Monthly Archives: November 2011

Yellow Poplar is Heavy

            Things are not as hectic at The Institute now that we have concluded the class year. However, we have a mountain of work ahead of us. Most of that work will be centered on preparing for the first couple of classes in the spring.  

Preparation for the April sack back will be straight forward, as we teach that class numerous times each year. I will begin by buying the red oak logs and having them trucked to the our log yard beside the main building. While we are well acquainted with the work that comes next, and could do it blindfolded, the work is back breaking. The logs have to be bucked to lengths of either two, four, or six feet and then, split into billets. It is easy to say, but it will take all day and will leave the three of us exhausted. What I could do easily at 35, I find grueling at 65.

After we have reduced the logs to billets, we will begin the job of cutting them into bending and spindle blanks. We also have to glue the sack back seat blanks and count and bag turnings. All those jobs are routine and repetitious. At least we can listen to the radio or talk to each other when doing seats and turnings. When we are making the red oak bending blanks and spindle blanks, we work at a screaming machine. Our ears are protected and our conversation is limited to hand signals.

The first class of the year – the Square backed chairs that you saw in the November email – will occupy most of our time this winter. I have made the prototypes. As I have already written, that took much of my spare time during the late summer and fall. That work was the tip of the iceberg –what people see. Far more of the Square backed iceberg is out of sight and reamins to be done.

As I turned the parts for the two prototype chairs, I turned one extra of each part to serve as the masters. Those will go to the turner to be copied. I broke a spindle while assembling the arm chair’s back and had to use the master. So, I still need to turn another of those. That is all that is holding me up. As soon as I have made a replacement spindle I will place my order.

Each student in the Square backed class will need two seat blanks. We will glue those this winter as well. The side and the arm use different dimensioned blanks. So, we will have to pay more attention that usual.

Each student in the class will need four bending forms; one for the spindles, the stiles, the crest rails, and the arms. The parts are bent in gangs, and this require some other fixtures, used with the forms. These fixtures are small, but have to be made. An arm chair and a side chair is the beginning of a set. We are anticipating that students will want to complete a set of Square backs at home and will purchase the equipment they used in class. So, we will make lots of extra bending form sets for our catalog. These forms will be in yellow poplar, ; a wood that works easily, but will hold up to repeated use.

The wood for all those seats and forms arrived yesterday. Don wasn’t able to come in, as he has a stomach bug. That meant I had to carry all those planks by myself. Either I had forgotten how heavy a rough sawn, 2″ X 12” 14′ yellow poplar plank is, or I am getting old. I hauled each from the back of the truck into the catalog building.  Oh, did I mention the two dozen the pine planks that arrived as well? When the truck finally left, I was panting for breath.

Today is warm; mid-50s. I won’t get many more days like this, so I plan on hauling the yellow poplar back out and placing it on saw horses. There, I will buck it into manageable lengths and rip it to dimension.  My consolation is that I can do it one plank at a time. The next step will be to plane and joint the poplar and begin a lot of glue ups. I bought  new gallon of yellow glue and don’t expect much will be left when we are done.

To receive my monthly  eLetter of essays about chairs and chairmaking, 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.





                Having wrapped up 2011, I have time to contemplate the year. Don and I witnessed a curious phenomenon in the October 17 sack back and the November 14 settee classes that caused us to scratch our heads. We were both aware of this phenomenon as it has happened before. In other words, it is not common, but neither is it rare.

            I would liken the phenomenon to a virus outbreak, either the type of viruses that infect us, or infect computers. In our case, the outbreak is some mistake or problem that is occasionally experienced by a single student. Without warning, the problem will sweep through a class. For example, in a Boston fan back class a number of years ago, a quarter of the class cut out their seats with the grain running in the wrong direction – side to side instead of front to back. I can eliminate the staff as the cause of that incident. We teach lots of chair classes that use the shield seat, and no one had ever done this before (or since.) Like contagion, the problem broke out among multiple students in that single class.

            During the October 17 sack back, we witnessed a similar thing. We teach sack back spindle making by breaking the process into several steps. First, we have the students round slightly more than half the the length of the blank’s shaft and size it by passing it through the 7/8 inch hole in the go gauge. We explain that this is the spindle’s lower end; the end that will be secured to the seat platform. When the spindle is fitted to the arm, the swelling will be on this shaft, centered seven inches from the end. I reinforce this point by holding the partially made spindle against the chair back to show its final placement.

            This first step in roughing out spindles is one of three jobs that we give the class and that will take up their first morning. (Planing the seat blank and tracing the pattern on it and making the arm and bow are the other two jobs.) After lunch, we begin bending. We assemble the class in the bending area where Don and I demonstrate the bending process.  Then, we take everyone back into the shop for the second spindle demonstration. Here, we show the class how to shape the spindle’s upper shaft. It is squared to ½ inch. It is rounded and sized by passing it through the ½ inch on the go gauge.

            While the class begins to work on the upper shaft of their seven spindles, Don takes two students at a time out to bend their arms and bows.  When the two are done, they come back into the shop and call out the next two. The first pair of guys begins work on their spindles. This goes on until about 4:00 – only two people are ever outside, while the rest are in the shop working on spindles.  I’m right there working with them, completing the spindles for the chair the staff is making.

            Periodically, I set my tools down and walk around the shop to see how everyone is doing. When I did that October 17 I discovered one guy had squared to ½ inch the half the spindle he had already rounded and fitted to 7/8. I stopped him and explained the mistake. When I looked at his spindles I discovered he already had done the same to two others.  I corrected him and told him he had ruined those three spindles. I gave him fresh blanks so he could start over.

            I moved on to another student and discovered he was making the same mistake. I stopped him and quickly walked around the room, finding two others doing the same thing. I stopped the class and explained the process again. I assumed I had stamped out the contagion. A while later, the two students that had been outside bending returned and started squaring their spindles. Sure enough, one of them began squaring the wrong end.

            I can’t explain what happened. We have never seen anyone do this before, and suddenly five people in the same class made the same mistake. I can rule out the demonstration as the cause. I did both of them. I have done spindle demonstrations so many times, I can teach them in my sleep. Only two weeks earlier I had explained and demonstrated the same process to the October 3 sack back class. Everyone in that group made all seven spindles without any mistakes. Furthermore, each student has in his or her packet a step by step procedure and a photo sheet of the spindle making process. These clearly describe the process and one of the photos clearly shows which end of the spindle to square to 1/2 inch. 

I can rule out the monkey see, monkey do effect; students copying each other. One of the guys who experienced the problem was outside. He wasn’t even present when the contagion occurred. However, he walked in and immediately became infected.  

           A month later, around 4:00 in the afternoon, while legging up his settee, a student broke a side stretcher. It snapped as he was installing the under carriage to the seat. Don spotted the problem and after helping the guy take the undercarriage apart, ran out to the catalog building and got a replacement. He gave the new stretcher to the guy, who began to lay it out the shoulders and cut the tenons. Meanwhile, I was working with a student when I got a panicked call from a bench across the room. Sure enough, another guy had broken a side stretcher.  Don made a second trip across the parking lot for a replacement. Before that outbreak had subsided, he would make two more trips.

After the class had left for the night, Don and I had our customary beer together. I reached into the scrap bucket and pulled out the four broken stretchers – all sides, no centers. Don told me that in all the years he has taught with me, he had only seen this type of break once before. It the last hour, he had seen it four times.

These outbreaks of contagion are not harbingers of bad things to come. They run their course and things settle down. The class goes on as normal. The rest of the October 17 sack back was uneventful. As you read in the previous posting, in spite of the broken stretchers, the November14 settee class actually ended a day early.

I am at a loss to explain the phenomenon. I assume a psychiatrist or other student of human behavior would describe it as mass hypnosis, or mass hysteria.  Perhaps a suggestion gets planted in some unknown way – at least unknown to us.  If you have an explanation, or a similar experience, let me know. I am curious.  

To receive my monthly  eLetter of essays about chairs and chairmaking, 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.



              This is Friday of the November 14 Windsor Settee class. Tonight, after class, we were supposed to Burn the 2011 backboards.  That is not going to happen. It’s not going to happen tonight because the five day class wrapped up in four days. The boards are already burned.  We did it last night.  

            For those of you who are not familiar with The Institute’s traditions, we begin the school year with fresh, pristine backboards. Backboards are 1 X 6 X 24 inch pine strips placed under through holes to protect the bench tops. During the first class I drill the first hole into my seat and the bit passes into the backboard beneath it. When I am done, I remove the board and everyone in the room signs it. Then, it is secured to the wall next to the white erase board, where it hangs until the very last day of the last class of the year.

            During the school year, everyone who takes a class is asked to sign a backboard, so as to be with us in spirit when we burn. When the last class ends, we take the year’s backboards to the incinerator behind the shop. There, as we read the year’s class rosters, we all take turns tossing boards into the fire. It is a fitting ceremony for wrapping up our year.

* * * *

            During the class, someone mentioned that I had not posted here for a while. In fact, according to the student, I hadn’t posted since last July. I knew I had been busy, but I was surprised it had been that long. I have excuses and I know they are worth the same as all other excuses. My son began his freshman year of college (College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA). It is amazing how much effort getting a kid into college takes. During the summer, I also wrote book six in my eight book series of young teenage adventures. You, who receive my monthly essay on chairs via email, saw the square backed chairs that I developed for our new chair next year. That project was a major undertaking.  Oh, I almost forgot, I also taught all our summer and fall classes.  That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

* * * *

The time that has passed since last July has included some significant events. Sir George Wright was inducted into the Chairmaker Hall of Fame. His innovation is known as the Right Vanhovenometer.  George’s idea was to add a pilot shaft to the Vanhovenometer. This way, the device can be used to check a hole’s angle before beginning to ream. Adjustments can begin with the initial reaming. Combined with the pilot on our reamer, the Right Vanhoveometer makes it a piece of cake to get leg angles dead on. It is a major improvement.

Sir George joins 21 others in the Hall of Fame (we call these chairmakers The Immortals). He is one of only five Immortals who are also in the Royal Orders. The question “What about the other guy?” is often asked when an innovation improves one that is already extant or, supersedes it; in this case the Immortal James Van Hoven.” He was inducted for his innovation, the original Vanhovenometer. The answer is simple.  Jim remains in the Hall of Fame, as membership is in perpetuity.  His certificate still hangs with all the others. He is still recognized as a “Humanitarian, a Philanthropist, and a chairmaker concerned with the well being of his fellow chairmakers.”

Meanwhile, we have replaced all the old Vanhovenometers on the shop benches with Right Vanhoveometers. The new innovation is now the one we sell in the catalog.

* * * *

            In September we held the Two Kids Chairs class. In it, we taught the students our joint for attaching the footrest. Everyone who takes our sack back class learns traditional Windsor joinery. I am proud of the footrest joint. It and the Brother-in-law Joint are my contributions to Windsor joinery.  I am pleased to announce I have developed another joint. Remember the bent mitered arm on the Square backed arm chair in this month’s email essay? I have worked out a really neat joint to secure the end of the arm to the stile. The guys in the March 26 class will be the first to learn it. I hope that I can adapt the technique to the Brother-in-law. If I can, chairmakers can trim that joint flush with the lower arm rail without worrying the joint will fail. I will keep you posted.

* * * *

To receive my monthly  eLetter of essays about chairs and chairmaking, 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.