A Call to Arms

Turning my attention back to the community of woodworkers after a hiatus, I found that much had changed. The economy has taken its toll on our collective spirits, making us practical and limiting our vision.

One bright, shining exception was Chris Schwarz’s move this year to leave his role as Executive Editor of Popular Woodworking Magazine and focus on his side venture, Lost Art Press. This move was inevitable: Schwarz simply has too much to say to be beholden to a corporate definition of success. Magazines must court the advertising dollars of tool makers, and that extension of consumer culture–upside down in its assertion that artisans are first and foremost consumers–is in direct conflict with the soul of Craft.

The Anarchist's Tool Chest

In that vein, Schwarz’s new book, The Anarchist’s Tool Chest, is a must-read, a call to arms for furnituremakers. There is an edge to this book, not in the “pitchforks and torches” sense of tearing down governments, but in it’s assertion that artisans in wood must be the masters of their tools, not slaves to tool conglomerates. There is a broader critique too of mass-produced furniture, which may be preaching to the choir; nevertheless, even the choir needs a sermon sometimes.

Schwarz challenges us to break out of our consumer mindset when we think about our tools, proposing that each tool must pay its share of the rent in our workshops. A central premise of the book is that for the joiner focused on casework, there is a basic set of hand tools that will get us pretty far, and that we should look to machines as apprentices. If they don’t save us significant labor, they’re making a mess and taking up space.

There is an intellectual spirit to Schwarz’s writing that I appreciate, though not every woodworker will. Schwarz does his research, and quotes sources from the entire written history of the craft, much of it pre-industrial. He takes that research into the workshop, and comes back with confident assertions that, yes, there is a better way. This is challenging to readers accustomed to the pandering of the magazines, but there is a healthy way to interact with Schwarz’s assertions. It takes an open mind and a willingness to question our skills and methods.

For example, early in the book, Schwarz details how he sold off much of his tool collection, paring down to essential tools that “paid the rent.” While some of these moves would be gut-wrenching to the average home putterer, Schwarz is not sentimental about it. Out goes the miter saw and the router table. He even questions the supremacy of his table saw, the true sovereign of most home shops. “Once you foresake plywood,” he says, “your shop can change.” He moved the table saw against the wall, which “opened up a dance floor in the center of my shop.”

This got me thinking about my own workshop, a one-car garage I (hypothetically) share with my wife’s car. The car hasn’t fit in there for several years, pushed out by my big machines. Car aside, it’s cumbersome to make furniture out there, it’s so crowded. The two biggest beasts in my shop are the table saw and the radial arm saw. The table saw is a 70s-era cabinet saw with extension rails ideal for plywood sheets. I’ve taken to breaking down plywood with a circular saw, though, because I find it safer to move the tool than to move a full sheet of plywood. If I don’t use the table saw for breaking down plywood, can I shorten the rails and reclaim some space?

The radial arm saw, a 50s-era machine set up on a platform at the back of the garage, takes up every bit as much real estate as the table saw, and the only operation I use it for is crosscutting to length. I began to ask myself, “what would I need to do–what skills would I need to develop–to allow me to get rid of my radial arm saw?” More on that later.

I’d come to the book curious to learn what Schwarz’s short list of tools would be.  I wasn’t quite so ready to accept his assertion that a traditional tool chest was the best way to store them.  That’s great for him, I thought to myself. He’s working out of his basement, and it’s probably harder to hang cabinets on the walls.  It’s floor space that’s a premium in my shop. Slowly, the tumblers began to fall into place.  The more I thought about what I could remove from my workshop, the more I realized that the tool chest may in fact be the ideal storage method.

Suffice it to say, I plan to take up Schwarz’s latest challenge, and I’m pretty sure I’ll be a better and happier craftsman for it.  If my wife can park in the garage again, she’ll be happier too.

Ah, the irony. As I was composing this post, the power went out, further taunting me to reduce my dependence on machinery.

3 thoughts on “A Call to Arms

  1. Pingback: Taking Up the Challenge « life, revisited:

  2. Hi Alex,

    I follow you on Twitter and I saw a link for your post “Taking Up the Challenge”. I stopped by to read that article and was quickly pulled into so many more.

    I produce a podcast titled Spoken Wood Podcast. In a nutshell, myself or the original authors read various posts from their blogs for the audience. The response from the audience has been great and they keep requesting more authors.

    I’d love to talk some more with you about the possibility of your posts being used on the show.

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