Thursday, February 14, 2013

An anarchist once more!

I have been chuckling all evening.  Let me explain.  I built my tool chest, the one described in this blog earlier, prior to the publication of The Anarchist's Tool Chest by Christopher Schwarz.  You may recall that mine is made primarily from Baltic birch plywood.  When the book came out, I was quite chagrined to read him making an emphatic case against plywood.  Here is an excerpt:
I don’t know about you, but I’ve developed a hate-hate relationship with sheet goods. . . .  [P]lywood has become so awful – warped, wet, full of voids – during the last decade that it is hardly worth the trouble. . . .  In 2008, I . . . decided I wasn’t going to ever work with plywood again. 
Christopher Schwarz. The Anarchist's Tool Chest (Kindle Locations 394-402). Lost Art Press LLC. 
It's true that he is only describing his own decision, but I found it quite absolute and doctrinaire, not in keeping with my understanding of anarchy.  The Baltic birch plywood I used was high quality, not wet, not warped and without noticeable voids.  I had the opposite problem:  I just couldn't find good quality wide pine boards to use.  Further, plywood has many attractive features for something like a tool chest.  It doesn't split or move with the seasons, for example.  The design I used permits using thin material.  It has drawbacks too.  It's not hand tool friendly and it isn't a traditional material.  All things equal, I'd prefer not to use it, but all things weren't and aren't equal.  Sometimes it makes sense to use plywood, but, on the other hand, there is nothing wrong with a decision to avoid it.  It's a personal choice.

Fast forward to today, when the very same Christopher Schwarz wrote a blog post entitled Screw this Anarchist's Tool Chest Stuff.  I'll let you read it for yourself.  But, guess what?  He is filming a DVD of making an anarchist's tool chest from--wait for it--plywood.  Not dovetails, screws.  And, he's strongly defending it as a decision that can make sense.  This reminds me of the song the British band played when Lord Cornwallis surrendered at the Siege of Yorktown:  The World Turned Upside Down.

While the case for a plywood tool chest is primarily one of expediency, there are other situations in which plywood is just plain better.  In fact, I encountered one this week and talked myself out of it.  I was making a small walnut and cherry box for my son's birthday.  I just am not comfortable with gluing on a solid bottom like Paul Sellers does, so I floated a solid wood bottom in a groove.  Since the corners are dovetailed, that requires making a stopped groove on two of the sides, a time consuming task that I accomplished with chisel and router plane.  I thought about gluing in a thin Baltic birch bottom on top of a mitered molding, but had this vague feeling that it would be wrong.  The advantage I see is that it would allow me to have very thin sides because the solid bottom would give the box stability and strength.  Birch looks nice and the edges aren't seen.

You can probably tell that I am defensive though.  It's the traditional material issue.  However, it doesn't take a lot of research to reveal that plywood, or at least laminated wood, is in fact a traditional material.  It has apparently been found in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs and was used in 17th and 18th century English woodworking.

My problem with plywood is sawing it.  It will be interesting to see how Christopher Schwarz saws plywood for his tool chest.  I suspect he used power tools.  That's what I do.  Depending on the size of the piece, I either use a circular saw and a guide or I use my bandsaw.  So far the blades seem to stand up to it, although I don't use plywood often.

From one anarchist to another:  welcome home Chris.  This is probably the right place to tell you I am thinking of making another tool chest myself, this time from pine and joined with dovetails.  My advice to the rest of you if you are considering making a tool chest is, do as you like.  It's now clear that a case can be made for either approach.


  1. Heh! I hadn't had time to complete digest that last CS post. You're right! Way to be on the cutting (plywood) edge! :D

  2. I think plywood has a place and a use in handtool woodworking. I too, don't get a warm and fuzzy feeling gluing a solid wood bottom to boxes like Paul Sellers does. I prefer floating bottoms like you (I use a corded router to make the grooves) or gluing 1/8" baltic birch plywood to the bottom.
    And I've found that sawing 1/8 plywood with a carcass isn't all that different from sawing solid wood of the same thickness.
    As for Sir Chris changing lanes on using plywood, it's not the first time he has reversed himself.

  3. My advice to the rest of you if you are considering making a tool chest is, do as you like.
    But that would lead to....ANARCHY!