If you’ve read our gift guide before, you can skip this preamble. There’s nothing new here.
The Anarchist’s Gift Guide is a small attempt to focus on the little things – mostly inexpensive – that make life in the workshop a little easier. It’s stuff your kids can afford to give you for Christmas and that you will be glad to receive.
Most gift guides are utter s&$e. A company pays some boob to squawk that he LOVES a bunch of silicone-covered tools (which the company ordered too many of from China). The company hopes to ensnare your spouse when he or she Googles “gifts for woodworkers.”
Next, your spouse watches a video of boob-boy offering up chisels with a silicone glue brush on one end. “It tickles!” And then you receive a full set of those lovely tools on Christmas morning.
Our gift guide doesn’t give a crap about selling anything. We bought these items for ourselves, and we used them. We didn’t contact the manufacturers to tell them “Ooooh – you’re in the gift guide!” We don’t have affiliate links or make money on this guide. None. I do it only because… damn, I’ve forgotten why I do it. Just inertia, I guess.
If you have complaints about the gift guide, let us know and we’ll offer you a full refund for your gift guide subscription (and you can keep the sanding sponge and drilling chart). So without further grumpiness, I offer you our 2021 Anarchist’s Gift Guide.
Day 1: Merterks Green Laser
We use a laser level for a lot of things related to both woodworking and home improvement. I’ve burned through a lot of laser levels in my career. Most of the reasonably priced ones are so dim they are three Smurfs short of a village.
Then one day a fellow chairmaker suggested I try a green laser level (instead of classic red). I did, and it made a huge difference.
Our workshop is filled with daylight, so lasers have a hard time competing against the sun coming in from the huge east- and south-facing windows. But even in full sun on a July day, the green laser is easy to see – even for an old man like myself.
The laser we use is a Merterks, which we bought from Amazon. I looked all over town for one locally, but couldn’t find a decent green laser for less than $100. So you win this one, Amazon. (Yes, you can find this tool via sketchy retailers.) Other similar laser levels include this one, this one and this one. (The message here is to spend less than $50, get a green one and make sure the self-leveling mechanism locks.)
This laser on the Merterks is bright. So bright. Even from 20 feet away the light is crisp.
The Merterks has far more features than you need for chairmaking. But I haven’t found a simpler laser for less money. All in all, it’s more durable than other lasers I’ve used, and it comes with a protective carrying case, which will slide onto any belt and complete any outfit. So it’s a sartorial win.
We will kick off the Anarchist Gift Guide on Thursday, Oct. 21 (tomorrow!). That’s a little earlier than usual, but the world is off its axis, and we want to give you plenty of time to get your gifts sorted for the holidays. Plus, this will be our biggest gift guide yet.
If you aren’t familiar with the gift guide, it has been a yearly tradition here for about a decade. It’s mostly little things that we find useful in the shop. It’s not sponsored and not affiliated. It doesn’t plug or promote our products. We do it because we love you (even you, John Cashman).
Hey – That Feels… Almost Normal
It was a relief to receive Nancy R. Hiller’s “Shop Tails: The Animals Who Help Us Make Things Work” from the printing plant in Tennessee. It took only 10 weeks to get it printed. That turnaround time is not like the old days when five weeks was the norm. But it’s way better than some other recent titles. (“The Stick Chair Book” is coming up on 17 weeks in gestation.)
So if you are looking for Lost Art Press books as gifts, here are four quick updates.
“The Stick Chair Book” should be shipping the second week of November. Fingers crossed.
“The Handcrafted Life of Dick Proenneke” is also scheduled to ship about that same time.
We are running dangerously low on stock of “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest.” The cotton cloth we need for the cover is in limbo. If you need this book for a gift, don’t hem. And don’t haw.
With publishing mostly on the ropes, Megan and I have been full-time furniture makers and tool designers during the last few months. We’ve been sending a lot of furniture out the door lately, but that doesn’t help you with Christmas (unless you ordered a chair or a tool chest from us).
The good news is that we should have Crucible Planing Stops in stock before Christmas. These ductile iron bench accessories should be less than $50 and will be super easy to install (drill a 5/8” hole in the movable block; drive the stop in; done).
We have also been working on two new tools that are now in the prototype stage. One is a sliding bevel that holds its setting better than any tool I’ve ever used. And the second is a handy waist apron that is great for woodworking (and will feature a cool vintage-y screen print). Both of these new tools will launch in early 2022.
And by then I hope things will get back to normal, and we’ll have some new titles to announce.
It sounds like hyperbole, but “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” (ATC) has changed my life twice – not as much as it changed Christopher Schwarz’s and John Hoffman’s – but it has been integral to my discovering what I love to do, and allowing me to (bonus!) make a living from it.
I vividly recall copy editing ATC before it was first released. I was managing editor of Popular Woodworking Magazine at the time, and it was during a Lie-Nielsen Hand Tool Event at our office and shop, April 16-17, 2011, two days before the book had to go to the printer. I did a shit job of copy editing. There were tons of people around and it was loud – plus I was either interrupted every 10 minutes or so, or I got up to check out a handplane, saw, marking knife, marking gauge …. If you have that wheat-colored first edition, please accept my apologies for the many missed items (thankfully, Chris has long forgiven me). On the other hand, congrats: You have a collector’s item; the book is now in its 13th printing, and celebrated its 10th anniversary this summer.
It’s the book that allowed Chris – less than two months later – to announce he was leaving his job as editor of Popular Woodworking Magazine (PWM); Lost Art Press would become his full-time job (along with teaching as many as three classes every month, writing for PWM as a contributing editor, building furniture on commission…it exhausts me to look at his summer 2011 schedule).
So the first way ATC changed my life was that I was no longer working every day with a guy I greatly admired, and who had taught me most of what I knew about hand-tool woodworking. I lost my lunch buddy – a guy who made me love woodworking enough to rethink my long-term goal to teach college-level Shakespeare. It wasn’t as much fun without him. And it turned into a lot less fun when I got his former job in December of 2012, and no longer had much time for woodworking thanks to employee reviews, EBITDA discussions, management meetings, etc. It was certainly rewarding and I’m honored to have had that job for five years. But fun? Not so much.
When I got let go in December 2017, undergirding my fear was massive relief. I was too fearful to ever quit a corporate job with a steady paycheck and health insurance, no matter how many headaches I had by the end. My first call was to Chris, who took me to lunch and gave me a hangover. The day after, I started moving my stuff into his shop, and scheduled some woodworking classes – among them, “Build The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” (I’m awfully glad Chris was tired of teaching it!). Chris’s success with that book (and others) afforded me a soft place to land, and saved me from ever again attending a corporate meeting that doesn’t occur with either a drink or fried chicken (or both) in hand. Thank you, Chris.
But even if it doesn’t get you a plate full of fried chicken, ATC is the book you should have if you’re interested in hand-tool woodworking, why we make things, or need a tool chest (or all three).
“‘The Anarchist’s Tool Chest’ is divided into three sections:
“1. A deep discussion of the 48 core tools that will help readers select a tool that is well-made – regardless of brand name or if it’s vintage or new. This book doesn’t deal with brands of tools. Instead it teaches you to evaluate a well-made tool, no matter when or where it was manufactured. There also is a list of the 24 “good-to-have” tools you can add to your kit once you have your core working set.
“2. A thorough discussion of tool chests, plus plans and step-by-step instructions for building one. The book shows you how to design a chest around your tools and how to perform all the common operations for building it. Plus, there are complete construction drawings for the chest I built for myself.
“3. There also is a brief dip into the philosophy of craft, and I gently make the case that all woodworkers are “aesthetic anarchists.” — Christopher Schwarz
Below is an excerpt from Chapter 1.
The Good Books
The funny thing is that it was my mad obsession with acquiring woodworking stuff that helped me find a balanced approach to the craft. You see, I became as obsessed with acquiring woodworking books as I was with the tools. I’ve always been a voracious reader, so consuming books on woodworking and tools was natural. (And add to that the fact that I was freelancing at the time as a contributing editor for the WoodWorkers’ Book Club newsletter. That job was a five-year-long force-fed diet of woodworking writing.)
Read enough modern woodworking books, and you might just want to gouge out your eyes with a melon baller. They are all so similar and shallow and filled with idiosyncratic information. I can’t tell you how many times I read the following phrase: “This might not be the right way to do this, but it works for me.”
Something inside my head made me wonder about that “right way” the author rejected. It just so happened that at about that same time I had a short phone conversation with Graham Blackburn, one of my woodworking heroes. I had a few of Blackburn’s books from the 1970s, and I knew he had a command of woodworking history. So I interviewed him about the origin of the word “jack” in “jack plane” for a short piece I was writing for the magazine.
We then started talking about saws.
During the conversation, Blackburn said I could find the answer to one of my questions in the book “Grimshaw on Saws.”
Huh? I replied.
I’ll never forget what he said next: “You don’t have a copy of Grimshaw, and you’re an editor at a woodworking magazine? Hmmm.”
I was ashamed. So ashamed that I went down to Cincinnati’s public library that weekend to check out Robert Grimshaw’s 1882 treatise on saws. It was sitting on the shelf next to a bunch of other old woodworking books I’d never heard of. I wondered which of those books were also “required reading” in Blackburn’s world. I checked out as many of those cloth-bound books as the library would let me. I went home. I started reading, and I haven’t stopped.
The things I learned from the old books were different than what I expected to learn. I actually expected the shop practices to be different – you know, they had different ways of cutting a mortise, a tenon and a dovetail. But really, not much has changed in the way that steel (usually) defeats wood.
While there are a wide variety of ways to perform every standard operation, the pre-Industrial craftsman didn’t seem to have secret tricks as much as he had lots of opportunities to practice and become swift. Instead, what surprised me was the small set of tools that were prescribed for a person who wanted to become a joiner or a cabinetmaker.
Joseph Moxon, the earliest English chronicler of woodworking, describes 44 kinds of tools necessary for joinery in “Mechanick Exercises” (1678). For some of these tools, you’d need several in different sizes (such as chisels), but for many of the tools that he described, a joiner would need only one (a workbench, axe, fore plane etc.).
Randle Holme’s “Academie of Armory” (Book III, 1688) has approximately 46 different joinery tools explained in his encyclopedia. An exact number is hard to pin down because some of the tools are discussed twice (for example, mallets, smoothing planes and hatchets) and some tools seem shared with the carpentry trade.
If we jump forward more than 150 years, not too much has changed. The list of tools required by the rural joiner in “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker” (1839) isn’t all that much different from the tool list described by Moxon and Holme. “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker” gives a significant description to about 40 tools used by a young apprentice during his climb to journeyman.
As the Industrial Revolution begins to crank out mass-manufactured tools, the basic list of tools recommended for basic joinery starts to expand. There are more kinds of boring bits available, new kinds of metallic planes (such as blocks, shoulders and routers), plus some new saws, including the coping saw.
By the 20th century, the basic list of tools for joiners stands at about 63, according to books by Charles Hayward, the traditionally trained dean of workshop writers. Still, when I looked at Hayward’s list it seemed rather paltry compared to what was in my shop. (See this book’s appendix for a comparison of these tool lists.)
At first, I attributed these short lists of essential tools to three things: • Everything in the pre-Industrial age would have been more expensive because it was made by hand. • The general level of economic prosperity was lower. • Technological innovation had yet to produce the fantastic new tools shown in the modern catalogs.
But all that was just denial kicking in.
Judging from the descriptions of the nature of work before mass production ruled the earth, there were two things going on that were related, but that are easy for moderns to miss. One, artisans didn’t require as many tools because the basic skill level was higher. Descriptions of hand work support this fully. (Don’t believe me? Read Moxon’s description of making an eight-sided frame in section 19. Try to build one yourself that way – I did – then let’s chat. If that doesn’t convince you, then read André Roubo’s descriptions of Boulle work – then go back to making woven stretchy potholders.)
Also, the structure of the economy in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries was different – it was still basically a pre-Capitalist culture. Large portions of the population were self-employed. Modern consumerism – for better or for worse – had yet to take hold.
To be sure, there were early craftsmen with huge tool sets. There are always going to be a few tool whores in the guild. (I’m looking at you, Duncan Phyfe.) But tool inventories and other published accounts indicate that the pre-Industrial woodworker could use fewer tools to make furniture that was equal to or better than what we make today.
But here’s the other thing that’s important: Their tools were different. To the uneducated eye, the tools of the 17th and 18th centuries look crude. But have you ever examined an 18th-century moulding plane that wasn’t dogmeat? I have. They are refined to a level that exceeds many modern tools. Everything extraneous has been taken away. Everything necessary is right where you need it and is easy to manipulate.
I have a few early tools, including one particular strapped hammer for the upholstery trade, and I simply cannot imagine how any aspect of the tool could be improved. It is utter simplicity, yet it has a graphic beauty that surpasses everything I’ve seen from the Victorians.
After reading enough accounts of early tool sets, it began to sink in that I didn’t need as many tools to build the furniture on my long to-do list. But then I found out that you can’t buy a chili dog without the bun.
Once the idea of a smaller tool set took hold in my brain, the logic and beauty of its surrounding pre-Industrial economy became as beautiful as my early strapped hammer.
When you examine the furniture record in person, you find almost endless examples of pieces of furniture that disobey the rules of wood movement – and yet have survived just fine.
I’m not here to tell you that wood movement does not exist – it does. But I think it’s important to know that you can get away with many minor sins without your furniture tearing itself apart. And the more furniture you study, the bigger the sins you can commit.
This week I got to study a table in Holland that definitely needs some time in the confessional booth. This chopping bench – used for cutting food to size in a kitchen – violates the cardinal rule of cross-grain construction. Yet it is still completely sound and ready for another 100 years of dismemberments.
What’s the sin? If it’s not obvious from the photos, the legs’ tenons pass through dovetailed battens and the benchtop. The benchtop and battens are oriented 90° to each other, and the top is about 22”-24” wide. The top should have split a little (or a lot). But the top is fine – just a little warped.
I have no idea how old the bench is. It has some fairly consistent machine marks on it that suggest it was made in the early 20th century. But this form is old. The earliest illustrated example I know of is from the 11th-century “Tacuinum Sanitatis.” And it can look quite modern – the form was the foundation for the staked worktable in “The Anarchist’s Design Book.”
The cross-grain construction used in this table is also found on thousands (millions?) of Brettstuhl, which are still made today. During the last week I’ve seen at least 100 of these suckers, and none have split.
This particular chopping bench is so charming that I hope to build one just like it for our newish kitchen. I have wanted to build a table for the center of the room, but a typical dining table would be too big. A chopping bench is just the right size for dumping our grocery bags, serving meals to family members and <insert joke about dismembering cats then retract it>.
And thanks to this particular table in Holland, I am ready for some serious sinning.
The illustration we used for the diestamp for “The Handcrafted Life of Dick Proenneke” is fitting in myriad ways, the most important being it was created by Elan Robinson.
In 2000, Elan, who was 11 years old at the time, traveled with Monroe to Dick’s cabin.
“I knew I was traveling with a young and impressionable child and I wanted to create a meaningful experience in everything we did,” Monroe says.
By this time Dick had left his cabin to live with his brother in California. The National Park Service had contacted Monroe to restore the roofs on Dick’s cabin and woodshed.
“I wanted Elan to understand that their dad would do this work exactly as Dick’s original work, allowing future visitors to see Dick’s life and craft as it was, with as few changes as possible,” Monroe says. “I wanted Elan to understand the importance I placed on the impressive craftsmanship of the Civilian Conservation Corporation workers during the Great Depression at Chiricahua National Monument where my father worked during my youth.”
Meeting Dick Proenneke
While Elan would spend many summers between elementary school and college graduation with their father at Dick’s cabin, that first summer was particularly memorable.
“The cabin and the surrounding trails were like a wonderland for a kid my age,” Elan says. “Dick never threw anything away, and I remember being really impressed by the stacks and stacks of empty ink jars stashed in Dick’s outhouse. I wanted to write and document my time there like he did. My journal from that first year is funny to read now because of how much I complained about missing my friends, craving different foods, being bitten by mosquitoes, and doing manual tasks like carrying water or putting oakum between the cabin logs to keep the cold out. My memories of that first summer are much more positive than my journal entries!”
Dick made his final visit to his cabin in 2000.
“I was thrilled that Elan would meet him,” Monroe says.
Dick and Monroe exchanged many letters after their first meeting in 1982, and Monroe says Dick always included Elan in his letters. Elan and Dick meeting in person for the first time was a significant moment for both Elan and Monroe. And they were thrilled to accompany Dick on the float plane that took him back to the National Park headquarters where he stayed a few days with Leon Alsworth.
“I only met Dick one time, for just an hour or so, when he visited his cabin for the last time,” Elan says. “I wish I had a better memory of what that was like. But I have a photo, and in my journal from that first summer my pre-teen complaining is interrupted with my entries about how excited I was to meet him. I feel pretty honored to have been there that day.”
On Hikes and Observation
Monroe spent 19 summers at Twin Looks and says many of the more memorable moments centered around the camping trips and hikes he took with Elan around Twin Lakes. They would regularly see dall sheep, brown bear, moose and caribou. Together, Monroe and Elan observed the behaviors of these animals, and Elan spent a significant amount of time sketching them.
Monroe remembers one hike that began with the two of them kayaking from Dick’s cabin 10 miles west before embarking on the hike.
“That night a wind came up so fierce that our tent flattened to the shape of our sleeping bags,” Monroe says. “Since sleep was impossible I opened the tent zipper at 2 a.m. to look out in the orange glow of the ‘midnight sun’ below the northern horizon. Elan set the mood by springing forth with, ‘Oh! What a Beautiful Morning’ as we both gripped our nylon tent before it blew away.”
One summer, Elan, Monroe and Monroe’s wife, K. Schubeck, spent nine days hiking a loop, beginning at Dick’s cabin and then moving west, around the Volcanic Mountains and into Big Valley through Low Pass and back to Dick’s – about 30-plus miles. Early in the trip Elan spotted a fox den that would be a significant site in the course of K. and Monroe’s wildlife observations over the next 15 years.
“We spent several hours sitting in the rain watching one red kit and three black color phase kits fight and play, including a dramatic display of kit competition when the vixen brought in a dead ground squirrel,” Monroe says. “Later on this trip Elan sat motionless next to me as a lone wolf trotted toward us. We watched as the wolf chased, lost, and then caught and gulped a ground squirrel.”
Most children have memories of sitting quietly and listening to adults who don’t realize they’re being so astutely observed. Elan vividly remembers a time when a number of folks from Port Alsworth were visiting Twin Lakes.
“They had all come over to Spike’s Cabin and were sitting in folding chairs in the tight space, talking about Dick, sharing memories, and even arguing about what Dick had thought or felt about this or that,” Elan says. “I was watching all of this from under the bug net on the top bunk. I think I was too young to take part in the conversation, but not too young to be impressed by the intensity everyone was expressing around their memories of Dick, and their strong feelings around his legacy. At school, we had been talking about heroes and legends, and about how stories around real people grow and transform as they are told and retold, and I was aware that I was watching that happen.”
“I did a lot of drawing out at Twin Lakes over the summers I spent there,” Elan says. “I recently dug up my journal from my first visit there, when I turned 12, and it’s full of drawings of animals, scenery and little scenes from our everyday life that summer.”
Monroe remembers an 11-day hike he and Elan took across the lake from Dick’s cabin over the mountains and west to Sheep Lick mountain. They watched caribou, dall sheep, brown bears, black bears and a wolverine, and they even found two fox dens.
“Their journal on that hike included many illustrations including flowers, plants, the skull cap of a young caribou left at one of the fox dens when the fox den had been used by wolves years earlier, the partial skull of duck that the foxes had not bitten apart and an illustration of Dick’s cabin,” Monroe says. “Each time I look at this journal I am impressed with Elan’s art and the skill in creating a written narrative that holds my attention whenever I read it.”
One year Elan kept a nature journal as an independent study project for high school credit.
“I was really interested in botany at the time (I still am) and was really inspired by some of the detailed botanical drawings in the field guides we had at the cabin,” Elan says. “I learned from that summer that sketching the plants we found in detail was a really good way to commit the characteristics of each plant to memory.”
Monroe says Elan drew many illustrations of the Alaskan plants around Dick’s cabin, not only the physical plant but also how the Alaskan Native Peoples use the plants.
“After an injury to K.’s hip, Elan made a poultice of wormwood to relieve the pain and lessen the swelling,” Monroe says. “I was delighted with Elan’s interest and encouraged their efforts as an artist.”
Elan says they have had an on-and-off relationship with illustrating for most of their life.
“I drew a lot in elementary and middle school, but got a little more serious about it in high school,” Elan says. “I really liked the fine lines in the work of M.C. Escher and the moody inkwork of Edward Gorey, and I consumed any manga and anime I could get my hands on.”
Like many artists, there have been times that Elan has struggled with perfectionism.
“I’ve definitely had periods where that gets in the way of me being able to just have fun making art,” Elan says. “I got back into it again about five years ago when I was going through a really rough time with my mental health. I started buying cheap notebooks and drawing with ballpoint pen; the paper meant I didn’t feel so bad about ‘wasting’ nice paper on a drawing I wasn’t completely happy with, and the pen meant I couldn’t spend hours drawing, erasing and redrawing like I tended to do with pencil. I was doing it to try to express some of the stuff I was going through, but couldn’t express with words. I got to where I was drawing every day, often multiple times a day, without thinking at all about the final result, just about how it made me feel. As time went by, when I went back to things I’d drawn a year ago, I was surprised by not just how much I’d ‘improved,’ but how much I’d started to embrace my own style and feel confident about being able to produce something kind of consistent. I guess I needed to let go of meeting some standard of quality in order to feel more comfortable.”
Partnering Together for this Book
Elan says their dad’s work has been a huge influence in their work in the creative field.
“I’ve always wanted to be like my dad when I grew up (again, I still do),” Elan says. “I sometimes wish I had made more of an effort to learn woodworking from him, but even though my carpentry skills pretty much end with tightening screws and assembling IKEA furniture, I’m positive that growing up with my dad and around his artist and craftspeople friends meant that I always felt very supported and encouraged in all of my creative pursuits. I also think I learned a lot from my dad when it comes to attention to detail, and that shows up in the subjects I’m most interested in and the way I like to draw.”
These days Elan works as the community engagement operations manager at Pride Foundation, an LGBTQ+ community foundation supporting transformational work in five states in the Northwest, including Alaska.
“Graphic design has become an increasingly significant part of my role, and I do occasionally get to contribute illustrations to a design project,” Elan says. “I’m really lucky to have a day job that I feel passionate about and where my passions are supported. Outside of work, I write zines, including The Queer Language of Flowers, and occasionally do freelance illustration. I feel like I have a lot of learning to do still as an artist, but it’s been really fun and validating to find more outlets for my work in recent years.”
(You can find Elan’s work online here and on Instagram here.)
As a child and teenager, Elan says they were a little intimidated by the level of detail at Dick’s cabin.
“I tried to draw some of the objects around the cabin, and once spent hours trying to draw the cabin, and although I was pretty happy with how it came out, I knew it wasn’t accurate – I had trouble getting the number of logs and the other proportions right.”
So Elan was excited to revisit Dick’s cabin for their father’s book many years later.
Monroe says having Elan’s art as the cover for his book is deeply meaningful in that it symbolizes Elan’s presence in his care of Dick Proenneke’s legacy.
“It’s really special to me to be able to be a part of this book,” Elan says. “I think that the time I got to spend at Twin Lakes has had a big influence on me – on my relationship with craft, with nature, and with myself and my own sense of what I’m capable of accomplishing, so being a part of the ongoing legacy of Dick Proenneke is meaningful to me personally in that way. More than that, though, contributing an illustration to a book that I know my dad poured so much of himself into, and that I really believe only he could have written, makes me feel so proud.”
“The Handcrafted Life of Dick Proenneke” should ship before the year’s end.