Chris Schwarz's Blog

‘This Blather Would Not Pass a Sixth Grade Assignment’

This blather would not pass a sixth grade assignment to write a ‘theme’ on something. ‘Make me ill’ is hyperbolic and repulsive and means nothing, and ‘You owe it to yourself, the tree, and the whole of human history” is hyperbolic, stupid, and pompous. Its even punctuated incorrectly. I want a woodworking magazine and don’t want to hear from a woodworker who thinks his philosophical meanderings are interesting.
Guy M. Cooper
Dallas, Texas


Why Furniture Stores Make Me Ill
From the April 2011 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine

Poor Quality Furniture, Handmade Furniture, Tool ChestIn December I built a large traditional tool chest for my shop at home, and I couldn’t stop staring at the end grain of the wide pine planks I’d selected for the walls of the chest.

Though I work with wood every day, the annular rings of these boards – some of them 18″ wide – were mesmerizing. Before I cut the dovetails on one of the panels I stopped to count its annular rings, tracing the growth history of the tree for more than 20 years.

Before that board came into my hands, it had sat in a barn for at least 10 years. So when this tree was busy building the cells that would eventually become my tool chest, I was 12 years old and just learning to use a coping saw and hammer.

As I did this little bit of math, I put my dovetail saw down for a moment and tried to figure out what that meant. What other objects do we have in our houses that take so long to create?

When I visit tool-making factories, I am stunned by how rapidly things are manufactured. Once I watched an injection-molding machine make the nylon shell of a random-orbit sander. I then watched a machine wind the motor. I watched a couple workers assemble all the pieces. And at the end of the factory tour my host presented the sander to me as a gift.

That tool is a small miracle – a testament to human ingenuity and industriousness. But it is also a symptom of a chronic sickness that we have lived with for so long that we don’t even remember what life was like before we were infected and weak.

The ability to fulfill our desires in mere moments has cheapened our appreciation for the labor required to make anything. Because mass-manufacturing has made goods so inexpensive, we are willing to throw away once-permanent objects – such as furniture – when we grow tired of the way it looks.

So naturally manufacturers respond by making even cheaper goods that are designed to last
only a short time. Why build a bookcase to last 50 years when it will be kicked to the curb in five?

Honestly, I can’t live like that anymore. And I suspect that many woodworkers feel the same way, even if they don’t express it in the same way. By building things that are designed to outlast us, we make ourselves the last holdouts of a proud tradition of craft that stretches back to the beginning of civilization.

So when you pick up your saw and clamp up a board that is as old as you, try to make every stroke count. You owe it to yourself, the tree and the whole of human history.

— Christopher Schwarz

51 thoughts on “‘This Blather Would Not Pass a Sixth Grade Assignment’

  1. kar1205

    We know that the Texas State Flower is the Bluebonnet.
    We know also that the Texas State Bird is the Mockingbird.

    Hey Guy, does the Texas State furniture glue have an orange label with a picture of a gorilla on it?

    Hey Chris, there is great public service in blogging philosophical blather when that blather jogs just one soul from the urea formaldehyde induced stupor of his dusty shop!

  2. Adam CherubiniAdam Cherubini

    I’m with Guy. Bring on the MDF router table jigs and cordless drill reviews. I’ve had enough of Chris’ pompous “thoughtfulness”. When I pick up a woodworking magazine what I REALLY want to know is Jet or Grizzly?

    Adam

  3. tmc2300

    Chris, I thoroughly enjoyed your article. I recently became interested in furniture making after my wife and I were looking to purchase a bookcase from a furniture store. As I closely inspected the item I thought to myself, I could build this! So I began reading books, blogs and magazines about furniture making. Although I have yet to build that bookcase, the thought as you put it, “building things that are designed to outlast us,” is palpable.

  4. Jason

    I bet Guy even cuts his dovetails pins first.

    (With apologies to, among others, Chuckie B., Mr. Klausz, and Senior Editor Glen. Oops, there’s that extra comma…)

  5. bowyerch

    Reading this post, and the subsequent comments have been the highlight of my day. Sometimes I feel like the only person around that likes to get a little high minded about woodworking. And as a 25 year old woodworker, it often occurs to me that most, if not all the wood that I get my hands on, is in fact older than me. So when someone starts ranting in opposition for no other apparent reason than to be contrary, it irks me. And in reading these comments, I feel that I am not alone.

  6. Haifisch46

    Mr. Cooper is unforgivably rude.

    Earlier in my legal career, a battered old veteran of innumerable courtroom wars told me, “Never intentionally make an enemy, because you’ll make more than enough of them along the way without ever intending to do so.”

    Some of the best advice I ever received (I know, I know, that’s a sentence fragment, Mr. Cooper)…

    I don’t read Chris Schwartz’s and the Popular Woodworking editors’ blogs for plans, projects, or techniques. I read them because they provide me with context and because they’re fun to read.

    Now for the important part: Chris, I know exactly what you mean, and I couldn’t agree more. That’s exactly why I love to make things out of wood and metal. And I also find this throw-away world wearying.

    It may be blather, but much of the pleasure I derive from woodworking is simply an appreciation of the wood itself – its infinite variety, its feel, its aroma, the delight I feel shaping it into something useful.

    George Nakashima wrote about “The Soul of a Tree,” and he was dead on right. I have a friend who has a bench made from an Iowa Methodist Church pew which was handmade in the 1840’s and, even after a century and a half, you can still see the adz marks which created its surfaces. It’s impossible to sit on it and not think about the generations of Iowa worshippers who sat there before, and of the innumerable baptisms, weddings and funerals they witnessed.

    That wood is positively alive, and if you can’t understand that, if you can’t feel that, you have no soul and of course you can’t understand what Chris was writing about. Even metalworkers are in love with their materials – asking anyone who’s machined 4140 steel (my personal favorite, by the way).

    When we make things by hand, we impart something of ourselves to them in a way that’s rarely matched by a mass produced item, and nothing’s more important in this impersonal binary age. I have two ancient Alfa Romeos which, frankly, drive me crazy, because something’s always going wrong with them, but which I’ll never sell because they are the last of the purely mechanical automobiles – no semiconductors anywhere. When you get behind the wheel in one of these cars, you can smell the exhaust fumes, the hot oil, the sickly-sweet odor of hot antifreeze and suddenly you’re transported to a twisting road in the Italian Alps and the world disappears and you’re suffused with joy. Those cars, for all their faults, have soul, and they were made by people who loved to drive and who managed to translate that love into steel and leather and rubber.

    I know, Mr. Cooper, that’s all blather, and silly blather at that.

    But every single bit of it is true, and it’s why I love to work with my hands, why I love to shape wood, and steel, and fix old cars – it makes me happy, and brings me joy in a way that things in the rest of my life rarely do.

    I also happen to be interested in hearing from “a woodworker who thinks his philosophical meanderings are interesting.”

    P.S. Chris, what’s the problem with young men in Cincinnati? Megan Fitzpatrick should have to carry a softball bat everywhere to keep her innumerable suitors away. A red haired, freckled Irishwoman who loves woodwork and Shakespeare and early modern drama? That’s much too good to be true. I’m way too old to be her beau but I wish she was my daughter!

  7. commajockey

    I wonder if Mr. Cooper caught the irony in the sentence, “Its even punctuated incorrectly.” Probably not. I’m guessing he missed that part of 6th grade.

  8. David Myers

    Chris, I have no doubt my 6th grade English teacher (Mrs. Shaver) would have given you high marks for this piece. Frankly, I think it would pass muster all the way through my freshman English Comp professor as well.

    Now the notion that Mr. Cooper’s opinions are in some way a function or reflection of his state of residence is in fact a pile of of Bevo droppings. *This* Dallas resident subcribes to PW and frequents this blog specifically for the types of pieces written above in addition to the finest woodworking written instruction currently available. And there are many likeminded souls tucked away here between the Red, Sabine, and Rio Grande.

    So Chris and gang keep it up. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go wash my newly delivered “Divide and Conquer” shirt.

  9. jimbotheconflictor

    Sounds pretty rude to me. If a person wants to disagree they should do it respectfully.
    At any rate, a philosophical bent in a woodworking article is certainly not worth the vitriol. If you don’t like it, don’t read it.

  10. Mark

    I’d like to respond to Greg’s comment that manufacturer’s and retailers were simply filling a need. From a certain perspective, I can see how you might come to that conclusion but I don’t think it goes far enough. To take that view imply’s that customers somehow preferred inferior products that fell apart or didn’t perform as advertised. More likely, competition for a share of the tool market, as commonly happens, comes down to a price war and how to manufacture at the lowest costs. There’s always a segment of any market where price will take precedence over quality. Also, when tool quality and workmanship started going down hill in the past, many bemoaned their favorite brands “not being what they used to be”, and settled for what they could get. Sure, complaints were made but, back to the manufacturer’s side of the fence, I think those complaints either fell on deaf ears or those that heard them simply felt it wasn’t cost effective do meet those demands. Well, now we’ve come full circle in a time where the price of almost everything has gone up and the idea of having to throw something away that perhaps should have lasted a lifetime, is no longer acceptable to many. Either way you look at things, we live in an age of limited and costly resources. There’s always a place for entry level products, be it a side table or a chisel; but I hope that the time has come when the demand for quality and durability will no longer be simply written off by producers and not so readily deemed as too costly by consumers.

  11. funkyspacecowboy

    Chris,

    The reason why this is the only woodworking magazine I subscribe to is because of the philosophy and history interwoven in the articles and blog posts. That’s important to me because it helps me to understand not just how to build but why we build the way we do and why we build at all.

    Keep doing what you’re doing, I wouldn’t enjoy a magazine written by or for this Guy from Dallas.

    Cheers,

    Josh

  12. GregM

    Since Chris obviously intended this to be opened up for debate, here goes …

    To be completely pedantic about it, Mr. Cooper is correct on several points. Both of the quotes mentioned are indeed examples of hyperbole (deliberate exaggeration) and the use of a serial comma in the second quote does violate stylistic rules because it introduces the ambiguity that “yourself” [the reader] and “the tree” may in fact be one and the same thing. “Repulsive”, “means nothing”, “stupid” and “pompous” are the commenter’s own (hyperbolic) opinions, to which he is entitled.

    I do not subscribe to woodworking magazines for their philosophical content, but if it is present I am not offended by it and certainly would not feel the need to complain to the editor. The editorial column and back page in particular are entirely appropriate and unsurprising places to find musings beyond the merely technical.

    On a side note, was anyone else struck by the irony of an article bemoaning impermanence and instant gratification being (re)posted on an Internet blog? More seriously, although Chris’ views on this matter are close to my own, I disagree with him placing the blame on the manufacturers and retailers. They are merely filling a demand, not creating it. It is we the consumers who must vote with our dollars to change this cycle.

  13. Seamus

    You can’t please everyone
    nor should you try.

    The ONLY reason I come here
    or read the magazine is because
    of the writing of Mr. Schwarz.
    I can’t abide disrespect for trees.
    Mr. Underhill expressed it quite well
    in the dedication to Eclectic Workshop
    when he wrote

    “”My humble thanks go to the pine, oak, hickory,
    poplar, walnut, cherry, dogwood and walnut trees
    that lost their lives to make this book possible.
    Someday my bones will help your descendants.
    Till then, thanks for the air, and good luck.”

  14. NHSchreiner

    I agree completely with you Chris, that is why we have been using some recycled lumber from the Pandora Sweater Factory that was recently renovated. The Longleaf Pine was harvested 159 years ago to build this factory. According to Wikipedia this lumber was 100-150 years old at harvest time. I have not taken the time to count the rings (my eye sight is not that good). I am building small pieces of furniture with the material and it is a pleasure to work with and smell. Take a look for yourself http://nhschreiner.wordpress.com/.

  15. CessnapilotBarry

    Blather on!

    I wonder if Mr. Cooper has ever paused to think of how his food got to his plate?

    Even in these “tough” times, we definitely live in an age of ease. Reflection is a good thing…

  16. godet

    Funny how different people can react. This very post stuck with me…one of the lines resonated with me so much that I reposted it on Facebook (“The ability to fulfill our desires in mere moments has cheapened our appreciation for the labor required to make anything”). The discussion about the age and the life of the wood motivated me to finally pick up _Understanding Wood_…
    I’m kinda glad this guy reacted so strongly because it gave me a chance to re-read this post.

    Oh, Guy, perhaps this was meant to be funny, but your line “Its even punctuated incorrectly” actually contains a grammar mistake. “It is” should be contracted into ‘it’s'; when used as a possessive pronoun, it is spelled ‘its.’ To remember this, you can think of other possessive pronouns such as his and hers, which also do not use the apostrophe.

  17. 43yearsateacher

    Please be advised that, for better or worse, Dallas (and most of Texas) is somewhat to right of Gengis Khan. These conservatives are characterized by a lack of empathy, and the inability to perceive things from another’s viewpoint.

    I understood where you were coming from, and after reading your comments to my wife, an English Language Arts teacher (retired…25 years of service…student’s test scores typically in the 90th percentile) she responded quite favorably to both content and technique.

    I’ve said all that to say this…your work and opinions are of great value to your readers. Your work is much admired.

    By the way, 31 of those 43 years of teaching were done in a public school wood shop…teaching hand tool woodworking for the most part.

    1. JV Sullivan

      43yearsateacher must have been a real gem in the classroom, given the prejudices he displays in his comments (of course, he hides behind a pseudonym to make them).

      For the record, I live in Dallas, I am a conservative, and I like Chris’ post.

      Joe (my real name)

  18. timbot

    Perhaps this particular article is too wordy for this gentleman. Let’s get rid of those unnecessary conjunctions, adverbs, and all those paragraphs. Let us reduce it to its most primal of states: Get wood. Cut wood. Plane wood. Connect wood. Look wood. Oh what the hell, let’s change up our structure. Wood good.

    As for your writing style, Chris: yours is my absolute favorite. Period. Or is it comma? Your writing style is amazing, and I feel that it breathes life into what can be a very dry subject. I’ll always be a faithful reader.

    As for Guy, well, all I can truly say is…..

    Relax guy!

  19. rmcnabb

    OK, maybe “the whole of human history” is too much, but I understand what you meant. I like your writing style and your work is valuable and original. I think it strides right along the line between silly navel gazing wood worship and cold Teutonic instructions. You and Adam Cherubini pretty much have it right. You both carry the flag that Roy Underhill picked up out of the dust.

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