No, I haven’t gone and decided to embrace some of the shadier parts of rural Michigan. I’m doing something even crazier. I’m building furniture.
If you’ve followed this site at all, you’ve seen the recent videos for Chris Schwarz’ new book The Anarchist’s Tool Chest. I received my copy yesterday and finished it up tonight; here are my impressions after the first read.
First off, the book itself is a beautiful object. It has a lovely solid cover with an embossed graphic, no silly paper dust jacket to get torn up and lost. The cover has a texture to it, so it won’t slip when placed on a stand or your lap. It’s a good size, and has the feel and look of an old book. The paper is heavy and crisp, the type is wonderfully set, with some nice little touches in the typography. There’s no colophon, so I’m not sure what fonts were used, but the type is easy on the eyes and well spaced.
The book is a story in three parts: why you should build things yourself, what tools you’ll need to do it, and finally, where to store those tools so they will outlast you. Unlike many of the books published under the Popular Woodworking label, which tend towards a collection of articles, this has a narrative and a coherence that makes it an enjoyable read, more like a novel.
The first part, why you should build for yourself, struck a chord. I strongly dislike most manufactured furniture, especially Ikea’s furniture. My father taught that it’s better to buy a quality thing once, rather than buy a cheap thing ten times, and I’ve ended up kicking myself every time I’ve forgotten this maxim.
To that end, as my wife and I have been furnishing our home, we keep moving up the retail ladder. First, I picked up a bedroom set from Ethan Allen. Looks nice, but after living with it for a while, the build quality is only OK. The Stickley living and dining room stuff we purchased later (after saving many pennies) is better, but even that has some quality niggles. And going back to the showroom now, I don’t see Stickley getting better. Boards in top glueups are getting narrower. Joints look sloppy.
In the second part of the book, what tools you’ll need to build quality furniture, Chris doesn’t pull any punches. His thesis is that you only need about fifty different tools to make just about any common piece of household furniture. Yes, only fifty tools, and none of the fifty are power tools. He advises that you should buy the best you can afford, trying to buy such that you’ll never have to buy again.
As the (soon to be former) editor of one of the more popular woodworking magazines, I think it takes some testicular fortitude to say straight out that it would be better for most folks to limit their tool set and buy tools that you only have to buy once. He does include some power tools in the margins, things that will make life easier, but not the standard table saw. The shop as described is much more centered around the workbench, not the power equipment. The powered gear exists like a shop apprentice of old, dealing with the drudgery of milling rough lumber.
The third part, how to build a chest that will hold your tools so they’ll last a few lifetimes, is more like the workbench books; here’s what we’re going to build and here are the rules for how to design and construct it. The writing and pictures are clear and concise and have me seriously considering building a tool chest instead of the hanging tool cabinet for the Hand Tool School final (sorry Shannon). [ed note: definitely building a tool chest instead of a hanger after I proved gravity works]
Throughout the book, Chris punctuates his point with personal stories from the journey down the path. It’s a much more personal book than anything he’s written before and I enjoy that touch. The writing is top-notch.
Give the book a read.