Wednesday, May 16, 2012

[Interview] Christopher Schwarz of Lost Art Press

Q&A with Some of My Woodworking Mentors

(If you want to know more about this series, please see the first installment)

It was Eric Sloane who sold me on the idea of preserving traditional craft, and it was Roy Underhill who showed me that this is actually possible. It was, however, Christopher Schwarz who put things so clearly into perspective that I could not resist any longer. He needs no introduction for most hand-tool enthusiasts, but for those of you who do not subscribe to the Lost Art Press blog, I will summarize.

After several years as editor of Popular Woodworking magazine, Christopher took a bold step and formed his own publishing company, Lost Art Press. One of his first projects was to re-publish the 1839 book The Joiner and Cabinet Maker, which, if it is not already clear, is the inspiration for this blog. Just as I had finished reading it and deciding that I was going to work through it, The Anarchist's Tool Chest was announced. I immediately ordered it and have never looked back. A rather unique book, TATC is part how-to, part encyclopedia, and part philosophy. It explains why hand tools are important, why woodworking is important (and as relevant as ever), and why you should start a rabbet plane at the left end of a board instead of the right. It also explains how to plan and create the titular tool chest.

Don't be turned off by the book title. This is the kind of man our nation needs more of.

Christopher's methodical research and experimentation have rescued countless tools and techniques from near-extinction. He's pretty much responsible for the hundreds (if not thousands) of Roubo workbenches popping up in shops all over the world. When he praises a specific tool, those tools will suddenly become difficult to find and their used prices will skyrocket. This is common enough to have a name, The Schwarz Effect.

He's bold, radical, and isn't all that bothered by offending the easily-offended. This is softened by the fact that he is genuinely a deeply nice guy. When I first contacted Christopher to let him know that I wanted to dedicate myself to testing his claim that The Joiner and Cabinet Maker could serve as a modern wood working curriculum, he was most encouraging and even asked if I needed any particular tools to get started. He answers all of his email. He's talked me through a number of issues which could easily cause eye-rolling, but he patiently replies every single time. I try not to abuse this, and you should, too.

It is difficult to top being a skilled woodworker, historian, author, publisher, teacher, and father, but what most impresses me about Christopher is his attitude and philosophy. If you have read TAC, you will know what I mean but if not, he makes a strong case for woodworking as a political activity and I could not agree more. This is complex topic and not really the focus of this blog (although it is a focus of my life), but he believes that hand tools empower a person to furnish their own lives, and remove the need to depend upon international companies who decimate forests, create flimsy products with toxic glues, and ship these unsatisfying things around the world where they see a couple years use and then go to the landfill. He explains that it was not always this way, and it no longer needs to be this way. He also explains how tools themselves have been compromised and are now often "tool-shaped objects". I have experienced this myself, when purchasing hand tools from hardware stores. It is almost always an exercise in frustration, and is a huge reason why hand tools are not more popular. Christopher's approach is not limited to wood working, of course. It is part of a larger neo-agrarian movement where we are finally realizing that giant organizations motivated only by money and unsustainable growth are not doing a very good job keeping us fed, fit, informed, and healthy. It may not sound like a radical act to create an end table or stool, but when you contextualize it as Christopher does, it most certainly is. He puts out a call to action of sorts, imploring us to re-learn how to outfit our homes using regionally-appropriate materials and to shun the purveyors of tool-and-furniture-shaped-objects. My response: Sign me up!

I could go on, and likely will in the future, but for now, I am The Joiner's Apprentice (TJA) asking a few questions of Christopher Schwarz (CS):

TJA: How long have you been woodworking, and what changes have you seen in the field since you started?

CS: I built my first workbench when I was 11, which is where I built stuff with wood and also model airplanes. It's also where I assembled books that I wrote and illustrated. I tried to sell them to friends and family with no luck. Thank goodness for the Internet. It's hard to make a living selling books on the vehicles of World War II to your sisters. Once I started driving and got a girlfriend, my interest in woodworking went on hold. As soon as I graduated from college in 1990 it came back full bore and has only gotten worse.

The biggest change I've seen since 1990 is, duh, the Internet. When I started woodworking I thought I was one of the few people who liked using hand tools. It was a lonely slog. The Internet has made it incredibly easy for all nutjobs to find like-minded nutjobs and recruit new ones.

TJA: What is your favorite style to work in? What styles do you just not understand or have no interest in?

CS: I find all furniture really interesting -- even the junk. I'm fascinated how Ikea stuff is designed and made. I marvel at the craftsmanship of the period stuff. Southern furniture is a big interest to me. But I don't really like high-style furniture. I appreciate it. But I have no desire to build it. It is, apologies for the politics, the furniture of the 1 percent. I've always been interested in the furniture of the 99 percent, which doesn't get written about.

In fact, the style I like doesn't really have a name, outside of "country" or vernacular." What "style" is a workbench, a tool chest, a packing box, the schoolbox or the chest of drawers from "The Joiner and Cabinet Maker." The answer is, I think, going to be my life's work.

TJA: What tools do you always look forward to using and/or what operations do you most look forward to, time after time?

CS: I love my block plane because it can do almost anything. It is also, by far, the tool of mine that shows the most wear.

As to operations, I love assembly. It is the most thrilling part of an entire project. It's where all the patience and persistence pay off. Or don't.

TJA: How much time do you actually get in your shop in a typical week?

CS: At least 20 hours. But that time is not always building stuff. That's everything from maintenance to sharpening. If I miss a day in the shop, I get grumpy.

TJA: Have you had any memorable masters or mentors help you gain the skills you currently possess? How did you meet them?

CS: All the good stuff I know is from other people. Troy Sexton, a power-tool woodworker in Sunbury, Ohio, opened my eyes to how to work efficiently and blazingly fast. His principles of work applied directly to my handwork. My grandparents taught me an appreciation for furniture – a huge gift — and my grandfather was a lifetime woodworker who taught me lots of stuff when I was young.

John Brown inspired a deep love of Welsh stick chairs in me.

Robert Wearing's "Essential Woodworker" book is the one that put together all the pieces I knew into a coherent system.

But most of my mentors are already gone. Charles H. Hayward's writings and illustrations have inspired me as a builder, editor and writer. I think own everything the man wrote from 1936 until his death. His work cannot be underestimated.

TJA: You've almost single-handedly launched a Roubo workbench craze. How do you feel about this bench after years of work on it (and seeing hundreds of others), and how do you feel about its rise to ubiquity among hand tool enthusiasts?

CS: It's the best bench I've ever worked on. When I built my first Roubo in 2005 I had never seen a bench like it in person. I had never used a leg vise. I didn't even really know if it would be suitable for modern work. But it has exceeded my expectations at every turn. I still have my first Roubo bench under my window in my shop and don't think I'll ever part with it.

As to its popularity, I guess I'm glad that people can see what I saw. When my first book came out the reaction was not immediate. It took a while for a few brave souls to build one and also become advocates for it. So it really has been the work of lots of people who were crazy enough to build a bench that looks like its was made out of Legos.

TJA: In The Anarchist's Tool Chest, you made a very strong case for supporting the resurrection of domestic furniture making, truly decent tools, and a less-is-more approach to building one's tool library (as well as life in general). Have you seen any evidence of these ideals taking root, and are you optimistic about the future of domestic production, re-appreciation of hand tools, and a shift in preference to quality over cheapness in the American economy? If not, do you have any ideas on furthering these ideals?

CS: I harbor no illusions about our society. There would have to be major changes in our economy for us all to consume less and to appreciate quality in all things.

But, like anarchism, there can be a tendency among some of us to consume less and think as small as possible. To make instead of buy. And if enough people exhibit this tendency, real change can occur. The rise of micro-brewing, for example, has been neither sudden nor without its bumps. And it still represents a small fraction of the brewing in our culture. But there is enough micro-brewing that it supports 100,000 employees now (more than work at woodworking professionally, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics). And it has begun to seep into the mainstream culture – big brewers are improving their beer. So that's the kind of slow change I hope to see. I'd rather it grow like an oak than a weed.

TJA: I know you have a Karmann Ghia that you have enjoyed restoring; what else you enjoy outside of woodworking and time with your family?

CS: I cook for my family almost every night (Wednesday we go out for pizza). I'm obsessed with good food and where it comes from. We have an incredible and old market here, Findlay Market, that I frequent for everything. We've been going to the same butcher and green grocer for 15 years. And every Tuesday I force my kids (and wife) to try something new. We call it New Food Night. My kids hate it, but they are much more adventurous eaters as a result.

I also am a voracious collector of music. It is always on in the shop and my office. I used to play guitar in a band in college (boy did we suck) but music and me are inseparable.

TJA: What is happening in the hand tool world (toolmakers, blogs, books, projects) that you think need more press?

CS: I wish we (me included) were doing a better way of documenting techniques. If we spent half as much time discussing technique as we do discussing tool minutiae, I think we'd all be better builders (me included).

TJA: I've heard it said that you make your own sausage. Is there truth to the rumor that there may be a Schwarz-designed line of meat grinders from [company name redacted] in the future? Is bronze safe to use on food?

CS: Writing books is a lot like making sausage. It is not pretty. So that's half-true.

TJA: Thank you, Christopher!


  1. Great interview! Fun and thorough questions and answers.

  2. Tools, books, music, and meat... Sounds like a wonderful life. :-)

  3. I wish you'd asked him what new music he's into these days. Or at least what sorts of music he listens to most often.

    Fun interview! Thanks.

  4. It's funny that you mention Eric Sloane in the introduction. Growing up my mom had a number of his book on colonial American life. I never even looked at them until a few years ago when I started getting into "neo-agrarian" woodworking, and they were a revelation to me! Mr. Sloane's evocation of the mindset and level of craftsmanship possessed by our forebears (and his not-so-veiled comparisons to the shoddiness of modern life) really struck a chord. It is a shame that his contributions aren't more widely acknowledged
    Great interview with Chris, I saw him in person at the Wooden Boat Festival in Port Townsend last year, and you managed to capture his essential weirdness.

  5. Every generation needs someone to carry the mantle of "art as a politcal act". Morris, Ruskin and Tolstoy discussed art and craftsmanship as a reaction to the industrial revolution, and it's great to see and read what Chris is doing these days. I think he is very much our generation's Morris, and we need more of them!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.