Monthly Archives: January 2008

Knightly News — Sir John Clark K.O.W.

The Royal Orders has been growing steadily since it was first formed in 1999. However, a couple of weeks ago with the death of Sir John Clark, K.O.W its membership experienced a small but significant decrease.

Sir John had been battling pancreatic cancer for much of 2007. He lost the battle Sunday morning January 20.

Sir John began his chairmaking with sack back in August 2004. He was accompanied to that class by his teen aged son Geoff. Father and son took the March 2006 Nantucket fan back together, as well. Geoff is what old timers would have called a strapping lad. He wrestled heavy weight on his high school team, and none of his tall frame was fat.

Sir John was a hands-off companion for his son. In other words, the two worked side by side building their chairs, but Sir John would never butt in or say to Geoff “Do it this way.”

Geoff finally went off to college, and Sir John continued to take chair classes on his own. However, each time he returned he kept me updated on Geoff’s life.

In 2006 Sir John had joined us for the November settee class. Around June 2007 I received a call from Sir John’s wife Sharon, inquiring as to availability for the August c-arm class. She told me Sir John had been struggling with pancreatic cancer, which had been diagnosed a while after his last visit. I was stunned, as he had been quite healthy at the settee class.

Sharon told me that knowing the odds he faced, Sir John had expressed his desire to become a Knight of Windsor. He still needed c-arm to complete the curriculum, and the only date was the August class. I told her I had space, but even if I had not, I would have blown out a wall to make it.

Sharon said she could not foretell how much strength Sir John would have in August, as it depended on so many factors, such his treatment regimen. However she said that if necessary, she would come with him and help him make it. I told her she was more than welcome to come, but I and the staff would be sure Sir John had any help he needed, should his strength flag.

Sir John arrived for the class. He had lost weight and he was more subdued than he had been during previous visits. I took the opportunity to talk with him during the week and concluded that while he was in good humor, he was husbanding his strength. During the week, staff members, Susanna, and guys who knew John from previous classes all took turns spending time with him. I know these are memories that will now take on added importance for us.

As usual, knightings occur Thursday afternoons. Sir John was one of four to join the Orders that day. When he descended and assumed his position before the throne, I offered to have him sit on a stool. However, he declined and knelt through the antics that make up a Royal Orders ceremony.

Sharon had arrived to observe. She planned on staying at Lamie’s Inn with Sir John, and returning home the next day. Like all wives watching their husbands knighted Sharon availed herself of the opportunity to take lots of pictures and to draw out the Long Kiss as much as possible. Sharon stayed with Sir John through the rest of the afternoon and took advantage of the relative quiet of The Institute’s library to catch up on her work. She and the newly minted Sir John had dinner together that evening. Of course, Sir John received lots of advice from his fellow knights about how women really dig a man in armor, and that he should wear his helmet and sword at dinner.

The last time I saw and spoke to Sir John was as he prepared to leave on Friday afternoon after graduation. However, I did speak with Sharon again. She called around October inquiring about space in the November Philly high back class. She said that the c-arm class had been the best therapy Sir John had experienced. He returned home energized and excited. She wanted him to have that boost yet another time. I told her I had space, but again if not I would blow out a wall to make it.

Sharon said she would get back to me after speaking with Sir John. I did not hear back. I assumed that was not a good sign. Around Christmas I found a message from Sharon on the answering machine. She apologized for not getting calling again, and wished us a happy Christmas season. I waited until the holidays were past to call her back. Very early in the conversation, I inquired about Sir John. She said he had not had a good autumn. I was stunned when she told me that at that moment hospice was with him. I could find no words other than, “I am so sorry.” And I repeated it over and over. Then, Sharon and I cried together.

She told me the kids were there with her and that the family was doing a lot of laughing. They were sharing, the stores, the memories, and the experiences all happy families have. She said that Sir John had some chairs under way that Geoff would have to complete for him. I told her I would help Geoff do that in anyway I could.

Our conversation ended with good wishes for each other and my request she keep me posted. Last week, while I was out of work because of my shoulder surgery, Sharon left the sad news on the answering machine. Unfortunately, I did not receive it for several days.

Sir John was a good guy. He was not laconic, but his humor was straight faced and ironic, as opposed to my laugh-out-loud, farcical approach to life. Sir John was the guy who reduced the room to laughter with a dead-pan one liner.

Sir John had his values in order. He was obviously first and foremost a husband and father. He was a veterinarian and ran his own practice. Susanna is the type of pet owner who is certain that every sneeze made by one of our dogs is the first symptom of something terrible. Sir John was always willing to look over our dogs and reassure her they were fine. We rescued Angus, our white boxer the weekend before the 2006 settee class. Angus’ first day at The Institute coincided with Sir John’s first day of class. At Susanna’s request, he examined Angus and told her his skin condition was mange. He also gave her advice on how to bring the badly malnourished boxer back to good health.

The world needs more Sir John Clarks, but instead we have one less. This makes me think of the line from John Donne’s poem. “Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.” The baleful bell ringing for Sir John really tolls for us, as his departure is our loss. We are all diminished by losing him.

A memorial trophy for fallen members of the Royal Orders hangs on The Institute’s library wall. It is made of a shield, sword, and helmet. Under the trophy is a plaque with the names of those we have lost. Sir John’s name will be added there.

Sir John always staked out vise #2, the corner closest the door on the green bench. Not yet being in the Royal Orders, he was not entitled to reserve the vise, so he stowed his gear there as soon as he arrived on Monday mornings. As a knight, Sir John now has the privilege of reserving the vise of his choice. As King of Windsor I am issuing a royal proclamation that henceforth, vise #2 is reserved for Sir John Clark K.O.W in perpetuity. Other people are welcome to use it, but if he ever wants to be stationed at that vise during a class, it belongs to Sir John.

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

Odds ‘n Ends

            By the time you read this, I have most likely had my shoulder surgery.  It’s happening at 7:45 AM January 22.   I’m going to be out of the office for perhaps two weeks.  I will be on the run with David Jansen in hot pursuit.  (That’s an age test.  If you don’t get it, you are too young. Ask your parents who David Jansen chased.)

              Please do not call, unless absolutely necessary.  If you do, Sue can give the message to me, but it will make things a lot more complicated and drawn out.  When I am able to get up, I will read and answer email from the home computer.  So, if you want to sign up for a class,  that would be the best way to do it.  To safely send us your credit card number, go to our web site and select our on-line catalog.  The catalog has a secure order form that sends information encrypted.  You will have to select a product (like a hat) to make the form work, but remind me in the memo section you are just using the form to send me your CC#, and I will ignore the order.  If you want to order something from the catalog, please understand that you will not likely receive it for a while.

               The past several days I have been pretty busy battening down the hatches and lashing the wheel to the mast.  Thus, I cut a couple of corners with the blog this week by taking advantage of some small, but interesting things I have had on my desk for while.

                The first is from Sieur Vincent Lavarenne,  Le Premier Chevalier de France.  Sieur Vincent lives just outside Paris.  We proudly boast that our goal is for handmade Windsor chairs to take over the world. Vincent is our guy in France charged with converting that country.  I was happy  to receive the following from him, indicating that he is doing a good job with his assignment.   

Hi Mike: 

              I read your blog to keep me informed about the WI. Yes, I ‘m making chairs and like it so much that I wish I could be a full time chairmaker. 

             And I begin to be heard in my country when I talk about Windsor chairs, especially at the 150 members Woodworking Association  I now belong to.

               And yes, I was very  pleased when my daughter asked me to make a little chair for her first child … 

               Thank you so much, Mike for giving me the Windsor Chair Virus!

    Vincent  

* * * * 

                File this one under “Darn! If I had found this I would have sounded so much smarter.”  Sir Ken Hall was here for the final class of the 2007, the Balloon back class.  It is the same class we are using to kick off 2008.  In response to my recent two-part blog about the risk to quality in our tools and instruction,  he sent me the following:

 Mike:

               A very Happy New Year to you and yours.  I hope your operation was successful. 

             First let me say that I don’t have your adroit ability with words so please bear with me. A big thank you to everyone for all their help during the Balloon Back chair class – it was greatly appreciated.  Due to your change in process (a new technique  we will be teaching from now on) the 2nd chair went much more smoothly than the first. 

                 I enjoyed reading about Gresham’s law which is mirrored by John Ruskin’s statement regarding the quality of goods:

                 There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little  worse and sell a little cheaper,  and the people who consider price only are  this man’s lawful prey.”

                (John Ruskin (8 February 181920 January 1900) is best known for his work as an art criticand social critic, but is remembered as an author, poetand artist as well. Ruskin’s essays on art and architecture were extremely influential in the Victorianand Edwardian eras.)  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Ruskin

                Regarding a new class is 2009 I would urge you to seriously consider the larger Philadelphia chair.

Sir Ken Hall

* * * *

                  In my recent A Duck Walks into a Chair Shop…. I mentioned Michael Harding-Hill and his book about English Windsors.  This prompted an email from Michael updating me on his life.  In it, he mentions a couple of opportunities some of you might want to take advantage of if you are in High Wycombe.

                    Michael mentioned a very early Windsor chair in the High Wycombe museum and offered to send me a picture. I did ask to see it, and he kindly sent it along with information about this very important chair and its maker.  The picture and the  information about maker John Pitt will be included in my February 15 email newsletter.  You will not get it unless you are on our distribution list. Instructions for getting on it are at the end of each posting. Just send me an email.

Dear Mike:

                 I have just been reading your blog.  I didn’t know it existed. Thank you for your kind mention of my book.

                  I thought I’d let you know that I have closed my shop and gone into semi-retirement. However, I will still keep my website, and what’s more important and what may interest you is,  my collection which is for sale is now at Steward Linford’s  in High Wycombe. Stewart has dedicated a Chair Making Museum within his original factory. I’m sure if you or any of your students happen to be in England you or they, would be most welcome to tour the factory and the Chair making museum. 

                 Also you might be interested to know that in the Wycombe Museum just a few minutes from Stewart Linford’s factory, they have a John Pitt chair, circa 1750.  It has been lacquered and has the coat of arms of the City of  Bath painted on the central splat. If you would like a picture of it I will be glad to send you one. 

                  I am now working on a another book this time about the origins of the Windsor Chair  of the 18th century and before.

Best Wishes and Kind Regards   Michael Harding-Hill

* * * * 

                 Anyone who has taken sack back  has heard me warn in my opening remarks that “We are about to ruin you for life.  Up until now you have not paid attention to chairs.  They are just part of the back ground, and you do not think about them until you want to sit.  From now on you will be examining chairs.  You will humiliate your  friends and family.  You will go into a restaurant and placing a chair on the table, will loudly proclaim so all the other diners and the wait staff will hear, why it is such a bad chair.  You will flip over your neighbors’ kitchen chairs to show them why they are such shoddy work.”  Here’s proof that in my opening remarks, I am not exaggerating.  Mike Sherman sent me this email recently.  At the end of the note he mentions my January 15 email newsletter about the  Work Sharp.

 Dear Mike: 

              I was in Fraunces Tavern the other night (one of the oldest taverns in New York) and all the tables had Windsor sack back chairs.  Of course, I had to inspect them in front of others at a leaving party we were having.  Fortunately many knew of my hobby, so they did not think I was completely off my rocker hefting one up to check the construction.  They looked right, good legs, tapered tenons, and I could see the wedges.  The trouble was they were all smooth and looked just alike.  No chairmaker could do that.  Of course, perhaps some chairmaker years ago got a great commission.

                  Thanks for writing about this  (Work Sharp).  I have seen ads for it, and have considered it, but your recommendation puts it in the buy column.  I just called Portsmouth Woodcraft (Sir Bob was not there, but Chris was, and I made sure he knew why I was calling and who recommended me to) and now one is on the way.  I have struggled a little to flatten the back of chisels by hand.  I’ve got it, but doing a lot at one time is hard work.  I have a lot of old planes to fix up, and this is just the treat.  I can see where this will help Fred a lot.

Mike Sherman 

* * * *

                  Sir Ron Tatman wrote  me recently to describe an adventure he had.  Perhaps you will want to retrace his steps.  You not know all the people he mentions in his email, but I do, as Sir Ron has brought each of his daughters back to take sack back with him.   His wife Jill always accompanies Sir Ron. 

                  The Day after Thanksgiving all of us including Kaila’s boyfried, went shopping at Cabelas in Hampburg, PA.  After a day of shopping I requested to stop by an old tool place on the way home.  After much grumbling I was granted a limited amount of time.  The tool dealer was William “Bill” Phillips at 4555 Golden Key Road, New Tripoli, PA which is just north of US 22 near Allentown.

                    The store or shop is in a farm building across the street from Bill’s house. Jill and the rest of the crew were even more annoyed at the drive.  We arrived at a seemingly small hole-in-the-wall place. When I walked in the experience was like a journey back in time. Bill at 83 years old,  and his son- in-law were sitting at a work bench with a strange smile on their faces and asked if they could help me. I told them that I was looking for old tools.  He laughed and said that they had plenty, but stated that they  just finished a job and were on break.

                     They  offered me some apple  jack that was in a glass gallon jug with a wooden stopper. I could not refuse. After enjoying the refreshment we went to explore the tool collection. I have never seen so many tools,  and rare tools in one place in my life. I just had to have another plane after reading your article in Pop Wood.  I bought a Stanley 4 1/2 for $50. There were 4 in fine condition to choose from.  If I had not already spent money at Cabelas I would bought more.

                   After looking through the tools for sale Bill took Jill and I to see his museum of tools, which includes many axes from the 17th and 18th century, and  many goose wing broad axes. Bill had worked as a carpenter all of his life and had an unimaginable passion for tools.

                   It was an experience.  Please pass this on so that any chairmakers near by, or any who may travel near that part of PA can have the same experience. It is always a great experience to meet wood workers. Well, have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.  Will see you Feb 18 for the Balloon back class.

Sir Ron  * * * *

                 You didn’t believe me when I said it.  Maybe you will believe  an expert with a lot of initials after his name.   Dr. Charles Pezeshki (we call him Chuck)  is Associate Director, School of MME, and Director, Industrial Design Clinic Past  chair, University Faculty Senate, Wash. St. U. Pullman, WA.

                 Chuck recently signed up for the Philly high back class in August.  However, he is not currently  in Washington state.  That  made me curious and I inquired why  he is away from home.    It turns out Chuck is in Wein, Austria where he is Visiting Professor Institut für Konstruktionswissenschaften.

                 I was even more curious about a comment he made in his email.

Chuck – I am in Austria for the year, working on eco-design.  The incredible thing about Windsor Chairs is that they are eco-design personified.  

MeWe’ll talk about Windsors as eco-design when you are here.  I’m curious as to what that means.

Chuck – Eco-design considers the whole lifecycle of a product.  A Windsor that lasts 200 years long, and is painted with milk paint, lasts far longer than the tree takes to re-grow the wood, is made of mostly locally-grown wood (no transportation CO2), is manufactured by human hands, and has no toxic disposal cost at the end-of-life.

Chuck  

                          I will have this conversation with Chuck in August.  I’m sure I’ll report on his insights in greater detail then.  Meanwhile, you heard it from an expert.  

* * * * 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 









Gresham’s Law and Windsor Chairmaking, Part II

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

 We are beginning to see Gresham’s Law in application in Windsor chairmaking, yet again.  The Windsor Institute created a market for chairmaking tools that did not exist previously.  We teach hundreds of woodworkers ever year, and they all need to tool up for class.  Our tool list directs them to the tool providers we have fostered.   However, this steady demand has begun to attract tool makers and tool catalogs that want to cash in on what has been created here.  Because I have written previously about spoke shaves, let me use that tool to describe what is beginning to happen. 

            Dave Wachnicki of Dave’s Shaves makes the finest spoke shaves available.  The appearance of his tools is as beautiful as their performance.  He makes a shave that is truly praiseworthy.  This did not happen by accident. As I described in the December 6 post, Dave worked here, and in the process  he  learned a whole lot about spoke shaves.  He then went out on his own and developed his own tool, developing his own suppliers.  He also developed his own line of different shaves for different purposes.  An example is his compass shaves, shaves with round soles for working concave curves.

             Dave brought back the classic wooden spoke shave through a whole lot of hard work.  Now, wooden spoke shaves are being made by new makers who want a piece of the action Dave created through his efforts.  They are making wooden spoke shaves and marketing them either on their own, or through catalogs.  Unlike Dave, who is himself a tool user (Remember, he learned about shaves by using them to make Windsor chairs.)  these new entries are made by people who do not have Dave’s knowledge and experience.  Their products are not as good because they did not learn all the intricacies that make a good shave. 

            How does Gresham’s Law work in this case?  Unsuspecting chairmakers who also do not have the knowledge necessary to distinguish between a high quality shave like Dave’s and a lesser quality shave, will price shop.  They see that a shave sold in a catalog is less expensive than a similar shave on Dave’s website.  They buy the catalog shave, and Dave does not get the sale.  If this happens enough, Dave is eventually forced to close up shop because he is not selling enough spoke shaves to provide him with a livelihood.  The good tool has been drive out of production, leaving in its place a lesser quality tool. 

             The process then repeats itself.  Someone else comes along who wants to elbow his way into an established market.  This guy makes an even less expensive shave of even lower quality than the one that did in Dave.  Because unsuspecting and unknowledgeable chairmakers continue to price shop, this worse shave now drives out the lesser quality that drove out Dave.  This process will repeat itself until all that remains is something that looks like a spoke shave, but doesn’t work.

              Is this possible?  Yes.  Remember the “wooden spoke shave” I wrote about in that December 6 posting, and that Woodcraft was selling when I began teaching?  When Susanna and I founded The Institute and started working with toolmakers, I side stepped the effects of Gresham’s Law by developing a line of tools all over again from scratch.   However, like mold and rot, those effects are still there. They are too powerful, and beyond my ability to withstand.  I predict a time will come in the not too distant future when the only wooden spoke shave available is once again a piece of junk that will not work. If these same forces roll over  our other quality toolmakers like Crown Plane and Woodjoy, where is chairmaking going to be in a couple of decades?

             The effect of Gresham’s Law on chairmaking tool quality reminds me of Ernest Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.  The old fisherman hooks a huge fish and at great sacrifice, struggles day and night to reel it in.  He lashes it to his boat and heads back to Havana harbor where he hopes to  sell the fish and reap the bounty of his work.  However, the huge fish begins to attract sharks. The sharks feed on the fish, still lashed to the old man’s boat.  He finally makes it to

Havana, but by the time he arrives the scavengers have picked the fish clean.  In other words, those (the sharks) who played no role in landing the fish fed themselves from the old man’s efforts, and in the process ended up destroying all value in the great fish.  The Institute created a  market (the great fish) that is attracting lower quality tools makers (the sharks) who want to feed.  The risk is they will end up destroying the results of all my efforts to provide quality tools.

              Another manifestation of this insidious process is  tool companies that have dedicated  pages in their catalogs  to “chairmaking tools.”  The tools they offer always include the usual suspects, such as  the German made gutter adz and scorp that have plagued me for 28 years.  As a marketing ploy some of these catalogs even describe some of their tools as “chairmaker tested.”  Having tried some of these tools myself, I can bluntly state that any chairmaker who tested and then approved them, was not worthy of being called a chairmaker.  Other times, these catalogs  insinuate that these tools are favored by chairmakers with hogwash such as,  “Windsor chairmakers use this tool to ….”  Beware of such baloney!  The guy in the marketing department who wrote it hasn’t a clue.

             Here is another example.  From time to time, we see in class a metal bodied, low angled spoke shave, that one catalog company has developed.   We recommend against it, as its metal body is far more prone to chatter than a wooden body.  As a result, this tool is very hard to use satisfactorily.  Not having tangs, its cutter is a pain to lap flat when sharpening.  Still, the spoke shave is cheaper than a Dave’s Shave and unknowledgeable guys who  price shop still end up buying them.  Remember, each time a quality source (Dave Wachnicki) is undermined by a lesser quality source (low angled, metal bodied spoke shave), the odds of the quality source’s long term survival is reduced. 

             Gresham’s Law also attacks Windsor chairmaking in another  way.  As it threatens tool quality, so it threatens the quality of instruction.  In my two- part post August 30 and September 6 “Why an Institute?”  I explain our commitment to excellence, and the effort we put into our teaching methods, our buildings and our equipment.  This amounts to a substantial investment in time and money, and it creates a significant overhead.  In our public relations activities we have raised Windsor chairmaking from an obscure activity to part of mainstream woodworking.  I once wrote in the old Chronicles that “When I began, most woodworkers didn’t know what a Windsor chair was.  Now, most do not think themselves  woodworkers until they have made a Windsor chair.”

             All the interest and enthusiasm for Windsors we   created by our efforts was bound to attract imitators who would want to cash in on our work.  Like quality tools makers, we too have to deal with sharks seeking to feed on what they did not create.  The risk to quality instruction is  that little garage-based operations, or classes at local woodworking stores will  pop up around the country, and eventually debase the level of excellence we have established.  After all, someone who has been making chairs for a short while is not going to teach with the same ability as someone who has been doing it for 37 years.  A large facility designed and built specifically for  Windsor chairmaking will contribute to a higher level of instruction than will a make-do classroom where someone was teaching scroll saw last weekend, and someone will be teaching router techniques next weekend.

               The process I just described then continues.  A guy who was taught by someone with limited experience teaches someone else.  Unable to distinguish between bad instruction and good, would-be chairmakers will price shop, choosing to learn from a local guy of limited experience rather than traveling to The Institute. You can see Gresham’s Law at work with bad instruction driving out good.  Enough guys teaching in their garages and eventually, the critical mass – the number of students The Institute needs every year to keep its doors open – would be lost.

              This is the reason why I am so protective of our designs and teaching methods.  Specifically to maintain the quality of Windsor chairmaking instruction,  I do not allow others to teach what we have developed here.  I am aware that bad drives out good, and my love for and commitment to Windsor chairmaking, makes me very protective of it.

             Please do not misunderstand this discussion of  Gresham’s Law in tools and instruction.  I am a free marketeer.  However, the benefit of competition and a free market is they create better products at the best price.   The computer I am writing on is light years better than the old floppy disk Xerox I purchased in 1980.  A car built today has far more features than my first car. A new car’s motor is twice as efficient, and can go 150,000 miles without being rebuilt.  My concern here has been with market failures.  Failures are  occasions when Gresham’s Law kicks in and a bad product drives out a good one, in this case quality tools and quality of instruction.

               How do we prevent this?  Recall what the Lord of the Flies, the bloody sow’s head mounted on a stake, said to the boy Simon in William Golding’s book of the same name. “You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you? Close, close, close! I’m the reason why it’s no go. Why things are what they are.”   Pogo expressed it more succinctly  as  “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

              We can prevent Gresham’s Law from robbing us of quality in Windsor chairmaking by first refusing to contribute to any degradation.    Quite simply don’t buy anything (tools or instruction) that undermines quality.  Next, chairmakers who have so committed must educate themselves so they know quality and where to find it.  If we choose otherwise, in a matter of years Gresham’s Law will drive out   all that is good in modern Windsor chairmaking.  We will have done it to ourselves. 

           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

Gresham’s Law and Windsor Chairmaking, Part I

            Sir Thomas Gresham (1519 – 1579) was an English financier who while working for Queen Elizabeth I, described to her the problems created by the Great Debasement.  Elizabeth’s father Henry VIII had adulterated the money by minting silver coins that were partially copper.  Gresham’s explanation is usually abbreviated as “bad money drives out good money” and the expression is called Gresham’s Law.

              This is how it works and why Elizabeth was in financial trouble.   Imagine that a government mandates that all coins of a certain denomination must be accepted as legal tender and at the face value.  However, some of the coins in circulation are pure silver, while some are adulterated by mixing the silver with a base metal.  If a customer has one of each coin, he will naturally pay for his purchase with the debased coin, saving the pure silver coin for himself.  Eventually, all the pure silver coins will be pulled out of circulation and hoarded.  Only debased coins will circulate. The bad coins have driven out the good.

               I had this experience during the late 1960s when I was in college and worked weekends as a bartender.  Only a matter of years earlier the federal government had replaced silver coinage with clad coins, a step that amounted to adulterating the currency in the same manner Henry VIII had done. Every day before work, I would open all the rolls of coins in my bank and examine the edges, looking for a solid line of silver.  I culled out the silver coins I found, replacing them with a clad coin from my pocket. I hoarded the silver coins and saved them for a rainy day.  The bad clad coins drove out the good silver coins.

             Variations on Gresham’s Law occur in lots of areas of human activity.  A bad circumstance or a bad product will push out a good circumstance or a good product.  Here, we are concerned with Windsor chairmaking.  I am concerned, as you too should be, with the effect of the bad pushing out the good.  It is happening in a couple of ways that will negatively affect our craft.

               It happened once before to Windsor chairmaking in its earlier history. As the Industrial Revolution gathered momentum, chairmaking was one the first furniture making trades to succumb to industrialization.  It was a natural activity to be overtaken by industrialization, as chairs are made in multiples;   they rely on interchangeable parts; and take advantage of a division of labor.  In fact, in the 18th century before the Industrial Revolution, Windsor chairmaking had been a laboratory where these concepts had been tested and proved. 

                Lambert Hitchcock is credited with building the first chair factory in 1818.  However, this time period is known as the Industrial Revolution for a reason, and one guy opening a factory does not a revolution make.  Hitchcock had plenty of help.  It was only a matter of time before Hitchcock was advertising in local newspapers that he had work available for young country folk.  He was trying to entice cheap labor to leave the farms and work for him.  It did not matter that these young men and women were not trained chairmakers. What Hitchcock wanted was inexpensive unskilled labor, as he was only going to teach each worker one task in the production line.

                      By using unskilled labor to make chairs, Hitchcock was able to produce chairs less expensively.  He was also able to sell them at lower prices than the higher quality chairs still being produced by trained chairmakers.  Consumers acted in a predictable manner.  They purchased Hitchcock’s chairs because they were cheaper; ignoring the fact they were also lower quality.  Within two generations the forces that Hitchcock (who was himself a trained chairmaker) had set in motion, had killed off the craft of the chairmaker.  Hand Windsor chairmaking would remain dead until 1971 when I revived it.

              The forces described by Gresham’s Law had destroyed Windsor chairmaking.  Lesser quality factory chairs (bad) drove out handmade (good) chairs.  The process didn’t stop in the early 19th century.  It continued right up to today.  Chair quality has continued to decline for almost 190 years, until we have reached the level I described in this blog in the September 12 posting about J. C. Penny’s chair recall.  If it is possible for chair quality to get any worse than those recalled chairs, the forces described by Gresham’s Law will make it happen.

              Bad driving out good also occurred in hand tools through much of the last century.  For example, consider the bit brace.  At the turn of the 19th to the 20th century high quality bit braces were being produced by numerous makers.  Except for the wood caps and handles, these sturdy tools were all steel.  They had ball bearing caps, and their precisely machined chucks would grip a bit securely without slipping or loosening.

              For many years I and my students used spoon bits driven with a hand brace.  During that time I watched brace-quality in its death throes and witnessed it reach its final, ignominious form.  When we stopped using braces there were only two brands available. Both were so bad our students could not use them.  They had reached the level where they were no longer tools, but only objects that resembled tools.  Remember, part of the definition of a tool is it will do its intended job. 

             The Miller Falls brace and was made in China.  Most of these were eccentric.  In other words, the cap and the chuck were not in line.  Using the brace meant that the hand on the cap was going in a small circle at the same time the other hand was turning the crank. Under these circumstances, it was impossible to drill an accurate hole.   The chuck machining was so sloppy most could not be tightened and so, the bit was always loose and rattling in the chuck.

               The second brand was Stanley. I still see this pitiful brace offered for sale in some woodworking catalogs.  It is usually found on a page with tools designated for chairmaking.  These braces are so chintzy they look like toys.  They are so flimsy they could never withstand the force needed to turn a bit.  Next to an older, high quality brace, one of these  looks like something purchased at a joke or novelty shop.

              The forces described by Gresham’s Law have eliminated all good bit braces, so that all that is left for sale is junk.  The same has happened with many other types of tools.  Try to find a good hand saw of the quality Disston was making even 50 years ago.

                The same problem plagued me when I started to teach.  I described my experiences in the December 6 posting about spoke shaves, another tool that was destroyed by the bad driving out the good.  For me to reestablish Windsor chairmaking by teaching others, I needed to reverse Gresham’s Law and develop a source of quality tools.  In that same posting I described how I went about finding suppliers and bringing high quality chairmaking tools back into production.        

                                                                                     Continued Next Week.

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

 

My 2008 Resolutions

           Happy New Year.  My wish for you is that you will  resolve to make lots of  Windsors during 2008.  If you are able to make one or two of them here  with us at The Windsor Institute, that would be great, as we will get to enjoy your company.  No matter.  Just remember the line from the Dean’s graduation speech.  “Go out and accomplish The Institute’s stated purpose – for handmade Windsor chairs to take over the world.”             

        Like everyone else, I make New Year’s resolutions that I seldom achieve.  This year, I decided to tell my resolutions to everyone.  That way, maybe I will shame myself into making them a reality.  Below are my resolutions for 2008. 

  • I will choose a new chair to develop into a class  for 2009. 

      The staff at The Institute develops a new class every other year or so.  Developing a new class is a major undertaking that can require more than a year.  We begin by looking for voids in our instruction.  We ask ourselves what  Windsor  chairmaking skills  are we not yet teaching? We then look for chairs that will require those skills.  An example is the balloon back chair we introduced this year.   It uses the crinoline stretcher that up until then, we did not use in any other chair.       

The next question is can we do this chair as a class?  We have to be able to fit it into a week and be sure it fits into our facilities.  A 10-legger settee for example would simply take too long for people to complete, and we don’t have room to build 16 of them at once.        

        Our mission statement is to assure the success and long-term survival of Windsor chairmaking. So, we next ask whether or not the guys who have gone pro can sell this chair? In other words, is this chair recognized and desired by the buying public?

          We have been kicking around three styles of chairs for a while, and when I accomplish this resolution, I will probably choose one of them.  The first is the larger and earlier style of  Philadelphia high back.  We already offer the small high back, and it is very popular.  The big chair will introduce another version of the D seat and a different style of volute.  The second possibility is the Rhode Island style of bow back.  These have a distinctive type of  turned spindle sometimes called a pipe stem.  Because the spindles are turned, making one chair would not fill a week.  So, I have been thinking about an arm and matching side chair.  The idea of making two adult chairs in a week used to worry me.  However, we have successfully accomplished it with the balloon back.

                  Finally, I would love to satisfy all the people who have drooled over the bird cage in The Institute’s collection of period Windsors.  It is the best bird cage I have ever seen.  Its shield seat is unique and  I have never seen it before.  While still shield shaped, it  has sharp (rather than round) corners and a scrolled front edge (rather than one that is slightly bowed.)   The result is a seat that relates to the mitered joints at the top of the stiles better than would the more common round shield.

              A logistical road block has kept me from developing this chair into a class. Except for the seat, every part is turned.  Every part in the back is bent — all 11 of them — the seven spindles, the two rails, and the two stiles.   So, once we have made the seat, what do we do while we wait for  all the bent parts to dry?  Also, where do we put all the parts while they are drying?

          I have kicked around the same solution described above – to make an arm and matching side.  That  gives us the extra work to do during drying, but doubles the number of  bent parts.  Can you see why I haven’t been able to crack this nut?  That bird cage chair is gorgeous, but as you can see, so far it has defied my ability to map it out in my mind as a class.  

  • I will bring our improved depth stop into production  and make it again available in  our catalog.

      Hanging on the ends of every bench at The Institute are a variety of devices made of green anodized aluminum.  They include the Incra Stick, the go gauge,  the bevel board and the No Name Stick.  We call these items the “green stuff.”  We sell it in the catalog to our students.  The guy who used to make it for us we called “Mr.  Green.”        

           Unfortunately, Mr. Green went out of business and we had to develop a new vendor.  We now have all the green stuff back in stock, but for one item.  That is the set of depth stops we use on bits when we drill blind holes.  They keep us from going too deep and blowing out the far side.       

         We improved the stop by designing a new and more positive way to secure it to the bit.   However, this requires an additional  machining process.  I have a large number of students waiting for these stops, but the new Mr. Green has not yet brought me a prototype.  I will prod him and get those stops back into the catalog this year.  

  • I will complete  my next book and look for a publisher.

      I have written seven woodworking books.  I do not plan on writing any more, as magazine articles and this blog give me the same  access to woodworkers, with far greater immediacy.  

      Still, I do have things I want to write that do not fit in here.  I started a book last June and wrote a lot of it before our summer and fall schedule got under way.  The second half of our year is far busier and so, the project has been sitting on a back burner.  I resolve to return to it,  complete it, and start sending our query letters.

        The  title is Turn the Other Jowl.  It is a book of life lessons I have learned from dogs.  Only twice in my life have I been without a dog.  Each time  was the period of mourning that followed the death of  one dog and the arrival of another.  I spend a lot of time interacting with our dogs, and a lot of the ways I live my life was learned from the ways they treat me and each other.

         I have two other books in various stages of development.  One is a science fiction/action novel set in the near future tentatively titled Chateau d’If.   The other is a children’s adventure novel with the characters based on my son Michael and his two childhood friends.  They called themselves the Comet Team and they wanted to go into space together.  In my book which will be titled The Comet Team, they will finally get there. Right now, I am focused on my resolutions for  2008.  I’ll save the next two books for 2009. 

  • I will write 52 love letters.

      Last June one of our priests commented in his homily that we as a culture rely so much on email we do not write letters any more.  I decided he was right.  That week, I wrote Susanna a love letter and left it on her desk.  She was so thrilled I committed  to writing her a love letter every week for the rest of our lives.         

        So far, I have not missed a week, but it has only been six months.   The rest of my life could be a long time and a lot of letters.  I think the job will be easier to accomplish by taking smaller bites.  Therefore, I resolve to not miss a single week in 2008.  I will continue as I have been doing.  I print the letter, fold it in half, and write her name on it.  Then, I mix the letter in with the paperwork on her desk so she finds it as she is working.

        By the way, guys I suggest you try a love letter.  Women really dig it and its an easy way to score points.  Every one of Susanna’s friends who has learned of my weekly missives  has expressed envy of her.   

  • I will continue to write this  blog weekly.

      I started writing this too, last June as a way to  accomplish a 2007 New Year’s resolution. My resolution was to create an electronic version of The Windsor Chronicles that I published for 11 years.  The motto that appeared on The Chronicles banner was “Dedicated to the Advancement of Windsor Chairmaking.”  That publication served its purpose — to keep chairmakers informed of the news and developments in their craft.  It also kept them informed about each other’s accomplishments and activities.

        However, The Chronicles eventually wore me out. Each issue required two full weeks of time to prepare for printing and mailing.  That meant I had to dedicate four two- week blocks of time (two  working months) a year to that one activity.  I spend as much time writing this blog, but I am spared all hours of layout, etc.

         I wasn’t sure how to replace a paper publication with a blog, and it took  me a while to settle in.   This has developed into a weekly post.  I publish mid-week, usually Wednesday or Thursday.  I have been able to work in a lot of the material that used to appear in features Chronicles readers enjoyed such as Alumni Notes, From the Bench, Going Pro, and of course A Duck Walks into a Chair Shop.

          The blog format is limited in that it does not permit me to present all this material as stand alone features, but it has freed me from the space limitations of 24 printed pages.  The result is that I am able to write a lot more.   I have been running pretty steadily at 1,200 to 1,500 words.  It is a comfortable tempo for me.  For many years I wrote a weekly political column about local and state-wide issues for a local newspaper.  That column was 1,000 words.  So, I feel  I can keep up this rate.  With all the activity around here, with all the questions students ask me, with all the new methods and techniques we develop, I am certainly at no loss for material.   

  • I will find even more  varied and interesting items for my email newsletter.

      This blog is  actually only one of two electronic methods I use for conveying the material that used to be in The Chronicles.  The second method is my monthly email newsletter.  In it, I like to present a feature that requires illustrations, and that can stand on its own.  These items used to appear as side bars in The Chronicles.

         This past fall those who subscribe to my electronic newsletter have received reviews of  new tools we are using at The Institute – hollow ground spoke shave blades, top adjustment spoke shaves, and the Work Sharp.  They also received a copy of, and commentary on a really cool 1789 Windsor chairmaker’s advertisement from a Boston newspaper.  The ad was drawn from our collection of period chairmaking material here in The Institute’s library.  A similar historical chairmaking document will be mailed  to subscribers January 15.

         My resolution is to invest even more effort in keeping this email newsletter  imaginative,  interesting,  informative, and fun.  While you can read the blog by just going to our web site, you do need to sign up for  the email newsletter.  It’s real simple. Just send me an email at mike@thewindsorinstitute.com