Category Archives: General

What If a Chairmaker…Part II

Welcome back to the splitting party that you are vicariously attending. I appreciate the company. Splitting all those logs by myself is lonely work and it’s nice to have someone to talk with.

I returned to the job this morning and managed to accomplish my stated goal.  All the three-footer and two-footer oak bolts are  rived and stacked. I did rediscover (the hard way) a safety tip that I used to keep in mind in the old days, back when I split logs all the time with a maul and wedges.  I begin the process by driving either two or three wedges in the end of the log. This results in a straight line split, creating in essence a diameter across the end of the log. This is important, because a log has to be split evenly in half. The halves have to be split evenly into quarters, and so on. If the initial split is allowed to follow any path it chooses, you can ruin a log.  The first split runs down the length of the log and usually the wedges in the end are insufficient to completely cleave it. As a wedge in the end works free I place into the split to continue forcing the log apart.  To reach wedges in the center of the log with the maul it it is often necessary to straddle the log, a foot on either side.  If the log releases without any straggling strands to hold it together, it will roll onto your ankles. I have a nice abrasion on my inside right ankle right now resulting from a log popping apart and catching me by surprise.

As I said, I met my goal. In fact, I was on a roll (not a pun referring to the ankle scrape). It was like I couldn’t stop until I had used up all my steam. I decided to get the six-footer ready for tomorrow by placing it into a convenient position. Kevin would have lifted one end and dropped it where he wanted. I did it with Mr. Peavy’s marvelous invention.  Still having a bit of energy I next decided I would get the wedges started so I could just start swinging the maul tomorrow. The wedges moved along quite readily, so I kept swinging. By the time I ran out of gas I had the log halved. It was worth while. The wood is beautiful, the grain as straight as a guitar string. I expect the guys in the November Balloon back class will be pleased, as they get to use it.

Today was the first hot day of the year. So, by the time I went home for lunch I was pretty grimy. I showered, changed clothes, and was back in the office for a 2:00 phone call with my publisher. By the time you read this, I should be on the couch in the showroom staring at the inside of my eyelids.

The Hampton Summit, the first novel in my series for young teens (and for adults that are young at heart) is now available in both softcover and eBook.

You can follow me on twitter at @castletonseries.

Our catalog order form at our web site has bought the farm. If you want to place an order it is better to email or call.

Notice that we have included a new sack back class October 21. 

What If a Chairmaker ……..

What if a chairmaker held a splitting party and no one came? You guessed it. The chairmaker would have to do the work all by himself. That’s my situation.

As I do every springtime of every year, last month I went to the logyard and selected my logs. Then, I had the driver deliver them to our shaded side yard where we process them. Finally, I called Kevin, the farmer up the road with a four-foot log splitter on the rear of his tractor. Every year Kevin drives Old Bessie to The Institute to help out with the splitting party. Actually, Kevin does all the work and I help out. I defer to him because he is strong as an ox and can actually lift a four-foot oak bolt by himself. I have trouble rolling one.

To begin the party I layout the logs and Kevin fires up the chair saw to cut the first bolts. Then, while he splits the bolts into eighths I make the remaining cuts. Meanwhile, Kevin just keeps bulling through the bolts I have created, stacking the split billets as he goes along. Finally, Kevin uses the splitting maul to pop open the six-footers. We start at 9:00 and by noon the party is over. The year’s oak logs are reduced to neat piles of splits ready for Don and me to make into bending and spindle stock.

Imagine my shock when Kevin answered the phone and told me he had taken a new job as a long-haul truck driver. He wouldn’t be able to attend the party. It took a few days for reality to settle in, but I decided I had no choice but to open those logs the old-fashioned way: with maul and wedges. I know how to do this work, but I can’t say I ever loved it, and I’m not a spring chicken anymore. I decided to draw out the party (at which I was the only guest), by doing a bit each day.

First day I did just the chain saw work. I cut the logs into bolts: one six-footer, two four-footers, two three-footers, and about eight two-footers. The four-footers are for sack back classes and for the rocking chair class. The three-footers will be used for bending blanks by the people taking 2 Kids chairs class in September. Some of the stock will also be cut into blanks for the five long spindles that support the crest on the rockers. The two-footers will yield hundreds of spindle blanks for sack backs.  Mercifully, this year I had only scheduled one class that requires six foot bending stock: the balloon back class in November. That one long bolt will yield more than enough for those chairs and any sales through the catalog for the rest of the year.

The second day of this year’s protracted splitting party I burst out one four-footer and one two-footer. It had been so long since  had done this I had to remember which end to the maul to hold. I worked about 45 minutes, but it was like a workout at the gym and I was spent. When I was done the two bolts were neatly stacked on four by four bearers that would keep them off the ground.

I was back at the job this morning. I wheeled the cart with the maul, wedges, hatchet, and froe to the log pile. In a similar amount of time I split up the remaining four-footer and two more of the two-footers. I was more productive today because I am getting to shape. At least that’s what I told myself. When I knocked off it was gratifying to observe that there were fewer bolts and more piles of splits spread around the yard. I took some photos just in case I need to prove to someone that I did this work by myself.

I plan on returning to the job tomorrow when my goal will be to rive the three-footers and the remaining two-footers. I will save lone the six-footer for the end, as splitting it will wipe me out. I  expect to be useless the rest of that day. I anticipate it will be Friday.

Today I remembered a trick that in the old days (in my younger days) used to amuse me and I tried it again this morning, just to see if I could still manage it. Obviously I can, or I would have never embarrass myself by bringing it up. Before stacking the four-footers I remove the heart. The split’s cross section is shaped like a piece of pie. The pointy part of the pie (the heart) represents the tree when it was a sapling and is usually too gnarled to yield bending stock. I split out the heart before stacking to get rid of it and to lighten the billet.  When doing so I used to try and get the heart air born. This usually takes two blows of the maul. The first opens a crack in  the near end and the second completes the split, separating the heart. The shape of the wedge flying the length of the billit will actually lift the heart into the air. It jumps free. I managed to get air on seven of eight billets. One rose so high it came close to hitting me. As anyone who has studied here knows, I amuse easily.

My quota of bolts for today are stacked and waiting for Don and me to to take them to the resaw. As for the rest of the afternoon, I think I will take a nap.

In other news:

The Hampton Summit, the first novel in my series for young teens (and for adults that are young at heart) is now available in both softcover and eBook.

You can follow me on twitter at @castletonseries.

Our catalog order form at our web site has bought the farm. If you want to place an order it is better to email or call.

Notice that we have included a new sack back class October 21.

To receive my monthly  eLetter of essays about chairs and chairmaking, that are in addition to this blog, join our mailing list by emailing me at Help us spread the word about this blog. Tell others.

The New Way of Seeing

              Most of you are aware of the reason I have been so long absent from the woodworking magazines and from this space. I have spent the last six years writing an eight-book fantasy/adventure series for young adults, called the Castleton Series. I completed the final book last June. This April 22 the first volume will be available; in the current jargon, it will launch.  You can acquire either the eBook or bound edition from or other sellers. It is titled The Hampton Summit and is written under my name.  

            During these past six years I researched, I wrote, rewrote, polished and edited more than a half million words. I determined the subject matter and the posing for the artwork, and spent many hours with the artist. The project was a monumental task.  

            The Castleton Series is kid friendly. The main characters are admirable and likeable. They are loyal, courageous, and compassionate.  They are smart, innovative, and resourceful. While the characters struggle with ethical problems and other circumstances that arise from the human condition, there is no sex, no drugs, and no foul language. Your sainted grandmother could read these books without offense. In fact, I bet she would enjoy them. Whatever you do, don’t tell any kids this, but I snuck in a lot of knowledge. While being entertained and challenged, young readers are going to be exposed to diverse subjects: history, math, science, geography, music, art, archeology, etc. 

            The first book, The Hampton Summit, introduces three 12-year old boys, Mike Castleton and his friends Patrick Weaver and Nick Pope. The boys are recruited to prevent a murder that never happened, although now, it may. The assassins are renegade time travelers. They return to the present, intent on killing a scientist to prevent him from sharing the most important discovery in history. Their crime will destroy the peaceful future and golden age that will result from that discovery. The boys are brought into the future to be trained for the mission. There, they are befriended by two girls, Allie Tymoshenko and her roommate, Jen Cann. Together, the five take on the job of stopping the would-be killers. Our feisty band is armed only with audacity and innovativeness.

            In each succeeding book the characters age a year and advance a grade in school. The series parallels their growth. The danger and the complexity of their adventures are constant, as what can kill you at 12 will still kill you at 19. However, the characters’ responses and understanding of events reflect their increasing maturity. At 19, one can analyze and separate cause, result, and meaning in a more nuanced way that at 12. The characters’ growing maturity intensifies their struggles with ethics as they increasingly see the world in shades of gray, rather than the black and white of youth. 

            In each book the friendship between Mike and Allie deepens, until it develops into love. However, the pair is star crossed, in that Allie was born seven generations after Mike. They can only get together on time travel adventures. That results in a saga that takes the reader back to the dawn of human history and forward to the end of time.

            The pair’s growing love and yearning to be together as much as possible permits me to explore time travel’s weirder possibilities. This weirdness prompted the series’ subtitle; Time travel messes with your mind, and with your love life.  Think about these situations. If you go into the future it is possible to visit your own grave, to read your own obituary. You can hold the hand of a dying person who held your hand when you died.  As a kid, you can meet your older self, without recognizing him/you. You will be at a disadvantage because the older self remembers the meeting and can toy with you.  If you go back in time, you can work there ten years and return to the moment you left. You eat supper that evening with your family, who asks if you had a nice day. People who travel a lot often wake up unsure where they are. Time travelers wake up unsure where or when they are.  

            If you have the misfortune to fall in love with someone from the future, you face a terrible choice. You can never spend your lives together. You sacrifice marriage, a home, a family. You have to accept the occasional opportunity you and your lover have to be together in time. If you are a girl from the future and the boy you love will become famous in his time, you know much about his later life that you can never share. You can only watch events unfold, messing with your mind as it happens.

            Time travel has limitations and must occur within an established frame work. Violate those limitations and the consequences are dire. These realities require a unique set of ethics and code of conduct. The right thing is not always as obvious as it is for those of us that stick to our own time.  Dealing with the new right and wrong also messes with your mind. 

            I hope you will choose to read the Castleton series and perhaps turn young people in your family on to it.  I plan to release all eight volumes this year so there will be no long waits between books. As you read The Hampton Summit pay close attention to detail. This book is the foundation for the rest of the saga. Nothing is accidental or frivolous. Everything I tell you is important and will play its part later on. In the first volume I establish the pattern for an elaborate fabric that will be woven through seven books and neatly wrapped up in the last one. 

            As I wrote the Castleton Series I became aware of something else I want to discuss with fellow woodworkers. The people who read my manuscripts for me often said, “It’s like reading a movie.”  This caused me to ponder my writing style and point of view. I realized that I was writing novels the way I write woodworking articles and books. When conveying a woodworking technique to you, the ideal perspective would be to show the method through my eyes, so you see how the tool acts and the wood responds for the user.  You miss all that if you are standing to my side watching. Unfortunately, in illustrating a woodworking article, that is where the photographer’s camera usually is located. So, if I am to effectively convey a technique to you, the woodworker, I have to use words to give you the experience of seeing through my eyes. That’s how I learned to write, using words to show the reader what I see. 

            Gradually during the past six years, I became aware that my perspective as a woodworking writer is similar to a 21st century technological development – the helmet cam. I recently watched helmet cam footage of a firefight in Afghanistan. It was completely different from any war movie, from any documentary you have seen about combat. In a movie or a documentary the director controls what you see and how the information is conveyed.  The director has the ability to focus your attention on details he deems important. For example, he can throw the background or foreground out of focus, or change the lighting. He can provide additional orientation to the setting by splicing in scenes from others point of view, such as showing the enemy and its location as it fires.  The viewer of helmet cam footage sees exactly what the soldier sees, nothing additional. You see the wall pass before you as the soldier ducks behind it. You hear enemy gun fire, but only see a distant tree line as the warrior scans it for the concealed Taliban. He doesn’t see the bad guys firing, and neither do you. You do see the face of the adjacent soldier as he hands ammunition to the helmet cam guy, but only because our guy turned his head. Through a helmet cam you get a better sense of the confusion of battle because you are deprived of information a director would include. The helmet cam never pulls back for a long shot, or elevates for an overhead view.  Your experience is limited to what the helmet cams sees, but that view is the closest thing possible to the soldier’s experience. Until technology provides us a Star Trek holodeck, the helmet cam experience is the next best thing to reality. 

            The helmet cam is the new way of seeing. It wasn’t available when we were growing up. However, if you were born in the 21st century it is the way you are used to observing events. It is not going away, and the perspectives we grew up with are never coming back. In fact, the impetus in technology will be to intensify the experience. When I was a 19-year old cub reporter my editor taught me to begin an article with a summary lead. The purpose was to grab the reader’s attention right away by focusing him on the most important fact.  An elderly pedestrian was severely injured yesterday afternoon in a hit and run accident while crossing Main Street at the intersection of Central Avenue. Today, kids don’t read newspapers. They don’t even watch the evening news. For them, the hit and run accident only becomes a reality when it is watched on Youtube. If the event was not recorded by a traffic cam so it can be viewed, for a 21st century kid, it did not occur. Today, young people encounter events through omnipresent helmet cams, traffic cams, dashboard cams, and critter cams that monitor our lives. 

            As I wrote the Castleton Series (presenting the action the way I write woodworking articles) I became aware that I was doing something different. I was showing the reader events like they were being seen through a helmet cam. If a character enters a room, a writer usually conveys that action. If instead, the narrator was wearing a helmet cam, the reader sees that the room has a window with – count them – six panes. To the right of the character is a round, wicker table with a bentwood chair pushed up to it. A thin, red book is on the table. If the character walks down a corridor wearing a helmet cam the reader will see the ceiling, the doors, what’s at the end of the corridor, how long it is. Just like watching our soldier’s experience in the fire fight, the helmet cam perspective in a novel allows the reader to share the character’s experience with a deeper sense of reality. 

            While I hardly think of myself as a literary writer, in the Castleton Series I tried something comparable to the efforts of notable authors. Here is an analogy. Along with contemporaries like Juan Gris and Georges Braque, the avant guarde painter Pablo Picasso developed Cubism in the early 20th century. You know these paintings, the distorted woman with a nose on the side of her face. Through Cubism, artists tried to show an object, a scene, or a person from multiple perspectives, but in a two-dimensional view; the canvas. Their success with Cubism influenced contemporary writers who attempted to do the same thing with words. Faulkner did it in As I Lay Dying; Hemingway did it in The Sun Also Rises; Woolf did it in To the Lighthouse. Gertrude Stein, Guillaume Apollinaire, Jean Cocteau, and others even wrote Cubist poetry. These writers wanted to provide their readers with a more reading intense experience by using Cubism to create different perspectives and points of view. 

            In a similar way, I used the skills I developed as a woodworking writer to attempt to give the reader a more intense experience of my story – the helmet cam experience. In my musings I have even wondered if words could stimulate the visual cortex. It’s probably not possible, but it’s an intriguing prospect for a writer to try to engage that part of the reader’s brain.  Young people have grown up with the helmet cam and if my imaginings are possible, it will be most successful with them. So, it is my hope that presenting the events in a novel in the style I developed as a woodworking writer will work for young readers. Time will tell whether or not I succeeded. In the meanwhile, I have jokingly told my English major son that I have coined an impressive sounding name for my style of fiction writing, a term that will establish my bona fides with the espresso drinkers. I have dubbed it Cammism. To the extent it worked, I have woodworkers to thank.  

            Follow me on Twitter @castletonseries 

                To receive my monthly essays about chairs and chairmaking, that are in addition to this blog, send your email address to


Cursed Shavehorse

              Sigh. Another one of the woodworking magazines has printed a picture of a chairmaker sitting at his shave horse. In doing so, they the magazine joined the long list of sources that continue to undermine the craft of chairmaking.  How do we ever advance with such odds so stacked against us? A single misleading picture mailed to several hundred thousand readers has more negative impact than can be undone by 10 years of teaching classes.

            When I run across a fellow practitioner of our craft I quietly assess the guy’s work and rank his abilities in my mind. The shave horse is one of the standards I rely on. For me it is a shibboleth. A shibboleth is something that separates two groups, and that one of those groups then uses to identify its members; sort of like a secret handshake.  The shave horse divides chairmakers. The two groups are the guys that are serious and those who are quaint. Guess which group I belong to.

            I do not use a shave horse. When asked why, I answer, “Why would I impose a pay cut on myself?” That is in effect the result of using this tool. It is so limiting that it slows down the chairmaker and costs him income. I prefer a vise. Using a vise I am standing, not sitting, and I am far more productive and efficient. I work far faster, using less energy.

            Consider the two postures. Sitting at a shave horse you have the work secured immediately in front of you. The muscles available to operate the draw knife are predominantly in your shoulders.  You are limited as to how you can use the tool. You can do very little slicing, which means you are also misusing your knife. Remember, the tip from the Staff Tip Sheet you received in sack back class? “A draw knife is a slicing tool, not a two handled hatchet.”

            Using a vise, you are standing. You bring into play the muscle groups in your legs, butt, back, and shoulders. Leaning into the work and progressively shifting back on your ankles, your slice can be several feet long. That’s a major advantage when making a four to six foot long bow. Students have commented that when working I remind them of a ballet dancer or an aerobics instructor. (Either way, that’s a pretty good comparison for a guy that’s 65 years old.) Yes, using a vise the body’s motion is fluid, graceful, and almost effortless. Above all, it’s fast.

            Suspended in air in front of me I can access about 300 degrees of the part’s circumference. I do minimal stopping to turn the piece. Students remember the myriad of more efficient grips I show them for using the knife. Those are possible because of my access to most of the part. I move my body and my grip, rather than the part.

            That raises the question, with all its drawbacks, why would anyone use a shave horse? A lot of chair makers are into being quaint. I think it is a left over from the Hippies who got into woodworking in the 1970s. Sitting on a shave horse you look like you stepped out of a picturesque and bucolic past; or at least the commune. Editors don’t know better. They’re general woodworkers, with at most a passing knowledge of the various specialized crafts. Besides, a guy sitting at a shave horse does make a good picture; one that evokes a picturesque and bucolic past; or at least a 1970s commune. In other words, it’s a vicious circle. Chairmakers want to look quaint, the editors like quaint pictures. So many pictures of chairmakers sitting at a shave horse get published, our imaginations have been overwhelmed. In woodworkers’ minds the shave horse and chairmaking go together like a horse and carriage. (Wait a minute. That’s love and marriage.)

            If you are an editor, please, please, please, stop publishing photos of guys on shave horse. If you are chairmaker that uses a shave horse; get off your butt and get to work.        

If you are not receiving my monthly eLetter of essays about chairs and chairmaking — that are in addition to this blog — join our list by emailing me at


The Other Thing I’ve Been up To

Many of you know I have spent all my free time these past five years writing an eight-volume series of young adult adventure novels. While preparing to publish the books, I have begun serializing them at Log on each week if you would like to read them. If you are on tumblr you can follow them. Note: the spelling of tumblr. It does not have an e. If you like the books, I would appreciate you telling others about them. They are directed at young adults 12 to 16 and if you have young readers in the family, tip them off. However, like a lot of books intended for a young audience, the books  also appeal to people over 30.

I have another URL on tumblr where I now post my monthly essays and other chairana If you are not on the mailing list to receive those essays you can read them there.

How to Shorten Your Life

           A lot of you know the story of Mr. Green – actually both Mr. Greens. These are the nicknames we give the old bucks that made our green stuff for us. The green stuff is the gauges and devices we sell in the catalog that are made from green anodized aluminum. They hang on the ends of all the shop benches. Unfortunately, the first Mr. Green was quite old and caught the west bound train. The next Mr. Green was not much younger and in a matter of years, he got his ticket punched. The same fate was suffered recently by the guy that cast our bronze chairmaker hammer heads. There’s a pattern here and perhaps explains why we had so much trouble finding a third Mr. Green and a new brass founder. Life insurance companies won’t issue policies to our suppliers.

            The new Mr. Green is fairly young and we hope he will be around for a long time. Our new brass founder seems to have a few years left in him. The new Mr. Green is steadily restocking us with things that have been out of stock for some time. He recently delivered the drill stops so many of you have desired. They are the same as the ones you used in class. However, they are green and a bit prettier. They come in a set of three — 5/8″, 9/16″, and 3/8″ — the sizes of the most common blind holes in chairs. The sets are $55.

This week we received a delivery of chairmaker hammer heads. Don has already mounted most of them on their handles. So, if you have been waiting for a chairmaker’s hammer, you can order those too.

 * * * * 

            David Lane was in the July 9 sack back class. David is a librarian and works with young readers, especially boys. He was interested in the eight-book series of young-teen adventure novels I recently completed and that I am about to try and publish. He sent me the following text. It is a spoof of synopsis that would be found on a book’s dust jacket or rear cover.

Johnny Windsor and the Pommelator 

Join young Johnny in his fight for justice against that arm and leg-splaying alien madman, the Pommelator! Travel to new worlds in his self-navigating compass plane, piloted by his short but tough companion Stump whose own people, the razor sharp Scorps, were tossed from the seat of power eons ago by the Spindle People, recruited with flair by the rakish General Meade, Pommelator’s right hand man. “We’re not takin’ this sittin’ down!” shouts Stump as he and young Windsor race into battle. With barely a leg to stand on can these two heroes defeat the well-armed villain?!

* * * *

If you are not receiving my monthly eLetter of essays about chairs and chairmaking –, that are in addition to this blog — join our list by emailing me at


I Won’t Grow Up

In every cloud is a silver lining. We are under the shadow of an economic cloud, but with less competition for premium white pine from builders, the stuff we get is often spectacular. Two days ago I was cutting the most recent load into seat blanks. My son is home from college and was helping me. I gushed repeatedly over the boards. Each one we uncovered in the pile was more beautiful than the last.

Three were so exceptional, I set them aside. I couldn’t bring myself to cut them.  Maybe I will at some point, but first, I need to have another woodworker witness them. I told Michael I would wait for Don. I will show them to him before turning them into chair seats.

As we were sweeping up, my wife arrived. She asked why we had not cut up those three planks? I gave her the same explanation. I would wait for Don, as I needed another woodworker to see them. Her response, “When will you grow up?” I tell you this story, because as woodworkers, you understand.

Keep the secret between us. I may not cut those boards after all. I will stack them with the 17 inch wide 14 foot long piece of perfectly clear 1 3/4 inch thick white pine plank I set aside last year. I’ll sell those planks to someone else and let the responsibility for cutting them rest on his head. Right now, my hands are clean.

* * * *

I recently completed the eighth and final book in my teen fantasy adventure series. I’m reading through all eight, making minor adjustments. The purpose being to  make them all hang together. I should be done by the end of the summer. Then, I have to decide what to do — find a publisher or self-publish. I’ll keep you posted.