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 posted a photo on Instagram of our breakfast nook and got a lot of questions about the table and chairs shown.
The chair on the right is from “The Anarchist’s Design Book,” and the chair on the left is a prototype lowback I built for “The Stick Chair Book” (out in October). The gateleg breakfast table, however, hasn’t been in any book or magazine.
I have uploaded a drawing of it to the SketchUp Warehouse. You can download it for free. The model is accurate, except I didn’t draw in the bevel on the underside of the top. (The bevel is 1” x 1/4”.)
The table is simply made. The legs are joined to the aprons with mortise-and-tenon joinery. The folding top is attached to the stationary top with butt hinges. And the gateleg is attached to the table’s base with butt hinges as well. The table base is attached to the wall with a French cleat. Then I screwed through the cleats to secure the whole thing – it’s more like a built-in than a piece of freestanding furniture.
The whole thing is made from soft maple and finished with the linseed oil and wax finish that my daughter Katherine makes. You can learn to cook it yourself here.
Lucy and I eat breakfast together at this table every morning and watch the sun come up over the buildings in downtown Covington. And when we have a dance party in the kitchen (it has happened) we fold the table against the wall.
We have yet to replenish stock on “The Anarchist’s Workbench” and “The Anarchist’s Design Book” due to delays at one of our printing plants.
Both books have been delayed by several weeks but should be back in inventory the week of Nov. 16, according to our press representative. The reason the books have been delayed is complex. But if you boil it all down, big publishers need more printing capacity this fall so the small publishers get to sit on their hands.
If you are waiting for us to restock, I recommend you instead visit one of our retailers. Many of them have stock of both titles and can ship immediately.
When I design and build a piece of furniture, it does not belong to me any more than the birdsong of the warblers outside my shop door.
Since the start of my furniture career in the 1990s, I have never claimed ownership to a single design. The world is free to copy, adapt, interpret, sell and (I hope) improve my best efforts. And the world has occasionally taken me up on my offer. I’ve seen my published designs show up in furniture catalogs and galleries all over the United States.
And I’m fine with it.
I suspect my attitude comes from growing up and living in the areas of the United States that are steeped in traditional mountain music. The first half of my life was spent in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, and the second half has been spent living in the hills of Kentucky. In these places (and other mountain communities), traditional string-band music – guitar, mandolin, fiddle and banjo – is something you can still hear regularly at neighborhood bars, church picnics, school fund-raisers, weddings and funerals.
By tradition, this music does not have a strict sense of ownership, other than the fact that it belongs to everyone who can play it or sing it. When I visit the Comet bar on a Sunday night, the band might play songs that were first recorded in the mid-1920s in Bristol, Tennessee. But these songs came from Scotland, Ireland, Africa or France hundreds of years before. Tonight they sound new, like they never have before. And next Sunday, they will sound a little different. Verses will be added or removed. A second singer might add a counter-melody.
The furniture from these mountainous places is treated in the same manner. Farmers in the Ozarks and Appalachia have long made ladderback chairs during the cold months (this is a quickly dying trade). These chairs might look identical to the untrained eye, but if you open your eyes, you will find immense variation. The arrangement of the sticks, the curve of the backsplats and the shape of the finials at the top of the back posts are as good as a notarized signature for identifying the maker. And if you look at enough of these chairs, you can see traits handed down through generations and via geography.
Copying the work of others and adapting it has long been the predominant way that furniture and vernacular musical forms have been kept alive and fresh for hundreds of years. Bob Dylan’s song “Maggie’s Farm” is a rewriting of his song “Hard Times in the Country,” which is a rewrite of the song “Down on Penny’s Farm” by the Bentley Boys from the 1920s. And who knows where they got it.
Is “Maggie’s Farm” less fantastic because Dylan swiped a traditional song? Or (I would argue) is it more fantastic because it transformed a song about sharecropping into an electrifying statement against the Vietnam war?
Is Jennie Alexander’s iconic chair from the book “Make a Chair from a Tree” – the most comfortable and lightweight chair I’ve ever sat in – less amazing because it sprung from the mule-ear ladderbacks on thousands of porches in Eastern Kentucky?
This tradition of observing, copying and creating anew is the fertilizer for people to make new music and new pieces of furniture. If you take that tradition away, you risk handing over our music and furniture forms to the people with the most money or the best lawyers.
Plagiarism lawsuits are nothing new in music or furniture. The Music Copyright Infringement Resource (an effort by the law schools at George Washington University and Columbia) traces plagiarism claims in popular music back to 1844. Furniture plagiarism has been litigated in this country (the United States) for as long as our Patent Office has existed.
What has changed is that these lawsuits, especially in music, have increased dramatically in the last 30 years.
As a furniture maker, I sometimes lie awake at night worrying that I have unconsciously ripped off another furniture maker’s design, and that I’m going to be sued. And so when I write about a new piece, I acknowledge every influence I can think of. In fact, I’ll even acknowledge influences I haven’t seen.
I know that sounds weird and wrong. So here’s an example: Several months after I designed and built my Staked Worktable for the book “The Anarchist’s Design Book,” I found an antique Swedish table built on the same principles that had the same feel to it. Though I’d never (knowingly) seen the antique table before designing my version, I decided to include a drawing of it in my book and acknowledge it as a likely ancestor of my design.
Why? Because it probably is.
My table’s design emerged after looking at hundreds and hundreds of pieces of medieval furniture – lots of square worktables with tapered legs, thin tops and battens below. In my mind, I simply reversed the tapers on the legs, dressed up the battens to be sliding dovetails and changed the overall proportions of the top from 1:1 to 2:4.
The maker of the Swedish antique probably saw similar medieval tables – they’re everywhere in books and museums – and made the same small leaps that I did.
And so I can’t possibly claim credit for my design or any of the other designs that flow from my pencil and onto the workbench. And so I don’t. I give them away.
But wait, what about the books I write? Aren’t those copyrighted? Indeed they are. Sometimes by the publisher and sometimes by me. But I’ll be honest, I’ve concluded it’s all a farce. People steal my work all the time. Every one of my books is available for a free download on bit torrent sites run by hackers. I don’t have the money, time or people to stop them. And so – for books written by me, at least – I don’t.
Recently, I’ve come to grips with this reality, and that’s one reason why my latest book, “The Anarchist’s Workbench,” is covered by a Creative Commons license that allows people to reuse and adapt my work. I hope to move all my other books into a Creative Commons license in the future as well.
I am sure that some of you are thinking my ideas about giving away designs are unrealistic. What about the big furniture company that outright steals a design from some impoverished individual maker? Surely that poor woodworker is entitled to sue the big corporation for redress.
I do not propose to change our laws or system of jurisprudence. Egregious cases of theft probably should end up in the courts, and it’s likely the party with the most money will win in the end. Or at least get their way for a small fee.
Instead I am merely arguing that to maintain and grow our rich furniture heritage, we need our traditional system of borrowing and loaning designs (and melodies). And one way to do that is to allow your own designs to be freely copied and interpreted.
Consider the following questions:
Do you want to spend your time threatening to sue people, or do you want to spend that time making and building furniture?
Are you so bereft of ideas that you cannot come up with new designs or iterations?
How likely is it that you will prevail in the world of copyrights, trademarks and design patents?
How much money do you really need?
Can you say from the heart that your design is truly original and did not spring from the work of the millions of woodworkers who came before you?
Oh and one more question. Aren’t there enough songs about “John Henry?” Henry was the fabled Black steel-driving railroad worker who beat a steam-powered drill in a tunnel-drilling contest, only to die from the exertion.
I contend there can never be too many songs about John Henry. Or too many ladderback chairs, trestle tables, chests, stick chairs or milking stools.
And the only way to guarantee that is to give yourself in to tradition.
We came in through the basement door of George Reid’s tidy ranch-style house. Like most basement workshops, George’s was a dark cave. As I put down my photography gear, my eyes adjusted to the dimness and I found myself staring at a full-scale drawing of a Chippendale chair that was tacked to the wall.
“Hmm,” I thought. “Nice poster.”
For the next two hours, a co-worker interviewed George about his lifetime of work. How he built his first milking stool on his family farm, constructed miniatures while he was working at Wright Field and fell into making furniture for clients by building hi-fi cabinets.
We looked at his exquisitely cared-for machines. We admired his carving tools, which he bought from a guy who worked on Pullman train cars. I was there to take photos, and what I remember most is how I just couldn’t see anything in the low light.
At his workbench, George showed us two of his miniature pieces – quarter-scale chests of drawers with bow fronts. It was nice work, we said. Do you have any other of your pieces here?
“Oh yes,” George said. “Let’s go upstairs.”
George lived on a nice middle-class street in Kettering, Ohio, in a compact, mid-century ranch home. He led us around the house from the shop, through the front door and into a state of speechlessness.
All I remember was that every wall was painted brilliant white, and every bit of space was occupied by amazing pieces of dark 18th-century-style furniture in mahogany. I almost kicked a Newport kneehole desk. There were highboys, lowboys, carved chairs and corner cabinets in every corner. All in Chippendale, Hepplewhite, Sheraton and Queen Anne styles. And they were all perfect, like they were fresh from the tool of the maker.
I have never seen anything like it since.
George Reid was one of the most talented makers I have ever met. Yet, I’ll never forget how wrong his beautiful pieces looked in the living room of his humble Ohio home.
This is Not for You While the work itself is amazing, most of the American furniture we celebrate as the pinnacle of design can be overbearing, over-embellished and a monument to waste and excess.
It also represents the furniture of people you probably dislike. These high styles of furniture took hold in North America in the 18th century and persist to this day as both cult objects for collectors and as rites of passage for artisans. These are precious pieces that are auctioned, collected, reproduced and written about in exhaustive detail.
We call them by the names of their champions or designers – Chippendale, Sheraton and Hepplewhite to name a few.
And while I am quick to admit these pieces were made using exquisite materials by talented hands, I want to add an asterisk to the discussion of high-end furniture: This stuff was built for the ultra-rich to satisfy their whims and fancies.
Or, to put it a slightly different way, the people who could afford this furniture also owned mega-farms, factories and (sometimes) entire towns. This is not a knock on their wealth. But it is a simple way of asking a question that rarely gets asked among amateur makers: Why would you want to imitate the taste of your boss’s boss’s boss?
Is it because their elaborate furniture is the peak of design? Or is it because it’s put on display by institutions that are supported by the generous wealthy patrons – foundations, trusts, museums and cultural heritage centers?
Here’s how I see the equation: Because the wealthy were (as always) scarcer than the rest of us, there simply aren’t a lot of these pieces extant. It’s their rarity more than anything that makes them expensive and desirable. Yes, the furniture is nice. But don’t confuse a price tag with beauty or utility.
So if every log cabin on the frontier wasn’t decked out with a set of Robert Manwaring chairs, then what were most people sitting on, eating off of and sleeping in during the last 500 years? After years of researching this question for myself, I think the answer is this: furniture that doesn’t have a name, a museum or many champions.
What seems to have happened is this. Certain pieces of furniture, because of their essential practicality and usefulness, began during this period [the 17th century] to achieve definitive forms for which they were to retain for many years. Skilled but unsophisticated country craftsmen, usually joiners rather than cabinet-makers, repeated the same designs again and again, without changing them much, because they had been found to be the best for a particular purpose. A good deal of furniture thus escaped from the influence of fashion and, however unconsciously, responded only to the principle of fitness for use.
— Edward Lucie-Smith, “Furniture: A Concise History” (Oxford University Press, 1979).
The Furniture of Necessity Among furniture historians, little has been written about this so-called “vernacular” furniture in comparison to the mountains of scholarship on high styles. There are a few books here and there (thank you Christopher Gilbert), plus magazine articles tucked between the gilded and carved masterworks. But the furniture of necessity is, for the most part, invisible. Why? To be honest, vernacular items are tricky to study. They can be difficult to date because they don’t change much – many of these forms are still made today in the same way they were built in the 1600s. Most of their makers are anonymous. These pieces, by and large, were built by amateurs or part-time, self-taught woodworkers.
This book does not pretend to be a proper study of Western vernacular styles from 1300 to present. I’ll leave that to someone who is better at formatting footnotes. Instead, I want only to introduce you to pieces of furniture – some of them shockingly unfamiliar at first – that represent the core of our common furniture history.
This is the furniture of the people who work for a living. It is sturdy, made from everyday materials and isn’t orchestrated to impress you with ornament. Instead, it is designed to keep you dry, comfortable and safe. Also – and this is important – this furniture is largely disconnected from fashion. It cannot be labeled as a particular style, so it does not fall in or out of fashion. It looks at home in a log cabin, ranch house or an industrial loft. In fact, the only place it looks out of place is a high-style parlor or drawing room.
I admire the everyday ordinary furniture from the past, particularly from before the Industrial Revolution, what’s known as vernacular furniture. The makers are usually unnamed, often not professionals. I like it because of its directness, honesty and functionality. It tends to be kind of minimal and spare for reasons of cost. It is striking how the dictates or slogans of Modernism align with those of the vernacular or craft: less is more,” “form follows function,” and so on. It’s ironic because Modernism typically saw itself as release from the bondage of tradition.
— Laura Mays, a furniture maker and graduate of College of the Redwoods.
About this Book In the 18th century, there was an explosion of so-called “pattern books” that were stuffed with illustrations of fashionable architecture, interiors and furniture. One count from the Metropolitan Museum of Art estimates there were 250 pattern books for architecture and 40 for furniture.
These books were usually gorgeous, oversized and expensive. Their copperplate engravings regulated and transmitted fashion throughout England, the United States and other parts of the world. In fact, the books are so influential that many are still in print (though usually as falling-apart paperbacks, which amuses me).
But there’s never been a pattern book for the furniture of necessity. This book, in a small way, is designed to echo those pattern books. Each of the furniture forms has a full-page illustration by Briony Morrow-Cribbs, a Vermont artist who specializes in intaglio printing.
Following the plate is an explanation of the piece – how it is constructed and its general features – much like the explanation you might find in André-Jacob Roubo’s “l’Art du menuisier” or any other 18th-century text. Then each chapter departs from this historical format.
Vintage pattern books don’t tell you how to build a Chippendale chair. The local cabinetmaker was supposed to be able to reproduce the particular set of details to suit the fancy of the customer. But unlike high-style pieces, the furniture of necessity was usually built by its designer and end-user. So I offer step-by-step instructions for constructing the pieces featured in the plates.
I hope you will find these pieces liberating in several ways. Like many furniture makers, I spent my adult life in the shadow of the 18th-century masterworks. I was told that to be a real furniture maker, you needed to build these high-style pieces. You needed to learn veneering, carving, turning and even gilding. Otherwise, you were just a glorified trim carpenter.
That is complete crap.
Beautiful, durable and useful furniture is within the grasp of anyone willing to pick up a few tools and learn to use them. It does not require expensive materials or a lifetime of training – just an everyday normal dose of guts. Millions of people before you – and just like you – built all the furniture in their homes. They might not have left pattern books behind, but they left clues sprinkled through paintings, sketches and the furniture record. That is where our design ideas will come from. And that is where we will begin.
In all its horrible eccentricity of non-descript Gothic, worse Chinese, and inane rococo, combined though they be with the most exquisite workmanship and occasionally a quaint gracefulness, Chippendale’s style is not in favour with those whose training enables them to discriminate between the true and false in design.
— D. Adamson, “A Chat About Furniture,” Work magazine, March 23, 1889.