Full Chisel Blog

March 14, 2009

Joseph Moxon, in the original tongue

Joseph Moxon

I am in receipt of a beta digital version of Joseph Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises or the Doctrine of Handy-Works, the 1703 edition.  Perhaps I am use to reading old documents with the long ‘s’, (f) as well as the varieties of spelling and the somewhat constructed sentences are wonderful reading.  And contrary to popular belief, it is written in English!  The digital and hard copy versions of this work are going to be made available soon and I will announce when it is released as will the publisher, I am sure.

And while the Art Of Joinery is but one section of the entire book or set of pamphlets that made up Handy-Works, which also includes Bricklaying, Turning, Carpentry, Blacksmithing and making a Sun Dyal.  A little is known about the early pamphlets but it appears that at least one was documented as selling for 6 pence during the time period.  That would make it between a quarter or a third of a days wages for a craftsman during the time of publication.  Other values are also given to help put it all into prospective.

Reading the available version of the Art Of Joinery, like everyone else felt that Moxon just didn’t go into detail about certain aspects and covered others only in passing.  After reading the entire work it is apparent that much is covered in other sections of Handy-Works, that is relevant to woodworking, even the sections on Bricklaying and Blacksmithing.  The section on making the sun-dyal has a lot of math and layout that is helpful with joinery and the section on Blacksmithing talks of tools, hardening and the iron and steel available.

In the Turning section the gouge is compared to the Joiner’s Fore Plane or the Carpenter’s Jack Plane.  Also in this section Moxon talks about turning moldings like the Joiner’s Molding Plain, yet nothing about molding planes in the Joinery section.  Slate and spittle, Moxon talks of water-stones.  The grindstone  indicate a coarse stone for grinding and a fine whetstone for whetting, and finish up with a a spit polish on slate. 

The cross references to other sections probably indicated that although they were sold separately they were intended to be considered as an entire work and Moxon did not bother explaining every action in each section.  There are references to ‘as you were taught…‘ in previous sections that indicates continuity.

In The Art Of Bricklayers Work, we learn to dissolve human bodies in lime as well as Vitruvius’ recipe for mortar.  Moxon also states that the brick mason is mentioned before stone mason in the Holy Writ.  Many of the masons tools have wooden parts or are made of wood.  Much geometry and layout work is done in this section, but applicable to other trades.  There is also some interesting talk of cements including bullocks glue.

And why discuss a sun dyal in the age of clocks and even pocket watches?  Well, how do you set your clock in the 18th century?  You use a sun dial, many clock makers included a small sundial to set their clocks.  There are also some interesting uses of compasses mentioned in this and other sections of Moxon’s pivotal work.  I think people underestimate the contribution that Joseph Moxon made to the trade then and especially now.  What a wonderful resource an insight into the past not given in other works.

By talking of all of the trades, Moxon set the work in the context of the culture of the time period.  We can see the inter-connections and inter-dependence on each of these trades.  Published in England, I am sure these pamphlets saw there way throughout Europe and undoubtedly to North America.  Others followed and published the latest information and many guides, directories and design books were subsequently published but Moxon was the first.

Mr. Moxon has opened up, with incredible detail a microcosm of the trades to give us a reference of where our craft originated.  This is the real thing, it is an actual first person description of what was in front of him.  It is his articulation of what was going on at the time, almost in real time and that is a valuable insight.  Engravings were done by engravers and some mistakes in left / right and perspective is sometimes askew, but given that and making the necessary corrections, these engravings also add to our knowledge of the history of woodworking.

Not only all of this, but some of the tools are fun to make and when working with tools based on over 300 year old designs, the feel in my hand today also gives me a real connection to the past.  And now I know a dawk from a rising and I don’t want to job my tool, too deep into the stuff.  I will make good riddance to that which is beyond the verge.

And I will boar my friends in great detail.  One suggested I get a wig.  What do you think?

Af always, I remain moft refpectfully,

Stephen Shepherd


  1. I love it. Keep it up.

    Comment by Terry in Ottawa — March 14, 2009 @ 10:21 am

  2. Stephen

    Whilst digging up material on Mr. Moxon, I came across some recent researcg that shed light on the economic and social times during which Moxon published. It will take some time to digest it all, but the jist is that Moxon wrote his works during a time of intellectual and political upheaval. The Royal Society had decided to promote published works on the interrelations of the intellect and the trades. The Crown had lessened the power of the Guilds to police the public. In fact, Moxon was not a member of The Stationers Guild, who controlled printing and publishing. Thus, he could write and publish what he wished. The Guild had little recourse to stop Moxon or any of the other independent printers.

    It’s my summation that Moxon wrote his series on Handy Works and Printing to both address the intellectual needs of the intelligentsia as well as to spread the secrets of the Guilds. Moxon and his family had a history of religious and social activism. His publishing this series fell into place with his overall set of ethics and goals.

    If you read the entire Handyworks as a single book, it’s clear that the focus was the building of houses… an activity that was much in ascendance during this time period late in The Restoration. Each function that he covers is needed in the construction of a house, from making hinges and locks to turning finish work, joinery, bricklayery and even Sundyaling. Doesn’t every well to do house need a way to tell the time?


    Comment by Gary Roberts — March 14, 2009 @ 3:22 pm

  3. Hi, Stephen. I think your blog is wonderful, and FAR from boring!!! I am assuming you know of this already, but i thought i would post you this link:
    It’s Early English Books Online, or EEBO, as professional nerds call it. You can download all of Moxon–in various editions–and search for similar material of early modern England. There’s loads of cool stuff there, and the search engine is great. The only drawback is, you must have an Athens password, or log on from your local library (university libraries are more likely to have access). Thanks for blogging, and, like Terry said, keep it up!

    Comment by naomi — March 15, 2009 @ 2:40 am

  4. This is fantastic news Stephen! I, like you, have no problem reading the original Moxon and find it more interesting and entertaining written in the Queen’s English (or rather I suppose the King’s English). To date I’ve only been able to get a copy from the library on short term loan so I’m excited to hear that the original, unedited text will be available again. Do keep us posted!

    Comment by Bob Rozaieski — March 16, 2009 @ 6:40 am

  5. Terry,

    I am glad you enjoyed it, thanks and I will!


    Now this is interesting, Mr. Moxon seems to be a rebel, revealing trade secrets. I know how these secrets are protected, having gone through a traditional apprenticeship. And while the house may have been the end goal, the journey to get there is what I find interesting.


    Thank you for your comments, I will have to go to the University and take a look. And I will keep it up, although it is a bit expensive.


    Nothing like reading in the original, unexpurgated version. I will keep you posted.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — March 16, 2009 @ 9:21 am

  6. Stephen

    Moxon was more of a rebel than we knew. Beginning with the publication of religious tracts while living in Holland with his father and brother, Moxon went on operate at length as a printer and publisher in defiance of the Guild structures. Not a member of any Guild, he discussed all manner of restricted topics, ranging from turning to bricklaying to printing and type founding. I think his early years in Holland as an exile formed much of his social/religious/political outlook.

    It seems that each time I reread his work, and read up on who he was, I learn something new about both Mr. Moxon, his fellow printers and the social upheaval of that day.


    Comment by Gary Roberts — March 16, 2009 @ 11:05 am

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