Monday, March 10, 2014

Book Review 4: "The Anarchist's Tool Chest", by Christopher Schwarz

I have to admit, I'm hesitant to write this review.  This book has generated massive amounts of controversy for some reason, and I'm not really sure why.  It seems like, for most people, it's a love-it-or-hate it kind of read.  I'm going to break that trend, and say that while I really like the book, there are things I don't like about it.  On a related note, this book was purchased before any of the books I've already reviewed.

The standard disclaimer:  I am not an expert.  I'm not even a journeyman.  I'm less of a beginner than I was when I wrote my last book review, but I'd still class myself as a beginner.

First Thoughts:

As you probably guessed from the title, this is a review of "The Anarchist's Toolchest", by Christopher Schwarz.  Overall, I like the book.  It's written well, and I happen to enjoy Mr. Schwarz's writing style.  Mixing the practical text with stories of how he got to that point makes this less of an instruction manual and more of a "here's how I got where I am today" narrative.

As a general rule, I like the discussion of tool types and the section about the chest.  I find the background stories to be mostly interesting, and good background on WHY Mr. Schwarz believes what he does.  Although there are places where I disagree with him, he mostly hasn't tried to set himself up as the One True Source, and agrees that there's room for disagreement on, say, whether wooden planes are better or worse than steel ones.

That said:  I really could have done without the philosophy.  I don't really agree with his labeling of himself as an anarchist, and I really would have preferred a few more pages of tools to the pages of sociopolitical monologuing.   It's not that it was badly written or offensive, I just don't think it added anything to the book.


I consider this book to contain four parts, although (except for part 4) they're all mixed together.

1) Background

This covers where Mr. Schwarz came from, what his experience is, and why you should (or shouldn't) pay attention to him.  While it's not strictly necessary, I found that it made sense of a lot of other things in the book that might not otherwise have been entirely clear.  This is where the book starts, and pieces of backstory are scattered throughout the rest of the book.

One thing I'll address here.  I've heard (or more accurately read) people saying that Mr. Schwarz "isn't really a woodworker", or that he's clearly a writer and not a craftsman, or something similar.  I think this is nonsense.  There are very few people who are full time woodworkers these days, and it's true, he's not one of them.  But then, the people who are mostly don't have time to write books.  That's just kind of how it goes.  But he's built a fair amount of furniture for his house, and he knows enough to teach classes;  as far as I'm concerned, that's real enough.

2) Philosophy

This is where the book loses me.  I don't argue that none of it is interesting -- I'd never heard of the Cincinnati Time Store before -- but I don't think it adds much to the book.  Some of the it, such as his discussion of why he prefers to use furniture he has made himself, is interesting.  Some of it, such as the discussion on what it means to be an Anarchist, feel out of place.  It sort of feels like he inserted a lot of this to justify his use of hand tools;  I feel like "I got interested in the history and decided I liked them" would have been an adequate justification.  That's really all I have to say about this section, except that while I don't like it, it doesn't leave the book unreadable;  it just means there are more pieces I skip on re-readings.

3) The Tools

This is, to me, the most interesting part of the book.  This is a list of the tools that Mr. Schwarz considers "essential";  the "if I have this, I can build almost any piece of furniture" list.  The list is based, for the most part, on historical records:  the tools listed in "The Joiner and Cabinet Maker", Josoph Moxon's writings, Andre Roubo's writings, and so on.  There are, of course, exceptions -- the block plane is too modern to have made it into any of those sources -- but that's the base.

What I most appreciate about this section is that there is some guidance on finding tools and rehabbing them.  Yes, the advice is sometimes "Don't bother, just buy a new one", but there are places where he says "Don't worry about this type of defect, here's how to fix it."  While he does highly recommend buying a lot of things from modern manufacturers, he also acknowledges that not everyone can drop $300 on a hand plane, and so buying an old one is likely and not a bad idea.

There are also a few tools in here -- winding sticks, a 2 or 3 foot straightedge, and so on -- that he advocates making for yourself.  The instructions are a little bit sparse, but should be enough for anyone but a raw beginner to manage.

4) The Chest

This is the part most people will buy the book for, but in all honestly I'll probably never use it.  The fact is, my shop space is tiny, and I can't afford to give up the floor space.  Instead, I build a Dutch-style chest, and I'm planning on a low cabinet to set it on top of. 

That aside, this section is fascinating.  It's a solid, step-by-step guide to building a traditional joiner's toolchest, and well worth it even if you're not planning to build one.  There's a lot of good general information on building boxes or any type of carcase, and a lot of tips on tool use that I have found useful in other projects.

There is also another subsection here, on use of the chest and design for tool chests generally.  While I haven't worked from one of these, I've tried some of the motions involved in retrieving things from the bottom.  It feels to me like it would probably work just fine, unless you have a particularly bad back.  I was also interested by Mr. Schwarz's take on dividers and French fitting:  he's fairly opposed to both.  Given that just about every other book on tool chests or tool storage is in favor of both, I found his logic interesting. 

Final Thoughts:

As I've said, I like the book.  I have a suspicion, though, that a lot of people will find the writing style to be annoying enough that it detracts from the value of the book for them.  Similarly, this is not a "do this to be a better woodworker" type of book.  You won't find (except in the chest-building section) clear "do this, then do this" steps.  But there are a lot of books that do that.  I've reviewed a couple of them.  What this book does is try to demonstrate that we've fallen into the trap of "more is better" when it comes to tools, and that "mass produced is better" when it comes to furniture.  I can agree with the basic concept, even if I don't entirely agree with how bad those things are.

This book did one critical thing for me.  It gave me a starting point.  I read the book just about the time I was starting to move my shop indoors, which meant giving up the majority of my power tools.  I knew I needed hand tools, but I didn't know which ones, or really how to pick them.  I'd bought a few, but I didn't really know what I was doing.  Between "The Anarchist's Toolchest" and "Woodworking 1 &2" (by Paul Sellers), I learned how to get started, and I learned that yes, there are other people doing this crazy thing I'm trying to do.  That last one alone made a huge difference.  It meant I knew I could go looking for modern sources for information about what I was doing, and not have to figure it all out for myself.

Would I recommend the book?  Yes.  In point of fact, it's currently one of my three main recommendations for people who want to start working with hand tools.  It's less process based than the other two, but the information on tools is far and away the best of the books I've read.

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