Port Townsend School of Woodworking
Preserving the Tradition


Purists and Plastics


As many of you likely already know, once a year—that magic first weekend after Labor Day—Port Townsend is home to an annual wood boat festival.  Now approaching its 40th anniversary, the wood boat festival offers an opportunity to meander through over 250 canoes, kayaks, paddle boards, row boats, sailing craft and, yes, true yachts.  All with one thing in common, they are the product of skilled crafts people working in our favorite medium—wood.  Well almost.

Wandering through the displays and docks one cannot but help overhear conversations that begin with, “great lines,” followed up by, “but it’s not a real ‘woody,’ check out the epoxy finish.” This either results in an approving grunt of disgust from the accompanying audience, or is countered with an observation that “varnish is nice, but I’d rather sail than sand and swing a paint brush.”  Advocates of the first argument are purists.  I would contend those who take the latter position are pragmatists.  

There is certainly a place for both in the wood working community.  To drive home this point allow me to introduce Christopher Schwarz’s engaging tome, The Anarchist’s Tool Chest.  Schwarz, a renowned craftsman and advocate of doing things the old-fashioned way (he would likely scoff at my collection of power tools), uses this text to argue one only need acquire 48 hand tools to accomplish nearly any furniture project.   

He builds his case by stepping through the selection and employment of the essential tools.  He then drives the point home by guiding a reader through construction of a chest worthy of holding this treasure.  As you might expect, Schwarz is a big fan of solid woods, dovetails and any adhesive other than self-tapping screws.  As for his overall message—well, I leave that for you to explore—but his bottom line is best summed as: “craftsmanship resulting in quality furniture will always trump IKEA.”

There is solid logic behind Schwarz’s argument, but it is equally amusing to note the vocal purist is also a pragmatist.  A couple of years after The Anarchist’s Tool Chest went to press, Schwarz wrote a blog for Popular Woodworking thoughtfully titled “Screw this Anarchist’s Tool Chest Stuff.”  You read that correctly…even I found it hard to believe.

What he admits in the blog is that not all of us are blessed with the time or materials necessary to make the purist’s tool chest.  Instead, he concedes a similar quality product can be assembled using plywood and screws.  Shocking—the planet may just cease spinning.  Or maybe Schwarz is confessing what the rest of us have discovered.  It would be wonderful to be a purist, but the rest of life tends to intrude on the hours required to replicate handiwork resident in original Shaker chairs.

All of which brings me back to the boat show.  While there remain adherents and practitioners of the fine art of clear coat maritime varnishing, the evolution of cold-molding and ever-thicker enamel finishing materials bodes a transition from buffed mahogany hulls to rot-free hulls in multiple hues plying the waters on your nearest river, lake or bay.   The builders and owners of these “compromises with reality” have not abandoned craftsmanship, they simply realize occasionally it is necessary to accept that—barring a fortune or endless time—there is no reason to shun modernity.

As such, the wood boat festival and the thousands of appreciative participants will continue to witness the product of skilled artisans—purists who then protect their craft in a protective coating that ensures it will service future generations.  It is a compromise I suspect even Christopher Schwartz would respect.  

(For more on Christopher Schwartz and The Anarchist’s Tool Chest go on-line and run a search via your favorite browser.  I recommend the 30 minute PBS interview he did with “The Woodwright’s Shop” in 2012.)

For those of you wondering about Schwartz’s list, please see below:

  • Handplanes
  • Jack plane
  • Low Angle Jack
  • Plow plane
  • Rabbet/shoulder plane
  • Router plane
  • Block plane
  • Marking & Measuring
  • Cutting gauge(s)
  • Panel gauge
  • 6″ Combination square
  • 6″ Rule
  • 6″ non-glare rule
  • 24″ folding rule or 24″ steel rule
  • 12″ tape measure
  • Marking knife 
  • Wooden winding Sticks
  • 36″ wooden straightedge
  • Wooden try square, 12″ blade
  • Sliding bevel
  • Dividers, two to four pair
  • Trammel points
  • Essential Cutting Tools
  • Bevel-edge chisels 1/8″, 1/4″, 3/8″, 1/2″, 3/4″ and 1-1/4″
  • Mortise chisels, 1/4″ or 5/16″
  • Spokeshave
  • Cabinet, modeling and rattail rasp
  • Card scrapers
  • Striking & Fastening Tools
  • Chisel mallet
  • Cross-peen hammer
  • 13 oz. to 16 oz. claw hammer
  • Deadblow mallet
  • Nailsets
  • Nail pincers
  • Set of slotted screwdrivers
  • Screw tips for drill/drivers
  • Sawnut drivers
  • Countersinks & counterbores
  • 10″ brace
  • Hand drill
  • Set of 13 auger bits
  • Brad points 1/8″, 3/16″, 1/4″, 5/16″, 3/8″, 7/16″ and 1/2″
  • Birdcage awl
  • Dowel plate
  • Saws
  • Dovetail saw
  • Carcase saw
  • Tenon saw
  • Panel saws (rip saw, crosscut saw, fine crosscut saw)
  • Flush cut saw
  • Coping saw
  • Sharpening
  • Sharpening stones (honing and polishing)
  • Strop
  • Grinder
  • Oilcan or plant mister
  • Burnisher
  • Appliances
  • Bench hook
  • Sawbenches
  • Miter box
  • End-grain shooting board
  • Long-grain shooting board
  • Cork-backed sanding block
  • Workbench
  • Good-to-have Tools
  • Dial caliper
  • 12″ combination square
  • Dovetail marker
  • Jointer plane
  • Smooth plane
  • Large shoulder plane
  • Carpenter’s hatchet
  • Drawknife
  • No. 80 cabinet scraper
  • Beading plane
  • Small complex moulder, such as an ogee or square ovolo
  • Half-set of hollows & rounds
  • 1-1/2″-wide paring chisel
  • Fishtail chisel
  • Drawer-lock chisel
  • Mortise float
  • Expansive bit
  • Drawbore pins
  • 12″ bowsaw
  • Sawfiles
  • Mill file
  • Saw Vise
  • Saw Set
  • Side-clamp honing guide

Eric Anderson is a retired Air Force officer who can be found puttering in his shop when not scribbling on the keyboard.  A new resident of Port Townsend, he is an avid sailor, struggling carpenter, and would-be writer. 

Kacie GuthrieComment