The Amateur Carpenter


The Amateur Carpenter

In my opinion every professional man should keep a chest of carpenters’ tools in his barn or shop, and busy himself at odd hours with them in constructing the varied articles that are always needed about the house. There is a great deal of pleasure in feeling your own independence of other trades, and more especially of the carpenter.

Every now and then your wife will want a bracket put up in some corner or other, and with your new, bright saw and glittering hammer you can put up one upon which she can hang a cast-iron horse-blanket lambrequin, with inflexible water lilies sewed in it.
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The Making of a Cabinetmaker – Part I


I took kindly to woodworking. In fact, I was brought up in the woods until I was seven years of age. During these first seven years of my life I saw my father only occasionally, for he was a cabinetmaker by trade and worked in a smart little town about sixty miles distant from our forest farm and came home after intervals of about six weeks to remain with us but a day or two. When I was about seven years old my mother died and the remainder of the family father took with him to the town where he worked.

I went to school, but had a chance to run in and out of the shop as I pleased, and just about as the child learns to speak his mother’s language by sights and sounds long before it is sent to school, so I learned a great deal about cabinetmaking long before I took any tools in my hand to actually learn the trade.
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More texture!

Chris’s recent post about texture reminded me of this Japanese bowl that I have:


The bowl is extremely light in weight, which leads me to think that it is made from kiri (Royal Paulownia, Paulownia tomentosa). The finish is urushi, and I believe that it is tamenuri, which is “natural” urushi, without any dyes or pigments added.

The bowl is turned, and the surface texture is very rough, with substantial tear-out and other “defects.”

A view of the inside reveals what looks to have been an all-out assault with a scraper.


Here’s a close-up of an area with a lot of tear-out:


I find the bowl interesting, in that it appears as if its primary purpose is to highlight the limitations of our tools. The only place where the bowl deviates from that purpose is in its base, which is turned perfectly flat and smooth, like any other bowl.

– Steve Schafer

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There is More than One Texture


Not everything should be as smooth as a nun’s stomach. While every surface of my work is finished with handplanes, that doesn’t mean it was a smoothing plane.

Cabinet backs and the undersides of everything are best finished with a jack plane, either across, diagonally or parallel to the grain. Not only does this speed you along and allow you to save your effort for the show surfaces, it is pleasant to touch.

The shallow scallops – even the woolly ones that plow across the grain – actually feel like something worth touching. Even a little bark down below is OK with me. On the interiors of cabinets and drawers that will get touched frequently, I finish with a jointer plane. This leaves wider and shallower scallops that almost anyone can feel if they look for them.

On the show surfaces, the even-shallower scallops left by my smoothing plane are almost imperceptible unless you catch the top in the right light or pass your hand lightly across the surface with the intent of finding them. They are mostly invisible to the touch, but they are there.


I’m fully capable of planing all surfaces to nearly dead-flat and then finish them with a sanding block. That’s a great surface for a highly reflective finish. And while a perfect and smooth finish would have been spectacular in 1769, it’s unavoidable, plastic and mundane now.

Today I finished my first 15th-century dining table for the “Furniture of Necessity,” and I figured that by leaving these toolmarks, I saved an entire day of labor. And I like the table better than if it were perfectly extruded from a wide-belt sander.

— Christopher Schwarz

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A New Book from Me (Kinda!)

t2793_500px_72dpiBefore I started writing woodworking books, I had a magazine reader ask me about my photography book. Photography book? What?

Yup. “Men Defined: Nudes,” which is still available at Amazon. That’s not my writing, I promise. If I were to write an erotic non-woodworking book it would be about goats.

It’s an odd experience to see your name on a book you didn’t write. And I had that same weird feeling when I saw “Classic American Furniture” by Christopher Schwarz advertised on

My first thought: Hey, you other Christopher Schwarz. Stop invading my topic. I’ve carefully steered clear of writing about the erotic world of men in black and white.

As it turns out, I did write this book. Kinda sorta.

Classic American Furniture” is a compilation of a lot of projects I built for the now-defunct Woodworking Magazine (yes, I miss it, too). In addition to my stuff, there also are a fair number of technique pieces and small projects from the other editors.

I finally got a copy of the book yesterday and spent some time paging through it. It’s actually a nice compilation of projects with a pared-back American aesthetic (and not a single nude person in sight). There’s Some Shaker and Arts & Crafts pieces, of course. But also some simple back-country pieces that are unadorned and nicely proportioned.

If you never saw Woodworking Magazine, this book is a good introduction to it and the approach we took to building and finishing pieces.

I receive no royalties from this book, FYI. And I’m not an affiliate with ShopWoodworking (or anyone). So I have no financial interest in it. Check it out here. It’s on sale for abou $20.

— Christopher Schwarz


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You Keep Using that Word. I Don’t Think it Means What You Think it Means


In North America, we are too cavalier in using the word “master” to describe an artisan. Many times, it’s simply BS advertising copy when a publisher tries to puff up one of its authors: “Mr. Shinkle Gymnosperm is a master cabinetmaker.”

I think we can pretty much ignore that as over-heated hyperbole. But when I see a woodworker describe himself or herself as a “master carpenter,” “master turner” or “master carver” I have one reaction.

Show me your papers.

Today I stopped by Frieda’s Desserts to get some croissants after picking up a plank of hard maple. I’ve eaten at a lot of bakeries; Frieda’s is the best I’ve had in North America. It’s run by Armin Hack, a tremendous and friendly German baker. His “Meisterbrief” – or master’s certificate – hangs above the cash register for all to inspect.

He earned his certificate in konditoren-handwerk – confections – on 23 Jan. 1986.

As I said above, his pastry is amazing, but the paper does not make it so.

The term “master” in Germany and many other European countries means you have studied a curriculum for several years in both your craft and in business. You have passed a series of official state-sanctioned tests and are therefore permitted to set up shop and sell your wares. There are also obligations that come with the title – you must be willing to teach journeymen and apprentices what you know.

The certificate typically applies to an area of the craft that is quite narrow. For example, I have met many German joiners who know nothing about carving or turning. Those are other crafts. So applying the term “master woodworker,” to someone who has mastered all aspects of the craft is also a bit odd to my ears.

Plus in North America, the terms such as “apprentices,” “journeymen” and “master” never really had much weight here. While there were attempts to set up a formal European system here, they failed for the most part. There was simply too much work and not enough bodies.

We’re Americans. We don’t use those terms.

Yes, I know that some of our trade unions have a formal system that mimics the European system. They have titles. They also have coursework, a series of tests and – in the end – a piece of paper you receive that means something.

So the next time you see that term “master” before someone’s name or their trade, ask to see their “Meisterbrief.” It should be right above the cash register.

— Christopher Schwarz

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The Journeyman


The Journeyman Smith

What is a journeyman smith?

The first time that I remember hearing the term journeyman applied to any particular trade was about twenty-nine years ago, at which time I was quite a youth. The word was employed at the end of every verse of a somewhat lengthy song, called the “Journeyman Tailor.” The real meaning of the word, or why it was applied to trades, became to me a vast and not over lucid problem.

Feeling anxious to learn its exact meaning, I applied to my maternal author for a definition of the term. After receiving the answer, that it applied to all tradesmen or mechanics that had finished their apprenticeship, I felt as much enlightened as before.

The word journey, I knew, related to travel; the combination only was a puzzle. How a carpenter, or smith, or tailor, with steady employment and a permanent domicil, should be styled or called a traveling mechanic, was more than my comprehension could fathom. To arrive at the solution of this problem was ever my great aim. Numberless times have I asked of master mechanics its true meaning, and in the end invariably found myself no wiser than before.
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