Aug 102010
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Call me Ishmael! Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; then I account it high time to take a class. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly sign up for schooling. (Sorry ‘bout that, Mr. Melville.)

A few weeks ago in order to clear the skies of my soul a little, I decided to get out of town for a short trip. I signed up for a class in Windsor chair making with Michael Dunbar up in New Hampshire (they actually had a sign on the freeway leaving the airport “Caution – Moose Crossing”) at the Windsor Institute. Let me tell you how much fun I had and then you need to look seriously at taking the chair making class being offered in October at Highland.

Mike offers a five day “sack-back” class where students end up with a completed chair pretty much made by hand. Working out of a lovely barn purpose built for chair building, Mike offers a wonderful class. We started with split pieces of green red oak for the arm rest, bow back and the spindles, and a slab of dry white pine for the seat. We spent the first day getting those pieces ready with hand tools. I was surprised at how physical the whole thing was and found muscles I had not used in a long time. We worked from 8:30 to 5:30 every day with a twenty minute lunch. The instructors would demonstrate the next thing we were to do and then we would take twice as long to try to do it ourselves.

It was so funny. Somewhere along the way I missed one of the main points of this class. I had shipped a bag full of tools north the week before and had some new tools I purchased shipped directly to the school. Being the twenty first century woodworker that I am, I had sent my dust mask, my face shield, and my hearing protection.

Spoke shave, Dust mask, Face Shield, Ear Muffs

I was about two centuries out of phase. We spent the whole week using spoke shaves, draw knives, travishers, compass planes and chisels and we bent wood from the steam box. Shavings and chips from green red oak and dried white pine floated gently to the floor. There was no dust; there was no noise, no whirling whining blades searching for digits to devour. There was only a huge amount of chips and long narrow shavings, and we usually swept the floor more than once each day. We used methods from two hundred years ago and it was a great joy and revelation to me and all my classmates.

Here’s what I learned: a tapered peg in a tapered hole will hold ten times what I thought it would hold; the proper hand tool, properly sharpened, and applied to the proper task will do a beautiful job, even in my partially skilled hands; minimal glue will hold a chair together for many, many years; and I can build a chair.

My Windsor Chair

Now in October this year, Highland is offering a class on Windsor Chair building taught by chair maker Peter Galbert. There will be two seminar days on Saturday and Sunday and then five days to make the chair. You will go home with a lovely child’s Windsor chair. Be sure and sign and date it, because your great grandchildren will turn it over to show it to people who come to visit and brag about great grandpa (or ma) building this chair by hand. They will not likely remember much else about you, so here is a chance for a bit of immortality in wood.

By the way, I stopped by Mystic Seaport, Connecticut, for a little side trip on the way home. If you have been looking for Noah’s Ark, I think they have it there under repair.

And just in case you missed it earlier, here’s the link to Highland’s chairbuilding class with Peter Galbert this October. Should be a fantastic class.

  One Response to “Building my own Windsor Chair”

  1. I love this guy. His writing is witty and accessible. And let’s be honest–anyone who can work Moby Dick into a blog about chair-making has a gift. Glad you had fun, Terry!

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