A Ramble About Reward

May 30, 2008

We sell T-shirts at the Studio. We also sell a lovely sweatshirt. Just in time for summer. Virginia has remarked upon the timing of my fashion decisions. But I think sweatshirts in summer are just as warm as in winter. Perhaps warmer. Perhaps fluffier. If fluffy is what you’re after in a sweatshirt. Some people need rags as well.

These people wear their sweatshirts to do their plumbing. I have been plumbing recently. Interesting word that. Plumbing. From the Latin, plumbum for lead. Plumbing:: to seal with lead. Which is what I’d like to do to the roto-rooter guy who put a hole in my pipes with his rooter. But I’m just daydreaming. Back to commerce.

We sell these T-shirts and sweat shirts out of no love for periwinkle or mocha. Color choices are very difficult as anyone who has seen me around a color chart knows. The Studio building will be a new shade of orange some time soon. And some other colors I can’t quite decide upon. But our shirts are lovely shades of denim and lime.

The new black of course is muddy brown or maybe it’s still black. How do the hipsters convince themselves they’re cool when they do such things to themselves? It’s a wonderment. We, the Studio, live next door to a hair salon central HQ. It is a beehive of activity. It really seems so. All these girls dressed in black, all in black, head to toe, every one of them. I guess those are the individualists. Wearing their black. Checking into the hive. To do whatever work these worker bees do there. Comment on their choice of black no doubt.

But at the Studio, we wear more than black. We wear greens, and blues, and I have a nice lovely yellow sweatshirt perfect for the country club no doubt that appeared a bit less yellow in the catalogue.

And so to appearances. This is one of the things that what wearing shirts is about: appearance. I want to give the appearance of wearing nice shirts and so I hope you’ll come by the Studio and at least look at the shirts. They will make a nice rag some day. But we also have classes. And about these you can have no doubt. We work hard to make these classes informative, fun, and rewarding. What reward means to you is different than for me.

I had a student in class once who was just pounding away on a project. Just pounding mallet on chisel. The results were less than stellar. I walked up to the student and I said, “You know, you might have better results if you didn’t hit the chisel so hard.” The student looked up at me and said, “I’m enjoying this.” There you have it. Can’t get better than enjoyment in class and so I had to leave him be to enjoy himself while destroying his piece of wood.

There are many reasons for coming to the Studio. One trusts that destruction is not primary on your list. Release, surcease, a respite from the calm. These we hope for. And we hope you buy a shirt. Thank you.

Published in: on May 30, 2008 at 8:32 am  Leave a Comment  
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How Much Glue is Enough Glue

May 27, 2008

I’m glad you asked that question as I am asked it all the time. How much glue is enough glue?

Now you know of course that glue is one of nature’s great mysteries. It is fixed, immutable, sets in seconds and is dependable. Our language is filled with references to it: that door is stuck like glue, those two are inseparable like glue, in this crowd stick to me like glue. Yet at one and the same time it is changeable, it can fail, and it can fail repeatedly. All this depends completely upon your needs at the time. It seems sometimes that it is perhaps one of nature’s great anticipators: what you want, you ain’t getting here.

Consider what happens when you glue. You are an experienced woodworker. You know to practice your set-up, get out your clamps, maybe even anticipate a potential problem or two in the glue-up. You have your act together.

Then you add the glue. As you also know by now, glue acts as a wonderful lubricant for about 5 seconds. Then it sets and hardens with your parts in the wrong position. How it knows to set up with these parts askew is also one of nature’s mysteries. You have to see it to believe it. But it happens all the time. Your project will go together like a seamless puzzle and you the puzzle master. Then you add just a tiny wee little smidgen of almost a whisper thin minute microscopic barely a wash coat of adhesive and all of a sudden your parts lock in a wrestler’s armlock embrace of cockeyed asymmetry.

What has just happened you ask yourself? Your self has no answer because there is no answer for one of nature’s mysteries. Glue does everything you want it to in all the wrong ways at the wrong time. How could it know? How could it anticipate your desires and be so perverse? Is it the animals hooves and bones and sinews taking aim back at us? Is it that the hubris of modern chemistry has caught up with us, the end users?

I am a long time user of poly-vinyl acetate glue. PVA glue, yellow glue, white glue, carpenters glue, woodworkers glue. Many names for this adhesive. Sets up fast, dries clear, has good strength, allows for some stretching or creep in the joint so it’s good for joinery, not so good for bent laminations. There are other glues as well: urea-formaldehyde which set up more slowly and are more temperature sensitive. Hide glues which need warming but are sticky like crazy and can be taken apart easily if something goes wrong. Water. Water makes an excellent glue. Yes, temperature sensitive it is. But just keep everything at about 20 degrees Fahrenheit and your parts are locked forever together. It’s not a great gap filler but if your parts fit well and have room for a little bit of water between them, man they’re locked together.

Why do I find glue to be so perverse? What about it doesn’t like me? Let me first say that I do not consider myself special. I do not get special scrutiny from glue. It will mess you up the same as me. I just think that gluing comes at the end of a very long and sometimes tortured process. We have been sawing and shaping and joining and sanding and sanding and planing and sanding and scraping and sanding and then just little bit more sanding to get to this point. Boy this is it. Glue-up. The big day. The big moment.

And you start, unavoidably, to move a little faster. To quicken your pace when you actually need to slow down. When you actually need to breathe deep, take a look around, count your blessings, and go through your check list one more time, you have instead grabbed a helmet, jumped on board the sled and without looking start heading down the hill to disaster. You begin rushing after weeks of patience. You grab the glue pot and that 4″ wide paint brush and start slopping the glue on. A nightmare you shriek, but there’s no help for it, you have to finish, why? Because you started and the glue is on and it’s hard to get off and I started and so I have to finish.

Glue does this to people. It’s not nice. Glue is not nice. It makes you hyperventilate, it causes strange words to come out of your mouth. People you love are screamed at, hammers are raised, clamps thrown, wailing and gnashing of teeth occurs.

Or so I have heard. From other woodworkers. Their stories.

For myself, glue is merely a disturbance. A bump in the road. I can get by, I can get by. Just take my time and put on just enough glue so it slops out only where I want it. Thank you. I’ll move on now. But it will do things to you. It will start to grab where you’ve never seen it grab before. Lock parts together when what you need is another 5 seconds, 5 seconds! of turning the clamp screws. It is a mystery to me at least that it is like this. But there it is. It is one of nature’s mysteries.

Now in answer to your question about glue and how much glue is enough, the answer of course is just enough. Too little and you’ll worry all night if you put on enough. Too much and it’s like the miraculous beads of glue oozing from the joints will never stop dripping on your project, your bench, and your clamps. I can only say this to you, fellow gluer. Stick with me, as soon as I get the glue off my hands, I will be able to help you.

Published in: on May 27, 2008 at 10:17 am  Leave a Comment  

The Woodworkers Total Body Work-Out

May 23, 2008

Many people come to the world of woodworking interested in building things. It is a nice idea. Quaint even. Building things in today’s world. That’s funny. We buy things in today’s world. We buy things, we don’t build things. We use them once or twice and then we throw them away. Silly woodworkers.

Anyway, many woodworkers come to this hobby out of this cute desire to build things. They miss the point. The point is that woodworking is the New Total Body Work-Out. It’s like no other. Jake doesn’t have it, Tony doesn’t have it, Mr. Tae-bo doesn’t have it, Jane Fonda wouldn’t have had it. No one has it but us woodworkers. And it’s so simple. It takes only 5 days, 60 hours per week, of constant effort behind the bench doing your woodworking to get the kind of muscle tone and firmness you’ve always wanted. Just look at these simple exercises and tell me that they’re not the best, the easiest way ever to get the six pack that you deserve.

First we’ll start with our Total Body Warm-up: Bringing the Lumber Down into the Basement. How many times do you get to go up and down steps with a stack of heavy boards? Try it, it’s fun. Bang the door frame with the end of a long stick! Put a new hole in the sheet rock! This is fitness like you’ve never tried before. Stretch out those vocal cords! Learn how to bend a sheet of plywood around a door frame! Get your upper body warmed up and ready to work out by lifting sheets of particle board out of your truck. Don’t let one slip or watch out for your toes! This will really get you moving and keep you moving.

Next is the Total Body Ab Intense Work-Out: Removing a Splinter. Forgot your gloves again when you were unloading the lumber? It’s the right way to do things because now you’ll spend 15 minutes of ab tightening as you dig with a needle to get out that nasty long splinter from your finger nail. Nothing focuses the attention, grips the buttocks, or firms the tummy more than pulling out a splinter. This is what we in the fitness trade call an IFW. Burn more calories faster pulling out splinters!

On to the forearms thighs and glutes firming. It’s called Total Body Rubber Arms and Chest: Planing with a Dull Blade. Sure you sharpened back in ‘82 but that blade got dull again somehow. Use it to your advantage and plunk down that piece of hard rock maple on your bench top. It’s time to turn your glutes into rock hard buns. Set the iron just a hair too low and you’re ready to start sweating to the oldies! Just think of the aerobic work-out you’ll get pushing and pushing, harder and harder, to get that dull iron through the work. It’s like nothing else! Continue planing and you’ll start to see results in no time. The blisters you get on your hands are just part of the fun. Your elbows and shoulder joints will ache with the high intensity of this work-out! Keep your wood at a really high level on the bench for that upper body surge or put it low on sawhorses to make your legs feel like rubber too.

Are we having the fun we thought we would? Then let’s keep going because I think you’re gonna like what’s coming next. It’s called the Total Body Isometrics: The Joinery Way. Sure you could buy rubber bands or fancy springy things to get your isometrics in. But try taking a tight mortise and tenon joint apart. Now that’s Isometrics! They’re stuck together almost like glue because you hammered them in, but work hard, make a good face, and squeeze squeeze squeeze trying to get the joint apart. It’s fun. [Be sure to stay out of the way when the joint does come loose. The Woodworkers Total Body Work-Out is not responsible for injuries due to smacking yourself in the face with a board.]

It’s the fourth day of our Total Body Work-Out and you’re getting ready for the hyper-ventilating work-out we call the Total Body: Total Glue-Up! It’s anaerobic like you’ve never gasped before. Grab your parts and your glue bottle and let’s get started! Spread out your glue on your work but remember? You forgot your clamps across the room and have to race for them! The glue is drying now and you forgot to cut your wedges and have to run to the saw to get those done. Oh, watch those fingers! The glue is almost set and you forgot your hammer upstairs and have to run halfway across the room for that before giving up and grabbing a small sledge hammer. Do you see how you get both an upper body blast and an aerobic blast!? Put that glue on and watch time race as you lose to the clock again and your parts stick in a new and crooked way. Bang on it with that dead blow mallet, 10! 20! 30! times and not ever see the parts move. Now we’re cooking with gas! You’ll be drenched in sweat in no time.

Our last Total Body Exercise is the Total Body Complete Work-Out: Rubbing out the Finish. This exercise is both a heat up and a cool down. You have that finish on and it’s a mess! What to do? Rub it out with four or five hundred sheets of sandpaper, that’s what! It’s fun and it takes hours! Keep rubbing until you scratch right through the finish and start all over again! Keep rubbing until you can’t feel your fingertips and your arms ache like crazy! Who knew this could be such fun? All that standing, all that pushing. This is exercise at its most fun and look at the work you create.

Folks, I know you’ll agree with me that the Total Body Work-Out is the best way you’ll ever find to get into shape. Ask any of our happy clients and you’ll learn just how fun it is to get fit while doing your woodworking. Send for our free brochure today and check out our website. Let’s get fit the Woodworking Way! Hooray.

Published in: on May 23, 2008 at 9:23 am  Comments (3)  

It’s Only a Windsor Part Four or (I Don’t Do This in My World)

May 21, 2008

Now the beautiful thing about a Windsor is how many small parts it has. They’re each so light. They’re each so perfectly suited for the job that they have to do. The bad thing about a Windsor is how many small parts it has. They all have to fit into their holes all at the same time and fit just right and you can’t really dry assemble this beast once or twice or fifteen times like I’m wont to do making sure each tiny gap closes up or that each shoulder fits perfectly. Eleven spindles, some going through one piece then up into another. There was a lot that had to happen all at once.

You just have to go for it when facing this kind of glue-up. It’s a process more akin to cracking someone’s back than to building furniture. Curtis calls it Chairopracty. And believe me, I have been under the hands of an old school chiropractor. He just about killed me on the table with all his pounding and pushing and snapping and cracking. A lot like Windsor chair building. There is a surprising amount of noise in putting one of these together. Not the least of which is the noise coming from the builder.

Curtis and I had assembled our tools about us and I had assembled my wits about me and it was already 9am in the morning. We began and had to be done soon so I could get to the airport for my noon flight.

Now if the intelligence of a group decreases exponentially by any increase in the members’ numbers, so too does the effectiveness of one skilled woodworker paired with another less experienced. Curtis was busy moving about the chair assembling one part of it while I was on the other side of it busily taking it apart. Or so it seemed. Every time he’d get one set of parts lined up, I would pull another set apart. Then I would get mine in and he would pull mine out getting his in. It was work putting this chair together and there was no time for anything but continuing. We were both banging on this chair with our dead blow mallets like we were Chicago aldermen working over a voter.

We had left two of the outer spindles long so we could line things up better. A full 20 minutes into the assembly and we finally had all the spindles in their back rails and had run the wedges into the spindles. It was a tough glue-up, at least from my perspective. Curtis and I were sitting there relieved to be done.
He was plotting his recovery time. I was figuring out how I would get this chair home. About fifteen minutes passed by in relief and congratulatory rhetoric.

Then Curtis said, “We forgot the wedges in the long spindles.” Here were two spindles sitting about 4″ out of the back rail with no wedges to lock them in place. They were not a design element, they were not a surprise detail you wanted to leave behind. They were a flipping overlooked mistake in my book and Curtis had me grab a saw and saw them close to the back rail. I could saw them close but how were we going to wedge those spindles? How were we going to back out of this painted in corner?

Curtis said, “Here’s what we do, grab your chisel and make a slot cut in the top of the spindle.” “For what?” I wondered aloud. “For the wedges,” Curtis replied. I spoke in what I can only imagine as a loud tone of voice, “I don’t do this in my world, Curtis! I don’t do this.” “It’ll be fine,” he said, “I do this all the time.” But I was a true non-believer. My wedge slots had relief holes and carefully cut wedges to fill the holes and here was this guy telling me to make a starting cut and then let the wedge wedge itself in all by itself. Why wouldn’t it keep on splitting and split that dang spindle down past the back rail, maybe down to where you could see it, maybe in two! I was not a happy camper, but I was dutiful and I took out my chisel and made two starting cuts, grabbed my wedges, and took out my metal hammer.

I always liked those scenes where Elmer Fudd in the Bugs Bunny cartoons mouthed the word, “Mother”, before falling off the cliff or getting blown up. I was reminded of this scene as I started to bang in my wedge.

But, by golly, in it went. I was amazed. And in it went with no damage. I was further amazed. Both of the wedges did this. I was amazed and impressed. My Windsor teacher was a genius. He had managed to pull me back from the brink.

So there I was, happy if a bit spent. Now I had to figure out how to get this wonder of wood parts home. I had two choices for shipping my Windsor. One was to drive into town on the way to the airport and drop it at some packing place where several knuckle dragging cretins would throw it into a box with some newspaper, push it down the rack, and say So long, sucker. [I once had a UPS rep tell me that my box had to withstand another box falling down onto from a height of 36″. Oh joy.]

Curtis had told me he’d seen another tactic work before, so I was ready to try it. I would get on the plane with the chair as my luggage. Why couldn’t I sweet talk my way onto the plane with the chair in my lap. Perhaps vice versa. Maybe I could tell them I needed special seating for my arthritis. Maybe they’d go for a sentimental story about my mother and this chair. But if people saw it, not as a box, which could hold anything, but as an actual chair, then I had a chance. I decided that having the chair close to me and sweet talking it on was the better choice. If it didn’t work, I’d go back to plan one.

I wrapped up the bottoms of the legs of the chair with cardboard, I wrapped the seat edge with cardboard, I wrapped off every protruding element, [the wedges had all been sawed off], and made it look harmless to the other luggage. I picked it up and looked at it. It was obviously a chair. It was obviously a hand made chair. It was also my luggage.

We drove out to the airport. I thanked Curtis’ dad for the lift and walked up to the ticket counter like I owned the airlines. I said, “Here’s my luggage.” The woman behind the counter looked at me like I was off my medication. But I was not daunted. I repeated, “Here’s my luggage, you’ve done this before, it’s wrapped, it can’t hurt anything, it has to get home with me to Portland, and I just made it this week in your fair state.” How ‘bout it, I said to myself. And danged if she didn’t go for it.

We flew to Cincinnati on a puddle jumper and when we got off the plane on the tarmac, I could see the baggage handlers. I looked hard and expectantly at them and gave them a thumbs up. They gave me a thumbs up. In Portland, the first piece of luggage, triumphant, untouched, unscarred, a throne descending the luggage ramp was my chair. I got several curious if no doubt envious looks, but grabbed my chair and headed on home.

It was one of several triumphs for the week. I had gone into another world of woodworking that was so foreign to my own but had emerged from it with such respect. Respect for its freedoms and its strict rules, for its quiet pace and frenzied activity. It was hard work and relaxing all at once. It opened up new possibilities for my own work and made me recognize the variety inherent in this craft. It was great fun to inhabit this different world. That’s what is good about taking a class like this. It stretches you out in ways expected and surprising. After 4 coats of milk paint and a coat of oil, I also had one of the most comfortable and handsome chairs in my house. I hope you’ll consider coming out to the Studio to try your hand at Windsor chair building.

Published in: on May 20, 2008 at 8:32 am  Comments (1)  
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It’s Only a Windsor Part Three or [This is Fun]

May 17, 2008

Once you get your parts split out and shaved to perfection, you get to feeling that this is a nice way of working. That Windsor chair making is a good pursuit. Quiet, serene almost. You really do start to wonder why you have so many router bits, why you have so many big pieces of equipment making so much noise. And here you’ve been sitting for 3 or 4 days not making much noise but the occasional grunt when you shifted positions on the shave horse. It was a very quiet and enjoyable way of working. The quiet part would change.

Somewhere in that week, we got to do our bending. Now bending wood is as close to magic as you can get with woodworking. You take these sticks that you’ve been fighting or sweating over trying to pry them out of a log, and shape them nicely and keep them straight and the same thickness over their length, working them hard, worrying over them a little. And now you were going to put them in a steam box so you could try to bend them into a pretzel. A semi-circular pretzel but the point is you’ve been working on something so dang hard, how in the world was it going to bend? It did not seem possible.

But it’s magic. You get the wood hot enough and it bends easy. The key is heat. Everyone thinks it’s steam and the steam is important as the carrier of the heat, but it’s really the heat that the wood needs. Now I won’t get into the specifics of bending wood. Suffice it to say that bending wood also involves failure. It is a part of the bending game so get used to it. I did not like this part but there it was. We cooked our back rails to within an inch of their lives and when we put them on the form they bent just like stiff rubber so nice, so smoothly and then crick, they each opened up a crack on the outside face of the bend.

Long face. I had a long face, maybe even a big lower lip. I was bummed. Curtis was his usual bubbly self and he said, “Oh well, we gotta bend us another.” That was about all the cursing he did. Get out there, split out another stick, and while you spent time on the shave horse whittling it down to size, try to figure out what you might of done wrong with the first one. Curtis didn’t know and he’s been bending wood for 25 some years. Best guess was that we overcooked it. You can do this just like you can undercook a piece. Neither will bend without splitting. We had gotten the grain right; there was no run-out, but somehow it didn’t get hot enough or it got too hot. In any event, we got back on it. The second batch of parts bent just fine. We kept them in the form for a night and then tied them off and let them dry out.

Somewhere in the midst of all this back rail and spindle work, we also had to start work on our seats. Now we used white pine for the seats. Lovely wide boards, soft, almost buttery. Big thick chunks of the stuff too. Curtis showed me how to use the seat shaping adze without chopping off my toes and we proceeded to get them roughed out. It’s funny how you shape a Windsor seat really. Because you set the seat blank on your bench after doing the outside shape, and you mark out where you’re gonna shape and in the back of the seat you drill two holes. And this makes no sense at all until Curtis explains that these holes are depth holes. Spin that brace and bit I don’t remember 20 times or something and you’ll get a hole that’s about 3/4″ deep. That’s what you want. Two consistent holes that will disappear once you get to depth.

After drilling you took the adze and started hacking away at the pine. When you had done enough damage with that tool, you put your hands on an inshave or scorp. This is basically a curved drawknife. It works well in the hands of a seasoned professional for scooping out a seat. In my hands, it was a chatter machine capable of leaving big dents in the soft pine. Reminders of my wavering attention and technique.

I eventually got the seat rough shaped and then reached for my seat shaping double round wood hand plane. This I know how to use. It’s a Japanese style one made of white oak. It’s a beauty. It gets into that seat bottom and smooths the pine great, either heading down into the valleys or going cross grain near the seat pommel. Then we scraped to clean up the rough spots but seat shaping was mostly a bunch of fun. And comfortable.

Assembly would be the telling phase. Gluing day was the day when it all came together, when a week’s worth of work had to fit together seamlessly. I was up by 5am that morning to finish prepping all my parts. I had to be on a plane by noon that day. No pressure.

Published in: on May 17, 2008 at 9:40 am  Leave a Comment  

It’s Only a Windsor, Part Two or (How am I Supposed to Do That?)

May 13, 2008

If you missed out on Part One of our story, I was visiting Curtis Buchanan at his home shop in Tennessee where he was showing me how to make a Windsor chair. It’s a different model than the one we’ll build this summer at the Studio. But if you’re like me, any time you try something new, all the rules are wrong, all the standards are stupid, and the tools are all Greek. That is until you learn how to use them, learn how to relax a little, and learn how to just be ignorant for awhile until you get taught. It’s a humbling experience and I recommend it to every teacher out there.

Anyways there I was trying to learn Windsor chair making. I felt like a 1 year old learning how to walk and speak in a foreign language and also balance a chisel on my nose all at the same time and Curtis must have felt like Job. First the locusts, then the ten thumbed who didn’t know from draw knives, shave horses or travishers.

Curtis was of course very nice about welcoming me into his world where all the power you needed was supplied by you the worker. The shave horse is the perfect example. It is essentially a long low bench that you sit on clamping the workpiece with a lever that you push with your feet and legs. The dumbhead is the clamping part that comes down onto your stick so you have two hands free to work it. It’s a marvel of simplicity and engineering. I’ve built a couple now for the Studio based on Brian Boggs’ design and every time I use one, I just have to say, “Yep, this works, this really works.”

Now your first day on the shave horse is fine. You feel comfortable. You feel like you could actually get good at what you’re doing. Day two you discover the sitting parts of your anatomy and feel even better about shaving the parts level and true. Day three, you learn about pillows.

I am of course exaggerating. You do get used to sitting and doing your work and the shave horse becomes your friend for the week. So does the draw knife. This tool is scarier than a table saw. It’s a 12″ to 16″ long razor blade with handles on it. It has the look about it that when you’re sitting on the shave horse pulling off these long chunks of wood that you could keep on pulling and slice yourself in two. Fortunately no one is double jointed or dexterous enough to pull off that trick. Your stroke and your shoulders always prevent large bodily injury. The bad nicks from the draw knife come from setting it down with the blade up or reaching for it without looking. Then it’s sharpness comes into focus with a kind of rushed breath as you look to see how much time you’ll spend cleaning up. Fortunately I kept my wits about me for the week and suffered no cuts, but you do have to remain aware around this tool.

Soon as you split out your green wood for the back rails and the spindles you start shaving them down with your draw knife. Now there are a bunch of parts to a Windsor chair. You have to shape out 11 spindles and 12 other parts to make the legs, rails, seat, arms, back rails etc. But it’s this accumulation of parts that makes them such a marvel of design. The chairs are very light as they use a combination of woods: hard maple for the legs and red oak for the rails under the pine seat. Joined into the seat from above are white or red oak spindles and back rails and maple arm stumps. Since the Windsor chair is always painted, all of the wood species get colored and blended together. But with this combination you get the best from all the woods: strength and durability from the maple, light weight and shaping ease from the pine seat, and bendable strength from the oak. Take away any one part and you’re missing something essential from the design. It’s a design that is 200 years old so most of the bugs have been tweaked out of it.

In my world of cabinet making, I have to rough out my parts and fine tune my parts, four square my parts, lots of part working with jointer, planer, band saw, and table saw. In the world of Windsors, it’s all done on the shave horse. So there I was, sitting. Learning to love sitting and woodworking and wondering how I was going to make these shaved parts into anything resembling a chair. Because you spend a lot of time with this draw knife shaving wood. And it’s only later when you get to bending things that the light starts to come on. See the Windsor folk years ago figured out that if you orient your grain just right when you split it out and shave your sticks on the shave horse, that you can make these incredibly strong sections of wood with the growth rings running absolutely parallel to the surfaces of the stick. With 3 or or 4 or 5 growth rings in a section about 5/8″ thick, you have great strength and most importantly bending strength.

This is the key to Windsors. Learning how to make your parts so that even though they’re incredibly small, they’re incredibly strong. Shaving on the shave horse with that draw knife teaches you how to read grain in a way you never will on the jointer. It teaches you how to shave late wood in oak in an impossibly precise way with this draw knife. And then you bend the wood and it works! What a revelation! And all the time you’re sitting there talking to yourself: “How am I going to do this, I’ve never held a draw knife in my hands and which side is up anyways? And what happens if the grain does run out?”

But Curtis fortunately is a master at it and a good teacher. I did feel pretty morose around mid-week about my Windsor chair making skills. Here I was with a fair amount of time behind a bench and able to build some decent stuff and I felt like an idiot most days on a shave horse. Curtis wife sensed my discomfort and came up to me about mid-week and said, “You know, when Curtis started, he couldn’t turn anything on the lathe.” It was a small comfort but I took it home and put it under my pillow for the night. The week was moving along pretty quick, but we still had the bending of the back rails to do, seat shaping, and then assembly. And while the draw knife wouldn’t be the first tool I’d reach for when shaping, it had revealed many of its strengths to me. The language was beginning to dawn on me but there was a bunch more stuff to learn.

Published in: on May 13, 2008 at 1:19 pm  Leave a Comment  

It’s Only a Windsor or (I Don’t Do This in My World)

May 9, 2008

Several years ago, I asked Brian Boggs about Windsor chairs. Brian was at the Studio teaching a class in Ladder Back chair making. He told me that if I wanted to go learn how to build a Windsor chair I should go study with his friend, Curtis Buchanan. Curtis lives in the oldest town in Tennessee and has a small 300 square foot shop behind his lovely house. He builds one chair a week using mostly hand tools and a lathe to turn his parts. He now also comes out to the Studio every two years to teach a class in Windsor Chair Making. He’ll be out this August again.

I want to tell you the story of me and Curtis during that week I spent learning with him. It will take a couple of entries but it’s worth staying with I think because it reveals so much about the variety of woodworking styles and techniques.

Curtis took me on as a student to build what is called a Sack Back Windsor. I just looked up what sack back refers to and the chair makers don’t know why it got that name either. Maybe it had something to do with a sack being put over the back of the chair to keep the sitter warm in winter. Who knows? But in any case it is one of several types of Windsor chairs including comb back, fan back, and continuous arm chairs.

Now Curtis agreed to take me on as a student for a week but he was about as happy to have a Fine Woodworking Contributing Editor over to his house as the Pope is to have visiting female Episcopalian Priests. He was polite yes, but enthusiastic to have me over? Not so much. Here was this router guy, this machine guy invading the quiet of his small shop behind his house. I’m sure he didn’t know what to expect from me. I was equally filled with trepidation. Did I know enough not to make a fool out of myself? The answer was no. Did I care enough? No again. I wanted to build one of these things to understand the appeal of them and to try something out of my comfort zone. It was woodworking but in a different dialect.

Building a Windsor chair is a giant step back in time and tradition. Welcome to the 18th century, leave your table saw at the door please. One of Curtis’ first questions to me was: “Do you have a draw knife?” “A what, no.” I replied. “Well you’re gonna need a draw knife to shape all your parts. Gotta have a draw knife. Well I got some extra.” Curtis said. Great, I said to myself. Good start, I felt real good, didn’t even have the tools. I had brought my spokeshave, I took my seat shaping hand plane and some other hand planes and chisels with me. But I had no draw knife. Curtis made a little mental note about that and me I’m sure and then we continued on. No draw knife, shoo.

Now these Windsor chair builders have rules and you cannot break the rules. That’s rule number one. Rule number two is oh don’t worry about the rules, it’s only a Windsor. It was this curious mix of strict tradition and a devil may care attitude that was so interesting about my week with Curtis. We started out with the design of the sack back which was inviolate. It had to have this certain seat shape, it had to have so many spindles, the arm stumps were so big, the legs this large, etc. I tweaked it here and there using a slightly different leg shape than most, but essentially it was a traditional Sack Back.

We split out the lumber for the chair outside the shop using a froe and a mallet type thing. Really it was just a beat up stump and it had had a tough lot in life. It beat on the metal froe and that was its job. It looked beaten. “Do you know how to use a froe?” Curtis asked. Again, I felt naked without my table saw in front of me. However did I get by I wondered to myself. Well Curtis was going to show me how to work his lever.

That’s what a froe is essentially: a big splitting lever. Splitting out green lumber is about as basic as you can get with lumber. Most of us don’t get this pleasure and total body work out because our lumber has been cut, graded, dried, stacked, painted with painted ends, and a board foot tally done on them somewhere. It’s not like that in the Windsor world, not like that at all back in Tennessee. You got yourself a tree about 5′ or 6′ long and you cut it up and took out what you needed. The beginning, oh the beginnings of woodworking. This was fun. I liked this. It was different but there was a very direct path in this work. Here was the tree, here is your basic tool: a lever, now go get your wood.

This work was over too soon as it was just plain fun. We headed back inside to meet my new friend for the week: the shave horse.

Published in: on May 9, 2008 at 8:56 am  Comments (3)  
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Slow Down, I’m in a Hurry

May 6, 2008
Many people think of woodworking skills as simply the ability to pick up a hammer and read a tape measure. If an opposable thumb were all that it took, how simple this work would be. But woodworking is much more about planning and executing that plan than it is about picking up a tool. Don’t get me wrong. The picking up of the tool is quite satisfying. I love it. It’s a passion of mine and many many other woodworkers.

The real key to woodworking however is plannng out your efforts and carrying them through. I worked as a car mechanic many years ago for one winter in Ann Arbor Michigan. If you do not know, it snows in Michigan. A lot. Cars there rust, seemingly before your eyes. So a part of my job was to unstick rusted brake cables and wheel cylinders, rusted shut heater levers, under the cars, lots of air chiseling, and prying things loose.

My buddy at the shop where I worked was a little older than me and a sweet guy. His name was Jake. He was quiet, not taking part in the banter and exchange of an all male shop. Jake just went about his work quietly and efficiently. One day I had a problem with a car and I could not get a nut to budge. I couldn’t get purchase on it. There was no leverage to be had. It was frustrating.

I called Jake over. Now Jake never rushed into anything. He would look over a problem, think on it, chew it over in his head, maybe touch some metal with his long screwdriver/ pry bar and consider. He was very deliberate about things. Very slow. He would consider and think on a problem until he had found the one place where he could find his purchase, where he could gain his leverage. There it was that he put his tool and bang, he would knock something apart. It was brilliant. It was astonishing to watch too. Me, the college graduate, being completely stumped by rust and time and Jake, the simple quiet mechanic, just looking at things and figuring them out. It was a lesson for me.

Now it’s a tough lesson to get in to your head. That you need to slow down in order to speed up. That doing things right the first time is much faster than fixing every mistake you make in haste. But it’s a good lesson to try to learn. The pace of the woodshop is not the pace of your job. It is not the furor of driving in traffic or doing your taxes or even doing carpentry. It is a slower and a more deliberate pace. This improves safety but it also cuts down on mistakes that cost you not only in terms of lost time or material, but the more important loss of momentum. Slow down, you’re in a hurry.

Published in: on May 6, 2008 at 7:43 am  Comments (1)  

On Design

May 1, 2008

A question from a reader:

“I know this is a broad subject but any help would be appreciated. I am thinking of going into business and I wish to avoid the IKEA look-alikes and plywood specials you find everywhere. I’m also aware of my own limitations as I am almost too practical when it comes to designing furniture. My designs always seem to be based on use and material costs. How can I separate my work from “Joe IKEA” ? “Thanks C.”

Dear C,

Joe IKEA is a pretty powerful guy. Separating your work from his will take effort, a vow of poverty, and design skills. Some people think that design cannot be taught. I disagree. I think, and our Mastery Classes at the The Northwest Woodworking Studio show how you can introduce design concepts to everyone. What each person does with these concepts is a matter of personal effort.

Now a lot of groundwork, both good and bad, has been laid for everyone in their past. If you grew up with plastic covers over your furniture like I did, you know what I mean. If Mom thought that Early American Maple was a style of furniture and not just a stain, then you know what I mean. If you had a wagon wheel as your headboard, you know exactly what I mean. You bring your own ideas to this design table in other words. From this starting point you can learn an amazing number of ways of looking at the design world and you then can decide how you want to design your own work.

So, remember grasshopper, that the first rule of design is that you must steal from the best. Someone once said that bad designers copy while good designers steal.

Open your eyes first. You live in a designed world. Everything including the plants and trees around you have been designed by someone. It might be Ma Nature or any of several gods depending upon your point of view or it’s a Nike design or General Motors or Knoll International you’re staring at or using or putting on, but someone somewhere has had a hand in how the things look that surround you. Start by observing.

Sunflower seedhead whorls don’t just happen by accident. Neither did Gerrit Reitveld’s Red and Blue Chair. Design is at work in all these things. Start looking and deciding what you like and don’t like and most importantly, why. Because once you start to understand what you like and dislike you will start to develop a vocabulary. And a vocabulary of design will allow you to create things just like a vocabulary of words allows you to speak. You are born with neither lexicon. Start learning by observing first.

As for my own designs, and this is the shortened version of a very long discussion, I design my work to meet several needs. First I need an idea. Some kind of starting point be it a slice of zucchini, a Mackintosh chair, or a tapestry. Something needs to kindle my imagination. Next I ask what is the function of the piece, what will it do. How many drawers does it need? How big or small does it need to be? Then what is its intent? A very different question. What are you trying to do with the piece? What is its goal: grandiose shouting like Rococo or simple restraint like Shaker? How will the structure then affect the design? Will you use 16d nails or ½ blind dovetails? Bent laminations or bricklaid curves? What is the texture or delineation of the piece? Is it carved, inlaid, painted, hardwared? There are many ways of building a simple piece of furniture, but ask these questions to yourself as you go along and certain elements of your own style will start to emerge. Then continue to work hard at it. Look around, keep a notebook, and jot down your ideas. Have fun with it.

Published in: on May 1, 2008 at 11:03 am  Comments (1)  
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