Published by: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (July 26, 2016)
Genre: Contemporary Memoir
Order at: Amazon
Reviewed by: Andy, Guest Reviewer
About the book: The story of how one man cut down a single tree to see how many things could be made from it.
Out of all the trees in the world, the ash is most closely bound up with who we are: the tree we have made the greatest and most varied use of over the course of human history. One frigid winter morning, Robert Penn lovingly selected an ash tree and cut it down. He wanted to see how many beautiful, handmade objects could be made from it.
Thus begins an adventure of craftsmanship and discovery. Penn visits the shops of modern-day woodworkers―whose expertise has been handed down through generations―and finds that ancient woodworking techniques are far from dead. He introduces artisans who create a flawless axe handle, a rugged and true wagon wheel, a deadly bow and arrow, an Olympic-grade toboggan, and many other handmade objects using their knowledge of ash’s unique properties. Penn connects our daily lives back to the natural woodlands that once dominated our landscapes.
Throughout his travels―from his home in Wales, across Europe, and America―Penn makes a case for the continued and better use of the ash tree as a sustainable resource and reveals some of the dire threats to our ash trees. The emerald ash borer, a voracious and destructive beetle, has killed tens of millions of ash trees across North America since 2002. Unless we are prepared to act now and better value our trees, Penn argues, the ash tree and its many magnificent contributions to mankind will become a thing of the past. This exuberant tale of nature, human ingenuity, and the pleasure of making things by hand chronicles how the urge to understand and appreciate trees still runs through us all like grain through wood.
Review: A year ago, my wife and I have decided to buy a country home about 100 miles north of New York City. We wanted a weekend getaway for the family, to get away from the concrete jungle, and let our kids know what it feels like to grow up with trees and a yard like majority of the Americans do. The house is not very big but has a decent sized land and space in between neighbors. Since I always thought of myself as being handy, we decided to fix, improve, and modify this house as much as I can on my own. (This also gave me the excuse to buy up all the fancy power tools without having to be a professional contractor).
As I begin to work on this country home, and for the first time in my life try to build things that are not only functional but also make it as nice looking as possible (ie. Bed Frames, Re-claimed Coffee Table from palates, bench, etc.), I developed a new found appreciation for carpentry and wood working. That is when I stumbled across Robert Penn’s “The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees”. The cover immediately grabbed my attention, with a bunch of beautiful things made out of trees: a baseball bat, a sling shot, a single rowing paddle, a wooden spoon, an arrow, an axe handle, etc. I can’t deny that the Brooklyn hipster vibe from the book cover is what attracted me to this book. As soon as I begin reading the book, it is when I realized there is nothing hipster about it. In other words, this book is the real deal when it comes to everything there is to know about wood.
On the surface, Penn is telling you a story of his journey from handpicking an Ash Tree from his lot, chopping it down and using it to build as many objects as possible. This book is a love letter to the Ash tree: it is filled with so many facts about trees and woods and there no denying in that Penn’s research was top notch. I have to imagine if this book was written 50 years ago, it would probably be ignored, kind of like if I were to publish a book about how to use an iPhone in 2016. But strangely, this book is refreshing because so many people born after the baby boomer generation no longer possess this knowledge. Penn is constantly dropping knowledge about all facets of working with a tree; for instance, when felling a tree, experts prefer to use a saw over axe because it preserves the most usable mass so it is less wasteful; and one should leave ¼ of the tree remains in the woodlands to allow it to rot and give back to the forest.
When I installed a wood-burning stove for the winter, I ordered a “cord” of firewood. Thinking back after reading this book, I now understand why some woods burn cleaner (contain less water or higher caloric value) than the wet wood; and woods like Ash can be burned wet since they contain less moisture. Other things to consider: cleavability is also something I feel like I knew but did not really appreciate until after reading this book; I knew some firewood is easy to split (high cleavability), but the cleavability determines the application to which a wood is ideal for (making furniture versus building material, etc.).
This entire book is filled with Penn’s experience and interaction with various furniture makers and tool makers; it documents tons of technical knowledge on how to work around wood with anything from traditional to state-of-the art tools. You’ll know your pole lathe, pneumatic bending machines, and wooden jigs to the way a wood’s knot is encased or how it is sewn (plain or quarter).
The book is not casual reading. It contains so much technical information, but if you are an enthusiast (of all levels) who shares a similar passion towards working with your hands, this book can be helpful to see the full picture and connect the dots around some of those primitive thoughts you have had about woodworking but didn’t realize its significance.
Guest reviewer, Andy, is the owner and writer behind the The Mobile Experience, a site dedicated to reviewing anything and everything within the realm of mobile technology.
He can be reached via email.