The Anarchist’s Tool Chest: A Review

 

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.

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7 Responses to The Anarchist’s Tool Chest: A Review

  1. Pingback: The Anarchist’s Tool Chest: A List of Reviews | The Literary Workshop Blog

  2. Ben says:

    Thanks for this, Steve.
    Lots of folks seem to have missed out on that first chapter title, and have apparently misunderstood the book as a result. You have hit on exactly what I like about Chris’ writing: the explanations of how he came to a conclusion, adopted a tool or method, etc.–not just an unsubstantiated (or, dare I say, dogmatic) prescription. All issues of style, personal narrative, whatever aside, this is valuable, and can be very helpful to someone starting out (as I was when I stumbled on his first workbench book).
    The truth is, I tend to give more credence to his opinions because of this, as I feel sure that he has put a lot of thought and experiment into his recommendations. That said, I have also rejected his advice, after going through the process myself, much in the way he always seems to have done, and I am sure he would approve of this.
    There has been a lot of bashing over the years, and it’s good to read a review by someone who has approached this book thoughtfully and without malice.

  3. Pingback: Tool Chest: Beginnings | The Literary Workshop Blog

  4. billlattpa says:

    I would say that I liked the Anarchist’s Toolchest, but I didn’t love it. I read the book twice, once when it first came out and then about three months later. I held off on reviewing the book until now.
    The basic premise of the book: with a “small” set of high quality tools, a woodworker can make just about anything, is part very good idea, part idealism. That isn’t to say that idealism is necessarily a bad thing, but there are several problems I have with the philosophy.
    I would start out by saying that I’m a hybrid woodworker, meaning I use a mix of hand and power tools. I love the method and since I’ve been working this way my work has improved dramatically. Schwarz advocates a nearly hand tool only method, which isn’t necessarily practical for a home hobbyist woodworker. There is something satisfying about planing rough lumber by hand to a finished board, but as a 39yr old guy with a family, I want to spend the few hours I get in the shop every week actually making furniture, not dimensioning stock. There is a logical reason that surface planers were invented. Schwarz will say that he isnt advocating using hand tools for everything, but if you read deep enough he really is. Again, that is fine for him and maybe some others who have a lot more shop time, but it certainly isn’t necessary for the survival of the craft.
    The main body of the text, dealing with tool selection, is long but at the same time thorough. Again, I don’t agree with all of his selections, but I generally trust his judgement. Going by his selections, you are in at about $5000 if you buy a mix of tools leaning towards the used side(that is if you can find them used) Purchased new, the sky is the limit pricewise, which sounds a lot like capitalism, not anarchy. The tool selection chapters, while good, are nothing new. There are many books with similar chapters. As I said before, if you trust Schwarz’s judgement, then the chapters work.
    The section on building the actual tool chest is again, good, not great. Toolchests are a personal storage preference, nothing more. You can be a perfectly good woodworker without one. In my experience a wall cabinet is much more practical for a home shop, where floor space is usually at a premium. Still, Schwarz makes a very nice looking tool chest based on research from toolchests used during the 18th and 19th century. He details the construction thoroughly, including removable bottom boards because these tended to rot back in the day due to the damp, sometimes wet dirt floors that older shops frequently had. Not so much a problem today for most people, at least I hope. If I have a few inches of water in my garage I think I have bigger problems than my rotting tool chest boards, and this logic even further validates using a wall mount cabinet.
    The final chapters on the book are interesting. Schwarz’s lament of the decline of the professional cabinetmaker rings true. And his plea to the home hobbyists to take up the mantle is idealism in a good way. I would agree fully with him about the pro woodworker’s decline in the traditional sense. Now, more and more, furnture for sale is made almost wholly by machine. But I would disagree that woodworking itself is in trouble. Now, perhaps for the first time since before World War 2, woodworkers have access to very high quality tools and woodworking machinery. There are many options when it comes to classes, courses, magazines and woodworking books. For instance, when choosing a handplane you can go to nearly a dozen manufactures who all make high quality tools. Nobody could really say that 30 years ago. From my perspective wooworking is thriving, not declining. Maybe for the first time in history a home hobbyist can make furniture that rivals the professional craftsman. That is a good thing, and I would agree that Christopher Schwarz is at least part of the reason.
    Lastly, I don’t necessarily like the use of the word Anarchism in the title. Much has been made of it and Schwarz defends it several times in the book, but it’s a bit hollow to me. Schwarz’s definiton, paraphrased : a woodworking.aesthetic anarchist is one who eschews mass produced furniture and junk tools and instead makes his/her own furniture using high quality tools made by artisans and not machines. That definition does fit the “anarchist” bill somewhat, going against big business, the grain, or what have you. But that is easy to say after you gained your popularity working for a capitalist venture like a woodworking magazine, that put on tool and woodworking shows and sold books and woodworking plans. To Schwarz’s credit, he quit the magazine and started his own publishing company, and he readily admits that the magazine his is claim to fame, so I would call him as much an opportunist as an anarchist. And again I don’t mean that in necessarily a bad way. I’m just calling it as I see it. Everybody needs to make a living,anarchist or not.
    On the whole I liked the book and thought it was worth both reads. I have one big question though: who is the target audience? Is it all woodworkers? I don’t think so. As I said, a middle aged woodworker with a full time job would be hardpressed to stick to Schwarz’s ideas. I have to think it’s aimed more at empty nesters, with more free time and a bit more disposable income. And right there is probably my main problem with an otherwise good book. If Schwarz is looking to reestablish hand craft and such in the woodworking world, he shoud be aiming at a much younger audience. Not that I have anything against the boomer generation woodworking, or anybody else for that matter. But if we are looking to the boomers to carry on traditional work and make it popular again we are looking in the wrong direction. That ship has sailed, for good or ill. Schwarz should be aiming at getting much younger people started, those who can pass on their knowledge to their children that they have or may be having in the future.
    I’m 39, my dad is in his 60’s. He has never really woodworked, no offense but I learned nothing from him about woodworking and never will. And I’m told that a good portion of hobbyists don’t start until they are in the mid fifties. See what I’m getting at? Schwarz’s goal, if he is so resolved, should be getting woodworkers to start in the teens or twenties. My only explanation is that the boomers have money, in fact they control much of the disposable income in the country. And the younger generations is broke and in debt, which is also very well documented, So, like most woodworking books and publications, The Anarchists Toolchest too is aimed at an older audience, one with disposable income to purchase hand tools and books and such. That doesn’t sound like Anarchy to me.

    • Thanks for your thoughts. I have a few of my own in response.

      – Have you actually worked out of a full-sized tool chest, or are you just hypothesizing? I’m sure wall cabinets are convenient, but I’ve never used them. I have too many windows in my shop space, so there’s no wall space big enough for a proper cabinet. I’ve been working out of a real tool chest for a few months now, and I will never go back to having my tools scattered around my shop like I did before. The chest rolls under one end of my bench, so it takes up zero extra floor space. I’ll bet floor space is more scarce in my shop than in most. Many of the proffered “disadvantages” of tool chests apply only to poorly made ones.

      – I think capitalism/anarchism is a false dichotomy. Capitalism is a broad economic system that exists or doesn’t exist on a broad scale. Anarchism can be chosen or not chosen by the individual, even (perhaps especially) within a capitalist system.

      – I have no idea who the target audience for the book is, but I’m glad you bring it up. I can’t speak for the author, but I think he has two audiences in mind. As you say, he’s talking to the older woodworkers, probably those who have acquired too many machines in their pursuit of the perfect shop. But I DO think he’s also talking to young, beginning woodworkers–people like I was but six or seven years ago–who want to start assembling a good set of tools but are bewildered by a host of magazine tool reviews, woodworking forums, and blogs, all giving contradictory advice about which tools to buy. I wish I had had this book five years ago. It would have warned me away from several mistakes and helped me make better tool choices to begin with.

      $5000 for tools is indeed a lot of money up-front, but parted out over a few years, it’s within the reach of a frugal young person with an entry-level job out of college. If that person uses the tools to save money on other expenses–making one’s own dining room table or doing one’s own house repairs–the actual long-term costs are lower. And if that person makes a few items to sell on the side to offset the cost of the tools, then they’re as much of an investment as they are an expense.

      • billlattpa says:

        Thanks for your comments. I would like to start by saying that I actually did enjoy the book, but for me it was more of a personal story of one man’s path to woodworking “nirvana” and not an all encompassing book on woodworking philosophy. Much of what Christopher Schwarz says and does is purely objective, which he does point out I believe. Some of his choices will work for many, some for just a few.
        I would admit that I’ve never worked out of a full sized tool chest. I have a “half” size one that fits under my bench. Generally when I work I take my chisels out of the roll and place them in the holder thats fastened to the back of my bench. The saws are on a rack above the bench and the planes I keep on the shelf. I have nothing against tool chests; in fact I think it would be a neat project to build. I just don’t think they are an absolute necessity. I am a huge fan of tool trays actually. My current bench doesn’t have one but I would like to make a new top with one. Whenever I take a class I try to use one of the benches with a tray. I do have a wall cabinet that I store many of my tools in. I work in my garage and there just isn’t room for a tradtional chest. Again, it all comes down to preference.
        As far as anarchism and woodworking are concerned, I am assuming that Schwarz is using the word and hoping that we all take it with a grain of salt. I have nothing against the word, for me it doesn’t conjure up images of overturned cars and burning buildings. But Anarchy even in the woodworking sense is not an easy word to swallow. Schwarz’s definition: choosing quality over mass production, building instead of buying, artisans over corporations, are all good ideas and ideals, but there is nothing cheap about them. Hence my point that if you actually follow Schwarz’s philosophy to the letter you will need a lot of capital to do it. Fact is, the only people that can afford to be “anarchists” following Chris Schwarz’s definition are generally going to be wealthy. And I don’t have a problem with that in the least, I’m a realist. But even in woodworking’s hayday tools, materials, and furniture were very expensive. We are at the same point now as we were 200 years ago in that respect. If you are going to live the life of an artisan you will either need the money to do it or work for somebody who is footing the major bills for you. That to me means capitalism, not anarchism. I don’t think Chris Schwarz’s definiton of Anarchy can exist in the modern world without capitalism and consumerism. In that sense the only real anarchists that ever existed in modern times were the old time homesteaders who lived off the land and made all of their possesions.
        When I said that The Anarchist Toolchest was aimed at older woodworkers I should have made a broader statement that most woodworking books are, not just this one. Again, I have no problem with that whatsoever until we talk about saving woodworking for future generations. At that point Schwarz’s aim is way off. Every woodworking show and class I’ve ever taken was attended by mainly older men, 50’s +. Most of the time people my age, late 30’s, were the extreme minority, say for every guy my age there were 25 at or near retirement. These shows and classes generally cater to that group and I understand why. There just aren’t as many younger woodworking hobbyists and if there are they usually can’t afford the classes, tools and such that these shows offer. Still, I would be first to say that I’m not sure how you get younger people started. The boomer generation isn’t going to carry on any kind of woodworking legacy in a broad sense. Most of them started way too late to do that. So what do you do? Do you start with people my age, who sitll have young children and hope that they pass on what they learn? I’ve asked that question several times on my blog and admittedly just don’t know.
        I would be the last to argue owning quality tools. I am an electrician and know that a cheap tool is less than worthless. I would generally agree with Schwarz’s tool lists. If you follow his suggestions you will have a nice, well rounded set that can handle just about every task. I just don’t think it’s practical for a hobbyist to do it on the used tool market. The few used tools that I’ve restored nearly ended up costing me as much as new Veritas or Lie Nielsen. And I have to say, despite what many so called tool experts say; the modern variety are much better. I am in the middle of fixing up a 100 yr old Stanley #7. It cost me $165.00 new and was in very good condition. It’s probably going to end up costing me another $50-$60 after all is said and done. The Lie Nielsen #7 is over $400. Now I know I will be spending half of what the new tools costs but the fact is that the Lie Nielsen is light years ahead of the Stanley as far as quality. Even if I do manage to get this thing restored to prime condition, and that’s a big if, it won’t match up to a new one. This isn’t even taking into consideration the hours of work that I will have into it. And that is my big problem with the suggestion of buying all of these used tools; it just won’t work. If this book is trying to help somebody get started in the craft then buying used tools is the absolute last thing they should be doing. You will spend hours upon days trying to find them, and the you need the skill to restore them properly. That is a lot to ask a newcomer weekend hobbyist, and a road that leads to frustration and doubt.
        I hope that I’m not sounding too harsh. I honestly did like the book and your review of it. But I think there needs to be somewhat of a disclaimer involved. This book is not for beginners. A beginner reading this book will be full of good ideas, but at a loss when it actually comes to fulfililng them. It is much too difficult a path to follow if you are trying to get a woodworker started in the craft. Thanks again.

  5. I’ve taken only two formal woodworking classes, but I know exactly what you mean about the age range. In both, I was probably one of two guys under 50 in a class of a dozen. Perhaps woodworking is the new golf?

    It sounds obvious, but the best way to get ’em started young is to start ’em young. I have four children now, all of whom will learn the basics of woodworking and joinery from me as the time comes. I don’t expect them all to stick with it, but they need to know how to build basic things out of wood when the need arises. The oldest three already play with their own (real) tools at their little bench while I work at mine.

    As to used tools, I guess I’ve just had more luck. Or maybe I’ve been more picky. It’s taken me time, but I have less than $100 total invested in my three main bench planes (jack, jointer, smoother). I wouldn’t have been able to buy even one of these as a new LN, let alone all three. They’re all vintage planes. Perhaps I’ll write a blog post about getting used tools on the cheap.

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