THE LONDON SCHOOL OF FURNITURE MAKING: Two Books on The Subject of Timber Technology

Furniture making courses in London. We run woodwork classes, for adult learners. Our woodwork short course is suitable for experienced students who want to deepen their knowledge. A series of introductory cabinet making lessons build into a comprehensive set of carpentry skills. We teach you how to use joinery to create a coffee table or a make a Japanese coffee table. You can learn how to make boxes and we have a workbench class too. We offer a steam bending class.

Two Books on The Subject of Timber Technology

In today's post, I'm reviewing Cut & Dried by Richard Jones, and Understanding Wood by Bruce R Hoadley. 

I know when you come into the workshop the thing you want most is to start creating piles of sawdust and watching the chips fly. If you've been on our Core Skills Joinery class you'll know that at some point in the morning of the first day I'll make a few side comments about growth rings, moisture content and some other stuff that I suspect you might think somewhat irrelevant. So here's my sales pitch about why you should be reading up as much as you can about the material you've chosen to work in. 

You Don't Know What You Don't Know

Imagine you are a surgeon and you have no idea how the human body works beyond what you can see from the outside. You wouldn't attempt to cut into someone to remove their spleen without knowing where it is, what it does and how you get to it, would you?  Luckily us woodworkers are unlikely to inflict such potentially dire consequences on a garden table, but the chances of that table lasting long enough to fulfil its intended purpose are vastly improved if you understand how it will react to sunlight, water or being used as a step ladder.

Not So Simple

First, you would do well to remember that timber is a complex material every bit as complicated as the organisms that produce it, namely trees. Any one piece of timber is as unique as its parent tree and its characteristics will be the sum total of all the forces, environmental pressures and life experiences the tree has endured during its time on the planet. Think of the way your life has made and altered you during your lifetime and then apply it that thought to a tree. Everything about the way a piece of wood looks, smells and behaves comes down to how the parent tree grew and what happened to it once it was cut down. All of this is covered in the two books I recommending to you below.

CUT & DRIED by Richard Jones and UNDERSTANDING WOOD by Bruce Hoadley

Both of these books are written by woodworkers which is a good thing. Timber technology isn't a fun-packed laugh a minute ride, and it's hard to make it an exciting read. Even so, both Jones and Hoadley are able to write in language us simple folks can understand. If you're a curious soul you'll find nuggets of information akin to lightbulb moments, that will have you scurrying back to your workbench with renewed enthusiasm for your projects. 

Cut and Dried is the more recent of the two and is written from the UK woodworkers perspective. Published in 2018 by Lost Art Press it is a whopper of a book weighing in at 2kgs and a hefty £59.50. As you would expect, this book is thoroughly researched, up to date and very readable reference work. If you are so inclined you could read it chapter by chapter, but you may find dipping into the different subject headings is a less daunting way of approaching it.

Understanding Wood has been the go-to timber tech book since its publication by Taunton in 1980. In fact, it is cited by Cut and Dried as one of its sources of information. I had had my own a well-thumbed copy for about 20 years until a student 'borrowed' it and didn't bring it back. I guess that's a sign of just how good the book is. Weep not dear reader, I have replaced it with an equally well-read copy. New copies are available from around £30.

Similar But Not The Same

Which one you should buy depends on how interested you are in wood machining, forestry or sharpening.
Both books cover the following broad subject areas:

How trees grow and their structure
How trees become timber
What is timber and what are its characteristics
Differences between hardwoods and softwoods
Water and wood
Coping with moisture movement
Seasoning timber
Strength of wood
Fungi and insect damage
Joining timber

Cut and Dried has a lot more to say on the state of world forestry past, present and future.  There is a very good section on how trees are felled and converted into useable boards, which should be of interest to those of you who are thinking about harvesting garden trees.

Understanding Wood has a very detailed chapter on how different types of cutting blades and actions work to separate the shaving from the board. If you have a yearning to understand exactly how a sharp blade differs from a dull one, or what's happening when we cross-cut instead of rip and vice versa, this is the book for you.

Hoadley's background as a wood technologist comes through most strongly in the timber identification section. Every time I read it I feel the need to get out my microscope and inspect a random log from the firewood pile. Yes, I do get my geek on big style.


If you've ever made something out of wood and watched it slowly disintegrate; a spilt here, a loose joint there a 'What the f**k has happened to the finish?' everywhere, proceed directly to your favourite bookseller and spend, spend, spend; it will save you money in the end.

I'm more than happy to have either of these books in my library so I won't tell you which one you should buy. Having said that, I perform a happy dance whenever Lost Art Press brings out a new book, so I might have to nudge you in the direction of Cut & Dried which is available from Classic Hand Tools here in the UK.

Review by: The Chief Cook and Bottlewasher