Monthly Archives: April 2009

First Splitting Party of 2009

Last week we had our first Splitting Party of 2009. A Splitting Party is the term we use for the day we process a pile of oak logs. It’s hardly a party. It is a day of darned hard work. The promise of the cold beer waiting for us at the end of the day is all that gets us through it.


Fred, Don, and I get together with Kevin, the dairy farmer up the road. Kevin brings his tractor with a four foot long splitter on the back. We dubbed the tractor “Ol’ Bessy.”


The goal is to turn a delivery of red oak logs into chair material. We begin by bucking the logs to length with a chain saw. We use a lot of four foot material for sack back classes and catalog sales. We need two foot and 32 inch lengths for spindles and crests. While two guys roll the four and two foot lengths onto the splitter, the other two lay out and buck six foot lengths.  We use six foot parts for C-arm, NYC bow back, balloon back, and Settee.


The splitter slowly tears a four foot bolt in two. The real work is getting the bolt onto the splitter. Kevin is a bull of a man, and we let him do this. He drives a meat hook into one end of the bolt and grabs the other end with his free hand. Then, he pulls the bolt up onto the splitter.


The six footers are too long for the splitter. We still have to rive them with an eight pound maul and wedges. This is more than a guy in his early sixties can do without a periodic  rest.  So, Fred, Don, and I take turns swinging the maul.


After about and hour and a half we turned the pile of logs into  a pile of riven billets. Each billet represents an eighth of the log. Next, we load the billets onto Don’s pickup and drive them over to the machine room. There, Kevin and Fred start ripping them into bending or spindle blanks using our Hitachi band resaw.  Don and I get about a variety of other projects that have to be done. This time, we glued up seats for our spring and early summer classes. We also made a bunch of other parts and products for the catalog.


We leave an hour at the end of the day for clean up. By then, the resaw base is buried in a pile of saw dust so deep it has to be shoveled into barrels.  It gets dumped and composted out back. In the new building we have a six foot chest freezer. We fill it to the gills with fresh red oak.  We store the rest upright in barrels. We use this wood first.


By the end of the day we are so worn out we can barely walk. We retire to the office with those beers that have been calling our names all afternoon. We will usually have four Splitting Parties a year. We enjoy each others’ company, but we’re all happy when they’re over.


There was a bonus this year. The logs were beautiful. We split a six footer that was just perfect. At one point I realized how strange it must appear for four grown men to be standing around a freshly split log admiring it. For a chairmaker there are few things more beautiful than the “perfect log.”


* * * *


When Fred, Don, and I get together on Monday morning the first question we ask each other is “What did you do over the weekend?” The morning of our Splitting Party Fred told us he went to Boston where he and his wife Priscilla saw their son John perform at Symphony Hall. John a music major is in his third year at the

University of

Maine. He intends to go on to get a Doctorate in music. That night John was playing trumpet with the university orchestra at Symphony Hall.


I haven’t see Fred this proud since Susanna and I attended John’s Eagle Scout Honor Court. Also attending and helping when John made Eagle was his older brother Eric,  an Eagle Scout as well. Don and I are invested in John’s success, as we know him well. For that reason  I am happy to report about him. John has worked with us in the past. In fact, he has helped out at his share of Splitting Parties. When John was a high school senior he took a sack back class.

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RI Low Back Update

The RI low back chair class was a blast. The first time we teach a class it is like Homecoming Day mixed with a frat party. I can’t fully describe what it is like when all the old regulars get together. It is pandemonium. They joke with each other.  They joke with the staff.  We all laugh all week long. 

The class went very well. There was an incredible amount of talent in the room. As usual they suggested some tweaks that will benefit the next group that does that chair. By the way, that will be September 14. I had such an over flow of people wanting into the first class that I opened a second.   I was gratified that the class universally acclaimed the chair. I like it a lot. They did too. It is not only a handsome and masculine chair, it is very comfortable. 

By the way, I gave some misinformation in my earlier blog.  There were five Dukes of Windsor present, not three.  Add HG Don Harper who teaches here, and six of the 18 Dukes were in one room. That is 1/3 of them. 

* * * * 

HG Ralph Quick emailed us when he got back from the class. He and his wife Caron had been selected again for the Early American Life magazine list of

America’s 200 Best Craftsman. It is the couple’s sixth year in a row on the list.  In the middle of this horrible recession, can you believe that His Grace is still back ordered until August 2010.  

* * * * 

Sir Larry Wolf wasn’t at the RI Low back class, but he did email me a poem. He wrote concerning it: “A neighbor knows I make chairs and someone in her book club read this at a recent gathering. She thought I’d like it; I thought it must have been written for/about you.

I look forward to seeing you later this year at the 2 Kids chairs class. We’re due to become grandparents this July.  Larry.” 

 The Man Who Loves Chairs  By Terry Martin


The way some men need women,

He needs chairs. Sleek lines that

Curve toward clearer skies,


Arms that hold in wooden silence.

His behavior in regard to chairs

Is always correct-passionate,


But honorable. He does not approve

Of tipping forward or leaning back.

Collector of lovely things,


He owns a vast prairie of chairs,

Knows each one’s secrets. No moderation

Here. He will never have enough.


He tells you of the well-being of his,

Inquires about yours.

All decisions That count are made sitting,


Rulings final as the knife’s edge.

He sits straight-backed among them,

His legs crossed at the knee.


And what could be more right

Than for a man to live surrounded

by what he is willing to love?


* * * *


It has been a while since I included our feature A Duck Walks into a Chair Shop. We call that feature the best of chairmaker humor. The inside skinny is that chairmaker humor is pretty bad.

A Shaker chairmaker was working at his shave horse one day.  (Shaker chairmakers use shave horses.  No self respecting

Windsor chair maker would.) Suddenly, the handle on the Shaker chairmaker’s  drawknife broke.  Held only in one hand the runaway blade whistled past his head.   The Shaker chairmaker was lucky not to catch the knife in the head, but he was not totally lucky.  The knife blade sliced off his right ear.  As the blood flowed down his cheek, the Shaker called out to the rest of the shop for help.  Seeing what had happened everyone put down his tools and attended to the wounded chairmaker.   One of the Shakers harnessed  the horse to the buggy so they could  hasten their injured colleague to the hospital to have the ear stitched back on. The others got down on their hands and knees to look for the ear.  Knowing they were in a race against time, they sifted through the pile of shavings on the floor.   At last one of them shouted an exclamation of success and held aloft a bloody ear.  “I have it,” he proclaimed. 

“Let me see it,” said the wounded chairmaker.  After examining the ear closely he announced.  “No. That’s not my ear.  Mine had a pencil behind it.” 

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Reporter at Large

This post we have a guest writer. The author is Patrick Taylor. Patrick is a junior at Philips Exeter Academy. Every student in this grade at PEA does a project known as Reporter at Large. The assignment is to interview someone concerning his or her work and write a paper as if the student were a reporter. Patrick asked me to be his subject.I have known Patrick since he was four years old. He and my son Michael attended pre-school together at Sacred Heart School here in Hampton.Patrick left after the sixth grade to be home schooled. However, Michael, Patrick and a third boy in their class named Nick have remained good friends.  

In the second grade Patrick, Mike, and Nick formed the Comet Team with the goal of becoming astronauts and being the first people on Mars. Patrick is the inspiration for the character Patrick Weaver in the series of middle grade adventure novels I have been writing. Their friend Nick inspired the character Nick Pope, and my son Michael inspired Mike Castleton. In the first book the boys do make it to Mars. 

The Comet Team may not achieve that goal in reality. However, they are all doing well in high school and I have no doubt they will all accomplish things of equal magnitude.  As you read Patrick’s writing realize he just turned 17 years old.  I know few adults who can write this well. 

* * * * 

“You can sit on a rock, but that doesn’t make it a chair,” he reclines slightly, “A good chair needs to be handsome, comfortable, and strong.  A great chair needs to be timeless.  I like to think of it this way: you don’t go into a museum and look at a classic painting just because it’s hundreds of years old.  You look at it because it’s beautiful, the best there is.”  He leans forward, placing his callused hands onto the table in front of him. 

“Windsor chairs are like sharks; they’ve been perfected by evolution.  We haven’t found any way to improve the design of a Windsor. The curved back of the chair flows into a steam-bent crest rail.  A tail brace connects the backrest to the rounded seat, while armrests follow the curvature of the frame.  The legs – held together by a support brace – provide a base for the thick undercarriage of the chair…” he pauses, clearly enthusiastic, “They’re highly engineered; tough and flexible, rather than rigid.  But a Windsor is more than just a well built chair, it’s an unchanging design – a work of art.

“This is what I’m trying to do, create a chair that transcends time and space.  No matter what year it is, no matter where it is, I want someone to look at one of my Windsor chairs and respect it for what it is, not merely fashionable, but rather, eternal” 

 * * * 

The Windsor Institute is nestled down a long country road in the backwoods of Hampton, far away from the sandy beaches by the coast.  The shop is a small, light blue building with a slightly oversized gravel parking lot.  An American flag hangs by the large French doors at the front of the building. 

Mike Dunbar ushers me into his shop with a big grin on his face.  “Well this is it,” he says, “The Windsor Institute.”   

Mike stands almost six feet tall, with strong shoulders like a football player.  He wears a green-collared shirt with the Windsor Institute logo on it.  Around his neck hangs a black woodworker’s apron, discolored with varnish and sawdust.  A glance at his callused hands will show a long history of craftsmanship and woodworking experience.

Mike walks confidently – the sign of a master chair builder – always aware of his location within his quaint workshop.  As his students work, Mike keeps a close eye from the end of the room.  He stands back to let them build their chair, but he’s ready in an instant if anything goes wrong. 

“I’m someone who’s very energetic about his job.  I really enjoy making Windsor chairs, and I’m trying to pass that same energy on to my students,” Mike says, still watching the class. 

“Anyone can learn to build a chair from a video or the internet, but when you do that, you don’t feel connected; you’re just making something.  A chair builder needs to be passionate about his creation, and you can only get this type of passion in person.  I need to have an infectious enthusiasm, something that will allow these students to enter my world of chair-building.  To have a masterpiece, there must first be a master.     

Around me, I hear sanding and hammering.  Five large workstations are scattered about the beige-colored room, several men working at each one.  A lonely olive drill press sits in the corner; it is the only power tool in sight.  Flags surround the entire room; it seems there is one from nearly every continent. “As you can see, we have students coming from all over the world.  We’re still waiting on someone from Antarctica, though,” Mike says, smirking.    

Across from where I’m standing, I can see a number of old-fashioned woodworking tools hanging on a custom-built rack.  Beneath that is a pile of neatly organized maple legs, ready to be used in a Windsor chair.   

Evening light flows through the French doors into the already well-lit room.  At the workstations, I can see chairs in various stages of life, some have legs, some seats, and others are just parts waiting to be carefully assembled. 

Mike glances around the room with his light blue eyes.  He looks at the project Windsors scattered throughout the shop, casually inspecting each for imperfections.  He pauses at a half-built chair.  A student is hastily shaping the seat of the chair with an adz.  He pauses as he sees Mike approaching.  Mike bends down to examine the seat.  He squints and says in his New England accent, “Perhaps if you use the adz more like this…” 

He trails off as his skilled hands glide over the coarse pine.  He places himself above the chair, bending slightly at the knees.  He stares intently at the pine surface.  Grasping the adz firmly, he begins to carve.  Slowly he chips away at the rough surface of the wood, whittling away towards the center.  He pauses, stepping back to analyze the seat.  He leans in and squints, as if it were his own creation.  Nodding his head, he hands the tool back to his student. 

“Don’t worry about the seat, it’s made of pine, chopping harder isn’t going to hurt it.  We’ll be able to refine what we have here later.  Keep working on it and you’ll have a fantastic finished piece.” 

Mike pats the student on the back encouragingly, and strides to the end of the room.  He smiles, looking at his student.  He turns to me and says, “He’ll do well.” 

*      *        *   

“It all started in college.  I was at a yard sale, actually; I had never intended to buy a chair, but this one…”  He smiles pensively, “It really captivated me.  I brought it home and set it down in my tiny apartment.  But I never sat in it; I found myself sitting across from the chair, looking at it from different angles.  I even used candles to look at the thing in different lighting.  It may sound strange now, but that chair was absolutely perfect to me.”  His passion for chair making began with a $10, antique Windsor.  That purchase turned Mike Dunbar’s life completely around.  He quickly realized though, that his new passion for Windsor chairs would be expensive, most cost upwards of $100.  Young Mike – still in college – didn’t have the money.

“So my next thought was, if I can’t buy them, I’ll have to make them myself.  There was a problem though; I didn’t have any prior knowledge of woodworking.  So I learned how to make my first chair from instructions in books.” “It was rough,” he says, chuckling, “Wobbly, uneven, maybe a little unsafe to sit on; but it was my chair, and I was proud of it.”

Mike’s business started out of a rented garage, answering an ad in Early American Life magazine for fifty Windsor chairs.  He sold every chair for nearly $100 each.

“My first real job making Windsor chairs, though, was at Strawbery Banke.  I’m trying to remember what the title was…” he taps his foot against the floor, “Resident Chair-builder – that’s it.  I created a number of period pieces to be displayed throughout the 18th century homes in the village.”

Mike’s big break came when he was interviewed by a local, Portsmouth magazine about his Windsor chairs. “They initially came to interview a man who builds boats; but when the journalist came into my shop he immediately recognized the Windsors.  They decided to do a story on me instead, and surprisingly, I was put on the cover page.  That article was my entrance into the woodworking community.  After that I was literally swarmed with letters asking about  Windsor chairs.” 

Mike was asked to speak at Briham Young University chair conference in 1979.  He was so popular at the conference that he was later asked to teach a course on

Windsor chairs.  “The course almost immediately filled up.  When people came to the first class, I found out that most of them had no experience with woodworking.  The first day was a disaster; things did not go according to plan.  I spent the whole class just introducing the students to woodworking.  Even worse were the tools; they were over engineered and cheap.  Needless to say I was quite fazed,” Mike pauses, “We never actually completed a single chair, but in the end, everyone left with a big smile on their face.” 

Mike was ready to teach another course, but he needed to come up with a plan to acquire better tools.  “I found a man in Ohio, Ernie Conover, who was starting up his own tool company.  He was able to make the equipment I needed.  He and I started talking about the course, and actually, we decided to set up our own class.  We worked all around North America, teaching lessons from Ohio to Seattle.  Our courses were steadily improving, every time we did a class, we did it better.  But I was getting tired of travelling.  I remember I was in Montreal, and I called Sue,” he gestures to a picture of his wife, “I told her I couldn’t do it anymore, I couldn’t leave her and Michael alone for weeks at a time.  But giving up woodworking wasn’t an option.  So she and I concluded it was time to open our own place.”  Mike rented out a store in downtown Portsmouth, NH to hold his classes.  He relied on word of mouth and his own reputation to attract customers.  The first few classes were adequate; most of the spaces were filled.  “Then – I don’t know what happened – we were booked solid for year.  Of course this was good, but we just didn’t have the space to hold our courses.  So we eventually built our own place here in Hampton.  And I’ve been here for what…” he furls his brow, “Near thirteen years, now.” 

Mike’s career snowballed, and he is now considered one of the foremost experts on Windsor chairs.  He’s been featured in numerous magazines and television shows, and even received the title “Duke of Windsor” from a local newspaper. 

“There was a time in my life when I resented that I was known only for creating chairs.  People would come up and ask me if I did anything other than make Windsors, and I would take great offense at that,” he pauses.  Hanging behind him is an article from the Wall Street Journal titled, ‘Windsor Chair Gets a Standing Ovation’, with Mike’s picture prominently on the front.

“But I’ve reached a point where I’ve become comfortable with my identity… I’ve been asked if I’ll ever do anything else, and I say to them, you dance with the girl you came in with.  When I check out, this is who I’m checking out with.”  He glances over at the article on the wall and smiles.         

“Mike Dunbar and Windsor chairs go hand in hand, you know.” 

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I have been lax.  We have been through two classes this year and I have not updated you. There is a reason. I have been tied up with the addition to our house. I expect to have the Certificate of Occupancy in hand as early as Monday. Meanwhile, I have been busy filling in for the useless, incompetent builder I am paying 20%. Just before final inspection he went on vacation without telling me. He left no one in charge of the project. That’s why I had to take over.


I could write a book about this addition, but no one would publish it.  They would think it was fiction. No publisher could believe that a builder could be so incompetent and inattentive. Nothing has gone right.


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Let’s talk about some happy things. We led off 2009 with the March 9 Nantucket fan back.  Along with C-arm, this is my favorite chair. Tuesday morning we held the Drilling of the First Hole ceremony.  This was our official start of the new school year. The backboard signed by everyone present hangs on the wall next to the dry erase board. A photograph of the class is pinned to it. The Board will hang there until late afternoon December 11. Then, at the Burning of the Backboards, it will be the first board into the fire.


The class was witness to a double knighting. Sirs Brian Offut and Jim Janicki became the 151st and 152nd Knights of Windsor. Brian’s wife attended the ceremony.  She brought Brian’s two year-old, identical twin daughters so they could see Daddy act silly with all his friends. The two girls are so cute you just want to pick them up and squeeze them. I now understand the old actor wisdom about “never work with dogs or kids.”  The twins stole the show. Even as the goofy King of Windsor I couldn’t get the Assembled Multitude to pay any attention to me.


By the way, Sir Brian is a school teacher. A poster created by his school library showing Brian with a sack back chair and holding a copy of one of my books hangs over the toilet in the shop bathroom. So, everyone who has studied here knows Brian.  Guys, he’s the one staring you in the eye. Ladies, he’s the one looking over your shoulder.


We held our first 2009 sack back class two weeks later. This class was noteworthy for a couple of reasons.  The most important is that the record for the youngest person to ever take a sack back class was blown out of the water.  It sank like the Titanic.  It fell out the sky in flames and crashed and burned. My son set the record when he was 12 years, six months old. Until now he was the youngest person – boy or girl – to ever take our sack back class. Not anymore. Sara Lewis was 12 years 20 days old when she began the March 23 class. She shaved more than five months off his record.


Sara is now famous, but soon will be known to more than just you chairmakers reading this blog. The March 23 class was covered by WCSH Channel Six, the NBC affiliate in Portland, Maine. The program was supposed to be about me and The Institute. Once again, I was upstaged by a kid. (Take my advice. Don’t work with dogs or kids.) The interviewer was very anxious to talk with Sara (even though she’s from Washington State, and I’m from neighboring NH) The segment will air on the station’s magazine named 207 (That’s the Maine area code. I didn’t get it either until Fred explained it to me. He lives in

Maine and knows those things.) You will be able to watch it through the station’s website  I’ll give you a heads up when it airs.


This Monday morning, we begin the April 6 R.I. Low back class. I am excited.  I really like this chair. Also, the class is made up of all the old regulars. The class contains two Dukes of Windsor, three Earls, and eight Knights. There are also a handful of peasants. Someone has to do the bidding of all that royalty.  There has to be someone to flog if anything goes wrong with a Duke’s chair.


His Grace Ralph Quick, Lord Woody Leland, and Sir Bruce Mosher reserved the other three vises on my bench. I will have to move elsewhere if I want to get any work done. This group will keep me rolling on the floor laughing.


Next post, I’ll give you a report on the week. Meanwhile, a lot of you missed out on this class, and grumbled when I told you it was full. To sooth your hurt feelings, I have scheduled another R.I low back for September 14. If you don’t get into that one right away, I will have no patience with your complaints.  I have given you fair room and fair warning.


* * * *

We heard from Sir Ron Tatman today. He emailed:  “I just returned from my two week R&R rotation. It was a welcome break, but much too short.  Jill and I managed to find the time to tour the Winterthur exhibit of eastern

Massachusetts furniture. There were several types of Windsor chairs in the exhibit, including several

Nantucket fan backs. One example was duplicated by Sir Dan Santos, who I have taken a chair class with. There is a video of Sir Dan demonstrating some of the period tools that he uses. There is also an example of an unfinished fan back and examples of some of the joints used. The video and the chair were outstanding and added much to the entire exhibit.

“The fan back Sir Dan replicated was smaller than one we build. It took a while to get used to. The seat is much smaller. The chair looks lower in height even though the other features seemed to compensate for the smallness. Some fan backs end up with stocky stretchers which take away from the design. The example that most resembled the fan back that we make stood out from the others because of its size and simplicity of ornamentation.

“As interesting as everything was it was also torture. I did not get to work on any chairs while at home. My only shop time was band sawing out enough carving blanks for me and another soldier to carve for our remaining time here. Carving makes the time pass as does looking forward to the blog and the emails. It is good to hear that many of my fellow chairmakers are doing well.”


After my March 15 eNewsletter I heard from Sir Ron’s wife Jill. She noticed the chair first. Ditto Sir Joel Jackson’s wife. Kind of embarrassing if you call yourself a chairmaker but saw a guy threading a needle, or a Saturday Evening Post cover.

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It has been a while since I heard from Sir Croxton Gordon. Croxton is one of four people (three living) both in the Royal Orders and the Chairmaker Hall of Fame.  There have been exciting things going on in his life. It looks like we now have to call him Your Immortal Honor, Sir.


“Master, I hope you will forgive my lack of communication.  Executive summary: life is great, I’m the luckiest guy alive, and I still enjoy making Windsors as you taught me.


“More than three years ago two judgeships opened up in my area.  I threw my hat in the ring for the Juvenile & Domestic Relations court, and after a year and a half of political wrangling, I got the job.  It’s exhausting and rewarding.  Most nights I don’t have the energy to go to the shop and play, however.  I’m averaging about four chairs a year these days, and am in the middle of #121.  That’s a lot of spindles since that week in Atlanta!

“Ellie is active in school and community affairs, and continues to search titles for a local title insurance company.  The real estate business has, of course, taken a hit, so she’s not as busy as several years ago.  My daughter, Laura, is married, living in

Fredericksburg, and works with battered women in the courts. We can talk shop!

“John is 11 and excels at everything he tries, including sports, guitar, and academics. He’s the one we nearly named Emhof or Travisher, thanks to your martinis with Ellie at the beginning of the fan back class. 

“Christian, 13, is as big as I am, and stronger, rowing with the crew team, and reading and thinking.

“The Immortal Paul Schutz has taken a job with Hawaii Telecom managing their IT budget and vendors, or something like that.  High pressure, but great company and setting.  

“I see John Robinson occasionally, and speak to him often. He’s still making lots of chairs, but is also raising horses–show jumpers. Crazy.

“I just discovered your blog–good job!  It’s nice to hear news from Camelot.  Could you add me to your email list?  Please give Sue my warm regards.  Cheers, Croxton 87th Knight of Windsor”

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If the (dep)recession is pinching you, here is an offer.  We want to buy back any of the following tools you may have bought from us – drawknife, scorp, pommel knife and Smart Reamer. We only want these tools and they have to be our manufacture. Drop me an email.

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To receive my eNewsletter of periodic updates, tips, tool reviews, and new sources, that are in addition to this blog, join our mailing list by emailing me at Help us spread the word about this blog. Tell others