Welsh Stick Chair Class Day 3: The Full Welshman

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When John Brown taught chair classes in the United States in the 1990s, he famously threw a student’s machinist calipers into a lake to make a point about how his chairs should be built.

Then, while teaching at John Wilson’s shop in Michigan, John Brown lost his temper with Wilson after class one evening. Wilson was hosting the class and was also making one of the chairs. In the evenings, Wilson had to work to keep up with the students because he was busy during the day.

John Brown caught Wilson using machines to quicken the work and lit into him.

Despite his outbursts of temper and strong opinion, every student of John Brown who I’ve met adored or revered him.

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Chris Williams, who worked with John Brown for more than a decade, also has very strong opinions, much like John Brown. But Chris doesn’t have the temper. Every sermon on saddling the seat, building the armbow or rounding the sticks ends with this:

“That’s how I do it. You might do it differently. It doesn’t matter, really,” Chris says. (As I’m typing this, Chris is saying those exact words to his students sizing their tenons.)

Which approach is better – fury or flexibility? I can’t say. The students in Chris’s class seem to really like Chris’s gruff but gentle approach.

Me, I’m just glad Chris hasn’t (yet) thrown my dial calipers into the Ohio River.

— Christopher Schwarz

Posted in John Brown Book, Uncategorized | 11 Comments

Welsh Stick Chair Class Day 2: Think Round

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With many woodworking classes, the goal is for every student to end up with identical chairs, tool chests or side tables.

But that approach is opposite to the spirit of a Welsh stick chair.

Welsh stick chairs weren’t manufactured (and I hope they never are). Instead, they were usually built as a side business for the undertaker, farmer or wheelwright. Or they were made by the person who wanted a chair to sit on.

As a result, no two chairs are ever alike. Add to that the fact that many of these chairs are made using branches from the local forest, and it’s impossible for two chairs to be alike.

During Chris Williams’s class this week, every demonstration begins and ends with the admonition: Do it this way, but if you don’t end up doing it this way that’s OK because it’s your chair.

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Additionally, Chris repeats some of the Zen-like phrases John Brown used as he worked. When making the front edge of the saddled seat, one should “think flat” over and over to avoid scooping it out too much. To make the tenons, “think round, think round, think round” as you make the tenon with a block plane.

There aren’t a lot of jigs to save you with this chair. And the toolkit is the smallest I’ve ever seen in a chair class.

So the chair isn’t in the jigs. It’s not in the tools. It’s in your head. Your job is to push those thoughts through your fingers and into the wood.

So step one: Think of a chair.

— Christopher Schwarz

Posted in John Brown Book, Uncategorized | 8 Comments

A respectful response to comments on “Follow up or forget it”

If there’s one thing I can say about readers of the Lost Art Press blog it’s that you’re a thoughtful lot. Thank you for your comments on my last post. In an effort to stanch* the misunderstanding, I decided it would be better to reply this way instead of writing detailed responses to individual comments.

As I reflected on the first remarks I saw (during a bathroom break) this afternoon, I realized that I should ask the following question:

Would you have responded differently to the post if I told you it was not based on a single individual but a distillation of many email exchanges, phone calls, meetings in person etc. — in other words, to make a general point? Here is how the post was intended:

1. as insight into the reality experienced by many of us who make our living as makers of furniture, cabinetry, and similar wares while also teaching classes and writing about our work

2. as a bit of advice to those hoping to get started in the field.

The point of the piece was certainly not to air dirty laundry or blast anyone in public. To the writer of that comment: I appreciate your concern that the general tone here remain constructive. The point of my post was constructive. Please do me the favor of reading on.

Another comment writer suggested that maybe the young man in question was just too busy to respond promptly. I appreciate — very much — your interest in seeing the other person’s side. A few people have written me off over the years because they grew tired of my own insistence on doing the same. In this particular case, the person who contacted me was a recent college graduate (in Making Things Work, I altered all identifying information, places and dates included) looking for direction in summer. He did not yet have a job.

But since we’re on the topic of being busy, I am running a one-person business on which a significant portion of my family’s livelihood depends. Punctual responses may be about manners for some people (they are to me, as well), but the need for punctuality has a grittier source in my world. If I don’t respond punctually to an email such as the one I quoted in that last post, or a voicemail/whatever, it will almost certainly fall off my radar due to the pile of other crap, literal and figurative, I am juggling. My patience with a lack of reciprocity from someone who is requesting my help is limited.

The following and more are currently on that radar screen: Building a set of kitchen cabinets with a mid-June deadline. Designing a sideboard for a house that defies any architectural characterization beyond “eclectic.” Coming up with an estimate for a dining table like nothing you or I have ever seen – an estimate that requires input from specialist suppliers, not just from me. (Can you say “herding cats”?) Proofing PDFs of several forthcoming magazine articles. Planning a trip to a few northeastern states during a limited window of available time in late July/early August to promote my book on English Arts and Crafts furniture. (Note: promotion is not about ego. It’s about developing real relationships and doing my part for the publisher.) Plans for a long weekend visit to my parents and sister in mid-July. Working out contractual and logistical details for a work-related video this summer. Collecting, shooting, and organizing images for (in addition to writing) a book about kitchens for Lost Art Press. Working with design clients in various states (and in various states of progress on their respective jobs). Writing a weekly blog post for Popular Woodworking and a series of posts for the Pros’ Corner at Fine Woodworking. (Interviews with Michael Fortune and Darrell Peart are coming up.) Writing class descriptions, communicating with past and prospective students, etc. In other words, the stuff of everyday life in my line of work.

There’s also the day to day reality of home life – a life I’m blessed to have.

And weeding the garden.

Responding to a missive such as the one in my previous post is not a matter of simply typing letters on a keyboard. It involves thinking strategically about what I might realistically be able to do for the person who is making the request. I don’t take that lightly. As I wrote in that post, I made a very generous offer to this person in the past; his response indicated that he was less seriously interested in learning about this line of work than he thought himself to be. Second time around? Barring catalepsy or some equivalent scenario, the lack of a prompt reply to my message (which I sent via the same medium as the one through which I received it; I recognize that some people no longer check email regularly) indicates that the claimed interest may be more dilettantish than the inquirer may be aware. “Jacob” is not alone in this. (Heck, I probably did the same thing myself at some point in my teens, though this person is beyond that age.) There was also Caitlin (not her real name), who insisted she was dead-serious about being my apprentice and lasted…one full day. (“My boyfriend is going to be in town tomorrow on the spur of the moment so I won’t be able to work. I knew you’d understand!” Huh?) Or Ike (ditto; not his real name), who contacted me during his last semester in college and came highly recommended by his adviser, whom I respect enormously. I rearranged my schedule around Ike’s impending arrival, taking on one job in particular that I could only handle with another pair of hands. Minor problem: He didn’t show up. “Oh, sorry. I guess I should have told you I had a better offer.” Fortunately I was able to hire an experienced tradesperson to take Ike’s place, though doing so cost me a couple hundred dollars. These are just two of the numerous other characters behind today’s noon-hour post.

In other words, that post was about the cumulative effect that such less-than-fully-considered queries tend to have on a businessperson’s willingness to entertain future requests from others. (Note: I am talking about a micro-enterprise businessperson, not a person with “staff.”) Every individual who does not follow through makes it less likely that the next one’s going to be taken seriously. Because lack of time.

Finally, the real-life young man mentioned in my last post is a wonderful, intelligent person with a huge heart and many admirable talents. He has so much going for him and has benefited from some good connections. When I write an email message such as the one I quoted in that post, it’s intended not as negative, unprofessional, or mean-spirited, but precisely the opposite: a piece of educational truth-sharing about one of the rarely-discussed (because AWKWARD) aspects of what it really means to make one’s living as a woodworker in today’s world. And that is exactly why I wrote Making Things Work.

*It’s correct. Look it up.

Posted in Uncategorized | 59 Comments

Follow up or forget it

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5/20/2018 5:42 p.m.

Nancy,

I remember five years ago I asked if I could maybe help you out or simply watch in the workshop to see if I can’t learn a thing or two about carpentry. Although I ended up not being able to come in at the time, I’ve become more interested in the trade, and was wondering if there’s any chance I could learn something from you provided it doesn’t interfere with your work.

Best,

Jacob (not the writer’s real name)

5/21/2018 8:09 a.m.

Jacob,

I would be very happy to talk with you about your interest. I’m not in a position right now to give any instruction because my schedule is jammed. Simply watching me (or anyone else) work is not how you would learn this craft; it’s completely hands-on, a matter of training eyes and hands to work together, in addition to learning the principles behind joinery, how to use hand tools, and how to use machines. There is also much to learn about wood and other materials, such as adhesives and finishes. Aside from this, I don’t let people come and watch me work because it’s distracting; this translates to increasing the likelihood of errors, not to mention danger.

If you’d like to come to the shop and have a chat over coffee one day this week, let’s set up a time. I can make time on Tuesday or Friday. Let me know.

Nancy

5/22/2018 10:16 a.m.
Jacob,

Hello again. I’m writing out of avuncular concern (or whatever the feminine version of “avuncular” might be). Please understand that the following is not a reprimand, but advice from a friend of the family who has known you for many years and wants to see you succeed in whatever endeavors you undertake.

When you contact a businessperson to ask for what is essentially free advice or help, it’s important to respond to his or her reply in a timely manner. It doesn’t matter whether his or her answer is “sure, let’s do this” or along the lines of what I wrote yesterday morning. If you want to be seen as a responsible, considerate adult, you should acknowledge the reply promptly and respectfully. I don’t know what is going on with you this summer; I don’t know how you’re feeling about life in general, whether you’re excited (as you have much reason to be!) or anxious (which would also be understandable…). Your state of mind is immaterial to the importance of responding. This is the kind of situation where you must learn to act regardless of how you feel. (Trust me, it gets much easier with practice. I’ve had a LOT of practice.)

The other point I want to make is that you have expressed an interest in my line of work on two occasions, and I have offered what I could in response. The first time, a few years ago, I offered to start work an hour earlier each day, at 7, to give you an hour of free hands-on instruction. I have not made such an offer to anyone, though had [my stepson, who attended the same school as “Jacob”] been alive today and interested in learning about my line of work, I would have done so for him. People from around the country contact me for advice and help, and I don’t have the time to give it to them. Others pay to take classes with me in woodworking schools. I was offering you instruction at no charge. It was totally fine that you decided to spend that time with the [local theater group] instead. Selfishly, I was happy not to have to add another hour to my [shop part of the] workday. But to contact me again about your interest in my kind of work, then not respond promptly to my reply, makes you appear less than serious in your interest. Honestly, it looks bad. If I were a prospective employer, this lack of response would make me choose someone else instead. Who knows? Maybe you got some great offer in the past 24-odd hours that you decided to take, in which case, yay! But that still does not obviate the need to acknowledge my response to your note, or that of anyone else in a comparable situation.

Let me offer a snippet of my own experience in contrast. When I was 20 and living in a rural village in England I decided that I wanted to learn to build furniture. I signed up for a City & Guilds course at the local vocational college. I didn’t drive; I couldn’t afford a car, let alone driving lessons. I rode my bicycle in all weather. You lived in England for a year; you have some idea of how miserably chilly it can be. I got chilblains, a precursor to frostbite, on my fingers and toes. But I showed up every morning at 7:45 and did the work along with the other students, then spent the afternoons working on a cobbled-together worktable in the dining room of the house my boyfriend and I were renting, so that I could earn some money to pay bills. That yearlong course was just the beginning of my education in my field. You really don’t start to learn seriously until you go to work in someone else’s shop and get some experience of the economic realities in this (or any) line of business. This is just a tiny peek into what serious interest looks like. It requires dogged perseverance and existential investment. And it is essential to be courteous to everyone with whom you come into contact, whether or not he or she is able to provide the kind of help you would like.

Again, this is emphatically *not* intended to criticize or reprimand you. I am writing in the spirit of helpfulness as someone who knows the ropes in her line of work, and as I said above, wants to see you flourish.

With the feminine version of avuncular affection,

Nancy–Author of Making Things Work

Posted in Uncategorized | 35 Comments

Day 1: Chris Williams’s Welsh Stick Chair Class

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Today I’m going to tell you a nice story. Later in the week I’ll tell you a shocking one.

For the last couple weeks I’ve been unusually chipper, despite all the crap I’ve been managing with my father’s estate. In fact, the other day, my spouse, Lucy, looked at me a bit odd as I was making coffee at 6 a.m. with a s&*t-eating grin on my face.

“You OK?” she asked.

Being somewhat self-aware I answered. “Yes. This coming week is the closest I’ll ever get to taking a class with John Brown.”

Welshman John Brown died 10 years ago after changing the lives of thousands of woodworkers with his book “Welsh Stick Chairs” and his columns in Good Woodworking magazine. The chair he showed in his magazine articles inspired me to seek out chairmaking classes and to dive deep into the historical record of vernacular furniture.

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At some point, Chris Williams sent me an email about his work with John Brown, which began in the mid 1990s and ended with John Brown’s death in 2008. After hundreds of emails across the Atlantic, I resolved to bring Chris here to teach Americans how Chris builds a Welsh stick chair. It’s different than John Brown’s, and that’s part of the shocking story coming later this week.

We’re calling this chair the Williams Welsh Chair (#williamswelshchair), and it’s unlike anything most American eyes have seen.

Today we glued up the arm bow and saddled the seat for this chair. I’ve worked with a lot of chairmakers in the last 25 years, and I can honestly say that the way Chris approaches his chairs is unique and definitely worth listening to.

And that’s the point of Chris’s upcoming book (with the help of Kieran Binnie) tentatively titled “The Life & Work of John Brown.” While today was overwhelming (and the next four days will only get worse), I managed to snap these photos of the construction process. I hope you enjoy them.

— Christopher Schwarz

 

Posted in John Brown Book, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Union: The Lost Shaker Village

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The two closest Shaker communities to Cincinnati are also the most difficult to see.

The White Water Shaker Village isn’t open to the public on a regular basis, though there is a dedicated group of people trying to change that. And Union Village – the largest Western Shaker community – has all but been erased.

marble_0_0The only structure that remains (that I know of) is now the marketing office for the Otterbein Senior Life retirement home (see photo at right).

Union Village, about 30 miles northeast of Cincinnati, was once a bustling area of commerce. The Shakers there sold seeds and brooms and were an important part of the abolitionist activity in the area before the Civil War.

While the village is gone, some of its furniture was saved.

On Saturday, I took Welsh chairmaker Chris Williams and Megan Fitzpatrick to Harmon Museum in Lebanon, Ohio. This charming and tidy museum doesn’t attract lots of tourists, but it has an impressive collection of Shaker furniture and objects that were rescued from Union Village.

Many of the pieces display the characteristics of typical Ohio-made pieces, including the table legs that are turned and taper at the floor. Some of the chairs and rockers in the collection were downright astonishing, and I wonder where they were made. And there were some impressive casework pieces, including secretaries and built-ins.

If you find yourself in the area, I recommend a stop. It’s a few minutes off Interstate 71. In the meantime, here are some photos of a few of the pieces that caught my eye.

— Christopher Schwarz

 

Posted in Personal Favorites, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

The Dark Side

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Fig. 13-1. Other ways of working. Some users begin their mouldings with a round plane on a chamfer or a hollow on an arris.


This is an excerpt from “Mouldings in Practice” by Matthew Sheldon Bickford. 

I have spoken to scores of people regarding the methods of making profiles with hollows and rounds that I have covered thus far. While most new users find the techniques extremely simple and thorough, some more experienced woodworkers find it too calculated. In many  ways I agree with this sentiment, particularly as you improve in your skills. In this chapter I will address a few of the techniques that many other woodworkers employ.

Many users much more accomplished than myself start the hollow on the single arris of a single rabbet rather than on the dual arrises of a chamfer. Similarly, for concave curves they start a round on a chamfer rather than the arrises defining a rabbet.

With these techniques, it is recommended that the user start the profile toward the end of the board, near where a pass with the plane  is generally ended, and work his way back in abbreviated steps. The first pass with the round, using your fingers as a fence (I use my fingers on both sides here), will start the profile in the last 6″ of the  board. With the second pass, back the plane up another 6″ and take another pass all the way to the end of the board. Proceeding in this way will create a profile that is ramped toward the end of the piece. To  correct this, once the plane is tracking properly the user should begin to take passes abbreviated in the opposite direction – feathering the plane off the profile before the end – thereby evening the profile across  its length. The toe of the plane will ultimately guide the cutting edge and the heel.

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Fig. 13-2. Less work? If you start a round on a chamfer there is less material to remove, but also more steering of the tool.

The advantage of working in this manner, from end to beginning, is that the plane creates its own chutes in which to fall. The first pass may be imperfect. The second pass, using the plane’s length and the chute that was started with the previous pass, will be slightly more accurate and uniform, especially toward the end. With each subsequent pass the profile will develop further and more uniformly. Accuracy here depends upon skill with steering the hollow and round, not on a square rabbet.

The advantage of this method in using a round is that there is less stock to remove in profiles of 60° as shown in Fig. 13-2.

There is, of course, much more stock to remove with a hollow using this method as shown in Fig. 13-3. There is, I guess, also one less step.

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Fig. 13-3. More wear on the tool. Using a hollow on an arris will wear the sole and iron more in the middle of the tool.

The disadvantage of this traditional method of using hollows and rounds is in its inaccuracy for beginners. It is much easier for the new moulding plane user to achieve consistency when the plane has two points upon which to ride. However, I have introduced this technique here because there are times in which it is useful, even necessary.

For example, I use this method exclusively when working with No. 2 planes. You will notice that I never illustrate knocking the corners off the square facet before creating a bead, as shown in Fig. 13-4. Working a rabbet plane into that tight area is dangerous in regard to the surrounding profiles, especially given that the adjoining surfaces are complete at that stage.

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Fig. 13-4. Useful with small planes. Working right on an arris is the way to go when dealing with the very small hollows and rounds.

The rabbet necessary to guide a No. 2 round is absurdly small; the two points upon which the plane sits are so close that they are somewhat irrelevant. I create a chamfer here and use the above method as shown in Fig. 13-5.

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Fig. 13-5. Another place for steering. When making very small coves, a rabbet plane is impractical.

I also use these methods at times when working with larger planes, but their use is much more sporadic. Again, the further one progresses in his skills, the more individual preferences develop. You may try this method and prefer it – there is no question that many use it quite successfully. I will not argue with success.

Meghan Bates

Posted in Mouldings in Practice | 1 Comment