ATC Interview, Part III

ReaderQuestionsAuthor’s Note: This is the third of a three-part interview with Chris about The Anarchist’s Tool Chest. If you missed the first two conversation, you can read them here and here.  As promised, this final installment was generated entirely by reader questions. A special thank you to all of you who sent in questions for Chris, including the many thoughtful queries that I was unable to work into this interview.

— Brian Clites, your forum moderator and author of

Jeff: Chris, in The ATC you captured my attention because you interwove your heartfelt conviction about the state of modern consumerism into a book about traditional woodworking.  Do you have other convictions that can likewise linked to how or why you’re in the craft?  If so, any plans for a book along those lines?

Christopher Schwarz: Aesthetic anarchism is pretty much the framework for my approach to the craft and life. It even guides the way I buy music and food.

I have lots of other things I feel strongly about, but they don’t have much to do with the craft directly. For example, I don’t believe in free will (it’s a long explanation and not a religious one), but I probably shouldn’t write a woodworking book titled: “You were Supposed to Screw That Up.” I will have to give this some more thought, however. It’s a tough question.

Leslie: Chris, I’ve come to regard your time-honored design for an English sawbench as essential in my shop. But I have difficulty keeping the saw in alignment, especially when using postures that aren’t unduly tiring on my body. I’ve tried the posture you describe in The Anarchist’s Tool Chest [pp. 285 – 286], but had little luck. Could you please explain one or two alternative (but still efficient) body stances for using the sawbench?

CS: The only other body stances I know for sawbenches involve sitting down to rip (a la French) or some of Adam Cherubini’s odd foot stylings he showed in his Arts & Mysteries columns.

If the traditional stance doesn’t work, you might try overhand ripping at the bench. That works for most (and is what I prefer, actually)For crosscutting, try clamping the work to the sawbenches and see if you can employ one leg comfortably to stabilize the work.

Turning the saw around so the teeth face away from you is another solution, as in this photograph:

Sawing Alt Stance

You’d have to have the work secured with clamps or perhaps one leg. It also spreads out the work between both arms, which helps some people. I am sure there are other stances out there. I just haven’t encountered them. Apologies.

Jacob: Hi Chris. My question is about the relationship between construction methods and philosophy.  In The Anarchist’s Tool Chest, I thought you were arguing that the dovetail – because of its history in the craft, the skill it demonstrates, the tradition it represents – is emblematic of woodworking anarchy.  Yet you’ve recently done away with this joinery in the “baby” ATC, and the only dovetails I’ve noticed in the posts about your forthcoming Furniture of Necessity are the sliding dados on the table.

Just so you understand where I’m coming from, last year I didn’t feel confident had cutting dovetails, so I actually had to make my ATC with rabbets and screws. But that gets to the heart of my question: What is the anarchist’s joint? Does the concept of a beginner’s chest supplant any of your arguments in The Anarchist’s Tool Chest? I guess I’m wondering if woodworking anarchy is more of a skill set or a mindset? Thank you.

CS: For me what is important is that the joinery be superior to the crap that falls apart in a few years. Nails and screws that have been thoughtfully driven can last 200 or 300 years.

It also relates to the material. Dovetailing melamine will probably end poorly.

So while I love the dovetail and think it is the end-all joint, screws and nails and other well-made joints in solid material can outlast us all. Whatever joint it is, make it well and use good materials – that’s the opposite of the typical factor-made thing.

Cameron: The Anarchist’s Tool Chest is a book that had a big impact on my making philosophy. Not only because it turned me on to hand tool woodworking, but because aesthetic anarchism as it was presented tied up a lot of the ideas that brought me to the craft in the first place. It was one of those great moments when you’re reminded there are people out there who feel the same way about something, and not only that, but here’s someone who is doing it in a way that can have a real impact on our culture. OK, fanboy bit finished. Now for my question:

As someone who works in the technology sector, I’m interested to know: Have you ever come across a furniture maker who exemplifies aesthetic anarchism while using automated technology? I can imagine a future where tools like Cad, Makerbot, CNC, and 3D printing – programed to produce traditional pieces with traditional joinery – could allow individuals to make more of their own goods, and probably in a smaller home workshop than we currently need.

CS: Tools are neutral. My table saw grants me freedom by feeding my family at times. When I worked in a factory shop, the table saw was a symbol of my submission.

What is important to me is that people make things instead of buying them (if possible). So CAD, 3D printing, laser-cutting, water-jet machines and Shopbots are all awesome ways to accomplish that goal.

But why do I like hand tools so much and encourage others to try them? Everything with a cord ends up n the landfill. Hand tools last centuries. Sustainability is important to me.

Hand tools have fewer limits than machines (think chisel vs. table saw). A table saw limits your cut with a table, a fence, the size of the rails and the diameter of the blade. A chisel has almost no limits when it comes to shaping wood.

But I try not be a jerk about it. If you make stuff, you’re cool in my book.

Brian: Following up on Cameron’s vision: Chris, ever the twain shall meet? Is craft anarchism essentially about the ends of furniture quality and maker independence? Or the means through which that furniture is made?

CS: It’s both. If you don’t make it, then you can’t have an end product. If you don’t have an end product, then you aren’t making anything.

I know it seems circular. It probably is. Maybe I should write a book on turning.

Stupidity aside: The ways and the means are equally important. You can’t have handmade objects without someone making them.

Brian: Or can you?…

Ethan (The Kilted Woodworker): Chris, can you confirm the rumor that all involved with the writing, editing, and publishing of The Anarchist’s Tool Chest have a secret tattoo hidden somewhere on their body?

CS: I’m 47. I was born in an era where only criminals and sailors had tattoos. And I don’t like needles. Plus, even if I had a tattoo, you’d never be able to find it beneath my fine layer of yeti fur.


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The Medieval Mudejar Craftsmen of Teruel Cathedral


Groundbreaking for Teruel Cathedral in Aragon, Spain, was in 1171 with consecration around 400 years later. Much of the construction and artwork was done by mudejar craftsmen. The nave has a wonderful coffered ceiling decorated with carvings and painted in saturated colors of red, blue, yellow, orange, green and black.


One of the painted horizontal supports features the woodworkers of the cathedral:


Here is a closer look at this lively group:


The carpenter in the middle row on the left is carving one of the eagles that decorate the ends of many of the beams.


The very limber toastmaster is smack in the middle and his buddy, to the right, is motioning for a round. Note the snappy striped outfits of the carpenters. The artists that painted the carpenters did not leave themselves out. They are shown, in more sober dress, in another section and in this panel are either being offered more paint or a refreshing drink.


Many cathedrals and other buildings, great and small, have depictions of the community of craftsmen that worked to construct those buildings. They can be seen in stone carvings, painted panels, stained glass windows and misericords, and they are mostly anonymous. I like to think that somewhere in each carving or painting a small set of initials or a symbol has been left by the artisan.

Many more images and the history of the cathedral can be found at the Spanish-language site:

Also, those red, yellow and blue striped shop aprons are a trend waiting to happen.

— Suzanne Ellison

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Woodworking Classes: Don’t Forget to Remember


These last couple weeks I have been participating in a (personally) exciting experiment with furniture maker David Savage. Last week I taught a class at his school on making a traveling tool chest very similar to the one on the cover of the August 2015 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine.

David was a student in my class. He built the chest. And he did it the way I told the students to do it (100 percent traditionally). Now if you know anything about David Savage, that’s a ridiculous thing. He’s forgotten more about furniture making than I know.

And yet the class was enjoyable for him because it reminded him of techniques he has set aside over the years – using hot hide glue to assemble carcases, using traditional wedge-shaped nails and milk paint (to name a few).


This week, David and his right-hand man, Daren Millman, are teaching us all about veneering using traditional methods (hide glue) and modern ones (PVA glue and a veneer press). And even though I’m comfortable with both methods, I’m taking the course and having a blast.

David and Daren are both fantastic teachers with insights into veneering that have made this week the highlight of 2015 for me. Even though I’m only two days into the class I feel like my mind has been opened with a crowbar.

Note to self: Take more woodworking classes with excellent instructors. It’s worth the money and the time.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Workbenches of Cotehele


On my day off from teaching at David Savage’s shop, David and his wife, Carol, insisted on taking me over the border to Cornwall to see Cotehele, a fantastic family home on the Tamar River that has been remarkably unchanged for more than 400 years.

The house had some remarkable original furniture, including six collapsible tables that they suspect were made on-site. But I have only 15 minutes to write this so we’re going to look at the workbenches in the house’s workshops.

Cotehele House was built about 1300 and rebuilt by three generations of the Edgcumbe family between 1485 and 1560. The house is mostly Tudor, and is largely untouched since its last remodeling in the 1650s.

The workshops on display are recreations, as is typical in historic properties. So don’t make too much out of where the benches are sitting or what’s on them. In the saddler’s shop they had two workbenches. One was clearly a woodworker’s bench that looked very similar to Peter Nicholson’s drawing of one circa 1800.

The bench has had a hard life. One interesting aspect of the bench is that when you stand before it, you cannot easily see the rear apron, just like in Nicholson’s “Mechanic’s Companion.” But the apron is there.

But what isn’t there are the “bearers” under the top that Nicholson discusses. Still, the bench seemed sturdy enough to still work on. Some people might think it a bit low – my guess is that it’s 27” or 28” high. The benchtop was about 10’ long.


In the wheelwright’s shop they had a second Nicholson-pattern bench on display, this one is interesting because of the storage lockers built into either end. You access the lockers from doors at the ends. What’s interesting about this particular bench was the lack of holes for anything – pegs, holdfasts etc.

This bench was a bit taller than the one shown in the saddler’s shop. But it was also about 10’ long.

There was lots more to see in the house, but that will have to wait for another day. I’ve got a tool chest to finish.

— Christopher Schwarz

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The Silk Road of Monkey Tales


Marco Polo is one of my heroes. That’s him and his fellow travelers on my favorite map the Catalan Atlas of 1375 by Abraham Cresques.

I enjoy tales of adventure whether it is the real life wanderings of Marco Polo or Ibn Buttata, the mythical adventures in the Odyssey, the Argonautica or Samurai Champloo. The last week has found me on the Silk Road following fables about monkeys and carpenters. It all started while trying to track down the illustrations of a caravan from a 13th century manuscript that had nothing to do with monkeys. Instead, I came across this image from 1222 CE and wondered why was a monkey apparently not helping a sawyer.


In short order, through the digital libraries of a dozen countries, I was tracing a set of fables and lessons from India, across the Middle East, the Iberian Peninsula and into the rest of Europe. I was following a monkey interfering with the work of a carpenter.

The genealogy of the curious monkey starts in India with the Panchatantra, a collection of parables composed in Sanskrit around 100-500 CE, with animals as the main characters. The stories are filled with jackals, lions, birds, turtles, cats, mice, monkeys and a few more species. At some point illustrations were added. As the written collection of stories moved along the trade routes they caught the attention of scholars leading to translations in Pahlavi (Middle Persian), Syriac and Arabic. After arrival on the Iberian Peninsula an Arabic version was translated to Hebrew and this led, in Italy, to the translation into Latin.

The  path of the translations (and the monkey) was by no means linear, more like a spider’s web, and as the stories were translated some were altered or left out, while other collections of stories, such as the Fables of Bidpai (or Pilpay), were added. You might even find some of the stories from the Panchatantra in later versions of Aesop’s Fables. The names of a particular collection varied with the translation and includes, Kalila wa-Dimna, The Fables of Bidpai, The Lights of Canopus and the Latin translation, Directoriun Humanae Vitae (Guide for Human Life). During my digital travels I read the monkey’s fable in French, Italian and 16th century English, bumbled through the Latin and hacked my way through the Catalan and Spanish translations.

The actions of the animals in the fables cover the full range of human interactions and the consequences of those actions. The illustrations, from simple line drawings to paintings using the finest pigments, are not just decoration but an important part of of each story. As the writings were translated so were the illustrations. In my wanderings through more than a thousand years of storytelling there is a remarkable consistency in the illustrations, whether the monkey is alone or with the carpenter. With the availability of many digital manuscripts that consistency made my search for the monkey’s misadventures that much easier.

So, what was the story of the monkey and the carpenter? It is a short tale with dire consequences for the curious monkey (and his tail or other body parts). A monkey watches as a carpenter is splitting a log or plank; to aid his work the carpenter uses wedges. After the carpenter stops and leaves for lunch/tea/other necessary things the monkey jumps onto the log and intrigued by the wedges tries to remove them. In doing so he: gets his “tender parts” or his tail, or leg, or paw stuck in the cleft. The monkey’s suffering ranges from great pain to death. On his return the carpenter does not show pity, instead he adds to the pain and demise of the monkey. A grim story and you can draw your own lessons about curiosity, consequences, compassion and the disposition of your body parts while splitting logs.

Besides finding some new (old) images for the LAPAWS (Lost Art Press Archive of Woodworking Stuff) this trip along the Silk Road reminded me of how important the trade routes were in moving and introducing new commodities and ideas. In our time the trade routes we travel are the digital scans of written documents, websites and blogs. We discover and preserve our histories and perhaps learn a new thing or two.

The images in the gallery below range from before the 10th century to 1915. The earliest is a terracotta plaque showing the monkey on a log from the story in the Panchatantra (apologies-no clearer photo was available). Some illustrations are in better shape than others and you will see a range of artistic ability.

My favorite proverb for the tale of the monkey and carpenter is from a copy of the Panchatantra, “What business of monkeys is carpentry?”

Posted in Historical Images | 18 Comments

Original Plans for an 18th-century Spice Box. Starting at $15,000

Early price sheets, notes on shop practice and shop drawings from the early 18th century are quite rare. So it’s a bit amazing to see that Swann Galleries in New York City will be selling documents from joiner John Widdifield (1673-1720), who was one of the first Philadelphia furniture makers to offer pieces in the William & Mary style.

The documents include stuff we’d all like to see. I mean, good God, man. This is stuff that is only 25 years after Joseph Moxon (the first English-language book on woodworking). Here is a bit from the auction description:

The first 26 pages are devoted to sets of measurements and prices for furniture forms ranging from clock cases to stools, cradles to coffins. He also includes sketches of three pieces: a spice box, a scrutoire (writing desk), and a “chest of wallnutt drawers upon a fraime.”

Also intriguing:

On the verso of page 2 he records detailed instructions for keeping his tools at optimal sharpness.

And for the finishing nerds:

The second section is titled “The Arte of Coloring, Staining & Varnishing According to My Owne Experience.” It includes recipes for numerous types of varnishes; pages 65 and 72 include directions for the japanned lacquers which were becoming popular in that era. Page 71 gives directions for a finish “to put on maps on fraimes or boards.”

The auction is Sept. 17. Previews of the auction items are listed on Swann’s web site here. The pre-sale estimate is $15,000 to $25,000. No I won’t be there, and no, I won’t be bidding. But if any of you pick this up I know a publishing company that would be happy to consider republishing it.

— Christopher Schwarz

P.S. Hat tip to Suzanne Ellison for sending me the auction listing.

Posted in Personal Favorites | 17 Comments

‘By Hound & Eye’ is Here. Special Offer Ending

HOUND_coverAWe’ve just received our shipment of “By Hound & Eye” – the cartoon workbook that will open your eyes to the hidden geometry behind excellent furniture.

The shipment is early – way early. We were expecting it in mid-September. And so we are going to end our special pre-publication offer early as well. (Sorry. FYI, when a book is late, we extend the pre-publication offer.)

So if you want a copy of “By Hound & Eye” with a free download of the book, you have until Sept. 4 to order. After that, the free pdf will not be available.

If you ordered a copy of “By Hound & Eye,” it will be packed up Monday and sent via SmartPost, which can take five to seven business days. We’ve also shipped out copies to all our retailers. We don’t know when they’ll add them to their stores, so keep a sharp eye out.

I haven’t seen the physical printed book (I’m in England right now). but I’m very much looking forward to seeing our first softcover workbook.

— Christopher Schwarz

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