Saturday, July 9, 2016

Simple Pleasures (My review of the Anarchist's Design Book)

I'd intended my last entry to be just that, my last entry. But then someone gave me this book, and, well...


When I first read the premise behind Chris Schwarz' proposed Furniture Of Necessity, I really wasn't sure where he was going with the idea. Stripping away ornamentation usually leads to Shaker or Danish Modern, but he was citing source material that seemed more like cave drawings than draftsmanship, and I didn't see the point. Still, I was curious. Schwarz has a tendency to dig through old material, strip the big ideas down, and relentlessly discard anything that's not immediately, and efficiently useful. And he usually comes back with a nugget or three of something unexpected, and precious.

Now that I've finished this book, for the second time, I'm not 100% sure what Schwarz is up to. The book is brilliant, and the furniture is gorgeous, there are layers yet that I need to peel back. And even then, he makes it plain that there are things on his mind that are better left unsaid. 


When I unwrapped the book, and cracked it open, the obvious things that popped out on my first flip-through were the (gorgeous) photos and illustrations, and the crackling from the painted page edges. (This settles down quickly, leaving a quieter, and very handsome looking volume.) Then I started reading.

His design methods get to the point, without making expensive/ time consuming mockups and prototypes. (A drunken monkey could put some of these methods to solid and efficient use.) He walks through building stools and chairs, using simple, functional, and efficient methods. (One of the most complicated tools is basically a pencil sharpener on steroids.) The trestle tables... Simple, functional, and very attractive furniture. (Truly awesome commentary on that here.) I don't have room for a new table, but when I start grad school, I'm thinking I might just make myself a desk. I'll be reaching for this book when I get there.

And truth be told, all I was able to think about was how cool it would be to teach this stuff to my boys, once they pass the age of 6. He uses band saws and drill presses, for the sake of efficiency, but a coping saw, hand plane, spoke shave, and a modified ship builder's auger would work just fine for smaller hands, if you wanted to build one of these chairs with a child. I don't just want to build this stuff, I want to share the experience. So in that regard, I think the author has done his job well.

Clearly there was a lot more to the cave drawings than I properly understood. 


This quote reached out and poked me in the eye while I was reading about the 6-board chest:

"After all, if you are going to build these projects by hand and build them for the non-rich, you have got to be efficient."

After all of his years in editing and publishing, I'm sure that Mr. Schwarz is very careful when writing in the second person. It makes sense when he's walking the reader through a build, or in a comment like: "If you want to learn how to build furniture, you have to study furniture." Because his tone is so casual, a random aside like the one I put in italics wouldn't normally stick out... but I've already had a pretty solid go at this whole furniture making business once already, so it hit me a little differently than it would have a decade ago. I'm not sure if he was just assuming the reader wants to make an enterprise out of building furniture, or if he's trying to quietly, conversationally, plant the seed of that idea. Either way, it felt subtly done.

At that point, the tone of the book took a left turn for me, and I started paying closer attention.

Schwarz comes clean about some of his motivations at the end of the book. He's clearly had it with idle chatter from professional moaners, uselessly rambling about the loss of the craft.* He's very much interested in making people want to get off their backsides, and do things. And so he's stripped that idea down to something that's immediately and efficiently useful. The projects in this book can be built with a set of tools that will fill a small backpack, even if he pairs them with ideas and ways of thinking about design that will help you fill your house... and maybe someone else's, too.

My observation after reading the book, is to re-examine just how over-done a lot of fine furniture really is, if you're trying to strip down to what's really useful. 

And, for myself, I can't help but want to build this stuff.


The 'Useful Stuff at the End' section feels less like an appendix, and more like a place to put a few spare parts that didn't fit in with the final layout of the book. He talks about how PVA glue has short-changed the world, and why hide glue is so much better. He talks about scrubbed finishes, and soap finishes. Simple, safe, healthy, and sustainable ways to keep a piece maintained. And other bits and pieces. But these short blurbs are also useful devices for bringing up some very serious complaints with the way things have been made in recent years. Not only are things so poorly made, they're hard to maintain, and almost impossible to repair. Between chapter 99, and this last section, my impression was that of a curtain being pulled aside, just for a moment, and getting an incomplete glimpse of what drove him to put this book together.

Once upon a time, I was a North Bennet student, selling tools at Rockler, and then Woodcraft. And I was frustrated and pissed off about how much money it was taking people, just get into dabbling in woodworking, about how much of it either wasn't helpful, wasn't entirely necessary, or helped the aspiring woodworker to assume that they were out of their depth. I really loved The Anarchist's Tool Chest, because it stripped most of those things down for the average beginner: 'You need these things, you don't need those, and for god's sake, don't worry about that stuff. It's crap.' (That's my one-sentence summary, that does the book a grave disservice, but it's more palatable than "STFU and go read it already.") It was a great book that provided guidelines for a solid tool kit, and a good exercise or two, to help the newcomer get to understand their tools.

I feel like this book has gone a step further. Because he's now stripped away a lot of techniques that aren't necessarily needed, either. No dovetailed boxes, no rectilinear mortise and tenon work, no embellishment. The 'joinery' when there is any, is only used when structurally necessary, and it's bombproof. The finished pieces are proof that this philosophy of design can still produce comfortable, attractive pieces, even in the hands of someone who's just starting out. And nothing encourages progress like success. With luck, he'll also shoo away some of the tire-kickers who will step up to a Goddard highboy and first want to see how sloppy his dovetails were, ignoring completely the sense of proportion, or the quality of the piece as a whole.

In short, I think Schwarz has jumped from 'making it easier to get into woodworking,' to 'making it easier to build durable, useful furniture.' There are times when I'm tempted to joke that his next book will feature a series of boulders, but the truth is that Schwarz has managed to take the philosophy of 'make things as simple as possible, and no simpler,' to a long-forgotten level. A simpler tool kit, a simpler set of techniques, and furniture that, to be plain, will be easier to live with and maintain.

So... STFU and go read it, already.

JW, 7/9/2016


*re: The loss of the craft: The rise of maker-spaces, and the upsurge in people wanting to make things, is ample proof that the spirit of craft is very much alive and well. Some of them are into woodworking. True, I find it sad to think that the world may never see the likes of the Seymours, or the Roentgen shop again. But the truth is, they were a very limited and isolated subset, of a subset of elite craftsmen, who happened to be positioned to sell amazing things to royalty, for a ransom. And there are still subsets of elites, selling remarkable things to royalty, making anything from furniture to bicycles, sports cars and motorcycles to airplanes and who knows what's next, timber frame homes or over-the-top yachts... Or even just really good food. Anyone who thinks that intelligent craftsmanship is dying, either hasn't been paying attention, or probably wants to have inspiration fed idly to them on a spoon.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Thank You

I got into woodworking seriously in the summer of 2004, when I took my first workshop at North Bennet Street School. My last commission wrapped up about 10 years later. In that time, I worked for Rockler, and Woodcraft. I went through North Bennet. And then 7 years of running my own business, during which time I got to make some really cool custom furniture for some very nice people. All in all, not a bad run.

Almost two years later, I've had a couple of abortive attempts to reboot this blog, and finish talking about that last project... and a couple of others. But it's slowly turned into one of those things I keep meaning to get around to, and feel bad that I haven't... and I think that means it's time to tie it off, for now.


My writing about woodworking started out on, and morphed into this thing you're reading now. Along the way, I ran into a guy named Chris Schwarz, and talked about my experiences selling over-rated newfangled widgets while I was learning traditional craftsmanship at school. He told me I should write a book. I wrote a lot of material, but the real point of the book kept getting away from me, and it never came together. Maybe it'll crystallize now, who knows. But I can't thank Chris enough for his encouragement.


If anybody asked me what's the most important lesson that I've learned, I'd be split.

Lesson number one in the shop has always been that the fundamentals are fundamental, and every time I revisited things like sharpening, planning/ drafting, process, layout, and accuracy, my work improved by leaps and bounds.

But as important as I think the fundamentals are, I think it's equally important to stay inspired, and aspire to always try to build something that's just beyond your grasp.

If I was going to send someone on a guided tour of woodworking awesomeness, it would start with names like Greene and Greene, Chippendale, Sheraton, Townsend, Goddard, John and Thomas Seymour. Some of the designs and work from these men were the ego pieces that I aspired to when I was in school. I think I'd include a sampling of British campaign furniture... and Japanese Tansu. (stacking, and step-chests) More recent American designer/ builders like Wharton Esherick, George (and now Mira) Nakashima, Sam Maloof, and even Wendell Castle would be on the list. I think it's really important to learn about Chinese furniture joinery, because it makes the humble dovetail joint look like finger paint, and about the work of the Roentgen shop, which is simply astonishing. Those would have to be on the tour as well.

(To be fair to the rest of us, The Roentgen shop had something like 200 craftsmen in house, working in a variety of disciplines, from joiners to marqueters, and including people casting and chasing the absolutely gorgeous metalwork, and they had clockmakers on retainer to build some of the mechanical niftiness. They also violated a lot of guild guidelines in the process.)

I do wish that the glossy rags would focus on work like that a little more, just once in a while, even if it was only a review of an exhibit at a prominent museum. I think it's important for people to understand just what heights human ingenuity and skill were able to achieve, without electricity. I think that would put more recent work in proper perspective.

But then there's other work by craftsmen like Sidney Barnsley... or Garry Knox Bennet. I find Barnsley's work to be utterly visceral, and it grabs me in a way that the American Arts and Crafts designs don't. And when I hear or read from hobbyists who are taking themselves too seriously, I really want to see how they'd react to Garry Knox Bennet.  It took me the better part of a year or two to realize that I just... love his work. It's powerful and whimsical, colorful, and it doesn't take itself too seriously.

And if I wanted to say anything with this blog to date, it's that I think that it's important to both aspire, and to not take yourself too seriously. John Ruskin made the point in his writing that only a craftsman who can forgive himself for his mistakes will be able to reach greater heights. Nobody's perfect, and I think we're all capable of a lot more than we realize.

Thank you all for reading.