(Note: This piece is more about writing than it is about woodworking. So if you’re in a “chisel and mallet” mood, I’d move along. — CS)
When I come up with an idea for a book, it is so fragile that I’m afraid to speak it out loud.
Several years ago I decided to explain one of the core ideas behind “The Stick Chair Book” to friends to see if they could help me flesh out a couple things.
I explained my idea in five minutes. Then, for the next 45 minutes, I couldn’t get a word in edgewise as my idea was mutilated, and my reasoning behind it was slashed to pieces.
I walked away from the conversation a bit shaken – ashamed I had even brought up the idea. I put the book’s outline away for almost two years before I could bear to examine it again.
This is why I’m leery to talk about future book ideas. I have dozens. And whenever I’m interviewed for a podcast or have woodworking visitors, I get asked – with genuine curiosity – about the unwritten books ahead.
My answers are terrible, and so I usually pull a Bob Dylan. “I don’t know.” “A book about a snail who finds love in unlikely places.” “Another workbench book.”
The truth is, the only good answer to that question seems to be a completed manuscript. “Here, this is what I’m working on – fully fleshed out. Read it, then you can tell me if it’s a good idea or not.”
Book ideas are funny things. When they are just ideas, they can seem profoundly stupid or awesome. If I expose an idea to others too soon, it will almost certainly die, whither or change entirely. And that’s not a good thing. Diluting a crazy idea with someone else’s sanity might sound like a positive step. For me, it’s not. I’d rather a crazy idea remain purely bonkers, untouched, so that it can either take root or self-immolate.
Sometimes that means that I have to create a “urinal pitch” for my books as I write them. The urinal pitch is a couple of harmless sentences about the project that I can tell to friends and neighbors until the book comes out. The real idea remains subtext. How does that work? Here are some examples:
“Workbenches: From Design and Theory to Construction and Use”
Urinal pitch: Two workbenches you can build with construction lumber – plus a way to choose the right vises and workholding for your work.
Subtext: Modern benches are too complex and don’t offer many advantages. Simpler benches do everything you need.
Urinal pitch: How to pick the hand tools you need and build a tool chest to store them.
Subtext: Stop buying tools. We all have too many, and that sabotages furniture making. Here’s a tool chest that can help thwart your consumerism.
Urinal pitch: Here’s a furniture style that hasn’t been explored much. There are lots of interesting forms to build.
Subtext: Here’s the missing link between the 18th and 20th century furniture styles. Campaign furniture set the stage for Danish Modern, Mid-Century Modern and even Bauhaus. It’s a crime that this style is unacknowledged.
Urinal pitch: You can build a house full of furniture with two sometimes-maligned techniques.
Subtext: You can make money making furniture if you focus on underserved populations and make forms that can be built quickly.
Urinal pitch: Roman workbenches are easy to build and surprisingly effective.
Subtext: There is an entire world of workholding out there if you are willing to sit down and use your body instead of vise screws. Speed comes from less workholding.
Urinal pitch: The culmination of 20 years of writing, building and using all manner of workbenches. Plus plans for my favorite bench.
Subtext: Sometimes the only way to lay claim to your work is to crap in your nest.
Urinal pitch: How to build chairs with a simple set of tools and easy-to-find lumber.
Subtext: I’ll let y’all chime in here in the comments.
— Christopher Schwarz
36 thoughts on “Preserving the Purely Bonkers”
“The Stick Chair Book” –
How to empty the World’s tool shops of just the tools you need to make Stick Chairs.
Urinal pitch: I want to publish my book about building bicycle wheels using my computer truing algorithm. Much of it is in my blog. One commenter described it as “hopelessly nerdy.” Subtext: No I’m not joking.
They all sound good but I think I’ll pick Campaign Furniture. As an author, I know how hard it is to visualize, describe and then, hardest of all, write and revise the damned book. But nothing beats the thrill of seeing it in print. That’s why we keep on going.
Stop caterwauling about getting boxed out drawings for my chairs. Here’s the manual. Make one yourself. Cheap.
How can you fully explain in a few minute elevator speech what takes several hundred pages to cover?
I get grief on how I construct my projects, so I’ve learned not to ask but go my own way, do my own research and make my mistakes so I can learn from them.
I’ve never put my thoughts and plans out there for the world to pick apart, the way you do. So I can’t imagine the way the buzzards make you feel. Just keep doing what you’ve been doing. I get curious, but it won’t kill me.
I always like your urinal pitches. My favorite when you were dipping your toes (publicly) in the stick chair book was referring to it as “chairmaking for cabinetmakers.” You couldn’t describe it any better, or more succinctly.
I am ordering “Ingenius Mechanicks”, and it made me wonder if you ever wanted to explore Japanese or Chinese woodworking methods. The impact that Ming and Qing dynasty furniture had on western furniture design is well known. Also the similarities of design elements between Japanese and Shaker.
I’m amazed at how little info (printed or online) there is about the tools, work holding and joinery from these two great cultures (I am aware of T. Odate, et al).
I watched a video of a Chinese craftsman using a rope and his feet as a vice to chop mortises and saw; a nail used as a planing stop; his body weight to hold the work, etc. It seems that there is a lot of common ground between the benches and methods used in Ingenius Mechanicks and how woodworking is still done today in China and Japan.
Perhaps worth further investigation?
Open a Door to when making something to Sit on was a Practical Necessity.
Your books are one form of your art, if you open a forum on your ideas as you said they are torn apart and mutilated and no longer express your singular point of view. A discussion is all well and good but your books are only your books if they aren’t blown by winds from all points on the Compass. Keep those urinal patches going . Hide, conceal, obfuscate, people are ready for the books in the pipeline.
Do the Campaign furniture book!
Ignore naysayers. Some people are incapable of starting with a goal and addressing obstacles: They instead assert obstacles as reasons notmto do something. Usually because they fear failure and neither attempt anything, nor want you to, either.
Thank you for your efforts. Try; fail; succeed; learn; repeat!
He already wrote that book.
And so he has. Noted. Statement, however stands. Take the leap. Ignore the doubters.
Unfortunately this is true in many spaces, from writing and art to business plans and new product ideas. I’m as guilty as the next person in trying to be “helpful”. The people I know that have been successful bringing their ideas into the world (like you and your books) somehow ignore all that helpful advice and stay focused on their vision.
Thanks Chris. When I am thinking of building a piece of furniture with my own “original” design, I tend to be silent about it for quite a while as I let it ruminate so I get it.
You might find this funny. When I was working at a large 100,000 employee place we were launching a new important software platform. I and several others were working long hours to get it done. I was getting in early one day and my bosses boss and I got on the elevator. She asked how it was going and I said “fine.” I was tired and not in a chatty mood. On my annual evaluation, it came up that I needed to practice elevator pitches to upper management. I was slightly annoyed by this as I was genuinely tired from working on it and I know she knew it was going well and was under control. But whatever, the die was cast and I now had something I needed to work on. For the next two years, anyone in upper management with me in an elevator got updates. Management appreciated how responsive I was to their suggestions for improvement. When I think of short pitches I think elevator pitches. I kind of link urinal pitches better but would never call them that at work (but will now think of that term instead).
Perhaps the fundamental issue is you are speaking to the wrong crowd. You won’t find a woman’s perspective at a urinal.
They call them elevator pitch for a reason.
But “urinal” is a funny word.
Urinal cake is way funnier than elevator cake.
now I can’t get the image out of my head of people wizzing in the corners of elevators, talking woodworking books.
European can be as well as saying “you’re in trouble “ with the right intonation
You were never interested in making a chair before but now, in an atypical mid life crisis, you find yourself alone with your thoughts and chair making curious.
Ewwww, thanks that was hilarious
Stick chairs are lovely, sturdy, and versatile. Step away from the dowel joint.
You are far from the only creative person I have read about who has discovered that this his or her audience needs to see the tree in the yard to imagine what the seedling will become.
I’m reminded of the J.D. Salinger quote: “If you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry.” Of course, there is the oft quoted corollary of writing being like walking down the street naked.
Writing a book takes courage, persistence, and a dash of self delusion that you’ll get it done and that it will matter. Look at what you thought about The Anarchist’s Tool Chest as a conceptual roadmap and how many thousands of the things actually got built.
Old Saw suitable for framing, perhaps
Never show a Child or a Fool a thing half-finished
Subtext. Incurable addiction for those who read it. A fever that can’t be cured even by building more chairs.
Subtext. A chair ya just stick it together.
The book for people who are STILL too hesitant to make their first chair even after reading the Anarchist’s Design Book, and you will still hesitate after this book and probably still never make one, then on your deathbed your last words will be , “stick chair….”
My next book will be about me driving around the country to readers’ homes and begging them to build a chair with me.
Or the snail thing. That would be nice.
In my defense, I am seriously considering making the low staked stool. I have been way too scared to try making a chair for literally decades. And I have no excuse as I live 30 minute drive from Russ Filbeck.
For four years I have been putting off taking a chair class with Russ. I truly only have myself to blame when he passes.
To paraphrase Rick Steves, the subtext is “Chair making as a political act”
Also, the picture and title shows a missed opportunity in naming the Lump Hammer “Bonkers” instead. The name would also be the instructions.
The ” Stick Chair Book ” subtext ..
Please consider this the same as the brilliant Robin Williams description of golf ” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3QNdJbMl6ds ”
“I will try and convince them to build a Fcking chair with just a bunch of sticks ! No , not one , but four of the Fcking things” ..
Yes , I own and love the book .. and have some hopeful looking sticks starting to take shape ..
Subtext: Anyone can build a chair with a little bit of work. And you might even be able to impress your significant other!
“Subtext: Sometimes the only way to lay claim to your work is to crap in your nest.”
I thought it was pretty funny when you wrote a 20 year newer version from scratch, published it, and made the pdf available for free. Why would anyone get the other workbench books?
I hope Lost Art Press continues to change the game for authors and lets all sides profit, including us readers.
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