Gareth BranwynGareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of visiting the Wharton Esherick Studio, lured there by a combination of a work trip to Philadelphia and Chuck Bender's Popular Woodworking article.
Esherick started out as a painter, took up carving to decorate his frames and create his woodcuts, and then shifted from carver to sculptor and builder. The inside of the building is in many ways magical, from the famous spiral staircase to the latches to the kitchen floor made of scrap boards of fruitwood.
Though Esherick wasn't an architect, the choices he made in building the house and the log garage almost created a building that seems like it belong there. The studio and especially the house have me rethinking the way I look at both furniture and carving. I'll have to go back sometime, bringing a better camera than a cellphone with a crack in the lens.
For years, it haunted me: the danger that a piece I was making for a project wouldn't be square, or would shift out of square after I'd carefully put it together. The woodworking books I read, whether they relied on power tools or hand tools, assumed that joinery was the primary task.
Leaping to square, though, means that you immediately start out treating wood like any other material, a material that has to conform to certain human expectations about its shape. This makes excellent sense when you're building furniture, but it's a lousy place for beginners to start. When I first started writing Tool by Tool, Skill by Skill, the list of tools and projects was all about joinery. I will get to joinery soon enough, but for the moment I'm reveling in wood's many other possibilities.
Right now it's just the Preface, Chapter 1 (Workspaces), and a sequence that gives you a sense for the rest of the book to come. I think of Popular Woodworking as the magazine that taught me that using hand tools was both possible and powerful. I just found this in the April 2000 issue, which I'd kept for Schwarz's brilliant but controversial "Woodworking on Death Row" article. Today there is a group of woodworkers who still pride themselves in building furniture this way. I think you'll enjoying unplugging your router for a few days to tackle this modest but satisfying project. While woodworking is often treated as a single large subject in magazines, books, and web sites, it's comprised of a lot of smaller pieces. The following list of woodworking practices isn't necessarily exhaustive, and it isn't necessarily the way that everyone would categorize things, but it might give you a basic idea of what's involved in creating projects that interest you.
While design can be a world of its own, many woodworkers prefer to work from plans created by others. Projects built strictly on the basis of looks may not last more than a few seasons, as the wood's movement distorts or breaks the piece. Strictly speaking, sharpening is metalwork, but having sharp tools readily available makes working wood immensely simpler. Again, a lot of woodworkers just buy their wood, but some, especially turners, use found wood or have their own wood lots.


Milling starts at the sawmill, where logs are turned into more manageable boards, and continues all the way through to the final sizing of components for a particular project. Scrolling generally refers to small and typically thin work created on a scroll saw, though some scrolling is larger and may be done on a bandsaw and other tools.
Some projects are held together with fasteners, like screws and nails, but a lot of projects use glue and specially created joints that handle wood's seasonal movement more gracefully. Assembly isn't usually considered its own set of skills, and is probably best considered part of joinery, but putting all the parts together can be a challenge of its own. While not necessarily woodworking per se, there are a number of tasks performed as a part of woodworking. The skills you need and the tools you use may vary greatly depending on which of these fields are important to you.
Future columns will explore all of these fields (though I should learn carving before I try to talk about it.) For now, I recommend using this breakdown as a guide to the kinds of things you might or might not be interested in doing, and especially as a guide to restraining yourself from purchasing things which sound fascinating but you don't really need. I'm writing in an open-framed cottage built in the 1920s, admiring the exposed beams, tongue and groove paneling, and stone fireplace. I started working in wood because I wanted to do something more concrete than programming and writing. Woodworking is in many ways an orphan of the industrial revolution, though it has benefited tremendously from the tools that industrialization has made available.
Woodworking has many facets, and defining what precisely "woodworking" is probably isn't worthwhile.
There are also constant tensions between woodworking serving function, woodworking adding decoration, and woodworking as fine art. There are a lot of misconceptions around woodworking which make these conversations much harder. I'm hoping that this column will reflect the enormous and sometimes uncomfortable diversity in woodworking today, as well as some of its history.
Like the early Arts and Crafts idealists, I'd like this column to inspire people to examine how they consume things and reconsider their relationship with their environment.
There are also great living history museums, Colonial Williamsburg, Old Salem, the Genesee Country Village, Mystic Seaport, Hyde Street Pier, and many others showing how wooden things were made and used. The Museum of the Earth doesn't have the excitement of the living history models or the rarity of the museum pieces, but it manages something else. It is possible that somewhere there is a museum of woodworking that has learned from the science museums and the children's museums?
I was lucky to get in from the wait list for Christopher Schwarz's Anarchist Tool Chest class at Roy Underhill's Woodwright's School for a week in September. There were nine of us in the class, with Schwarz as lead instructor and Underhill as a very active participant. I think nearly all of us identified ourselves as beginners at the start of the class, but it became clear quickly that some of us - me in particular - were more beginner than others. There were a few new (old) tools that really blew my mind, in ways I hadn't figured out by reading or watching videos.
Although Underhill's shop resolutely avoiding electricity for the actual woodworking, he used it for lighting, air conditioning, and a camera and monitor that made it much easier to provide a close-up view to a big group of students.
Despite Schwarz's admonitions, I still managed to screw up twice, in the same place, on the tails for the dovetails in the top rear corners of the chest.


I stayed roughly on the original schedule, though there were a few times early in the week when I wondered whether I would even have the basic box done by the end of the class, never mind the skirts or lid. Still, I spent most of my time downstairs, when it might have been a lot of fun to explore The Woodwright's School Tool Store, an astounding collection of vintage tools.
After all the easy parts, there was some punishment ahead - planing the boards flat against the edge of the box.
Schwarz wisely insisted that we all work with a "skirt buddy" to mark the final lengths of the other two corners. I doubt I'll add a foot-powered mortiser to my shop - I'm not sure how I'd find one again - but it was a great demonstration of how much we can do with relatively simple (if large) and sharp tools.
A few people did complete the box, getting at least some hardware - the hinges - installed. I would absolutely recommend this class to anyone interested in working with hand tools, and I would also recommend Schwarz, Underhill, and The Woodwright's School for pretty much any related class.
I liked Christopher Schwarz's last book project, The Joiner and Cabinet Maker, so much that I actually wrote two reviews of it for different venues.
While I doubt my politics and Schwarz's politics are that similar in details, I agreed with practically everything he writes here about anarchism. The problem, though, is that the political message surfaces once in a while and then disappears again.
My seventh grade project, a strange mostly useless box built out of random maple scrap, has I think disappeared. The simple butt joint, sticking two pieces of wood together at a right angle, isn't particularly strong, but is common.
Woodworking combines the immediacy of programming with the feeling of holding a physical book at the end of the publishing process. A lot of people seem to think woodworking is growing easier, that new tools have answered age-old problems. Hopefully this can help the column, letting me can share my learning experiences with you as they happen, reflecting on what worked and what didn't. If you have the time and interest to work with wood, that's wonderful, and I hope to show you some new ideas along the way. It was a great combination, as each of them had a different style and tool set, but pretty much shared a core set of values and techniques.
This way we wound up with a bottom skirt that actually fit the box as it was instead of an ideal measurement that didn't fit any real box.
While I enjoy it, woodworking isn't always relaxing, and projects are almost never completed as quickly as in the neat formats where many TV viewers experience woodworking vicariously. I panicked for a moment, but he just pulled out blue painter's tape to indicate the error for a later fix, pointing out that both paint and the top skirt and dust seal would cover the damaged area anyway.
And he has a new best-of writing collection and "lazy person's memoir," called Borg Like Me.



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