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Two Welsh stick chairs I built in 2011. Though they look “smooth,” they are literally covered in tool marks.

At one of the woodworking schools where I teach there is a quote hanging on the wall that has always bugged me a bit. I’ll paraphrase it:

In 100 years, people will only care WHAT you did, not HOW you did it.

Whenever I read that quote, all I can think about what the first time I visited the unrestored Whitewater Shaker village several years ago. The curators were kind enough to give the staff of Popular Woodworking a tour of the buildings and the furniture.

So Glen Huey, Bob Lang and I were looking at a Shaker blanket chest in one corner and one of us lifted the lid. The first thing Glen did was to run his hand down the inside front wall of the chest. He smiled when he felt the scallops left behind from the maker’s handplane.

“I always do that,” he said.

As I’ve said before here on this blog, everything we make is completely covered in tool marks. Your handplane leaves a discernable mark, as does a random-orbital sander. An HVLP system leaves a tool mark – a perfect film finish. Rottenstone? Toolmark. A brown paper bag? Ditto.

Furniture is more than just a form, more than tight joints, more than beautiful wood. It is also texture, and that texture is not always glass smooth. I love the wave-like fore plane marks on the undersides of drawers, on backs and under tabletops. I like them more than a flawless tabletop.

When I sit in a handmade chair, I feel under the arms for marks from a gouge or a chisel. When I find the mark of a person, I like the chair more.

Of course, there are idiots who take this all too far. They beat up their furniture with bicycle chains and attack it with a Dremel, pretending to be a wood-crazed worm. They bury the furniture in dung or dirt and burn it with torches.

You might like this. I am indifferent to it.

I like furniture that says: I made this piece of furniture with a certain set of tools. I made it look as good as I could with those tools. No fakery. And no imitating a CNC machine.

If you think I am pooping on flawless perfection, you aren’t quite following my point here. If you like that texture, then go for it. But realize that seamless and smooth isn’t the apogee of craftsmanship. It is just one of them.

— Christopher Schwarz

If you like texture, no one has more than Roy Underhill. His show, “The Woodwright’s Shop,” celebrates the marks left behind by our tools. And no one carries more Roy Underhill videos and books than You can see it all here.

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Showing 12 comments
  • msiemsen

    In 100 years most people won’t give a shit, same as today.

  • colleystudio

    Simple, beautiful.

  • pmcgee

    Chris even left the tool-marks in his text.

    (all I can think about what the first time I visited) :p

  • RMon

    Chris a know exactly what you mean! I do the same thing too. I came across an old blanket chest awhile back that a friend was probably going to throw out. When I ran my hand across all those gentle scallops on the inside of this chest it was like a lightning bolt hit me. I felt a connection with the person who built it, the closer I looked at it the more details were revealed. Under the crusty finish were super tight dovetails, on the bottom boards were cut nails, even the hinges for the lid have great character. I loved it so much that I repurposed it into a tool chest, I think that the original maker might even approve. I get these same feelings about tools that I fix up to use, its hard to explain to people who don’t share the passion.

  • wood_chippie

    Direct to the point, as it were. I prefer the handtool marks on my work, especially if it’s in an out of sight area to remind me what effort and time I put in the work the good old fashioned way.

  • jte9999

    Like nicks in fine leather, proof of its’ authenticity.

  • rellison

    Sometimes the greatest challenge is to help others truly understand the whisper of a thin shaving slipping up from the plane rather than the screaming of the planer. They acknowledge and start to approach, but eyes glaze over and they retreat.

  • BLZeebub

    For me it’s one of noise or the lack thereof. A sharp tool in hand, some sweet maho or cherry giving way to my intentions and Beethoven or Mahler on the tunes and I’m a happy guy. I’d rather brush off shavings than sawdust any day.

  • bbrown

    Not exactly related but I came across this today and thought folks might enjoy a little philosophical angle on old tools……….

    –Wm Brown
    Forest, VA

  • Eric R

    It’s a shame that more people don’t understand that.

  • tsangell

    As good as I can. No fakery.

    Right on.


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