The following is excerpted from “The Anarchist’s Design Book: Expanded Edition,” by Christopher Schwarz. It’s an exploration of furniture forms that have persisted outside of the high styles that dominate every museum exhibit, scholarly text and woodworking magazine of the last 200 years.
There are historic furniture forms out there that have been around for almost 1,000 years that don’t get written about much. They are simple to make. They have clean lines. And they can be shockingly modern.
This book explores 18 of these forms – a bed, dining tables, chairs, chests, desks, shelving, stools – and offers a deep exploration into the two construction approaches – staked and boarded – used to make these pieces that have been forgotten, neglected or rejected.
While the tool list below is based on building the furniture pieces in this book (look Ma, no dovetails!), it’s a good foundation set for any woodworker.
I wrote my first book in 1995 on a Macintosh Centris 610. The story was about a carpenter whose life is saved when he joins a religious cult teetering on the brink of collapse and violence. The book was titled “Fisheye” because once you can actually see the world around you in all directions, it becomes distorted and difficult to interpret. Think of a fisheye lens for a camera.
The book completely sucked. I burned the manuscript in 1998.
What’s important about the first paragraph of this tale is the model number of the computer. It was the same machine I used at my newspaper job. There my editors assigned me about 300 stories a year on everything from the machinations of the zoning board of appeals to a local duck that had fallen in love with a neighbor’s dog.
I am grateful that most of that work went to wrapping fish, starting fires and stuffing the coats of mountain hermits.
In neither case was the Centris 610 to blame for the resulting drivel. It was caused by the stupid bag of meat between my ears. Yet there is a key difference between the two similar stories above. At the newspaper, I used my Centris 610 to make money for my employer. When I wrote my doomed novel, I used the Centris 610 to attempt my escape.
It’s the same in woodworking. The tools – hand, power or digital – are neutral. What makes them terrifying or liberating is how they are wielded. You can use a table saw to make MDF tchotchkes for a mass-market retailer, or you can use it to build something for yourself – a table, a chair, a business that exists outside of the corporate world.
It’s too easy to anthropomorphize our tools with political, social or emotional traits. In the end, all tools are just rocks. You can use one to scoop out a tree trunk for a canoe or bash in your neighbor’s head.
So why do hand tools seem more subversive than a random-orbit sander? It’s probably because you don’t find many handplanes on the factory floor anymore. So owning a backsaw instead of a chop saw makes you feel like you are thumbing your nose at industry or society. But the truth is that until you put the saw (either saw) to the wood, you are just picking your nose with the wrong digit.
Tools are interesting. The things we can make with them are far more so.
In that spirit, I’d like to introduce some of the critical tools (and a couple machines) that will help you build the projects in this book. This chapter is not an infomercial. All of these tools here are mine, and I paid full price for them. You might not even be able to purchase some of them because of where you live in the world or because you are reading this book in the prison library run by our squid overlords in 2174.
So don’t sweat it. There are lots of good tools out there. This chapter will show you what to look for.
16 oz. Hammer
Hammers are essential to woodworking. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling dovetail jigs. But which hammer is basic to building furniture?
The furniture-maker’s hammer has a 16 oz. head, a smooth and slightly domed striking face, a wooden handle and the balance of a trapeze artist. A 16 oz. tool allows you to drive 4d and 6d nails for furniture with a few strikes and without wearing you out. A domed striking surface lets you set the heads of nails flush without “Frenching” the work. MF: The French call it “Englishing”…or at least I hope they do.
A wooden handle is warm in your hand and won’t vibrate your arm apart like some metallic or fiberglass hammers.
Lots of people talk about the “balance” or “hang” of a tool, but it’s difficult to describe. You will not know it when you first pick up the hammer. You will not know it after you drive a nail. By your thousandth nail, however, you’ll know. And the knowledge will never leave your fingers.
In the last few years I’ve become fond of using what the English call a “lump hammer” to assemble casework and chairs. Here in North America, it’s called a sledge, blacksmith or engineer’s double-face hammer. But none of those names does the tool justice quite like “lump hammer.”
I like one with a head that weighs between 2 lbs. and 2-1/2 lbs. (in metric land, look for a 1,000-gram head) with the tool’s total length about 10-1/2″. You might have to cut down the handle; this will improve its balance and finesse.
The lump hammer offers gentle whacks when you lift it and let it fall a few inches. And if you put any swing into it, you can knock almost anything home, even a dovetailed carcase that is locked-in mid-assembly because the glue has swollen the joints.
That’s how I came to love the lump hammer – I had one in my tool kit to rescue student work that was on the brink of failure. But I came to appreciate it as a tool of great subtlety; I use it for mortising and setting holdfasts, too. Plus beautiful vintage ones are cheap and plentiful.
MF: He loved it so much, we now offer a Crucible Lump Hammer.
Sometimes called a “nail punch,” these are goofily named but important tools. If you want to drive, set or punch a nail head 1/32″ below the surface of the wood, you need them. Buy good ones or undamaged vintage ones. They typically come in three sizes. Get all three.
A Few Bevel-edge Chisels
A “few” might be more than you need. For most work, a 1/4″, 1/2″ and 3/4″ chisel will handle most everything.
Don’t worry about the tool’s steel or how long it keeps an edge. That’s fairly irrelevant. If a chisel is garbage, you’ll figure that out and exchange it. Most, and by most I mean 90 percent, chisels have steel that’s better than you need.
Focus instead on the handle and determine if the chisel is handle-heavy, which will wear out your wrist. I prefer a lightweight wooden handle – most plastic-handled chisels are too heavy. The chisel should feel like something you want to hold all day, like a pencil.
The long edges of the chisel’s blade should be beveled so you can get into acute corners. These bevels also reduce the tool’s overall weight.
There are lots of other details in this simple tool, but if you buy a wooden-handled bevel-edge chisel, you can make any necessary modifications yourself.
Mallets are as personal as hammers. I have a 16 oz. round-head mallet for light chopping with chisels, mostly. You can make your own if you like. Wooden mallets are great because they can be easily modified or repaired by a woodworker (you).
The jack plane is by far the most common handplane in woodworking, and for good reason: You can set it up to hog off material, straighten surfaces or provide the final surface for finishing. For many years a jack was the only bench plane I used.
A vintage (the older the better) metallic jack plane with wooden handles is a fantastic choice. My Stanley No. 5 cost less than $20 and is still going strong after 20 years of constant use.
There are so many resources out there for picking and restoring planes that it can become a hobby unto itself, though that’s not my bag. Get the tool working and improve its condition every time you disassemble it for sharpening. That’s my best advice.
The second plane I use the most is a low-angle block plane. You basically have two choices with this tool: Buy an old one and restore it or buy a premium new one. Inexpensive modern block planes are good for rock fights or adding ballast to a bag that you’re trying to sink to the bottom of the lake – little else.
I like a tool that has an adjustable mouth and fits easily in one hand. I’m not a fan of monster block planes.
Router planes are essential to every hand-tool shop for installing hinges or making dados or sliding dovetails. The larger size – based on the Stanley No. 71 – is the most useful if you can buy only one. I like a “closed throat” router, or a tool where the throat can be temporarily closed.
Premium router planes include a depth stop, a handy feature. Don’t worry about having all the different irons; you’ll do 99 percent of your work with a straight iron.
Though originally designed as a metalworking tool, a good combination square is outstanding for woodworking. I use the 12″ and 6″ models. You get what you pay for with combination squares; cheap tools are frustrating and quality versions are not.
Pick up a Starrett or a Brown & Sharpe and you will be spoiled.
Cheap marking gauges that use a dull pin to abuse the wood are frustrating. You need to file the pin to a sharp, flattened point that is angled slightly away from the fence and make sure the beam and fence lock so everything is at right angles.
Or buy a good cutting gauge and get to work. There are lots of good ones available. Look for one that has a fixed (not rotating) wheel to make the cuts. Keep it sharp.
MF: I would put this tool in the brand-name section below, and tell you to get a Tite-Mark. The design that allows one to micro-adjust it with one hand is worth every penny.
Woodworking has more to do with geometry than mathematics. So a compass is essential for layout – not just arcs and circles, but for many straight-line layouts as well. I have a nice Starrett compass I purchased (finally) after struggling for years with a draftsman’s compass. The Starrett is built like a tank and allows me to swap out one of the points for a pencil – it’s perfect.
If you are ever going to build a piece of staked furniture, you need one good brace with an 8″ or 10″ sweep. I’m not picky about brand names. Instead, I nitpick the tool’s condition. You need a chuck that has its springs, closes tight on the bit and has crisp – not worn-out – jaws. The brace’s pad at the top shouldn’t wobble much, if at all. The handle, where you grab the tool to crank it, should spin freely.
If you are going to use nails or screws, a hand drill is essential. Just like with the brace, don’t shop by brand name. Shop by the tool’s condition. The chuck should be in perfect working order. The tool’s gears should engage and turn freely. A little lubrication in the tool’s oil ports will work wonders. Oh, and the crank’s handle should be firmly affixed and not weirdly bent. All the other features – detachable side handle, multi-gear transmission, bit storage – are tits on a tomcat.
Spokeshave or Drawknife
To create the rough shape of a round tenon for staked furniture, a spokeshave or drawknife is essential (if you don’t own a lathe). A drawknife works faster than a spokeshave, but it is more difficult to sharpen and learn to use.
If you buy a spokeshave, I recommend ones based on the Stanley 151 model. These have two spinwheels that let you adjust the tool’s cutter. Beginners have much better luck with these tools compared to ones without mechanical adjusters. Spokeshaves come with either a flat sole (like a handplane) or one that is slightly bellied from front to back. Both are useful.
For sawing tight curves, a coping saw is ideal. Most of the modern ones are shoddy; vintage ones are much better. Look for tools that accept pinned blades.
More important than the tool is its blade. Good blades make the difference. I use Swiss-made Pegas blades. If you are having difficulty finding them, that is because I have hoarded a lifetime supply. Apologies.
MF: Double apologies for any scarcity. I have also bought what I thought was a lifetime supply…but because I keep handing them out in classes, I need to buy more. Before this posts.
Rasps are invaluable for curved work. I use them for smoothing the cuts made by the coping saw or drawknife. For the projects in this book, you need only a small, fine-toothed half-round rasp. Look for rasps with random, hand-stitched teeth. They are (a lot) more expensive, but they cut smoothly and leave a better surface behind.
For cutting pieces to final size or cutting joints, you need a backsaw or two. Most woodworkers end up with three backsaws: a 10-point tenon saw filed with rip teeth, a 14-point carcase saw filed with crosscut teeth and a 15-point dovetail saw filed with rip teeth.
You can get away with just buying a dovetail saw at first. Look for one that is lightweight and fits your hand in a glove-like manner.
Handsaws & Buckets
For cutting pieces to length, a handsaw and two plastic 5-gallon buckets (thank you Mike Siemsen for that advice) are the ticket. Good vintage handsaws that are ready to work are difficult to find or expensive. So buy a hardware-store saw with induction-hardened teeth. This tool will last you about 10 years. Yeah, the handles are plastic or uncomfortable, but the tools cut surprisingly well and cost almost nothing.
Entire books have been written about sharpening gear, so reading one of those books is (eventually) a good idea. What’s more important than your equipment or your technique is that you choose one sharpening system and stick with it. Sampling all the systems is expensive, confusing and another hobby entirely.
I use a side-clamp honing guide (sometimes called an Eclipse guide) and waterstones.
Bottom line: It’s more fun to make tools dull than it is to make them sharp.
MF: If you want a short, no-nonsense guide to how to sharpen, check out “Sharpen This,” Chris’s most-recent book.
Some Brand-name Stuff
I hate to do this to you. But here are some of the tools where the brand really makes a difference. It is worth searching for these specific tools.
WoodOwl Auger Bits
In 2013 I switched to WoodOwl Ultra Smooth Augers after working for years with vintage augers. These Japanese-made bits are the best I’ve found. They cut fast and clean, and they clear chips with ease. Plus you can get them sized by kinda-16ths. Yes, they are technically metric. No, it doesn’t technically matter.
I use the 5/8″ WoodOwl in a brace to bore the initial hole for the mortise in all the staked furniture pieces in this book. If you can’t find a WoodOwl, find the best 5/8″ auger you can.
Large Veritas Standard Tapered Reamer
This Canadian-made reamer works incredibly well in a brace, corded drill or drill press. That’s why I prefer it to Veritas’s professional reamer, which can be used only in a brace. I’ll get about a dozen chairs out of an edge before I need to stone the edge, which I do with a diamond paddle.
My only gripe about the tool is it doesn’t have to be this long – I plan to grind off the first 3/8″ of the reamer for my work.
I usually drive this reamer with a heavy-duty corded drill. My second choice is using it in a brace.
Veritas 5/8″ Tapered Tenon Cutter
This is the matching tenon cutter to the reamer above. It works like a giant pencil sharpener. Simply shave (or turn) your tenon near to its finished size. Then take it for a spin in the tenon cutter and you will have a tenon that matches the tapered mortise.
The blade is easy to remove and sharpen – it’s about the size of a spokeshave blade.
Vesper Tools Sliding Bevel
I have an incurable case of Chris Vesper Fever. He is one of the best two or three living toolmakers I’ve ever met. His stuff has the precision of Karl Holtey – and I can afford it on my salary. I use the small one for chairmaking and staked furniture because I can sneak it right up next to the auger bit or reamer. The blade of a large bevel can get in the way during these operations.
MF: Chris still loves his Vesper Tools, but we’ve since developed the 4″ Crucible Sliding Bevel, on which you can lock in the angle but still slide the blade up and down, or lock the slide but still adjust the angle, or lock/unlock both simultaneously. I have no idea how this engineering magic works.
Oh, & Electric Things
For building chairs and staked furniture, I use a corded drill to ream the mortises because it has an endless supply of torque. You might as well spend the extra money and buy one that has a 1/2″ chuck, a side handle and a long power cord. Don’t worry if the drill is heavy – you’re not a contractor who has to hoist it all day.
14″ Band Saw
If you’re making furniture for yourself (not for a living), a 14″ band saw is likely more useful than a table saw. It cuts both curves and straight lines, it’s safer, quieter and takes up less space. I like vintage U.S.-made band saws that have little (or no) plastic parts. They are better machines and are less expensive than new. My Delta/Rockwell band saw was made in the early 1980s – so you don’t have to hunt down the ancient stuff.
Portable Thickness Planer
The portable thickness planer is the single-most important woodworking machine in my shop. It saves immense amounts of time and labor and produces a better surface finish than most industrial machines. The knives are simple to change. It can be stored under a workbench.
Most woodworking texts recommend you use an electric jointer in tandem with your thickness planer. And for a production shop, that’s the correct advice. In a home shop, however, you can flatten one face of a board with a jack plane then run it through the planer to create two parallel faces.
Yes, you need a dust collector. No, it cannot be a shop vacuum.
MF: Yes, we now have a 20″ planer – but mostly because we’re now prepping a lot more stock for classes and need the advantages of a larger planer for doing lots of work quickly. It might be overkill (but delightful overkill) for a home shop.
And Perhaps a Lathe
I enjoy turning, so I use a lathe in some parts of this book to make tenons or add details to legs. You don’t have to own a lathe or learn to turn to make furniture – you can use a spokeshave or drawknife to create round shapes.
If you want a lathe, I recommend a solid benchtop model (sometimes called a “midi” lathe) that can accept a bed extension. You want to be able to chuck up a 30″-long table leg in the machine. Anything less is for turning pens.