The following is excerpted from “The Anarchist’s Design Book,” by Christopher Schwarz. Chris often writes a short intro to these Tuesday excerpts, but I’m not sure how he’ll feel about writing one for his own book – after all, one can assume that everything he had to say on the subject is already in the book. Plus, Chris is the least self-aggrandizing person I know. So here’s a few words of praise from me: I think this book is brilliant. It teaches even the most rank beginner how to build simple but handsome furniture with just a few joints and a small kit of tools. It makes the craft approachable, and invites readers in, taking them from simple projects through more advanced pieces of furniture, all building on the previous lessons. And sure – lots of books do that. But the interstitial chapters, such as the one below, teach more than how, they teach why – and that makes “The Anarchist’s Design Book” a joy to read.
I’m talking about shellac with a couple of experienced woodworkers and one of them remarked about an old employer:
“This guy made us make our own shellac,” he said with a sense of wonder.
“He made you go to India and beat the trees?” I asked, a tad confused.
“What? No,” he replied. “We had to mix it up with flakes and alcohol.”
“Wait, how else can you do it?” I replied honestly.
After an awkward pause, the other woodworker said: “Next you’re going to try to convince us to make our own glue out of animals.”
He’s right. I was.
I wouldn’t call myself a traditionalist or a purist. I wear modern underwear. I use all manner of hand tools and machines. I’m fascinated by historical techniques, CNC, 3D printing and how technology (old and new) could change furniture making for the better. It is more accurate to say that I’m an explorer.
If someone told me I could make my own paint from beer, I’d try it that night. (I did, and you can.) And if someone were to tell me you could shrink beech biscuits in the microwave, I’d try that, too. (I did, and you can’t. They only catch fire.)
The point is that woodworking is most interesting when you open yourself up to new techniques, no matter how crazy or daunting. I am always surprised at how easy most things turn out to be in our craft. The most difficult part seems to be to work up the courage to begin.
This is not a new problem. It is an old one that was at times state-mandated.
During the last decade I’ve had the privilege to work in Germany with talented journeymen who completed their formal training both in school and in the real world, earning the right to build furniture for a living.
As you would expect, these men and women are tremendously skilled and knowledgeable. They can cut joinery by hand or with power tools with equal facility. They can finish setting up an enormous spindle moulder then pick up a handplane.
It’s a bit humbling for someone who hasn’t been through the German program.
But then one year I taught a class over there that involved some simple turnings for some chair legs. And I was surprised that none of them had ever turned a spindle or carved a leg. They had never even really considered trying it, even though they had a sweet lathe in their shop.
Those tasks were reserved for people in the turning or carving programs. So their teachers never showed them even the first thing about the lathe or other woodworking disciplines.
I taught them to turn. They loved it. And because of all the other skills they had learned as joiners, they picked it up remarkably fast.
So the next time someone tells you that you can make your own liquid hide glue with a hot plate, try it – if only to prove that you can’t.