Chris Schwarz's Blog

Success Isn’t at the Bookstore or the Museum

When my first book, “Workbenches: From Design & Theory to Construction & Use,” was released, I played a game that many first-time authors play. I looked for my book on the shelves of any bookstore I visited.

After a few years I gave up. I’ve never seen the book for sale anywhere except online. But I do have something else that I’ve decided is better: Hundreds (maybe thousands) of photos of workbenches that people built using the advice in the book.

Like many woodworkers, I fantasized about a piece of my furniture ending up on display in a museum. That, I thought, would mean that I am an able designer and craftsman – and that I have succeeded as a woodworker.

But a funny thing happened. I visit a lot of museums to see both the art and the furniture collections. A few years ago I got to visit the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to look at its collection of early American furniture, which is mostly behind glass. To my side was the curator of the collection, and when I asked him about how a piece was constructed or what a drawer looked like, he answered:

I don’t know. I’ve never been permitted to touch this piece.

At that moment I began to feel sorry for all the furniture pieces in all the museums. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, it wasn’t “real” furniture anymore because it wasn’t being touched, sat on or used. Sure, it was being preserved, which has value, but careful use and conservation can do the same thing (with most pieces) and allow the piece to maintain its dignity as a working piece.

Now, my greatest accomplishment as a furniture maker happens when I visit the home of a customer or friend who owns one of my pieces. One of my early commercial pieces – a Morris chair from the Shop of the Crafters shown in the above photo – is in several homes in Cincinnati, Lexington and Texas. When I visited the Lexington home once, I saw my chair sitting in the middle of the living room and it took me aback. It was worn. Scratched in places. And draped with the morning paper.

I couldn’t have been happier. That was when I knew I was an able builder.

— Christopher Schwarz

12 thoughts on “Success Isn’t at the Bookstore or the Museum

  1. onlyjustme

    Beautiful chair. It would fit right in my house!
    Any information on the candlestick holders in the background?

  2. Shawn Nichols

    Seeing my work in use is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Seeing them well-worn and well-loved has to be even better. Many of my pieces haven’t hit the that phase yet, but now I have something to look forward to. Thanks for sharing this Chris – great post.

  3. BaileyNo5

    I went through three different shop/workbench books before I bought yours. Stopped buying them after that, because I had found what I needed. The others were fine, they had lots of details about the benches and how to build them. But zip on a very important thing – why. Yours handled the “why’ quite well. It showed how to use the benches in a practical manner. So I built the Roubo 7 years ago and it’s served me very well. Also built a tool tote a few weeks ago using cut nails based on your recent nail articles. So thanks. Photos available if you need more for your collection….. 🙂

  4. re.koch

    Bought a copy of “Workbenches from Design & Theory to Construction and Use” in a small bookstore in Mendocino California last weekend. I think the College of the Redwoods in Fort Bragg may influence there woodworking book section.

    Thanks

    PS Hope you liked the mead I brought to the Lie Nielsen Open House last month.

  5. mbholden

    Ran into this at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The director of the American Wing worked with SAPFM to have an after hours showing of the 18th century furniture. To our surprise, HE could not touch the furniture! There is a department at the museum that are the sole people that can touch objects in the collection. They were willing to open drawers, take them out, etc. but no touching. Some things they refused to turn over leading to a picture of the director, in full suit an tie, lying on his back on the floor, while a SAPFM member used a flashlight to show him how a table was constructed. In a hopeful note, the new director of MESDA has written a book on how objects should be shown and handled and used for the benefit of the public even if it means wear and breakage. Maybe this attitude will eventually trickle down. Until then, trust museums only for how something looks and maybe the dimensions.

  6. Nancy Hiller

    Do not get me started on my two heart chair measuring trip. Here we had a century-old chair that had been stained, sat on, scratched, etc. In other words, used and enjoyed. Now it may only be touched by white-gloved fingers and acid-free tissue. Of course I get it. But this is furniture. It was made to be used!

  7. FerasGalpsi

    Hey Chris! You know Chapters in Canada carries your blue workbenches book, and it also carries your green workshop book 🙂

    Unfortunately it doesn’t cover your Lost Art Press books, but for that we have Lee Valley — and they do proudly present it in the shelves next to other woodworking titles. We’d love to have you north of the border again!

  8. thekiltedwoodworker

    “That was when I knew I was an able builder.”

    Hmmm… if your books help others to create furniture then maybe your are really an…
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    enable builder.

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