The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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What am I Doing Wrong?


Last night I couldn’t sleep, so I turned to our modern past time of searching the internet to keep my mind occupied. I checked out woodworking sites and blogs, on wordpress and other sources, just to see if something caught my eye. One of the things I noticed was that most woodworking blog writers, like myself, often have photos of their tool sets, or photos of their tools in action as a prominent part of their blog. That wasn’t a surprise to me. I’ve yet to meet a woodworker who wasn’t proud of his or her tool set/collection. It is one of the fun parts about woodworking: getting a tool set together and slowly watching it grow. But one of the things that did surprise me was not only the amount of tools that many of these bloggers had, but also the high quality (meaning cost among other things). I’m not a tool pricing expert but I can usually come pretty close to the mark when it comes to pricing an off the shelf woodworking tool. Many hobbyists more than likely can say the same, after all, we all probably spend a little too much time looking at tool catalogs to begin with. Even if we aren’t necessarily trying to remember tool prices, some of it gets absorbed by osmosis. So this did get me to thinking about my own woodworking tool set, and how pitifully small it actually is. To put it in perspective, I came across several hobbyists blogs where the writer, who was an amateur like me, had sets of rasps that cost more than my entire tool set. I’ll be the first to say that I was and am a little jealous. My wife and I both make a decent living, but there is no way I could afford to own tools such as those. One other thing I did notice was that few of these bloggers posted any photos of furniture they were working on, or if they did it was generally a workbench. So this led me to believe that more than a few of them were new woodworkers. I would guess and say that I checked out around 40 different blogs, give or take. The big suprise to me was that many of these bloggers had basically complete tool sets, like they were purchased from a list, but had failed to really start using them as of yet. Nearly all of these blogs had one other thing in common, but I will get into that later.

Last year, 2012, was probably my first “full” year as a woodworker. I had definite ideas for the furniture I wanted to build and I managed to get just about everything I had planned on making built. I completed five pieces last year: a side table, a Stickley magazine cabinet, a TV stand, a bookcase, and a wall cabinet for my garage to hold stains and other supplies. I will not say that these were all perfect creations, but I think they turned out damn nice. Of the five, four are in my living room right now, looking pretty good and functional as well. Even better, I’m happy to say, is that they are well made; I didn’t build any junk last year. With all of that said, here are the woodworking tools I can remember purchasing last year into this year: a carvers mallet, a 5/8 chisel (to replace my other one), a new sharpening jig, a router plane, a jointer plane (a vintage one), some vintage bits for my brace, a spokeshave, and my recently completed Hock Block Plane kit, and a new jigsaw. I probably spent around $700 last year on woodworking tools. The good news, for me, was that much of the money didn’t actually come out of pocket. I had sold some instruments and music equipment that I had taking up space. This allowed me to not only purchase these tools, but the material I used to make my furniture. I thought I did pretty good. I was able to woodwork, pick up some new tools and the materials to use the tools on, and do it without hardly taking a dime out of our bank account.

So up to this point you are probably thinking: “I’m basically reading a post by a jealous ego maniac who claims to make more furniture with less tools.” Maybe, but I am getting to my point. As I was saying earlier, almost every one of the blogs I read last night had one thing in common: they all referenced The Anarchist’s Toolchest in one way or another. Many of the blog writers made claims such as: “I will never slay electrons again!” or, “I just got rid of my Kreg jig!” or “No longer will the table saw be the center of my shop!” You can pick just about anything that Christopher Schwarz put in the book and it was somehow quoted on one of these blogs. Often, the header of the blog had some such proclamation as well. At least half of them made claim to be “My Journey into Handtools” or something to that effect. And of course just about all of these blog writers had purchased much of the tools from the “recommended” tools listed in the book. So before you start thinking that I am bashing Christopher Schwarz, rest assured I am not. What I am bashing is those who read one man’s self proclaimed journey away from consumerism and towards individuality, and then proceeded to PURCHASE every tool in the book because that’s what the book TOLD them to do. I hope I’m not the only one seeing the irony here!

Again, you might say to me: “What do you care!?” And that is a legitimate question and point. If these people want to use The Anarchist’s Toolchest as their guideline why should that bother me? Well it does bother me because I actually read some of the content of these blogs. I will say it again that Schwarz somehow has instilled into the heads of these blog writers that unless you woodwork just like him you are nothing more than some kind of hack. You know what? I don’t need to read on your blog that Ikea makes junk. Schwarz said it about a thousand times. I don’t need to read how chisels made in China suck because Christopher Schwarz said so. I don’t need to read that some guy who made his wife a set of shelves with a Kreg jig is destroying woodworking. I don’t need to hear that every tool you have for woodworking fits right in your chest and that’s all you need to make furniture because yet again Schwarz has said that every day for more than two years. Get an original thought in your head if you are going to write a blog. I’ll go right to the source when I want to read such statements, because at least when Schwarz writes them it is well written and entertaining, not a half-assed Cliff Notes version of somebody else’s philosophy. And I want to say it for the record once again. I am not blaming Christopher Schwarz! He simply wrote a mission statement. He cannot control the reactions of every lost soul who read it and decided to turn it into some kind of woodworking holy war.

So I am going to pose a question, from one amateur woodworker and blog writer to another. Before you decide to put on your blog that woodworkers who don’t use handtools from the Anarchist’s Toolchest and woodwork just like the book says to woodwork suck and are destroying woodworking and in the process destroying your life, be prepared to defend that statement. Because every time I’ve read it I’ve seen nothing to back it up at all. Not one fact, not one statistic…nothing. It’s just an arbitrary statement, nothing more. It’s easy to make an arbitrary statement and make it sound somewhat official. It’s not so easy to come up with an original idea and present those ideas and work on them and defend them and make them into a reality.

I think I am doing something wrong because I’m finding that my blog and woodworking philosophy are much different than many of the other blogs I’ve been seeing lately. Thankfully I don’t have to subscribe to them, but it has made me question my own philosophies, and if I should even keep on writing them down. It seems that I am in the vast minority of woodworkers that blog about it. If I could afford to own a dedicated workshop loaded with woodworking tools I would without feeling that it is wrong. I don’t see how that could bother or affect some guy who just spent $10,000 dollars on hand tools because he read a book that told him that it’s the only way to woodwork and save the world. I’ve never once in this blog questioned somebody’s methods of woodworking. If somebody dropped me a note or left a comment I never bother to ask if they use hand tools or power tools because what does it matter? If they have a blog and on that blog is a piece of furniture they are working on that I think is nice, I will let them know. I don’t care if they made it using a set of chisels from China or if they ripped the boards on a table saw, or if they have a $1000 set of French made rasps. That is what I like to call using your brain to formulate an opinion and exercising judgement when presenting that opinion. But maybe I’m dead wrong, yet I do know this: From a lot of these self proclaimed whatever-they-ares, I’m reading a lot of “blah blah blah” that was much better written and presented at the original source. I like to call Christopher Schwarz the Generalissmo, but I think my new nickname for him will be the Shepherd, because maybe those “blah blah blahs” are really nothing more than Baah Baah Baahs.

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13 Comments

  1. Dan says:

    I must admit that I thoroughly enjoy reading your rants. I haven’t read as many or some of the types of blogs you mention (hopefully mine’s not one, hahaha) to agree or disagree but I personally don’t care how you (the woodworker) got from point A to B as long as you had fun. Some of my personal choices for going the hand tool route are; 1) I can have my kids out in the shop with me at almost any point; 2) there is no longer a layer of dust on everything in the garage (the broom was my dust collection); 3) it’s easier to hear my Spotify playlist without hearing protection; 4) and I occasionally like to have a beer or two while out in the shop and I’ve convinced myself I’m safer with a hand saw than a table saw when mixing woodworking and alcohol. I can’t comment on The Anarchist’s Toolchest since I haven’t read it but Chris Schwarz is definitely not the reason I decided to start using hand tools nor choosing which ones to buy. So to answer your question, I don’t think you are doing anything wrong. I think your philosophy is honest and a fun to read.

    • billlattpa says:

      No Dan, believe me I wouldn’t subscribe to your blog if I didn’t enjoy it. Believe it or not I’m much more of a hand tool user than a power tool one. I have a few reasons, one being that my little girl often is in the garage with me and I feel that hand tools are a little bit better suited to that, and secondly it’s because even if I wanted to have an all power tool shop I couldn’t because of the space that the tools take up.
      My whole reason for ranting here was I must have read at least twenty different blogs written by guys who have claimed that the Anarchist’s Toolchest has changed the way they woodwork yet most of them, it seems, haven’t really done much woodworking yet. How can you make a statement such as that until you’ve actually used the tools and made something with them? I’m not knocking amateurs or new woodworkers or first time bloggers, that was me not very long ago. I’m just saying that until you start woodworking it’s nearly impossible to know what type of woodworker you will be. A book can’t tell you that. A book can’t say that these tools will make you a “real” woodworker. You have to figure that out on your own. And for the record I like Chris Schwarz’s recommendations for tools, but I would add that an amateur like me with no more skill than any other woodworker managed to make a pretty decent amount of furniture with less than a quarter of the tools on CS lists. Not having a toolchest filled with somebody else’s tool didn’t make me feel like any less of a woodworker. I think it’s ridiculous for somebody to write a blog claiming that the Schwarz method is the only way to be a woodworker and then not even have made a piece of real furniture to back up the claim.
      Thanks
      Bill

  2. Andrew says:

    I think you’re doing everything right. For me a hobby is about doing what I find fun. I love to work with veneers, marquetry and for the last year scroll saw work. I don’t find milling wood to width, length and thickness to be much fun so I’ve got power tools to make that happen quickly.

    But I have been known to knife cut entire marquetry pieces because I find it fun.

    For me right is – you enjoy it and make stuff you like.
    Wrong is other people telling me what I like.

    • billlattpa says:

      I agree. My philosophy for woodworking is pretty simple: If you are an amateur, woodwork in such a way that makes you happy, if you are a professional woodwork in such a way that earns you a living. Otherwise, don’t ever write a blog proclaiming a book changed the way you woodwork when you’ve barely made a piece of furniture. And then have the nerve to tell others that if they aren’t woodworking the same way that they are destroying the craft.
      Bill

  3. […] a possibly related note, this post from The Slightly Confused Woodworker struck a chord with me – I’ve bought a LOT of […]

  4. Ok, ok. Contrary as I may like to be…
    I agree with most of what you’ve said here.
    Grumble, grumble, grumble…

    Ha, ha.

  5. “I think I am doing something wrong right because I’m finding that my blog and woodworking philosophy are much different than many of the other blogs I’ve been seeing lately”

    Bill,

    You made a typo. I’ve corrected it for you. You’re welcome.

    Chris

  6. I also enjoy reading your rants and I think I know what you mean. What I love most about woodworking though, is that there’s almost always more than one way to tackle a situation and the effort of challenging ourselves and trying new things can provide a lot of enjoyment and satisfaction.

    • billlattpa says:

      You and I would certainly agree that woodworking can be accomplished using several different methods, but there are some woodworkers who think it is some kind of blasphemy to believe that.

  7. There are a lot of things going on here. Once the woodworking bug bites you, it seems to be all you can think about. Unfortunately, many of us don’t get much time in our shops so we woodwork via the internet and ecommerce. While you dream about the projects you want to build from behind your keyboard, you discover you can “woodwork” by buying that tool online. Suddenly your actual shop time is taken up with setting up that new tool or making test cuts.

    As an aside, I think this is also what has propagated the rise of SketchUp. It is a way to woodwork when you can’t get to the shop.

    Next with a lot of new folks coming to woodworking who never had any manual arts training in their past they are looking for guidance online. In every other field or interest you can consult the internet and get a list of things/materials you need to get started. This seems to be ingrained in our heads and if the number of “I need a tool list” emails I get are any indication the same is true for woodworking. Chris has great authority and rightfully so because of his positions held and the nice stuff he churns out of his shop. I think the worst thing he could have done was produce a tool list because now it is gospel. Now I’ll say that I have given in from time to time and created a tool list or two and I’m proud to say they differed from Chris’. This then generated a lot of mail about “why don’t you have this or that, Chris has it on his list”. So then I avoided all mention of tool lists and I was inundated with requests for tool list for this project or that technique. I think this relates back up to my first point. One sees something they want to try or build then sees a tool list required, so one can then go buy those tools so they are ready when the time comes. It’s armchair woodworking at it’s finest.

    I think it happens to all of us from time to time, good or bad, at least we are keeping the tool companies in business. 🙂

    • billlattpa says:

      I can honestly say that I like Chris Schwarz’s list and think it’s a good one. I will also be honest and say that I don’t own even a quarter of it and probably never will. I think that Chris Schwarz has done some truly great things. I am truly impressed by the list of books he plans on publishing. Without him many of those books probably wouldn’t be published and much of that info not available to most of us. That being said, I’ve seen dozens of blogs where people have said that unless you are using the tool lists from the Anarchist’s Toolchest you will never be a complete woodworker, or something to that effect. I’ve even had people tell me that I’m not woodworking the “right” way because I don’t own certain tools, many of them from the list. That is the kind of stuff that just sets me off. Keep in mind, I’m just an amateur woodworker and blog writer. If I were a pro it would probably make me even more angry, in particular if it comes from a person with more tools than furniture making experience.
      Again, I will be the first to admit my experience level, but I will also point out that I’ve made enough furniture to at least be able to talk about it intelligently. I’m just not going to take somebody telling me I’m using the wrong tools and not call them on it. We already have one Christopher Schwarz, love him or hate him. I think his good points by far out weigh his bad ones. He has a great body of work, his stuff is generally fun to read, and he seems like a good guy. What we don’t need is a bunch of half-asses Chris Schwarz’s running around and telling everybody how to woodwork. Something about that just rubs me the wrong way. I would rather read an amateur’s blog with their own feelings about woodworking, and what they are making, and what tools they happen to use. I don’t need to see another Chris Schwarz clone, or as you put it much better than I did, “armchair woodworker” put out a poorly written version of Schwarz’s woodworking philosophy and put it out there as their own. Maybe I’m being nit picky, but that’s just me.
      Thanks.
      Bill

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