Chris Schwarz's Blog

Time to Grow Up

“Now,” said John, “we will put the work away for today.”

“Why, I am not tired,” said Benny.

“Neither am I,” said John; “but uncle Edward said, that, if we meant to make a good job of it, we must always leave off our work before we began to get tired.”

This was excellent advice; for the work of this kind that boys do after they begin to get tired is almost always badly done.

— “John Gay; Or, Work for Boys: Work for Summer,” by Jacob Abbot (1864)


This week I’m deep into building a small table for Popular Woodworking Magazine that is from the forthcoming book “Furniture in the Southern Style.” Definitely pre-order this book if you have an extra $20 lying about. This will be a landmark title. Seriously.

I first encountered this table while visiting the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts last February. The table is thought to be an early 18th-century (1710-1725) example from Charleston, S.C. I fell for the table the minute I saw it.

It has a lot of early touches, such as the stretchers at the floor and the way the top is attached to the base-pegs. But the table also has a lightness, grace and loads of detail.

It also is made from cypress.

Here in Kentucky, I can get cypress if I look around a bit. And wanting to be authentic, I found some 8/4 and 4/4 cypress for the table this summer and set it aside.

Now I’ve worked with cypress before, but I’ve never turned the stuff. I expected to be a little splintery, but nothing too bad. So when I made up the four legs for the table I roughed out two extras – just in case things went to heck on the lathe.

As it turns out, cypress is murder on the lathe. While turning the long vase shape on the legs, my skew grabbed a section of earlywood, ripped it off the the leg and threw it across the shop. I shrugged my shoulders and chucked up another leg on the lathe.

This time I ripped the bead off the leg with a spindle gouge.

At this point I thought about giving up for the day, but I’ve also been reading the “John Gay” series of books (thanks Jeff Burks!) and the lessons in these books have been sticking deep in my craw.

The “John Gay; Or, Work for Boys” books are four separate titles, one for each season of the year. In the books, John and his brother, Benny, have lots of little adventures. And almost all of them are about building something, usually out of wood.

Every chapter has a lesson for a young boy about life, it could be about the importance of contracts, how to ask advice of your elders, or how to saw – a good deal of the books are about woodworking.

But the over-arching lessons in the books are about patience and planning your work. Every time John sets out on a project, most of the advice he gets is on time-management. He is told to set small, manageable goals for every day in the shop. And when he meets his goal he should stop work, even if he really wants to continue.

I’ve felt these lessons seep into my own work on this table. I’m not on a crushing deadline (for once), and so I am allowing my pace to be governed every day by small goals. Break down the stock. Surface the stock. Cut everything to size. Turn two test legs. Turn all four legs.

It’s a different way to work. Usually, I try to get as much done in four hours of shop time as possible. I finished these four legs at 4 p.m. and still had an hour before I needed to start cooking dinner. I put the legs aside, came upstairs and read another few chapters of “John Gay.”

The John Gay books are available in Google Books, though I prefer the printed editions.

Work for Autumn

Work for Winter

Work for Spring

Work for Summer

— Christopher Schwarz

19 thoughts on “Time to Grow Up

  1. Jasperfenton

    Dear Chris,

    I’m building the Charleston Table of Alder, since I have some good, large pieces of it on hand. Everything has gone beautifully until I began to turn the legs. I’ve already cut the mortises, dry fitted the tenons, created the details with my hollows and rounds… but my first leg looks awful. My tools are sharp but I’m getting so much tear out that even sanding with 80 grit doesn’t solve the problem. Is alder just too soft to turn? I’ve read that oiling the piece helps…

    Any suggestions or advice?

    Thank you,
    Jim M.
    (Jimbo’s Mediocre Woodworking)

  2. David Keller

    Chris – You should buy and watch Alan Lacer’s “The Skew Chisel: The Dark Side and The Sweet Side”. In it, he shows a method for driving work at a lathe that makes catches a distantly-remembered problem that no longer exists. It radically changed my experience on the lathe – I used to hate spindle turning. Now it’s a joy.

  3. robert

    The thought may be anathema, but engineers of all kinds have always broken big projects down into manageable chunks. As to stopping before becoming tired – well yeah – otherwise you will have no energy to be truly engaged in anything else. Good cooking demands attention.

  4. mcundall

    Chris,

    If you are interested and want to know a guy who works nearly all in cypress, check out

    http://www.olivier-ww.com/default.asp.

    George is a great old guy, knows quite a bit about design and might even make a good interview. He has got some backwoods crazy ways of doing things, but he turns cypress all the time and could help. He is also pretty knowledgeable on Prudence Mallard. Anyhow, hope this is of interest.

    Did you ever get to writing about the skew angle block plane?

  5. schenher

    I just stated reading the Jacob Abbott books. Very interesting reading. Lots of little bits of information in there, well worth the time. When I get done with the 4 vol series I am going to read “The Boy’s Own Workshop: Or The Young Carpenters” (1866) by Abbott. This book is also on google. I too plan on buying the paper copies before they all disappear.

    1. Jeff Burks

      The Boy’s Own Workshop is actually the same material. Abbott republished the carpentry related chapters of the 4 volume John Gay series as a separate book. If you read the original series, there are chapters about sledding, and maple syrup, and various daily adventures for children. There are actually 12 books in the series. 4 volumes each of Work for Boys, Work with Girls, and Play for Boys.

        1. Jeff Burks

          I read them in the local public library when I was a kid. They had all of the Abbott series for children, such as the Rollo books and Jonas on a farm etc.

          I’m sure the stock of used editions of John Gay will be exhausted by early this week. Perhaps the readers of this blog should then begin a campaign to have the titles reprinted. I know this guy, who just happens to have a 10 year old apprentice, and a book company, and some writing experience… He might be suited to produce a reprint with annotations and comments on his own experience teaching the art and mystery of woodworking.

            1. LanceG

              Can The Schwarz “schwarz” himself? Just think, he recommends a book, supply evaporates, prices soar, and the mop proceeds to demand he reprints the book at Google Books prices! (well ok, at lost art press prices)

              OTOH, I love Google Books. Prefer paper, but my ipad does the job in a pinch. I’ve probably got 2yrs of free, old woodworking reading on that thing. And, of course, now the digital version of ATC. Thanks, Chris, for braving the digital pirates and offering us the poor mans ATC!

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