The Anarchist’s Tool Chest, by Christopher Schwarz, is not your typical woodworking book. Like other books in the genre, it has a lot to say about tools and shops and techniques, but it is also a book about ideas. In other words, it’s a real book, not just a series of related magazine articles bound between two covers. Perhaps that’s why some readers have been delighted with it, while others have been confused or merely annoyed. Books like this do not get written very often.
The book relates Schwarz’s personal pilgrimage as a craftsman—it’s almost a conversion narrative, if you like. He begins with his childhood experiences with poorly-made tools and tells the story of how he gradually realized what tools he really needed to do the kind of work he wanted to do as an amateur furniture maker. To some readers, the narrative aspect of the book will seem like an irrelevant indulgence, as if the author is working through a mid-life crisis. On the contrary, Schwarz goes to some trouble to focus almost exclusively on his development as a craftsman rather than on his “life” as a whole.
As it turned out, Schwarz found he didn’t need a shop full of the latest woodworking machines, the most ingenious jigs, the most elaborate hand tools, or the most expensive accessories. He needed a basic set of about 40 hand tools, plus a number of extra tools and a few shop accessories. He needed a large tool chest in which to store most of the tools, and a solid workbench at which to use them. He kept a few essential machines in his shop, but as he got better and better with hand tools, he found that they were often more efficient than the machines.
A lot of readers are puzzled or annoyed by the amount of biographical information in the book. At times the book reads like a human-interest story, and some reviewers have questioned whether the narrative is relevant. Why not just get right to the tools and projects? What is the point of the personal stories?
The point is that Schwarz’s life philosophy, which he calls “anarchism,” is a pattern of thoughts and habits that must be lived to be fully understood. Anarchism is not a philosophy that can be contained in a textbook; it arises from a long series of thoughtful, principled choices made by an individual. The tools and projects cannot be separated from the lives of the people who use and make them. The personal narratives explain why Schwarz has made the decisions he has, and they remind readers that different situations will require different choices.
One of Schwarz’s biggest epiphanies was the time-money-space conversion. When considering the merits of a tool, Schwarz asks not only what it costs in money, but also what it costs (or gains) in time and space. These are valuable assets which cannot be accurately measured in strictly monetary terms. A new tool looks expensive now, but what is the cost spread over the working life of the tool in an amateur shop? If the tool can be expected to last 20-40 years, then even a very expensive tool does not cost much over the long term because it never has to be replaced.
Schwarz’s writing is lively. You can hear the voice of a real person on every page. He indulges in humorous asides a little too often, but at least he writes in his own voice. You couldn’t mistake the voice for Bob Lang or Roy Underhill. Besides, Schwarz knows his readership. Middle-aged men sometimes need some… um… earthy writing to keep them interested over the 400+ pages of the book. Sometimes the book seems disorganized, and even repetitive in some places. That is annoying but understandable. There is no perfect way to organize a book of this scope. However, locating specific information in the book is easy thanks to the new index.
As to the tools themselves, Schwarz describes briefly and precisely the crucial features that distinguish a real tool (new or vintage) from what he calls “tool-shaped objects,” usually without getting buried in minutae. That means he sometimes oversimplifies. And that’s fine. The book is a beginning point, not the final word on any subject it touches. Schwarz has definite preferences that many informed readers may not share, but his preferences are usually defended by sound logic. I often found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with the book’s recommendations. He admits that, in many cases, there are several good options available.
As I like to tell my students before giving them an essay exam, there are no right answers here, but there are a lot of wrong ones. Similarly, when designing furniture or cutting joints, there may be any number of “right” ways to do it, but there are an infinite number of wrong ones. When choosing a hand tool or even a power tool, there may be several tools that are “right” for you, but there are many that are wrong for everybody and never should have been manufactured in the first place. Schwarz wisely avoids recommending specific brands whenever possible. If readers pick up this book 30 or 50 years from now, much of what he says about choosing tools will still be relevant.
One topic I wish Schwarz would have addressed is woodworking classes. He teaches classes himself, so I suppose it would be a conflict of interest if he went into too much detail. However, in the absence of formal apprenticeships and institutional woodworking programs, how is the amateur craftsman to build his skill set? Books and videos will get one only so far. Schwarz frequently suggests visiting other shops, and he encourages readers to join a couple national organizations, which he lists at the end of the book. But how should amateurs go about choosing night classes or week-long classes? What should they look for in woodworking instruction? Taking these classes often requires a large investment of both time and money. How can amateur woodworkers make sure they pick classes and instructors that will benefit them most?
Schwarz knows that there are lots of books that focus on the “how” of woodworking. Want to know how to cut a tenon? There are a dozen different books out there offering a score of techniques. Want to know how to choose a set of chisels? There are hundreds of websites and forums offering thousands of opinions. Schwarz does want to answer some of those questions, but he also wants to explain the “why.” Why should you own a good rabbet plane? Why should you use mortises and tenons? Why should you learn to use a hand saw? Why should you learn to dress lumber by hand? Why should you take advantage of certain woodworking machines? To answer those questions, we have to get down to the most basic reasons for doing woodworking at all.
Schwarz argues that there are some tools not worth buying, some materials not worth using, and some techniques not worth trying. Most other woodworking books assume that the reader is coming to the book with some sense of what he wants to do, and that he is looking for advice on how to do it. Schwarz, on the other hand, is not just interested in telling you how to do what you want to do; he will also tell you that you shouldn’t want to do what you think you want to do. As some folks down here say after a particularly sharp Sunday sermon, “he’s gone from preaching to meddling.”
Yet the first chapter is titled “Disobey Me.” There are two ways to remind your readers that the opinions offered in a book are personal preferences. You can repeat ad nauseam that “this is just my personal opinion” and “there are lots of other good options out there” and “feel free to disagree with me.” That gets old. Fast. The other, better way is to tell a story. When an author says, “this is the situation I was in, and this is how I solved the problem,” readers can really learn something. So whether it’s remodeling a shop or building a dining room table, Schwarz tells you not only how he did it, buy why. This kind of narrative-framed-instruction is rare in woodworking books, and The Anarchist’s Tool Chest is all the more value for that.