It sounds like hyperbole, but “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” (ATC) has changed my life twice – not as much as it changed Christopher Schwarz’s and John Hoffman’s – but it has been integral to my discovering what I love to do, and allowing me to (bonus!) make a living from it.
I vividly recall copy editing ATC before it was first released. I was managing editor of Popular Woodworking Magazine at the time, and it was during a Lie-Nielsen Hand Tool Event at our office and shop, April 16-17, 2011, two days before the book had to go to the printer. I did a shit job of copy editing. There were tons of people around and it was loud – plus I was either interrupted every 10 minutes or so, or I got up to check out a handplane, saw, marking knife, marking gauge …. If you have that wheat-colored first edition, please accept my apologies for the many missed items (thankfully, Chris has long forgiven me). On the other hand, congrats: You have a collector’s item; the book is now in its 13th printing, and celebrated its 10th anniversary this summer.
It’s the book that allowed Chris – less than two months later – to announce he was leaving his job as editor of Popular Woodworking Magazine (PWM); Lost Art Press would become his full-time job (along with teaching as many as three classes every month, writing for PWM as a contributing editor, building furniture on commission…it exhausts me to look at his summer 2011 schedule).
So the first way ATC changed my life was that I was no longer working every day with a guy I greatly admired, and who had taught me most of what I knew about hand-tool woodworking. I lost my lunch buddy – a guy who made me love woodworking enough to rethink my long-term goal to teach college-level Shakespeare. It wasn’t as much fun without him. And it turned into a lot less fun when I got his former job in December of 2012, and no longer had much time for woodworking thanks to employee reviews, EBITDA discussions, management meetings, etc. It was certainly rewarding and I’m honored to have had that job for five years. But fun? Not so much.
When I got let go in December 2017, undergirding my fear was massive relief. I was too fearful to ever quit a corporate job with a steady paycheck and health insurance, no matter how many headaches I had by the end. My first call was to Chris, who took me to lunch and gave me a hangover. The day after, I started moving my stuff into his shop, and scheduled some woodworking classes – among them, “Build The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” (I’m awfully glad Chris was tired of teaching it!). Chris’s success with that book (and others) afforded me a soft place to land, and saved me from ever again attending a corporate meeting that doesn’t occur with either a drink or fried chicken (or both) in hand. Thank you, Chris.
But even if it doesn’t get you a plate full of fried chicken, ATC is the book you should have if you’re interested in hand-tool woodworking, why we make things, or need a tool chest (or all three).
“‘The Anarchist’s Tool Chest’ is divided into three sections:
“1. A deep discussion of the 48 core tools that will help readers select a tool that is well-made – regardless of brand name or if it’s vintage or new. This book doesn’t deal with brands of tools. Instead it teaches you to evaluate a well-made tool, no matter when or where it was manufactured. There also is a list of the 24 “good-to-have” tools you can add to your kit once you have your core working set.
“2. A thorough discussion of tool chests, plus plans and step-by-step instructions for building one. The book shows you how to design a chest around your tools and how to perform all the common operations for building it. Plus, there are complete construction drawings for the chest I built for myself.
“3. There also is a brief dip into the philosophy of craft, and I gently make the case that all woodworkers are “aesthetic anarchists.” — Christopher Schwarz
Below is an excerpt from Chapter 1.
The Good Books
The funny thing is that it was my mad obsession with acquiring woodworking stuff that helped me find a balanced approach to the craft. You see, I became as obsessed with acquiring woodworking books as I was with the tools. I’ve always been a voracious reader, so consuming books on woodworking and tools was natural. (And add to that the fact that I was freelancing at the time as a contributing editor for the WoodWorkers’ Book Club newsletter. That job was a five-year-long force-fed diet of woodworking writing.)
Read enough modern woodworking books, and you might just want to gouge out your eyes with a melon baller. They are all so similar and shallow and filled with idiosyncratic information. I can’t tell you how many times I read the following phrase: “This might not be the right way to do this, but it works for me.”
Something inside my head made me wonder about that “right way” the author rejected.
It just so happened that at about that same time I had a short phone conversation with Graham Blackburn, one of my woodworking heroes. I had a few of Blackburn’s books from the 1970s, and I knew he had a command of woodworking history. So I interviewed him about the origin of the word “jack” in “jack plane” for a short piece I was writing for the magazine.
We then started talking about saws.
During the conversation, Blackburn said I could find the answer to one of my questions in the book “Grimshaw on Saws.”
Huh? I replied.
I’ll never forget what he said next: “You don’t have a copy of Grimshaw, and you’re an editor at a woodworking magazine? Hmmm.”
I was ashamed. So ashamed that I went down to Cincinnati’s public library that weekend to check out Robert Grimshaw’s 1882 treatise on saws. It was sitting on the shelf next to a bunch of other old woodworking books I’d never heard of. I wondered which of those books were also “required reading” in Blackburn’s world. I checked out as many of those cloth-bound books as the library would let me. I went home. I started reading, and I haven’t stopped.
The things I learned from the old books were different than what I expected to learn. I actually expected the shop practices to be different – you know, they had different ways of cutting a mortise, a tenon and a dovetail. But really, not much has changed in the way that steel (usually) defeats wood.
While there are a wide variety of ways to perform every standard operation, the pre-Industrial craftsman didn’t seem to have secret tricks as much as he had lots of opportunities to practice and become swift.
Instead, what surprised me was the small set of tools that were prescribed for a person who wanted to become a joiner or a cabinetmaker.
Joseph Moxon, the earliest English chronicler of woodworking, describes 44 kinds of tools necessary for joinery in “Mechanick Exercises” (1678). For some of these tools, you’d need several in different sizes (such as chisels), but for many of the tools that he described, a joiner would need only one (a workbench, axe, fore plane etc.).
Randle Holme’s “Academie of Armory” (Book III, 1688) has approximately 46 different joinery tools explained in his encyclopedia. An exact number is hard to pin down because some of the tools are discussed twice (for example, mallets, smoothing planes and hatchets) and some tools seem shared with the carpentry trade.
If we jump forward more than 150 years, not too much has changed. The list of tools required by the rural joiner in “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker” (1839) isn’t all that much different from the tool list described by Moxon and Holme. “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker” gives a significant description to about 40 tools used by a young apprentice during his climb to journeyman.
As the Industrial Revolution begins to crank out mass-manufactured tools, the basic list of tools recommended for basic joinery starts to expand. There are more kinds of boring bits available, new kinds of metallic planes (such as blocks, shoulders and routers), plus some new saws, including the coping saw.
By the 20th century, the basic list of tools for joiners stands at about 63, according to books by Charles Hayward, the traditionally trained dean of workshop writers. Still, when I looked at Hayward’s list it seemed rather paltry compared to what was in my shop. (See this book’s appendix for a comparison of these tool lists.)
At first, I attributed these short lists of essential tools to three things:
• Everything in the pre-Industrial age would have been more expensive because it was made by hand.
• The general level of economic prosperity was lower.
• Technological innovation had yet to produce the fantastic new tools shown in the modern catalogs.
But all that was just denial kicking in.
Judging from the descriptions of the nature of work before mass production ruled the earth, there were two things going on that were related, but that are easy for moderns to miss. One, artisans didn’t require as many tools because the basic skill level was higher. Descriptions of hand work support this fully. (Don’t believe me? Read Moxon’s description of making an eight-sided frame in section 19. Try to build one yourself that way – I did – then let’s chat. If that doesn’t convince you, then read André Roubo’s descriptions of Boulle work – then go back to making woven stretchy potholders.)
Also, the structure of the economy in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries was different – it was still basically a pre-Capitalist culture. Large portions of the population were self-employed. Modern consumerism – for better or for worse – had yet to take hold.
To be sure, there were early craftsmen with huge tool sets. There are always going to be a few tool whores in the guild. (I’m looking at you, Duncan Phyfe.) But tool inventories and other published accounts indicate that the pre-Industrial woodworker could use fewer tools to make furniture that was equal to or better than what we make today.
But here’s the other thing that’s important: Their tools were different. To the uneducated eye, the tools of the 17th and 18th centuries look crude. But have you ever examined an 18th-century moulding plane that wasn’t dogmeat? I have. They are refined to a level that exceeds many modern tools.
Everything extraneous has been taken away. Everything necessary is right where you need it and is easy to manipulate.
I have a few early tools, including one particular strapped hammer for the upholstery trade, and I simply cannot imagine how any aspect of the tool could be improved. It is utter simplicity, yet it has a graphic beauty that surpasses everything I’ve seen from the Victorians.
After reading enough accounts of early tool sets, it began to sink in that I didn’t need as many tools to build the furniture on my long to-do list. But then I found out that you can’t buy a chili dog without the bun.
Once the idea of a smaller tool set took hold in my brain, the logic and beauty of its surrounding pre-Industrial economy became as beautiful as my early strapped hammer.
15 thoughts on “‘The Good Books,’ excerpted from ‘The Anarchist’s Tool Chest’”
You and Chris deserve each other (in all the best ways).
Is there any chance you’ll be reprinting Mr. Grimshaw’s book?
Funny you should mention that. I downloaded the free pdf, printed it out on yellow paper to look old still & started watching some YouTube videos on bookbinding. I’m almost done case binding it.
Well, thanks to you 2 I am totally redesigning my shop and getting back to basics. Where were you 40 years ago? Huh.
Well done and you have taught an old dog some very wise new tricks.
I am in the midst of reading that book now…thoroughly enjoying it.
Thanks for the article. I was worried that I might develop a tool collection problem. If you don’t count chisels (I’ve four sets), I’ve done ok keeping it under control. I attribute a lot of that to the ATC for reasons you nicely outlined above.
What might be interesting would be a list of your baker’s dozen woodworking books we should own and read (you’ve kind of started that above). I’ve discovered that though I don’t have a tool problem, I think I have a woodworking book problem to the point I need to build a big book case.
Great post! I have collected Moxon, Holmes and as many of the older texts as I am aware of, as well as, I hope, the better more recent ones. I also am fascinated with the toolmaker’s catalogues that have been republished over recent decades, and a few excellent books on how to make your own hand tools (if I live long enough to find the time).
In my tool collection I have a number of odd tools that are specific to woodworking industries like barrel making, coach makers, etc., ones that almost never show up in treatises. My crafts acquaintances at Colonial Williamsburg have helped me identify some, but there are a few that have left us all scratching our heads!
I do have that yellow copy. A collector’s item, is it? Too bad I’ve scrawled my own notes in it. (I think it’s actually signed by Chris, too, now I think about it.) I even downloaded the separate index, printed it out, and tucked it in the back. I haven’t actually used the index, though. The book is too much fun to just leaf through until I find what I want.
I know a book is good when I can reread it profitably and with pleasure–typos notwithstanding. The ATC is one of those books for me, and I’m grateful for it.
On the subject of books I recently bought ‘Making and Mastering Wood Planes’. I thought that I might have a go at making a plane for myself. I have been delighted by the book which contains a wealth of material beyond simply making planes. Although the main subject is making the plane there is a host of other information about sharpening planes and other tools, how to plane and get flat surfaces, scrapers etc, etc. the book is not something to sit down and read through, rather to use as a reference or to dip into at random, you are bound to find a gem to help in your woodworking.
I have upwards of 75 antique planes going back 250 years, none of them “dogmeat”, and they are indeed excellent usable tools. I find the Dutch-made planes interesting stylistically (I have book specifically on those). As for antique strapped hammers, I have found them to be hard to get unless from UK sellers asking high prices and shipping costs that make me wonder how UK sellers sell anything to US buyers. Fortunately I have one strapped hammer that may be colonial period, and one more recent American-made one.
I have that wheat-colored first edition! It’s signed and positioned right next to Graham Blackburn’s Traditional Woodworking Tools. These are the two books that completely changed my woodworking life. ATC has my lumber receipt for a bookmark, however many board feet of 5/4 cypress. I can’t think of any project that was more enjoyable.
It was autumn of either 2011 or 2012 that I drove from Detroit to Chicago, slept on my nephew’s couch so I could meet you and Chris at a trade show thing. It was a little weird being a fan boy. I remember talking up the book to another attendee and Chris suggested (flattered or annoyed) that maybe I could take over.
It’s been fun following your successes. There’s a Dutch Tool Chest and a pilgrimage to Covington in my future.
Now i can finish reading your post.
Everything seems to have worked out pretty well — at least I hope it has. The woodworking world is much better off, and hopefully you are doing well after all the changes you’ve endured. It’s been a lot of fun for me following along on this end. Thanks.
old wooden hand planes are amazing from design to function
Please for the love of Godfrey make that 1688 tools illustration available on a shirt.
I’ve seen Duncan Phyfe’s tool chest and well… I’m embarrassed. I’ve never created anything as lovely as his designs but I sure have way more tools. Hmmm… Maybe it’s time for me to do some [tool] editing of my own.
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