The Anarchist’s Tool Chest

August 7, 2011 Comments Off on The Anarchist’s Tool Chest

The Anarchist’s Tool Chest is the latest book by Christopher Schwarz, former editor of Popular Woodworking Magazine. It is published through Lost Art Press, the small publishing company Schwarz founded several years ago. He has become one of the most recognizable faces in American woodworking, thanks largely to his long running blogs with Popular Woodworking and Lost Art Press, and his two excellent books on workbenches (the words “Roubo workbench” and Schwarz are practically synonymous at this point).

The Anarchist’s Tool Chest is a departure from his other writings, though frequent readers of his blogs will recognize some of the major themes that run through the book. There is a bit less how-to in the book; the majority focuses on “what” and “why”. His thoughts on woodworking tools and their true functions, and the decisions we should be making when we go to buy tools, have been laid out in various blog posts over the past years. Often times they have only been snippets here and there, but clearly these ideas have been germinating in his mind for some time. This book attempts to integrate these principles into one succinct narrative. He also dives into more far-reaching themes that call for introspection, both who we are as woodworkers and as general citizens, alike. In my humble opinion, The Anarchist’s Tool Chest is his most ambitious and well written effort yet.

A note on the writing style presented in the book. In just the first few pages I got the feeling this book was a very personal endeavor. It is written with some informality – persuasive, colloquial, and at times, blunt. Again, readers of his blog will recognize the tone, as it clearly is not meant to be a simple, uncolored dictionary of tools. At least one individual, here, found the style unwelcoming for a professional publication on woodworking. Just accept the fact that “crap” will become part of your lexicon as you read the book. And speaking to the personal nature of the content, Schwarz said this in a blog entry shortly after he finished the writing: 

“I’ve spent the last 14 months writing this book, and all I can say is that I cannot discern if it’s something worth reading or a stinking turd. I’m too close to it.”

When you reach the popularity of Schwarz, speculation runs rampant about everything you do, or might do. There were many theories as to what this book would be, and from Schwarz’ blog postings the book clearly followed a non-linear track as he began to put words to paper (or rather, pixels to computer monitor). Would it be a grand list of tools we should all have? Or maybe a thorough research on tool chests, with several plans we can choose from? Will it be a political tome focusing on the trappings of consumerism and how we should all stick it to the man? It’s a little of all those things, and none of them.

After a short introduction, the book launches into a modest list of essential tools recommended for a woodworker. He breaks the tools into two categories – 48 essential tools and 24 good-to-have tools. Interestingly, the list draws on historical records. Tool inventories from Charles Hayward, Joseph Moxon, Randle Holme, and Benjamin Seaton, as well as those identified in the Joiner and Cabinet Maker, are used as a point of comparison – and possibly a starting off point. There are lots of opinions on tools – what size, what brand, what style, etc. For those starting the craft (I’ll put myself in that category), wading through tool reviews and internet forums quickly becomes information overload. This book presents a simple list of tools in one, convenient place. Schwarz removes the “what brand?” from the equation, instead only giving his opinion on what qualities to look for in a certain tool (and honestly, if I see one more forum thread titled “Lee Valley or Lie Nielson – which one should I buy”, I’m going to scream). Because tools can sometimes be highly personal items, the list will surely bring some grumbles and raised eyebrows. (And tool junkies will find a list of only 72 tools woefully short.) The ideas presented in the book are from a user perspective, not a collector. This book, or any other for that matter, won’t convince a collector to get rid of that box of eightStanley smoothing planes that are in different stages of restoration. Every tool on the essential and good-to-have lists is discussed, sometimes in great detail. A good 2/3 of the book is dedicated to the tool list. By the time I reached the last pages of tool discussion, it started to become a bit encyclopedic for me. I love tools as much as next woodworker, but I’ll admit I was ready to move on. Luckily, as you turn the page on the last tool, the heart and soul of the book are revealed.

The next chapter outlines the philosophical underpinnings of the book, as told from a personal story of his experiences with three dining tables. He dissects “Anarchy” and explains why he chose that word in describing his mind-set, and how he interprets its meaning as it pertains to the woodworking craft (hint – put away your Black Flag t-shirt). Again, if you are regular follower of his blog, you might recognize the paradigm presented here. Quality vs. quantity, craftsmanship vs. production, design vs. function – all are discussed in a well-thought-out manner. There is an Underhill-like anti-consumerism theme that is clearly evident. This is a terrific chapter in the book. Schwarz’ passion for woodworking comes through in all his writings, but it is on prime display here. If the book were a Shakespearean play, this chapter would be the climax of the story. Writing about something that is very close to you can be either the easiest, fastest thing to write, or the hardest and slowest. I would be interested to know which it was for Schwarz in this particular case.

The remainder of the book focuses on the traditional tool chest itself, and a step-by-step on how he built his current chest. It’s vintage Chris Schwarz writing, very much akin to his workbench books. He even starts you with a list of rules for building a tool chest. There is not an exhaustive history on tool chests, and you won’t see dozens of photographs of classic examples for inspiration. He more focuses on the attributes that make a good (and not so good) tool chest, and challenges the reader to build the tool chest that suits them. Strictly adhering to the exact dimensions, design, and materials used aren’t as important as making sure your tool chest can fulfill a basic set of requirements. Again, this is the same take home message I got from his workbenches books. I enjoyed this section, and will use it as a frequent reference when I build my own tool chest.

In the short-term, I would think that the discussion on tools and the building of the tool chest will have some immediate impact on the woodworking community. The tremendous influence of Schwarz’ workbenches books – especially the first one – and subsequent blogs and Popular Woodworking articles on workbenches, cannot be overstated. Thousands of woodworkers across the globe have built their own workbenches based largely on his writings. And the fact that woodworkers now have heated discussions about workbenches is testimony itself to his influence. But I doubt we will see a similar explosion of tool chest building. Unlike a workbench, a tool chest isn’t a bare necessity, even for the most seasoned professional. Also, upright tool cabinets, whether hanging or free-standing, seem to be the currently preferred option for tool storage. It may be an uphill battle against that current dogma. (Although I’m sure Schwarz would be happy if the book inspired someone to build a tool chest, cabinet, or chest of drawers – anything to get their tools out of plastic bins and cardboard boxes). Beginning woodworkers will likely more focus on the tool list and the subsequent chapters describing the tools. Certainly I’ll refer back to the descriptions at times (“What did he say about spokeshaves again?”) And I’m sure many of us will print the list and go through them one by one – got that one, need that one, got that one.

I will be more interested in seeing how the longer-term influence of The Anachist’s Tool Chest plays out. As I mentioned above, there will be some hackles raised about the particulars of the tool list, at least in the near-term. This will pass, however. And in my mind it misses the point anyway.  Look beyond the tool list as a simple catalogue of items to collect, but instead as metaphors for a set of values. Continuing this analogy, a core set of tools is akin to a core set of beliefs. Throughout life your opinions may come and go. Politically you may even oscillate between parties a few different times before it’s all said and done.  Opinions are shaped by your experiences and contemporary paradigms, and there are so many of them in a lifetime that it’s easy to look back on them as a swarm of gnats, circling your mind to the point of distraction. Looking deeper, however, everyone has a set of core beliefs that rarely change. They become ingrained fairly early in life, and most of us will bring them to our graves, little changed through the years. The essential tools in your toolchest are your bedrock beliefs that you lean on everyday. Those randomly collected tools that rarely get used, sitting in a lonely box in the corner of your shop – those are fleeting, lost items that will be no more important to you twenty years from now than a deck of cards.  If this book makes even a few woodworkers pause and reflect on what’s really important in their tool chest, then yes, Mr. Schwarz, I would say The Anarchist’s Tool Chest is something well worth reading.

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You can purchase The Anarchist’s Tool Chest directly from Lost Art Press. They don’t ship overseas, so if you live outside the U.S., you can buy it from Tools for Working Wood, Lie Nielsen, or LeeValley.

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