Making Book Part 3: The Ugly & Flammable Lesson

My second chair. Ugly but strong. And it was the key to my upcoming book.

Before I talk to an author about writing a book for Lost Art Press, I ask them to perform a short exercise beforehand. The exercise helps me understand the real thrust of their book idea. 

This is important because we have received book proposals from authors that read “I’d like to write something about doors.”

Here is the exercise we send to potential authors:

  1. Come up with a book title and (if necessary) a secondary title. Book titles should be short – usually no more than five words. And they must relate to the entire book. They should use simple and strong words – no -ing or -ly forms. We will help you with the final title, but it will help you think about your book if you can develop a working title. It helps set the tone for your work. A secondary title can help explain the main title. For example, the secondary title for “Cut & Dried” is “A Woodworker’s Guide to Timber Technology.” You might need a secondary title. You might not. 
  2. Write a “high concept.” The “high concept” is a 35-word (or so) pitch that explains the content of the book to someone who is not a woodworker and who has never heard of your work. I imagine it’s how I would explain a book at a dinner party to the person next to me. The “high concept” for “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” was: “You can build almost anything with about 45 tools. This book shows you how to choose good tools, helps you build a chest to protect them and contends that furniture making is a radical act in today’s society.”
  3. Create a table of contents (TOC). A good TOC is an outline for your book. It is the skeleton, and it charts your narrative arc (all good books tell a story). The more detail and thought you put into your TOC, the easier the writing will be. Also good to note: You might rip up a few TOCs before it’s over. 

When I start in on a book, I also perform this exercise. But with the vernacular chair book, I wasn’t ready to answer these questions. I had to first figure out if I had an idea that was worth working on for two years. 

So for the first half of 2020 I worked on other people’s books and “The Anarchist’s Workbench,” and I didn’t think much about chairs at all.

I did sign up a few new authors for future books, such as getting Megan Fitzpatrick to write a book on Dutch tool chests for a 2021 release. One day we talked about her upcoming book, and I asked how she planned to deal with the different possible construction strategies for the chest’s lid, back and interior.

She replied that she was going to use a “Choose Your Own Adventure” approach, where she would show all of the typical methods and let the reader pick.

And that was when my book on vernacular chairs snapped into focus.

Of all the books I’ve written, my favorites are the ones that I wish I’d had when I was 11 years old. If I’d had “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” or “The Anarchist’s Design Book” when I was a kid, I would have been thrilled.

When I first contracted the chair-building disease in the 1990s – after encountering John Brown’s writing – I bought every book I could find on chairs, even the crappy ones. I read them all once, and most of them twice.

They all left me disheartened. Here’s why: Each author explained how he built his chairs. But they were (mostly) from the tradition that involved green wood, a froe, a shavehorse, a drawknife, a steambox and a bunch of specialty tapering and reaming tools. 

Plus the geometry hurt my head.

I didn’t own any of those tools or easy access to green wood. After years of building furniture with dovetails, mortises and tenons, it seemed like few of my skills or tools carried over to chairmaking. That’s when I decided to take a class with David Fleming in Cobden, Ontario, to see if there was any hope for me as a chairmaker.

With Dave’s help I got through the construction of my first chair. Then I came home and – within days – began to build another chair so I wouldn’t forget what I’d learned. I decided that I would just use whatever wood and tools I had on hand and make it work. The chair would probably suck, fall apart or break. But that would be OK. It was just a flammable vessel to help me retain the geometry lessons and the hand skills.

The chair I made was damn ugly, but it didn’t fall apart.

After 20 years of studying vernacular chairs, I have concluded that “use what you have” is a valid way to make a good chair. It’s the strategy that’s been employed all over the world for centuries. You don’t need special tools or skills to make a chair. You just have to really want to build a dang chair.

Megan’s simple phrase, “Choose Your Own Adventure,” is the crux of my next book. 

The working title: “The Stick Chair Book.”

The high concept: “Build chairs with the wood and tools around you. Learn to make all the components of a chair – legs, stretchers, arms, sticks, crest – with a wide variety of materials, tools and methods. Then combine these parts however you like into a pleasing, comfortable and sturdy chair.”

That’s 46 words and a little long. Oh well.

Then I vomited out the book’s TOC in less than an hour. 

There are a dozen ways to make each chair component, from using a band saw down to a block plane. You don’t need riven wood. Straight grain is straight grain, no matter how you find it. You don’t need any special equipment to make a good chair. These disparate components can be combined in 1,000 ways to make 1,000 different chairs. And the geometry is easy once you realize that it’s the numbers and math that are holding you back.

I knew in a second that this book is something I’d gladly devote two years (or more) to. It’s the chair book I wish I’d owned in 1998.

— Christopher Schwarz

Read other posts from the “Making Book” series here.

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Before I talk to an author about writing a book for Lost Art Press, I ask them to perform a short exercise beforehand. The exercise helps me understand the real thrust of their book idea.  This is important because we have received book proposals from authors that read “I’d like to write something about doors.”…
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