Christopher Schwarz is an author, builder, columnist, designer, educator, furniture maker, and okay, we'll stop there with the alphabet thing. But if we were to keep going we'd eventually hit journalist, publisher, researcher and toolmaker.
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Designers of all stripes could benefit by following Schwarz's work, as his research within the realm of how individuals fabricate things is both unique and consequential. He combs the historical record to uncover forgotten solutions in the form of objects, tools or hand skills, and rather than only write about what he's learned, he often physically reconstructs, demonstrates and explains the relevant objects in a no-nonsense manner. And occasionally he'll unintentionally spark an entire micro-economy in the process. (Read the story of the Moxon vise here and here, as one example.)
The design of this bookstand produced by Schwarz was adapted from a version used by 19th-century British military officers on campaign. It folds down to a compact size.
The more of these examples Schwarz unearths, the more something starts to sink in: A lot of these low-tech techniques and objects are actually more efficient, more effective, sturdier, better looking and/or cheaper than new ones. And the best part is you can build many of them yourself off of his plans.
Mobile tool storage: This Dutch tool chest, which Schwarz uses on his teaching travels, is relatively quick to build (compared to an English tool chest) and holds a good amount of tools. Schwarz writes that it "fits on the backseat of almost any vehicle and can be strapped in with a seat belt." "Will Myers takes a turn with M. Hulot's 'belly' – an incredibly simple and effective way to shave components," Schwarz writes. Schwarz's design for the "Milkman's Workbench," intended for those without workbenches. It can be clamped to any table and used for workholding. This durable work jacket, based on a design used by the French working class in the 19th/20th centuries, provides good on-body tool storage and provides the range of motion necessary for shop labor. Schwarz is working on getting it into production.
And some of the stuff he demonstrates is just plain nifty:
Schwarz often gives away what he's learned for free--"the dumbest business plan ever," he says, without any trace of rue--in countless online videos and over 4,000 searchable blog entries. Research topics of such density that blog posts won't cover it get turned into physical books from Lost Art Press, the publishing house Schwarz co-founded (and no, those books aren't free). They also publish books on relevant topics by other authors both alive and dead.
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We interviewed Schwarz on the loose topic of inspiration. This is Part 1, where we discuss what got him started looking "backwards," secrecy vs. openness, workbenches, people who've inspired Schwarz, his favorite museum, finishes that won't kill you and more.
(Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. --Ed.)
Core77: Your work encompasses a lot of different areas. For those who don't know you, how would you describe what you do? The cocktail party question.
Christopher Schwarz: I'd tell them that I'm unemployed, so I don't have to talk to people…. No, I build furniture. I write about furniture, and my specialization is looking into the past to inform my modern designs and contemporary work.
And why the focus on looking into the past?
Well, I operate under the idea that just because people are dead, doesn't mean they're stupid. Most of the world was built with wood for tens of thousands of years with no plastics, none of our modern materials. [The people who built those things] knew a lot, and the more you dig into it, the more you find that they were just absolute geniuses. We can learn a lot.
What inspires you to pursue a particular line of research?
It's usually frustration with something at the bench. I first got interested in old workbenches because modern workbenches were just far too complex to make. They were flimsy. They moved. They were poorly constructed, because they were mass-produced. That started me looking backwards, thinking "Well, I can't be the first person to have this problem." And I stumbled upon some designs for really early, physically massive French workbenches, built those, and after that, it [became addictive].
Plate 11 from Andre J. Roubo's "L'Art Du Menuisier," written in 18th century France. A bench in Schwarz's 21st century workshop based on Roubo's design. A "petite Roubo" built by Schwarz.
And then the more that you look backwards, when you run into a new problem you're like, "Well this had to have been solved before; so before trying to invent some stupid modern solution, I'm going to find out how other people solved it first." You then work forward from there. [Builders of old] didn't have modern materials and modern machines. So use their designs, use their ideas, but use modern tools to make them easier to produce. Use modern materials to make them more durable.
It's a shame that some earlier fabrication solutions were not preserved. I was reading about Stradivari, who used his secret techniques to make violins whose incredible sound we still cannot reproduce today. He taught his secret manufacturing method to his sons. They chose not to pass those secrets on, then they died, and today nobody can make a Stradivarius.
Well, as you dig back through history and understand how shops worked, you'll find this was extremely common. There are things that were done in the 16th century that we still can't do today. They had the technology to dye wood all the way through its thickness, very quickly and with almost no effort, and that was lost in the 18th century because of this sort of problem. Workshops were closed, and they [passed things on or didn't.] If you worked in one of these shops you had to sign documents that said you would not disclose your master's secrets. So we still struggle with that to this day.
A team of schreiner (joiners/cabinetmakers/carpenters) in Eschelbronn, Germany, circa 1911.
[In contrast] I'm very much an open source woodworker. Our business plan, which is the dumbest business plan ever, is to give away as much information as we can on our [Lost Art Press] blog. When we have enough material to put into a book, that's what we sell, because it's a physical object with some commercial value.
I feel ideas are free, and trying to protect your commercial secret is really hurting the craft over the long term. If you're not a good enough woodworker/craftsperson to be able to survive if people know what your finishing secret is, you're probably not a very good craftsperson or furniture maker.
But if you yourself were--let's say that you came up with a unique design for this incredible dining table that people loved. It would sell like hotcakes, but you yourself could not possibly keep up with all the commissions to produce it. Would you then just release the design open source?
Oh yeah, and I have, it happens all the time. I did a three legged stool last year that I still have commissions to build. Some people requested the plans, and I thought "of course people should be able to build this" so we just gave the plans away on the blog. And now I see hundreds of these stools on Instagram, and that's great.
That doesn't take money out of my pocket. I'm already working as hard as I can. I can't clone myself, and I'm not going to start a factory full of people working for me for slave wages, so here, have the plans.
"Here are the rules: You can download these. Build as many stools as you like. Feel free to sell the stools you build. Here's what you cannot do with these plans: Sell them or represent them as your own. In other words, don't be a deT and we'll be cool."
I really am vehemently open. Things must be open.
You mentioned seeing the stool on Instagram; I take it people send you photographs of work that they've built based on designs from your books or the blog?
Oh yeah. I have lots of baby albums full of their workbenches, tool chests. And the interesting thing about the designs I covered in "The Anarchist's Design Book," that's different from the other stuff, is that people have really advanced and gone beyond my work. They've taken the principles covered in the book and developed entirely different forms that I wouldn't have expected. And that's the best thing, to see somebody take your ideas and run with them, and exceed my work. That sort of feedbacks on mine, and I'm sure I will have another book of designs that sort of feedback on their pieces.
I'm a visual person, so I love seeing other people's work. That's why I go to museums.
What's your favorite museum?
I love Winterthur, formerly called the Francis du Pont Museum, in Delaware. Winterthur is like a fancy doner kebab. Francis DuPont purchased old buildings and furnishings and basically added them on to one another. So you can explore the entire history of American decorative arts by walking from room to room in the museum, like exploring all of nature's mammals in one bite of doner.
In addition to the museum, which has the best collection of American furniture I know of, they also have one of the best libraries covering the mechanical and decorative arts. Woodworking, metalworking, clockmaking. Even if you don't love old furniture, Winterthur is incredibly inspiring. It drips with beauty.
I also love little local, vernacular museums, even if they have stuff that I think is junk. I can learn something from every piece, even crappy ones. So whenever I go someplace to teach, if I have extra time I check out the local history museum. They'll always have vernacular pieces that are quite surprising. I've found some real gems. Lebanon County in Ohio has a great one, and they have 500 pieces of Shaker furniture, which is really surprising.
Editor's Note: Our "Tools & Craft" contributor Joel Moskowitz, Schwarz's co-author of "The Joiner & Cabinetmaker" book, feels the same way about local museums and wrote about it here.
But Winterthur is the top of the list, and that's really close to you designers based in New York, and it's a great place to visit.
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You wrote the book "Workbenches: From Design & Theory to Construction & Use," which is widely considered the Bible of the topic. For people that are not aware of the diversity in old workbench designs, can you talk about how many different types you have at your storefront/classroom, and why so many?
I think we have nine different designs now. Dating from from 87 AD, which is the first depiction of a workbench, all the way up to an Ulmia, which was commercially produced in the 1970s. We have every type of workbench representing about 2,000 years of development here, and we use them all.
The plethora of functional workbenches in the Lost Art Press storefront and classroom in Covington, Kentucky.
We know there are pros and cons to each, and we're not trying to find "the best workbench that everybody should have." But if you are somebody who does chair making, well, this bench has a lot of advantages for chair makers. If you do cabinetry, that bench has a lot of advantages for cabinetry. And the overarching principal with all of them, is they're far simpler than modern benches, and you don't have to spend a whole year and thousands of dollars to make one of these. A lot of these benches can be built in two or three days, at most like 40 hours.
A workbench based on a design by 16th-century German craftsman Martin Löffelholz. Schwarz's version of a bench designed by Charles Holtzapffel, a 19th-century London-based craftsman with roots from Strasbourg, Germany. This classic English workbench design has a thrifty BOM, gaining its sturdiness from clever engineering rather than mass.
One thing I've never seen is a workbench designed for those of us who do woodworking out of small apartments. In a dense city we've got totally different needs than those with more space. Have you ever seen anything like an "urban environment workbench," or do you think there's just not enough demand?
No, no, I think there is. A long time ago Hammacher Schlemmer in New York used to have a woodworking catalog, and they produced a line of benches, one of them called the Gnome brand. They were these really interesting benches that were designed for urban environments, they would close up and look like a piece of furniture. The wings would fold out, and the top would open up, and it would have tools on the rack, and then you would have everything laid out. You could even keep your work there whenever you were closing it up.
It's funny, that's actually one of the benches that I've always wanted to come back to. I've started in on it several times but have always gotten distracted by other things. If you do a search, you'll find it.
Thanks, I will.
Editor's note: I looked up the Gnome Workbench, and here it is.
Are there any people, either personal acquaintances or folks in history, that have inspired you?
Probably my personal hero of all time is Charles Hayward. He was a 20th century workshop writer of just amazing skills. He was the editor of the Woodworker Magazine in Great Britain for 30 years, from the 1930s until the late '60s. He was an incredible illustrator, designer, writer, editor, builder, traditionally trained. He had everything, and the magazine he put out has still never been eclipsed; it's the best woodworking magazine I've ever read. And his stuff, there's just tons and tons of it--he wrote for 30 years, every month. I aspire to be a small fraction of him. So as far as woodworker/writer/designer, that's the guy.
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Editor's Note: Several years ago Lost Art Press republished "The Woodworker: The Charles H. Hayward Years Vols. I - IV," which organizes Hayward's decades of articles into relevant groupings. I purchased volumes 1-3 for myself two Christmases ago and the quality of the content is fantastic. Below are some shots of it.
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The other big influence on my life was a chair maker named John Brown, who's from Wales. He really brought the Welsh stick chair, which is a vernacular form that I'm in love with, to the attention of the woodworking world. His chairs influenced a lot of my work in chair making.
Two Schwarz-built chairs inspired by the work of John Brown (and Don Weber, another Welsh chair maker).
He was the first person to put anarchism and woodworking together. He had a column called "The Anarchist Woodworker" in Good Woodworking Magazine in the '90s that I read. I never met the guy, and I don't know if he really was an anarchist but he was an amazing writer, and an amazing curmudgeon, and just an incredible personality. So those are probably the two biggest influences on my life, as far as woodworking goes.
I need to ask you about anarchism in the next part of this interview. But for now, can you tell us about some of the books that Lost Art Press has in the pipeline?
[Furniture designer/builder] Richard Jones has written a book on understanding wood in a really deep way. It's not a book that every woodworker would need, but one which really hardcore woodworkers could learn from if they don't want stuff exploding on them over the years.
We've got Jögge Sundqvist, who's a Swedish woodworker, doing a book [called "Slöjd in Wood"] on green woodworking, making everything more with branches and knives. Really fascinating work, just beautiful stuff. He's really "out there," and crazy, and a great designer and builder.
Editor's Note: If you're unfamiliar with the Slöjd/Sloyd philosophy, read about it in "Making Things With Your Hands Makes You Smarter".
I just finished writing a book [called "Ingenious Mechanicks: Early Workbenches & Workholding"], and that should be out in the next few months. One of the things it covers is understanding low workbenches, which is another sort of urban solution, because these low workbenches could be used as a coffee table, and your workbench, also it can be used by people with disabilities. These low workbenches have a lot of utility that people haven't thought of.
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Also, the next few years of my life are going to be devoted to chemistry. Because my next book will be a third book in the Anarchist series, and that's going to be on finishing. Specifically finishing that won't kill you, because most finishing products out there are designed to make you dead. [The book will cover] how you can make furniture using finishes that won't poison you. So I'm going to be hanging out with doctors and learning a lot about chemistry. I'm excited.
I've already been talking about it a bit on the [Lost Art Press] blog. I have been experimenting for years now with low-VOC, very traditional finishes, and how to apply them. Everything from shellac to soap, waxes and different oils. And understanding those: Not "Hey, use this" but "Do you know why this is better, or why this will kill you, or why this is safe?" Most people think that finishing is black arts and voodoo, when it's really just simple chemistry. So I'm trying to dismantle that myth.
That sounds great, and another thing that there's a definite need for. Do you have a loose timeframe?
Books usually take me two years from initiation to completion. For people who are interested, I'll continue talking about the topic of finishing on the blog once I put the early workbenches book to bed next month.
Conducting research by examining a Roman workbench at the Saalburg, a Roman fort outside of Frankfurt, Germany. This is one of the oldest surviving workbenches known in the Western world, estimated to have been used circa 187 A.D. It had been thrown down a well around 200 A.D., sat submerged for 1,700 years and was not fished out until 1901. The 1.7 millennia it spent underwater has understandably induced a bit of twist. The legs aren't the original ones and were added after recovery in order to display it. The only way to know what the bench was like to use, is to build one based on the original and use it. Here Schwarz recreates the workbench in his shop.... ...and starts using it for practical work. Then, inspired by seeing this woodcut--"The earliest known image of a shavehorse," Schwarz explains, from the book "De Re Metallica" (1561)…. …Schwarz added a 19th century English design for a shavehorse to the Roman bench. "I decided to make my horse an English variant (instead of the dumbhead style shown in the woodcut) because that's what I started using forever ago," Schwarz writes.
Where you can follow Schwarz's work:
- The Chris Schwarz Blog on Popular Woodworking. "Your typical workaday blog, what I'm doing in the shop, shop tips, stuff like that."
- The Lost Art Press blog. "More about the hardcore research that I do, the books that we're publishing, and my personal work."
- The Crucible Tool blog. "Pretty straightforward, [whatever] we're doing at the foundry or at the machine shop, making tools."
- Lost Art Press' Instagram.
- His website of personal work.
- His YouTube channel.
Continue on to Part 2:
The Anarchist's design philosophy, using tools, making tools, universal design, how to beat trends and more.