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.
As a reminder, Sean and his brother, Simon Clarke, are the second generation to run Christopher Clarke Antiques, in Stow-on-the-Wold, England. Sean and Simon, who helped Christopher Schwarz with his research when writing “Campaign Furniture,” are considered leading historians of campaign furniture.
In this lecture, Sean covers the history of campaign furniture during the golden period for portable furniture, the many different types of British and Irish makers, those who used campaign furniture and its eventual demise.
Sean notes that wealth and rank mattered, and how well your tent was fitted out was a good sign of your social standing.
“There was the opinion that the better prepared you were, the better you would do your job, so camp comforts were a necessity,” he says.
He quotes from a lieutenant’s diary, written in 1813 during the Peninsular War, about the need to equip one’s self with 600 pounds of personal baggage. “The more an officer makes himself comfortable, the better will he do his duty, as well as secure his own health, and the comfort of those belonging to him. It does not follow, that because we attempt the best in every situation, that we cannot face the worst.”
Later in the lecture Sean shares this cartoon, drawn by A.S. Boyd, published in “The Graphic” on October 19, 1901. The soldiers are weighted down by their furniture and personal items, which in the illustrations includes everything from a grandfather clock and a piano to a cradle and lawnmower.
The great joy in this lecture is the many clever examples of ingenuity in the metamorphic furniture shown. Consider the patents alone. Before 1866, Sean says there were 28 patents for chairs. Between 1866 and 1900, 306 patents existed for folding chairs alone.
In this lecture you’ll see a late 18th century mahogany cylinder bureau bookcase that, at first glance, you’d never guess would break down – but it does, considerably. A four poster patent screw bed by Thomas Butler, circa 1800, that is easily set up or taken down without screws, nuts or bolts, and even has a canopy for mosquitos when hot or drapes when cold. There’s a mahogany Naval bureau from 1750-80 with a top that comes off allowing the bottom to become a temporary operating table if needed.
The Victorians broadened the campaign furniture market, building furniture such as the Thornhill Patent Games Table, circa 1910, which easily folds into a small suitcase and could be used at home, in the garden or while on picnics. Sean points out that a plastic version of Thornhill’s folding picnic table and benches can still be found in most camping shops today. And, of course, the Roorkhee Chair is the predecessor to the folding chairs we take to our children’s sporting events, minus the cup holder (and elegance).
I think that writing a good song or designing a nice chair is a skill you can learn.
The problem is that learning to write or design is not like memorizing the capitals of the 50 states. For me, that sort of rote learning is like gathering up a good collection of bottle caps and stashing them in a drawer.
Learning to design and write, on the other hand, is more like building a bottling machine when you’ve never even seen one before. You have to assemble lots of unfamiliar parts and get them working in concert.
One common piece of advice is to visit lots of other bottling plants to see how their machines work. In other words, listen to a lot of really good music to learn to write a song. Look at a lot of really beautiful pieces of furniture to learn to design your own pieces.
I give that piece of advice all the time. But it leaves out an important first step. You first need to learn to see and to listen. And learning to see or listen is damn hard.
That’s because when we look at a piece of furniture or listen to the radio, our brain simplifies the stimulus into a single object or sound, when it really is a combination of a bunch of complex shapes and sounds.
How do you force yourself to see? Here’s how I do it.
It came by accident when I was working on “Campaign Furniture.” Many of the drawings in that book are tracings that I made of photos I’d taken in years prior. As I traced each piece, I was forced to examine the shape of every turning, moulding and component. I had to draw both the major forms and all the minor details. In other words, it forced my brain to stop seeing the whole piece and focus on all the small elements.
As I traced more than 100 pieces, I began to see obvious patterns. The handles of campaign chests were spaced above the centerline of each drawer. The stacking chests had drawers that refused to graduate (Fibonacci is a fibber). Sometimes the pieces got away with awkward drawer arrangements that looked dang good.
I also noticed so many little details. The best chests used drawer blades that were hidden – a detail I missed until I started drawing them. And I got a great feel for the beads and tapered cylinders that made up the feet of the chests.
So when I decided to stop copying old stick chairs and strike out on my own, my first step was to buy a pad of tracing paper at the grocery store. I then opened the enormous folder on my laptop of chairs that I love, picked the 50 best and printed them out. Then I began tracing them.
To be honest, once I started tracing chairs, it was difficult to stop. My pencil forced me to see so many things I had glossed over before. Chair shapes that I thought were complex were reduced to the squares, circles, rectangles and arcs I learned at Robin Wood Elementary.
I saw – for the first time – how certain elements were grouped together. Many beginners think that a design element should be carried throughout the entire piece. Matchy-matchy – like Garanimals. That’s how we got the California Roundover style, the nadir of furniture during my lifetime.
Instead, I learned how circles and rectangles worked together with the occasional irregular curve to make something that looks right.
I know, this is a boring and arduous way to learn design. There’s no Zen koan. Instead, it is a gradual revealing of the structure behind our world – one pencil stroke at a time.
— Christopher Schwarz
P.S. And if you want to learn to write a good song (and to learn to listen), try this.
I have one of these stools, and use it every year at my neighborhood’s storied Fourth of July Parade and other community events. And it’s seen almost weekly use at outdoor gatherings during the last 18 months or so – the addition of a carrying strap made it particularly comfortable and convenient to sling over my shoulder as I walked to various neighbor’s houses for socially distanced gatherings; the strap left my hands free for carrying bourbon.)
Three-legged folding stools appear in many Western cultures, including the French, English and American. They have been popular with soldiers, sportsmen, campers and artists for at least two centuries.
This stool is a great introductory project to campaign furniture, especially if you are new to turning or working with leather. There are only three pieces of wood, four pieces of leather and some metal hardware. You can easily build one in a day.
Choosing Materials I have seen some of these camp stools built using dowels, and they are strong enough to hold most people. However, I like to build them from mahogany, teak or ash that has dead-straight grain. I’ve had nightmares about getting a stick stuck in my backside from a stool disaster.
If you can build the stool with riven stock (oak or ash are good choices), it will be quite strong. Many original stools used 1″-diameter legs. However, my recommendation is to use stouter stock. I have built reproductions with 1″-diameter legs, and they felt too springy under my 185-pound frame.
You don’t need to make the legs baseball bats, but try for something between 1-1/8″ diameter to 1-1/4″ diameter. The leather can be almost anything 7 ounces (just shy of 1/8″ thick) or heavier. Vegetable-tanned leather that you dye yourself is a particularly strong choice.
You also will need rivets to join the leather pieces – unless you are skilled at hand-stitching. While hollow rivets (sometimes called rapid rivets) are inexpensive, easy to find and strong enough, I prefer the look and unerring permanence of solid copper rivets. I used No. 9 rivets with posts that are 1/2″ long.
To attach the leather to the wooden legs, you’ll need three No. 10 x 1-1/2″-long brass screws plus matching finishing washers.
Finally, you’ll need the hardware that allows the legs to open and shut. Traditionally, this was a three-headed bolt that once was easy to find. Now, that hardware is rare in North America. If you are a blacksmith or have access to a good welder, making a three-way bolt is straightforward. I have seen a couple of these bolts for sale in England, but the price with shipping to the United States was more than the cost of the bolt itself.
So I looked for a different way. Luckily, the Internet is good for something other than photos of cats playing keyboards. One maker of custom stools uses some off-the rack hardware to make an effective three-way bolt and shares that information freely on his web site.
Here’s what you need for legs that are up to 1-1/4″ in diameter:
• A hex-headed bolt with a 5/16″ shank that is long enough to pass through two of the legs and protrude out the other side by 1/2″. A 3″-long hex-head bolt will work with 1-3/16″-diameter legs. • An eyebolt with a 1/4″ or 5/16″ shank that is long enough to pass through one of the legs and protrude out the other side by 1/4″. (Note: You can hacksaw any of this threaded hardware to length. An eyebolt that has a total length of 2-1/2″ should be sufficient.) • Two acorn-headed nuts. • Three washers. • 15 No. 9 copper rivets.
Parts • 2 Legs, 1-1/4″ dia. x 23-3/4″ l • 1 Seat, 7 oz., 13-1/2″ w x 13-1/2″ l • 3 Lips, 7 oz., 3″ w x 8″ l
Turn the Legs The three legs are easy to turn, even if your favorite turning tool is #80-grit sandpaper. Turn the legs to round using a roughing gouge or carbide-tipped roughing tool. Create a smooth, clean cylinder of about 1-1/4″ in diameter with a skew or other finishing tool.
The feet shown are 1-3/16″ in diameter and 5/8″ tall. Make the feet by turning down the foot. Then turn the ankle to 7/8″ in diameter. Round the foot, then taper the rest of the leg down to the ankle. The taper should begin 6″ from the bottom of the leg.
I added four small grooves where the hardware holes will go – two above the hardware and two below. Little details such as these grooves and beads make the legs look like something fancier than three store-bought dowels.
Sand the legs to remove any rough tool marks. I finished the legs on the lathe. First I burnished the surface with a “polissoir” (a French polishing tool made from tightly bound broom corn). Then I applied beeswax to the legs with the workpiece spinning. I used the polissoir to drive the beeswax into the pores of the wood (again, while the lathe was spinning). Then I used a rough cotton cloth (I’d like to be fancy and say it was muslin, but it was an old bag that held corn grits) to buff the wax. Then I applied another coat of wax and buffed that.
If you want to add a little age to the wood, apply a coat of black wax and push it into the grooves and pores. Let the wax set up then buff it.
Wax is not a permanent finish, but it is easily renewed or repaired if your stool is for the drawing room instead of the campsite.
Bore Three Holes All three holes are located in the same spot on each of the three legs and should be the same diameter – just big enough to allow the hardware to pass through. The holes are located 11-5/8″ down from the top of the legs.
The best way to bore these holes is with a drill press or hand-powered post drill. You want the hole to be dead straight and pass through the middle of the leg. If you are a whiz with a hand drill or cordless drill then go for it.
Install the Hardware Strip the hardware of its zinc if you like – I use a citric acid solution for this. Here’s how the hardware goes together:
• Put a washer on the bolt. Push the bolt through one leg. • Place the eyebolt on the post of the bolt. Put the other leg on the bolt. • Add a washer to the end of the bolt, then drive on the acorn nut. • Push the post of the eyebolt through the third leg. Add a washer and acorn nut.
Drill pilot holes that are deep enough to receive the No. 10 screws into the top ends of the legs.
Leather Seat The seat is four pieces of material: a triangular seat and three pockets that look a bit like lips when you cut them out. When I cut out leather, I make patterns for my pieces from thin MDF or hardboard – usually 1/4″-thick material.
Put the patterns on the leather and cut out the seat and three lips using a sharp utility knife.
You can hand-stitch the lips to the seat. If you aren’t up for stitching, rivets work well and give the project a military flair.
Secure each lip to the seat first with one rivet at one of the tips of the seat. Punch a snug hole for the rivet through both pieces of leather, drive on the washer or “burr,” snip off the excess and peen the post over the burr.
Now bend one end of the lip up and rivet the end to the seat about 1/4″ from the end of the lip. Repeat for the other end of the lip. Finally, add two more rivets between the three existing rivets. Repeat the whole process for the other two corners.
One quick note on neatness: Be sure to put the burr so it faces the floor for all these joints.
After the pockets are riveted, use a sharp utility knife to trim any little bits of the pocket that aren’t flush to the seat.
If you purchased undyed leather, finish the leather with a dye, oil and wax. Burnish the edges with a piece of wood and a little spit (water will do nicely as well).
Attach the seat to the legs. Punch a clearance hole through each lip that will allow a No. 10 screw to pass. Screw the leather to the legs with a finishing washer under the head of each screw.
That’s all there is to it. You can make the tool easy to transport by making a belt that will go around the girth of the closed stool and screwing that belt to one leg. Or you could make a canvas bag embroidered with your football team’s logo. After all, when going into battle, it’s always best to fly your colors.
A fascinating new lecture on travel to India in the 19th century, which focuses on how passengers traveled, the furniture they brought with them and the companies who supplied them, was recently given by Sean Clarke for the Stow and District Civic Society and is available here.
Sean and his brother, Simon Clarke, are the second generation to run Christopher Clarke Antiques, a shop founded in 1961 that specializes in military campaign furniture and travel items. Sean and Simon are considered leading historians and sellers of campaign furniture and were a great help to Christopher Schwarz when writing “Campaign Furniture.”
While the lecture is illustrated by pictures of campaign furniture, makers’ advertisements and passengers’ receipts, much of the lecture uses officers’ drawings and paintings as a guide to how campaign furniture was used in ships’ cabins.
When showing a series of sketches by Edward Hovell Thurlow, circa 1965, Clarke says, “Thurlow sketched throughout his career as many officers did. All were expected to have a degree in competency in drawing in the age before cameras but some also enjoyed it as a pastime in memory of their service.”
This brought to mind another, more personal illustration, made by my husband’s grandfather, Martin Uhl, a pilot who was captured and held prisoner at Stalag Luft III during WWII. I looked at his illustrated barracks again, this time paying close attention to the furniture in those sparse, cramped conditions – the bunk beds, the tables and benches, the shelving – pieces built for a particular use. And then I thought of Monroe Robinson’s upcoming book about Dick Proenneke, and the wealth of information Dick’s well-photographed cabin contains. Although these images are from different times and places entirely, thinking about them reiterated the importance of documentation, whether painted, illustrated or photographed, of the everyday.
The artwork featured in Clarke’s lecture illustrates the cleverness and ingenuity of multi-use campaign furniture designed for portability and the volatility of life at sea. A secretaire’s iron handles were used not only for easy carrying but also for tying down once aboard the ship. Also featured are small portable bookcases that fold into a box; a ship’s table with flaps that extend, removable legs and a hinged board that reveals a mirror and compartments for use as a washstand; a Gimballed Candlestick; mahogany swing trays that hung from the cabin’s ceiling; and folding chairs.
In one slide an image of 4th Officer G. Webb’s cabin onboard the Asia E.I.C. ship in 1797 shows a cannon in his room, with furniture both built and situated so that it could be moved quite quickly should the sudden need arise to point the cannon out the cabin’s window.
The lecture, which is fewer than 50 minutes, includes a wealth of images and information, and is a delightful way to spend an evening in.