I do what I can to avoid the mushy-mushy concepts and questions that are posed by the thinkers in our craft. You know: art vs. craft, sawdust is therapy, what is the saw nib for?
But I do have some answers to the practical questions that beginners ask during classes.
Q: Why do you sign your work? Isn’t that prideful?
I suppose my answer comes from my training as a journalist. Traditionally, your published writing remained unsigned until you “earned” a byline. As a cub reporter, you were first tested with writing unsigned news “briefs” or obituaries until you proved yourself responsible enough.
After you earned a byline, it was a mark of responsibility. If you screwed something up, your name was on it. So everyone in the community knew that you, Chris Schwarz, couldn’t get your facts straight, or spell the mayor’s name correctly.
That’s why I sign my work – unobtrusively. If something ever goes wrong with the chair, cabinet or chest of drawers, then I’m the one who deserves the blame. And I’m the one who has to fix it.
Q: Why do you stamp your tools with your mark? Do you not know your own tools? Aren’t you putting yourself on par with the true maker of the tool?
Again, some history. In many apprentice systems, your first purchase was your name stamp. Not to stamp the furniture you built, but to stamp your tools. Many woodworkers had their tools insured through benevolent societies. And to qualify for the insurance, your tool had to be stamped.
Some more recent history. When my parents sent me to Jesus Camp, my mom sewed my name into all my clothes so that when I lost them, they came back to me.
If you work with others or you teach or attend classes, you need to mark your tools. Every class I have been a part of ends with someone taking the wrong tool home or leaving a tool behind.
Q: Why do you modify your tools? Doesn’t that hurt their value?
This question comes mostly from tool collectors. And I suppose they are correct. Dead stock tools are going to sell for more than modified ones.
For me, however, a tool is worthless if it doesn’t work well. So I am happy to file the metal bits, carve the wooden bits and upgrade the innards in any way to improve the tool’s working characteristics.
I have no quibbles with tool collectors – they are preserving tools that will be used by future generations. That’s a noble thing. But tool collecting and woodworking are two different avocations. And I’m a user.
— Christopher Schwarz
48 thoughts on “Try to be Practical”
‘I do not sign my work, I am too humble for that. Plus, you should be able to recognise my work by my workmanship anyway’.
“Don’t be so humble – you’re not that great” – Golda Meir
I’ve always signed the work I make, whether it is to be gifted or sold. It’s part of the piece’s history.
Also, some years ago, I found an old -18thC – cupboard with the maker’s name, unfortunately no date, but he had used the Rod (‘Story Board’, I think you call it ) in the back of the piece and in one of the doors, all with his original marks.
“Waste not, want not”, as they say.
When I made stuff for profit, I used to hide a small coin with the year’s date somewhere inside, out of sight – probably to be found in the embers of some fire in the far distant future.
There’s nothing wrong with signing something you’re proud of. Pride can help us do better, and do more. I have no problem with it.
Although I sign the furniture I build, a signed tool irks the hell out of me. I didn’t make it. I don’t deserve to carve my name in it. I am just protecting it for the next owner. I have more respect for the tool than to desecrate it. LOL. I can tell you out of the 1500 or so hand tools I have and use, there are 7 signed ones that I am always on the look out to replace. Not sure why it bothers me so much, but as a professional woodworker for over 38 years, it really does.
Have you taken classes? I wouldn’t take one without marking my tools.
Bump, endorse, wrap a bow on the parent post. I’m pretty obsessive over my tools in a class setting. Still, after unpacking from a class I found an extra chisel in my toolbox. I know for a fact I didn’t use it as I borrowed no tools for that weekend. Following up with the instructor and other students I finally ferreted out what happened. Another attendee, A, borrowed a tool from B, and then returned it to my toolbox in the belief it belonged to B. No malice involved, just a simple mistake. And I was out 8 bux sending a chisel home without a sharpening.
Bonus thought, I have a fair number of tools with multiple owner stamps on them. It pleases me that those tools are still tooling. Mr. Werner has that collector gene that I lack. 🙂
Not sure I would call it a collection gene, although I do love to occasionally sit back with a beer and look at the view looking back behind my bench. I collect old users for my Furniture Restoration business. If the other drawer bottoms were roughed out with a 15/8inch plane, I match it with my replacement. It takes a lot of tools to match other maker’s tool marks. After 38 years I can match a lot of tool marks other folks made. And I like to do it with unsigned tools when I can. And they have gotten harder to find.
That’s dedication and real commitment to doing a job. People tell me you can learn a lot from looking at the tool marks (but you have to be a much better craftsman than I).
How big is that stamp? I’m sure it’s just a trick of camera perspective, but it looks HUGE!
Good answers, I am surprised the first 2 get asked…
About a year ago I was given a cardboard box with a bunch of tools in it ,many had WH stamped on them .When I asked my aunt if she knew whose tools they were she said that they belonged to my great great grandfather who was a woodworker during the depression. I for one am glad that he had signed his tools as it gives me the history of the user and part of my famlly
I have seen images of your chairs stamped with your dividers. I have not see a piece with the stamp pictured in this blog post. Could you post an image, please. Just curious.
Next time I make a chair, I’ll snap a photo.
If it is good enough for Isaac Newton, I’m all in for signing my work.
Several years ago, I attended a lecture by Edward Tufte, a noted statistician and professor. He devoted substantial time to advising people to “Sign your work.” Yes, it is a note of pride, but not prideful to the point of being vainglorious.
Tufte emphasized his point by passing around a small leather bound book: Isaac Newton’s ” Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy.” A page in the front of the book was signed by Newton. A page at the end of the book was also signed, by the printer.
I sign my work, and mark any tools that travel from my shop.
Edward is a fascinating guy. The seminars I took from him were well worth the price of admission.
“Pride is what we think of ourselves; vanity is what we would have others think of us.”; Jane Austen, I believe.
His work on data visualisation is amazing! I try to follow it.
Good thing to stamp your tools, just watch out for tempered steel, hardened steel will destroy your stamp. Stamp the wood, it’s easier. Stamping is easy proof of ownership if someone thinks you’re picking up their tool. It takes time to do, but worth it when you show them it’s yours. Like to think someone will remember me and value this tool with my mark.
My tool stamp is designed to mark hardened steel. But this is a good point for those who are buying a stamp.
Infinity asks what you’ll be stamping, and has different depths for stamping wood, brass, steel, etc. They really do good work.
I try to sign and date all my projects. The grandkids complain if they get something that hasn’t been signed.
“The grandkids complain” because what they treasure most is, you.
“Who are you to put your name on something you made yourself?”
Are your students literal Shakers?
Shakers signed their stuff. Don’t blame them.
Wow, that’s a nice stamp! I have been meaning to get something made up for awhile now, this is a good reminder to get to it soon. In the meantime I’m using a basic letter and number stamp set to sign and date my work.
My. Some awfully judgemental individuals out there.
You sign your work because it’s yours.
You modify your tools because they’re yours.
You do what you do because you’re free to do so .
You are free to do what you choose; scolds should use their time more productively.
Thank you for sharing your posts with us.
Thoughts on stamping vs. branding? Clear that you’ve made your choice, was curious if you have a rationale to share.
I just like stamps. Probably because they are traditional. And plus with my luck I’d burn down my shop with a brand.
Sadly, no owner stamps or identifying marks on this tool chest aside from the Freemason icon, but figured that might be a seque to ask about something:
I recently acquired a vintage tool chest (best guess, ~100-120 years old) that has an interesting varation that I haven’t seen mentioned in your writings on the topic – a “vertical side till” (likely not the best name).
I was curious about your thoughts on it if you would be willing to take a look, but couldn’t really find a good forum to ask, but thought the photos might be of interest – found at an estate sale in Colorado.
The “vertical side till”:
More photos of the chest for context:
It’s a really nice piece of craftsmanship, clearly was used for it’s intended purpose, so I’m sure the side till was useful for the original builder.
A long time ago, I had one of those “Handcrafted By” branding irons. So did everyone else. It seemed . . . Meh. When I had a steel stamp made, it felt more personal.
Years ago I made my living as a mechanical draftsman, often in part-time jobs while I was attending college. In those days we were expected to provide most of our own tools (templates, scales, instruments, drafting pencils, etc.), and as manufactured objects, most of them were indistinguishable from the similar tools others had. Because I was quite poor, losing those tools was a major expense and problem for me when it happened. After a few such incidents, I took to scratching my initials in all my tools. I was always AMAZED at how often so many of them found their way to the desks of certain other people who had never asked permission to borrow them, and didn’t intend to return them either. (In fact, I remember a tale years ago now when Mr. Schwarz discovered somebody had even purloined his beautifully engraved jack plane while it was momentarily left unattended at a woodworking show. As I recall, he was able to recover it, probably only because it was so uniquely engraved.) So I think anybody who values their tools and uses them in any kind of large-group or public setting, NEEDS to mark them for identification. Also, I have inherited a large wooden tool-box, now over a century old, that my grandfather made for himself while he was working as a carpenter. He carved his name prominently into it for the very reason I have mentioned, and now it is an essential element of that family heirloom antique’s provenance.
Also, I sign my work with indelible ink with year and location of build I have always felt the branding iron takes away from the “handmadeness” (is that even a word..lol) of a piece literally giving a factory feel to it. It’s always a welcome surprise when I find handwritten makers marks on old pieces of furniture be it just a check mark or letter on the back off a drawer box, same goes for carved in letters/numbers even stamped…I guess I am just a romantic at heart, lol..
I would like to add an infinity stamp as well, something small maybe just my initials…
The house we just renovated had a few built in things, a shoe cupboard at the entrance and a wardrobe in the bedroom (and some shop furniture). I had to remove it to get out the old plumbing and electric wiring. The previous owner had built those pieces, and I found the cabinet maker’s triangle and all sorts of other marks. I’m glad I kept them! They are back in their old places.
I think one’s hand work should have their Maker’s Mark of some type on it, not as a memento of pride, but rather of responsibility for its quality.
As for protecting my tools at a class, I just superglue an Apple AirTag to each tool next to the flashing Lime green LED light I place on my them. This seems to be an effective deterrent to any pilfering. 🙂
I am probably a weird one here, have been my whole life. But I rarely sign a piece. Not because I believe/don’t believe in the practice. A majority of the time, I simply forget. For me, woodworking is about the process, and I dearly love the process. The end product is inconsequential. Yes, I am proud of it. No, I am not hiding from the responsibility of it. I would be just as happy to burn it as I would to keep it or send it to its intended home. What I value most is what I learned and what I learned about myself while making that thing. How do I sign that?
Full disclosure: I am not a professional woodworker and I realize this doesn’t apply to most folks who ARE professionals. Just sayin.
The way you make your chairs, Chris, if they need repairs I am assuming you expect to be summoned from the grave! 🤪
James Krenov in his first book has a nice passage regarding using a maker’s mark on his work. I don’t recall the specific words. Basically, he wasn’t that keen on doing it. Then, he realized how much it mean to his clients and that changed his outlook.
I’ve got a maker’s mark from Infinity stamps (thanks Chris for telling us about them). I then use my Lee Valley number and letter set to stamp in the date. If I was ambitious, on the larger pieces, I’d inlet a silver dollar in the year it was made as ties back to a tradition of making homes and putting a silver dollar somewhere (also have heard of other coins being used). Often, I will write in pencil where I made the piece (city and state).
I fully know my skills are average at best and I won’t be in a museum (and that is fine). However, I think my daughter will appreciate this and tell my grandkids about it. Also, I think if some of the pieces survive into the future, some folks will find it cool to see a maker’s mark, year, and where it was made.
In my grandma’s basement we have Luigi’s cabinet and a 1930s scroll saw from same Luigi. He was my grandfather’s cousin. That’s about all I know about him. Every time I see the cabinet, I think of him and wonder what he was like. Right next to that piece, which is in the basement, is the original 1930s/early 40s telephone that still works. I used it within the last 5 years.
1) I learned to ALWAYS mark my tools. As machinist, if something wet away, if I didn’t prove it was mine, it was gone FOREVER.
This continues with my present tools.
2) I make and modify tools all the time, be them metal or wood. I am not sentimental about it, if it doesn’t do the job correctly, it HAS to change. That is why I have about 50 flat-blade screwdrivers: I grind them precisely to fit the odd screws in the work that i’d restoring/repairing. A properly fitted screwdriver will not slip and mar the original wood.
Saws, planes, anything, it works or it goes away as useless…and I don’t have space for useless.
3) On the rare occasions I mark my work (like on a timber frame or a church steeple), I sign my work where the thing would have to be taken apart some time in the future.
Lift up the flooring on work I do, and there’s the name. BUT NOT UNTIL IT’S BEING MAJOR REPAIRS.
4) I have preserved OTHER worker’s signatures. In one house, the office I built in the basement had the initials and date pressed into the mortar of the stone foundation.
When I made the finished office walls, I made a hinged picture frame so that when you swing it open, there’s the signature.
In the same house, I rebuilt/refinished the gunstock front door. Under the original mortise lockset was a penny, just as shiny as it was inserted in the door in 1897.
When I replaced the lock, I put back the penny, and added a shiny new 2001 penny with a note, with the scrawl of the three-year-old son of the man I was working for.
Who did the design work for the stamp? Been having trouble finding someone.
Unfortunately it was me
Was poking through my files and came across an article related to this topic. Fine Woodworking starting on Page 80 of the Sep/Oct 2007 issue ran an article on all the various ways to sign your work. If you want to is up to you.
Please pardon my ignorance, but exactly how do these stamps work? Do you simply place the stamp on the work and hit it with a big hammer? One hit and done? End grain, side grain? Pre-treat the wood in any way? Does the stamp have any kind of handle? How many hits can you get out of one of these things if it’s used exclusively on wood? (In other words, do they get “dull?”) Any hints or tips on keeping them in top shape… I assume they must gunk up some over time, so how do you maintain them for the cleanest stamp mark? And Chris, which “model” of stamp did you order from Infinity Stamps? Thanks for the help!
Kelly, for what it’s worth, Chris has had his small one for years and used it to mark softer metal and wood, and it still works fine. As does mine, which I’ve had for a couple years. You just hit it hard, with a big hammer/mallet. No special treatment of either the stamp or the surface to be stamped.
Awesome! Thanks for the info.
Are there sources(s) of name stamps?
This looks like a fairly large stamp. It would take considerable force to leave a full imprint on face wood, much the same force on end grain. Is this stamp used with an ink pad to leave an inked image on wood surfaces. That would work pretty well. Heat would also do the trick, and be more like a brand. Just interested in how you use it, it’s a beauty!
Eh – I’m not that strong, and I have no trouble making it work, using a lump hammer. (You hit it; no ink)
Comments are closed.