Having wrapped up 2011, I have time to contemplate the year. Don and I witnessed a curious phenomenon in the October 17 sack back and the November 14 settee classes that caused us to scratch our heads. We were both aware of this phenomenon as it has happened before. In other words, it is not common, but neither is it rare.

            I would liken the phenomenon to a virus outbreak, either the type of viruses that infect us, or infect computers. In our case, the outbreak is some mistake or problem that is occasionally experienced by a single student. Without warning, the problem will sweep through a class. For example, in a Boston fan back class a number of years ago, a quarter of the class cut out their seats with the grain running in the wrong direction – side to side instead of front to back. I can eliminate the staff as the cause of that incident. We teach lots of chair classes that use the shield seat, and no one had ever done this before (or since.) Like contagion, the problem broke out among multiple students in that single class.

            During the October 17 sack back, we witnessed a similar thing. We teach sack back spindle making by breaking the process into several steps. First, we have the students round slightly more than half the the length of the blank’s shaft and size it by passing it through the 7/8 inch hole in the go gauge. We explain that this is the spindle’s lower end; the end that will be secured to the seat platform. When the spindle is fitted to the arm, the swelling will be on this shaft, centered seven inches from the end. I reinforce this point by holding the partially made spindle against the chair back to show its final placement.

            This first step in roughing out spindles is one of three jobs that we give the class and that will take up their first morning. (Planing the seat blank and tracing the pattern on it and making the arm and bow are the other two jobs.) After lunch, we begin bending. We assemble the class in the bending area where Don and I demonstrate the bending process.  Then, we take everyone back into the shop for the second spindle demonstration. Here, we show the class how to shape the spindle’s upper shaft. It is squared to ½ inch. It is rounded and sized by passing it through the ½ inch on the go gauge.

            While the class begins to work on the upper shaft of their seven spindles, Don takes two students at a time out to bend their arms and bows.  When the two are done, they come back into the shop and call out the next two. The first pair of guys begins work on their spindles. This goes on until about 4:00 – only two people are ever outside, while the rest are in the shop working on spindles.  I’m right there working with them, completing the spindles for the chair the staff is making.

            Periodically, I set my tools down and walk around the shop to see how everyone is doing. When I did that October 17 I discovered one guy had squared to ½ inch the half the spindle he had already rounded and fitted to 7/8. I stopped him and explained the mistake. When I looked at his spindles I discovered he already had done the same to two others.  I corrected him and told him he had ruined those three spindles. I gave him fresh blanks so he could start over.

            I moved on to another student and discovered he was making the same mistake. I stopped him and quickly walked around the room, finding two others doing the same thing. I stopped the class and explained the process again. I assumed I had stamped out the contagion. A while later, the two students that had been outside bending returned and started squaring their spindles. Sure enough, one of them began squaring the wrong end.

            I can’t explain what happened. We have never seen anyone do this before, and suddenly five people in the same class made the same mistake. I can rule out the demonstration as the cause. I did both of them. I have done spindle demonstrations so many times, I can teach them in my sleep. Only two weeks earlier I had explained and demonstrated the same process to the October 3 sack back class. Everyone in that group made all seven spindles without any mistakes. Furthermore, each student has in his or her packet a step by step procedure and a photo sheet of the spindle making process. These clearly describe the process and one of the photos clearly shows which end of the spindle to square to 1/2 inch. 

I can rule out the monkey see, monkey do effect; students copying each other. One of the guys who experienced the problem was outside. He wasn’t even present when the contagion occurred. However, he walked in and immediately became infected.  

           A month later, around 4:00 in the afternoon, while legging up his settee, a student broke a side stretcher. It snapped as he was installing the under carriage to the seat. Don spotted the problem and after helping the guy take the undercarriage apart, ran out to the catalog building and got a replacement. He gave the new stretcher to the guy, who began to lay it out the shoulders and cut the tenons. Meanwhile, I was working with a student when I got a panicked call from a bench across the room. Sure enough, another guy had broken a side stretcher.  Don made a second trip across the parking lot for a replacement. Before that outbreak had subsided, he would make two more trips.

After the class had left for the night, Don and I had our customary beer together. I reached into the scrap bucket and pulled out the four broken stretchers – all sides, no centers. Don told me that in all the years he has taught with me, he had only seen this type of break once before. It the last hour, he had seen it four times.

These outbreaks of contagion are not harbingers of bad things to come. They run their course and things settle down. The class goes on as normal. The rest of the October 17 sack back was uneventful. As you read in the previous posting, in spite of the broken stretchers, the November14 settee class actually ended a day early.

I am at a loss to explain the phenomenon. I assume a psychiatrist or other student of human behavior would describe it as mass hypnosis, or mass hysteria.  Perhaps a suggestion gets planted in some unknown way – at least unknown to us.  If you have an explanation, or a similar experience, let me know. I am curious.  

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