Finishing Lies


  1. Covers in one coat
  2. Protects from inside the wood
  3. Stain and polyurethane in one step
  4. No harsh fumes – strips multiple layers
  5. Danish Oil (ask the Danes about this finish)
  6. Spar varnish – exceptional protection from sunlight, rain & moisture
  7. You must finish both sides of a panel
  8. Perfect results every time
  9. No-fail finish
  10. No need to sand between coats.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Master of Nothing


One of the common criticisms I hear of North American woodworkers is that we try to do so many things – casework, carving, veneering, chairmaking, turning – that we never become good at any one of those things.

There’s truth to the criticism. When I work side-by-side with traditionally trained European woodworkers, they beat the pants off me (speed-wise). German, English and Swiss joiners can cut dovetails and assemble casework much faster than I can.

I do get a small measure of revenge when I pick up a turning tool without a second thought to make a leg or knob. Most of them have never touched a lathe, worked with green timber, dealt with compound-angle wet/dry chair joints or carved even a simple detail.

Maybe it’s the frontier blood in our veins or the fact that our society never embraced the European apprentice system for woodworking. There was just too much work to do, not enough people to do it and not enough time to train people in that manner. Heck, most North Americans I know are one or two generations removed from our subsistence farming ancestors.

At times I wish our history was different. I covet the pure European skill when I watch people from the French schools, for example, make astonishing chairs with ease. Or when I watch German carvers at work on restoring a cathedral. Or English joiners making ridiculous dovetails. I feel inferior, as if I’ve spent my entire adult life working at the craft and haven’t really gotten anywhere.

And this is the part of the writing arc where I am supposed to say: But we’re great! We get to do so many different things! And blah blah freedom #Murica.

That’s not how I resolve this conflict in my mind. I turn to the parable of the scorpion and the frog, made famous in the movie “The Crying Game.”

A scorpion asks a frog to carry him across the river. But the frog queries: “How do I know you won’t sting me?”

The scorpion replies: “Because if I do, we’ll both die.”

Satisfied, the frog allows the scorpion to hop on his back. Halfway across the river, the scorpion stings the frog. And before they both drown, the frog asks: “Why?”

“It’s in my nature,” replies the scorpion.

Sometimes I ponder my 11-year-old self. Would I have signed onto a seven-year apprenticeship at a technical academy if it were offered? It’s an unanswerable, navel-gazing question, and so I pick up a saw and get back to cutting some tenons. And so should you.

— Christopher Schwarz

Posted in Personal Favorites, Uncategorized | 22 Comments

Classic Orders – An Exercise


Fig. 2.4.1. The classic orders dominated pre-20th-century furniture-design books. Above is shown a Corinthian capital.

This is an excerpt from “By Hand and Eye”  by Geo. R. Walker and Jim Tolpin. 

The lifeblood of craft has always depended on knowledge passing from one generation to the next, and I struggle finding words to convey the importance that classic orders played. This is an opportunity to walk in the footsteps of thousands of artisans gone before you, a chance to learn things that cannot be put into words, because this leads into a room in your imagination. The classic orders aren’t about memorizing some nifty proportional recipes. In fact, it’s the furthest thing from recipes. It’s about learning to see. The physical act of drawing challenges the mind to reshuffle and see things anew. Try not to approach this like you’re learning a task or skill; instead just immerse yourself in this rite of passage. Have some fun with it, and let the ancients knock down the cobwebs and pry open some windows in some long-forgotten play space in your imagination.


Fig. 2.4.2. You’ll need a sharp pencil, an eraser, several dividers, a straightedge and a couple fine-point markers to make your pencil lines permanent at the final step.

Grab a clean pine board about 8″ wide and 3′ long for a canvas. If (when) you botch the first attempt, simply plane or sand to reveal a new surface for another go. Pencil in all your lines then, after the entire drawing is complete, go back over your pencil lines with a marker. Think of it like a maze or a puzzle that will change the way you think and make new connections in your imagination. I encourage you, as always, to do this with pencil and not a computer to make sure you get the most direct connection between the portal of your hand and inner eye.

A word about scale. Because you will be drawing a relatively small image, some of the details will be too awkward to draw with a compass. For elements such as moulding profiles or the finer points on the capital, draw a separate detail sketch in larger format with a compass. Once you have completed the larger sketch, go back and hand sketch those details in. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by how well you can freehand sketch once you have the boundary of the form established and little practice on the larger detail drawings. This has real value in furniture design, also. For example, a volute is a delightful form to work into a design, yet because of scale, almost always requires drawing freehand. Generating a volute with a compass will inform your freehand attempts. Also because of scale, don’t attempt to use geometry to draw the entasis (slight convex bulging) on the upper two thirds of the column, just draw a straight taper.

In this drawing exercise you will render a Roman Doric order based on James Gibbs’ “Rules for Drawing the Several Parts of Architecture” (circa 1732). There are five orders – Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite – that exist in an almost endless number of versions and varieties to draw and explore.


Fig. 2.4.3. The moulding at the top of this base is a proportional extension of the base below it. The half-circle indicates that it’sone-third of the base’s height. The quarter-arc shows the linkage between the height of the moulding and the projection of the base.

A few points about communicating proportions using arcs. One common way to show how a proportion relates to another element is to use a half-circle or quarter-circle to indicate a connection. Typically, a half-circle extends a mirror image proportion along the same line. Conversely, a quarter-circle mirrors a proportion from one element to an adjacent element but from horizontal to vertical (or vice versa).

Start by organizing the form (Doric order) into its major vertical parts: the beginning, middle and ending, better known as pedestal, column and entablature. Draw a vertical centerline and establish the top and bottom of your drawing with a pair of horizontal lines, leaving yourself a few inches of margin above and below. Use dividers to step off these major elements and indicate their boundaries with horizontal lines. Once you establish the height of the middle (column) you can determine the module. In the case of the Doric, divide the column height into eight equal parts. That’s the diameter of the shaft near the base and also, therefore, your module. Now – and this is important – draw a small module key in the space below your drawing. Many of the elements that follow will be simple divisions of the module, for example, the column-base height is a one-half module, so having this key handy will speed up the drawing process. To create a key, draw a horizontal line and mark off two modules end-to-end using vertical hash marks to highlight them. Then use your dividers and, through trial and error, step off one module into halves, quarters and eighths. Then step off the second module into thirds, sixths and 12ths.


Fig. 2.4.4. On this Doric order the diameter of the column at the base is the module. That is, one eigth the overall height of the column. Once you find the module, step off a key with simple divisions of the module. You can then use the key to quickly reset your dividers as the drawing progresses.

Start with the largest divisions and work down to the smaller details. Once you have established the overall column height and diameter of the shaft at the base, there are a couple reference lines to pencil in. Note that the column height is divided into thirds and that the lower third’s shaft diameter remains constant while the upper two-thirds curve in gradually – an effect the Greeks called entasis. (As I mentioned earlier, however, at this scale you may want to just render the entasis as a slight taper rather than as a curve.) Also note the use of reference lines: One extends the outside diameter of the shaft above the column while a second extends the outside of the column base below into the pedestal. These lines allow you to step off the horizontal projection of elements in the pedestal and entablature.

Once you’ve established the overall vertical organization, draw in the details of the pedestal. Start by stepping off the vertical organization and then establish the horizontal projection for each part. Most are a function of the module or pulled from an adjacent proportion. Move up to the column and then the entablature.

For certain, you will take a wrong turn or two and have to backtrack and rethink it. It’s all part of learning to see proportionally. When your drawing is completed, you’ll not only have some studies to hang on the shop wall, but you’ll also have created an important mile marker on your journey to becoming an artisan designer.

Meghan Bates

Posted in By Hand & Eye, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Quick Update on Books & Prints

perdixWhen the messages to start to get a little on the “Where’s my book you Nigerian scammer?” side, it’s time to do an update on the blog.

Roman Workbenches
The plan was to mail this book in early April. Like all complicated projects, we hit a couple snags (a premature baby, wrong grain direction on the end sheets, toads). The bindery is assembling the book now and it should be finished any day now. Then it will be trucked to Indianapolis, boxed and mailed. Let’s say early May.

Copperplate Prints
Briony Morrow-Cribbs, the copperplate artist, has all the raw materials and orders from customers. Kara has ordered the special packing materials and backing boards to protect the prints in transit. And Ohio Book is making the boxes for those of you who ordered an entire set. We hope the process – excepting a toad storm – will take a month.

Deluxe Roubo on Furniture
Designer Wesley Tanner and I reviewed the color proofs for the book yesterday and found only a few images that needed corrections by the printer. We’re still on track for a June release. But, as always, this is a complex project using companies all over the map. It’s more likely things will go wrong than right.

‘Carve the Acanthus’ by Mary May
Meghan Bates is designing the book and is working on chapter 10. I suspect the book is giving her fits (though she won’t say so) because there are an enormous number of photos and drawings. At this rate, the book should be out in August or September.

As always, thanks for your patience. We try to set realistic timelines, but manufacturing things is difficult. If you ever change your mind on a book that you’ve pre-ordered, simply send a message to and we will immediately cancel your order and cheerfully refund your money. No questions asked.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Jonathan Fisher: Above the Fatigues of Earth


When I sent the first draft of the Jonathan Fisher manuscript to Chris a couple weeks ago, it was an incredible relief. It felt surreal to click “send” on that email after four long years of digging into this man’s life and work. Like every dedicated author, I’ve poured my life into this research and have become so invested in it that everything I do seems to relate back to it. By this point in the project, my wife and children are tiring of the dinner conversations about offset totes, matching dado widths and examining fore plane camber.


But I can’t shut up about it. Fisher is the ultimate case study of pre-industrial craftsmanship and examining his tools, furniture and journal entries in the context of his house has been nothing short of revolutionary to my shop time. It has opened my eyes to the way these artisans were able to make use of a surprisingly small tool kit to accomplish a large variety of forms. I’ve learned from Fisher how to work efficiently with hand tools and how to prioritize my time and energy at the bench. If you already know my writing, this theme will be familiar. In fact, it was the research for this book that was the seed for Mortise & Tenon Magazine.


What I’ve tried to do in this book is present the story of how furniture making fit into Fisher’s early 19th-century frontier life. The thing is, we not only have the tools and furniture to study, but we have access to his most candid moments in his letters and journal entries. We get to see what made him tick – something almost never possible for a pre-industrial artisan. So, even though this book is all about Fisher’s tools and furniture, I’ve decided to weave the context of his life into each chapter. Seeing this context deepens and enriches our understanding of his work.


Jonathan Fisher’s life was far from easy. He dealt with migraine headaches, stomach pains, diarrhea and serious injuries from manual labor on a regular basis. Even in the midst of debilitating physical pain, Fisher carried on with the work at hand. On March 17, 1826, his journal reads, “High N.W. scattering clouds, cold. From 9 A.M. ‘till about 5 P.M. exercised with earache, some of the time severely. Tried first camphor on wool, then hot tobacco smoke, then had several drops of West Indian Rum dropped in. This in the first trial gave a little relief; in the second removed the severity of the pain. At intervals through the day planed out stuff for a common ruler, a pair of parallel rulers and modern dividers, finished the latter. A part of the time walked the room in great pain. It is easy to bear pain when we do not feel it, but when it is acute, then to bear it with patience is something.”


Unlike some other artisans in his day, Fisher viewed his time in his shop as a relief from the pressures of life. Fisher’s son, Josiah, recalled of his father, “All of his amusements (if they could be called such) and all his relaxations from study were of such a nature as to leave him free, in great measure, for those trains of thought which lifted him above the fatigues of earth. He could resort to the artist’s pencil and forget all of his perplexities… or indulge his mechanical taste at his bench or lathe. Thus, with his own hands, he made all the frames, sash, doors and wainscoting of his dwelling.” He found great satisfaction in working with his hands. On one occasion he wrote, “While my hands were occupied in needful labor, I was led to exclaim in heart, hands, what a blessing they are when employed aright.”

Jonathan Fisher was a fascinating artisan. I can’t wait to share this research with you. Because I’ve been focused on finishing the manuscript, I haven’t been able to blog much about it until now. If you’re curious, though, I have been leaking tidbits on Instagram here.


The past couple weeks, I’ve been sorting through thousands of photographs and writing captions. Even though having the photos helped guide the manuscript, I discovered during the writing process that sometimes I still didn’t have the exact shot I needed. Narayan Nayar warned me about this. Fortunately, I still have my camera and my key to the house so capturing what I need is not a problem.

I have just about all the photographs selected and am now finishing up their captions. After that, I’ll polish off Chris’ minor re-write recommendations. Good progress has been made and I expect to hand it off to Chris for his final edit by the end of the month.

— Joshua Klein, Mortise & Tenon Magazine

Posted in Hands Employed Aright | 12 Comments

I am a Welshman


“I am a Welshman, and I am influenced in the chairs I make, or some of them, by old Welsh chairs. Irish chairs are as different as is possible, so are Scottish chairs. Brittany is Celtic. The people of Brittany, Cornwall and Wales speak a language which has little relation to the Irish or Scots Gaelic. Celtic (with a hard C) is difficult to define, but it is a fashionable ‘buzz’ word, as was heritage a year or two back…. I would forbid the word Celtic to be applied to my work, it is Welsh. Welsh.”

— John Brown in a letter to Drew Langsner at Country Workshops, Jan. 3, 1995

Posted in John Brown Book, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

‘Anarchist’s Tool Chest’ Back in Black

ATC_SquareWe’ve just ordered our ninth (!!) printing of “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” and will return to the black cloth cover. The red cover was a one-time thing for the fifth anniversary of the book’s release.

It might also please/vex you to know that I am working on the third installment of the “Anarchist” woodworking series. Some rejected titles: “The Anarchist’s Moist Lederhosen,” “Pluck Your Magic Twanger, Froggy” and “Fully Orbed Spheres of Creativity That will Bring Sanity and Wellbeing Back to Make Contented Those Living with the Sense of Lostness.”

The winning title will remain a secret for a while.

— Christopher Schwarz

Posted in The Anarchist's Tool Chest, Uncategorized | 19 Comments