My First Year as an Anarchist or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Hand Plane

mcconnell_chest

“Who do you suppose has it easier? Ones with religion or just taking it straight? It comforts them very much but we know there is no thing to fear.”

— Ernest Hemingway, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (1940)

When you tell people you’re into hand tool woodworking they look at you like you’re in a cult. From an objective stance, they’re not completely off base. The dominant religious belief in woodworking is still fueled by electrons coming from the wall and, the dominant faith tradition in our society is still consumerism. The hand tool woodworker is a weird duck. An outsider. A glitch in the matrix.

I’ve always had more books than shelves on which to store them because words and ideas are important to me. We are all storied creatures. We live, move and have our being in the great narrative of time where the right word at the right moment might just change your life. This week I received my copy of “The Anarchist’s Design Book” in the mail nearly one year to the day after opening a similar package containing “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest,” and so it seemed like a good and fitting time to stop and reflect on my own conversion experience and my first year as an aesthetic anarchist. A task easier said than done.

What you are reading now is (at least) the fourth time I have tried to write this story. The first draft read like hagiography, the second was philosophy and the third was autobiography. This version, I think, is the most honest. To be fair, though, this story didn’t really begin with The Anarchist’s Tool Chest. It began two years ago in March when my father died suddenly at 62. His death came, in part, because of a lifetime working in a factory he didn’t love for a company that considered him disposable. His father died at 62 under nearly the same conditions (albeit a different factory) and was put in the ground the day his first Social Security retirement check made it to the mailbox.

That sort of thing is apt to make you more than a little reflective.

I spent a lot of time during the year following my father’s untimely demise thinking about my own life, my aspirations and the things I was passionate about. The question loomed large in my mind: “If I knew only had 27 years left above the dirt, was I going to be satisfied with the way they were spent?” By the time “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” arrived in my mailbox the revolution had already begun.

I come from a family of capable tradespeople. My maternal grandfather spent his career as a journeyman electrician, but he was also a jack of all trades around the house. When I was a boy I would sneak into his workshop and wonder at the tools there. The massive cast-iron table saw was juxtaposed against the brace and handsaws on the wall, and I can still remember the acrid yet sweet smell of 3-in-1 oil mixed with sawdust hanging in the air. It was there I learned to tinker. To break things down and to create new things. I learned how to hammer a nail and saw a board more or less straight. I learned to design and create. I learned the power of my mind and the capacity of my hands.

Life has a way of taking over though, and some of those early lessons were lost to time and choice. During the next few decades I continued to work with wood on occasion, but if I’m being honest, confidence often outstripped skill, and I’ve made a fair amount of furniture that I’m not proud of. Some of it is still in use around the house, some of it has been relegated to the garage and some is waiting to be deconstructed and made into something better. At best you could classify most of the joinery as “inventive.” Nearly all of it is finished in “honey pine” stain.

Out in my shed you can find the remains of a queen bed I built using only a circular saw, chisel, jigsaw and router boasting what might be considered distant cousins to mortise-and-tenon joints. It saw almost a decade of use, but it isn’t anything to write home about. While building that bed I bought my first handplane — a newer model Stanley jack plane purchased at the local big box home store. It was clear I had no idea what to do with it and If you were to sneak into my shed right now you could still see the tear-out it left on that bed. A friend “borrowed” it and never brought it back. “Good riddance,” I thought, and I went out and bought a table saw. Like most hobbyist woodworkers, the idea had been implanted in my brain that if I just had better tools and a well-lit place I could produce world class furniture. But my skills leveled off, my heart wasn’t in it and I continued to make junk. Usable junk to be sure, but nothing I would be proud to pass on to my children.

“The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” and my ensuing journey into aesthetic anarchism has taught me more in the past 12 months about joinery and cabinet making than the preceding 35 years combined. It has helped me to understand that my work never improved because I was focusing on the wrong things. I was a consumer of my own work. I just wanted the finished products and didn’t really want to spend time developing skills. Rather than seeing each new project as an opportunity to learn something I saw it as an opportunity to acquire a new tool, but we all know that buying new tools to become a better woodworker is like buying a new pair of running shoes and believing that you’re healthier. What I really needed was fewer tools and more time understanding how they worked. Some people have that capacity with power tools. For me, at least, I needed to strip things down and start from a different place.

The past year has been an evolution for me from a power tool dominated shop to a hand-tool-only mindset. I began by setting aside my orbital sander and tuning up an old Stanley jack plane that I found languishing in an antique store. This plane worked immeasurably better than the one I had purchased new and I was amazed as I spent hours making shavings out of every scrap piece of pine in my shop. I was fascinated by how the blade interacted with the wood and how I interacted with the blade. The visceral and intimate connection this tool gave me to the work was intoxicating, and so it is not surprising that when the motor of my (admittedly underwhelming) table saw burned up while re-sawing some wood, I didn’t give it a second thought before carrying it out to the curb and seeking out a decent set of rip and crosscut handsaws to replace it.

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I read “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” at least twice in the month between its arrival and the arrival of my third daughter in April of last year. Then, for the first few weeks of her life I would sit up at night rocking her to sleep with those new ideas swirling around in my mind, binge watching old episodes of “The Woodwright’s Shop.” Somewhere in the middle of all of that, enlightenment rested upon my heart and I finally listened to the lesson life had been trying to teach me for some time: My primary motivator is process not product. Something in my soul finds peace and purpose in each individual stroke of the saw and pass of the plane. When I focus on the product all I can think about is getting it done, but I take far more joy in how a thing gets done than gloating over the finished product. From the cradle to the coffin, delight is found in the pieces that make up the whole. The net effect of all of this enlightenment on my craftsmanship has been measurable. The work is more meaningful and the end result is far beyond anything I had previously done. I might almost call it good.

I still get concerned looks from time to time when I start talking about handplanes, clocked screws and breaking down stock with a handsaw, but I’m OK with that. Owning and naming my own tendency toward aesthetic anarchism has been refreshing, exhilarating and most certainly liberating. It has given me the courage to renounce my allegiance to many a falsely held belief, to call out bullshit where I see it, and to name beauty when it is apparent.  I have been both challenged and encouraged by these books and this philosophy, but I have also found a community of others on the same journey and I have finally found my way back to a place where I can almost smell the sawdust and machinist oil in my grandfather’s workshop again. It’s not always a safe place, but it is a good place, and I’ll settle for that.

— Jim McConnell, The Daily Skep

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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28 Responses to My First Year as an Anarchist or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Hand Plane

  1. studioffm says:

    Well done Jim. The steps you are taking are keeping you “in the moment” Only THIS moment matters, its the only one we have. Planning for future finished work is just wishful wasted energy. You only have one moment, one day. Live it.
    very best
    david savage

  2. Jim, this is a beautifully written, honest description of an evolution not only in how you make furniture, but also living a more mindful life. The last two years of my life are an echo to your own, starting with the Anarchists Tool Chest.

    You’ve gained a blog follower and I look forward to reading more from you.

  3. stone58 says:

    Very nice prose. Enjoyed the feelings it engendered.

  4. Sergeant82d says:

    Excellent post, Jim! I have taken a similar journey of hand tool discovery, and found a joy of process which I’ve always had, but rarely fostered. I will echo the other commentors and say, you have gained another blog subscriber.

  5. Brian Clites says:

    Thank you for sharing this Jim. Over the past ten years, I too have built oodles and oodles of “furniture.” Most still in use, some given away, some burned as firewood. Most of my Frankenstonian joinery was slathered in “Red Oak” (not “honey pine” – sheesh!).

    Still, for me to have made something those ten years is far better than not having made anything. Prior to discovering Lost Art Press, my mentality was more Ana White than Anne of All Trades. The beauty of the Anarchists’ Design Book is that it offers the best of both world. Quality, craftsmanship, history, integrity — via beginner techniques and using affordable tools and woods.

    As much as I love the ADB, though, I suspect my heart will always lean towards the ATC. I’m still learning some of its lessons. Including the toughest one:

    He Who Has Less Tools
    Shall Have The Time And Energy
    To Make More Furniture

    • rwyoung says:

      Once new members at my local woodworking club get wind of the fact that I do most of my work with hand tools, they often ask “what is your favorite tool?”

      Fireplace.

  6. Brian Clites says:

    Reblogged this on TheWoodProf.com and commented:
    I know fellow woodworkers will have already seen this. But to my family and friends, I recommend this excellent post by Pastor James McConnell. Jim has been a good digital friend, and mentor.

  7. Tektōn Guild says:

    Jim, thank you for the honest and intimate look into your progression in the craft. I always find it refreshing and comforting to hear others passion for looking deeper into the processes, history and tradition of woodworking. I know it was a major step for myself to actually put the books down and pick up the tools. Now I find myself, more and more often picking up the tools in the middle of reading a chapter or article to try and recreate what I’m reading. I figure these must be steps in the right direction.

    It’s wonderful to know that we’re surrounded by such an incredible community. It truly makes one want to crawl out from the relatively solitary nature of the craft and immerse them-self in it.

    ~Patrick

  8. nbreidinger says:

    ::sniffs in deep full breath of fresh air, sighs contentedly:: Well said, sir. You’ve put to words some of the complex feelings I’ve been having. Some people wonder why I would use a hand plane instead of an orbital sander. If I get the opportunity, I have them use a well-tuned smoother, and then no further explanation is required. I now realize I am about process as well – not product. I think that’s what gives objects soul when made by someone of that mentality and why mass produced items lack it. Thanks, Jim. And thanks for sharing this on your blog, Chris.

    Nathan

  9. Daniel Wachs says:

    That is a very meaningful piece, Jim. Your thoughts on process versus product were very insightful, and I really feel like I can relate to them. Being in the shop, focusing on the task at hand and improving one’s skills are what I enjoy most. In addition, beyond these wonderful books that we all seem to be (justifiably in my mind) obsessed with, connecting with you and other great people through the IG community has been a great experience. It has supplied me with knowledge, motivation, and perspective. Thanks again for always providing plenty of each.

  10. Anarchy breeds community. Who knew?

    The digital friends I’ve made from this blog are the ones encouraging me to go into my shop and make something. For that I am truly grateful.

    Well said Jim. Well said.

  11. Excellent post, Jim. I think the process vs product discussion is the the linchpin for many “hand-tool-only” woodworkers today. I spend time at the bench not because I refuse to pay for furniture but because I love working wood. And why should we be embarrassed? Process is primary for most of us.

    Thank you for sharing your story.

  12. ptross says:

    thanks for writing this. good thoughts to ponder.
    I have one- why should the process-product discussion be either/or? to me the reward is finding the best marriage of process and product. making shavings all day just to make shavings is not fulfilling long term. the product is needed in the equation to help bring out the beauty of the process. again, thanks for the four attempts at this.

  13. Thanks for writing this. I just lost my own father, one week ago today. He was 56, and an engineer of beautiful bridges. Somehow, this post captures what he loved about his making, and what I love about mine. I’m happy to be a part of this community, and to know there are others like us in the world–resisting conformity, living mindfully, and seeking beauty. Well written words.

  14. First I must say great post! But boy do I think things differently. I cherish every movement working with hand tools but I have no interest in spending so much time removing bulk. My machines are my apprentices and I don’t need the best or most accurate. But I don’t want the 1/4 inch or more in my way. We as craftspeople only have so much time to dedicate so why spend it removing bulk. Why not get the material close to dimension and than bring out the joy of hand planing, hand sawing, jointing, scraping, or whatever? Just my thoughts and just curious.

    • I completely understand this point of view as well, and I think it absolutely makes sense for what you do and how you work. Getting into that mindset was my favorite part of editing your recent article in Mortise & Tenon Magazine.

      It think I could incorporate machines back into my work (if it were ever economically necessary) but I would only know what to do with them because I had gotten rid of them for a while.

      • Jim,

        I couldn’t agree with you any more!!! Learn the limitations of the power tools and understand the opportunities hand tools give you. I love your post and plan to print it and post at the school. Great job!

  15. skywalker011 says:

    Love it… Like a story of my experience to the tee.

  16. Jim, you are preaching to the right church, We are learning new ways everyday. But most of all we are happy with what we do.

  17. Paul Korman says:

    Jim, How universal your experience seems to me. My own conversion (still ongoing) from power to hand tools is almost identical to yours. My turning point was also hand plane based. That first time I used a well sharpened and adjusted plane. “My primary motivator is process not product” hit the nail on the head.

  18. Thanks for this post Jim. I love the picture of the workshop and the smell of oil and sawdust and of course it reminds me of working with my father. I appreciate what you are saying about process and product and I confess to struggling with this very thing. I am very task oriented and am trying to train myself to enjoy the moment, the actual forming of something new. I usually lose my focus and start thinking only of the end product and rushing to get through it. I believe I miss out on a lot of joy because of this, but your article has encouraged me to be more intentional in savoring the creative process. Thanks.

  19. Wonderful post, Jim. These books have had a similar effect on me. I was gravitating towards this way of thinking before “The Anarchists Tool Chest” made it’s way into my life. Be it the clothes I wear or the beer I drink, I been eschewing quantity for quality for a while now. The ATC helped me decompartmentalize those areas and see the forest for the trees. My copy of “The Anarachists Design Book” arrived this week and I’m eager to devour it in similar fashion. Thanks for writing this. Your words ring true for me in a way I could never writer them.

  20. gblogswild says:

    The gist of the post reminds me of some old lessons in the Tao that I recall from numerous sources. The joy is in the doing, not the done. Though I might argue that there is joy in the “done with,” that’s neither here nor there.

    Something from the Tao of Physics: A student approached a monastery and asked a monk there about the Tao. The monk asked, “Have you eaten?” “Yes,” the potential student replied. “Then you’d better go wash your bowl.”

  21. vrdzygner says:

    I built a wall mounted cabinet years ago before the chest craze since floor space is limited in my shop and I did not work on site. Now after several years or working I have outgrown the cabinet and look forward to make chest since now I am actually on site making repairs on occasion. Speaking of working on site I found this photo series taken in the 1880’s when my hometown church was under construction. You will notice the gentlemen are working making custom louvers and trim. Look back to an earlier photo and you will realized these men are up in the rafters over 60′ up in the air with the chest beside their workbench which they erected on site for the job.

    http://www.saintpaulcatholicchurchpocahontas.com/construction.html

  22. oltexasboy says:

    I can tell you are a young fella by the way you tend to wax poetic about things you can’t be taught . I realized a few years after having gone to war that there are certain things that I wanted to teach my children that I just could not. Now that you have learned the lessons of the past that can only be learned and not taught you will become a better man as time goes by. It is in deed steps in the journey, not the destination that you carries you forward. Good luck on your trip and thanks for the great depth of your musings.

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