Monthly Archives: February 2009

My Favorite Things

            I love teaching classes.  I love the hustle and bustle and all the activity.  I love watching all the chairs come together.  I love the sense of satisfaction everyone experiences.

            On the other hand, I also love working by myself in a quiet shop with no distractions. I love making a project without time constraints or deadlines. I love being able to take time and appreciate what I have done.

            I love all these things. However, last week I got to do the thing I love most of all. Don, Fred, and I worked together to test the work I had put into the new Rhode Island low back chair we will teach the first time April 6.

            Let me back up a bit. A lot of work goes into developing a class.  It is very different and much more than just making a chair. It is the process of developing the information required to convey the making of the chair to others. Teaching is not a matter of saying “Do this.” It does involve that.  It also involves “This is why you do this,” and above all, “This is how you do what I do intuitively.”

            Teaching a chair requires information. The information comes in lots of forms.  It involves templates which contain all sort of knowledge.  It involves written material like procedures and the Day One sheet. It involves patterns of turnings. It involves getting and preparing any different types or different dimensions of stock.

            All this prep work gets me ready to make the first prototype. A lot of work has already been done before a tool’s sharp edge actually contacts wood. I have made temporary templates made on which I will write notes and make corrections. I have looked at every example of the chair I can find to anticipate as many problems as possible.

            Completing the first prototype leads to my favorite part – the part I love most. Fred and Don join me for a couple of days in a quiet shop. They begin by examining the prototype with their very experienced eyes. They judge it and make suggestions for corrections and improvements.  If I have done my job well the chair is pretty good. This means that their observations involve really sophisticated, higher level chairmaking. I usually can accomplish “pretty good” in the prototype.  Together, our three minds and decades of combined experience will achieve “excellent.”

            After critiquing the prototype, each of us sets about making a chair. Our three chairs go together quickly. We are all fast chairmakers.  While working we discuss the teaching process; points that need intense instruction, potential problems, and the daily sequence. I take a lot of notes.

            By late morning we were all making seats. At this point a young fellow from

North Carolina dropped by to see the shop.  He couldn’t have picked a worse day. We could not spare the time to show him around. We were very much focused on our work and not in a frame of mind to chat.  However, he did get to hear our banter.

            Legging up an X stretcher is really different from an H stretcher. I had identified some problems during the prototype. Fred and Don had suggested some solutions. Usually, I go first and test one solution. If it works, they both do the same. However, sometimes the first attempt doesn’t solve the problem. If so, we try something different on the next chair. We generally work out even the most intractable problems by the third chair.

            I had a spacing problem with the prototype’s spindles. The problem arose because blind holes are walked off on the bottom of the arm while the through holes are walked off on the top. My first correction did not work. We did not get the spacing right until Don’s chair.  When we teach the class, the students will not have any of these problems.

            You can see why I cherish these opportunities. It is like a mountain climbing instructor taking a vacation to climb the

Matterhorn with his fellow instructors.

            This process for developing a class does not end with these three chairs.  Now, we have to prepare all the materials for the class.  We have to make templates for each bench. We have to make any special tools or gauges. Finally, I have to sit at a computer and work up all the teaching materials we will use as well as all the information students will receive in their packets.

            The process we use is intense, but very effective. We use it for every new chair we introduce to our curriculum. I think it describing the process underscores two points.  First, this is why we at The Institute get chairs “right.” Lots of guys out there making chairs never put their work through this level of scrutiny. They just keep repeating the same mistakes over and over.

            Second, this is why we protect our product and do not allow other people to teach it.  Our expertise and our experience are unique to us.  We developed them through decades of effort. While we are delighted to have our students make and sell the chairs we have developed. Taking our course and then teaching it is a matter of stealing all the time and effort we put into developing it.

            A final word on the Rhode Island low back.  What a great chair! I know it sounds sexist, but this is a truly masculine chair. It is strong, ample, and robust.  Sitting in it makes one feel strong and robust. It makes me want to “call for my pipe; call for my bowl; and call for my fiddlers three.” We may schedule another class this year.  Meanwhile, I’m sorry.  The Royal Orders filled the April 6 class long ago.

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            Every month after emailing my newsletter I delete about ten undeliverable addresses from my contact list.  If you change email addresses, you do have to let me know. February 15 you should have received one titled “My Hippie Days.”  If you did not, you are no longer on the list and need to send me your new address. If you don’t, you will not receive the March 15 issue.

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