The news concerns the review by Steve Forrest in the April, 2021 American Woodturner which is reproduced below.
“Prolific author Mike Darlow’s new book, Useful Woodturning Projects, presents a mixed bag. As always, when he gets down to specific instruction and illustration, Darlow does an exemplary job. His knowledge and skills are unquestionable, and there are many valuable aspects of tooling and technique that may be unfamiliar to readers that Darlow renders clearly. Particularly strong are his sequences of operations and his chucking strategies for sophisticated projects.
However, much of the book is disappointing, with the choice of projects themselves being problematic. More than a quarter of the book is devoted to various chess sets, a subject which Darlow has considered more fully in an earlier book. Many of the other projects are simply antiquated. A point-presser-and-clapper, a monaural stethoscope, and a reel stand may have value as antiquarian objects, or as challenges for various skills, but they are hardly objects of daily use. Darlow acknowledges that “some might consider [the book’s range of projects] too esoteric.” While this may serve some readers well, the emphasis on objects that were formerly useful limits the appeal of the book.
In addition, the book would have benefited from greater focus and a tighter editorial hand. This plays out in two key areas. One is a tendency to wander into historical notes and minutiae that, however interesting in their own right, ultimately detract from the topic at hand. In a book whose emphasis is on utility, extended histories of chocolate, the pepper trade, and cotton thread seem out of place. A full chapter is devoted to typefaces, without any specific connection to woodturning. The other is Darlow’s argumentative and at times pedantic tone. Despite some lip service to the contrary, the book’s introduction reads like a screed against trends in modern woodturning. An obvious example: “An unfortunate recent trend is to promote woodturning as fun.” He creates a sort of boogeyman out of the modern emphasis on turning bowls and vessels, and the perceived tension between art and craft. Darlow ultimately sets up a binary, zero-sum context in which one is either working doggedly to improve according to Darlow’s standards or wasting one’s time.
Readers can decide for themselves whether the valuable aspects of the book compensate for its weaknesses.”
My thoughts on the review
Long ago I realized that an author can only please a proportion of potential readers. Therefore I don’t object to the reviewer not appreciating both my choice of projects and the “historical notes and minutiae”.
What I do however object to is the reviewer’s selective quoting. I did write on page 4 “An unfortunate recent trend is to promote woodturning as fun.” But that statement was immediately followed and qualified by “This undervalues woodturning which is really about learning, applying that learning, exploration, achievement and modest pride, even though these are sometimes accompanied by frustration and failure”.
The reviewer states that a point presser-and-clapper is “antiquarian” and “hardly of daily use”. Figure 14.1 shows a present-day commercial version, and had Steve consulted a sewer he would have learned that these pieces of equipment are indeed valued and constantly used by them. Not that “antiquarian” is a derogatory term: turners of non-bizarre bowls and vessels are hard-pressed not to replicate the forms of ceramics of 5,000 years ago.
The bulk of AAW members aren’t professional Fine Art turners. Most, like me, are past the first bloom of youth, and would I believe like to spend a proportion of their lathe time turning items which their family and friends will get a quiet pleasure from using. However to turn such items requires somewhat different competences from those used to “turn” the Fine Art turnings shown prominently in American Woodturner–the quotation marks signify that turning is often an insignificant technique in the production of some of those items. Any fair reading of that journal and of AAW events suggests that the pendulum has swung too far for the bulk of its members. The reviewer disagrees: “Darlow ultimately sets up a binary, zero-sum context in which one is either working doggedly to improve according to Darlow’s standards or wasting one’s time”.
I asked Steve to explain. He did thus: “A binary, zero-sum context refers to your tendency to create a black/white, yes/no, positive/negative (hence, “binary”) account of what you see as the situation of modern woodturning. Zero-sum refers to game theory – the idea that for you to win, I have to lose, or vice versa. You write about your pet peeves as if there were only one way to think about them. As we say in America, the impression I was left with was that it was your way or the highway”.
However chapter 1 states: ”I fully support this widening of woodturning’s horizons and ambitions” and “I hope this book will tempt you to consider increasing your useful output and, if necessary, increasing the range and depth of your turning skills and your interest in design”. The chapter does not state that it’s “my way or the highway” or that turners forsake Fine Art turning. Instead chapter 1 opines that there is a too strong a focus on non-useful turning and explains why. It also explains that it is the average woodturner who is thus disadvantaged. As both the reviewer and the editor of American Woodturner were aware the review was “ultimately a negative view”. As I have shown above it was a misleading review, and the refusal both by the editor and the AAW Board to allow me to respond speaks volumes.