Tomas Munita for the New York Times

Today’s New York Times has a nice article about the Wandergesellen, the journeymen tradition, that continues in parts of Europe. There are loads of photos and you can read it here.

It also confirms that bell-bottoms never go out of style.

Suzanne Ellison

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Nancy R. Hiller: On the Importance of Conjunctions


Edwardian Hall Stand by Nancy R. Hiller, 2002

A few years ago I met one of our town’s most respected figures: a husband and father who has held several elected public offices and devoted his career to the cause of social justice. As we shook hands he said, “I understand that your work is very good, but not very cheap.”

“But?” I wondered, biting my tongue.

— Nancy R. Hiller from “Making Things Work: Tales from a Cabinetmaker’s Life

Nancy will read from her new book at the Lost Art Press storefront at 7 p.m. Saturday at 837 Willard St., Covington, KY 41011. We still have about 15 spots left; get your free tickets here.

Posted in Making Things Work, Uncategorized | 13 Comments

A Redneck Woodworker, Minus the Accent


Photo by Narayan Nayar

A few years ago, a new neighbor stopped me while I was on a run.

“Hey, I know you. You’re Christopher Schwarz,” he said. “What are you doing here, visiting?”

No, I told him, I live here. Then he looked confused.

“I thought you lived in New England, what with the way you write, look and talk,” he said. And that’s when I looked confused.

Despite 11 years of writing blogs and 21 years of writing for woodworking magazines, I’m always amused by people who think they know me but have it mostly wrong. So to mark the launch of my personal website for my furniture work (check it out here), I offer you this concise summation of me.

Though I was born in St. Louis, Mo., I grew up in Arkansas on Wildcat Mountain and did all the things that redneck kids do: fishing every day after school, hunting, hiking, camping, blowing stuff up (we made our own napalm) and cruising in souped-up crappy cars. If I had my way, every meal would feature a combination of the following foods: grits, barbecue, brisket, fried chicken, biscuits, sausage gravy, cornbread, greens, smoked ham and anything from the other allied Southern cuisines – Cajun, Creole or lowcountry.

I don’t have an accent; my three sisters do. But I am Southern to the marrow and have spent the majority of my life below the Mason-Dixon line. I am comfortable with Southern politeness (false as it may be), Southern insecurities and our hyperbole.

I attended segregated public schools. The mascot for my high school was a morbidly obese Confederate soldier; our school song was “Dixie.” I refused to sing it at pep rallies or convocations and, like most Southerners I know, am disgusted by our shameful history of racism and slavery.

I left the South to attend college outside Chicago, thinking I’d find a more enlightened place. I was wrong, and the day after graduation I moved to Greenville, S.C. I don’t fit in up North.

I’m a redneck. I have a master’s degree, but I lack the Southern accent. I drive a pickup truck, but it’s a Toyota. I love the South, but I am at odds with the backward ideas sometimes peddled down here.

That’s about all there is to say about me, except for the things I’ve built, and the things I’ve written. And that (clearly, see above) I hate to have my photo taken.

— Christopher Schwarz

Posted in Yellow Pine Journalism | 34 Comments

Latin American Workbenches in the Colonial Era – Part II: Peru, Bolivia, Argentina & Paraguay

‘Hogar Nazareth’ (1627-1681) by Diego Quisepe Tito (q1611-1681). In the Thoma Collection.

In Part II includes more benches and angels, a new painting style, a mystery and a few other things. Get your snacks and drinks ready.


Peru starts in Cuzco, capital city of the Incas, and with the Quecha painter Diego Quisepe Tito. Tito is considered the most important painter of the Cuzco School, and his work includes at least four scenes of Saint Joseph engaged in woodworking. Although the painting above is dark with age we can see a simple bench without a vise.  The background is too dark to see a tool rack, but there are a few tools on the ground.

‘Escenas de la Infancia de Jesus-Hogar de Nazareth’ by Diego Quisepe Tito. Iglesia Parroquial San Senastian, Cuzco. Photo: ARCA.

When Joseph is in the background we usually can’t see much detail about his bench. In this painting it is easy to see there is a face vise with hurricane-shaped nuts on a staked bench. And Joseph is wearing a hat not usually seen on a member of the Holy Family.

‘Hogar en Nazareth’ by Diego Quisepe Tito. Iglesia de San Sebastian, Cuzco. Photo: ARCA.

A staked bench with a planing stop. Look a little closer and on the left side of the bench  there is a board held upright by a face vise. A saw hangs on the wall, and I am happy to see a basket of tools.

Last night I tried to find a color photo of this painting and what I found instead was the sad news that the painting was one of 24 lost in a fire at Iglesia de San Sebastian last year.

Left: ‘Sagrada Familia en Nazareth’ (1675?) Diego Quisepe Tito or his circle. Museo Universidad de Turabo. Right: ‘El Taller de Nazareth’ Anon. 18th c. Monasterio Madras Carmelitas, Ayacucho. Photos: ARCA.

Both of these paintings are a copy of a Flemish engraving by the Wierix brothers. On the left, the artist was faithful to the original engraving keeping the toolbox (behind Joseph) and tools on the ground. The artist on the right changed the saw, perhaps copying a saw seen in use at the construction of a new building. He also left out the tool box and most of the tools on the ground. You might have noticed a whole new look to previous paintings. Brighter colors, intricate patterns (with matching birds on the left), gold leaf, native flowers and landscapes.

At the time the above paintings were done the Spanish had been colonizing the Americas for well over a century. A style of painting evolved in Cuzco when, in the late 17th century, Spanish-born and mestizo artists split away from the Amerindian artists of the painting guild. This freed the indigenous painters to incorporate colors and patterns from their cultures into copies of European art. It is thought Diego Quisepe Tito helped lead this effort that is now known as the Cusquena-style of painting.

‘El Taller Nazaret’ (1722), Anon. Monasterio de Santa Catalina, Arequipa. Photo: ARCA.

A nice sturdy bench with stout legs. Only the axe is left on the ground. The chisels are nicely arranged in a basket with the divider used as a…divider! I think the artist may have given the bench such a great length in order to fill the lunette.

‘Taller de San Jose’ 18th c. Anon. Museo National de la Cultura Peruana.

A staked bench with somewhat wonky legs, a parrot and Jesus at sawyer duty. Another trait of the Cusquena style you may have noticed is a lack of perspective.

If some, or many, of the colonial paintings seem familiar it is because of the use of a large set of engravings the Jesuits brought to the Americas to use in converting the indigenous peoples to Christianity. In the mid-16th century the founder of the Jesuits commissioned a series of engravings on the life of Christ from the Wierix brothers, well-known and prolific Flemish engravers. The commission was given in the mid-16th century by the founder of the Jesuits. The engravings were used in Jesuit conversions in their missions in the Americas and Asia.

The next three paintings are copies of Wierix engravings and show other woodworking scenes.

‘Techando la Casa de Nazareth’ (1670), Diego Quisepe Tito. Iglesia de San Sebastian, Cuzco. Photo: PESSCA.

Joseph’s low staked bench sits at the bottom of a substantial gangway-type ladder.

‘Joven Carpintero’ 17th c. Anon. Museo Pedro de Osma, Lima. Photo: ARCA.

Joseph, Jesus and the angels are building a lattice for the garden. The usual assortment of tools are tossed about.

‘La Baracaza’ 18th c. Anon. Museo del Palacio Arzobispal, Lima. Photo: ARCA.

Joseph is driving trennels into the boat.

The gallery has one more Wierix-related painting, two vistas and a map.


During the colonial era Bolivia was known as Alto Peru.

Vista of Potosi, 1758 by Gaspar Miguel del Barrio. Museo Charcas.

The silver mines of Potosi helped drive the trade with Asia and filled the coffers of Spain. During the height of its mining production Potosi was the wealthiest city in the Americas.

‘La Sagrada Familia en el Taller de Nazareth’ (1689-1732) by Melchor Perez de Holguin (1660-1732).

Melchor Perez de Holguin was a mestizo and the dominant painter in Potosi into the 1720s. Although the Cusquana style of painting was found in Alto Peru, de Holguin’s work falls into the Potosi school and was heavily influenced by the Spanish artist Zurbaran.

Joseph’s bench is much like those seen in other paintings from Peru and representative of all the benches I’ve found for Bolivia.

Although his workshop is in the background the painter did not stint on detail. The  bench is staked with tapered legs. The plane is put aside while Joseph uses a chisel. His adze sits on the near end of the workbench. On the wall is a tool rack and on the floor another full set of tools.


I almost left out the next painting but something must have held me back.

‘La Casa en Nazaret’ late 18th c. Anon. Collection of Roberta & Richard Huber.

It was the curvy legs (with stretchers!) and ornate plane. They were just too good to pass up.

‘El Taller de Nazareth’ 17th c. Anon. Private collection. Photo: ARCA.

This work is from La Paz. The bench is staked, has a planing stop and a face vise.  There is a nice collection of tools even if they are all over the floor. OK, OK, if they were piled into a basket we wouldn’t be able to see them in such nice detail.

‘The Carpenter’s Shop in Nazareth’ late 18th c. Anon. Brooklyn Museum.

Because the painting is so dark the Brooklyn Museum provides a black and white copy to better see this frenetic workshop.

With non-winged personnel this may be a good representation of a colonial workshop cranking out furniture, doors and fittings for the non-stop construction of churches, private residences and governments buildings. There are two workbenches, both with face vises and a mystery.






Close-up shot of the bench in the middle of the painting. The white squares may be the vise screws (only this bench has these). But what are those mysterious things at each end of the vise? After much deep thought Chris surmised “rocks on strings.”

‘Taller de la Sagrada Familia’ 18th c. Anon. Location is Copacabana. Photo: ARCA.

Despite the camera flash there is a staked bench with a face vise.

Isolating the bench shows, unlike others, the face vise does not extend the length of the bench.

‘The Sagrada Familia y San Juanito’ 17th c. Anon. Photo: Jose Antonio Camara, Antiquarian, Madrid.

This painting is spectacular in its detail: the wood grain on the board held by Joseph, Mary’s sewing cushion with thimbles in one pocket and thread in the other, the cat under the table playing with a spool of thread and the scissors in the basket at Mary’s feet. Joseph works on a staked bench and behind him tools are arranged neatly on a rack.

You may have seen this image on Chris’ other blog. When I sent the image to him a few weeks ago he got a little crazy over the “doe’s foot” planing stop. Readers of this blog will recognize the planing stop as, ahem, the palm or ban qi, which originated in China. You can read the origin story of the palm here. The blog about the modern version of palm or ban qi can be found here.

The palm can hold a wide flat board in place on the bench or a board held on edge, and both without leaving a mark. So how did a bench appliance of Chinese origin get to 17th-century Alto Peru? The same way Asian workers and goods arrived: the Manila Galleons which sailed between Acapulco and Manila from 1565 to 1815. The palm is just one example of the early arrival of Asian techniques in the Americas.

You might be wondering who is that woman in the doorway, the one who has drawn the attention of the Holy Family. She holds a basin containing the Arma Christ, symbols of the Passion of Christ. In a European painting the woman might be Saint Ann, the mother of Mary. In this painting I believe she is Mama Ocllo, a mother figure from Inca legend who gave women the knowledge of spinning thread and weaving textiles. This is another example of Amerindian painters integrating their culture into Christian religious works.

The illustration is from “El primer nueva cronica y buen gobierno,” a publication from 1615 in the collection of the Royal Danish Library.


I found only one workbench-related painting from Argentina.

The painting is from Cordoba and titled ‘El Hogar de Nazaret’ from 1609 by Juan Bautista Daniel (1585-1662). The bench is staked with a try plane resting at the far end. Most of the tools hang in a rack or on the wall.

The painting has long been in a private collection and this seems to be the only photograph available.  The odd thing about it is Daniel is identified as a Dane in a plaque at the center-right edge of the painting. It turns out he was from Norway and arrived in the territory now known as Argentina in 1606. He made his way to Cordoba where he was granted permission to live and work.


The last stop on this Latin American tour is at Santa Rosa, one of the Jesuit missions in Paraguay known as “reducciones de indios.” It is also my favorite of all the Latin American paintings.

Photo by Fernando Allen Galiano on Portal Guarani.

The fresco is by an unknown artist and is in a corner of the Chapel of Our Lady of Loreto at the former Santa Rosa mission. The mission was founded in 1698 and populated by the indigenous Guarani people. When the Jesuits were forced out in 1767 the missions were deserted and most fell into ruin.

The fresco frames the Holy Family with two columns. Joseph is using a chisel and maul to make cuts on a panel for eight-point star inlays. The middle figure is Jesus sawing (ignore the splotch that looks like a wing), and on the end is Mary. In all the other paintings where we see Joseph with a chisel his action in generic. Is he chopping a mortise or carving? We don’t know. Here, we can see what Joseph is making.

The fresco is first of all an important document in the history of the Guarani. Second, it illustrates a craft that is an important element of colonial design.

Geometric designs were not new to the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Pre-conquest, geometric shapes were used in stonework, metal, textiles and pottery.

The stars, sun and moon were observed and recorded by many indigenous groups. Stars as a symbol, particularly eight-point stars, are found in many cultures. It is part of the Moorish influence in Spanish art and architecture, and in Christianity it is a symbol of redemption or baptism and is also a symbol of Jerusalem. For a sailor an eight-point star is a compass rose or wind rose.

On the left is part of a folio from the 8th century ‘Beato de Liebano’ and on the right Mary’s gown in a Cuzco School painting.

The eight-point star was used extensively as wood, mother of pearl and metal inlays in furniture during the colonial era.  The examples above are from chests, armoires and tables made in various parts of the colonial territories. The black ceiling with red stars is the ceiling of the fresco chapel (in some grand European cathedrals the ceilings are painted blue with gold stars).

So, from a humble fresco in a small chapel that somehow survived for over 300 years we learn quite a lot.

To wrap-up this survey of workbenches I think the staked bench (high or low) with a planing stop and maybe a face vise is the type of bench that was most often used in the colonial era. The painters were not working in a vacuum and only copying scenes from European engravings and paintings. They observed carpenters that arrived from Spain and the benches they built and used, benches that could be adapted for different construction needs. Also, some of the first secular paintings, the Casta paintings from Mexico, were not copies of European paintings and show this type of staked bench.

A Quick Tour of Tool Storage

You have seen tools on the ground, on the floor, in racks and shelves on the wall and stowed in baskets. All of these methods, or non-storage in the case of floor/ground, can be seen in European paintings. How did the woodworkers in the colonial era store there tools? Spanish-born carpenters probably brought their tools in small chests or wrapped in bags. Using baskets would also be a familiar method of storage.

Making baskets was a well-known craft in the New World. In the wedding scene above from the Codex Mendoza, an Aztec document from 1535, there are woven mats and a basket.

This lidded basket is from the pre-Inca Chancay society and dated 12th to 14th century (British Museum). It holds yarns and tools used by a weaver.

If you had a small collection of tools and needed a tough but lightweight storage and carrying solution, a basket would certainly fit the bill.

There is one other solution and possible only with the help of the angels: the sky rack.

Suzanne Ellison

Posted in Workbenches | 3 Comments

Countdown to Nancy R. Hiller at Lost Art Press

Editor’s Note: In seven days Nancy R. Hiller will read a selection from her fantastic book “Making Things Work” at our Covington, Ky., storefront. After that, there will be the usual post-reading activities: bashing a pinata shaped like a biscuit joiner, playing a game with blindfolds and sinking nails into a tree stump.

Did I mention there will be free drinks?

We still have a few spots left in the free event before the local fire department will get grumpy. If you are interested, sign up here. And feel free to bring a date or a spouse (but not both).

This week, I will feature some of my favorite passages from “Making Things Work,” which is hands-down the funniest, gut-punchingest book I’ve read in years.

In this scene, Nancy is writing a list of her business’s expenses on a series of napkins to explain to a wine-and-cheese poser that her business is legit.


The sideboard I made for the book I’m writing about English Arts and Crafts furniture for Popular Woodworking’s book’s division. Photo by Al Parrish. 2017.

“And yes, my shop is behind my house. But I no longer live in the house. I had to move out during the recession, which absolutely gutted my business. During the worst year, my gross sales (i.e. including materials) were $17,000. I slashed the overhead and everything else to the bone. I relied on my credit card to pay lots of bills, a debt that took the following two years to pay off. I’m incredibly lucky that my boyfriend at the time – now my husband – invited me to move in with him; at least that way I no longer had to pay for all of my living expenses on one decimated income.

“That year from hell, I obviously could not even pay myself minimum wage after covering the overheads. You’re probably wondering why I didn’t just go out and get a couple of jobs – you know, bagging groceries, cleaning toilets at the office supply store…. Believe me, I thought about it.”

— Nancy R. Hiller

Posted in Making Things Work, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

An Early Split-top Workbench from Spain


Researcher Suzanne Ellison recently turned up this unusual Spanish split-top workbench that resides in the Museo Ángel Orensanz y Artes del Serrablo. It’s remarkable to find an early split-top bench (which were quite unusual until recently, thanks to Mike Siemsen and Benchcrafted). But the configuration of the benchtop is enough to make you your scratch your head a bit.

Each top is 18 x 14 cm (7” wide x 5-1/2” thick) and are separated by a gap that is 8-1/4” wide. The two tops are joined with two crossbars that are through-tenoned into the tops. The four legs are tenoned into the tops and there is an unusual leg vise (four handles!) that drives a chop that is 58 x 20 cm (22-3/4 x 7-7/8” wide).


The bench overall is 70 cm x 230 cm x 57 cm (27-1/2” high x 90-1/2” long x 22-1/2” deep). The museum obtained the bench in the early 1980s but does not list an approximate age of the bench.

My first reaction to this bench was that perhaps it was for another trade or a specialized purpose, though the museum lists it as a carpenter’s bench. But the more I thought about the bench, the more I think it was used for carpentry or furniture.

The bench is a standard size for a woodworking bench. The vise is clearly set up for woodworking, despite the unusual handles on the screw. There appears to be a holdfast in the rear top. And there are holdfast holes in the front right leg, suggesting the bench was used for edge jointing.

The square block sitting on the top of the bench is a bit of a mystery. It could be a mallet in dog hole, some jig or something else.

If I were forced to speculate, my guess is this was a bench used for woodworking where the owner didn’t deal with stock that was both thin and wide. Of course, the gap between the two tops could have been filled in by a chunk of timber at some point or a tool tray or any number of other things.

So the next time I’m in Spain….

— Christopher Schwarz

Posted in Uncategorized, Workbenches | 10 Comments

Roorkee Chair

This is an excerpt from “Campaign Furniture” by Christopher Schwarz. 

As the British military was forced to become more responsive and quick at the end of the Victorian era, traditional and bulky items were traded for furniture that was lightweight and compact.

Someone in the late 19th century invented the Roorkee chair, a Spartan design that was destined to influence generations of modern furniture designers in the 20th century.

The Roorkee, named after an area in India, has no fixed joinery. The legs and stretchers are joined without glue; when the chair is assembled, the seat and strapping hold everything together. Likewise, the back of the chair is but two sticks that are covered in cloth and held to the chair’s frame with bolts.

As a result of this shockingly spare design, the chair weighs little – 8 to 10 lbs. is typical. It folds into a small package. And despite all these details, it is remarkably comfortable.

The Roorkee is designed for lounging, not for dining or work at a tall desk. As a result, it is low to the floor, like a Morris chair or any other camp chair. Most Roorkee chairs were covered in rot-proof canvas. Today, reproductions are made in both leather and canvas.

The leather adds weight and stiffness. The weight is undesirable if you are portaging the chair through the mountains. But the stiffness of the back and seat is a good thing for your comfort.

Roorkees with canvas backs can feel like sitting in a flour sack (I’ve made several using military-spec canvas). So while leather might not be 100-percent authentic, I do think it is the superior material for this chair. After experimenting with hides of several thicknesses, my favorite is an 8 oz. hide, which is a full 1/8″ thick.

If you research this form yourself, you’ll find several versions of “improved” Roorkee chairs. These might have an adjustable headrest or sticks that you are supposed to drape your legs over, like a planter’s chair. I have yet to build an improved Roorkee.

Roorkee chairs show up in a variety of species, from ash to mahogany to teak. The way the stretchers are inserted into the legs can vary. One common method is a tapered mortise-and-tenon joint. This Windsor-chair joint offers a lot of surface area for the joint without weakening the leg in the way a cylindrical mortise would. Plus, the more weight that is placed on the chair, the tighter the joint becomes.

Some Roorkees are joined with a simple cylindrical mortise-and-tenon joint. Still others have some sort of hybrid joinery – the tenon might be a cylinder but it will have a square shoulder that fits into a shallow square mortise at the top of the cylindrical mortise.

As you study the Roorkee chair, you’ll also find a variety of turnings used for the legs, everything from a simple taper to strong (but busy) coves and beads.

The classic Roorkee has a turned cylinder near the top of each leg that acts as a convenient handle for lifting an assembled chair. The foot of a Roorkee is typically a straight taper that ends in some sort of shaped foot. Some Roorkees don’t have a shaped foot and end in a thin taper.

The Influence of the Design
The Roorkee chair was designed for the military, but its utilitarian core appealed to modern designers. Kaare Klint, one of the founders of the Danish modern style, directly aped the Roorkee chair for his famous “Safari Chair,” which was popular through the 1970s.

The influence of the Roorkee was more far spread than Denmark. Marcel Breuer’s “Wassily” chair (1925), Le Corbusier’s “Basculant” chair (1928), Wilhelm Bofinger’s “Farmer Chair” (1966), Arne Norell’s “Sirocco” chair and Vico Magistretti’s “Armchair 905” (1964) all owe a tremendous debt to the Roorkee chair.

The influence of the Roorkee for decades after its introduction has always been an important indicator that campaign furniture as a whole might be an underappreciated style. Like the Roorkee, campaign furniture was designed to impress you more with its utility than its fashionableness. Its only real ornament consisted of things that made it stronger. It used woods that resisted the tropics, joinery that didn’t rely on glue and brass that held everything together.

In many ways, campaign pieces have more in common with workbenches and tool chests than with delicate dining tables, carved sideboards and veneered highboys. And that is why I think the campaign style is worth reviving among woodworkers.

Meghan Bates


Posted in Campaign Furniture | 4 Comments