Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Confessions of a Fanboy

I think I'm ready to admit something. I've actually fought against it for a while, but they say acceptance is the first step. So here it goes.

Hi, I'm Derek, and I'm a Chris Schwarz Fanboy. I've been a fanboy since around mid 2009 when I started exploring both hand tool woodworking and the online woodworking community. I discovered his blog and that was the end of woodworking as I knew it up to that point. I am not looking to recover, infact I refuse to consider this a problem.

I have built many things he suggested, not just because he said I should, though I always try to be open to the suggestions of those I want to learn from, but mostly because those things have all inspired me. From the simple elegance of the anarchist A-frame layout square to the solid, logical reality of the Anarchist's Tool Chest. My main workbench is a hybrid of the Nicholson bench from his first workbench book and the 175 Dollar workbench (adjusted for inflation) he wrote about in the pages of Popular Woodworking. My joinery bench was inspired when he wrote about Tim Williams joinery bench on his blog, and my favorite shop accessory, the Moxon Twin Screw Vise, was also introduced to me by him.

If there's something I have a passion for as much as making sawdust it's books, as a result I have built up a good collection of woodworking books and of course I've bought several of Chris's books, and works he's helped get rediscovered / republished. In his role as a publisher I am blown away by the people he's convinced to bring their own works into print with him. Peter Follansbee, Matt Bickford, George Walker, Jim Toplin and who knows who else will be next. I'm excited to find out and as long as quality material keeps flowing, I'll keep buying.

Why am I writing all this? I think it's in some way an acknowledgement of where I've come from and where I'm headed on my journey. It's a recognition of someone who has inspired me like only one other woodworker has. Norm Abrams got me to start woodworking, Chris was a big part of inspiring a radical change in the ways I think and feel about this avocation.

But I am for sure writing this as a way of expressing my gratitude. Hold on to this thought while I explain.

2012 has been a rough year on my family. From car issues, to health and surgery issues and all the financial weight that comes with those things. To recently being told that the management of our apartment building has decided to terminate our lease at the end of it's year, (to be the end of September) with no reasoning or explanation. We are trying to find an appropriate new home to raise our three girls in, hopefully without making them change schools again, and having less than stellar luck. I know there are people out there who face bigger challenges than we are, we haven't faced a natural disaster burning our home to the ground or washing it into the sea, we haven't faced the death of a loved one or the hardship of a spouse serving in a war half a world away.

Perspective is the one sure gift that comes from working a day job as a surgical technologist in a busy hospital. No matter how bad things get for me, for us, I know that person on the OR bed, even if they are there voluntarily, is having a worse day, and I need to focus on them. But then there is the evening. The house is quiet, the kids are sleeping, and I'm laying awake, my eyes focused on the ceiling but looking into oblivion and I can feel the weight and stress leak through the walls I've built to hold it away all day long. It pushes on my shoulders like I should be Atlas, and my mind races nullifying any chance to sleep, and I feel like I'm on the edge of going crazy.

My salvation is on my bedside table. It's my goldenrod bound copy of The Anarchist's Tool Chest from the first print run. It's the version before Chris had a chance to perfect it with an index and repaired typos, and I love that about it. It's spent a lot of time on my workbench, in my shop, and in my hands as I dissected it's secrets to build my own version of the tool chest. I've written notes in some of the margins, corrected typos and mistakes he admitted to once it was published, and left a few grimy thumb prints on the pages. In my opinion all marks of a treasured tome.

But lately, as I battle the stress demons that haunt me at night, it's been my salvation. I turn on my reading lamp and open the pages at random. Some nights I get to read the familiar sections on tool choices, (last night I worked my way through the rules for workbenches) Some nights I get to read through an area detailing the chest construction, and some nights I pull open the book all the way into the back and read through what I've started calling the philosophy and call to war section. After a random period of time has passed the familiar words start to blur and I start to yawn. I've managed to pack away the stress and my mind is now filled with sugar plum sawdust fairies and Stanley No. 5 candy canes and I drift off to sleep planing the next time I set foot in my shop instead of planning the untimely deaths of the lowly bean counters of the world.

Because I'm me, I've tried to decipher why the book has become so important to me, especially lately. On one hand I think it's because it's familiar and I know it well. My mind doesn't have to work to process it after I'm reading a passage for the umpteenth time, it can just relax and take it in. I have Matthew Bickford's new molding plane book and I found I just had to put it down for now. It's well written and the information is incredible, but I just don't have the neural capacity to assimilate the information right now. I might as well be reading the instructions to set the time on my alarm clock. I will have to circle around back to it, especially after I get my hands on a few hollows and rounds.

The biggest reason I believe I'm finding comfort in the book is the theme. There is a flavor of independence and self reliance that hints on every word Chris typed. But it's not just independence for yourself, it's utilizing your independence to help support and promote the independence of others. It's in the introduction, it's in every passage about choosing a tool to last a lifetime, it's in the theory of the chest build, and its in the construction details. Those things, those ideals of self reliance and independence are so very important to me, especially at this moment in time when they feel so very out of reach. The Anarchist's Tool Chest makes me want to take this moment when I'm on the brink of giving in and instead create a mile marker for turning this ship around and righting the course.

And even if you take away the esoteric, the words still remind me that tomorrow, despite everything else, I can still step into the shop and make some plane shavings, and that's something bean counters can't take away from me.

Quite a while ago I managed to catch a comment by Chris on this blog. In a fit a goofiness I slapped a Lost Art Press temporary tattoo on my forehead and posted some pictures of it. Since then I don't know if he ever passes by here on his way around the internet so I don't know if he'll ever get my message gratitude. Hell, at this exact moment I'm not sure if I'll have the cojones to hit the publish button on this post because it's a bit below the skin. I hope someday, maybe a few years from now, I'll have the chance to take a class with Chris and meet him face to face so I can thank him in person for writing a book I've found so helpful for so many different reasons.

Again, just in case, Thank you Sir!

Ratione et Passionis

P.S. in case you have found yourself trapped in an abandoned mine shaft or trauma induced coma for the last few years and you don't know Chris, his words, and most of his work can be found over at Lost Art Press. If you don't own The Anarchist Tool Chest, what the hell are you waiting for, get over there and buy it. I've never made that strong of a recommendation of anything in my life before, but I guess I am now.

Friday, August 24, 2012

My Take on Starting to Carve Part Two

This is my pair of pennies on starting to carve. In the first installment HERE I wrote about acquiring the chisels. Once you have a few chisels to work with and you've spent a little time playing with them you start to develop an appetite to carve something.

There is a lot of wood carving instruction out there, both online and in print form. If I peruse the magazine racks of my local Barnes & Noble at the right day of the month I can even find a couple different magazines dedicated to carving. The pages are filled with carving this garden gnome or that type of green man face and I, personally, could not be less interested. Three dimensional carving or carving in the round or whatever you want to call it, just was never the kind of thing I was after.

Back when I was young and eating art classes with a ravenous appetite, I always disliked when we the class would head into mixed media sculpture land. Making three dimensional representations of this weeks existential dilemma wasn't exciting (I know, I know, how ever did I end up with an avocation towards woodworking? I can sum that up in a word, UTILITY) My love was drawing, painting to some extent, but mostly drawing. Taking a flat space and making the thoughts and ideas spring off the page into the air was much more satisfying than creating something that was already toddling around it's emotional baggage in real space and time.

So when I was starting to be drawn towards carving, I was not tempted to turn a chunk of bass wood into a pink elephant with polka dot pants and sad looking eyes. I sought to recreate that drawing experience on the flat surfaces of my work. Only instead of a pencil or charcoal stub, I would use sharp chisels to draw with shadow and light.

The carved elephants and garden gnomes of the world look the same all throughout the day. put them in direct light, put them in shadow, it makes little difference. But have a piece of chip carving or the like in your room and it will look different through out the day. Whether it's the morning light striking it face through the window or the dim shadowed photons of your bedside reading lamp in the evening. The carvings have a different personality depending on where the light is. They tell a different story in different apertures. It makes them challenging to photograph too.

So if you are attracted by carving styles other than mine, my advice is to find an experienced instructor whose work speaks to you and flatter them through mimicry. But don't just recreate their finished work. That will teach you something, but not everything. Try and recreate their methods of work. Find some video of them working and study their posture, their hand holds, their rhythm. Stalk them like you're an F.B.I. profiler and they're the next Son of Sam. As your body and muscles learn you will begin to adapt what you see into your own style of work. When you find yourself naturally moving off the script, then you are headed into your own creative space, and that should be where you want to be.

I have stolen bits and pieces from a lot of different collaborators this far down my path but I can boil down the major influences into three people.

The first is pretty obvious. Peter Follansbee. When I first found his blog and saw his carvings I thought to myself, Now there's a guy who is carving exactly the things I want to carve and doing it the way I imagined it could be done. I started on my own with my first two chisels and following both Peter's words from his blog and some video people had shot of him demonstrating. I have to say in most things I find woodworking videos to be lacking but I cannot think of a different media that would translate the process of carving better than video. My first suggestion is you go out and buy Peter's video "17th Century New England Carving" This video solidified the basics that I was trying to learn. It taught me how to look at a pattern and break it up into the moves I needed to reproduce the work.

This video was very important to my initial development. After getting it the next steps were to start carving like a mad man. Practice Practice Practice so they say. Peter has a second video on "S" curves in work, I don't have that one - yet - so I can't speak to it per say, I'm positive it's just as excellent as his first, so if you want order both, but for sure order the first one.

Then after a while I was forced from my 17th century comfort zone. A client wanted something representing the ocean carved on the inside of a box. I struggled to find a solution until inspiration made me think of a shell. I had never carved a shell before but I knew where to go to get the help I needed. I went right to the teachings of Mary May. A fantastic woodcarver who has a lot of experience working and teaching. I first became aware of her watching an episode of The Woodwright's Shop where she carved an acanthus leaf for St. Roy. Since then I have found her blog and even more of her work. She is an inspiration for me at every turn.

She has DVD's for sale on her site, and even better, she's opened an online woodcarving school that you can attend anytime. She also has an article in the most recent Popular Woodworking Magazine on carving acanthus leaves on a bedpost. Even before this article conquering the acanthus was starting to become an obsessive thought for me. Now I'm going to have to stop studying and start cutting wood.

My last person is a carving hero to me because she is the master of a style I haven't managed to dive into yet, but do desperately long to. Kari Hultman writes her blog over at The Village Carpenter and besides being just a sweetheart of a person in general, she is an excellent chip carver. I haven't picked up a set of knives and tried it yet, (though I have been drooling over the ones Ron Hock has for sale) I've seen Kari do a great intro to chip carving video and I always like seeing her work. I have to admit, I'm not sure I would have considered chip carving if it wasn't for her.

So there are my inspirations and foundations - now go out and discover your own, they may surprise you. Next time we'll talk about inspiration and how I move through the carving process.

Ratione et Passionis

Saturday, August 18, 2012

My Take on Starting to Carve Part One

I think I might have said this before, but it bears repeating. One of the coolest things about writing this blog is the interaction it allows me with other woodworkers and like minded folks. Sometimes that interaction takes place in the comments area, sometimes on other social media sites, and sometimes via email.

Typically the emails are the most interesting because someone has a private comment or question about what I've done or what I think. The most intimidating emails come from woodworkers who are either beginning completely or are working to add a new skill to their bag of tricks.

Since I started my foray into carving around two years ago I would say I have fielded more questions on that subject than any other. Often the question is akin to "Where do I start?" I should add that I don't consider myself an expert, a master, or any other assumed title which should give me authority to answer any questions. I'm not published or recognized by anybody or entity which would provide me with any credibility, nor have I sought any of these things. I am mostly happy to be a man on my own island here.

So I try not to offer advice or instruction. Instead I try to relate my own experiences and path and offer that it has seemed to work for me. I try to first point out the resources that helped get me off the ground and then the places I stepped to go further. Over my next few posts I'm going to discuss the adventure of beginning carving from my perspective starting with getting your hands on some of the tools, followed by the instruction aids and teachers that helped, and continue to help me, and finally talking about how I go about finding and capturing inspiration for making my carvings.

The first step is simply starting. As a young man I aspired to write the great american novel, this lead to me reading many books on writing and the advice I remember best is that you have to remember books don't write themselves. There are a thousand people out there with a million great ideas for the next Great Gatsby, but only a small percentage of them will ever apply their posterior to a chair and their fingers to a keyboard and bang out even a crappy first draft.

Starting a new adventure like carving can be the same issue. I remember standing before the wall of Pfiel carving tools at the Woodcraft store in Madison and struggling to not give up in dismay over the multitude of choices. For my two cents you should start small, a V tools and a couple gouges of different depths of sweep. I started with two tools, a V and a shallowish gouge.

On his blog, Peter Follansbee offers a more specific suggestion of 5 good tools to start with. That advice is found HERE. (disclaimer: PF is a woodworking superhero IMHO, I drew, and continue to draw a ton of inspiration from him in terms of carving and woodworking, your individual mileage may vary, but you will hear me refer to him a lot as I write on this subject)

The important thing here is don't cheep out on the tools. At your nearest home center you will find a vacuum sealed package of plastic handled crap masquerading as carving tools shaped objects. Do not get fooled. The items contained in that package are barely fit to open paint can lids with. Do yourself a huge favor and spend a little extra time and money getting a small selection of quality tools from quality makers. Pfiel, Ashely Iles, Two Cherries are just a couple names that scratch the surface of good modern makers.

Living miles and miles away from a Woodcraft or other woodworking specialty store? Too far to make the drive? You won't go wrong online if you visit the Tools for Working Wood website ( The page for the carving tools they offer is HERE and if you need help getting the sizes to match something like Peter's suggestions I'm positive if you drop them a line you'll get the help you need.

You may also want to consider adding a round mallet if you don't have one already. Buy one or turn one yourself it doesn't matter, but this style mallet is perfect for the light percussion that sometimes accompanies carving.

Once you have your first few carving chisels take a little time to get to know them. Learn to sharpen them, I've always found Leonard Lee's book "The Complete Guide to Sharpening" to be a bible in these matters, but there is an equally good book written by sharpness guru Ron Hock called "The Perfect Edge" available on his site HERE.

Your collection will grow organically after you start. You can go one of two routes for this. You can carefully buy one gouge at a time based on experience and need or you can spend a little time searching eBay, antique stores, auctions, or estate sales and pick up a decent sized lot of tools collected together by someone previously. I chose to buy the slug of tools, twelve in a hinged box from the shelves of an area antique store. I appreciated this route because it gave me several tool options I might not have considered buying at first and now I find myself looking for different widths and sweeps of something I may never have bought alone.

Grab some scrap cut offs and go about making a few cuts. Trace a curvy line with a pencil and follow it with the V tool. As adults we often forget the importance of "play" give yourself an afternoon to rediscover the meaning of that word. Carving is like most other hand tool skills, it's a complementary relationship between the hands and the eyes. It takes some time and play to develop that relationship. like splitting the line to hand cut a dovetail, what starts as concentrated effort results in practiced confidence.

Next time I will talk about the sources I used to start "learning" to carve

Ratione et Passionis