Submitted by whirlingsun
I. I suppose I should start out by saying that I owe Christopher Schwarz an apology. When you see a guy with dark hair and a darker then average complexion with the last name of Schwarz, I think guys around these parts naturally get suspicious. Then couple that with the fact that he was an editor of Popular Woodworking and then the Jewish journalist gears start to really get turning. At this point, as many on the fringe right do, we start looking for clues. “Well look at that! He ALSO has a bloody publishing company — Lost Art Press! How typical!” I felt like that iconic meme image of Charlie Day from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia with pictures on the wall and strings tracing every which way as I’m connecting the dots.
Well, after getting started on this “scent” I began looking for what exactly this guy writes about. “How is he pushing the poz on woodworking?!” It’s not an insane thought. I’ve read a woodworking magazine that had an editor’s letter basically explaining that woodworking needed more diversity. More women and minorities had to be involved. It didn’t have the phrase “pale, male and stale,” but it wouldn’t have looked out of place in that letter. That’s the type of thing I was looking for and expecting, another person who slips into a hobby or craft and bashes every last tradition and person that enjoys it. We’ve all seen it. We’ve all seen the articles titled Is ______ Too White? And it’s typically from someone who supposedly loves whatever the thing is with the only caveat that there’s too many white people who like it.
So, like a blood hound I put my nose to the ground to check out some of his written works. My first thought was that he was prolific. He writes a lot. And it’s all very specific—a book on just handsaw, a book on just handplanes, and a book on just benches, etc. No alarm bells, until… Aha! He wrote two books, The Anarchist’s Tool Chest Chest and The Anarchist’s Design Book. Well there we go. This is where it’s pushed. This is where he subverts the norms. This is where he takes a swipe at tradition. This is where he pushes whatever ideological strain he has on good people who literally just want to work wood. Is this The Authoritarian Personality of woodworking where everything good and normal is pathologized?
Then something funny happened. I finally just googled Chris’s name and “Jewish” and found one of the absolute funniest articles I’ve ever seen. Apparently Chris has had this problem before. In Junior High, somebody called the old slur “heeb.” At the second job he ever had, one of the senior editors outright declared that he was Jewish and that “I’m just going to treat you that way.” Besides being Jewish, people also thought he was Chinese in grade school and an Arab after he grew out his beard later in life. Well, the guy actually got a DNA test to put all this nonsense to bed. And sure enough, he’s just a bizarre anglo phenotype. With 43% Great Britain and less than 1% Jewish ancestry I realized a made a poor mistake.
I took a second look at his publishing company and took a gander at the titles. Suddenly after the fog of suspicion left, I realized that this guy just really loves woodworking. The titles all seemed innocent and wholesome. He published a book by Roy Underhill (if you don’t know who that is, for the love of God, please watch an episode of The Woodwright’s Shop, even if you have no interest in woodworking), as well as other American or English authors who are pale, male and stale with a strong love of the craft. I took it upon myself to buy two books he republished from Robert Wearing, an English woodworker who had a wonderful knack for drawing easily built appliances for aiding woodworking. His work seemed more focused on the beginner, so that’s where I started.
II. The mystery of Christopher Schwarz wasn’t over though. Okay, so he was a genuine lover of the craft. And his publishing company is clearly a phenomenal resource for amateur and advanced woodworkers alike, so what the hell is this “anarchy” business all about? I bought both titles, The Anarchist’s Tool Chest and The Anarchist’s Design Book.
To start, I began with ATC. The book’s core philosophy is that you need less tools (despite still needing at least 48 tools), to competently make most furniture, but also that you should be as self-sufficient in making things for yourself as possible. His description of tools, what their task is, and how to buy them—whether new or used—is phenomenal. I made quite a list for myself. His conception of anarchy is sprinkled through the book. To put it simply, it’s that consumerism sucks, the most basic furniture is not built to last, and the best way to stick it to the man is to build it yourself and cut out all the middle men. He considers his brand of anarchy an American strain of anarchy.
As with most American strains of ideology, I don’t see much there of value. I believe Chris is smart. It’s easy to see a bright mind when he writes, but I can’t really understand his attachment to anarchism. I couldn’t help but think that he’s smart enough to know that the Republican/Democrat partisanship is a soul sucking waste of time, so you could say he’s opting for a third position of sorts. When he describes his anarchism, I couldn’t help but get whiffs of libertarianism. He wrote that he doesn’t blame China for producing crappy tools, he blames the consumer for buying it. This is basically a globalist free market explanation for why our individual actions are at fault. No, individuals didn’t elect to buy bad Chinese goods just as much as the Chinese didn’t want to buy opium from the English. These things are thrust on us—Americans never had a choice. Sometimes we forget that our elite decides things for us, and we never get a say. Just like immigration with the 1965 Hart-Celler Act.
Yes, it’s easy to blame Americans for wanting cheaper goods, but that doesn’t necessarily follow that they want their industries outsourced. A factory worker can have both opinions that he wants cheaper things AND his job to remain. It takes a wicked person to make the former possible at the expense of the latter. It’s only natural in a market economy the likes of which we have (which I have no special attachment to), that cheaper goods tend to lessen the burden of life. The blame isn’t on the average American. No the blame lies on the system and individuals who reduce production costs, cut American jobs, and offshore industry to places that produce inferior products. And how much blame can we put on the consumers back? We live in a country where nearly 40% of people can’t handle a surprise $400 bill. Should we expect our strapped-for-cash population to foot the bill for high quality tools when most people have zero training on using tools to begin with?
It is a minor point of disagreement, but the sentiment comes up again when he mentions that we can make good purchasing decisions to stop reinforcing companies that make awful tools. And again, it’s this whiff of libertarianism that I find aggravating. These tool companies who make garbage tools for the consumer have an enormous customer base. Losing out on a few passionate individual woodworkers who frequent Lie-Nielsen, Veritas, or flea markets for vintage tools changes nothing. I suppose it’s the impotence of it. I can agree wholeheartedly that consumerist “throw away” trends are terrible. Good tool makers need to be rewarded. I just want it to be made clear that the trajectory we are on will only ever change with collective action of sorts.
This is where mine and Chris’s interests probably diverge. He’s interested in keeping woodworking alive. That is his reason for being. His efforts will help keep high quality tool companies afloat, and keep the art of woodworking on life support. My vision is different, I want something radically different. I want the market economy obliterated which makes Ikea furniture possible. I want pre-industrial craftsmanship to not just be a quirky hobby. I want it to be the only way you can sit at a dinner table. But I digress…
I suppose this is where I should note his second main tenant of Anarchism—his distrust of authority. Nobody trusts this authority. It’s easy not to trust our government, in fact if someone does, I find that suspect in it of itself—the mark of someone over socialized by the boob tube. But why eschew all authority? Chris makes reference to the European guild system that has kept the woodworking art alive through centuries. Is this not authority and hierarchy? When a master takes a pupil under his wing, the pupil submits himself. In the Decline & Fall of Western Art by Brendan M.P. Heard, he outlines how the guild system is essential in producing painting masters and losing it helped paved the way for our current art predicament. The guild system is hierarchy. So where does anarchism draw the line? If the guild system is reinstated through the state, is that when it’s bad?
It should be noted here that yours truly only knows about anarchy from what I read in Chris’s books and from what I’ve seen from mentally ill people on twitter. But to reproduce a small quote that Chris included in his book may help shed some light on the subject. The quote is from Native American Anarchism in regards to what American anarchy is: “the isolation of the individual—his right to his own tools, his mind, his body and the products of his labor.” Its rugged radical American individualism wrapped in a package indistinguishable from Libertarianism. Perhaps America did have anarchic traditions during our wild west days on our expanding frontiers. But as so many things died when the frontiers closed, so did our ability to be individuals apart from society. If you live in a suburb, you can’t quietly “anarchy” your way out of society. It’s larping. The state has you in its sights. Your social security number in its database. Fighting back by building your own furniture isn’t really fighting back. It’s MGTOW.
I suppose I should make it clear that I absolutely agree that people should make their own things. Self-sufficiency is the root of much happiness for many men. To paraphrase Nick Mason from the Myth of the 20th Century podcast though, hiding out in the woods is not a political solution. I guess it comes down to this, how dissatisfied are you with the system? If only a little bit, then sure, build furniture to cut corporate waste and remove a smidge of taxable spending. If you truly are dissatisfied (as many rightly are), don’t pretend like working alone with hand tools is the gateway to change—the regime will march on.
As an amusing aside, I did find while reading the The Anarchist’s Tool Chest that his sentiments are almost Pentti Linkola tier. He described hearing strip mining while working on his father’s farm house as a kid later as man raping the environment. This memory helped him find solace in the Japanese philosophy Shintō, the idea that supernatural spirits inhabit all things—even tools. Disgust of consumerism and a connection to the hand tool spirit world makes for someone with a reasonable respect of nature, and perhaps, dare I say it?—a skepticism of the Industrial Revolution.
III. His second book in the anarchy category The Anarchist Design Book is phenomenal. What was the furniture technique of your plebeian ancestors? I mean the question sincerely. You have a lot of ancestors who were plane Jane who needed a place to sit. They weren’t sitting on Victorian, Sheraton, or Elizabethan chairs. They were sitting on basic forms that didn’t necessarily have square mortice and tenons or other more complex joinery but rather furniture that was staked.
Staked furniture is the forgotten art of furniture building practiced by the common man who just needed a place to sit and dine. Fancy ornamentation is likely non-existent on the staked furniture of old. No moulding planes dressed up the edges of the dining room table. But wood, being wood, retains a certain element of beauty inherently. You can make simple objects and shapes, and the eye will not reject it as a low quality like it would with similarly shaped metal or plastic furniture. Staked furniture is making a round mortice (female end) on the seat of a chair or a table and making a round tenon leg (male end) to insert into the mortice. It’s simple. Reliable. And strong.
If you have an interest in making things for yourself, it’s a good route to take. As opposed to the Anarchist’s Tool Chest, which calls for 48 tools for all manners of complex wood work, The Anarchist’s Design Book calls for ~27 tools (23 hand tools and only ~4 power tools). With a much smaller arsenal of tools needed and much simpler building design, it’s a much more attainable option for the aspiring woodworker. The plus side is, if you want to make more complex pieces in the future, you’ll need those 27 tools anyways. So it’s a good place to start.
I won’t waste any more time analyzing the anarchy aspect of Chris’s philosophy. Let’s end on a high note. Learn to build things for yourself. If you have an interest in woodworking, Christopher Schwarz is a phenomenal resource. He’s a phenomenal writer and extremely relatable in his anecdotes. His publishing company is invaluable. His position on anarchy doesn’t really matter one bloody bit. It’s only been a pretext to get dissident eye balls to read about woodworking.
If you decide to take an interest in the craft, remember the mannerbund. The amateur today could be the master tomorrow that restores the guild. Once men figure out how they can work in groups and have parallel institutions unordained by the government, then maybe making a chair could truly be a revolutionary act.