Friday, July 29, 2011

The Anarchist's Tool Chest: Book Review

I'm glad Chris Schwarz is playing on our team.

If he had decided long ago to take up needlepoint rather than woodworking, we'd be missing out on his sense of humor, creative writing, commitment to the woodworking community, and enormous amount of hand tool knowledge.

Chris's latest book is The Anarchist's Tool Chest.  Why "anarchist"?  He provides several explanations, one of which is "a desire to work for yourself and to run in social and economic circles made up of other individual artisans." It's the notion that we can buck the norm and make something that's built to last, using the best joinery and made with the best tools. It's an idea that thumbs its nose at the flimsy, veneer-covered, chipboard garbage that surrounds us as consumers.

The book is divided into three sections. In the first part, we get a glimpse into Chris's initiation into woodworking starting at age 11 when he helped his Dad build the family's farmhouse.  We read about the path that led him to Popular Woodworking Magazine, his insatiable desire to learn all he could about the craft, and his revelations along the way.

Then Chris gives us his tool list—a list that's been pared down to the essentials for a hand tool woodworker. This is the result of 30 years' experience with using and testing more tools than most of us will ever get our hands on.  He encourages us to learn from his mistakes and discoveries, so this book is a great place to start if you are just getting into hand tools.

It's also a great place for those of us who use hand tools on a regular basis.  I'm glad I didn't skip a single page in his book, because I learned a lot more than I ever realized I didn't know.

I love a strong opinion, but only if it's backed up with thoughtful reasoning and facts. Chris provides this with aplomb. He has a rationale for every single tool that made his cut list, how they work, and what to look for when buying new or vintage.

The book also contains Chris's philosophy about the craft and about life. Time is more important than money. Doing the things we love, the best we can, with the best tools and materials we can acquire, is everything. And while you might not agree with his ideas and suggestions, they will give you pause.

The last section of the book is devoted to building a tool chest, the design of which is based on his years of study.  Many times we try to outfox the old timers, which is foolish. They knew what they were doing.  So, Chris relies on the things he's discovered about the vintage, user-friendly, bomb-proof chests and lays them out for us, so we can get it right the first time.

His 475-page book is jam-packed with straight-to-the-point information and peppered with Chris's signature quips, but it also shows what a great storyteller he is.  His easy and conversational style makes this a fast and enjoyable read.  The Anarchist's Tool Chest is a hard book to put down. It's engaging and very well-written and -researched.

As I was reading, I was picturing what a 23rd-century woodworker would think of it. Because this book will be around that long. And then some.


TJIC said...

I've read several reviews of the book...and this was the best one.


Will definitely pick up a copy.

Kari Hultman said...

Thanks, TJIC. I make it a point to never read others' reviews before I write mine, so I have no idea what others are saying about Chris's book. But I can't imagine that anyone wouldn't like it. (Except if you have absolutely no interest in hand tools.)

Al Navas said...

Great review, Kari - and I couldn't agree more!

Only one problem: Now that I have read yours, mine is likely to be tainted.


Anonymous said...

Good reviews, Al and Kari And thanks to let it know to us what helps a lot when to decide buying a book, abyway, since the first time I knew about it, I guess it would be a great source for woodworking community. Now on this has to be pointed into the must-have list of 'tools' for our workshop
Be anarchist, be woodworker

Marilyn in Seattle said...

First, I still don't care for the title (too much exposure to Rodney King riots, WTO riots and the local thugs .. I mean anarchist group). But that's probably less of a comment on the book title and more of a comment on our society.

As a beginner, woodworking has been an interesting experience for me. I'm not really about stuff and you have to collect a certain amount of stuff to do woodworking. And then you're making stuff. It’s been a philosophical dilemma for me.

I love the essential tool list. And the idea of connecting us with the work that it takes to make the things in our lives and doing it with a set of tools that you get really good at using. We're so disconnected from so much of what is in our lives. I love the idea of the essential set of tools that you use to make your own furniture with your own hands.

Matt C said...

I, like many, pre-ordered the book because I will buy pretty much anything on the subject. I subscribe to all the blogs, get the magazines, etc, etc. 90% of the book was exactly what I expected, talking about tools, jokes that only a small subset of society will think are funny, and then really boring details about building stuff that I still find fascinating to read even though I know what is going to happen next. The part of the book that surprised me was basically Chapter 13. It was like reading something from my own head that I didn't know was in there. I actually read that chapter twice and then thought "F--- Yea".

Morton said...

Kari - awesome review. I just finished the book and loved it way more than I thought I would - even though I had high expectations going in!

One thing interesting is that I just picked up Tolpin's book Toolchests and Storage Systems in general and he also goes through some historical chests and it really matches Chris' view. I did find a couple of interesting counterpoints (Tolpin likes the drawer till) - and it was nice to read someone else's perspective on the history of tool chests. And it has a lot of great pictures to go with - which was really fun.

Gye Greene said...


If you want to be minimalist, check out Peter Follansbee's blog: he does 1600s-style handtool woodworking.

He has a list of tools that's relatively short (jump to about halfway down the blog entry):

I've modified his list to include some modern tools, and exclude carving, and assume that you're starting with dimensional lumber (e.g. 1" x 4"s), rather than splitting your own wood from logs. It's about 17 items -- many of which most homeowners or apartment-dwellers would already have:

Smoothing plane


About 4 large-ish clamps

Straightedge (already have a decent yardstick or T-square?)


marking gauge

Awl/icepick (already have?)

Tape measure (already have?)


Narrow chisel, wide chisel

Electric drill (already have?)

Set of spade bits


Hammer (already have?)

You can get more, of course: but (to me) this is a bare minimum sort of list. :)

The trick is to know how to actually use them.


Gye Greene said...

Again to Marilyn,

re: "Making stuff". Some people make stuff just for fun (which is legitimate). I took up woodworking to make only the stuff I need, or to repair (wooden) things I already have. ;)

Mostly. :)

--GG (formerly of Ballard and Greenwood)

P.S. Say "Hello" to Seattle for me. I miss root beer and "proper" donuts -- both of which are hard to come by here in Australia.

Kari Hultman said...

Thanks, Al!

Julio, that's an interesting concept to think of books as tools. They are indeed. :o)

Marilyn, that's definitely the draw--making things with our own two hands. And to make them with a minimal number of tools is very gratifying. It seems less wasteful all around.

Matt, chapter 13 was excellent. I tend to agree with about 98% of the things Chris puts on paper. I'm still not sold on dividers, though. :D

Morton, thanks for the book suggestion!

Gye, that's a good point about the essential tool lists. It really depends on the types of things you build. Peter will of course include carving tools, but many woodworkers would never be interested in carving. Chris's essential list is geared toward furniture makers.

Marilyn in Seattle said...


Thanks so much for the links, information. Fascinating! And absolutely nothing wrong with making "stuff". Just trying not to have stuff for the sake of having stuff. :D
Currently of Ballard and Greenwood!
PS. Wondering if you also miss Lutefisk?

Gye Greene said...


Lutefisk: No so much. Do miss Archie McPhee's, though. Also, Taco Bell and Taco Time (**very** few Mexican restaurants in Australia. Not as close to Mexico as the U.S. is, I suppose). ;)


Anonymous said...

I make stuff out of wood, which I get from trees. I then sell that stuff, and that's how I earn my living. But as I wrote to the author, the use of the word "anarchist" is too off-putting for me to purchase his book. I read a chapter of it, it's okay, but he seems to work hard to be obnoxious in his choice of words and use of language. Funny thing is, we are probably on the same wavelength, when it comes to work. Oh well. I'll keep my money for now.

Rod F said...

Thanks for the review. Nicely done.

I read the book in December and enjoyed it for the most part. Chris Schwarz's screed about the evils of capitalism bothered me to some extent, but that is a minor quibble.

I try to work with hand tools, exclusively, but a power drill is hard to give up. As for Chris Schwarz's list, I agree with Gye Green who has a pared down list for those who use dimensioned lumber.

Here is my pared down list: small LV smoothing plane, 3/4" shoulder plane, block plane, small plow plane, 20" rip and crosscut panel saws, backsaw, coping saw, flush-cut saw, 18" and 6" rulers, 12" tape measure, 6" double square, wood mallet, 1/4", 1/2", 3/4" and 1" chisels, electric drill and bits, hammer, marking knife, cutting guage, screwdrivers, sharpening stones, miter box, sanding block, and various clamps.

I built a useful workbench using Josh Finn's design. Mine uses two sawhorses to support the 9" x 6' torsion boxes, and I built a mini-bench to rest on top (to provide a vise and raised work surface).

Chris Schwarz's book will be on my shelf as a useful reference.