The Anarchist’s Tool Chest

My first woodworking book was Audel’s Carpenter’s and Builder’s Guide 1922, volume 4, and it took me another thirty years to acquire the other three.  In high school shop class, the standard was Cabinetmaking and Millwork, Feirer and Hutchings, among the dullest books I’ve ever encountered.  With a artist’s hand at sketching, Eric Sloane explained traditional woodworking tools as well as anyone.  Fine Woodworking became the forum in the 70’s, James Krenov taught finesse, and Roy Underhill brought his unique perspective on woodworking as performance.

Over a lifetime of woodworking, I have accumulated dozens of books about building.  Some are fairly technical, others express the idiosyncrasies of their authors, a few approach design so broadly and obliquely as to defy classification.  I think Chris Swartz’s The Anarchist’s Tool Chest just might fit that last category.  While his passion for making furniture with antique tools and methods comes through loud and clear, the real message is a manifesto, a call to tools; get out there and make something that will outlast you!

The Anarchist’s Tool Chest

As I dove into writing this book on my own time, I became thoroughly convinced of three things:

  • We cannot look to our government to preserve woodworking.  During the last 20 years, our public school systems have only eliminated classes in the manual arts.  Our schools are designed to turn out machine-minders and computer nerds.  There are no classes on how to be an “artisan.”
  • We cannot look to free enterprise to preserve woodworking.  The last 100 years of mechanization have made most furniture and tools both cheap and flimsy.  Corporations’ efforts to make things cheaper and cheaper only undermine good woodwork.
  • The only people who will preserve our craft are the passionate amateurs, who can pursue all manner of crazy historical methods without worrying about starving.

We have become a culture that is obsessed with price more than any other attribute of the things we buy.  For the first time in history, manufactured furniture is shockingly inexpensive.  If an item breaks or starts to look dated, we can throw it away and buy something else.

So it’s no wonder artisans are exiting the craft.  It’s difficult to compete against furniture that costs less than what you pay for the raw materials.

What I care about is the craft of woodworking, which is closer to extinction now than at any other time in the history of the human race.  How do we save it?

The hard part is the important part.  We have to acquire, store and redistribute the actual hand skills.  By absorbing and practicing these skills we can ensure they will not be lost—as long as we are willing to teach them freely to younger woodworkers.

For most of human history, the important stuff about working wood was never written down or shared outside a tight-knit group of professionals.  Most of their knowledge is gone.  Read George Sturt’s The Wheelwright’s Shop for a first-hand example of this.

If you honestly want to preserve the craft as more than an academic curiousity—perhaps to lay the groundwork for a craft revival, consider living more like an 18th century artisan and less like a 21st century mega-consumer:

  • Buy things that are well-made by skilled people who sell them for a fair price.
  • Decline to purchase cheap goods that are designed to be discarded.
  • Whenever possible, make exactly what you need, instead of buying something that will suffice for now.

from: The Anarchist’s Tool Chest by Christopher Schwarz, 2010, Lost Art Press

(If there are copyright infringement issues, you’re the self-proclaimed anarchist, Chris. I’ve been working at this craft for thirty years, and have the tools, furniture, houses, and empty bank account to show for it.  We do it for love, not money, that’s for sure.)

“There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper; and the people who consider price only are this man’s lawful prey.”     John Ruskin

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About michaellangford2012

Timber framer, boatbuilder, dreamer, writer, musician; collector of books, tools, aphorisms. "There is nothing, absolutely nothing…half so much worth doing…as simply messing about in boats."
This entry was posted in architecture, carpentry, furniture, traditional building and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Anarchist’s Tool Chest

  1. Jason says:

    Great post, Michael. It’s looking more and more like a craft revival might be forced upon us when the US government is no longer able to borrow money fast enough to satisfy our lifestyles. My goal is to learn what I can before necessity forces me to.

    • On NPR recently, I heard an excerpt from a Bobby Kennedy speech, talking about what GDP accounts for, all the negative and destructive things we end up spending money on, and how the true human values aren’t considered.
      We aren’t a poor country, just badly mis-managed. I’m amazed at what a little creativity and hard work can accomplish. Schwarz is on the right track, encouraging people to build their own furniture, I believe we should build our own houses as well.

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