Turning the Grindstone for a Booby

“Alas,” me thinks, “deluded people, you are doomed for a season to turn the grindstone for a booby.”

— Charles Miner, “Turning the Grindstone” in “The Fourth Reader” (1872)

The first two words of “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” are the most important ones to remember: Disobey me.

It’s a Russian absurdist saying that I learned from Prof. Gary Saul Morson, the single-most influential teacher in my life. You can take those two words at face value – don’t do what I do. Or you can enter the hall of mirrors if you think for a moment about the impossible task set before you by those two words.

In the same way, you can take the tool chest I built at the end of the book at face value – it’s a place to store tools. Or you can scratch the paint on its surface and see that it is also a symbol of a way to approach our craft. Every tool you need to build furniture is contained in this box, and everything else you need (outside of raw material) is something you cannot buy: skill

Since “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” was published in June 2011, I’ve received letters from woodworkers who don’t have the space, skill or desire to build a dovetailed tool chest and they are wondering what they should do. My answer: Disobey me.

A traditional tool chest is not the only way to manage your tools, though after trying many other methods I think a chest is best. But if you boil down the principles of a tool chest, you can create a tool cabinet, a wall rack, a system of open shelves or a German-style rolling and folding box.

What are these principles? Here is what I think is important.

1. All your hand tools should be only one hand motion away from you putting a mitt around its grip. That’s why the tool chest has staggered and sliding trays.

2. You should be able to see the core set of hand tools all the time. And nothing important is in drawers. In fact, I think drawers are the enemy of efficiency. I have worked with a wall cabinet with drawers, a workbench base with drawers and a tool chest with drawers. What I remember most about those systems is rooting around in the drawers for a countersink.

3. Your tools should be protected from dust. Dust has salt. Salt absorbs water. Water rusts steel. Wipe down your tools after every use with something oily (not from your glands, please). When you aren’t working, the tools should be covered so they don’t get dusty, salty and rusty.

4. Your system should hold your core set of tools, and little else. A 10’-long shelving system might hold everything, but you will spend more time walking back and forth than is necessary.

5. Your system should adapt as your work changes. A chest with undivided tills allows you to move your carving gouges to the top till when you are making a shell. Then you can move your hammer and nailsets to the bottom till. A system that has one place for every tool is great – for that day. Tomorrow you will be a different woodworker, even if you keep the same tool kit.

But like I said before: Disobey me. Think for yourself.

Or, as John Brown once wrote: “By all means read what the experts have to say. Just don’t let it get in the way of your woodworking.”

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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10 Responses to Turning the Grindstone for a Booby

  1. Seamus says:

    Don’t let College
    Interfere with your education…

  2. robert says:

    “Think for yourself.” Now that’s a seriously radical idea.

    Be careful what you wish for.

  3. Jonas Jensen says:

    I thought that you were supposed to think what the state / government told you to..

  4. David Miller says:

    Tool chest? What a silly idea. I built banks of drawers for my tools and used them for years. Then reading your blog I got a flash that a tool chest ‘might’ be a good idea. Right now, with the economy I have no cash for anything that ‘might’ work. But I decided to scavenge around and salvaged enough clear grain Doug Fir to work with that I was able to build a good-sized chest of my own design. It has changed my shop layout, it has changed how I approach problems, some of my power tools are now in shop purgatory and it has sent me down a new path. What a great idea. And I even like using it.

  5. Tim Henriksen says:

    Removing the last three words of your quote of Chairman Brown one is left with advice that can be applied to so much more than woodworking. Sort of like how many of us took away more from reading The Anarchist’s Tool Chest than how or why to build a chest.

  6. John says:

    “Disobey me.”


  7. A Casual  Doodler  says:

    Every time I see a “Question Authority” bumper sticker – I want to write on it WHY?

  8. P says:

    Life of Brian
    Monte Python

  9. Reminds me of the liar’s paradox. Should I obediently disobey, or disobediently obey?

    It also reminds me of a recent news article from up here in MA. Police received a 911 call from a couple with an infant who were walking around in a corn maze, got lost, and it was getting dark out.


    It’s a corn maze. They’re not real walls. Push the corn aside, and walk out. Even if you walk to the back of the corn field, you’re out, and you can walk around the field and back to your car.

    But I have to say, this is an interesting entry from you. People who bought the book, but are writing for advice because they don’t have the space, skill, or inclination? Maybe they should be congressmen.

  10. Robert H says:

    This may be a touch persnickity but water has little to do with rust, it’s the salts (ions) that catalyze oxidation (good ‘ol rust). Why are some people rustmakers? Guessing it’s sweatty palms over oily skin.

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