I have a bunch of those Reader’s Digest and Time-Life build, repair, and maintain handyman books. Way before MAKE and before the internet became an on-demand learning source for just about anything (back when the alt.science.repair USENET FAQ was the best resource out there), these sorts of books were a godsend if you wanted to learn the basics on building a deck, tiling a bathroom, fixing your own appliances.
Back to Shop Class: Metal Working ($19.95. Fox Chapel) reminds me a lot of those books. It has similar handsome, well-designed graphics and it holds your hand tightly through the process of learning basic metalworking skills. These skills include basic tool use and metal shop set up, safety practices, soldering, welding, forging, shaping, and cutting. The book is well-written, and reading it, I learned a lot (I knew basically nothing about metalworking beforehand). But this book suffers from the same problem those handyman books did. You end up with way more questions than satisfying answers and you don’t really learn any one thing adequately enough to be able to do much that’s useful. If you try to do any metalworking projects based on the instructions here — well, there just isn’t enough material — all of the above listed skills, and more, are covered in 135 pages.
What books like this are good at is giving you an overview of a discipline; in informing you of what you need to learn (learning to learn). You’re familiarized with all of the tools, the techniques, the nomenclature, and armed with that, you can determine what you’re interested in and where you need to delve deeper. Now with the web, there are tons of resources on each of these subjects. In fact, you don’t really need a book like this at all. But for those of use who still appreciate dead tree editions, this is a decent introduction to this skill set. I, for one, am happy to have it on my shelf alongside my other handyman guides.