Square Back Class

March 26 we held the first class of the year. It was our chance to introduce our new Square Back class. Don and I had been preparing all winter as we worked out in our minds how to structure a class that is so different from anything else we teach. During this time we made the numerous bending forms and jigs for each work station.  We made chairs ourselves to fine tune our process. We got excited.

All our preparation was worthwhile and the class was everything I had hoped.  There were no major glitches, short of a propane burner that chose Monday morning to buy the farm. However, it turns out that we were able to do everything with one steam box.

Before every sack back class I tell the students that chairmaking is going to stand their woodworking experience on its head. Everything about chairmaking is different. Before this class, I told everyone Square back is going to stand your chairmaking experience on its head. It did. However, we had planned well and worked out enough safeguards that no one made any significant mistakes.

In fact, Square back is so different we had to delay the celebration that begins our school year. This was because the leg holes in the seat are blind. We always drill the first leg hole of the year and stop to celebrate the Drilling of the First Hole. We do this as soon as my bit passes through the seat and into the backboard. This year, we could not hold the ceremony until I drilled a hole for a stile. Those are the only through holes in the Square back side chair seat.

Square backs are a striking design. The class picture of all those arm and matching side chairs was impressive. By the way, this first class filled so fast I scheduled a second Square back class June 4. That class still has two spaces.

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There were no Royal Orders ceremonies in this class, as so many of the guys are already dukes. However, we cannot pass up a chance to party. So, last year when faced with the same circumstance, we decided to celebrate our first Canada Day. Canada Day is a floating holiday. It occurs in the Windsor Institute calendar on Wednesday of whatever week His Grace Lyndon Gallagher First Duke of Canada is present.

Last year, the lady at the market decorating the cake spelled Canada the way we in New England pronounce it Canida. As you can imagine, this gaff caused a lot of amusement. This year, when we recalled the woman that had misspelled Canada, a wag in the class said, “Everyone knows it’s spelled with a K. The result, this year the cake read “Happy Kanida Day.”  I suspect this gag will take root and will become the holiday’s official name.

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Before the class His Grace Kurt Rothermel sent gifts for all the guys that would be present March 26.  It was a T-shirt with the coat of arms of a Duke of Windsor. I can never pass up the chance to pull a few chains. So, Don and I wore our shirts the first day. I knew that seeing us in our shirts would get everyone frothing at the mouth and asking where they could get one.  My tease went as planned. Once a furor had been raised over our shirts I had H.G. Kurt distribute them. Those shirts are now the hottest item in all of chairmaking.  If you’re in the Royal Orders and want one; too bad. You should have signed up for the Square back class.

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We had one sack back class scheduled this summer – July 9. It has filled and we added another sack back July 23.

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The pace is quickening around here. Two things are causing our increase in activity.  Spring is one of them. It is more pleasant to be outside. It was a mild winter, but the sun is now higher in the sky and it makes everything more cheerful. Second, we are only 10 days away from the first class of the year.

Evidence of that new pace arrived this morning. A truck load of prime red oaks logs were dropped off in out log area.  Kevin is already scheduled to be here next Tuesday with Ol’ Bessie, his tractor with the four foot hydraulic log splitter. While he is here, he’ll take the air conditioning covers off, because we will soon need to run the units. After that, Don and I will begin the enormous task of cutting that wood into chair stock. That job will not be complete until May.


Monday, Don will be back and he and I will finish the pair of Square backed chairs we are making. This opportunity to do some chairmaking together has been fun. We hone out skills and Don’s wife gets a pair of chairs she really likes. I got a kick out of showing him the joint I had developed for securing the arm to the stile. It is one of those neat tricks that gets the juices flowing.


The group that will be here starting March 26 are the old regulars. I already decided I will poll them to find out how many Drilling of the First Hole ceremonies each has attended. This year is a bit different in that the Square backed chair has blind leg holes. We won’t conduct the ceremony until I drill the first stile hole.


I know I haven’t been posting here. However, this winter I did complete book seven of the eight-book  teen adventure series of I have been writing.  I have also written the first two chapters of the final book, with plans to finish it before fall. I have been working on this series for four years and although I love it, I am looking forward to completing it and making it available.


Good news for those of you who have been wanting a copy of Sandpaper Sharpening, the video I did years ago. I am having it transferred to DVD and expect it to be in stock next week.


Here’s a first. Sir Ron Tatman is beyond a doubt the first Windsor chairmaker to sponsor a race car. I received this email from Sir Ron .

“Jill and I are one of the sponsors of this super late model race car. It is a long story which I will try to condense. I have always had an interest in dirt track stock car racing and attended many races when I was a teenager. The contractor who built our house and the addition of the sun room showed us a video of his daughter driving her race car. I was hooked and have enjoyed watching the races and helping as part of the pit crew.

Staci Warrington who drives the car has accomplished much in the process. She is the first female driver in Delaware to win a late model feature race. More importantly she has had the opportunity to attend Project Podium which in addition to a racing scholarship educates young female drivers in the business of racing and in how to better market racing and themselves. Staci attends Salisbury State University and along with a summer job which is related to her major stays quite busy. She is currently 3rd in points in a very competitive class.

These cars are powered by engines producing more than 750 horse power and complete a one half mile lap in 19 seconds or for an average speed of over 90 mph. Driving skill, set up, and strategy are an important part of the game.

Because I have two daughters of approximately the same age I have been even more connected to this project and take pride in the achievements of my daughters and their peers. I have witnessed a young racer improve her racing skills, confidence and her ability to professionally present herself. This combined with the achievements of our daughters has been a very fulfilling ride. Most people don’t realize how windsor chair making can lead to so much.”


Our server had problems for several months with certain email addresses. As a result, large blocks of my monthly essays bounced back. Earthlink was a big problem. If you did not receive the essay about Gardner’s Big Chair, the Chairmaker’s Deed, or the Herzogstuhl, drop me an email and I will send them again. If you are on the list, you should have received the Romani Toy Chairmaker today.


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Quiet Time

                Our year has it rhythms; an ebb and flow of activity. We book a lot of spots in classes between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Things are also brisk in the early spring as people plan their summer vacations. There is another rush in the late spring of people looking for reservations in fall classes. We also have lulls. In June, as kids are getting out of  school, the phone falls silent. The same thing happens in late August and September as school starts again.

              The quietest time of all starts the day before Christmas and lasts until mid-January. It is understandable why. First, people are celebrating the holidays and then, recovering from them. While in school, this coincided with my son’s winter vacation. As a family we have traditionally kicked back during this time and slept late. I only drop into the office every other day. My son is now in college and his semester break is five weeks. I am taking advantage of this extended period and enjoying it.

However, I am not the type of guy who can just hang out. I do need to keep busy. So, I have begun the seventh book in my eight book series of teenage adventure novels. These books are all in my head, so once I sit down to write I move along at a good clip. In fact, since I began writing in mid-November, I have already produced the first 35,000 words. I expect to complete the rough manuscript before our first class.

Lots of guys in classes ask about this series. I have not yet published it. I plan to complete it first. Then, if I cannot interest a publisher, I will self-publish. Here is a short synopsis of the series I have written for when I start querying. It is the sort of short, snappy summary writers create to catch a publisher’s attention. 

“This eight book series is the story of star crossed teen-aged lovers Mike Castleton and Alexandra Tymoshenko; unable to share a life together because they were born five lifetimes apart. While each book is an adventure that stands alone, the series itself is the larger story.  So, threads run through the series that eventually weave into a tapestry.”

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            Good news! We have the Green Stuff back in stock. If you have been waiting for an item, you can order it. Green Stuff is the name we use for the green anodized aluminum gauges and devices that hang on ends of the benches. Everyone who has taken a class has used them and is familiar with them. They include: the Incra Stick, the Go Gauge, the Bevel Board, and the No Name Stick. We had run out because the second Mr. Green (our name for the guy who makes the stuff for us) had done the same as the first Mr. Green – gotten too old to keep working. Mr. Green III is young and healthy.

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Yellow Poplar is Heavy

            Things are not as hectic at The Institute now that we have concluded the class year. However, we have a mountain of work ahead of us. Most of that work will be centered on preparing for the first couple of classes in the spring.  

Preparation for the April sack back will be straight forward, as we teach that class numerous times each year. I will begin by buying the red oak logs and having them trucked to the our log yard beside the main building. While we are well acquainted with the work that comes next, and could do it blindfolded, the work is back breaking. The logs have to be bucked to lengths of either two, four, or six feet and then, split into billets. It is easy to say, but it will take all day and will leave the three of us exhausted. What I could do easily at 35, I find grueling at 65.

After we have reduced the logs to billets, we will begin the job of cutting them into bending and spindle blanks. We also have to glue the sack back seat blanks and count and bag turnings. All those jobs are routine and repetitious. At least we can listen to the radio or talk to each other when doing seats and turnings. When we are making the red oak bending blanks and spindle blanks, we work at a screaming machine. Our ears are protected and our conversation is limited to hand signals.

The first class of the year – the Square backed chairs that you saw in the November email – will occupy most of our time this winter. I have made the prototypes. As I have already written, that took much of my spare time during the late summer and fall. That work was the tip of the iceberg –what people see. Far more of the Square backed iceberg is out of sight and reamins to be done.

As I turned the parts for the two prototype chairs, I turned one extra of each part to serve as the masters. Those will go to the turner to be copied. I broke a spindle while assembling the arm chair’s back and had to use the master. So, I still need to turn another of those. That is all that is holding me up. As soon as I have made a replacement spindle I will place my order.

Each student in the Square backed class will need two seat blanks. We will glue those this winter as well. The side and the arm use different dimensioned blanks. So, we will have to pay more attention that usual.

Each student in the class will need four bending forms; one for the spindles, the stiles, the crest rails, and the arms. The parts are bent in gangs, and this require some other fixtures, used with the forms. These fixtures are small, but have to be made. An arm chair and a side chair is the beginning of a set. We are anticipating that students will want to complete a set of Square backs at home and will purchase the equipment they used in class. So, we will make lots of extra bending form sets for our catalog. These forms will be in yellow poplar, ; a wood that works easily, but will hold up to repeated use.

The wood for all those seats and forms arrived yesterday. Don wasn’t able to come in, as he has a stomach bug. That meant I had to carry all those planks by myself. Either I had forgotten how heavy a rough sawn, 2″ X 12” 14′ yellow poplar plank is, or I am getting old. I hauled each from the back of the truck into the catalog building.  Oh, did I mention the two dozen the pine planks that arrived as well? When the truck finally left, I was panting for breath.

Today is warm; mid-50s. I won’t get many more days like this, so I plan on hauling the yellow poplar back out and placing it on saw horses. There, I will buck it into manageable lengths and rip it to dimension.  My consolation is that I can do it one plank at a time. The next step will be to plane and joint the poplar and begin a lot of glue ups. I bought  new gallon of yellow glue and don’t expect much will be left when we are done.

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                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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              This is Friday of the November 14 Windsor Settee class. Tonight, after class, we were supposed to Burn the 2011 backboards.  That is not going to happen. It’s not going to happen tonight because the five day class wrapped up in four days. The boards are already burned.  We did it last night.  

            For those of you who are not familiar with The Institute’s traditions, we begin the school year with fresh, pristine backboards. Backboards are 1 X 6 X 24 inch pine strips placed under through holes to protect the bench tops. During the first class I drill the first hole into my seat and the bit passes into the backboard beneath it. When I am done, I remove the board and everyone in the room signs it. Then, it is secured to the wall next to the white erase board, where it hangs until the very last day of the last class of the year.

            During the school year, everyone who takes a class is asked to sign a backboard, so as to be with us in spirit when we burn. When the last class ends, we take the year’s backboards to the incinerator behind the shop. There, as we read the year’s class rosters, we all take turns tossing boards into the fire. It is a fitting ceremony for wrapping up our year.

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            During the class, someone mentioned that I had not posted here for a while. In fact, according to the student, I hadn’t posted since last July. I knew I had been busy, but I was surprised it had been that long. I have excuses and I know they are worth the same as all other excuses. My son began his freshman year of college (College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA). It is amazing how much effort getting a kid into college takes. During the summer, I also wrote book six in my eight book series of young teenage adventures. You, who receive my monthly essay on chairs via email, saw the square backed chairs that I developed for our new chair next year. That project was a major undertaking.  Oh, I almost forgot, I also taught all our summer and fall classes.  That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

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The time that has passed since last July has included some significant events. Sir George Wright was inducted into the Chairmaker Hall of Fame. His innovation is known as the Right Vanhovenometer.  George’s idea was to add a pilot shaft to the Vanhovenometer. This way, the device can be used to check a hole’s angle before beginning to ream. Adjustments can begin with the initial reaming. Combined with the pilot on our reamer, the Right Vanhoveometer makes it a piece of cake to get leg angles dead on. It is a major improvement.

Sir George joins 21 others in the Hall of Fame (we call these chairmakers The Immortals). He is one of only five Immortals who are also in the Royal Orders. The question “What about the other guy?” is often asked when an innovation improves one that is already extant or, supersedes it; in this case the Immortal James Van Hoven.” He was inducted for his innovation, the original Vanhovenometer. The answer is simple.  Jim remains in the Hall of Fame, as membership is in perpetuity.  His certificate still hangs with all the others. He is still recognized as a “Humanitarian, a Philanthropist, and a chairmaker concerned with the well being of his fellow chairmakers.”

Meanwhile, we have replaced all the old Vanhovenometers on the shop benches with Right Vanhoveometers. The new innovation is now the one we sell in the catalog.

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            In September we held the Two Kids Chairs class. In it, we taught the students our joint for attaching the footrest. Everyone who takes our sack back class learns traditional Windsor joinery. I am proud of the footrest joint. It and the Brother-in-law Joint are my contributions to Windsor joinery.  I am pleased to announce I have developed another joint. Remember the bent mitered arm on the Square backed arm chair in this month’s email essay? I have worked out a really neat joint to secure the end of the arm to the stile. The guys in the March 26 class will be the first to learn it. I hope that I can adapt the technique to the Brother-in-law. If I can, chairmakers can trim that joint flush with the lower arm rail without worrying the joint will fail. I will keep you posted.

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Waldorf and Statler

 The July 11 sack back class is underway. The class is unusual in that six of the students attended together as a group. The core of the group is father/son Rich Bruno, Sr. and Rich Bruno, Jr. and their friend Hugh Quigley. The three have taken several classes together. In fact, they are repeating sack back. Hugh brought a friend Tim Albright with him. Rich and Rich brought Rich, Jr.’s 15 year old son Simon and a friend, Neale Moore.

The senior members of the group, Rich, Sr. and Hugh are old friends. They jab and poke at each other the way only old buddies can. The class dubbed them Waldorf and Statler after the two old buck muppets; the ones who sit in the private theater box and  joke and snipe at everything. A lot of the joking between the two guys dates to the only class Rich and Rich took unaccompanied by Hugh. During that class, the father and son came up with an innovation that earned them induction into the Chairmaker Hall of Fame. Their innovation is named The Wealthy Bear. (A wealthy bear is a rich bruno. Get it?)

BTW, it is worth pointing out that in spite of all the classes Rich, Rich, and Hugh have taken, 15 year old Simon was the first one in this class to complete his spindles.

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File this one under Duh. Major league baseball has been troubled by broken bats. Quoting from an Associated Press story that you can read in its entirety at  http://www.usatoday.com/sports/baseball/2011-06-13-major-league-baseball-bats_n.htm Faced with an epidemic of dangerous broken bats in 2008, Major League Baseball turned to the U.S. Forest Service for help in solving the problem. And who knows wood better than the Forest Service?  I don’t know. Maybe woodworkers?

Anyway, the story continues, Since the broken-bat issue reached its peak in the middle of the ’08 season, the overall number of broken bats has remained relatively steady. But Kretschmann (from the Forest Service) has tracked an approximately 50 percent reduction in the most dangerous type of broken bat, where a piece or pieces of the bat literally come flying off the handle after contact with the ball. Kretschmann calls it a “multiple-piece failure.” Others in the game call it just plain dangerous. “They’re flying into stands with the jagged edge sticking out, they’re flying into the ground all over the field,” Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said.

So, MLB turned to the experts who went to work finding solutions. After sorting through thousands of broken bats — including nearly every bat that broke in the second half of the 2008 season — Kretschmann and colleagues at Harvard and the University of Massachusetts Lowell identified issues that made bats more prone to shattering. They determined research showed that bats made of particularly low-density varieties of maple instead of ash are more prone to multiple-piece failures.

And they found the problem.  Kretschmann said the main issue with bats that break into multiple pieces is the so-called “slope of grain” in the wood. Ideally, a bat would be made so the grain runs perfectly straight along the length of the bat. But if it’s off by more than three degrees from parallel, the bat can lose about 20 percent of its strength and Kretschmann found himself examining bats that were off by 10 degrees or more.

In other words, all this brain power figured out that maple is not as shock resistant as ash and grain runout weakens wood. These are two things well known to every chairmaker. It’s stuff we teach in sack back. It’s why we are so fussy about how we get our wood, and why we jump through so many hoops. That each wood species has its own propoerties is why we don’t make chairs of a single wood. We actually choose wood for its properties and engineer the chair around those properties – springy, flexible oak for the back; stiff maple for the legs; and soft, compressible pine for the seat. I have another hint for MBL. You want to get nice straight grain with no runout? Rive the turning stock for your bats. I wonder how much they will pay the experts to figure out that technique?

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We’ve all had days like this one described in a recent email from Dave Rossano.

“I hope your sumer has been going well. My wife has gone to Ireland with the kids for a 3 week vacation; so having this time to myself I decided to catch up on some chair work. I had been putting off the work now that the fishing season is in full swing and the bass  have filled into all the bays. Legging up my Nantucket fan back everything went smoothly and I proceeded to drilling the holes for the H. I got halfway through the first hole and the battery died. So, I tried the second battery. Dead.

“Great. Charging up a battery, I went to mow the lawn. I came back  and it was  still charging. So, I called a friend to borrow his drill. I biked over to his house and biked home. I set up to continue my work, but his battery was dead. His second battery was also  dead. Now I have 2 drills and 4 dead batteries and half of 1 hole. My first dead battery is still charging  but I grab it anyway and go for it. The rest of the legging up went smoothly, but when I was wedging the leg tenons the wedges all crumpled as I drove them. So, this took twice as long. I was finally finished and  wiping glue from the tip of my chisel when a mosquito started to fly around my face. Exasperated and agitated I swung wildly at the bug forgetting I was still holding a chisel. After a close shave I put my chisel down and went fishing.

“But nothing beats a good day chair making.”

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Odds ‘n Ends

 That pile of split red oak I wrote about in previous posts has shrunk considerably. Don and I have put in several half days on the big Hitachi resaw. In one morning we cut the spindle stock for more than 60 sack backs. We are down to two piles of splits and hope to have them all cut into stock by the July 11 sack back class.  One of the remaining piles is the three footers that are intended for the 2 Kids Chairs class this fall. The other pile is the six footers we will use in the settee class. There is a lot more in both piles than we need, but the surplus gets sold through the catalog.

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Sir Ken Neiswender and his chairmaking family were featured in Ron Hock’s newsletter this month. The article is titled “Ken Neiswender: Why We Love Hobbyists.”  The article begins with the quote below by Ken. The article itself then follows.  If you want to subscribe to Ron’s newsletter send an email to linda@hocktools.com.

 “When I looked for recommendations about hand planes, the first thing I learned was to put a good blade in the plane to make it cut better.  Hock blades are always suggested. The shaves I bought came with Hock blades and  I love them. So, when I wanted more shaves, it seemed natural to get Hock blades.” 

                                                              — Ken Neiswender

“What a treat to see Ken Neiswender’s spokeshaves, each with a Hock Tools’ blade. Ken is one of those generous-of-heart hobbyists who always has a project to finish, and a long list of waiting loved-ones. Just a hobbyist? With woodworkers such as Ken, the phrase lacks depth. 

“Ken explains that at some point in 2003, ‘I wanted to make a Windsor chair and liked the idea of learning woodworking from somebody who knows what they were doing. I convinced my wife that taking our then 13 year old son to  The Windsor Institute on a man-vacation could be a great father-son bonding experience, and therefore worth the expense.'”

“Happily, that class exceeded all of Ken’s hopes. He and Michael learned to cooperate as a father-son team (and many of us know how elusive that state of grace can be) and had a lot of fun that summer building their first Windsor chair. They went back to The Windsor Institute two years later to build rocking chairs together; but only after Ken took his youngest daughter, Lizzie, to build a chair with him in 2004. No more a man-vacation, this was father-child bonding at its best, and Michael was already hooked.

“Chair class at The Windsor Institute requires spoke shaves and I bought a fancy figured set of three spoke shaves for me and a plain cherry one for Michael. I bought them from Dave’s Shaves which sends the shaves with Hock blades.

“Ken has made 16 Windsor Chairs so far, helped Michael build three and Lizzie build one. His builds other things, too, and he and eldest daughter Katie turn pens together.

“Ken kept going back to learn more about making chairs and has only himself to blame for passing on the right genetic material to Michael and Lizzie who naturally needed spokeshaves made by their remarkable father.

“’Now that we had three chair makers, we needed more spokeshaves and I figured out that for the price of a blade, I could make shaves for everybody. I made Michael a flat, brassed shave and a curved bloodwood shave.  I made Lizzie a similar set in purpleheart. As I made more chairs, I realized the value in having more spokeshaves set to different cutting angles.’

“Ken learned to make the shaves from an American Wookworker article by Dave Wachnicki of Dave’s Shaves.  He still uses his Dave’s Shave Flat Sole in highly figured birdseye maple for a fine cut, as well as its mates with a curved sole and a smaller detail shave. They all use 2 3/4 inch blades, except for the Dave’s Shave Detail Shave that uses a 1 1/2 inch blade.  So, Ken’s birdseye shaves are set for fine work, the bloodwood for medium and the padauk for coarse.

“At Hock Tools, we just love it when we hear, ‘I’m just a hobbyist woodworker.’ In our experience such words are usually filled with an authentic ‘aw shucks’ type of self-effacement.  We work with professionals; students, hobbyists, the gamut of woodworkers in a variety of very specific niches. The craft and productivity of woodworkers such as Ken Neiswender are a true marvel in this world, and the results a point of pride for everyone, including Hock Tools.”

 The article ends with this quote from Ken.  “Woodworking has become my passion and my hobby, so when I find a chance to share it with somebody, I do.  I am just a hobbyist woodworker who makes what my family wants and what seems like fun to me.”

If you want to see pictures of Ken’s shaves and chairs, follow these links:






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It has been a while since we had a good Windsor Chairmaker joke. Enjoy.

Four Windsor chairmares are walking down a street in Hampton, NH.  They turn a corner and see a sign that says, ‘Chairmakers Bar – all drinks 10 cents’.  They look at each other, and then go in, thinking this is too good to be true. 

The old bartender says in a voice that carries across the room, “You look like chairmakers. Come on in and let me pour one for you! What’ll it be, Gentlemen?” 

There seemed to be a fully-stocked bar, so each of the chairmakers ask for a martini.  In short order, the bartender serves up four iced martinis.  Stirred, not shaken, the way chairmakers like them and says, “That’ll be 10 cents each, please.” 

The four Windsor chairmakers stare at the bartender for a moment. Then look at each other they can’t believe their good luck. They pay the 40 cents, finish their martinis,  and order another round. Again, four excellent martinis are produced with the bartender again saying, ‘That’s 40 cents, please.’ They pay the 40 cents, but their curiosity is more than they can stand.  

They have each had two martinis and so far they’ve spent less than a dollar. Finally one of the Windsor men says, ‘How can you afford to serve martinis as good as these for a dime a piece?’ 

“I’m a retired chairmaker from Portsmouth,” the bartender said, “and I always wanted to own a bar.  Last year I hit the Lottery for $25 million and decided to open this place. Every drink costs a dime – wine, liquor, beer, it’s all the same.” 

“Wow!!!! That’s quite a story,” says one of the Windsor chairmakers. 

The four of them sipped at their martinis and couldn’t help but notice seven other people at the end of the bar who didn’t have drinks in front of them, and hadn’t ordered anything the whole time they were there. One Windsor chairmakers gestures at the seven at the end of the bar without drinks and asks the bartender, “What’s with them?” 

The bartender says, “Oh, they’re all Shaker chairmakers from Canterbury, waiting for happy hour when drinks are half price.”

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A Visit from Dave

             The May 16 Writing Arm chair class is in session. This gave my old friend Dave Wachnicki an excuse to visit. It was good to see Dave again. Our working relationship dates back to 1995. Most people don’t know that Dave used to teach with me. While here, Dave had to tweak and tune and overhaul so many wooden spoke shaves for so many students that he became an expert on this tool. I lost him when he decided to start making shaves. However, he always has been (and I expect always will be) our recommended source for this tool. Students who arrive in class with a shave from a different source always regret it and end up using one of our shop shaves (which are of course, Dave’s Shaves.)

             Dave is the only person to both teach at The Institute and be inducted into the Chairmakers Hall of Fame. He became an Immortal by virtue of his innovation Dave’s Dipsy Doodle. All who have taken a class with use have used the Dipsy Doodle to calculate the length of their center stretchers. To jog your memory; remember the story about the crisis caused by chairmakers cutting their center stretchers to the wrong length? We were mowing down entire forests to provide center stretchers for chairmakers who can’t do math. Greenpeace picketed outside. Sierra Club filed suit against us in Federal Court.  (You do realize this is all a gag?) We assembled the Knights of Windsor and sent them on the quest for the Holy Grail of chairmaking – a way for chairmakers who can’t do math to directly measure their center stretchers. That’s the Dipsey Doodle. You use it in combination with McKelvy’s Harness.

            Here’s a trivia question, how could Dave who taught here, be in the Hall of Fame? The bylaws strictly prohibit instructors from membership. (We do this to prevent corruption. A six pack is enough to buy a trustee’s vote.)  See answer below.

            I last saw Dave this winter. He probably hasn’t changed, but I was surprised at how gray he has gotten. He no doubt thinks the same when he sees me. I think of Dave more than I see him, as he is the guy who told me about using jalapeño stuffed olives in martinis. I will be forever grateful

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            The October 3 sack back class has filled. We have opened a second sack back class October 17. Other than that class, the only sack back opening left this year if July 25. There is one space left in that class.

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            I received this email from Ray Duffy regarding his brother Tom. Tom is the oldest person to ever take our class. He was 87 when he did sack back with Ray.

            “Hi Mike: The subject sounds like the beginning of one of your jokes. I am just back from California and it is official Tom is 90 years old and still making Windsor chairs. We had a good visit, worked on a chair, planted the garden and had a birthday bash with a big crowd, good food and plenty of liquid refreshments. I am attaching a picture of Tom with his cake and also Jesse the Lab with his cake. Tom and Jesse share the same birthday 88 years apart.

            “There is also a picture of Tom with some of his chairs. He has completed 16 and is working on two more in his shop. Tom is in good health, stays active and still drives himself everywhere. I had hoped to get him back for another class this year, but that will not happen since he now wears hearing aids and is unable to use them in noisy surroundings. Also, the pace of the class is too fast for him to keep up. On his own he can do just fine. It just takes a little bit longer. Tom will be here in August and we usually visit Woodcraft in Portsmouth, I will check to see if you are available and if so we will try to stop to say hello. Regards, Ray”

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The next email is from H. G. Lyndon Gallagher, First Duke of Canada. “The buds are just coming out and the sun is shining….it won’t be long now. By the way, I made a chair that was  auctioned last Saturday where the proceeds go to the local nurses and caregivers. My balloon back went for $700. Right now I’m working on a high chair for friends that had a baby 3 months ago. I sure am enjoying my chair making……Thanks again Mike.”

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 The answer is – Dave was inducted before he donned the coveted green staff shirt.

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In the Zone

          After splitting on Monday, Kevin and I worked a half day Tuesday cutting oak blanks. Our priority was to get out the material for the upcoming Writing arm class. Each chair will require a crest and a long arm. Crest blanks are 32 inches and long arms (c-arm, NYC bows, and settee parts) are six feet. Since we were in that mode, we cut enough crests for the rest of the year and for catalog sales. The Philly high back in August and the rocking chair in September both require crests. So, we are ready for them.

          We spent the rest of the morning cutting a large pile of standard spindle blanks; 24 inches long. By the time we were done cutting we had large piles of blanks all around our machine room. When we went back to the stacks of splits we had put upon Monday, I was amazed that we had barely made a dent. Obviously, we will be doing a lot of cutting in the next two months. 

          Yesterday, we received another load of seat pine. I hope to buck it into length today. I should be able to get the job done, as that work goes fairly quickly. Kevin, Patrick, Don, and I are getting together again on Monday next. We should wrap up that day with many of the seat blanks glued. Once again, our focus will be on the upcoming class. Don’s first order of business will be the writing arm seat blanks, which with a side tail piece, are a unique shape.  He will also glue up the writing tablets. Meanwhile, Kevin and I will be cutting more oak. 

          I have a treat waiting for me on the shop floor, and I am anxious to get to it after bucking the pine. I recently received an email from a student who had taken the NYC bow back side chair class. He had also bought the class chair made by the staff and me as part of the instruction. He wanted to round out the pair into a set of four and inquired if I had any more NYCs on hand. I didn’t, but not having a class during June, I will have time to make a couple of chairs. So, I agreed to make him another pair. 

          I have already made the bows and am now working on the spindles for the chairs. It has been so long since I made some chairs for sale, I had forgotten how satisfying it is. I work at my vise and go into the zone. I feel the stress drain out of me as I get into the rhythm of chairmaking. My reverie is only occasionally broken by a phone call. Even still, I quickly slip back into a state of complete peace.   It is very nice.

          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 mike@thewindsorinstitute.com Help us spread the word about this blog. Tell others.