The best books on working with your hands

Who am I?

As a teenager, I worked on cars and motorcycles in my spare time while apprenticing in an architectural millwork shop, paneling the homes of the rich and famous. Thus I discovered the great joys and satisfactions of working with my hands. After a long stint in graduate school, then four years as an editor at Fine Woodworking magazine and for Taunton Press books, I opened a custom design furniture business in 2000. Travel, writing, and reading are aligned passions, and I’ve lived, taught English, and woodworking here and abroad in France, Slovakia, India, and Japan.


I wrote...

Doormaking: Materials, Techniques, and Projects for Building Your First Door

By Strother Purdy,

Book cover of Doormaking: Materials, Techniques, and Projects for Building Your First Door

What is my book about?

Doormaking contains “lots of solid information that can be used in making just about everything wood” (according to one reviewer – I agree). More than that, it embodies an approach to woodworking that you will find more fulfilling than a simple “do this, then that” how-to approach. I’m there with you, discussing options more than dictating actions. I even describe the sometimes-hidden details that will make or break a project. I discuss attitude and enjoyment. And I couch everything with respect for you as a learner and maker.

You have to live with the results and how you got there, so my role is to help you enjoy both. (OK. Sometimes I dictate actions. Because that’s how you do it).

The books I picked & why

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How to Carve Wood: A Book of Projects and Techniques

By Richard Butz,

Book cover of How to Carve Wood: A Book of Projects and Techniques

Why this book?

This unassuming book opened up a world of enjoyable handwork, craftsmanship, and satisfying fun for me. I first wanted to learn how to incise letters. Butz writes clearly, his photos show what I needed to see, and I didn’t have to figure out anything much on my own. It was everything a how-to book should be. Thanks, Rick. Then I wanted to take a stab at an acanthus leaf. He covered it just as well. I’ve not yet gotten to the whittling or wildlife sections, but I will one day, and this little book sits on my shelf to help, never to be given away.


The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight Into Beauty

By Soetsu Yanagi,

Book cover of The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight Into Beauty

Why this book?

They say that travel opens the mind in ways that staying home doesn’t. Books can take you places you can’t otherwise go. So with Yanagi, I got to visit the mind of an early 20th-century Japanese craft connoisseur who looked at thousand-year-old (plain and unassuming) tea bowls and wondered why they’re utterly beautiful and treasured (the best fetch huge sums at auctions–$25million recently for one). Yanagi’s exploration of how the hands of craftsmen can unknowingly and unintentionally create objects of great beauty was both fascinating as it was challenging. It made my shop work a hundred times more enjoyable.


The New Fine Points of Furniture: Early American: The Good, Better, Best, Superior, Masterpiece

By Albert Sack,

Book cover of The New Fine Points of Furniture: Early American: The Good, Better, Best, Superior, Masterpiece

Why this book?

Albert Sack is a riot. He lines up expensive antiques, ranks them from the definitive label “Masterpiece” to the slow-hand insult of “Good”. He describes each in brutally honest and thereby exceptionally insightful terms. One chair is “a brilliant achievement”, while a clock is “relatively crude,” and a table’s legs “end nowhere.” No one comes away with a trophy for participation, making the book exceptionally good to train your eye towards good design. You want people to like the things you make, don’t you? Learn to distinguish good from great with Albert.


Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work

By Matthew B. Crawford,

Book cover of Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work

Why this book?

Talk about white privilege. This guy gets a doctorate in Philosophy, has a comfy career telling wealthy people what they want to hear, but throws it all away to skin his knuckles in a dingy shop teasing old motorcycles back to life for crap pay and occasional social abuse. Why? Read this book and find out: that working with your hands is satisfying, and good for the soul, connecting you with your essential humanity (so put the book down and go work with your hands). I actually hate this book, really, because he makes many points close to my heart, and I wanted to make them into a successful book. I also wish I had a motorcycle shop.


Make A Chair From A Tree: An Introduction To Working Green Wood

By John D. Alexander Jr.,

Book cover of Make A Chair From A Tree: An Introduction To Working Green Wood

Why this book?

There are more comprehensive and detailed books on green woodworking, but none with Alexander’s unedited, liberating spirit, or his pioneering work. Lines such as “You need very few tools to go into the woods and bust a chair out of a tree” gave me a kind of permission to be bold, experiment, and just have fun (which is what he did, and is where the book comes from). You’ll learn how to make chairs (chairs!) with a small set of tools. You’ll likely put the book down before finishing it, and run into the woods to get started.


5 book lists we think you will like!

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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