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The Anarchist's Design Book , by Christopher Schwarz

by J. Norman Reid
Delaplane, VA

The Anarchist's Design Book , the latest book by Christopher Schwarz once again breaks new ground in the field of woodworking literature. It is, as its title states, a design book. But Schwarz delivers far more than a selection of designs. He introduces us in a structured way to vernacular furniture—the stuff common folks made and used daily—as an alternative to the more ornate and stylized pieces that populate museums and adorn the homes of the wealthy. Along the way, he seizes many opportunities to teach alternative methods of building the designs he presents, bringing them within reach of woodworkers at practically all levels of experience.

Although the book draws on considerable personal research and exploration, it is no historical treatise, nor is it a dry research report. It is, rather, a presentation of a dozen furniture pieces as examples of the common style and as projects that can be built for the shop, the home or for sale. The pieces fall neatly into two groups according to their manner of construction. Staked furniture, which makes up the first half of the pieces, includes a sawbench, chairs and several tables, all with legs whose tenons pierce the tops of the pieces. Boarded furniture, more familiar as casework, includes chests, bookshelves, and a coffin.

What sets these pieces apart are the facts that they are, for the most part, plain and undecorated and that they can be constructed with a minimal set of tools, mostly or entirely by hand. This reflects their status as pieces whose value to their owners was in their use, not their style, and their construction by ordinary joiners, not by high-end craftsmen, usually in small, local woodshops with limited resources and skills.

Despite their status as the furniture of ordinary people, these pieces nonetheless have a simplicity of style that makes them especially inviting for contemporary homes. Their construction is so durable that they should be able—as historical examples have done—to last for centuries of hard use, something any household with kids or grandkids should appreciate. Of course, the builder of any of these pieces could add stylistic details to fit their fancy, something Schwarz rejects in favor of the elegance of the plain.

Well-written and at times humorous, the book is greatly enhanced with specially-drawn copperplate etchings of the projects and a large number of captioned photos that fully illustrate construction methods and details. Throughout, Schwarz lays out alternative methods for accomplishing tasks, using both hand tools and machinery, that bring the projects within reach of woodworkers with limited means. There is much to be learned about woodworking from a reading of this book.

In addition to the chapters on individual pieces, supplementary chapters add much value. These include a list and sources of needed tools—far smaller than the number listed in The Anarchist’s Toolchest, a chapter on the selection and use of nails for the casework pieces—which are mostly fastened with nails as were the period originals—a brief introduction to soap finishes, using milk paint, a bit about hide glue and an index.

Oh yes, and an exhortation to stop reading and start building!

The projects themselves progress from the basic to the more complex, though none is outside the reach of most woodworkers. The early project chapters explain details that are then used in succeeding projects.

Staked furniture makes up the first set of projects. Following an introduction to staked furniture—which typically employs three legs with round tenons driven into the seat of a chair or table top—Schwarz describes how to build a series of pieces typical in daily use over the centuries. These include a staked sawbench, staked backstool, staked chair, drinking tables, a worktable, staked bed and trestle tables.

Boarded furniture—casework—makes up the second set of pieces. Beginning with a boarded toolchest, Schwarz moves on to a 6-board chest, boarded bookshelf, aumbry—a storage cabinet with gothic tracery on its front doors—and the coffin he intends to be buried in that now doubles as a set of shelves.v

Throughout the book, Schwarz reveals bits of personal biography, his discarded novel Fisheye being one, his distaste for highly-ornamented furniture, and what he understands as anarchism (it has nothing to do with wide-eyed, firebomb-throwing radicals), which should provide comfort to those put off by his use of the concept.

All told, this is an unique contribution that most woodworkers will find interesting and many will find compelling. Other than books on building Windsor chairs and furniture from green wood, there is little or nothing that addresses this genre of furniture. Woodworkers at all levels, from beginners to those who are advanced, will find much value in this book. Armchair woodworkers will discover in it an informative and entertaining read. I give it my highest recommendation.

CLICK HERE to order your copy of
The Anarchist’s Design Book

The author is a woodworker, writer, and woodworking instructor living in the Blue Ridge Mountains with his wife, a woodshop full of power and hand tools and four cats who think they are cabinetmaker's assistants. He is the author of the forthcoming book Choosing and Using Handplanes . He can be reached by email at .

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