combat these two modern killers.

    Here's what their investigation turned up. MEN WITH ACTIVE HOBBIES LIVE LONGER.

    The researchers showed that a man at 60 years of age will live on the average another 13.8 years if he has no active hobby. But will live 16 years if he indulges in an active hobby.

    Spending your leisure hours watching the fights and ball games on TV is not to be classed as an active hobby. Nor is reading. Golf is an active hobby. Fishing in some forms could be, as anyone who has waded a rushing stream well knows. But boat and pier fishing wouldn't get my vote as an active hobby. Too much time be-tween catches. A fellow can do a lot of concentrated worrying before the bobber disappears beneath the water.

    Photography can be an active hobby. Woodworking most certainly is. And what influences me to choose woodworking as a noble hobby is the reward at the end of the run. A new piece of furniture ... a favorite painting or portrait reframed ... a better bookshelf or storage cabinet in the home. These rewards as end products of your hobby have few rivals any-where in the world of hobbies.

    Doctors have long ranked wood-working as one of the best hobbies for release of nervous tension. And that, obviously, is the main point to this report on the subject of hobbies.

    Woodworking makes us concentration a non-vital job for long periods of time. Non-vital because it isn't do-or-die. It isn't terribly urgent. It involves no friction of personalities. As a hobby it has no bitter penalties for failure, no insistence on absolute perfection.

    Every woodworker knows the concentration it takes to lay out a tricky dovetail joint ... to set up a shaper to cut picture molding ... to turn a wooden bowl on a lathe ... or to follow an intricate colonial scroll on a jig saw.

    Woodworking takes over the powers of the mind, because fortunately most of us cannot think intently on two things at once. When we are working with tools, we can't focus very hard on a petty disappointment of the day. Physical tension eases when mental stimulus disappears. Doctors tell us this is so. When worry is shut out of the mind, the whole body relaxes.

    But reminding you of something you already know—woodworking is one of the most wonderfully rewarding hobbies around—isn't the only point to this report.

    In keeping with the spirit of the oncoming season of the year, I am eager to go further ... to urge you to share your hobby.

    Introduce this relaxing hobby to a neighbor. Show a business associate how to get started. Teach a group of youngsters one evening a week for the winter months ahead. Awaken un-discovered talent in others. Unveil a new way to get more fun out of life ... and live longer to enjoy it.

    Share your knowledge of wood-working with anyone who will listen long enough to become indoctrinated. Give your knowledge away . . . for the more you share your hobby . . . the richer you become.

(The senior author for Know Your Woods is always given as Albert Constantine, Jr. Constantine's wood and tool supply store -- -- has served amateur woodworker's needs in woods and tools since 1812, many decades before the glut of wood and tool stores that we know today existed.

Albert Constantine, Jr., who died in 1967, left a legacy, and a philosophy:

"Woodworking isn't a miracle. It's something everyone can do. Today, more than ever before, people realize that they don't have to be a professional woodworker to successfully work with wood. They're rediscovering wood."

Source: Wood Magazine, June 1986, page 100

I will include more on the role of Constantine's in fostering the amateur woodworking movement in the narrative chapters.)

First, here's a little background on the Leisure League of America (LLA):

Earnest Elmo Calkins’ 1935 booklet, Care And Feeding Of Hobby Horses, launched this voluntary organization.

(Calkins -- 1868-1964 -- was a noted figure in advertising in the 1930s -- for background, checkout this link.)

For the LLA -- headquartered in the brandnew Rockefeller Center, built in New York City in 1929-34 -- the scope of leisure times activities was visualized as almost being limitless. Calkins’ booklet – the introduction is by Walter B. Pitkin -- lists approximately 700 ways to spend leisure and has a complete bibliography on most of these subjects to help you discover what hobby you would be most likely enjoy.

Calkins addresses issues such as

    1 Getting More Joy Out Of Life
    2 What Is Play?
    3 A Hobby Makes You Interesting To Other People
    4 The Things You Might Do

According to Calkins,

    • Leisure is an opportunity to recreate energy and build up mental and physical health, both of which are essentials to happiness, whether in work or in play;

    • Most people do not appreciate the value of physical activity;

    • Too little foresight and planning are given to our leisure;

    • Individual leisure-time activities should be chosen that will benefit the community as well as give pleasure to the individual;

    • "Fantasy" is a rich possession of the human race, because through it we escape the burdens of life;

    • Our present industrial system with the deadening influence of the automatic machine makes the right use of leisure of tremendous importance in preserving an enlightened citizenship.

Moreover, says Calkins, when we seriously address leisure, there are at least two matters that rise to the surface as the most significant:

    first, that there is a hobby for everybody, but,

    second, that each of us must in some way find for himself that thing that he really wants to do.

People who play at a craft or an art are called "amateurs"—to distinguish them from professionals who are paid for doing the same things—and the meaning of amateur is lover. An amateur is one who does for love what other folks do for money.

"Hobby" is merely a convenient and handy word to designate the favorite occupation of an amateur. It does not include all the recreations and amusements available for our choice. While all hobbies are recreations, not all recreations are hobbies. Among recreations games and sports must be included, and there are other pursuits, some of which are actually studies and belong in a class by themselves.

“For convenience in talking about them,” says Calkins, “we might roughly group the amusements, diversions, or occupations available for leisure into four large divisions or classes”:

    1. Doing things

    2. Making things

Chapter I: Fun in a Workshop

Tucked away in a closet of one of the swankiest of New York's apartment hotels there happens to be a woodworker's bench, a power lathe and an amazing assortment ,of hand tools ready, at a moment's notice, to make the sawdust fly!

Any night between the hours of eight and eleven o'clock apartment neighbors above, below and adjoining the work-shop apartment are likely to hold up their game of bridge to identify the blows of a hammer or the groan of a saw.

If you were to trace down this nightly clamor to discover what and who is behind it you would find yourself standing in a richly furnished living room gazing into a small adjoining room that was meant for a closet but that is at present filled to capacity with a workbench, a motorized lathe, shelves laden with scrap lumber and in the center of the shop a man, middle-aged, the vice president of a staggeringly large corporation during the day, but at this moment a typical home craftsman working in his shirt sleeves over the bench.

This individual, whose name I am not privileged to disclose, became a craftsman only a few years ago when one of his young sons teased him into building a model sailboat. For that job he had to acquire a few tools, and by the time he had finished he had awakened an intense desire to build something else, anything else just to be building.

That is about the way most craftsmen are made . They start out to make some special project and end up with a workshop and a barrel of fun.

If an apartment house closet measuring less than six feet wide by six feet deep can accommodate all of the essential tools and equipment necessary to an amateur craftsman's workshop there is little truth to the objection, "But I haven't the space required by a workshop." As a matter of fact it is possible to establish a workshop in a limited way even though your only workbench is the kitchen table. Space certainly is a valuable asset to any craftsman's work, but it is not a requisite.

This clothes' closet workshop is neither the smallest nor the strangest of my acquaintance. I have seen home work-shops surviving, even flourishing, in a chest of drawers. One shop in particular housed all of its tools in the two lower drawers of a colonial chest. The tools consisted mainly of a set of hand carving chisels, a plane, hand saw, wooden mallet, two files, some sandpaper and glue, and a set of four small "C" clamps. The only workbench accessible to the owner of the tools was the kitchen table. Any evening when the creative spirit urged him to ply chisel to wood he simply transported the two chest drawers to the kitchen.

The smallest shop, or rather I should say the smallest tool equipment, to have achieved the greatest reward to my knowledge consists of a pair of embroidery scissors borrowed from the family sewing box. Supplementing this ingenious tool, were a razor blade with a handle attached, and a file. In justice to those earnest craftsmen who have spent thousands, (that's right, thousands) of dollars on elaborate workshop tools of every description, we can hardly call the scissors-razor blade-file triumvirate a work-shop. It is merely tool equipment. Yet the fingers behind these instruments fabricated a model ship of such expert workmanship that the model won first place in a national model-building contest in which craftsman of all ages competed. The award for this piece of work came in the form of a free cruise for himself and wife aboard one of the finest liners afloat.

Swinging to the other extreme we find home workshops that look like a merger between a carpenter shop and a machine shop. In more than one backyard we can find buildings erected solely for the use of a hobby workshop. Max-field Parrish, the well-known painter, has established a work-shop on the lower floor of a two-story structure. The upper floor is used as his studio. When the light or the mood is not right for painting, he comes downstairs to try his hand at the lathe.

But workshops of these enormous proportions are not for the beginner to envy. They are something we are curious to see but will likely never have the desire to own nor the luxury to afford. Our workshop may very sensibly be restricted to only those tools for which we have a definite and constant use. It is a much better display of wisdom and talents to allow your resourcefulness to take the place of highly specialized tools. And unless you want to spend a bushel of money think twice before you buy a new piece of equipment. Be certain that you have a genuine need for it and that no tool you have already purchased can be manuevered to pinch-hit for the new one.

Strange as it may seem, even the gay nineties knew the benefits of a workshop. Among the home craftsmen of that era was none other than the eminent Oliver Wendell Holmes, doctor and poet. To his young friend Edward Bok (author of The Americanization of Edward Bok) he said:

"Do you know that I am a full-fledged carpenter?, No? Well, I am. You know I am a doctor," he explained, "and this shop is my medicine. I believe that every man must have a hobby that is as different from his regular work as it is possible to be. It is not good for a man to work all the time at one thing. We doctors call it a safety-valve, and it is. I would much rather you would forget all that I have written than that you should forget what I tell you about a safety-valve."

Since the time of Oliver Wendell Holmes, craftsmanship has exerted a contagious influence upon celebrities. With headliners from the leading professions stealing away from the limelight to spend a few hours in a workshop, you will never want for better company.

A partial roll call would include such names as John Barrymore, Walter Huston, Tony Wons, Seth Parker, Glenn "Pop" Warner and Vincent Deems Taylor, a foremost American composer — The King's Henchman, Peter Ibbetsen, etc. — is one of the most avid of craftsmen.

In defense of his shop, if it needs defense, he says, "Most of us are so clever at one or two things that we have let ourselves be pretty helpless at every-thing else. If you can cook a meal, sew on a button, and use a saw and hammer, you can face almost any situation. If you can't do these things, you may be a railroad president, but you are not a completely self-reliant human being."

Source: Harry J. Hobbs, Working With Tools New York: Leisure League of America, 1935