Furniture in the Water


Note: This is the last preview chapter I’ll be posting of the expanded edition of “The Anarchist’s Design Book.” The remainder of the new chapters will be released with the expanded edition at the end of 2019.

Up into my 30s, I wrote songs as much as I wrote newspaper or magazine stories, and I was always bewildered about where melody came from. How, after so many generations of births and deaths, could we still manufacture new melodies?

The answer is, of course, that we can’t.

Growing up in Arkansas in the 1970s, it was impossible to escape traditional music. You’d hear it at every church picnic, at the gas station and while eating at the Irish pub/barbecue restaurant. It was even piped into the town elevator.

Fingerpicking was like the fluoride in the water. Banjos hummed like the mosquitos in your ear.

I didn’t think much of it all until I encountered the band Uncle Tupelo in the 1990s. One of the bonus tracks on the CD “No Depression” was “John Hardy.” And the first time I heard the song I instantly began singing all the words.

John Hardy was a desperate little man
He carried two guns every day
He shot a man down on the West Virginia line
They saw John Hardy getting away

It was the closest thing I’ve ever had to a repressed memory bubbling to the surface. I grabbed the CD case and saw the song was credited to Lead Belly. That was weird. It wasn’t a Lead Belly song I’d ever heard. After some digging, I found the source of where I’d learned the song: the Carter Family.

Then, like every aspiring songwriter, I soon found that the Carter Family was the source code for an astonishing mountain of American rock, folk, pop, blues and bluegrass. That statement sounds like hyperbole, but it’s not.

True story: While on tour with her husband, Johnny Cash, June Carter once demonstrated this deep truth by switching on the radio in their tour bus. About every third song, June began singing the Carter Family version over the version playing through the radio. Different lyrics. Different instrumentation. Same song.

This small songwriting revelation (which nearly every American songwriter has) turned out to be as important to my furniture making as it was to my love of music. And so, if you’ll indulge me a bit, learning a little about Sara, Maybelle and A.P. Carter can help you understand vernacular furniture and how to design it.

Bristol, 1927
Many musical historians and musicians peg the beginning of country music to a series of recording sessions in Bristol, Tenn., in the summer of 1927. Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Co. toured through several Southern cities equipped with new recording technology and a desire to capture examples of “old time” or hillbilly music.

He attracted local artists with newspaper advertisements and the opportunity to get paid for their work. While in Bristol (a town that bleeds over into Virginia), he snared his biggest catch, the Carter Family. Led by A.P. Carter, the group was comprised of three people named Carter: A.P., who arranged the songs and occasionally sang; his wife, Sara, who played autoharp and had an enchanting and powerful voice; and Maybelle, who played guitar (plus other instruments), sang and was Sara’s cousin.

The Carter Family recorded six songs with Peer over two days during that first recording session. The three were paid and they returned to their Virginia homes. After the royalty checks began coming in, A.P. sought to record more songs (the Carter Family eventually recorded more than 250 songs, according to the documentary “The Winding Stream”). And this is where things get interesting.

The songs that the Carter Family brought to record were a combination of traditional tunes, original songs the three had written, plus songs that A.P. had “collected” and then adapted – changing the words, adding a beat here or there, tidying it up.

So that’s why you’ll see a song such as “John Hardy” attributed to three or four (or a dozen) people. These were songs that were transmitted from person to person and that changed based on who was singing them, when and where. The songs didn’t belong to one person. They belonged to the whole culture.

These melodies are deeply embedded into the American psyche – especially among Southerners – and it can be shocking (and sometimes uncomfortable) to have the curtain pulled away.

Listen to the Carter Family song “Wayworn Traveler,” sometimes titled “Palms of Victory.” (You can find it on the contemporary album “Carter Family: Storms are on the Ocean.”) The song is commonly regarded as a hymn attributed to a New York reverend from 1836.

Bob Dylan rewrote the song as “Paths of Victory” in the early 1960s. Then he rewrote it again as “The Times They Are a Changin’.”

In my mind, there is nothing wrong or shameful about this process of evolution. Each artist adds or subtracts something from the original to suit the time or place. And the work rises or falls based on the talent of the writer or singer.

By the end of his life, A.P. Carter had traveled thousands of miles all over the South to collect the songs that he, Sara and Maybelle would then hone, record and perform. Their true genius was in acting as one of the most incredible funnels and filters of American song culture. (Also, Maybelle Carter happened to invent the concept of lead guitar with her “Carter scratch” style of playing. She was a pioneering bad-ass.)

For me, this way of looking at traditional music has profound implications when applied to vernacular furniture.


The Vernacular Pattern
As I mentioned at the beginning of this book, the high furniture styles tend to be transmitted via pattern books – basically big catalogs of ornate or expensive works that are connected to a big name such as Chippendale, Hepplewhite, Stickley or Maloof. That’s why we have schools of furniture that are connected to famous names. And, as a bonus, there’s a book to consult that lays out the boundaries of the style. Chippendale has its somewhat Chinese details and distinctive feet. Stickley has a particular joint and a particular material (quartersawn white oak). Maloof has a language of curves and joinery that is easily understood.

Higher-style music is similar. We have the works of Mozart, Bach, Brahms and the Beatles to endlessly parse and parley. There is (usually) a definitive body of work. And it’s fairly straightforward to say when a particular piece of work is either inside or outside of a particular style.

Vernacular music and furniture do not work that way. There is no “Book of Cletus” when it comes to backstools. No detailed drawings to tell us if a certain detail is proper or inadmissible. So the only thing we can do is study the furniture record, which mutates across time and state lines and is always incomplete. We’ll never see it all.

But if you see enough of it, then the form’s design elements become like a melody you’ve heard your entire life. You know what details and proportions create harmony. And what’s a wrong note. If you sing it enough times you probably will change the pitch to suit your vocal range. Or change a curve to better suit your spokeshave and skills. And when you encounter a new version of the form that you’ve never seen before, it can cause you to shift your work again in response.

The boundaries of what’s acceptable and what’s not are softer and more nebulous. But they are there.

Again, I like to think of vernacular furniture design as a shared melody. If your work is appealing, then others will sing along. In their hands and on their lips, your melody will endure and change over time. If, on the other hand, your work fails to resonate with others, then it dies alone at the curb, never to be sung again.

What Does This Mean to a Designer?
If you want to build in vernacular styles, I think you need to explore the forms for yourself. Building pieces from this book or other books on vernacular furniture is a start. But it’s like singing songs from a Pete Seeger songbook that you bought at the mall. That might be where it starts, but that’s definitely not how it ends.

Like A.P. Carter, you need to get in your car and drive to the next town to see what is happening there. And then adapt what you find to your needs.

As I build these forms over and over they change. You might not notice it from one chair to another, but every piece is a little different. Sometimes it’s because the material demands it. Right now I’m building a series of four armchairs in white oak, and the seat material is thicker than usual. I could spend some extra time planing it down, or I could slightly increase the thickness of the legs to look harmonious with the seat. Or increase the bevel on the seat to look harmonious with thinner legs. Either change might push my next set of chairs in that direction.

John Brown, the famous Welsh chairmaker, noted this sort of evolution in his columns for Good Woodworking magazine. After making seats using thick material for years, he was once backed into a situation where he had to use some thinner stock for the seat. It became a turning point for his work, and his chairs became lighter from that day forward. But they still looked unquestionably like Welsh stick chairs.

The change might be due to a mistake. The rake and splay of the front legs of my chairs changed when one day I set my bevel gauge to the wrong resultant angle – a full 6° off. But the result was pleasing, so that’s now the angle I use every day.

Other times, changes come because I’ve seen a beautiful old piece or a new piece by a fellow woodworker I admire. There might be something about it – a curve, an angle, an overall pose – that pushes my work in a different direction. I might not even realize I’m absorbing it at first.

And when I feel guilty for it, I again remember A.P. Carter. Collecting those songs preserved them from extinction and ensured their place in our nation’s memory. Likewise, the only way to ensure vernacular furniture survives against the onslaught of manufactured flat-pack pieces is to build the stuff again and again. To allow it to change with the needs of the maker and the tools and materials at hand.

I also think it’s healthy to reject dogma and allow techniques to change as well. Like when Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.

Vernacular stuff doesn’t have to be built out of riven green wood (just like folk music doesn’t require an acoustic guitar). It can be built out of what you have on hand. If that’s riven green wood, use that. If it’s poplar and oak from the home center, use that. The same goes for tools. Vernacular furniture generally requires a smaller tool kit than the high-style stuff, but almost anything can be in that kit. My first piece was built using a jigsaw, drill and block plane. Nothing more. Use what you got. Today I use a band saw, bench planes and lots of other tools. And the tool kit neither diminishes nor improves my work.

There are fewer limits than you think.

In fact, many times we think of “tradition” as a thing that reduces the scope of our work. I would argue that idea is false. Traditional music and traditional furniture – when disconnected from the high styles – offer immense freedom for you as a maker and a composer.

There is a vast supply of forms and melodies all around you, ready to be collected, changed, rebuilt and adored. Look for them and listen. They are the mundane objects that escape attention – the background music stitched into your heart.

And they are beautiful.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
This entry was posted in The Anarchist's Design Book, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

43 Responses to Furniture in the Water

  1. Bill says:

    That was a particularly enjoyable read. Thank you.


  2. antinonymous says:

    This is a well-reasoned and nicely-written essay on the folk ways in both music and furniture, and it’s a worthy addition to your volume.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Scott Miller says:

    My thinking exactly but of course was not aware of all that was in this writing. We shouldn’t duplicate down to the note or to the angle but instead be creative. That’s when the fun begins


  4. jbakerrower says:

    Nineteen chapters is a whole new book! I have the original but want the new one in physical format. When can we preorder?


  5. Joe says:

    Not for publication.
    I wish your father had seen this.
    A father.


  6. Bill Barr says:

    A typo? Section “Bristol, 1927, paragraph 5, sentence 2, “signing” should be “singing”?


  7. William Kwochka says:

    Wow. That was inspiring. Thanks for sharing.

    Bill Kwochka Asheville, NC

    Sent from my Android phone. Please excuse typos and brevity.


  8. This is the best chapter you’ve yet written.

    You made me think of a song that also originated from the late 1920s, from a group called the Cottentop Mountain Sanctified Singers, with a lead vocal by Frankie ‘Half-Pint’ Jaxon. The 1990s version guessed that the use of ‘Sanctified’ in the group’s name would appear or disappear depending on if they were playing in church or in a brothel.

    Improvisation, adaptation, evolution.


  9. Klaus N. Skrudland says:

    I truly admire your way of putting these thoughts into words and context. This is perhaps the best thing I’ve read in quite a while. Digging deeper and rejecting dogma have been two strong mantras to me my whole life, whether it comes to making music, food or furniture. I’m not trying to sum it all up just by those two things, but that is a powerful combination.


    • jglen490 says:

      As humans, we all crave some sort of structure, not a single/universal structure, but one that works. Within any structure there is dogma. Your dogma may not be the same as mine, so you may reject the dogma that is dear to me, while embracing your own. And “digging deeper”, whatever that may mean, will change your dogma. It’s just life, respect it.


      • Klaus N. Skrudland says:

        When listening to music, people today ofte just move laterally. They rarely go below surface. It’s OK, but it’s not for me. Whether it’s music, food or woodworking, I like to move backwards and downwards, to come closer to “the source” and to go from there. This is what “digging deeper” means to me. It gives me inspiration. Then, when making food, music or a table, I try to channel the inspiration I got from digging, as well as some of the ideas, but not necessarily staying true to all of it. This is what I mean by rejecting dogma. It’s a bold statement, but not meant in the boldest way. And yes, life is good and should be respected.


  10. Ken says:

    Probably the best piece you have ever written. OK, I’m partial to the Carter Family so let’s say it is among the best.


  11. Thom Eno says:

    Nicely put.


  12. Phillip Caldwell says:

    Very inspiring. Recently retired and just started reading The Anarchist’s Tool Chest. For sure will be getting the reworked design book. I’m nowhere near your level of craft, but very much enjoy your writing.


  13. Pascal Teste says:

    Hear, hear!


  14. My bucket list now has been updated to include a karaoke duet of “Jackson” with Fitz. Tell her to practice.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Gary says:

    I love every way of saying just go build it. Don’t let perfectionism stop you, don’t let lack of tools stop you. Go see. Go feel. Go build.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. John Sunnygard says:

    Thank you, Chris. Three years ago, I bought, and read, The Anarchist’s Design Book. I’ve been relishing your guidance for my journeys down various woodworking rabbit holes ever since. I started by refurbishing my grandfather’s Millers Falls bench plane – one the tools he used to build houses in Skokie during the 1920’s. Last weekend, I used an axe, maul and wedges to split an oak trunk from a tree that had been taken out in a storm. Frankly, I didn’t think I could get through it. Making the Roubo workbench now seems possible. I am grateful for the fine work you, Megan, Brendan, Follansbee, Hiller, Savage, Becksvoort, Roubo, and the other skilled woodworker authors you publish. Indeed, we stand upon the shoulders of our fores whose work informs and inspires us to make new what is not truly original. Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

  17. Steven Vlahos says:

    Brilliant article (excerpt)! Written like a well crafted melody.


  18. Steven Vlahos says:

    Brilliant article (excerpt)! Written like an elegantly crafted melody.


  19. Frank Vucolo says:

    Never have you unfolded thoughts from that beautiful mind of yours in a more eloquent fashion. And you have unfolded some doozies over the years. Thanks for that, Chris.


  20. pfollansbee says:

    that’s twice today that I read about the Carter Family, the other in the NY Times
    It says that building shaped like a guitar was taken down, I remember seeing it many times driving through Bristol. Nice writing Chris.


  21. Rob Suppes says:

    This was a very enjoyable read. The history of the blues is similar and probably overlaps significantly with folk music; some of of the early blues singers, eg. Blind Willie Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Leadbelly etc. essentially just recycled traditional folk songs the same way that the Carter family did (although blues singers tended to have better stage names). Then of course the blues had a baby, and they called it rock and roll…


  22. I’ve always believed that music and woodworking are exactly the same only different. Good to see similar views from others. While visiting a friend that is a Concert Violinist, she gave my wife a first violin lesson that I was able to sit in on. I was amazed to see her give an explanation on how to hold the bow that was almost word for word what you would teach for holding a back saw.
    Exactly the same, only different.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. I never comment on the blogs I read, however this caused me to make an exception. This was excellent in every way…well written, provocative. Thanks for sharing.


  24. Gav says:

    Linking together and comparing the development of different aspects of culture and craft demonstrates more the possibilities of what we can do and how much the different facets of our lives interact with each other . This was a good one.


  25. says:

    Chris, After reading this I now have a deep seated need to own “The Book of Cletus”! Perhaps a picture book of Vernacular items/features I can flip through for inspiration when building my next item? Commentary on why you, Brendan, or Megan think the piece/feature is noteworthy. I know y’all are busy, but I would pay money for this :-D.

    Liked by 2 people

  26. eaia says:

    Thank you for this information. I really knew little about the Carter family other than they were always mentioned whenever I heard interviews with musicians. It was a great read, thank you.


  27. Lex says:

    Fantastic read! I grew up in the hippie/folkie tradition of the early 70’s, so i heard the reorganization of much traditional, American music. I dig this comparison between music and furniture because of it. There are so many loved songs that i can name half a dozen renditions by different artists in different musical traditions.

    As an aside, the PBS special “American Epic” is well worth a watch. It’s a documentary on the recording of music in the late 20’s; the same process that “discovered” the Carter Family. Until then, music mainly existed on front porches, in churches, and in juke joints so it was local. Radio had not penetrated rural America for lack of electrification. But the “portable” recording technology allowed for pressings of music from all over the country which could be played by anyone (early record players not requiring electricity). And then a great flowering of music occurred because of the cross-pollination of so many individual traditions. Like the steel guitar sound that became a part of both country/western and blues was picked up from a particularly popular Hawaiian recording by the guy who invented using a slide.

    There’s a second part to the special which has Jack White getting his hands on the last of those recording machines and recording mostly traditional tunes performed by modern artists using that old equipment.

    Liked by 1 person

  28. Finn Koefoed-Nielsen says:

    A really interesting analogy and a lovely bit of writing, thanks Chris.
    I’m currently reading about the transmission of architectural styles/sculptural features along the pilgrim route to Santiago. It’s the same deal; “happy mistakes” most of the way, rather than dry classicism from a book of rules (that came later, and wasn’t without merit of course). The importance of the individual take on creative expression is something that Blake celebrated and Ruskin wrote about extensively – and it’s like a golden thread running all the way through to your own books.

    Liked by 1 person

  29. Kyle Barton says:

    Truly a great piece of writing. Inspirational, thought provoking, and informative. I didn’t know much about the Carter Family legacy. But most of all, I need to find and visit the Irish Pub/BBQ joint 😉


  30. Bpb Glenn says:

    Ah….Ah……What they all said, plus, Chris this is the best thing you’ve written to date. Moved me and inspires me. Thanks for your efforts. Bob Glenn

    Liked by 2 people

  31. SteveL says:

    A very thought-provoking comparison – well done.

    Also, thanks for the “Book of Cletus,” I”ll put that in my back pocket for future use.

    Liked by 1 person

  32. Art LaMan says:

    Thank you for an interesting post! As a native Virginian and part-time musician, I love the music produced by the Carters but didn’t know this bit of history.

    One of the things that I cherish about the community of woodworkers is the breadth of interest in, and knowledge of, the wider world as you evidence here. Another example if Peter Galbert opening a talk on chair-making with a reference to physicist Richard Feynman. The exploration of these bon mots does much to spur my creativity.

    Thanks again – Art

    Liked by 1 person

  33. kerry Doyle says:

    pure soul

    Liked by 1 person

  34. Gerald says:

    To your point, I can only echo what others have said above and try to find someway to make it my own. Although I haven’t yet read everything you’ve written, stylistically, this is possibly the best piece of yours that I have read. I read it out loud to both my wife and my 16 year old son (who does not share my love of woodworking but has inherited my love of music including Dylan, Cash, Seeger and hopefully now the Carters.) Thank you for joining your voice to the cultural chorus and your work to our shared heritage. Thank you for inspiring the rest of us to do the same.

    Liked by 3 people

  35. Richard Wagner says:

    Very nice. This is just really, really good.

    I own the Anarchist’s Design Book, but I cannot wait to get the updated book. It is so much better in so many ways. Every glimpse of the new version makes me want to get it in my hands so I can play with the designs and the ideas. I, for one, am really glad you took up this project. You made a great book into a classic.

    Liked by 1 person

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