Monthly Archives: March 2008

Green Chairs Can Make You Some Green

Lately, I have heard from a number of professional chairmakers who are very concerned with the economy and the effect it is having on their sales. They have good reasons for their concerns. It’s hard to sell chairs when your customers are paying $3.25 for gasoline, higher prices to heat their houses, and higher prices to feed their families. A set of handmade chairs moves to the back burner – a way back, back burner.

There is no doubt times are tough out there. I have run my chairmaking business through several recessions, beginning with the one in the 1970s. I survived them all by using the strategies we teach our students who go pro.

This time feels different to me, and this leads me to suspect we are in for a very tough time, for a very long time. Hard times change the way people act and the way they think. As a result, hard times often change the country and the culture. For example, my parents lived through the depression. It changed them. They were frugal all their lives. My sense is that another such change is taking place.

The last couple of decades created a culture of consumption. This was the era of the McMansion, of the Mercedes, of the second home, the expensive trips abroad. Lots of people lived large and financially, they lived on the edge. To buy more house than their incomes could support, they used sub prime mortgages. When they needed yet more money, they borrowed against the equity in the house, or put it on plastic. A lot of people partied and now all of us have to pay the piper, and suffer the hang over.

I think Americans are pulling in their horns for the long haul, perhaps another generation or more. If indeed, the country and the economy do change, we Windsor chairmakers need to change the way we sell chairs. In other words, we need to change our approach: the message and sales pitch we give our customers.

Two things have crossed my desk recently that have suggested to me a new marketing strategy. The first was an email I received from Dr. Chuck Pezeshki. I wrote about that email in another posting earlier this year. Chuck observed that “Windsors are Eco-design personified.” He explained to me that, “Eco-design considers the whole lifecycle of a product. A Windsor that lasts 200 years, and is painted with milk paint, lasts far longer than the tree takes to re-grow the wood, is made of mostly locally-grown wood (no transportation CO2), is manufactured by human hands, and has no toxic disposal cost at the end-of-life.”

The second item was an editorial in Maine Antiques Digest. The title was The Compact Market, and it was written by Sam Pennington, the publication’s editor. Sam began his editorial by describing a new trend called Compact Shopping. In explanation he wrote, “Subscribers to the compact shopping theory desire ‘to go beyond recycling in trying to counteract the negative global environmental and socioeconomic impacts of U.S. consumer culture…’ ” Furthermore according to Sam, compact shoppers seek to cut back on clutter and waste and to simplify their lives. Shopping local is important part of this trend.

The two items tie together very nicely. Windsor chairs, known commonly as “green chairs” in the 18th century, are the ultimate green chair of the 21st. As Dr. Chuck points out, Windsors are made of local woods and are generally purchased by people who live near the maker. Thus, they make use of a renewable resource, and there is little energy consumption or pollution associated with them. Think how much energy it takes to import those cheap chairs from southeast Asia that J. C. Penny had to recall. Because Windsor chairs are made by hand, a chairmaker produces his own energy, and he exhales the only green house gas he produces.

Windsor chairs are finished in milk paint, a non-toxic finish that dries without giving off polluting vapors. A handmade Windsor can be expected to last two of more centuries. As Chuck points out, the chair lasts far longer than it takes for replacement trees to grow and mature.

If I am right about this recession changing our consumer culture, Americans will begin to desire things that will last. They will be looking for things of quality, with permanent value. They will be shopping closer to home, and be more conscious of the impact their purchase has on the environment and the economy. No longer will furniture be thought of as disposable the way it has for the past 20 years; changed every time someone changed the decor. Consider for a moment how many trees were cut down to produce furniture that was put out at the curb for the rubbish pick up, as well as all the energy required to make, transport, and dispose of it.

As Americans simplify their lives and look for quality and permanency, Windsor chairs fit right in. Buying handmade Windsor chairs, a customer buys the only set of chairs he or she will own for a lifetime. Since handmade Windsors last far longer than people do, a set of Windsors purchased today will be passed on to the owner’s descendants. In other words, these chairs will become cherished family heirlooms.

There is no worry that by buying chairs that last 200 years customers will have to live the rest of their lives with something that has gone out of style. Windsors fit in with any décor. Those who subscribe to my monthly email newsletter will be receiving some old photos from The Institute’s collection. These pictures are of late 19th and early 20th century interiors, and show Windsors in use. When those photos were taken, the Windsors were already 100 years old, but remained part of the household’s furnishings.

Windsors were a product of the late Georgian and Federal periods. As those photos prove, they remained in use through the myriad of Victorian furniture styles, as well as the fin-de-siecle furniture styles. Why? Because they blended well with every style. There is no reason to assume that will change in the future. Windsor design is timeless.

My advice is for Windsor chairmakers is to incorporate these themes into their sale pitch. Use these talking points when speaking with a potential customer. Explain how your handmade Windsor chairs mesh with their new priorities and new shopping habits. Above all, use these talking points when speaking with the news media. These are important points, and you want them to appear in every article about you. In other words, make a little green by explaining that green chairs are green.

Perhaps you are not a professional Windsor chairmaker, and instead work wood for your own enjoyment. Or, perhaps you appreciate and share the same concerns as compact shoppers. Here is a suggestion for you. For the same reasons as described above, consider learning to make your own Windsors.

Starting in May the government will begin sending out rebate checks. Instead of spending the check on something transitory – something that will not last — invest it in yourself. Use it to develop a new skill. Take a Windsor chairmaking class at The Windsor Institute.

You will make a chair that will last 200 years and that you will pass on to your descendants. Instead of being a stranger to your great grand children, you will be kept alive in their memories every time they tell someone about you and the family heirloom you made for them. The handmade Windsor you make at The Windsor Institute will be your legacy.

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Resolution Update

I know that readers visit these pages to read about Windsor chairs and to get the latest news from their fellow Windsor chairmakers. So, I apologize for today’s topic, as it is a bit off the subject –well, — other than it is about a guy who does happen to be Windsor chairmaker. During classes a lot of people have asked me about this and as you will see the event wrapped up only a couple of days ago, so my report on it is timely.

My first blog of the year was a list of my New Years resolutions. I am happy to report that so far, I have not missed a weekly love letter to my wife. Also, I am closing in a new chair for 2009, and it is not any I mentioned in January. If you remembered, I also resolved to finish a book I was working on.

Well, I finished a book, but it was not the one I began writing last year. If you read that first blog of the year, do you remember I mentioned that I had several books in my mind that I planned on writing someday? One of them is no longer in the planning stages. It is written, and it is now in the find-a-publisher stage.

Believe it or not, the following story is true. January 22 I had my left shoulder repaired. I came home full of drugs and with a prescription for vicodin. I took the pain killers for only two days and then stopped, as I found them very unpleasant.

I did not sleep for the next two nights. Instead of counting sheep, I lay awake and developed the entire plot for another book I had also mentioned in my first posting of the year. You may recall from that posting that my son Michael, now 15, is still friends with two boys he met in pre-school. When they were in the second grade, the three boys discovered they shared a common desire to become astronauts. They formed a group called the Comet Team, and the Comet Team’s imaginary adventures became the basis for a lot of their play together.

I always said that someday I was going to write an adventure book for young adults based on the Comet Team. Well, I finally did. It was the plot for that book that I worked out while unable to sleep for two nights.

After all that lost sleep, I just could not keep the book within me. It was bubbling out so, I started writing immediately. With a recently repaired shoulder, I couldn’t do much at work. So instead, I wrote, and I wrote, and I wrote. I wrote every day I could. I wrote at night. I wrote weekends. I wrote for two solid months until this Tuesday past, when I completed the book.

I have started to edit the manuscript and I am amazed at how clean it is. The edit is not requiring a lot of work. I am adding some detail and fleshing out some scenes, but so far, not much. Most of my editing is ironing out continuity problems. Someone wearing a blue dress in one chapter, is wearing red pants in another. That sort of thing.

I know I am prejudiced, but I really like the story. While sitting on the couch drinking coffee every morning for the past twomonths, I would read the previous day’s chapter to my wife Susanna. She is brutally frank with me and I can count on her to tell it like it is. If I lay an egg, Susanna does not ooh and aah. She tells me I blew it.

However, her reaction was very positive. She too, thinks it’s a pretty good adventure. With that kind of support I am ready to begin looking for a publisher. I expect to start shopping the manuscript around by early April. I have written other books and so, have been through this process before. I know from experience it results in a lot of waiting and frequent rejections.

In the event any reader knows a young adult book editor, I would be most happy to have the contact passed on to me. Personal contacts are invaluable and can greatly shorten the process of finding a publisher.

Thank you for reading my story. As I said earlier, I know you read this blog because you are interested in Windsors, and not with what I do in my spare time. To express my gratitude for your patience I have included a treat for you below — another example of the best of Windsor chairmaker humor. It comes to you courtesy of Sir Jerry Olson.

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A duck walks into Widow Fletchers Tavern in Hampton and orders a ham
sandwich and a Windsor chair. (For those who may have never eaten at Widow Fletcher’s the name of their martini is Windsor Chair.)

The barman looks at him and says, “But you’re a duck”.

“I see your eyes are working”, replies the duck.

“And you talk!” exclaims the barman.

“I see your ears are working”, says the duck, “Now can I have my Windsor Chair and my sandwich please?”

“Certainly”, says the barman, “sorry about my reaction. It’s just we don’t get
many ducks in this pub. What are you doing round this way?”

“I’m teach at The Windsor Institute over on Timber Swamp Road”, explains the duck.

Then the duck drinks his Windsor Chair, eats his sandwich, and leaves.

This same routine goes on daily for two weeks. Then, one day the circus comes to town. The Ringmaster of the circus comes into the pub for a drink.

The barman says to Ringmaster “You’re with the circus aren’t you? I know this duck that would be just great for you to have in your circus. He talks, he drinks martinis, and everything!”

“Sounds marvelous”, says the ringmaster. “He would make a wonderful exhibition for our side show. How about you give him a call and see if he’s interested in a job with me?”

The barman calls The Windsor Institute and makes an appointment with the duck to drop by the next day. When the duck arrives at Widow’s the barman says, “Hey Mr. Duck, I reckon I can line you up with a top job, paying really good

“Yeah?”, says the duck, “Sounds great, where is it?”

“At the circus”, says the barman.

“The circus?” the duck enquires.

“That’s right”, replies the barman.

“The circus?” the duck asks again.

“Yes” says the barman

“That place with the big tent?” the duck enquires.

“Yeah” the barman replies.

“With all the animals?” the duck questioned.

“Of Course” the barman replies.

“With the big canvas roof with the hole in the middle”, asks the duck.

“That’s right!” says the barman.

The duck looks confused. ……

“What the heck would they want with a Windsor chairmaker?”

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Steam Bending, Part II

This the second part of a very long explanation and description of steam bending. I cannot run the whole part at once, and too much goes on around here to run it over consecutive weeks. Therefore, I am posting it as I can. If you are only starting to read my blog, you may want to search for Part I and start there. Mike Dunbar.

Trees that are cut in the summer or late spring are more likely to decay quickly. At that time of the year the tree is in its growth cycle and the sap is up. The weather is also much warmer. A tree dropped in July when temperatures are in the 90s can begin to decay in a week. A tree dropped in October when the tree is dormant and the weather cool, will remain fresh much longer. In fact, we like to put in a large supply of logs in the late fall, as they remain frozen from December through March. In the warm weather we buy small numbers of logs, and more frequently.

The problem is that other than in the sapwood, you cannot always see the early stages of decay, a break down of the wood that makes it brittle and incapable of bending. Although over the phone or via email, I cannot diagnose why wood will not bend, I suspect that decay is most often the culprit. Your best protection is to know a tree’s history — when was dropped and where it has been in the meanwhile.

No matter how fresh your log, it will not remain that way. This means you need to get to work on it right away. There is no difference between wood taken from a log that has been at the mill for six months and one that has been lying in your back yard for the same amount of time.

This the analogy I use when describing wood selection during a class. Think of yourself as a farmer putting down a cow for meat. You will not take the cow out into the field, drop it, walk away, and return three months later to cut off a steak. The meat needs to be processed right away. Once it is cut up you have two choices – freeze it or dry it into jerky.

Treat a tree the same. Split it up right away. Then, you have two options, freeze it or dry it. Here at The Institute, we have a large 6 foot chest freezer which we fill with riven wood for our classes and for sale.

Unfortunately, back in the 1970s working wood that has been split from the log was been dubbed “green woodworking.” As a result many people think the wood needs to be kept wet. This is wrong, and results in a lot of ruined wood. Some people try keeping the billets submerged in water. This is unnecessary. Others wrap it in plastic. Still others wax the ends These steps only promotes decay.

If you cannot freeze your wood, allow the billets to air dry. Although successful steam bending requires the wood to be wet, the steam box will take care of that. Treat the billets like you would any other wood you buy. Keep it dry and off the ground. I remember one fellow who called because his bends were breaking. It turned out he had stored his billets on the ground under his back porch. Of course, the wood began to rot just as would a board stored on the ground.

The best place to store billets is in a garage or other unheated building. Unless you live in a desert, it will not air dry much below 10% – 14%. Wood stored this way will be good for years. I have successfully bent air dried wood I split into billets a decade earlier.

Here at the Institute we split our logs with a log splitter. Every couple of months we have what we call a “spilling party.” Fred, Don, and I, along with a farmer who lives down the road, split enough wood for our upcoming classes and for sales. The farmer Kevin, drives his tractor down here with a four-foot splitter mounted on rear. Splitting the logs this way saves us a great deal of back breaking labor.

If you are a chairmaker working on a smaller scale you will most likely split your logs by hand. Using a maul and splitting wedges, split the log into halves. This is called riving. Use a hatchet to snip any wood that is tearing from the two halves and holding them together. Otherwise, these tears may lengthen and waste good wood. Next, split the halves into quarters and then, the quarters into eighths. These eighths – called billets – have a cross section that looks like a slice of pie.

With a maul and wedge split away the pointed piece of the pie. This is the tree’s juvenile wood, and it is seldom useful. Next, use a drawknife to peel the bark off each billet. Remember, the tree’s living growth layer is right under the bark. It is wet and rich with nutrients. If left this way, boring insects will quickly make your riven billets their home.

After our splitting parties we take these billets and carefully following the grain, cut them on our Hitachi band resaw into arm and bow blanks. We use this big saw because we are cutting enough stock for as many as six classes at a time. You are not likely to place these demands on your equipment and so, can use your shop band saw. To make the stock more manageable, you might want to split your billets one more time, into sixteenths.

Once the oak has been sawn into bending stock it is ready to be worked. In our experience, stock that has been set aside for even a couple of days and has lost a bit of water will bend better than wood that is dead fresh. As I explained last issue, the use of the term “green woodworking” leads many people to think that wetter is better. However, as long as wood is not heated by kiln drying, being placed near a stove, or stored in a hot attac, moisture content is largely irrelevant. The steam box will provide the necessary moisture.

The type of chair you are making determines the stock’s shape and dimensions. When sawing, the goal is to keep the blade in one layer of growth as much as possible, as doing this perfectly results in stock with no grain direction. Following one layer of growth may result in stock that is not perfectly straight and that has a slight bow. This is not a problem, as the part is going to be bent anyway.

Like most other human endeavors sawing bending stock is not always possible to do perfectly. As a result, when shaping the wood into chair backs there will sometimes be places in the stock where you will be cutting with the grain and other times, against it.

When a tool begins to dive or choke, it is necessary to cut in the opposite direction. The greatest risk occurs when using the draw knife. This tool’s open blade can dive as it follows the stock’s grain and ruin the part. A light test cut is always best.

Do not be concerned by the light colored sapwood. In our experience it bends well. However, it does best when in compression. Therefore, when it is present, we plan our work so that it will be on the inside of the bend. In other words, so it will be placed against the bending form.

Pin knots are a real hazard, as they create weak spots. It is best to plan your work so they are removed while shaping the part. If this is not possible, we again prefer to place them on the inside of the bend so they are in compression.

When either sapwood, pin knots, or some other risk is present, our habit is to mark the area with large, dark Xs made with a Sharpie permanent marker. When the part comes out of the steam box, this reminds us that when making the Xs we had determined a preferred placement on the form.

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Odds ‘n Ends

Sir Ron Tatman attended the February 18 Balloon back chair class. He brought us a copy of a newspaper article about him and his chairmaking that was printed in the Sunday edition of The Downstate (DE) Daily. The piece ran on the front page of the “@home” section, above the fold. It included three color photos. Two of the pictures were of Sir Ron working on a settee seat. The other was a portrait of his Nantucket fan back and Philadelphia high back chairs.

By the way, Sir Ron is a member of the Delaware National Guard and expects to be deployed to Iraq later in the year. He will be leaving behind his wife Jill and two teenage daughters. The only good news is that Sir Ron has promised to stay in touch with us. He said he will be curious to see what sort of woodworking is done in Iraq, and what sorts of trees are available. It’s not likely that there are suitable trees in the desert, but I have no idea what species grow along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Wouldn’t be a hoot if Sir Ron found native trees that he could use to built the first Windsor chair ever made in Iraq?

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Another old friend attended the Balloon back class. Jim Van Hoven returned for his first class in several years. It was good to share his company again. Jim is one of the Immortals, that very small and elite group that make up the Chairmakers Hall of Fame. Anyone who has taken sack back knows of him. This is his intro. “In the old days reamed leg holes used to be all over the place. It was a nightmare. But, not any more thanks to a humanitarian, a philanthropist, and a chairmaker concerned with the well-being of his fellow chairs makers – the very eccentric, but truly genius Dr. James Van Hoven (he’s not really a doctor, but it sounds better) who gave us his innovation the Vanhovenometer.” At that point in the class I always show the class how to properly use the Vanhovenometer.

Through Jim’s generosity The Institute has received a treasured object for its permanent collection. When he returned home Jim sent us the original Vanhoveometer. It is the one he brought to class in 1994. It was the one that inspired me to add the concept to our teaching method. We have found a suitable place for it to hang on the classroom wall. It is where I can easily point it out to everyone when I introduce the Vanhovenometer. However, it is high enough that it cannot be easily reached by curious hands. A Vanhovenometer is a delicate instrument and if dropped or bumped, it can be knocked out of calibration.

Jim also gave us a copy of an article about him and his chairmaking that appeared in the local newspaper the Country Messenger. The full page article was accompanied by two color photos of Jim working. He made sure a slew of other chairs appeared in the background.

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The March 3 Nantucket fan back class witnessed a quadruple knighting as Sir George Wright, Sir Joel Barker, Sir John Robillard, and Sir Mike Shelton were inducted into the Royal Orders. They became in that order the 139th, 140th, 141st, and 142nd Knights of Windsor.

Sir Bob Longstreet played a really mean trick on his friend Sir George. Bob could not attend the knighting, so he sent us a bunch of disposable cameras to hand out to the Assembled Multitude before the ceremony. We passed them out before Sir George’s Long Kiss, knowing each guy with a camera would want to get lots of pictures of George’s most memorable moment. Sir Bob succeeded in making it one of the longest in recent memory. It went on so long my arm fatigued. To rest my arm, I had to stand up with Sir George’s lips still applied to the gaudy red bauble.

The class decided to change Sir Bob’s name from Longstreet to Longkiss. By the way, yes Sir Bob is a direct descendent of the famous Civil War general of the same name.

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The Nantucket fan back class also witnessed our first Raising of 2008. Since everyone in the February 18 class had been here numerous times, we did not have a Raising. A Raising is a spoof on the Masonic ceremony of the same name. In a Masonic raising, a Fellow Craft is raised to a Master Mason. We skip a step and raise our Entered Apprentice chairmakers directly to Master Chairmaker. We do so in an over-the-top spoof that is one long joke. We teach our newly made “masters” the secret distress call of the master chairmaker. We also show them the secret handshake master chairmakers use to identify and to greet each other.

There is not a straight face in the room during a Raising. The ceremony is obviously a favorite, as during every advanced class I am always asked several times, “When’s the Raising?”

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Spouses often tip me off when someone in a class is having a birthday. We love to surprise a student with a cake and with the rest of the class singing Happy Birthday to You.” I had the tables turned on me during the Nantucket fan back class. I turned 61 years old on March 5.

I was working in the office when I received a phone call on my cell. It was Susanna asking me to come down to the classroom. As I got near the bottom of the stairs the class broke into Happy Birthday. A cake with lighted candles was on the bench near the kitchen. After being so nice to me, I felt it would have been rude not to share my cake with the class.

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We have started to plan our 2009 class schedule. We do have to include the two settees next year — the sack back settee and the low back. Both were left out the schedule this year to make room for two Balloon back classes. Adding both settees back in will require leaving out two classes in 2009, as well. We have already decided that those two classes will be Boston fan back and NYC bow back. Both are side chairs.

These classes will return to the schedule in 2010, but if you were planning on taking them sooner, the 2008 classes will be your last chance for a couple of years. The Boston fan back is April 7, and the NYC November 17. We still have space in both classes.

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Under threat of having to sleep in my car, I have surrendered to my wife’s insistence that I clean out the clutter I have accumulated over 37 years. It all came to a head when she went up to the second floor of the new building. I have it so full of stuff that nothing more can be stored there. She has long argued that I have so many woodworking tools and items that I will never use most of them again if I live to be 100. I was ordered to start cleaning out on my own, or she was going to do it for me.

I would rather have control of the process. So, I have started Mike’s Garage Sale. I will pull items out of my hoard and put a price tag on them. When an item sells, I will replace it with another. When you are here you can check out my sale. The first two items are one of my work benches and my 12 inch planer. Items are cash and carry. I cannot get into shipping.

Susanna has been yelling at me about my piles of walnut and cherry because they take up a whole corner of the new building. They contain lots of wide stuff, as well as 8/4, 12/4, and 16/4. All I can say to the guys who have seen this wood and coveted it is drool on. Talk to Susanna after my funeral. She has threatened to get rid of everything I own at that time, and will probably cut you a sweet deal.

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