Reporter at Large

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

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

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

* * * * 

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

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

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

 * * * 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*      *        *   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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