A Good Time was had by All

            Saturday was one of those “A good time was had by all,” days at The Institute. We hosted the New England chapter of the Society of American Period Furniture Makers and the period furniture group from the New Hampshire Guild.  It was a crowd of about 40 people. They had come to learn about steam bending.  They had a good time because they got to learn something new and do some hand-on steam bending.  We had a good time, because we always do when we have a group of woodworkers  together.  So, a good time was had by all.


            Don Harper and Donny Chesser helped out.  Don teaches with me at the Institute, and Donny has taken classes here. He also works at the Portsmouth Woodcraft Supply store. I began the activities with an involved presentation on bending; touching on its history in general  and eventually sharpening the focus onto our work. I began at the very begining — the tree growing in the woods. I talked about the need to know a log’s history and how we accomplish that. If you read about our splitting parties, you do too. I spent quite a bit of time describing log selection; how to read a log and how to make an educated guess as to what the wood looks like inside. Then, I described how we determine where to cut when bucking the logs into bolts. I explained that we need two, three, four and six foot bolts, as those lengths yield everything we use in our Windsor chair classes.


            I described good bending days vs. bad bending days and noted how they are counter intuitive. I talked at length about techniques for plasticizing wood and the wood’s properties. I explained what happens internally when wood bends — why compression is easy, but tension is a problem.  Because I had all morning to make my presentation, I could get into the real nitty-gritty details; whereas a chair class’

schedule constraints do not afford me the time to talk about the subject in this depth.  I dispelled the erroneous notions that result from the term green woodworking. I explained how the misconception that wood needs to be wet results in lots of people losing all their hard work to decay.


            Next, we went outside to examine the pile of splits we have stickered beside the shop.  I explained why we use our method of stacking as it allows air to circulate between them. The stacked splits are left over from our last splitting party and will be slowly turned into bending stock as we have time. While we were not able to demonstrate splitting, we were able to show the blue stain where wedges were placed in the rpocess of opening a six-footer by hand. We flipped some of the splits so the bark was facing up. This allowed me to better illustrate what to look for when selecting a log. We discussed winter vs. summer cut logs and the advantages of storing logs, bolts, and splits  during a New England winter – they freeze solid. We also touched on the problems of summer cut logs. The sap is up in them, and in the heat of summer, decay sets in quickly. During this time there was a lot of Q&A and interaction.


            Our next stop was the machine room where we spent some time talking about our Hitachi resaw. Most people were amazed to see a three-inch, stellite tipped blade. It does look aggressive.  Last Monday we had purposefully left the large stack of freshly cut bending blanks  propped up against a bench. This way, our guests could touch and feel and examine the wood at the stage when it begins to become a chair. I also left the door open into the catalog building so they could walk in and examine a big pile of spindle blanks on a bench. They also saw our huge chest freezer, that simulates a New England winter for us. by keeping our stock frozen 


            Finally, we went to the bending area. Don and Donny had set up some bending forms and had been tending one of our steam boxes for about an hour. So, we were ready to go. I talked about our steam box design and why we call it the Ultimate Steam Box. Besides being very efficient, it solves most problems woodworkers have with steam boxes. Then, I identified much of  the rampant misinformation about steam bending that has been printed in the magazines; such as why you don’t over bend to allow for spring back. I took lots of predictable questions –such as how long to steam and how long to dry?


            Next, I illustrated what I had said several times during the morning – bending is an art, not a science. Failure is very much an option. We keep a selection of dramatic failures to illustrate what can (and does) happen. We maintain our  failure pile because it does a good job of tempering our students’ enthusiasm and helps them remember the most important point – speed is your enemy. After seeing what can happen, students bend a lot more slowly and deliberately. Fear is a great teacher.


            On Friday, I had made up some chair parts that represented several different types of bends – sack back arms and bows, c-arms, and a crest.  Don, Donny, and I demonstrated bending each type. Then, we turned the bending over to anyone who wanted to try it. It took some coaxing before two guys got up the courage to volunteer. After seeing their success, lots of the others wanted to bend. In spite of it being a so-so bending day nothing broke. The parts were all added to our catalog inventory of pre-bent parts.  They will be sold to chairmakers all over the country and will end up in chairs we will most likely never see.


* * * *


We created a new sack back class that begins October 18. I stilkl have space in it. When it is full, there will be no more sack back classes until next spring.

* * * *

To receive my eNewsletter of periodic updates, tips, tool reviews, and new sources, that are in addition to this blog, join our mailing list by emailing me at mike@thewindsorinstitute.com Help us spread the word about this blog. Tell others.