March 26, 2023


Digital Art Community

Making Book Part 12: Use What You Got

The longer I work on a book, the more difficult it is to keep it in focus. Ideas that first seemed obvious, easy, and compact become messy, sprawling and a bottomless pit of research and despair. 

For me, it’s helpful to devise a melody, incantation or psalm that’s the underpinning of the entire book. Then, if a thread of my research doesn’t align with the psalm or amplify it, I set it aside for another book or article.

Example: With “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest,” the melody was: “If it doesn’t fit in the chest, you probably don’t need it.” In other words, the chest is more than a box; it is a limit to the ridiculous tool purchases that beginners (and experts) make and regret. So though I love Millers Falls miter boxes, they were off-key notes for that book. You don’t need a miter box to build furniture. So I didn’t waste a lot of time trying to quantify what makes a great miter box.

For “The Stick Chair Book,” my recitation is “To build a stick chair, use whatever you’ve got.”

I wish someone had said that to me when I got interested in chairs in the 1990s. Instead, I heard: “To build a chair you need green wood, a froe, a steambox, a drawknife, a shavehorse, axe, hatchet, a travisher, an adze, lots of steambending forms, a lathe….”

The longer I build chairs, the fewer tools I use. Things that I used to do with chair devils or specialized shaves I now do with a block plane. I haven’t used a shavehorse in almost two years. Instead of a drawknife, I use a jack plane. 

For wood, I use whatever I can get my hands on easily and cheaply. If that’s kiln-dried red oak, that’s fine. If it’s bug-eaten ash that has been standing dead, I will somehow make that work, too. Bent branches from the river? Yup. I’ll use those.

It turns out that you can do a lot of wood bending with a heat gun. Or you can skip it and saw curves from solid chunks, and the chair will still last 100 years.

“To build a stick chair, use whatever you’ve got” came from studying old vernacular chairs. I’d look at them and ask, “Why did that nutter use that knotty piece of ash for the seat?” The answer that came back over and over: “Because that is what was at hand.”

Don’t get me wrong, I love good material. But you don’t need perfect stock to build a serviceable chair. Millions of chairs were made with wood that most of us would burn without a second thought.

The same recitation applies to tools. It’s easy to despair at the typical tool list for a chairmaking class. When I started building chairs, I didn’t have a scorp or travisher. How did I saddle seats? With a Red Devil paint scraper equipped with a blade I had ground to a curve. Chairmaker Chris Williams didn’t own a travisher until recently. He saddled his seats with a curved-bottom spokeshave.

This morning I started building a lowback chair using a trashy piece of ash. Knotty, split in one end and filled with bug holes (the bugs were killed in the kiln). After dressing the seat with a jack plane, it was uglier than when it was in the rough. 

“I should throw this in the firewood pile,” I said.

Then my head replied: “Use what you got.”

By the end of the day, the base of the chair was together, and I realized how fond I was of this ugly-ash piece of ash.

— Christopher Schwarz