“Given the teeming riches of the whole earth to play with, brought to us by the modern enterprise of science and commerce, we tend to leave neglected the possibilities of our own hands and brains. It is so easy not to use them when so much is done for us. But the more we develop our own powers of doing and creating, of training our hands and our minds, the more sturdily do we set our faces against being mere ciphers and not men.
“We may not have a success that can be measured in terms of money, but we shall find our own fulfillment in terms of living.”
— The Woodworker, Chips from the Chisel, 1937, page 255
Having tools does not make you an anarchist. It’s what you do with those tools that is the proof.
I want to warn you before you read another word, this blog entry is not specifically about woodworking. I hesitate to even write it. But I feel the need to explain myself a bit, and I promise to keep it brief. I also promise that I won’t stray into these waters much in the future.
There are many flavors of anarchists out there. My flavor is Individualistic Anarchism, specifically “aesthetic anarchism.” What does that mean to me?
I intensely dislike large institutions: governments, religious institutions and large corporations. But it would be an error to say I am not political, spiritual or capitalistic. It is my belief that institutions are the cause of most problems – not the solution.
I dislike many laws – gun laws, drug laws, sex laws to name a few. But mostly I dislike how laws are used to enslave us – they favor corporations over individuals, and the continual growth of government and its encroachment on our lives.
I don’t vote. I don’t go to church. I don’t employ people – and I never will. I view rent as theft. When I buy things, I always try to buy from individuals – the maker if possible. When I have to buy something manufactured, I buy from companies that aren’t exploiters. I buy Pointer jeans from Tennessee. My jacket was made by Schott in New Jersey. My wool sweater was knit in Ireland.
But most of all, I like to make the things I need. I do all our cooking, and every night (except pizza night) I cook dinner from scratch. We buy our meat from the butchers, the Finke family. The produce? The Finkes grow some of their own; the rest I try to buy from Findlay market or Loschavios. I like to keep everything very personal.
Making furniture for yourself and others is indeed a radical act. It removes that part of your life from the continuous cycle of purchasing, consuming and repurchasing. The Morris Chair I am sitting in will be the last easy chair I’ll ever need to build. And it was my hope when I wrote “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” that once you saw that this was true, it might seep into other areas of your life, like it has into mine. You might even quit your corporate job.
Which brings up money. Isn’t it difficult to walk away from a corporate job and a steady paycheck? Yeah, it’s like trying to force yourself to dive into Lake Michigan in February. But if Lucy and I can do it, I think many families can – if they are willing to eschew debt.
Lucy works only part-time as a writer, and I have just this silly little business – no trust fund here. How do we do it? We don’t have any debt. Zero dollars – zero cents. Once I realized how much I had to work to service our mortgage, student loans and car payments, we shifted every resource to pay off everything. In May 2008 I paid off our last debt – our mortgage. And that’s when anything became possible.
I am pleased to announce that Eleanor Underhill is making the drawings for the new book from Jennie Alexander and Peter Follansbee that is titled “Make a Joint Stool from a Tree.”
Eleanor is indeed the daughter of Roy Underhill – proud father — and the illustrator for her father’s latest book: “The Woodwright’s Guide.” It is Eleanor’s skilled hand that drafted all the illustrations in Roy’s latest book – my favorite, by the way. And one of the reasons I adore this book is that the illustrations harmonize with all the text.
So when we were choosing an illustrator for “Make a Joint Stool From a Tree,” Eleanor was the natural and obvious choice. We considered lots of other illustrators, but once Eleanor’s work was passed around, it was a done-deal.
She has been a joy to work with on these illustrations, which are remarkably challenging. Not only do they need to show the forms correctly, they also need to show the grain in a way that is not distracting and is accurate for riven oak stock.
So things have, at times, gotten weird. At Jennie’s suggestion, Peter sent Eleanor some stool parts in the mail, which always results in raised eyebrows from a postal carrier. And the discussions about the illustrations have devolved into an intense debate about medullary rays and how to draw them.
In any case, please welcome Eleanor to the team. And rest assured we are fast closing in on a press date for “Make a Stool from a Tree.” More details to come this week.
It’s almost impossible not to mention the name “John Brown” when you discuss anarchism and woodworking.
And yet, somehow I managed to do this.
John was the author of a column in the British magazine Good Woodworking in the 1990s that was titled “The John Brown Column” and later “The Anarchist Woodworker.”
When I was managing editor at Popular Woodworking in the late 1990s, I read John’s columns every month. The logo of the column – a guy holding a lit bomb – was arresting. John himself was intent on sticking it to the woodworking establishment, and he shunned machinery in favor of hand tools at every turn, which is how he built his bench, shop and the Welsh Stick chairs he sold.
When I first read John’s columns, I was still deeply in love with my table saw, planer, jointer and router. But his Welsh Stick chairs absolutely blew my mind. Since the moment I saw them, I became obsessed with building chairs that looked as masculine and animalistic as his.
In the late 1990s, John wasn’t teaching classes in the United States anymore, so I sought out David Fleming in Cobden, Ontario, to teach me about the Welsh Stick form during a week-long class. Then I took a second week-long class with Don Weber to refine my skills and learn new techniques in building the Welsh Stick form.
John’s book, “Welsh Stick Chairs,” is one of my prize possessions, and I hope someday to have his eye for form when it comes to building Welsh Stick chairs. “Chairman Brown,” as his fans called him, is part of every chairmaking operation I know.
But there was more to John Brown than just a chairmaker.
His column in Good Woodworking was a diary at times. He sought to rebuild a new life as a hand craftsman in a machine-based society. He built and outfitted his shop, and the entire process was covered in the pages of Good Woodworking. He advocated using fewer tools and both eschewed and ridiculed machinery (and turners, by the by).
The last time I read John’s columns was in 2004 and 2006 as I was assembling a data base of quotations for Woodworking Magazine, which I was editing. After 2006, I stowed my photocopies of his columns in my shop cabinet, where they sit until today.
Why? When I’m writing any book, I refuse to read books by other authors, famous or obscure. It’s a painful choice because I love to read (I’m not writing right now so I’ve got three novels on my Kindle). But I know how easy it is to be influenced by clever writers. So I try to sequester my brain as much as possible.
So here’s the painful part.
This week, Brown’s editor, Nick Gibbs, mentioned that he was surprised that I didn’t mention John Brown anywhere in “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest.” To be honest, I’m surprised as well. John was the first person I know of who married the word “anarchist” with “woodworking.” And that stroke of genius either planted seeds in my brain or fertilized them when I wrote my book.
But I can honestly say that I have no idea if John Brown’s version of anarchy matches mine. I kinda doubt it – anarchists are a fractious bunch – and I haven’t looked at his columns for five years now. But I can say this: I am amending the dedication to the next printing of “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” to acknowledge my debt to the path that he blazed in the 1990s.
I don’t know if he would have liked my book – I rather doubt it – but he’s a part of it now.
Thanks to Nick – now the the editor of British Woodworking and Living Woods magazines – for pointing out my oversight. And I’d like to cast my vote for a reprinting of Chairman Brown’s columns in the coming years, whether I’m involved or not.
One of the things I enjoy about visiting my father in Charleston, S.C., is you are always walking distance from stunning furniture from all over the world and across several centuries.
I spent this morning collecting images, details and dimensions for my next book and stumbled into a store I’d never been in before. It specializes in furniture from the West and East Indies – specifically campaign furniture.
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved campaign furniture – my grandparents had several pieces – and I’ve always wondered why it wasn’t a popular style among woodworkers. It’s manly, simple, robust and (generally) well proportioned.
The store’s owner has been importing it into Charleston for about 15 years and showed me a lot of construction details I hadn’t yet considered, such as how examples that used teak as a secondary wood were much more likely to be the real deal. Teak is quite bug-resistant. Dovetail joinery that didn’t rely on hide glue was a good thing because of the wetness, heat and bugs that would eat the hide glue.
If someone else doesn’t pick up this idea and run with it, campaign furniture might be a book in my future. Earlier this year I proposed a campaign chest project to Popular Woodworking Magazine – I haven’t gotten a “yes” or “no” yet. Perhaps these photos will sway Megan.