Author’s Note: This is the second of a three-part interview with Chris about the Anarchist’s Tool Chest, which is nearing its fifth anniversary. If you missed the first part of the conversation, you can read it here.
Brian Clites: Good evening Chris. I’ll try to keep my questions brief because we’ve received many thoughtful inquires from other readers. In fact, I think I’ll devote the entire third installment of this conversation to the reader questions.
Christopher Schwarz: Good evening. Glad we’re having this conversation tonight. Better than when I get back from England… in September.
BC: When I first read the book, some of the construction details perplexed me. Many of those questions resolved themselves as I completed my own ATC. But I still wonder about some of your hardware choices – particularly the wheels and the lid stay. If you were rebuilding the chest today, would you still buy your casters from a big-box home improvement store? And the lid stay – the “too twee chain” – did you ever find a better solution to recommend to students?
CS:As to the casters, I love them. Though they are Chinese-made, I have yet to find any domestic-made casters that work as well and are that compact. I found some vintage Nylon casters on eBay that I messed around with, but it’s difficult to recommend something unreliable like that to thousands of readers.
On the lid stay, when I wrote the book my research suggested that most tool chests didn’t use one. And for years I’d had my chest lid propped against the wall – a traditional approach.
But some fellow woodworkers convinced me that some sort of stay was the right thing to do, and I agreed with them. I wish I hadn’t. You don’t need a chain or some sort of mechanism or fancy hinge with a stop. Use the wall. It is the only real stop that stops the lid.
If you work in the middle of warehouse-like space, then check out Jameel Abraham’s stay. It’s the only one I recommend.
BC: If my memory is correct, you constructed the ATC before you’d purchased your first complete “half set” of hollows and rounds. Are moulding planes essential tools? And, even if so, how might readers who don’t have all those planes better utilize that space?
CS: Actually I had hollows and rounds (and lots of moulding planes) before constructing the chest. They were stored in the front of my crappy copy of Benjamin Seaton’s chest (please don’t ask me about that chest. It hurts). I actually don’t think moulding planes are essential to woodwork. I know that sounds crazy to people who make reproductions, but most furniture forms built since 1900 don’t need moulding planes. The decorative details are the joinery or, at most, chamfers.
I love moulding planes and use them whenever I can. But do you need them to be a jedi woodworker? No.
If you don’t have moulding planes, use that space at the back of the chest for whatever strikes your fancy – chairmaking tools, marquetry tools or some rolls of carving tools.
BC: Speaking of all the tools in the chest, which ones didn’t really need to be in there? In other words, which tools could the true “naked” woodworker do without? And are there any necessary tools that you, in retrospect, omitted from the text?
CS: You can build a highboy with a knife or (given enough time) erosion, so that’s not really an answerable question. The tools in there are based on 300 years worth of tool inventories (remember the appendix I wrote on this? No one else does). The 1678 list from Joseph Moxon is the shortest list. If you are hard up, use that 1678 list as a starting point. As more tools were invented or improved, then the lists of “required” tools became bigger.
“My list” is not my list. It’s set theory from Moxon to Hayward. I’m not bright enough to come up with a comprehensive list.
BC: Over the years (and most recently in our two-day old forum), I’ve heard lots of talk about building the ATC from “better wood.” Pine – even gorgeous eastern white pine – has a reputation of being cheap, soft, and proletarian. I’ve seen pictures of ATCs built from mahogany and bird’s eye maple. I’ve heard talk of using padauk and purpleheart.
And I even once argued with you along the lines of “if strength is so important, why not 5/4 white oak?” You’ve seemed polite but unmoved by such talk. Is pine merely sufficient for the structure of the ATC, or is it also essential to its soul?
CS: If you don’t need to ever move your chest, then build it from whatever you like. But if your chest has to be moved, use pine or basswood or something lightweight. Your life will be so much easier. I can get the chest into my truck by myself, and that’s because it is pine. A dovetailed pine box is more than strong enough. So the argument for more strength leaves me unmoved.
Aesthetically, I like painted pine chests. But that’s because I’ve seen a thousand of those kinds of chests for every purpleheart abomination. Plus, painted chests just make sense. A beat-up chest that is French polished is a pain to repair. A painted chest is easy – more paint.
I don’t have any class-based attachment to the purity of pine. Wood is wood. Use what you have. Here in this area of the country we have so much black walnut that we used to frame houses with it. Is that wrong?
BC: OK. Get ready. This is my last question tonight, but its long. My favorite chapter in The Anarchist’s Tool Chest is “A Tale of Three Tables.” As a reader who had never met anyone in the book, it was the first time that I got a sense of who you were. Gone was my vague image of a clean-shaven youth tightening clamps on his $159 bench. That distant vision replaced by an actual guy, and his family, and their real tribulations in the modern world. (What married couple hasn’t spilled hot dogs and ketchup all over each other on date night?)
In addition to being able to relate to your family’s frustrations with furniture-like objects, I was smitten by your approach of designing the table based on the family’s habits. Narrow enough that you all could join hands and pass food. Short enough that it would not overwhelm you guys. This table was more than anti-junk; it felt destined to become a member of your family.
Looking back five years, I now notice even more inspiring things about that chapter. I see the seeds of the anatomical approach of By Hand and Eye. I feel the same impulse to simplify that animates your forthcoming Furniture of Necessity. And, most astoundingly, I notice the chapter’s sub-section on Josiah Warren’s Cincinnati Time Store. Wow — are you telling me you had a “ten-year plan” all along? Stated otherwise, what aspirations and values of the ATC have remained bedrocks in your life? And has anything (of that level of personal and philosophical importance) changed?
CS: When I was about 12 years old I can remember sitting in my family’s living room and looking at a hand-hammered copper lamp my family had owned for a couple generations. The lamp had been converted from some weird piece of maratime equipment and had an iron hook on it. And a paper shade. I fell in love with that lamp. (My wife HATES it.)
Before I knew crap about building furniture, at that moment I became smitten with the handmade world. Metal, wood, glass and leather.
Since that weird crystal-clear moment I have tried to surround me and my family with things that were made by human hands. Nothing is more beautiful or reassuring to me.
As Lucy and I struggled to build a life for ourselves we had to make compromises by purchasing ugly, awful and sub-functional things – like the first two tables in that chapter. But the goal was always to have the table that we still use today. And the Morris chair where I drink my coffee in the morning. The Welsh chair where I drink a beer every night.
When I was caressing that lamp 35 years ago, did I have a vision for Lost Art Press, mutualism and some sort of mechanical society? No. But I wanted to make things so badly that (at times) it physically hurt.
So where we are headed now is the only logical path for someone who has those ridiculous feelings – plus the energy to never lay down my tools.
As to the final question: Has anything philosophically changed since I wrote the book? No. I’m still the same person. But what has changed is that I know I’m not alone.