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Dan's blue bin of tools

This is what I’m starting with.

When it has been several months coming, and the rectangular outline of a new full-time job’s first paycheck is appearing on the horizon, every man gets ideas. I don’t know about you, but I had only one thought last month, when I was in that position: tools.

The most logical – if not the most thrilling – starting point in my search was the blue plastic bin of tools that has survived my four state-to-state moves during the last seven years. I took inventory: four pneumatics, one corded drill, one cordless drill and one good router. Not much else. No clamps. No respectable calorie-powered tools (I’ve never had many respectable ones, unfortunately). No combination square, which surprised me because I don’t misplace things very often, and there’s no reason to get rid of a 6″ square. Bummer.

Next stop: the home center, where I discovered the usual, mostly disappointing array of “tool-shaped objects” (a Christopher Schwarz term I would learn a few weeks later). In addition to a decent combination square, I thought I might find a Black & Decker Workmate 225 – one of the few great shop appliances that have outlasted the transition to big box stores – but the little bench wasn’t in stock. I placed a drop-ship order, then browsed the clamp aisle on my way out, picking up a reasonably priced packaged set with some useful sizes.

I got a fair price on these.

I got a fair price on these.

They say you can never have too many clamps, and sure enough, the first tempting ad I found on Craigslist was for a stack of Jorgensen handscrews in 10” and 14” sizes. I rode over to Gloucester, Massachusetts, last weekend to pick those up.

Riding back toward Boston, I eyed the fuel gauge. Almost empty. Fifty bucks. I eyed the odometer. Nearing 130,000 miles. Must start saving for the next vehicle. I thought about the sort of slapdash independence I’ve cobbled together in the first decade of adulthood, and wondered if that was going to be good enough for the next 50 years. Probably not.

When I returned to the apartment, I popped a Chris Schwarz video into the DVD player – education like this being a nice perk of the new job. I was surprised. I had thought this guy was cantankerous. He seems like someone I’d want to meet, actually. He sympathizes with his audience, and offers clear advice on a range of hand tools. He talks about functional independence in a way that I understand.

I caught up with Chris yesterday on the phone, and I was just as impressed. We spoke about his book and DVD, “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest,” and he was frank about the motivation for each part of the work. The tool chest itself? The idea started as a “literary conceit.” He hadn’t expected anyone to actually build one. Yet they did, and more do every day. What about the other part of the title, “Anarchist’s?” It’s not about governments or punk kids. It’s about “the process of becoming independent.” The short list of 40 or 50 essential tools may be partly about the rejection of the other four or five hundred, but it’s mainly about taking complete ownership of the short list, and learning everything there is to know about it.

There’s more to the conversation, but it will have to wait for a future blog post. For one thing, I’d like to get to know Chris and his work in more detail before I write too many words. You should get to know his work better, too. If you haven’t done so already, go buy the book, the DVD or both (discounted as a set), especially if you need some guidance on tool-buying. And if you’re already using the tools on Chris’ list, tell us about that experience by commenting below. I’ll be there commenting back, unless I’m out somewhere spending my paycheck – sensibly, of course.

Dan Farnbach

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Showing 18 comments
  • frinkkenneth

    I fully agree with the premise. I’ve done woodworking for many years. Earlier in my life working with hand tools was a matter of economic necessity. That doesn’t mean that I wasn’t one of those who didn’t covet every lastest wizband power tool that was on the market. I did! I was definietly a consumer and I’m sure that contributed significantly to our GMP. As young people our values are different. It’s about establishing ourselves as beening independent of your parents and rejecting some of what we’ve been taught. Many of us were more acceptant of or grandparents than we were our own parents. This was frequently due to the fact that was enough generational difference that we didn’t feel that our grandparents had an agenda and that our parents did. We felt unconditional love from or grandparents but felt at the time our parents love was conditional.
    As a teenager our family was living overseas (American Foriegn Aide program) and to a large extent I was left to my own devices. At that time the British were best in the world in acoustic research and high quality audio reproduction, even prior to WW2. I read eveything I could get my hands on about acoustic theory and sound reproduction. I had always enjoyed high quality music reproduction live or recorded. I also began to realize that very basic woodworking skills would be necessary and good quality joints would necessary to create and airtight speaker enclosure. I also realized that internal bracing in these enclosures would be mandatory, not so much for strength as for raising the resonant frequency of the cabinet and minimizing standing waves and harmonics within the cabinet. I had no power tools at my disposal. I also had no clamps. My father had brought basic tools with us overseas (hammers, saws, planes, chisels, grinding stones, tape measures, gardening tools etc). I had access to hemp rope, probably enough to begin a low level assault of Everest. I also had access to some of the most beautiful woods in the world. At that time metal container shipping was just beginning and most of the non-comodity shipping was done in huge wooden crates. Some would be deemed not worth the time time to repair for reuse and they might be used for firewood. They included african mahongany, teakwood, rosewood, phillipine mahogany, english walnut and many others. I had been taught an appreciation for beautiful woods at an early age and how to identify them. I had also been taught an appreciation beautifully designed, crafted and asethically pleasing furniture. This appreciation what not so much by period or country of origin or monetary value but by the skill of the artesan that created it. There was another value as well. What were working conditions where & when it was created. Was were the politiics at the time in the location where it was created. It was a world history lesson through wood, colonial, precolonial, Islamic design, Afircan design, early Christain, Roman, Greek, Egypian and Chinese. My father was a world history buff and saw everything in that context, sometimes to my disgust.
    Anyway, I am diverting from the main topic and I apologize. Because I had an appreciation of good quality wood and had free access to it how could I create veneers for my speaker cabinets from these woods. I decided to make my own bow saw. Which I did. I would cut the veneers the bow saw, handplane the surface of the plank and then make another very thin cut and I had a piece of veneer. One side was well planed and the other side was still rough. I would glue the planed side to a substrate, weight it and wait for it to dry. Then I would carefully plane the exposed side and sand out any imperfections. Each side of enclosure was done by repeating this process. Then I wood hand cut the corner joints, glue and assemble. To get the enclosure to be airtight, I would use multiple pieces of hemp rope and twist each with a stick, thus compressing all the sides at the same time and creating an airthight enclosure. Am I being nostalgic? Possibly. But it’s the pride in the workmanship, the creative process, being inventive and the recognition that handtools, yet so basic, are truly the versitile. You are only limited by effort, skill, imagination and acceptance that you want to do.
    Its also wise to understand that none of us know it all. I would also recommend that you truly learn to appreciate those that done this ethos of woodworking that have gone before us.
    Dan, While Chris maybe cantankerous occasionally or is I our perspective? A man who is honest and direct about himself and we misunderstand that. Remember, he is a master in extremely high demand. His schedule must be exausting. He has to earn a living, juggle many other personalities, occasionally say NO and mean it to retain some semblance of sanity. It’s not that he doesn’t want to share his wealth of knowledge, I suspect the issue is when. I see you progressing in your woodworking career and some time in future reaching same point. It’s not arrogance or ego. It’s time. As we get older, we begin we don’t have all the time in the world and we recognize what we haven’t accomplished. That in itself is stressful.
    Dan, best wishes to you in your future and please give my respects to the ultimate guru.

    Ken Frink

  • AstraGal

    I’d love to hear what you are learning from the other fine folks at PW as well, especially Glen Huey. I have always been in awe of his mastery of the skills it takes to make such fine and beautiful furniture.

  • ramonekalsaw

    Hello Dan,

    I just started reading your column and I like what you’re doing. Keep it up!


  • xMike

    ..and then you said….”I popped a Chris Schwarz video into the DVD player – education like this being a nice perk of the new job. I was surprised. I had thought this guy was cantankerous. He seems like someone I’d want to meet, ”
    …beware….he is a guy you will want to meet he CAN be cantankerous.
    On the very plus side, Chris is one of the few experts who ever answered one of my dumb email questions immediately, thoughtfully, and fully.
    He and Popular Woodworking completely changed how I approached woodworking. Thanks to Chris and Popular Woodworkinjg I now own a collection of hand planes that I actually know how to set up, sharpen, and use – and they do get used.
    Mike D

  • blindleader

    Perhaps the name “Workmate 225 ” has survived into the big box era, but don’t be too sure about the product. You might be in for a rude awakening to the 21st century.
    While the customer reviews on must be taken with a grain of salt, I often scan the 1 star reviews for factual content, and that has served me well in the past. A Chinese knock-off, even when the B&D name is knocked off, is still a knock-off.

  • bobdutica

    Before reading “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest”, I had been a power tool woodworker for for over 40 years. I almost always reached for a power tool whenever I needed to make a cut or even drive a nail. Although I had a few hand tools, they mostly sat gathering dust. The book was a moment of awakening for me, and I started to develop some hand tool skills. I was hoping to attend Chris Schwarz’s weekend class at the Lie-Nielsen toolworks last summer, but I had an unbreakable conflict on the weekend he was there, and his class was full anyway. Instead I attended a weekend workshop at Lie-Nielsen with Roy Underhill. It was a most gratifying weekend and I learned a lot. I am acquiring a number of fine Lie-Nielsen tools as well as a few from Lee Valley. While I have not totally forsaken power tools, I have developed a great appreciation for hand tool skills and I am working to develop them further. I am scheduled to attend another weekend workshop at the Lie-Nielsen toolworks again this summer, and I highly recommend these workshops to any hand tool woodworker. I owe this new love of hand tool woodworking to Chris’s book, and also to “The Joiner and Cabinetmaker” that Chris co-authored with Joel Moskowitz. I have started writing a little bit about my adventures in woodworking on my blog at


    If you send me an email address I have a short amusing story (800 words) of how I have accumulated a shop full of tools for next to nothing. You too can be successful with this strategy. You are only limited by storage space.


  • alexmoseley

    Call it aesthetic anarchy or functional independence, it looks like you’re on the right track. There’s so much I convinced myself I needed in life to be happy, but the older I get, the more I realize I have most of what I need, and it would fit neatly in a simple, sturdy tool chest.

    Chris may have started with a literary conceit, but he ended up sparking a revolution.

  • hhalka

    Good luck Dan. I find the anticipation of the next tool, which includes prioritizing and budgeting appropriately, half the fun.

  • muthrie

    I’ve been using Chris’ tool list to decide what I need and limit my set of tools since I got my hands on the list in the book. Since then, I finish my workbench and a desk and haven’t wanted for any tools.

    I certainly need to get better at using my tools. I do have a few more hand planes than are on the list. I suspect that I will be off loading one or two of those in the near future. Maintaining tools is a lot work and when your woodworking is confined to what you cram into the time around a very busy job, I think having fewer tools makes a ton of sense.

    Looking forward to the ongoing conversation.


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