The Burning of the Back Boards

The year 2007 has come to an end.  For most of you that event will not happen until January 1.  However, the 2007 school year at The Windsor Institute ended when we completed  the last day of the last class.  That was Friday, December 7.

Everyone who has studied at The Institute knows we love to celebrate.  So, there is no chance we would let the school year wrap up without acknowledging it with a ceremony.  We have an end of year tradition we have been following since we were located in Portsmouth.  The tradition began the evening after the last class of 1995 had left.  The late Sir Richard Nichols had been in the class. Being good friends with me and Susanna, he stayed behind to help me clean up the shop.

We gathered up the old back boards. These are strips of pine 4 inches wide by 24 inches long.  To protect the bench tops we place back boards under seats and arms when drilling holes.  After a year of service, these boards are pretty shot.  They are full of holes and look more like Swiss cheese than pine.

Sir Richard and I tossed the back boards into the stove where they rested on top of the coals.  As the boards began to smolder, Sir Richard and I  paused and found ourselves staring at them as they burst into flames.  For me, it was an emotional moment.  I become very attached to our students, and I realized that each  hole in the boards had been made by one of the guys who had studied with me that year.   As the boards burned, the white pine turned black.   As the wood was consumed by the flames, the holes became bigger and bigger.  Eventually, the boards curled and broke into coals.

back-boards-in-the-flames.JPGIn 1996  we left the crowded city and moved to a rural area in nearby Hampton.  With no neighbors to be offended by the smoke from burning our scrap and shavings,   we built a brick incinerator behind The Institute.  Every morning of every  class  we touch off a fire to dispose of the wood from the day before.   

As 1996  came to an end, I recalled the emotional experience  I had the year before with Sir Richard, watching the back boards burn.  This time, I asked the entire class to stay behind for a while to burn the boards with me in the incinerator.  The tradition of burning the back boards on the last day of the last class, with the last group of students was born. 

In 1997, we expanded the tradition. During the year, we asked each person in each class to sign a back board.  That way, although they were not there with the last class, they were with us symbolically.  During the burning, I passed out the class rosters,  sheets of paper  bearing the names of the students in each particular class.  After announcing the class date and reading the roster of names, the chairmaker was instructed to toss the paper into the fire, and then, follow it with a back board.  As the spirit moved, anyone attending was also invited to throw in a back board.  That year, we also named the ceremony, calling it by the very imaginative name The Burning of the Back Boards.

We further expanded the tradition by ordering pizza for the class and having supper together after the Burning.  Lord Woody Leland, a professional photographer began to attend every Burning and making a photographic record of it for me.  I have about a dozen photographic CDs of annual Burnings. 

burning-2007.JPGStudents who attended a Burning appear to experience  the same emotions I do.  It’s understandable.  Most of our students become very attached to The Institute and have very fond memories of their times here.   That is why many former students now call or email to determine the date and approximate time of our Burning.  Adjusting for time zones, they burn their own shops’ back boards as close as possible to the time we are burning ours.  So late afternoon December 7, chairmakers around the country were lighting fires in solidarity with their colleagues in Hampton.  Certainly, they thought about their times here, just as I was thinking about the events and people of 2007.

The group that celebrated the end of the year with us was the December 3 Balloon back chair class.  This was an unusual group of guys.  For starters, Alan Michelson was the only one not in the Royal Orders, and even for him,  this was his fourth class.  The amount of chairmaking experience  in the classroom meant the talent level was very high.  Several of the students were professional chairmakers, and the rest had made a large quantity of chairs over the years.  

Because everyone had been here so many times, it was like a reunion.  We the staff,  knew everyone very well.  Most of them had been in previous classes together and thus,  they all knew each other, as well. They did a lot of  socializing in the evening.  They went to the Portsmouth Woodcraft together, to a local antique tool dealer, and to favorite restaurants. Because this was not a first advanced class for any of the Balloon back students, we did not have a raising.  This was the first time in my memory that has happened.

The Balloon back is our newest chair class.  Teaching it for the very first time, we were bound to discover some wrinkles that needed to be ironed out.  We were also bound to have forgotten something in our planning.   The level of talent in a group like this one rolls right over these bumps.  In fact, these guys were  experienced enough to  help us tune up our teaching for the next time. 

It may seem like these guys were short changed, not to receive the finished product.  Going in, these guys all knew this.  They also knew that a first class is an exciting time of creativity and invention.  In a first class the students who attend are elbow to elbow with us, and see us doing things that  other classes will never experience.  They get to look behind the scenes and learn a lot of the tricks we use to develop a class.

In fact, during this class I came up with a really neat trick to check the alignment of spindle holes in the seat.  I doubt this development would have dawned on me  at any other time than during  the unique, creative environment of first classes. Future students in classes that present an opportunity to use this technique will learn it, but the guys in the December 3 class were here when we developed it.  They were the ones that had the opportunity to test and prove it.

Frankly, we were nervous about a class in which students each made a pair of chairs.  We do it in the 2 Kids Chairs class, but this was still our first time for adult sized chairs.  We worry no more.  Everyone completed both chairs. In fact, our class photo contained so many balloon backs, we had trouble fitting them all in.

While all but one student were already in the Royal Orders, we did have a ceremony.  Sir Kurt Rothermel was both earled and duked.  Sir Kurt had done his required teaching stint last summer.  His daughter Kelly took the July 9 sack back class and Sir Kurt helped teach it.  

Having all but one in the Royal Orders made for a very strange ceremony, as everyone but Alan participated in Kurt’s honor cordon.  Alan sat all alone at a bench watching the shenanigans. We did joke a lot with him about being the sole peasant in this crowd of royalty, and wondering if the assembled multitude can be made up of just one guy. 

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David Elsey and his chairmaking business were featured on page one of the Sunday business section of the Sikeston (MO) Standard-Democrat.  Dave was in the October 15 sack back class.  Dave’s passion is for rocking chairs, and he has made them his specialty.  He already offers sculpted rockers and took sack back as a prelude to, you guessed it – attending the May 5 Windsor rocking chair class.  The article points out that Dave will make you a sack back if you want one.

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Maine Antiques Digest reported a new record price for an antique Windsor.  October  26 Northeast Auctions sold a sack back branded by William Seaver of Boston for $160,000. The buyer was a Canadian collector.  Windsor scholar Charles Santore and Windsor dealer David Schorsch were under bidders.  The chair had been in a private collection.  The collector had bought it at a Hartford, CT antique show about 20 years ago  for $6,000.  Twenty years ago, $6,000 for a sack back was still a jaw dropping price. 

The previous record for a Windsor was set in June 2001 at an auction in Bronxville, NY.  That record too,  was for a sack back.  That time, the above mentioned David Schorsch was the successful buyer.  

Some time after making the record setting sack back, William Seaver formed a chairmaking partnership with James Frost, appropriately named Seaver and Frost.  The partnership only lasted from 1800 – 1803, but during that time the pair made the balloon back side chair with crinoline stretcher on which our balloon back chair is patterned.

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Sir Mike Lynch emailed us the news that he and his wife Juliana are expecting a third child this March.  Writes Sir Mike, “I thought that I was the fertile knight, but my wife quickly changed that to the not so bright knight.”  Last year Sir Mike’s other two children visited him while he was taking a class at The Institute.  They are 4  year old Mark, and Sarah 1 ½.

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