It Makes No Difference to Me, How They Cried All Over Overseas

For the last two weeks I’ve been neck-deep in casework – a Monticello bookcase in walnut with pine backboards that is for a long-time customer in Michigan. I haven’t posted much about it because it’s been 10 days of the same: mark, saw, chop, pare. Then repeat until your boogers look like walnut dust (mine do).

But it has given me a lot of time to think about David Pye. Just kidding. Really. No, come back.

Instead, I have had time to think about how casework is different than making chairs. The truth is, they aren’t different. We just think they are different because – for some reason – most of us do only one or the other. Same goes with turning, carving, marquetry etc.

Both chairmaking and casework are about joining pieces of wood. You have to cut to a line. Get a few angles right. Apply a finish. And make sure the structure is sound and can survive seasonal wood movement.

Some aspects of chairmaking might seem foreign – green wood, weird angles and a few new tools. But it’s still wood. And your tools are still steel. The only real difference between the two disciplines is the fact that you think they are different. Or that you think that one is harder than the other.

I am serious, it’s all in your head.

One of the greatest privileges in my career has been to work with accomplished woodworkers all over the globe to help them transform their ideas into a magazine article or a book. The more I worked with these talented people the more I realized that picking up a new skill, such as double-bevel marquetry, is about learning a handful of techniques that aren’t obvious.

To be certain, if you want to master any aspect of the craft, then that takes years of discipline. But if you just want to build a decent chair, carve some letters or turn a bowl – you can do that. Anyone can.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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37 Responses to It Makes No Difference to Me, How They Cried All Over Overseas

  1. NR Hiller says:

    And when it comes down to anything that matters, does it get better than making a chair in which you can sit, or a piece of casework in which you can stash a sweater/bowl/bottle? The rest is ego.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. johncashman73 says:

    Learning a new skill is exhilarating. Solving all of the little problems that arise during a new project are what make me keep coming back for more.

    I feel you ought to write more about walnut colored snot. Or cherry. Not mahogany — keep it domestic.


  3. Drew Lastra says:

    I agree in the theory. Wood is wood. Tools are steel. Etc. But I
    respectfully disagree regarding the construction of any one
    piece being essentially the same as the construction of another
    If you mean the process of working wood is the same I agree. But
    Here’s my test: go ask Jeff Miller if making chairs is no different
    From making a Townsend chest on chest. Again with
    All due respect the argument is a stretch.


    • I’ll be honest here. Jeff’s experience might be different than mine. I don’t know. And if it is different I don’t really care. I build both casework and chairs. This is my experience in building both and working with woodworkers in many disciplines.


      • Drew Lastra says:

        If your ultimate intent is to say don’t be afraid to try working in other types of work I wholeheartedly agree with you. I too am being honest when I tell you you and Nancy Hiller and Christian Becksvort and Mike Pecovich and many others through your and their writing gave me the momentum to try many things. I never would have thought about asphaltum as a glaze. My wife wants a pie crust table with a carved edge top. That will stretch my skills. But I do believe I can do it.


        • mattbickford says:

          The hardest part of waking up an hour or two early in the morning is the transition of lying in your warm bed to putting your feet on the cold floor.

          Similarly, the most difficult aspect of making a pie-crust table is starting it.

          Start that table, Drew!


  4. Mark Thomas says:

    Good article, but, having finished it, I still don’t get the refrence or meaning of the second half of the title.


    • It’s a line from a Wilco song. It’s more evocative than anything. It doesn’t matter from what craft you come from (that’s the overseas part). I don’t always like to be obvious. Apologies.

      Liked by 1 person

      • SSteve says:

        When I read that you were doing “10 days of the same”, I started wondering if you ever listen to music while you work. Especially after listening to your interview on the Make or Break podcast and finding out that you played in bands. Now I’m imagining you cutting dovetails with Wilco blasting through a pair of ‘60s Wharfedales.


  5. Pascal Teste says:

    Thanks for the encouraging post. I am not a chair maker, but this week I decided to make a couple with 8/4 leftover stock from a bunch of doors I built. It’s out of my comfort zone, but I will give it a try. As you say, it’s just another assembly of wood parts… a bit more complex than a door though.


  6. boclocks says:

    Whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re right!


  7. Roland Stewart Chapman says:

    Lovely looking chair . Just bought John Brown’s book on welsh stick chairs , while it doesn’t hold my hand through a potential build , his ‘just do it’ attitude is inspiring , I’m ready to make a few mistakes


  8. gdblake00 says:

    I’ve always been amazed at how awe struck people are over the simple things I build. I don’t have the fine motor skills required to take on intricate carvings, inlays, and such so I work on getting the design, proportions, and wood selection right. I recently built two nearly identical benches. The first over hangs a half inch more at each end. That little half inch extra overhang makes the first bench stunning to everyone who has seen it. The other bench is just acceptable, nothing to get excited about.

    I tend to agree with you Chris, working wood is all about getting the parts, whatever the parts, to fit properly. The real trick, the hard part for most of us is designing a piece that has the right proportions to make the piece look both natural and stunning at the same time. Thanks for bringing to market guide books that can elevate a hobbiest into a craftsman.


  9. Andrew Brant says:

    Love this. Makes me think about a funny curve, probably unscientific, to most artists noticed by an art teacher. When artists start, and get a few skills down, they tend to make really creative work. And a few things are really good, almost by accident, but not really. Then as they “focus” they close off that wild exploration and feeling that they can do anything, and dip for a while. Then eventually get good at what they focused on. To an art teacher, it’s good to know about- encouraging those first pieces can be great for a student. But the lesson I took from that is to not abandon the idea that I can make anything. They won’t all be perfect at first, but the only thing stopping me from painting a self portrait or making a chair is the idea that I can’t. So I try to never let that get in the way


    • Dan says:

      Your description of the curve (very ambitious [but probably garbage], not very ambitious [but not too terribly wrong] and increasingly ambitious [and maybe good]) reminds me of this comic about “Mt. Stupid.”:

      It also reminds me of all my woodworking (except the part where I eventually start getting ambitious again)


      • Andrew Brant says:

        Ha! Yeah, it’s a little trickier of we are talking about knowledge & facts – a radical but not well researched essay on the civil war is a lot different than someone saying “Sure, I’ll paint a room full of people in an impressionist style” or whatever. That early willingness to explore when painting or sculpting is awesome. You don’t know what you’re ‘not supposed to do’ yet


  10. Klaus N. Skrudland says:

    My personal mantra has been since childhood that I can accomplish and become good at anything I want. I’ve been very reluctant to say it out loud, as it’s easily considered arrogant. However I’ve always tried to welcome failure and I haven’t got an unhealthy self esteem, I think. But it’s been a very good momentum for me to pursue all kinds of things and opportunities that looked interesting. I have crap loads of respect for seasoned chairmakers, but I’m pretty sure I can do it, too.


  11. Neverfinished2005 says:

    Which book tells me the secret – how do I get all four legs to touch the floor properly and it won’t wobble? I have a Weeble chair specialty, and not on purpose.


  12. hgordon4 says:

    Apart from the philosophical elements of your blog post… Those walnut cases are looking fantastic. And the dovetails on each section line-up perfectly. :>)


  13. mike says:

    Humans focus far too much on how things, or other people, are different rather than the how things are the same. The center of a Venn diagram holds all the power, not the outer circles.

    I read this op/ed the other day and found it helpful. Yes, I do always try to improve my skills, and woodworking is more fun if a project is the primary output, rather than a burn pile. But still, it is a good reminder that we can’t all be Jeff Miller (I have been to his shop and seen his work in person. WOW), and that most things we see on the internet are fake, or at least shot with the best possible lighting and angle.

    Liked by 1 person

    • NR Hiller says:

      Good article. Thank you for linking to it.


    • Drew Lastra says:

      Great link. In 2008 I decided I would try to play better golf. I became obsessed. My handicap dropped to zero. I entered local and state tournaments. I practiced everydaythink on my lunch hour and after work. I putted on a nearby green at lunch. Guess what? It wasn’t fun. It was WORK. I haven’t picked up a club since 2010. I think that’s sad. I refused to allow the same mindset to invade my shop time. It hasn’t been easy. I am good enough to have had items placed in a few galleries. I won’t do it any more. I’d rather be Nakashima-esq and derive joy from the simple act of appreciating a beautiful piece of wood My family can find me content in my shop. I’m accessible. I create better work freed up from the pursuit of perfect. Thanks for the article.


  14. antinonymous says:

    Before we can master any other craft we must first master the sharpening of an endless myriad of edge tools, and that effort alone takes almost an entire lifetime.


  15. Barry MacDonald says:

    When I first got started, every technique was a trade secret.
    Then Youtube came along…


  16. Mark White says:

    In my humble opinion that is a lovely looking chair.


  17. tsstahl says:

    So, how did you get the shells so smooth? And what did you do with the nuts?

    Two real questions I was asked a few years ago after showing off a project done in walnut. I wish I could relay my clever pithy response, but I was a tad dumbstruck. You know, like when your three year old breaks down crying because he didn’t get a real dump truck for his birthday (we told him it wouldn’t be any fun because he couldn’t reach the pedals; crisis averted).


  18. Bob Glenn says:

    Chris, Chris Chris……….. I respectively beg to differ. Case work and chair making are different. When you build a case it should be strong and look good, period. When you build a chair it should be strong, look good AND be comfortable to sit in. That is what separates building a chair from the other disciples. Bob Glenn


  19. lorenzojose says:

    For 45 years I did everything, casework, tri, doors, etc and avoided chairs like a plague. I always new somebody who could do that. 15 years into my retirement I’ve decided this year is the year I will give it a go. Chris is the one who has inspired me.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Steve Dixon says:

    Chris What would you do to turn that chair into a rocker?




  21. bpholcombe says:

    I build both chairs and casework and I enjoy both. Certainly there is a lot of overlap. Chairs were a much bigger mental hurdle for me.


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