(As though I had an entire page in the Sunday The New York Times)
Christopher Schwarz has written a book charting how he decided to distill his life to some essential elements, offers the reader his experiences reorganizing his workspace, gives a treatise on the tools he finds most essential and outlines how to build a chest that will house and protect the tools of the woodworker. The anarchist’s tool chest in the title is not only a symbol, but one of the actual manifestations, of the personal changes Schwarz made to his life. He does cover a lot of ground in the three sections titled Memory, Reason and Experience.
Anarchy is a gutsy word to put in a book title. Some will associate anarchy with the most extreme forms of anti-government action, and political or social thought. Just what kind of anarchy is Schwarz expressing? A recent AT&T television commercial pitching office software features a very overcrowded and overwhelmed veterinary clinic. The voice-over says, “From anarchy to order…”. I thought it was just a chaotic vet clinic (and who allowed that many appointments at one time ?). On the other hand, to others, anarchy may mean the violent street actions that seem to follow WTO meetings (of course, the evening news usually doesn’t show the protests that are peaceful). Maybe Schwarz’s anarchy fits more closely to the thinking of the English, and later the American, punk and DIY music of the late 1970s. Early punks wanted to strip down their music to the essentials, produce their own music and not get caught up in contracts with big record companies. It was a time of despair for many, especially young people: deep recession, high unemployment and few prospects. So, naturally this was expressed in a new music style. Just the title of “Never Mind the Bollocks,” that catchy album by the Sex Pistols, pretty much summed up punk thinking. Although he may have taken a different path and used different references, I think this is the anarchy that Schwarz is closest to. It is not political, not about chaos or violent action. His anarchy is about making radical changes to his way of thinking and his way of life.
Like any artisan, Schwarz has a very personal relationship with his craft and his tools. As a woodworker he values well designed and well made furniture, and has a strong aversion to poorly made mass production goods. Most readers can relate to cheaply made furniture that, while serviceable and affordable when bought, will not stand the test of time. Writing for and editing Popular Woodworking magazine allowed him to combine his love of writing and woodworking. Producing articles for the magazine gave him opportunities to test new tools, test designs, learn from established craftsmen and interact with icons in the woodworking world. Tools poured in, both power and hand tools, waiting for testing and a review in the magazine. Schwarz was also researching historical records which described the workshops, methods and hand tools used by woodworkers in the past.
In the first part of the book and in later chapters we learn of Schwarz’s first use of hand tools with his father, follow him as he begins to drown in the constant stream of tools arriving at the magazine, to his growing awareness that he has too many tools. In the chapter “A Tale of Three Tables” his frustrating experiences with poorly made dining tables lead him to make his own. Reading Schwarz’s accounts of the numbers of tools arriving for testing at the magazine, I got the sense that he began to question the ethics of his involvement in reviewing the next new and improved tool that might not necessarily be improved, or worthwhile, for the home-based woodworker. He found himself feeding into the tool frenzy. But, his research into the history of woodworking showed him many examples of modestly equipped workshops. He knew he could build furniture and other objects that would be passed down through his family. When using hand tools he savored the strong connection he felt to his craft and to woodworkers of past generations. He eventually looked around and saw he had too much and had had enough.
As an artisan matures tools will be evaluated and discarded. The work surface and the work space will go through many changes until an ideal is found. Using historic examples reaching back to the 17th century, and his own experience, Schwarz devised a list of essential hand tools for his home workshop. He also determined a list of the tools that were ”good to have.” All power tools were not rejected; he kept the machines that aided his woodworking and would have steady use. With fewer tools his workshop needed to be reorganized and he found his shop was easier and more comfortable to work in. Again, using his research and personal preference he designed and built a tool chest to store and protect his essential hand tools. After clearing away the workshop and personal clutter Schwarz wrote this book. His message is not “You must follow my path,” but rather, “Here is what I learned.” He also exhorts his fellow woodworkers to help keep the craft alive, whether using hand tools, power tools or a combination of both.
Along with the tool lists Schwarz presents a few rules for workbenches and
the tool chest. But wait, if this is anarchy how can there be rules and lists? Well, it is his personal anarchy after all and he is allowed to define his beliefs and how he wants to live. Schwarz made radical changes to his work and personal life. He established his freedom from the trap of more is better and quantity over quality. He is also a public figure in the woodworking world and as such will always be asked for his recommendations. So, he gives his recommendations using lists and rules. See, sometimes anarchy does take a very quiet form.
In the Reason section of the book Schwarz goes through the lists of essential and “good to have tools” in great detail, but I will leave the technical reviews to others better versed in woodworking. Although I am not a woodworker I found many of his descriptions and guidelines easy to follow and he provides his readers with a trove of useful hints. There is a profuse number of photographs that I found helpful. I even have some of the tools on the essential list, among them a “girl” hammer and a folding rule.
The Experience section starts with the story of the three dining tables, which is used as a lead in for a further discussion of Schwarz’s personal journey to anarchy. Some readers may never be convinced that this is anarchy, but then again, these days everyone seems to have their own set of facts about what something is or isn’t (and any facts need not apply for the job). He then goes into how to build the Anarchist’s Tool Chest. I was particularly fascinated with the details showing how to construct dovetail joints. Now I can better appreciate and admire the work involved in hand-constructed dovetails. Following the construction of the tool chest was not too difficult, especially with the included photographs. Can I build one? No, but I can certainly do a good evaluation of any furniture I buy in the future. And that is one of the messages of Mr. Schwarz’s book: Support the craftsman by buying quality work. I am also going to take a very hard look at my overstuffed closets.
The better part of the book is written in the manner of a conversation with the reader and includes language that is often very humorous (the afore-mentioned “girl” hammer and “fetching” infill planes come to mind). There is nothing that can’t be heard on nightly television and PG-13 rated films; however, the frequency of some of the humor can be distracting. There are also some opportunities to clean up the text and for better editing. Mr. Schwarz’s abilities as a writer shine in the eloquence of the chapters “Disobey Me” and “After The War.” His description of the dining table he made for his family, like the table, is perfect.
On the whole Mr. Schwarz has written a book that will be enjoyed by woodworkers and other readers interested in the craft. I could see a person new to woodworking using this book as a guide on how to set up and equip a workshop. For the experienced woodworker it will be an enjoyable tour through tool land, and possibly the impetus to examine their own accumulation of tools. And, some will want to read “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” to discover what else Mr. Schwarz has been up to in his research and in his personal workshop.
Finally, after reading “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” I am reminded of the Latin phrase, opus opificem probat: the work proves the craftsman.
— Suzanne Ellison