After long delays because of shortages of clay and glaze, we now have a fair number of our handmade coffee mugs back in stock and ready to ship.
Made by an artists’ collective in Minnesota, these mugs are outstanding for the workshop, with a wide base that makes them difficult to knock over (our cats have tried….). The generous handle makes them easy to pick up, even if you have gloves on.
Both our coffee mugs and steins are made by Grey Fox Pottery, and are as high-quality as our books and our tools. Because of continued shortages, which are an everyday thing these days, order now to avoid disappointment as we likely will run out of these in short order.
Books Going to Press
After a long dry spell, Megan and I are getting three books to press this month. “Euclid’s Door” by George Walker and Jim Tolpin is at the final proofing stage where we review the pages for problems on press. This book continues George and Jim’s exploration of workshop geometry that they began with “By Hand & Eye.” This book shows you how to put geometry to work to make beautiful and useful workshop tools, everything from a wooden try square to a panel gauge. As always, their work is eye-opening and mind-bending.
This book should be released this fall.
Today I am sending off the final pages of The Stick Chair Journal to pre-press. This annual publication is an obsession-driven personal project. If you are interested in nerdy chair stuff (and the occasional wild folk tale), you might enjoy the Journal. We are doing only one press run of the Journal. If you wish to be notified when it is released this fall, go here.
Finally, Megan is working with John Porritt to finish up work on “The Belligerent FInisher,” an outstanding little book on how to add aged-looking finishes to new pieces. Porritt is a lifelong professional chairmaker and antiques restorer. His methods are simple and surprisingly effective. If all goes to plan, this book will also be out this fall.
More news to come on future books, maybe even a book on Dutch tool chests?
Every year, your spouse and friends ask us which books they should buy for you during the holidays. And if they aren’t sure which book you want, they ask us: “Well, which books are your best-sellers?”
Until today, I had only a gut feeling about it, but I’d never really looked at the statistics. After some ciphering, I came up with a list that had a few surprises.
10. Doormaking and Window Making by Anonymous. This was a shock. This small book is a reprint of two historical texts brought to our attention by joiner Richard Arnold. It found an audience among people who restore old buildings.
9. Campaign Furniture by Christopher Schwarz. This book is one of the few in print on this style of furniture, which my grandparents collected for many years. I’ve been told by readers that it is a nice text on classical casework.
8. Kitchen Think by Nancy Hiller. I was a little surprised by this one because it was released in the summer of 2020. It’s a fantastic book, as is everything Nancy writes. If you are interested in how to design (and build) a kitchen that is in context for your house, this is the book.
7. By Hand & Eye by Jim Tolpin and George Walker. This one is no surprise. Ever since this book was released, it has continually found new audiences who are interested in designing good-looking furniture using whole-number ratios.
6. The Anarchist’s Workbench by Christopher Schwarz. On the one hand, I am not surprised to see this book on the list. It is, after all, about workbenches (the birdhouses of the intermediate woodworker clan). But on the other hand, the book is free as a pdf. Free.
5. The Woodworker’s Pocket Book edited by Charles Hayward. I love this little book. I knew it would be a home run among woodworkers, and I was (for once) correct.
4. With the Grain by Christian Becksvoort. This book is immensely popular because it is incredibly practical and avoids the heavy science stuff, but it still tells you exactly what you need to know to use solid wood in furniture effectively.
3. The Essential Woodworker by Robert Wearing. This book is a classic and should be on the shelves of every woodworker who is curious about hand-tool woodworking. We fought hard to bring it back into print, and readers have been thrilled as well.
2. The Anarchist’s Design Book by Christopher Schwarz. I am so happy to see this book on this list. This book took so many years to write and get just right. I feel like it’s the right combination of practical construction advice and a screed about poorly made and overly ornate furniture.
1. The Anarchist’s Tool Chest by Christopher Schwarz. This book helped us get this company on its feet and the capital to publish the works of other authors. Even after 10 years, this book still sells and sells – thanks to word of mouth.
On a last note, please remember that we are a small publisher (we recently graduated to “small publisher,” up from “microscopic publisher”). So none of these books would make a blip on the screens of a corporate publisher. And our annual revenue could easily be found between the couch cushions of the CEO of Penguin/Random House.
Maybe someday we’ll hit the Medium Time – with a book on birdhouses.
I’m looking forward to the upcoming open house at Lost Art Press on August 7th. It’s a chance to share a project Jim Tolpin and I have been working on. Yes, we are at it again – exploring the world of design and artisan geometry. This latest adventure began after looking at a number of historic tool chests and tools used by pre-industrial woodworkers. Most of the tools like hand planes, saws and chisels were typically acquired from specialty toolmakers. Yet there was a group of tools that were often user made, including straight edges, try squares and miter squares. This grouping of tools had a few things in common. Generally, they are used for design and layout and they all embody the geometry that lies beneath everything. They provide that physical link between our designer’s eye and the work at hand.
After Jim and I made some of these tools and began using them, we both came to realize there is something deeper going on. Yes they are highly functional and a pleasure to use. More than that, these tools are teachers. Turns out that building a set of traditional layout tools is a class in advanced hand-tool techniques as well as a master class in artisan geometry. All these tool builds use geometry to generate the tool, but also utilize geometry to dial in each tool to a high level of perfection.
A simple tool exploration on our part blossomed as we looked at historic examples and built one tool after another. To our delight we learned that each build and each tool contains insights that deepens the connection between hand and eye. Jim won’t be able to attend the open house, but I’ll be there with a pile of these “Tools of By Hand & Eye” for you to handle and see for yourself. I look forward to hearing from you and perhaps gaining insights from your questions and perspective. These tools have a way of sparking the imagination.
P.S. I also will be bringing along a special surprise for anyone interested in the nautical history of the Ohio River Valley.
I’m not 100-percent sure, but I think Jim sat in on George’s class, “Unlocking the Secrets of Traditional Design,” which covered how furniture is based on a lot of the same proportions as classical architecture (which is turn based on nature – but I don’t recall if he brought that up in the class, or if I’m interpolating from his columns in Popular Woodworking).
I feel a small personal connection with this one; I was there when Jim Tolpin and George Walker met for the first time, at Woodworking in America in 2009 in St. Charles, Ill.
But it might have been George who sat in on Jim’s class, “Measure Twice or Not at All,” which I believe was a talk on the difference between designing for machines and designing for hand work.
Traditional proportional drawing drafted by hand ignores dimensions. It instead relies on simple geometry and dividers to compose an image that conveys the proportional scheme. It employs a vocabulary of proportional notes that we can visualize internally. Because this type of drawing relies on proportions rather than specifications, it moves another step closer to a pure image in the mind. Proportional drawings can provide enough information to execute a build with simple tools; the drawings are organized in a way that meshes with traditional bench techniques. Even if you are adept with digital or industrial drawing, this type of drawing is not a step backward. Instead, it’s a concrete method to begin making that connection with your inner eye.
Our goal ultimately is the drawing that takes place in your head. This is speaking the language of design from the artisan age in its purest sense. It’s what Vitruvius wrote about when he said an architect could see clearly from the instant he conceives it in his mind. It uses a simple language of visual notes to create spatial music to help you acquire the ability to conceptualize internally. This is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the industrial approach – using that ability to spur creativity and provide a practical means of expression. You may still choose to employ modern drawing techniques and (egads) SketchUp, but the goal is to always encourage the flow of clear images from the drafting board in your head.
Make Your Designs Sing This concept of clearly seeing a design in the mind’s eye is a learned skill. Let’s do a little experiment. Take a moment, close your eyes and sing the “Happy Birthday” song silently to yourself. You weren’t singing out loud were you? (If you did, start again and sing it just in your head.) Could you hear it? Think about this for a moment. No audible sound, but you could clearly hear it in your mind. Try this: Sing it silently to yourself again but at a slower tempo. Can you still hear it, only slower? Can you imagine it sung in another voice? How about a deep, clear Nat King Cole version? How about a sultry Marilyn Monroe singing to John F. Kennedy? Can you hear the song played on an instrument? A piano? Try a trumpet. How about bagpipes? Stop! Cruelty alert: Step away from the bagpipes. The point is, you have the amazing ability to visualize already.
You not only could hear the song, but you could manipulate it, express it with different voices and instruments. I’d venture a guess that if you thought about it, you have hundreds of songs tucked away in that stereo in your head. Chances are, few of you have ever formally studied music. In fact, most of us could not write down the musical score for the song. It’s not about notes you can write on paper, but notes you can hear in your mind.
Music at its simplest is made up of a handful of simple building blocks we call notes. Musical styles and genres can span a huge range from Bach to John Lee Hooker to ZZ Top. Underneath it all is the same handful of simple notes. Accomplished musicians, including the likes of Yo Yo Ma, practice the musical scales daily. The scales are nothing more than a note sequence arranged to keep a sparkling clear image freshly imprinted in the mind. Do you doubt that a musician develops a heightened ability to imagine music? The reason we struggle to see spatially is that we never learned a set of visual notes.
Close your eyes again and visualize a square. Can you see it clearly? If not, take a moment and draw a square with pencil then try again. Now close your eyes and imagine two squares side by side, one next to the other. Now imagine two squares arranged one on top of the other. Can you see the squares clearly? It doesn’t matter how big the squares are, or whether they float in space. They can be solid or simple line drawings. The important part is that you can see them. Now do the same visual exercises again, only this time imagine a circle. Then visualize two circles, a pair side by side, and a pair one on top of the other. Consider the circle and square to be interchangeable. There’s lots more to say about the circle later, but for now all you need to realize is that they are both easy to visualize. Congratulations. You have just taken baby steps in learning to see. You have just imagined the visual notes that bookend the range of our visual scale. The single square or circle begins the sequence, and the double square or circle completes it. In between are a handful of intermediate notes. The circle and square are the basic building blocks, and though it might seem like a small step to you now, in reality you’ve taken a giant leap toward unlocking your inner vision, and toward making your designs sing.
This is an excerpt from “By Hand and Eye” by Geo. R. Walker and Jim Tolpin.
Afternoon sunlight streamed across the wide pine flooring and up over a small Newport table. I turned my head and paused a moment, taking in the glow of the red mahogany top. With a pencil and a clean strip of pine to act as a story stick, I carefully nudged the small board against the table apron and began recording transition points, marking carefully where each element stopped and started.
This Newport table made by Al Breed is an exact reproduction of one of the true masterpieces of American craft. Originals sell in the seven-figure range, and this was as close as I might hope to get with a sharp set of dividers in my hands (museums tend to frown on that). My aim wasn’t to record the table’s dimensions to make detailed plans. Instead, I searched for a hidden song or harmony woven in the form, hidden in plain sight. I’d often read about the mindset of pre-industrial designers, how they loved to play with proportions and create frozen music in built objects, and I wondered if this table might contain a song. Sound far-fetched? Since antiquity, designers understood that a small handful of simple ratios had a correlation with our musical scale. They spoke a design language built around simple whole-number proportions and applied them to a wide range of designs, from a tiny salt shaker to the entire layout of a city, and everything in between, including furniture.
With a square, each tick mark became a line on my story stick, transforming it into a map I could explore with dividers. My hands paced the divider points back and forth, adjusting the tool again and again, crisscrossing and retracing my steps. Then it happened. Like taking a pencil rubbing on the carved face of a weathered tombstone, a small series of overlapping notes appeared, running across the apron supporting the top: octave, fifth, fourth, fifth, octave.
Not some grand symphony meant for a cathedral, just a subtle cello or flute piece with a few notes and a quiet rhythm. I’d been “looking” at that table for days but now I was “seeing” it. As I walked around it, the frozen music stood out clearly to my eyes. It was a moment of clarity, like when you spot a familiar landmark and the feeling of being lost vanishes. It also was a moment of connection, a rare glimpse into the artisan age. Connection, after all, is what design is all about: building things that connect and ring true. I want to be careful here and not romanticize this. It’s not about going back in time and idealizing another age or being awestruck by period styles that were once the height of fashion. It’s about drawing from our rich legacy of woodcraft to see what it offers the modern woodworker. That’s the string that pulled Jim Tolpin and me together and got us so excited about what we call “artisan age design.” Both of us marvel at the sheer simplicity of it, how it flows from hand and eye intuitively.
This is a gateway into a design language practiced in small cabinetmaking shops prior to the mid-19th century (though there are hints that it may have survived into the early 20th century). Lessons from that artisan age are still powerful and relevant because they are intuitive to our core. Do you remember when you first learned to sing as a child? Admit it, none of us can. It was so natural it sprang out of the mouth of babes. In the same way, this design language is a way of seeing and building that connects with how we are wired, tapping into roots deeply embedded in our makeup. It relies on proportions found in our own bodies as well as woven throughout the natural world around us. This powerful organic connection from nature is at the core of why these ideas hold sway (even if in the subconscious). We react differently to the song of a meadowlark than to the din from a nearby highway.
Let’s be clear, though: Traditional design is not a list of “Thou shalls” and “Thou shalt nots” etched in a pair of bookmatched mahogany slabs. Instead, it’s a collection of observations about how we relate to our environment. Because it’s based on more than 2,600 years of human experience, some inescapable patterns emerge. We tend to connect to visual compositions that convey a sense of harmony and movement. We also react intuitively to designs that can be easily read by our eye and tell a story. Our eyes avoid, or react with apathy, to designs that give a sense of aimlessness or lack a spark of life.