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.
People who make things are the best people I know. And that’s why I’m a fierce believer that the best way to help our craft is to unlock or open doors for anyone – anyone – who wants to step through.
Recently a friend alerted me to a new Instagram account that highlights the work of transgender craftspeople – transcraftsociety. Even if you aren’t transgender, I encourage you to follow their efforts and add their feed to the images you consume every day. Embracing beauty in all forms will make you a better designer (and person).
One of the members of the Society of Trans Craftspeople explained their mission to me this way:
“The Society of Trans Craftspeople was started by a trans furniture maker who wanted to connect with fellow artisans who shared similar life experiences. What started as personal social project due to Covid isolation has grown into a project that promotes and supports Transgender and Non-Binary artists in craft and art media. We aim to increase visibility for queer craftspeople who are often forgotten or overlooked and strive for equity in the craft and art world. In addition to continuing bi weekly posts, class promotions and community building we hope to eventually grow into or work with equity based non-profit or non profit adjacent organizations (such as chairmakers toolbox – a workshop of our own, etc.) in order to provide funding, class seats and other financial, emotional, and communal support. That being said, our main goal is to remind people we exist and to show off some beautiful work.”
Check it out. The worst thing that can happen is you’ll see some things you haven’t seen before.
— Christopher Schwarz
P.S. Don’t bother posting hateful or negative comments. They will be deleted.
Today Bob Mould is 62. That simple fact brings me great joy.
As someone who has tried to remain creative into middle age, I am constantly worried that I will one day wake up and have nothing else to write. Nothing new to build. No areas of the craft or furniture left that I want to explore.
Yet somehow every day I am eager to pick up the tools, read a new (or old) book and try something I haven’t done before. Will this urge leave me?
Maybe. But maybe not. And so I put Bob Mould’s latest album, “Blue Hearts,” and sit down with the LP’s lyric sheet in the library. I’ve been listening to Mould since I was 18 when I first heard “Flip Your Wig” thundering down the hallway of my dorm freshman year.
Mould’s band, Husker Du, were like nothing I had ever heard in Arkansas. And I would argue that he single-handedly changed the course of rock music while he was in his 20s.
Out of debt to this man, I bought every one of his albums when they came out. When he slipped into electronica and dance music in the early 2000s I was almost done with him. But something on every album – maybe just one song – kept me adding the CDs to my collection.
In 2012, Mould changed gears – he downshifted back into first gear, and the noise was incredible. The album “Silver Age” rejected the drum machine and brought back the loud and distorted guitar that is the sonorous background noise in my skull. The album was as good as anything Mould had written in his 20s. And his following four albums each exceeded the previous one.
I have played his 2020 album “Blue Hearts” so many times I might wear through the 180-gram vinyl.
So anytime I worry about remaining creative into my late 50s and 60s, I remind myself that it’s possible to still stoke the ashes and find the same fire is burning hot below.
Late last night as I was lying in bed, the topic and structure for my next book came into perfect focus. I scribbled a few words in a notepad on my nightstand. (I think you’ll be happy to hear those words weren’t “chair” or “workbench.”) And I rolled over to sleep like a log.
And today Bob Mould is 62. And that fact brings me great joy.
This post originally appeared on Peter Follansbee’s blog, Joiner’s Notes. Reprinted here with permission.
I read last week that chairmaker Dave Sawyer passed away. I never knew him, but I felt very connected to his work through our many mutual friends. Over the past ten years or so I’ve been working on this idea in my head (and down on “paper” well, really this screen) about the people who taught me woodworking and about others, like Dave, who were part of what I call my “Craft Genealogy.” My intention is for it to be a book, but it’s a long ways off.
Four people who were huge influences on me were Jennie Alexander, Drew Langsner, Daniel O’Hagan and Curtis Buchanan. Dave was close friends with all of them, and their stories are intertwined.
I worked most closely with Alexander and Langsner; in and out of their homes on a regular basis. When Jennie was getting older we often spoke of what would happen when she went to the “boneyard.” Among the concerns were what academics call her “papers.” These eventually went to Winterthur Museum’s research library, where I then began to sift through them, all the way back to about 1973 or 74. The pandemic interrupted that research – but I’ll pick it back up before too much longer.
I knew Alexander as well as anyone did. From time to time, I used to ask how she came to write her book back in the 1970s. “It was in the air” she used to say. “If I didn’t write it, someone else would.”
In the mid-1970s, Alexander was a very-part-time woodworker. A busy lawyer with a young family, she could only work her chair stuff on sporadic weekends and holidays here & there. Many of us begin that way, squeezing in our craft when real life allows us some hours here & there. She learned mostly by studying old chairs in museum collections and experimenting with the tools and materials. And asking questions of anyone who might know something.
Through a couple different connections, JA was told of someone in New Hampshire who made chairs “the old way…” or something like that. And so, in 1976 Alexander wrote to Dave Sawyer and introduced himself and his chairs. And that connection pushed JA’s chairmaking further along than anything before.
So yes, chairmaking “was in the air” – but what I found out when I began studying JA’s letters is that it was in the air around Dave Sawyer.
Unlike Alexander, Sawyer was a full-time craftsman, at that point, making wooden hay forks and ladderback chairs. So Alexander would fire off questions in the mail & Dave would send ideas and comments back and forth. Eventually they got together in New Hampshire and down in Baltimore. From that beginning, they became lifelong friends.
Sawyer’s first letter to JA notes: “I’ve made near 200 ladderback chairs, most 3-slat, most with hickory bark seats – using just the same methods you do (unless you turn your posts – I shave mine).”
Alexander did turn her posts at that time, but soon shifted to an all-shaved chair. A version of that story is recounted in the new version of Make a Chair from a Tree. I suspect Sawyer was an un-credited catalyst for that change in technique. After some back & forth, Sawyer got right to the point:
“I want you to come here next June for a couple of days – ride the train from Baltimore – I’ll meet you in Bellows Falls at 12:30 AM or whenever (can also meet buses in Charlestown or Claremont, or I suppose you could drive if you wanted to be so foolish.) We can do barking one day and I’ll show you anything you like about chairmaking too.” [PF emphasis]
In the early 1980s Dave, then in Vermont, shifted his attention from ladderback chairs to Windsor chairs, and those are what he became most known for. And his were the best Windsor chairs produced in this country.
When I learned Windsor chairmaking from Curtis Buchanan in 1987, he shared as much as he knew freely – because he said that’s what Dave did for him. Curtis has tweaked a lot of chair designs over 40 years but the DNA of many of his chairs is pure- Dave Sawyer. Curtis always tells the story of Dave saying to him that his “questions were getting too good – you have to just come up here and I’ll show you what to do…”
I learned something from 1976 Dave Sawyer just a few years ago – the notch for splicing hickory bark seating. JA struggled with bark at first and Dave tried to sort it out for Alexander. In one of Dave’s letters he cut out a sample joint in paper & pinned it to the letter. 45 years later, I adopted it on the spot – Alexander never did, continued to tie knots in the bark seats throughout her career. Stubborn.
I’m still gathering material for this history of how this particular green woodworking branch formed and grew. It doesn’t begin with Dave, nor does it end with him. But he’s a critical part of the story. His impact was huge – back when it was really just a few dozen people exploring working this way. He retired many years ago but his son George took over making “Sawyer Made” chairs several years back. So Dave’s designs and legacy will carry on. My goal with my Craft Genealogy project is to put these people’s stories together, to make sure we don’t lose track of who the people were who got us here.
When people watch me work, I mess up more. I work too fast. I skip important operations. I can’t concentrate.
All of which should make you wonder why I ever aspired to be a C-list woodworking celebrity.
When we bought our shop on Willard Street in 2015, I fell in love with the building’s enormous windows, which flood the front room with natural light. But what I didn’t fully realize when I signed the deed was that the windows work both ways.
As soon as I set up shop in the front room, passers-by paused to watch me work. On weekends, entire families would line up at the front windows, pointing and talking about what I was doing at that moment (which was mostly trying not to poop my pants – think Kegels, Chris).
In the morning, the sex workers on the first shift would peer into the window. They would stay to watch if I was working at the lathe. (Sex workers love turning – don’t let anyone tell you any different.) In the afternoon, kids from the elementary school down the block would stop at the window on their way home from school, probably to see if I had stabbed myself.
And at night, couples would swing by after dinner or drinks to see the mangy monkey (me) sweep up the mess.
The attention was unnerving for the first couple years. I thought about installing shutters I could close while I work to keep people’s eyes off me*.
Our bench room.
Then one day, I just got over it.
In fact, maybe my daily performances are a good thing for the craft. I’m not alone. If you start at Pike Street and walk down 9th Street, you’ll see upholsterers at work at 9th and Greer streets – Turner Upholstery. A sign and laser shop across the street – Grainwell – is incredibly busy churning out custom work and retail items. Next door to them is CVG Made, where Steve does a little bit of everything, from slabs to joinery to furniture and built-ins. Then there’s us – the hand-tool monkey show at 9th and Willard streets. And then a few doors down is Main Strasse Upholstery – another upholstery shop.
All this craft work is within one short block.
Maybe one of those kids walking home from Carlisle Elementary will pass through this corridor and see something that sticks in their head. A beautiful wing-back chair coming together at Turner’s. The wild plywood scraps that pile up outside the laser shop. Steve’s forklift. My weird chairs.
We are all a reminder that people still make stuff for a living. We are here every day, and we aren’t going anywhere. (Unless you want to see some turning out back – just kidding.)
— Christopher Schwarz
*We do have sun shades that we use to keep the early morning sun off the students and benches. But those don’t offer privacy.