Monthly Archives: September 2007

Oh, Susanna Part I

The old line “Behind every successful man stands a woman” has never been truer than it is at The Windsor Institute.  In his book Setting Up Shop  Sandor Nagyszalanczy  bestowed on me the title “King of Windsor” and we have a lot of fun with that around here.  However, anyone who has studied at The Institute knows the real power behind the throne.  It is my wife Susanna Dunbar.  

It is curious that a person who has made such a significant contribution to woodworking in general and Windsor chairmaking specifically, has no interest in either.   Yet, she is responsible for putting bread on more woodworkers’ tables than anyone else I know.   I think it is worth my while and yours for me to introduce you to someone who has made, and continue to makes, such an important contribution.   

As everyone who studies here knows, I love to tell a story.  I knew about Susanna before I ever met her. Most people are not aware that once upon a time I was very active in politics.  In 1990 I was an adviser to a congressional candidate.  The guy was brilliant, well-connected, with all the right endorsements.  He was heavily favored to win.   

His opponent was a glib glad-hander, and no bright bulb.   However, at every turn in the campaign, we were trumped.  The dim bulb was running circles around us.  I knew he didn’t have the brains to do this himself and so,  I made inquiries into who was running his campaign.  I learned it was a woman from Hampton who had previously worked for the governor, but who had started her own marketing and consulting business.   Her name was Susanna Tetlow.  

My guy lost by about 350 votes. We lapped our wounds while Susanna’s guy went to Washington with the word Honorable in front of his name.   My next job was running a campaign for a guy running for state senator.  The party’s senate campaign director suggested I meet with the person running the campaign in the neighboring district.  The idea was for us to share resources and so, he set up an appointment for the person to visit me.     

That blasted woman from Hampton walked right into my kitchen.  After recovering from the shock that I was now working with the woman who had cleaned my clock in the last election, I got down to the subject at hand.  I explained my candidate’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities.   She had me get a piece of paper and start writing.  As she threw out ideas I put them into words. An absolutely brilliant advertising campaign developed in minutes  right on my kitchen table.  We went on to work in many other campaigns and ballot initiatives together.  Sometimes Susanna would bring me in to help her, and visa versa.   

I once heard a radio psychiatrist call love “a friendship that caught fire.”  It is true.  Susanna and I first became very good friends.  Our friendship was forged and tested in the very nasty arena of politics, where everyone is out for himself, and few people can be trusted.  I found I could always trust Susanna, and she found I would always have her back.  In our conversations I also learned she was not a typical political hack.  She really had values, and believed in right and wrong.  I eventually  married her.  

In 1992 our son was born.  We had decided Susanna would be a stay-at-home mom and except for the  occasional project too good to pass up; she had closed down her business.  Within days of Michael’s birth I went off to Detroit to teach a week-long sack back class.  I came home for a couple of days and flew up to Halifax to speak.  I phoned Susanna from Nova Scotia and said I did not want to do this work anymore.  I would get a job so I could stay home with her and the baby.  She told me to hang in there, as she had been working on an idea.  

When I returned, Susanna told me she wanted to start a school.  I was overwhelmed.  I could teach very well, but what did I know about running a school?  The more she explained, the more I too, began to see.  The vision of an institute that I wrote about in an earlier post began to take shape.  We rented a space in Portsmouth.  We grew so fast the first year we knew we could not stay in that location much longer.  Susanna began searching for land where we could build a larger building designed around our vision.  

To understand Susanna and her contribution to woodworking in general and chairmaking specifically you need to understand that the woman is a study in contrast.  She is an iron fist in a velvet glove.  Her resolve is absolutely irresistible.  However, she is also very much a lady, and is notable for her compassion and generosity.  Two stories say it all.   

The Iron Fist — We built our first building during fall/winter 1995. We had established with the contractor before hand that he would be done by late December, as our lease in Portsmouth expired on December 31.  It was a very snowy year. We discovered that when it snows, contractors plow rather than build buildings,  or worry about details like schedules.  Our crew was falling way behind.  When Susanna addressed it, the builder blamed the problem on the short days, rather than the days missed when they were all plowing.  He explained that in December the sun goes down around 4:15 and no longer able see to work, the crew knocked off early.  After that, every afternoon at 4:00, with Michael in a car seat, Susanna parked out front of the building and illuminated it with her headlights.  She would not permit a bunch of hard bitten carpenters to leave the job site before 5:30.  We moved into our new building on time.  I have told Michael (now a teenager) that although his mother is only five feet tall, she can only be described as a force of nature. 

The Velvet Glove – Susanna runs a lot of errands for the business and this involves driving  from one location to another around town.  During her day she deals with a lot of people society normally thinks of as insignificant: counter help, drive through attendants, cashiers, etc. Without prompting, these people spontaneously open up their lives to her, often spilling out the most intimate, tragic, or troubling details.  Strangers waiting in a checkout line or pushing a cart next to hers in a grocery store do the same.  It is bizarre.  Michael and I joke that she has “Tell me your woes.” tattooed on her forehead.   

I suspect these people sense Susanna’s innate goodness, kindness, compassion, and helpfulness.  Whatever the explanation, the details of their lives certainly come bubbling out.  Susanna always listens, commiserates, advises, and comforts.  She truly cares about these people.  This side bar illustrates her concern.  One of Susanna’s people is a young, hard-working Romanian immigrant who works at a car wash.   He has lived very frugally so as to be able to bring his girl friend over here so they could marry.  He succeeded. As the couple’s wedding day approached he proudly told Susanna about their reception.  He had reserved a function room at The Old Salt restaurant here in town, and right up to the last minute he was still saving so he could pay for it. On her way home, Susanna stopped at the Old Salt and anonymously paid for the couple’s reception so he could use the money he had saved to start out in life.   I could tell you many similar stories.  

To be continued in  next week’s post.

If you would like to receive periodic updates, tips, tool reviews, and new sources, that are outside the scope of this blog, join our mailing list by emailing me at mike@thewindsorinstitute.com

Knightly News and Other Items

I received an email recently from Sieur Jean-Francois Theoret, who is also a professional Windsor chairmaker.  His business is called Mount Royal Windsors.  Sieur J-F, (pronounced Gee-Eff) as he is known at The Institute, informed me that he has been accepted as a member of the Quebec Arts Council.  He will be exhibiting at the council’s prestigious show Salon des Métiers d’Art in December.  

Sieur J-F has also become an amateur distiller.  He promised to bring the staff some product when he next visits.  We hope it is before December, as after that he will probably have a significant back order of chairs.

* * * * *

Sir Mark Cummins is here this week attending the 2 Kids Chairs class.  He tells us that his daughter Corryn  will be appearing in a movie with Danny DeVito.  In the past, we have reported that  Corryn  has appeared in Dell computer commercials.  Although she has been active in theater since she was a young girl, this is her first part in a movie.

Sir Mark’s son Shane participated in my friend Ernie Conover’s apprenticeship program.  He caught the bug and intends to make woodworking a career.  Shane is currently teaching basic woodworking at the Bauhaus School in Chicago.

* * * * *

Every year, the Guild of New Hampshire Woodworkers takes a booth at the Annual New Hampshire League of Craftsmen’s Fair held at Mount Sunapee State Park.  The members do demonstrations and talk up woodworking to the attendees.   To raise money for its scholarship fund, the Guild also raffles off projects donated by its members.  This year 25 items were donated and the take was a little under $6,000.  A sack back by Sir Bob St. Laurent accounted for a third of that money.  It was by far and away the most popular item.

Everyone attending a chair class at The Institute gets to meet Sir Bob.  He works at the Portsmouth Woodcraft Supply store and delivers to students the tools they have ordered in advance.   He also brings a supply of tools with him for those who wanted to touch and feel them before buying.  Sir Bob also frequently offers some incredible deals on non-chairmaking tools to our students.

Sir Bob is the reason our tool list so emphatically urges people not to buy their tools at their local store, but to instead call the Portsmouth Woodcraft.  A lot of the tools we use are very specific.  Sir Bob knows these tools and will make sure you get exactly what you need.   If you buy locally, the clerk will be guessing, and you will very likely end up with the wrong item.  Also, Sir Bob stocks some specialty chairmaking tools specifically for our students, and these tools will not be available elsewhere.

So you won’t have to go looking,  the Portsmouth Woodcraft’s phone number is 603-433-6116.  Ask for Sir Bob, Knight of Windsor.  If someone else at the store answers the phone, they will get a real kick out of it, and Bob will get teased. 

* * * * *

Mindy Judd and her father Lawrence Judd  and their chairmaking were the subject of an article in the McMinnville (OR) News Register.  The article with four accompanying photographs, appeared on the front page of the Home & Garden section. 

When Mindy and Lawrence had attended the April 16 sack back class together,   Mindy had just graduated from dental school in Boston.  Her father flew out to join her here.  Making furniture together is not a new experience for the two.  Lawrence is a retired shop teacher, and Mindy has been working with him since she was 5 years old. 

Lawrence has six other children and plans to make a Windsor for each.   He figures Mindy has already made her own.  Mindy says she hopes to someday fill her house with Windsors.  As for Lawrence, when he  completes the chairs for his children, he plans on making them for sale.

He has gotten off on the right foot with this article.  The marketing techniques we teach at The Institute explain how to obtain free publicity.  While such an article is a fun experience for all Windsor chairmakers, for those going pro we describe this in lawyer talk as a “Herein, Fail Not.”

* * * * *

While most people have articles written about them, Chuck Pezeshki wrote his own.  Besides being a professor of  mechanical engineering at Washington State University, Chuck is also a columnist for the Moscow-Pullman Daily News.  Chuck’s article appeared on the front page of the Travel section and included three full-color pictures.  While reporters frequently get details wrong, having written his own piece, Chuck got it all right.

Chuck writes that he expected to attend a class full of dedicated and experienced woodworkers, and was surprised at the mix.  He notes that about half the people who took the August 6 sack back class with him had little or no woodworking experience.  These included a retired pediatrician and his wife, and a woman who was a high school principal’s secretary.  There was also  a mother and daughter from Alaska.  The daughter had just graduated from high school, and her mother gave her the class as a graduation gift.  Despite the mix of experience and skill, everyone had completed his or her sack back by mid-afternoon Friday. 

Being a gourmet, Chuck made note of the great seafood served in Hampton restaurants. Being a mechanical engineer, he was fascinated by Windsor engineering and construction.  Being a professor, he appreciated our teaching method, which he observed is  “pedagogically focused.”  He particular liked our emphasis on mistake prevention, and the techniques we have developed to avoid  problems. 

 * * * * *

In an earlier post I wrote that in 36 years of making chairs the only improvement I had been able to add to the traditional Windsor joinery was the Brother-in-Law Joint.  That is true.  However, today during the 2 Kids Chairs class, I remembered that while I have not been able to improve the joinery, I did add a joint to our lexicon.  

In the period, youth chairs, designed so a child could sit at the table, did not include a foot rest.  When you find a foot rest on an 18th or early 19th century Windsor  youth chair, it is invariably a later addition.  On late 19th century and 20th century high chairs, the foot rest such a common feature, that today, customers demand it.  So, when I developed the youth chair we make in the 2 Kids Chairs class, I too, included a foot rest.

Foot rests added to period chairs are often make-do, and sloppily applied.  Being part of my chair’s original construction, I wanted to attach mine in a workman like manner.  I chose blind dowels, as they are neat, invisible, and socket construction —  consistent with the rest of the chair. 

As any chairmaker knows, trying to fasten a round tenon in a round hole with just glue is doomed to fail.  That’s why you are always being asked by friends and relatives to glue their kitchen chairs.  Mechanical features are what hold Windsor joints together for centuries. 

The problem I faced  was developing a mechanical feature to hold the footrest on my chair.  Forgive me if I pat myself on the back, but I think my solution is a thing of beauty.  So do all the students who learned it this afternoon, or in past classes.  When I released the clamp and the foot rest snapped into place, it sure elicited  a lot of ooos and ahhhs.  I took a bow with a feeling of self-satisfaction.  I suspect the old guys would also have approved.

 If you would like to receive periodic updates, tips, tool reviews, and new sources, that are outside the scope of this blog, join our mailing list by emailing me at mike@thewindsorinstitute.com

Windsor Recall

This one is too much fun to pass up.  I  thank  Sir Mark Ferraro for bringing it to my attention.               

   On August 23, the U. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a press release on its web site announcing a voluntary recall of  Windsor chairs by the retailer J. C. Penny.   You can see it yourself at http://www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/prerel/prhtml07/07288.html.   The press release includes the warning that “Consumers should stop using recalled products immediately unless otherwise instructed.” 

The product name is “Windsor Spindle-Back Chairs.”  Duh. What else do you expect to find in the back of a Windsor chair, but spindles?  Windsors are designated by the shape of the back: sack back, C-arm, high back, fan back, bow back, etc.  The chairs’ hazard is described as “The wood stretchers can split while in use and the chairs can collapse, posing a fall hazard to consumers.”   The report goes on to explain that  the retailer “has received four reports of chairs splitting and collapsing.  One minor whiplash injury has been reported.”   

The description of the chairs is given as follows:  “This recall involves Windsor Spindle-Back side chair sets.  The set is comprised of four chairs made of solid hardwood.  Each chair measures 36 inches high.  The backs are painted white and the seat is a natural wood color.”   

The chairs were made in Malaysia and were sold exclusively through the retailer’s catalog and online stores from April 2006 through June 2007.  They were priced at about $250 for a set of four chairs.  That is  $62.50 a chair.  

This  press release reminds me of  the puzzles we used to do as kids.  How many things can you find wrong with this picture?  In this case,   how many things can you find wrong with this chair? Since the press release does include a picture, let’s begin there.  Any experienced Windsor chairmaker will immediately notice the undercarriage.  The rear legs are actually shorter than the front.  At best,  the  pivot point is directly under the sitter’s center of gravity.  It may even be forward of it.  This chair is designed to tip over.   

That may not have been the designer’s  intention, but this is an unstable chair. When the sitter rocks on the poorly located pivot point, there is of course extra stress on the under carriage.  It is pretty predictable that rocking back due to the chair’s instability, led to the stretchers splitting and the “fall hazard.”  

Look at the seat.  It is probably no more than ¾ inch thick.  The leg joints in the seat are blind.  So how deep can those holes be –maybe 1/2 inch, 5/8 inch at the most.    How can any furniture designer imagine that is secure?  In fact, they know its not. Have you ever flipped one of these chairs over? The trick the factories use is to shoot a drywall screw through the joint. Come to think of it, $62.50 per chair may have been price gouging.   

Finally, any competent Windsor chairmaker knows that the legendary joinery that has held antique Windsors together for 200 plus years relies on mechanical joints, not adhesive joints.  Windsor joinery also depends on  the different properties of a variety of wood species.  By the third day of a sack back class, even the most novice chairmaker knows why a Windsor that is made out of one type of wood is a bad chair. 

 The chair being recalled is the inevitable nadir of a process that began 150 years ago, when early chair factories removed  chairmakers from the design process. Machines began to dictate design.  As mass production took over chairmaking, it  no longer mattered if a chair was well designed, or well made.  What mattered was saving labor.  If a machine could not create a certain effect, it was eliminated.  The only effects that were incorporated into chair design were those that machines could accomplish.   

In the second half of the last century, the furniture designer complete with college degree, entered the process.  Any remnant of the old knowledge that may have endured in chair factories was extinguished as the designer did what he was  trained to do – design.  Do designers look back to see what made chairs good in the past?  No, they want to make their own  mark, and that means coming up with something new.   

Sometime around 1980 Woodcraft Supply (then in Woburn, MA) put together an exhibit of traditional chairs by current makers.  I submitted a C-arm.  Fine Woodworking had a genuine furniture designer write a review of the exhibit.  The guy’s criticism  was  that the backs of traditional chairs were inclined at X number of degrees, instead of the industry standard of Y number of degrees.  It did not dawn on him that the standard  may have something to do with the comfort of traditional chairs vs. modern chairs.  

If you are making and selling chairs, print out this press release and post it on your shop wall.  The next time a customer, a friend, or your brother-in-law exclaims “You’re crazy.  You want how much for your chairs?”  Point out the press release. Explain that one gets what one pays for.  If someone thinks chairs should be cheap, that person is welcome to buy a falling hazard whose stretchers split while in use.  That person will also have to  buy a new set of chairs every couple of years.  Or, one can make an investment in a set of hand made Windsors that will last a life time and be passed on through the generations.  Which is the better deal?                                                   

 * * * *

I recently heard from Sir Joel Jackson.  He reports that he has sold his 150th Windsor chair.  He has enough orders pending to keep him busy until next June — a 10  month back order.

Joel also recounted  a story that made me feel good.  He wrote that he  had  recently made a set of C-arms and NYC bow back  sides for a woman.  When he delivered the chairs to her she told Joel that her first husband had taken a chairmaking class with me about 25 years ago.   He had planned on making her a set of chairs.  However, he died of a heart attack before he could accomplish his goal.   Joel, who has taken many classes with me, finally made that set of Windsors her husband (and my old student) had wanted to make.  It took two and half decades, but the story finally came full circle. 

By the way,   Sir Joel will be back to see us again in December 2008 for the Balloon back chair class. 

Why an Institute? Part II

This post is a continuation of the previous.  If you have not that one, you may want to begin with it, and then read this. 

Research is another of The Institute’s activities.  My interest inWindsors and my curiosity about them is constant.  We are able to teach chairmaking effectively, because through research  I  figured out how the old guys assembled and joined their chairs.  Our research has also extended to tools and woodworking methods. Much of my interest lately, has been in the area of design.  I have written in this space about my deep respect for the original designs, and I advised current Windsor chairmakers to avoid trying to dream up their own expressions.  Thus, in my current research I focus on understanding  how the old guys achieved their timeless designs.  I plan to write more about this in the future. 

As an institute, our research also leads on to development   Many of the tools used in chairmaking today are available thanks to The Institute.  In our very first  year I was presented with the need for tools, not only to equip our classroom, but so students could acquire them and make chairs at home.  I sought out people who had the ability and the willingness to make specific tools.  I let them copy mine,  suggested improvements, and tested their prototypes.  Most importantly,  The Institute created a market, a steady stream of people needing these tools.  This meant our suppliers could actually earn a living making tools.  It was The Institute that engendered Emhof spoon bits and tapered reamer, Crown Plane’s compass plane and travisher, the Larson drawknife and scorp,  the Barr gutter adz, Dave’s Shaves, and the Woodjoy double-fenced scratch beader and chairmaker router.  

A number of the tool makers I worked with  were older that I.  As time passed, some of them retired or slowed down.  As that happened, we developed new sources for their tools,  and brought them under The Institute’s umbrella.   

Research at The Institute has created numerous other developments.  Some have even  moved beyond the craft of Windsor chairmaking, and have entered woodworking’s mainstream.  Sandpaper sharpening, the Ultimate steam box,  the ream proof leg, the piloted reamer, and the pommel knife,  are just some our developments.  

By creating The Windsor Institute Catalog this place also produced a single source for  the products Windsor chairmakers require.   Not only are many of the tools and devices just described available though our catalog, so are chairmaking materials:  riven oak, pine seats, and turnings.   As noted by the student mentioned in the opening paragraph of these postings, an institute also publishes.  We do, too.  You are reading some of our publishing right now.  This blog  and our email list is how we keep chairmakers informed of the results of our research as well as the craft’s news,  new developments, products, and sources.   For 11 years we published  The Windsor Chronicles, a quarterly magazine for chairmakers.  The Chronicles used to serve the same purposes as this blog and our email list.  However, being a quarterly, it was far less immediate than its electronic heir.   I still do write magazine articles.  You will find them in Popular Woodworking.  Recently, I have published in that magazine what I consider to be some of the most important articles I have written.  These include sharpening,  understanding and using hand planes, and mistake avoidance.  The last article was the result of research done at The Institute, and summarizes some of our teaching methods.  If you want to stay up to date on everything coming out of The Institute, continue to read this blog, include your email address on out mailing list, and subscribe to Popular Woodworking.  

Besides founding an institute that would teach, research, develop, and publish, Susanna and I  had an even larger vision.  We wanted chairmaking to have a home.  A home meant in part  a place where chairmakers could turn for training, advice, and support.   Here is the other part.  Previously, our office, our collections, library, and supplies were all in separate places.  We wanted to create a home for the craft that would also bring all these resources under one roof.  That way, our students could benefit from them as well.  

We designed and built the buildings at The Windsor Institute.  A lot  of  planning went into our designs.  Unfortunately, many  woodworking classes around the country are taught in marginal facilities. In my travels I have taught in a lot of these places.    We wanted to avoid the problems I had observed.  Some of these problems  were pretty basic,  like decent toilet facilities, lack of heat in the winter, and  air conditioning in the summer.  We built our first building in 1995.  We included  a nice bathroom, a full kitchen, heat, and air conditioning.  We also have 10 foot ceilings and wooden floors.  The ceiling has rows of florescent lights.  The south side of the building has  very large windows on the south side for natural light.  There are plenty of electrical outlets.     

The staff cleans the kitchen and bath at the end of every day.  They also straighten out the classroom, putting tools back where they belong.  A cleaning service comes in and gives the building a thorough cleaning Friday before every class.   

On the second floor of the main building we have our office and show room.  The show room allows us to display much of our collections.  These are important resources for our students. These collections include antique tools, antique Windsors, early Dunbar chairs, 18th and 19th century chairmaking advertisements, other ephemera, and my personal memorabilia.  At The Institute, students can see things up close that they would otherwise only see in books or magazines.  

Our class room walls are covered with sharp and well-maintained tools.  We are so well equipped we have people who come with no tools at all and we take care of them.  Since I love tools and will take advantage of any excuse to buy more, we are always adding additional tools.  

As The Institute grew in both classes and activities it became necessary for us to expand.  We now have three buildings on our campus.   Susanna always tells the staff that “We only get one chance at a good first impression.”  For that reason, our grounds are landscaped and groomed.  Our buildings are well maintained and decorated seasonally.  Everything here has a place, and is in its place.  

I am pleased to report that The Institute has fulfilled our initial vision.  It has succeeded in becoming a true teaching, research, development, and publishing center.  It also functions as Windsor chairmaking’s   nerve center, eyes, ears, mouth,  brain, and beating heart.  Windsor chairmaking is alive and growing because of The Windsor Institute. 

If you would like to receive periodic updates, tips, tool reviews, and new sources, that are outside the scope of this blog, join our mailing list by emailing me at mike@thewindsorinstitute.com