Writing the Arts & Mysteries Column - Popular Woodworking Magazine

Writing the Arts & Mysteries Column

 In Arts & Mysteries Blog, Woodworking Blogs

Arts and Mysteries began when Popular Woodworking’s editor Chris Schwarz, asked me if I was interested in writing an article for an existing column on hand tool usage called “From the Bench”. Before the first article went to print, Chris had created a monster; a new column with its own name, and a distinctive identity, unlike any previous woodworking column.

Arts & Mysteries was the first regular column about period woodworking in a national woodworking magazine. It was the first column to link a whole year of articles into a single narrative theme. It was also the first time the true subject of each article was purposely concealed in an attempt to get woodworkers to think about woodworking like archeologists think about artifacts they find. The goal was to offer readers the joy of making their own discoveries.

These articles were difficult to write and edit. Each article was essentially two articles. Serious questions were raised whether woodworkers would “get it” or enjoy the format. I never really found out the answer. The format was abandoned for year two because it was too restrictive for the subject matter.

I’m beginning my third year of writing articles for Popular Woodworking’s readers. We’re struggling to put together a series of articles that will trump all before them. In these articles, we’ll explore a hand tool project in never before seen depth. You can expect these articles to be every bit as fresh and unprecedented as the first A&M article (striking knife mystery).

But such a claim can be viewed in two different lights. On one hand is the sort of boasting you’ve been reading above (are you feeling had yet?). The other hand is quite a bit darker actually. I have my choice of subject matter because in so many instances, no one has ever written these things down. I think that’s a sad reflection on all of us. I can’t think of another hobby or trade that has retained so little of its traditions and history. That the Arts and Mysteries column is fresh and unprecedented and has a seemingly endless supply of new topics to cover is absolutely nothing to brag about.

– Adam Cherubini

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Showing 12 comments
  • Andy Parmley

    Hi Adam- loved your arts and mysteries column- glad you started this blog so we could comment.My love for hand tools started with acquiring a 1944 stanley #6 and a 1905 Stanley #8 joiner plane- I really enjoy taking rough cut stuff to straight and true lumber-After reading your articles I have started to use a striking knife and a rip saw- which I purchased based on your advice- just as long as my arm- I like the way it is easy to sharpen- very practical- not so comfortable sharpening my crosscut saw- I am really looking forward to this years article on the dresser- thanks for all the articles – I’ve kept every one- keep up the good work

  • James Mittlefehldt

    If the comments are any indication you seem to have a very thoughtful audience. I have a handtool shop and the reason I started down that road in the first place was my own personal research. ie ho9w did tose old guys do that stuff. While I do not claim any resemblnce to the older craftsman I have learned a lot over the last few years. I have read you r column religiously ever since I first discovered it and buy the magazine primarily for it.

    I look forward to this year’s articles and would like to wish you the best of luck and fortune. Keep up the good work.

  • Karl Rookey

    One of the things I love about Arts & Mysteries (which is a big reason I just subscribed to Popular Woodworking) is that I never wonder if you are trying to sell me something. I’ve found many of the other magazines (notably Fine Woodworking) have moved toward what appears to be a product placment model: 15 power drills compared, Finding the best router bits, etc. Your articles are about improving my ability to think and perform as a woodworker: there’s a reason to read them and it isn’t "Which X should I buy" which deserves a paragraph at most.

  • Tom Baker

    Your Arts & Mysteries articles have been very interesting reading for me, as I find much more satisfaction in the use of hand tools over power tools, particularly any older tools I happen to chance upon in "antique" shops. It appears to me that creating something beautiful & useful by hand requires more craftsmanship, and provides more of a sense of satisfaction, than being able to set a machine to do the job for me.
    I’m looking forward to this year’s series of articles as a way to help me improve my skills. Thanks for the insights.

  • Jerry Palmer

    I have long loved the styles of furniture from the 17th and 18th Century. To me they epitomize the ideals of form and function, something often lacking in today’s artistic furniture.

    I, too, have some difficulty sticking to plans, and even when setting out to follow a particular one from measured drawings and plans of an historical piece, find myself adlibbing and "improving" on the old design. For that reason I was thrilled to read the Feb 07 article on designing as you go. It makes great sense for those old time craftsman to have relied on practices they were used to, not some universal set of rules, as far as the mechanics for holding the pieces together and spent their efforts on the design of the piece, that the piece had eye appeal while serving its function. I’m looking forward to the rest of the articles in this series even more-so than I did the initial ones.

  • Eric Johnson

    Hello Adam,

    Just a quick note to let you know how much I enjoy your articles. I build furniture professionally and rely on my power tools quite heavily. When I first started building furniture I couldn’t use any hand tools very well. As experience came I found that many times I would rather grab a plane or rasp or chisel to do the job as opposed to turning on a loud power tool. I find that your articles encourage me to continue on this course.

    Thank you and keep up the good work. I look forward to reading your next article.

    Eric Johnson

  • Charles Mullins

    I was really interested in the design of period furniture in the Feb. 2007 issue. I have been trying to improve my designing of funiture. I eargerly wait for more articles of this nature.

    I would like to get more detail about the column orders in design. This seems to be an area that I can use with great benefit.


    Charles Mullins

  • Jim Crammond


    I especially enjoyed this month’s column. I think you are correct that the design side of projects has been virtually ignored by both the mainstream woodworking press and related literture. Since you posted about classical design years ago on Oldtools, I have been half-heartedly trying to research the topic. I have found that you have to go back to original sources to find any information, so to read about your opinions on the matter was enlightening. Your eye is much better for finding the correlations to column orders in examples of furniture than mine is.

    I’m looking forward to the whole year in Arts and Mysteries.

    Jim Crammond

  • Michael Knox

    As a person passionate about history, an expressive, underachieving writer, a student of engineering, and an aspiring, up-and-coming, forced-to-work-a-real-job woodworker, I cannot express my delight at happening upon your February Arts & Mysteries article. Last year, I was blessed enough to move into a new home and gain the accompanying financial windfall produced by the sale of my prior home that afforded me not only a 633-square-foot workshop, but a small fortune in tools and equipment to establish my first real space for the woodworking endeavors I have longed for. Since that time, I have struggled to merge my sense of history, my understanding of engineering, and my ever-growing desire to work with my hands with my love of wood. I have struggled with this merger because I have found it profoundly difficult to acquire literature for the modern woodworker that really incorporates a strong sense of history and design. To my delight and great fortune, I have just read your article, "The Soul and Basis of Our Art", and for the first time the pieces are falling into place. Though my shop is predominately stocked with machine tools, I have made certain to set aside a least a little room in the shop and in my budget for cherishing the hand tools I do have and acquiring those I hope to have one day. I am certain that your continued column will bring a sense of design and simplicity to my work. Please keep up the good work and continue to steer those of us so inclined away from the world of Walmart woodworking.

  • Larry Gelder


    I really looking forward to your articles. I am interested in hand tool ww, but need help (push) with actual projects; therefore, I’m eager to see the 07 articles.

  • Andrew H.

    Hi Adam,
    I just read the article about design in the Feb 07 PW, and it pointed me to your new blog. This looks great — I’m really looking forward to it. Loved the theory of drawer spacing and looking forward to looking at museum pieces in a new (for me) light.
    Cheers, and a happy glide into the New Year,

  • Terry Brogan

    Hi Adam.
    In some of my earlier lives, before this past decade which I spent being an apprentice joiner (questionable whether any money-making shop would hire me, or keep me, but we’ll let that pass) in the few hours per week I have around my real job, I spent a decade being a sneior editor for a major publishing house on the East Coast. I built books with upwards of 500 contributors, in some cases. I say this not to puff myself up, but just as a preamble to suggest that I can tell the difference between (a) writers with something to say and writers who think they’re simply being paid by the word; and (b) writers who can write and other humble, serious, and virtuous people who may have many skills for handwork or design or finishing or all of the above, but no special capacity to write. Your articles are, hands down, the most intelligent and most sophisticated pieces I’ve seen in any of the eleven or twelve woodworking journals I read regularly in the past decade, maybe two. I don’t say that lightly; in my earlier posts, in life, people thought me a pretty steady critic of work that wasn’t up to snuff. The quality of your thought runs deeper than anything else I’ve read, and I’ve read just about everything. I admire your work. I always turn to it thinking, you need to have a clear head for this, it isn’t the ususal fluff. Don’t let it go to your head. Just keep doing it. And forward this note to your Editor, and tell him other folks think you deserve a raise. Whatever they’re paying you, it isn’t enough.

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