Monthly Archives: October 2009

Sir Ron Tatman

We just wrapped up three classes in four weeks. I was pretty busy during that stretch and just couldn’t take time to sit down and write. However, I do have a nice story to tell. Sir Ron Tatman just returned from a year serving a year in Iraq. He returned so recently he still has sand in his ears.   As soon as he got back he emailed to ask if he could decompress by helping out at The Institute. I told him we would be delighted to have him work with us to teach the October 5 sack back.  Sir Ron has taken sack back with each of his daughters.  So, I knew he was capable and would be a big help.

Sir Ron spent the week with us while his wife Jill studied. Jill is working on her Master’s degree in nursing.  We have enough faith in Sir Ron’s abilities that we invited him to teach a demo.  He did  the final assembly in legging up our class chair; drilling the leg holes and wedging.  Ron loved the experience so, we had him mount the arm rail as well. We did the joinery, while Sir Ron again did the final assembly and wedging.


Friday, when it came time to mount the bow, I realized that if we had Sir Ron do the final assembly in this last stage, he would have put together the entire chair.  That’s what we did. Fred drilled the bow holes in the arm. Don shaped the bow ends and fitted them. I drilled the holes. Ron put on the bow.  

Before graduation I took the chair out to the bending area and wrote a message on the bottom of the seat expressing the staff’s gratitude to Ron for his help with the class and for his service to our country. One at a time Fred and Don snuck out to sign the chair as well. At graduation we gave the chair to Sir Ron.  He got a little misty eyed.


* * * *


It’s been a while we since I posted a good chairmaker joke.  This one is courtesy of Ron Davis.  

His Grace Don Harper is a retired physics teacher and a pretty bright guy. He was driving home one night after a long day of teaching at The Windsor Institute.  The weather was warm, so His Grace had driven his Model A to work. As he putt-putted through town he got the idea to stop at the 401 Tavern. This new establishment  bought out Widow Fletcher’s last winter and His Grace had heard that the new owners had expanded the menu. He was also curious as to whether the 401 would continue to serve the best martini in town. After all, Mike Dunbar had given his secret martini recipe to Widow Fletcher’s and in gratitude the restaurant had named the drink the “Windsor Chair.”


His Grace was pleased to discover that the new establishment had retained Widow’s distinctive interior. He sat at the bar expecting his old friend Lenny the bartender to greet him. He was surprised when a robot bartender came over and asked if it could take his order.  Doubting the robot’s abilities His Grace specified, “A Bombay martini, straight up, three olives, please. Neither stirred nor shaken, but swirled.” He sipped the colorless, but flavor filled liquid. He savored the fragrant taste of juniper berry. He let it linger on his tongue and relished how the flavor was punctuated by the slight saltiness contributed by three crisp queen-sized olives. He though to himself, this martini is as good as, if not a bit better than Mike Dunbar could make.


The robot struck up a conversation. “So, what’s your IQ?” it asked Don.


His Grace was surprised by the question and so answered honestly, “On hundred and sixty-seven.” The robot paused a moment while a row of small red and yellow lights flashed randomly.  The robot then began a long and enjoyable conversation with Don about String Theory, quarks, and cold fusion. When they were done Don left. On the way home he reflected on how good the martini had been and how much he had enjoyed the conversation. However, he was curious why the robot asked him his IQ.


Driving through the center of Hampton the next night, His Grace decided to see if that martini had been a fluke. Was it possible that robot could make another as good as the first? “A Bombay martini, straight up, three olives, please. Neither stirred nor shaken, but swirled,” Don requested. Yes, oh yes. It was just like yesterday’s. 


Just like yesterday the robot began the conversation by asking “So, what’s your IQ?”


This time Don decided to try an experiment. “One hundred and thirty eight,” he answered. Small red and yellow lights flashed. Don decided the robot was changing its programming. The robot then began a long and enjoyable conversation about the stock market, politics, and Faulkner novels.


The third evening Don stopped by the 401 yet again. As he had done the two previous nights he ordered, “A Bombay martini, straight up, three olives, please. Neither stirred nor shaken, but swirled.”


After allowing Don to taste the martini the robot asked. “So, what’s your IQ?”


Don decided to continue experimenting with the robot’s programming. “One hundred and one,” he answered. Lights flashed randomly once again. Then, the robot began a lively conversation about football, NASCAR, and Miss April in the recent Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. The two gave each other lots of high fives and knuckle bumps.


The next night Don went into the tavern for another martini. “A Bombay martini, straight up, three olives, please. Neither stirred nor shaken, but swirled,” he instructed the robot.


After Don took his first sip the robot again asked, “So, what’s your IQ?”


“Sixty-seven,” Don answered with a sly smile, curious to see how the robot would respond.


Once again the small lights flashed rapidly on and off. Then, the robot asked, “So, how long have you been a Shaker chairmaker?”


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Some Days are Diamonds

            You know the words from that old John Denver song, “Some days are diamonds, some days are stones. Sometimes the hard times won’t leave me alone.” I’ve had my share of stones and hard times, but Monday this week was a gem. We were like the ants in the ants and cricket fable. We were getting ready for winter and part of our preparation was to hold our last splitting party of the year.

            I buy our logs at a local concentration yard. I begin the process by calling up the manager to make sure he has a good supply of red oak logs on hand. If he is not going to be present when I visit, he will arrange selection of logs for me to choose from. He places the logs all parallel, with one end raised on a junk log. That way I can walk around the logs and see under them as well. Being able to see whole logs makes choosing them a lot less risky.

            I felt like a kid in a toy store. I wanted all the logs. There wasn’t a bad one in the lot. However, I only needed a limited amount: enough to get use through the last classes of the year; enough to put aside for sales; and enough to provide for the first class of 2010. I chose the best, but hated to leave others behind.  The quality was that high.

            This Monday, when it came time to split the logs, the joy continued. We cut the first bolt to six feet. There are good reasons why. The November 2 class is a settee.  Each student needs two six foot blanks; one for the arm and one for the bow. The second class that month is the Balloon backs. In this class, each student makes two chairs and needs two six foot pieces. The first class of 2010 is the Tete-a-Tete, and you guessed it – each student will need two six foot pieces.  That is why we started with a six footer; to make sure we had all we needed. If the log contained any unpleasant surprises, we could still cut six foot bolts off the others. 

            The log opened hard; a lot harder than I expected from such a straight piece. This always makes me worry, as a large encased knot or other blemish could be holding it together. It took a lot of wedges and a lot of hammering, but we won. The log was perfect and a beautiful thing to behold. The grain was as straight as an arrow. Only a group of chairmakers would understand why we paused and spent ten minutes admiring the sight. (Okay. Don, Fred, and I are old. While we really were admiring the log, we were also catching our breath after swinging that eight pound maul for 15 minutes.)

            The other logs opened just as straight and clean as the first. Even their hearts were straight. This is unusual, as the heart represents the tree as a sapling, and few saplings are perfect. We usually cleave off the heart and throw it into the firewood pile.  Not this time. Most of it was good enough for bending stock.

            It took about 90 minutes to rive all the logs and split of the butts into firewood. By 10:30 we were ready to cut bending stock on our band resaw. Fred and Kevin usually do this work and they got right to it. Meanwhile, Don and I set to another task. There was a lot of 4 foot stuff left over from our spring splitting party. We decided to make it into arms and bows to put aside for winter catalog sales.  We need to keep these parts in inventory as we sell a lot of pre-bent arm and bows pairs to chairmakers who do not have the capability to bend their own wood.

            The left over stock we worked  was the dregs. Setting up a class, we go through the stock and choose the best pieces.  When someone orders bending stock, we again select the best pieces. By the time we get around to the next bending party, the old stock has been pretty well picked over and only dubious wood remains.  

            To stay out of Fred’s way, Don and I pulled the planer out into the parking lot and went to work. Monday was a beautiful fall day.  The air was dry and the sun was warm. I suggested that Don pitch (pass the wood through the planer) and I would catch (pass the pieces back to him.)  I felt pretty self satisfied with my cleverness.   Don had to do all the thinking as to how the pieces should be placed to pass through the machine. All I did was stand facing the sun, enjoying its light and warmth while I daydreamed.

            As we worked we had the steamer running. We paused from time to time to bend a batch of parts. Nothing beats a good bending day and this one was perfect. There was not a cloud in the sky. The air was warm and dry.  When we make up parts from the dregs we expect a high failure rate. After all, it is lesser quality stock. Monday afternoon, Don and I bent 33 pieces.  Not a single one broke. We had a small delam in one arm and in one bow.  Both will be easily fixed and will end up in sack back chairs. Three arms rolled up slightly, but will be perfect after drying in a vise for a week.  Like I said at the beginning, some days are diamonds.

            The wood was not only of questionable quality; it was also five months old. We had left it standing in a corner all that time and it was completely air dried. Our success bending it puts the lie to the old chestnut about needing to keep the wood wet. It should be a lesson to the guys who wrap their wood in plastic, or store it under water. A good bending day is far more important than moisture content. 

            A day this perfect could only end one way, with a perfect beer. We each had a bottle from a selection Glenn Carter had brought us from a micro brewery near him up in Toronto. You know, those Canadians are as good at making beer as Don and I are at bending.

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