The Schrieffer-Wolff (SW) method is a version of degenerate perturbation theory in which the low-energy effective Hamiltonian Heff is obtained from the exact Hamiltonian by a unitary transformation decoupling the low-energy and high-energy subspaces. We give a self-contained summary of the SW method with a focus on rigorous results. We begin with an exact definition of the SW transformation in terms of the so-called direct rotation between linear subspaces. From this we obtain elementary proofs of several important properties of Heff such as the linked cluster theorem. We then study the perturbative version of the SW transformation obtained from a Taylor series representation of the direct rotation. Our perturbative approach provides a systematic diagram technique for computing high-order corrections to Heff. We then specialize the SW method to quantum spin lattices with short-range interactions. We establish unitary equivalence between effective low-energy Hamiltonians obtained using two different versions of the SW method studied in the literature. Finally, we derive an upper bound on the precision up to which the ground state energy of the nth-order effective Hamiltonian approximates the exact ground state energy. © 2011 Elsevier Inc.