Without a Scrap of Crap

People regularly ask what my favorite woodworking books are. It’s a tough question because I really love writings about dead trees that are printed on dead trees.

Most of the books I like are ones that altered the way I look at the world. Charles Hayward made the tools a thing I could master. Robert Wearing connected the dots so I could build stuff entirely by hand.

But Peter Follansbee and Jennie Alexander changed the way I look at furniture.

Their book, “Make a Joint Stool from a Tree,” is not just a treatise on building a joint stool. It is not just an examination of 17th-century joinery techniques. And it is not just the personal journey of two impassioned woodworkers.

While being all those things above, it is also a code of ethical conduct for building furniture from the past.

When we build furniture from the past, the ethical path is to build it true to the materials and techniques of the time. Only that path will produce a true understanding of these furniture forms that make our hearts beat faster.

Highboys built with shapers leave me utterly cold. Block-front chests built with a dovetail jig make me confused. Six-board chests built with a router and a pneumatic nailer make me want to chop down my neighborhood power lines with an axe.

All of this came into focus as I was editing “Make a Joint Stool from a Tree.” I’ve read the entire text at least a dozen times, so its lessons, which I first encountered more than a year ago, have had time to seep deep into my sinew.

It seems at first to be like your typical project book, but it’s not. It should perhaps be retitled: Make a Joint Stool from a Tree Without Idiot Compromises that Will Cripple Your End Product. For Alexander and Follansbee, the tools, techniques and the end product are all equally important. Why? Because the end product will not look right unless you embrace the other two. A joint stool made with a table saw might as well have been extruded from plastic resin.

I know that some of you are reading this and thinking: Yo Schwarz, don’t you have a table saw?

Yup. I have some machines. And when it comes to building furniture from the 19th century to the present, basic machinery is required so the end product will look right. But when I build a joint stool – and I will build a joint stool soon – you can rest assured that it will be with a froe and hatchet. I might not even turn on the lights in the shop that week.

The medicine in “Make a Joint Stool from a Tree” is strong stuff. It’s just a delayed-release drug. Once you read it, all sorts of crazy things become perfectly reasonable. Then they become obvious. Then them become imperative.

If you haven’t had a chance to read the book, borrow a copy from a woodworking friend or your local library. Yes, you can also buy “Make a Joint Stool from a Tree” in our store.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Chris Schwarz

Publisher of woodworking books and DVDs specializing in hand tool techniques.
This entry was posted in Books in Print, Make a Joint Stool from a Tree, Personal Favorites. Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to Without a Scrap of Crap

  1. I had that kind of feeling about your 1st workbench book. You marched up to formal considerations, you spoke about the philosophy of the thing not just as a sturdy platform to use tools on, but a tool in it self, spiritually , historically and functionally designed to do that thing exceptionally well. Thanks for that, it made me a fan of yours. I really like the stuff, but I really like the Ideas. See you at West Coast Woodworking in America.

  2. Robert Justiana says:

    Christopher,
    I completely get what you mean. I too, have consumed the “Joint Stool kool-aid”. I didn’t order the book at it’s release, but was completely blown away by Peter and Megan and the stool on The Woodwright’s Shop, so I had to learn about it. I have only read the book twice, but am itching to try to build one and am saving for a hatchet and froe. In the interim, I have modified an old axe with belt sander and stones and have been trying to work some miserable Florida Live Oak with my (also modified) Craftsman hatchet.
    To add to the monies you cause me to part with, next month I’m making a 1000 mi. pilgrimage to The Acanthus Workshop to spend a few days with Matt Bickford and Chuck Bender. I have 80% completed a wooden rabbet plane, inspired by Matt and Larry Williams. I’m headed further down the hand tool rabbit hole and loving every minute of it.
    The more I learn, the more I stand in awe of the craftsman of the past.
    Robert Justiana

  3. Megan says:

    We deal with that sort of question (“…Without Idiot Compromises that Will Cripple Your End Product”) a lot in the SCA. The requirements aren’t as strict as many reenactor groups (Civil War springs to mind), which makes it more accessible to newbies. “Reasonable attempt at pre-17th century attire” is a standard most people can hit without a huge amount of time or $ outlay. But there are no small number of people doing serious research. My mentor has been making and studying early-period clothes for over 30 years. She’s taught me about how to figure out what will and won’t cripple your end product. She’s done completely hand-sewn outfits. She’s also compared her hand-sewn seams to a machine-sewn seam, and, if it’s going to be just for ordinary wear (i.e., not a competition entry), machine-sewn seams are just fine with her. Machine-sewn hems are most definitely not. Those look different. They move differently. They’re fine if that’s all you have the time/lack of arthritis/$ to do, but they don’t look “real”.

    The catch is that you have to know what “real” looks like. Feels like. Moves like. Which means doing it the real way yourself, or being able to get up close and personal with something done the real way- ideally also being able to pick the brains of the artisan, who will be able to share their experience as to what does and does not make a difference. I hadn’t realized just how different the marks from a spring-pole lathe were from a continuous lathe until I read Robin Wood’s book. Which means that if I want to do bowls like from the Mary Rose, I’ll need a pole lathe- a treadle won’t do.

    • Sean Hughto says:

      Excellent post.

      Purists don’t offend me at all, but when purists take offense – get self-righteous – about their purity, that can be grating. I also see that process dictates result in most cases.

      Funny thing, Chris did a Tambour table two ways – hand a power a few years back. I remember being kind of disappointed at some of the power shortcuts he took on the “hand” version because I thought they made a difference to the result. I don’t remember the specifics – perhaps cutting the circular top with a bandsaw or something? Anyway, I’m guessing that one may have been deadline driven. It’s interesting to read the above and see where he is today on this sort of question.

      Have a good weekend!

  4. Mike Dyer says:

    Sigh. You sound like a man standing on the edge of that unattractive but oh so natural state known as self-righteous zealotry. One of the things that I’ve always liked about you Chris is that you haven’t been pompous about your “art”. You are reaching that dangerous age, though.
    One of your lasting contributions to making quality woodworking accessible to us ordinary Joes has been your philosophy of using both power and hand tools to make attractive, useful, and lasting furniture. Don’t lose your way now.

    • lostartpress says:

      Mike,

      I can’t always ensure that readers will interpret what I write in the way that I intend. I can always restate it to clarify, but that wears me out.

      So I’ll just say a few things. I will never call anything I do “art.” I’ll always use power tools where appropriate. I’ll always use hand tools when possible. I’ll never settle on one way of doing anything. In 10 years I won’t be the same woodworker I am today.

      But here is the key point: Once my eyes are opened to something, I can’t “unsee” it. I saw a real highboy. I saw real hardware. I saw real toolmarks. And etc. And there are many more revelations ahead I’m sure. I think this is just a natural progression for any woodworker. To wit: I don’t think I could buy a dinette set from Value City because I can see too much.

      For me, this blog is a diary. Not a manifesto. Not a call to arms. Hell, it’s not even an instruction book.

      So you might be right. Self-analysis isn’t my thing. All I seek is Nietzsche’s: Du sollst der werden, der du bist.

      But that wouldn’t look good on a T-shirt.

      • Dave from IN says:

        Well, this certainly addressed my question as well. Blog = diary, blog /= call to arms makes a ton of sense. Nothing more to see here! :-)

  5. Dave from IN says:

    Chris, I don’t really follow the argument that the use of historically faithful materials and methods is ethically imperative for anyone recreating old furniture forms. I recognize the academic aspects of studying historical forms through faithful reproduction of objects using methods and materials that approximate those available to the craftsmen who originally created the objects, but I’m not sure why it would be “unethical” for a hobbyist woodworker who didn’t have access to riven stock to use “regular” oak if he or she wanted to build a joint stool. I understand why one might claim that the resulting object would not be authentic to the original concept of a “joint stool,” but as long as the intent of the artist was to create an object for the purpose of furnishing a home, or simply to enjoy the process of building an object, and not to misrepresent the completed object as being “historically accurate,” the I don’t understand how using modern materials and techniques would be unethical. Sure, it may not look “right,” but I don’t get how aesthetics equate to ethics.

    I know this is sounding argumentative, but my point really is to try and better understand your argument if indeed you really think this is an ethical imperative.

    PS. I love the book and got a ton of great info out of it!

  6. Dave from IN says:

    Two practical questions (in contrast to the above!): 1) is that Peter’s chest in the picture, and 2) the carving chisel boxes in the tills have the pointy ends arranged in alternating directions, and I was curious as to whether there was ever an issue with getting nicked fingers. I’ve seen similar chisel boxes with the tools only going one way and others that are arranged like this–just curious as to why. My only theories have been that chisels with larger blades needed to all point the same way because you don’t have room to add handles between the blades, or that having chisels go both ways caused some nicked fingers. Do you have any insight?

    Thanks!
    David

    • lostartpress says:

      David,

      I cannot speak for Peter. But my first chest had my chisels oriented this way to save space. You can get lots more tools in there with the tips and handles alternating. I never nicked myself in 15 years.

  7. Russ says:

    I get it. The general implications of the post *might* lead readers to wonder about the boundaries of the “reproduction” philosophy.
    To illustrate by going too far: Should all of the tools used be made following the “old” processes only? Lumber should only come from old growth trees harvested by two man saws and dragged out by mule or oxen? All these things have an effect on the final outcome, the wooden reproduction furniture.
    I think I understand your points though. After considering them I of course had to go off on this tangent of concern too. Should we also be concerned that as we all now follow in this awareness and adopt more “true” reproduction methods that our posterity confuse these for the real thing?

  8. Dave from IN says:

    Russ,

    This sounds like the start of an interesting simulacra/simulation question regarding the “truth” of any reproduction, regardless of the perceived authenticity (or lack thereof) of the materials and methods used to produce a modern copy of a historical form. That being said, I certainly believe Chris when he said he was channeling Nietzsche in this post rather than Baudrillard, so I’ll try and work out that question another day.

    After getting a little context, the take home message for me is rather simple: “When building a new piece based strongly on a historical form, my goal is to use as many of the techniques and materials that were used to build the original as I can. Through this, I hope to impart on my new object as much of the inspirational essence of the original as possible.” I’m certainly not trying to put words in anyone’s mouth, but that’s what I ended up with.

    David

  9. Gavrillo Princip says:

    The irony is thick – an anarchist is now insisting that we follow the rules. I say blow the motherfucker up and kill all the participants. What is more pathetic than a half-ass anarchist?

    • Brian says:

      Mr. Princip,

      Perhaps you should read (or re-read) Mr. Schwarz’s self-definition of “anarchist” as outlined in his book on toolchests before posting underdeveloped drivel using a marginally relevant psuedonym. He did not claim to be an anarchist in the bomb-throwing tradition. There’s no need to crowd CS into a pigeonhole in which he has stated he does not belong.

      On the other hand, I do agree that a half-assed commitment to a cause is pathetic. Thus, making a joint stool ought to be done with period techniques. At least for me.

      Brian

  10. Tim Henriksen says:

    I’m never wearing tall socks and puffy shirts!

  11. billlattpa says:

    I have to say that one of my favorite woodworking books is a simple little one calle “Handtool Essentials” I’m not much for philosophy are preaching. “Handtool Essentials” really helped a relative newcomer like myself get better results. That’s all I’m looking for at this stage of the game.

  12. H. Kraut says:

    I am pretty sure IF a woodworker in the 17th centery would have had accsess to a table saw – he would have used it.

    • lostartpress says:

      I have to say, I have never understood that perspective. I have access to a CNC machine, and I would never use it.

      • Mike Dyer says:

        Could it be that it would take longer to write a program the CNC than to just rip the board on the table saw?

      • H. Kraut says:

        Not sure how to explain it, -maybe by drawing a parallel to selling Literature in leather bound Books or through Epub and Kindle.

        If said 17th Century craftsman would have insisted: “I only want to do things the way the great craftsman of the 13th century did it” – we may not have arrived at the Bedrock planes.
        A CNC machine is just another tool. Modern? – yes. I am certain in the hands of a master craftsman like yourself it might actually be coaxed into doing good work.

        For me it has something to do with the direction in which we travel through time that started with binding a rock to the end of a stick, the discovery of fire and the wheel. -Progress is the word I am looking for.

        Keep up the good and inspiring work. Perhaps some day I can afford one of those Leather bound books from LAP and wont get beaten to the punch by 26 others, who can traverse the internet faster then me.

      • Megan says:

        I do understand that perspective. In a lot of cases, we’ve replaced minions and muscle with motors. Sometimes it’s a lot more direct a replacement (shop boy cranking the great wheel lathe) than others (bandsaw vs. frame saw/turn saw). But it’s doing much the same thing. The CNC machine is a beastie that has no analogue that’s even close… would 17th century guy have used it if it was available? Oh, I’m sure he’d be clever enough to figure something out, but I’d bet the forms and aesthetic would be different- he wouldn’t just blindly copy what everyone else was making with their 17th century tools, due to the CNC’s abilities and difficulties.

        I could use some minions, though… anybody got a good source?

    • Jay C. White Cloud says:

      Considering Luthier and most guild craftspeople of the past had such ridged mandates of style down to only using wood from trees of certain forests, or tools made by certain Smiths of a chosen guild, I doubt very much that they would, as you say, “used it.”

      建築士 or 大工 (Architects or Carpenter,) of Japan and China today routinely refuse to use modern tools, in many cases.

  13. Mike Dyer says:

    “for the CNC”

  14. Gavrillo Princip says:

    Our “anarchist” is nothing more than a reactionary shouting at the kids to get off his lawn. Typical hypocritical bullshit. Make up new meanings for words to disguise the fact that you are a hidebound traditionalist who hates change.

    Meh – it’s all a ploy to rake in money. A real anarchist would be building bombs.

  15. Mike Dyer says:

    OK, you guys are getting nuts. Time to opt out.

  16. Brian Dormer says:

    What book(s) by Hayward are you referring to?

  17. Jay C. White Cloud says:

    As usual for me, I have spent more time reading and thinking about this thread and the many responses, and only now taking the time to respond. I’m glad I waited, for some of the responses shocked me with the quantity of venom they had in them.

    Having known Jennie for over twenty years, I think I can speak to how she feels about this subject and what CS was driving at when he started this discussion about one of his favorite books. I gleaned no elitism, no condescension, nor mandate to follow. There was no chastisement for using power tools or wrath raged by CS, (as some of the followers have raged against him.) He simply responded to a question, and shared some of his musings.

    Traditional Timber Framers, now and in the past, work almost exclusively in “green,” wood; it is a day-to-day function of the craft. If you embrace what the craftspeople before us accomplished and try to learn the methods employed, one would know that you could very easily build furniture like tables and armoires, using wood that may only have been out of the tree for a few months, (even weeks with some techniques.) This craft of “modern,” woodworking has become very bent, with strong opinions about how this “Green Woodworking,” can’t be done. I am routinely told it won’t work, (yet it did for millennia.) It reminds me of Barn Frame restoration work, where the contractors, architects and engineers present state that, “pressure treated wood must be used for the sills,” “you can’t raise that frame by hand, you have to use a crane,” and my very favorite, “what do you mean that the wood isn’t dry kilned?”

    When teaching Indigenous Life Skills, making thread, much stronger than modern varieties, out of an animal’s heart or back tendons, viewers routinely insist it is a trick and can’t be done. So many within our modern culture are forgetting that all these machines evolved out of the need for “Barons” of industry to mass-produce products with unskilled labor. Few can quickly master the pull strokes of Eastern saws with ease or grace, but just about anyone can shove a stick of wood through a table saw. It has very little to do with, “a better way,” just dependence on the larger corporate culture. This premises has been bought into for so long now, it has become a “cultural truth,” not an honest one of reality. It all is becoming a “Lost Art,” and will continue if we don’t stop ourselves.

Comments are closed.