Woodworker Manual Author #11: Aldren Auld Watson, Self-Taught Artist, Self-Taught Woodworker

I cherish owning Watson's three woodworker's manuals. Country Furniture, 1974; Hand Tools, 1982; and Furniture Making Plain and Simple, 1984.

A thorough going devotee of hand tools, in these three books, Aldren does not show a single power machine. While I would, however, put money on a bet that he owned power woodworking machines, as a fact, this does not detract from the charm these books have for woodworkers of all types.

Over 1,000 Hand-Drawn Illustrations

On a modest scale, in these three books, Watson contributes about 1,000 hand-drawn illustrations. (As a professional artist, he has contributed illustrations for over thirty books for by other authors.)

Inevitably, these books suggest comparison with another artist-author of similar books on colonial and frontier tools and many other artifacts. I am thinking here of Edwin Tunis. To my knowledge, Tunis was an artist-chronicler only, not like Watson, a woodworker in his own rightclick here for a discussion

Brief Bio

Born May 10, 1917, in Brooklyn, New York, Watson is "self-taught", briefly, in 1935, he attended Yale University and then studied with New York's Art Students' League.  Watson's career is varied, including author, illustrator (books and advertising) and artist (including commissioned murals), and cartographer.

When Watson claims that he is self-taught -- "in the traditional manner for a career as a professional artist, studying painting and drawing as well as etching, caricature, fashion illustration, and color block printing -- but his interests led him to "book illustration, hand bookbinding, type and lettering, and cartography", and design of typefaces. As well, he is an accomplished woodworker.

In the box below  Watson expresses some of his personal insights, gathered from living in rural Vermont, and thus gives us an idea about how  he came to write and illustrate three books on woodworking hand tools and furniture desing and construction.

(adapted from Contemporary Biography):


Living in rural Vermont, coping with snow, bitter cold, routine house maintenance, doing and making things for myself, growing a garden, raising animals for milk and meat, repairing buildings -- these have influenced my interest in how-to-do-it with as little effort and time as possible. This led me to find out how people did things a generation or more ago, and why they did them....

[On his development as a writer]:

Illustrating and writing are separated by a very thin line. Considering my apparent preoccupation with how things get done, it is perhaps logical I got into writing by accident in the interest of further exploring how to convey to others in any and every way possible how it can be done. If you think about it, there isn't much difference between writing and illustrating, or drawing. They are both graphic records. And if left alone, kids will both draw pictures and write ideas--with the same pencil and with almost equal clarity of expression. I don't work by any conscious underlying philosophy--I just do what I do. But--I feel that in this world more people are going to have to learn how to govern and dictate their own lives, how to provide more of their material needs, and food, if the supposed advantages of being the supreme animal are to mean anything.


Watson's Three Woodworker's Manuals

1. 1974: Country Furniture, New York: Thomas Y Crowell, 1974. 274 pages.


The country furniture maker was an intriguing kind of person, a type, a special breed in one sense — a man who has been all but swallowed up in the receding perspective of history and social evolution.




    In a time when garden peas appear to come from a frozen package instead of the earth; when a broken hinge means a new cupboard; when a burned-out fuse cannot be replaced without the services of an electrician; when disposing of wastepaper and garbage has reached the proportions of a national emergency, it is difficult indeed to find grounds for any significant identification with the character and attributes of our forebears. On the whole, modern culture has instructed us poorly, providing only the sketchiest preparation for understanding this man. In many ways he is a stranger, a man who dealt with a dozen problems every day, in the stable, the workshop, or the woodlot — drawing solely on his native intelligence, his skills, and his singular adaptability to find practical solutions....

    ... A stranger, but the kind of person it would be good to have known.

    Why did he prefer lumber cut in the early winter?

    Where did he learn about frost-splits? What made him choose cherry wood instead of walnut?

    How did he come by his woodworking dexterity, his tools, and his knowledge of the characteristics and properties of wood?

    What kind of a life did he lead? Was it always a struggle with unpredictable prospects for gain?

    How did his furniture — at times simple to the point of austerity — turn out to be beautiful as well as useful, when his cramped working space was often hardly more than primitive?

    And why have so many pieces of his furniture survived intact, for so many generations?

    These are questions that continue to keep alive the speculation of cabinetmakers, designers, antique collectors, woodworkers, and historians.

    Attempting to answer them may stimulate not only a more detailed examination of the technical aspects of country furniture, but also a fresh appreciation of this countryman's set of values.

    For he was a man who lived on the land, close to his family and animals, in constant touch with survival itself, and in circumstances with which we have had little firsthand experience.

    ALDREN A. WATSON Putney, Vermont


Watson on the Cabriole Leg

The cabriole leg -- with an ancient past, continues as one of our most cherished designs in furniture. Watson gives us a remarkably detailed vision of how these are made with hand tools. (Click here for more background on the Cabriole leg.)

2.1982: Aldren A Watson. Hand Tools: Their Ways and Workings, New York: Norton, 1982.416 pages.

Watson's passion for woodworking -- especially with Hand Tools: --comes through clearly and forcefully throughout this book.



    In one sense, tools are simply things of steel and wood, attractive to the eye, perhaps even beautiful in their efficient lines, functional design, and appealing contrasts of texture and color. In another, it might be imagined that they only wait to be taken up and used, when they will then automatically perform with the precision that their appearance implies. This is an illusion. Tools can indeed be made to perform extraordinary tasks, sometimes with such impressive dispatch that they seem to have life of their own. However, it is more realistic to see that a tool has no more and no less than a high potentiality for capacity performance. At the same time each one has its own peculiar ways and workings, individual quirks of personality, if you like. These traits must be discovered, at times only through dogged trial and error, and the knowledge of them applied with persistent discipline and an attitude of acceptance, for the tool will not change its ways. When a tool is picked up and used in recognition of these limitations, then its full capability can be exploited to your purposes, and the two of you will work agreeably in tandem. Thus there is a sharp distinction between working with your tools and merely working them on wood.

    To my way of thinking the most practical means of acquiring this intimate understanding of the ways and workings of a tool is to take it apart, see how it is built and how its mechanism controls its performance. Sharpen the cutter iron, clean and oil the tool, and put it back together again. Then look into its adjustments, trying out each one of them on waste pieces of wood. Experiment, too, with the different handholds and the stance of your feet to determine what effect they have on the ease and efficiency of using the tool.

    All of these factors operate in a cyclical fashion. As the potentialities and limitations of a tool are explored and understood, the quality of work tends to improve; and along with it grows the confidence that even more [skilled practices] ... possible.

    As the tool begins to show signs of functioning more nearly as it was designed to perform, you may perceive that the implications of the phrase "in good hands this tool is capable of the finest work" is not after all beyond your reach.

    Tools are expensive, and finding good ones is more difficult now than it was in the 1900s, when excellent tools were manufactured mainly for the professional who earned a living at the workbench. They were built of high-quality materials, properly machined, nicely finished, and fitted with comfortable handles. Toolmakers described their products in detail with clear illustrations and specifications in regularly issued catalogs, a number of which are available as reprints. Information from these sources, along with notes made on the cost of new models, can be useful when buying at auctions, flea markets, and from secondhand dealers. There are a great many of these older tools in circulation and they are generally a good investment, despite the fact that you may have to clean them up, put on new handles, or make other minor repairs.

    When buying new tools, look for well-known names such as Craftsman, Diamond, Disston, Irwin, Jennings, Marples, Nicholson, Plumb, Record, Stanley, and Starrett. This is only a representative handful; a more complete list of manufacturers of both new and old tools is included in the Appendix. If at all possible, buy from a reputable local dealer rather than from a mail-order catalog, even though many of these companies carry a good range of tools and have satisfactory policies on return and refund. It is more advantageous-when you canto see the real article, pick it up, heft it for size and comfort, and compare it with other brands in the store. The Appendix includes a list of tool manufacturers and distributors who publish catalogs.

    To keep an expensive collection of tools in good working condition, and to safeguard your investment, you should store the tools ready to hand as well as safe from damage to their cutting edges. Simple wooden racks are inexpensive to build and provide good protection even for chisels and auger bits. And if they are designed to keep all your tools in plain sight, it is an easy matter to reach for the one you want, and just as convenient to put it back when you've finished with it.

Watson's Passions About Hand Tools is Expressed Below


... [H]ave a bench as long as you can fit in [your shop]. ... A bench should be as solid as a butcher's chopping block....

Every stick of wood that goes into a job must in one way or another be worked on with other tools: saw, plane, drill, brace and bit, screw-driver, hammer, chisels, spoke shave, or drawknife.

A vise is the indispensable tool that holds the wood during these operations ....

... A spoke shave is exactly what its name suggests -- a tools for shaving wood rather than removing it in great amounts.

...[A] marking [gauge] is a tool for laying off lines to guide the work to done with the saw, plane, chisel, or brace and bit, especially where precision is required, as in a mortise and tenon joint. ... [I]t is a "notched stick with an adjustable notch." ... [A] great time saver-saver for laying out repeat operations.

3. 1984: Aldren A Watson and Theodora Poulos.  Furniture Making Plain and Simple, Norton, 1984.

    Foreword to Funiture Making Plain and Simple


    I feel an affinity with all woodworkers before me undertaking for the first time to build a good and useful piece of furniture; who began at the same place with similar tools and equal trepidation; who I see now were obliged to make the very mistakes that are mine; and who no less frequently despaired of ever getting things right.

    For, whereas they succeeded in this course of trial and error with patience and practice, my determination is revived and my belief reaffirmed that I will also.

    Making furniture with hand tools is neither easy nor hopelessly complicated. It involves rather a small set of woodworking practices that are repeated over and over again. It begins with joinery -- the heart of furniture making. Cutting and fitting joints does indeed demand more time and patience than most other procedures, yet it is by no means the labyrinth of confusing techniques you may imagine.


    The more experienced you are with woodworking in general, the easier the work will be and the more professional the results. But those starting new have only to begin. Lay out and cut a few trial joints in scrap wood. The first one will probably be clumsier than you like, and the second attempt may still not be the best fit. Stay with it. Skills are not acquired overnight but through doing, redoing, and even starting all over again. Then suddenly, the unsettling feeling that it is beyond you will vanish.

    Take your time. Set realistic work goals that are consistent with what time you have available.

    Make one part of the furniture and carry out each operation on it as though it were the only one. Take the attitude that if it cannot be finished today, all the more pleasure for tomorrow. And ask yourself if it really matters if a single mortise and tenon joint takes an entire weekend. Enjoy the work, and you will all the more enjoy the furniture.