It’s a mystery. At least, I like to think of it that way.

Last week I spent my mornings dovetailing the pieces for the large sliding till in my tool chest. It’d been slow-going, partly because I overslept one day, and partly because I’d been experimenting with process. Friday morning, I reached the point of dry-fitting the side pieces.

A fitting end to all that sawing.

A fitting end to all that sawing.

It was a bittersweet moment, because it was the first time I couldn’t look down and see all of my tools. That’s really the only downside of the tool chest: I don’t have everything in plain sight. No, it’s not a deal-killer, and it certainly beats coming into the workshop to find the array of tools that have fallen off shelves to the concrete floor, or planes that have formed sudden blooms of rust.

So after giving myself about 30 seconds to acknowledge this transition to layered storage, I embraced it. I started thinking about how many tools the chest could hold once I finished the tills, and the sense of discovery I could channel each time I lift the lid on this chest.

I started thinking of it not simply as a tool chest, but as a treasure chest. I try to see it through my son’s eyes, maybe wandering into the workshop on a quiet afternoon, opening the chest, sliding the tills back and forth, seeing how many of the tools I can name, admiring their form, imagining their function.

Fill 'er up, son.

Fill ‘er up, son.

It’s not so hard to imagine. As a kid, I remember being fascinated by my grandfather’s garage, his den where he practiced woodcarving and sharpening, even the organizer he kept on his chest of drawers, filled with the things he took out of his pockets at the end of the day. I was convinced that he could make or fix just about anything. After he died, I brought home some of his tools, hoping to instill that same spirit in my own kids.

I want to walk into the workshop each morning with that sense of wonder and excitement – beginner’s mind, if you will. It feels like I’m on the right track.

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One Good Yarn Deserves Another

Taking cues from Peter Follansbee and Pete Galbert, I thought I’d share what my wife is up to.

I haven’t written much about Bonny here (as an eloquent writer and a keen-eyed editor, she is quite capable of telling her own story), but over the past year, she has taken up crochet and knitting with a passion and integrity that I admire as a fellow craftsperson. I’m in awe of the skill and creative vision she’s developed in such a short time.

Knitted and felted purse

Knitted and felted purse

I also find her work remarkable as a symbol of the transformation we’ve made together with our two kids, from a family of consumers to a family of makers.

Crocheted scarf in wool and acrylic

Crocheted scarf in wool and acrylic

Just over eighteen months ago, Bonny was running herself ragged as a retail manager, working late and thankless nights and rarely seeing her family. We spent her income freely, but had little of meaning to show for it. The spring of 2012 changed our lives profoundly, though. We lost my stepfather to heart disease in early March. Then in late April, just seven weeks later, we lost her father to cancer. By mid-May, we had reordered our lives so that she could leave her job and have a family life again.

Knitted baby hood in acrylic

Knitted baby hood in acrylic


Bonny’s story embodies what I’ve been aiming for with this blog: creative work as a path to meaning, purpose, and joy. Needless to say, I am a huge fan.

You can find Bonny’s ready-made work for sale on Etsy. She is also quite happy to take custom orders through her Facebook page (although her dance card might be full until after the holidays). You can find her on Twitter as well.

Roll Your Own

Working on a large project (like the dining room table I’m currently building) is a great way to shake out new methods of work and new shop arrangements. While my current arrangement is the best I’ve come up with yet, I still have a list of changes I want to make once my current project is complete.

Big on my list are a traditional tool chest, a sharpening bench, and some better organization for my clamps. To go with the tool chest, I want some cotton tool rolls for efficient storage.

Most of that list can wait, but I had to do something about my brad point bits. The block of wood I stored them in was tippy, and they were always in the way.

So Tuesday night, I decided to make a proof-of-concept tool roll for my brad point bits, borrowing my daughter’s sewing machine to do it. (Hey, she borrows my table saw, so it’s only fair, right?) I had some old khaki pants I needed to upcycle, so it seemed like a low-risk proposition.

composing

This turned out to be a great side project, solving a shop problem and providing the sort of immediate gratification to keep me energized for my longer project.

unrolled

Best yet, it worked out well as a proof-of-concept project. I have plenty of fabric on hand for more tool rolls. With something as utilitarian as this, I can’t see a reason to buy what I could make in a couple of hours.

rolled

Drawers are for Furniture

Maybe I should have titled this post “Why I haven’t built a traditional tool chest yet.”

I’ve read The Anarchist’s Tool Chest three times now. I’ve read it with an open mind and I’ve read it with a critical eye. It’s a compelling book, written with passion and conviction. It convinced me to pare down my own tool kit, to sell off duplicates and single-purpose tools whose functions can be performed with other, more versatile tools. It’s been a liberating process, one that has helped me rewire my thinking from that of a consumer to that of a maker. I still find myself looking around for tools to sell.

After three reads, though, I had one reservation that kept me from building a traditional tool chest. Well, make that two reservations.

The first had to do with floor space. I don’t have a lot of it in my one car garage. The space I would dedicate to a traditional tool chest is home to my sharpening station and a rolling cart that holds probably half of my hand tools. The rest are stored in a cabinet on the wall above my workbench.

I would gladly give up the cart in favor of a chest that would protect those tools from dust and swings in humidity. The thing is, though, I kept my great-grandfather’s Kennedy machinist’s chest on top of that cart. And that’s where my other reservation came in.

You see, I love drawers. I love the mystery of them. I remember as a kid I’d go to my grandfather’s house and look in every drawer in every tool chest, just marveling. (Okay, I still sneak a peak every once in a while. Fascinating.)

It’s funny, though: the thing I love about drawers–the mystery–turns out to be the thing that slows me down as a woodworker. I don’t tend to reach for the right drawer the first time. My brain just doesn’t work that way (or that well, if you ask my wife). For example, it took me twelve years to memorize what each of three light switches do at the back door of my house. The neighbors probably thought I was sending Morse code using my back porch lights.

Maybe I love something that’s not good for me, but I found it hard to give up my machinist’s chest. It’s a bit of self-sabotage to have so many drawers in the way of my daily practice. I used it mostly to store sharpening equipment: stones, files, file card, saw sets. There are also dental picks, Yankee screwdrivers and push drills, a Stanley Hurwood awl that looks like it was beat up by a rival gang of awls, mill files with teeth that are rolled over, Chinese steel shaped to resemble rasps, an old square file I might convert to a birdcage awl one day….

Okay, I had some pretty random crap in there that I could easily let go of.

I’ll be honest. This is not the post I started out writing. I started out thinking how useful my machinist’s chest was, how central it was to my woodworking practice, how I kept it organized, and how everything I kept in there had a purpose. And that was true, when it came to the two bottom drawers. When I looked at it with fresh eyes, the rest of the chest turned out to be hiding a hoard of crap (and also some gems that just didn’t have a good home).

I moved most of the sharpening gear to the metal cabinet where I sharpen, and moved the machinist’s chest on top of a mechanic’s chest for now. What remains in it is a collection of files, a few taps, a die, a screw extractor. I could probably store those files in tool rolls to further reduce my need for drawers in the wood shop.

I think I’ve conquered my drawer demons. I concede the clutter argument, but the bigger issue to me is workflow. I want to spend as much time in the flow as possible. To me, that means honing my skills with fewer tools, and keeping them as accessible as possible.

Floor space, on the other hand, is still a challenge. A traditional joiner’s chest would displace my dedicated sharpening station. What’s worse, the metal cabinet I use for my sharpening station is too small for the purpose. (I like the elegance of Tom Fidgin’s dedicated sharpening bench, but it would take up as much space as the tool chest.)

Taking a look around my shop, there is one way to fit in both the tool chest and the sharpening bench: I need to stop hoarding wood (at least in my workshop). Of all the conclusions I’ve reached through this process, this might be the toughest. But if I’m going to create an environment where I can sustain creative flow, I need the room more than I need instant access to wood. Luckily, I have a project coming up that will use a significant amount of the oak I have on hand, oak I harvested nearly five years ago from a friend’s back yard.

I’m sure I’ll build the tool chest before too long. If I have enough oak left, I could make a purpose-built bench for sharpening, one that would support my saw vise (plus the hand-crank grinder I’ve been coveting).

But first, I have some furniture to build.

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.

Studio Furniture in the Big Tent

Asa Christiana is on the defensive.

Editor of Fine Woodworking, Christiana posted this piece in the FWW editorial blog in response to a recent interview with Tom Loeser in American Craft.

Loeser is the head of the Woodworking department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  His series, Flotilla, was featured recently in Woodwork.

While Christiana quotes only a snippet (in bold, below), I think we get a better understanding of Loeser’s argument by understanding the context in which the offending statement was leveled:

Loeser has been taking full advantage of this creative license. As an academic, he recognizes himself as a subversive in the field. “I think the woodworking world is too small, too limited and too defined by Fine Woodworking magazine. There is a slightly anti-intellectual slant to it. I am more interested in the ideas behind it and opening things up. I am interested in where we overlap with design and where we overlap with art.” Loeser has always worked from historical objects and sources, but he plays with ideas of function by deposing the users’ operational expectations. These days he welcomes escapes from his studio furniture oeuvre to explore other systems of generating form.

What is troublesome is that Christiana’s rebuttal sets Loeser up as a straw man, showing pictures of his most challenging work with no context, making him out to be some ridiculous figure, rather than a daring and courageous individual.  As with all straw man attacks, Christiana sidesteps the earnest (and earned) criticism Loeser offers to FWW, that it is parochial (my word choice) and anti-intellectual, serving a focus-group audience.

Not surprisingly, Christiana’s followers, who like FWW just as it is, rally round the flag and take pot-shots at Loeser’s more challenging work.

This parochial and anti-intellectual stance within woodworking has made American furniture stagnant.  We get really good at mimicking Stickley or the Shakers, and maybe we stretch a little to make these styles serve our 60″ widescreen displays.

Not enough of us are concerned about the direction of American furniture.

Studio furniture makers play an important role within the larger ecosystem that includes the magazines, the designer-craftsmen, tool-makers, amateur woodworkers, reproduction craftsmen, educators, and much more.  Loeser and other studio makers challenge us to see beyond period styles, to remove our self-imposed constraints, to shake up our notions of how furniture should look and what it means.  They challenge us to grow.

Notice, too, that I consider it an ecosystem, not an economy.  This is an important distinction.  If we reduce our craft to an economy, then we are merely consumers whose only role is to buy new machines with granite tops.  By seeing woodworking as a larger, more varied endeavor, with broader (and maybe even loftier) goals, we can stimulate a creative renaissance.

It is Christiana’s loss, and ultimately a loss to FWW’s readers, if he fails to make room in the tent for studio furniture.

As an intellectual and a maker, I would hope Christiana might see an opportunity to bring Fine Woodworking out of stagnation.  He has given us a taste of the intersection between design and woodworking with some great contributions by Michael Fortune.  If only it were enough.  Clearly we miss entirely the intersection between woodworking and art, the intersection at which Woodwork, by comparison, has done its best work.

While I hold out hope for a bigger tent for woodworking, it feels as if Christiana has come down on the side of the focus groups and the advertisers.  I expect more tool reviews and a continuing disregard for daring, challenging, and thought-provoking work.

Meanwhile, I’ll cross my fingers that Tom Caspar won’t turn Woodwork into another American Woodworker.  Maybe I should be reading American Craft…