To Make Better Casework, Don’t Take a Class in it

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I was 13 when I applied for the journalism program at my middle school. I was accepted (thank Jebus), and I remained a full-time student of the craft until I was 24 and released on the world to collect a generous four- and (eventually) five-figure salary in this trade.

I’m often asked by kids and grownups how to become a writer. What books should they read? What classes should they take? After a lifetime of study, here’s my answer:

Writing classes suck. During my 11 years of full-time training I never got much of value from a writing class. (Sorry Roger Boye and Dave Nelson.)

So how do you become a better writer? Easy. Take classes in editing. The three most important classes I took during my training were:

  1. Copy editing. During this class I learned the rules of the road. These rules became tattooed on my brain through ritual abuse (that’s copy editing!). Once I knew the rules, I learned the consequences of bending or breaking them. The beautiful thing about becoming a copy editor is that you can churn out copy that a copy editor will love.
  2. Magazine editing. During this class I learned to flush away my “self.” A good editor can become a stupid person who is reading a piece of writing for the first time. This “cloak of stupidity” allows you to see the giant holes in a story, the poor organization and the odd word choices. While I can use this skill on other people’s work, I also use it on my own writing. Though it’s difficult to edit your own work, once you don the “cloak of stupidity,” you can turn out writing that is easily understood by anyone.
  3. Law and ethics. If you don’t have a moral groundwork for your writing, you will write things you don’t believe in (I’m talking here about the profession of public relations). A class such as this will teach you the limits of writing (what’s legal and not). It will give you the confidence to exercise your First Amendment rights (truth is a defense). And it will show you how the “appearance of impropriety” should color every decision you make as a writer.

So what the heck does this have to do with woodworking? Lots. If you want to become good at building casework, I think you should take a class in chairmaking.

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I’ve taken a lot of classes on both casework and chairmaking. The casework classes have been forgettable. The chairmaking classes have made me a better woodworker. Why? It’s complicated. Chairmaking shows you several things you won’t get from a “build a box” class.

  1. Assemblies are living systems. When you make a chair you try to use the least amount of wood to create the greatest strength. So you have to understand wood, how it moves and how it reacts to the tools. After taking chairmaking classes, I knew how to put assemblies in tension so they would resist certain forces. I knew how to better design for moisture exchange. I saw the benefit of green wood, dry wood and everything between.
  2. Angles are meaningless. After you take a class in chairmaking you see that every angle is as valid as 90°. While machines like 90°, you don’t have to stick with that angle (or its cousin, 45°) to make good furniture.
  3. Form is everything. While chairs can have intricate details, they are mostly a silhouette. And once you can see that silhouette, your casework will ricochet into new directions.

I don’t teach chairmaking classes (or any other classes these days), so I’m not trying to sell you anything. I can say that most woodworkers who do casework have deep trepidation about chairs. That should tell you something.

Forget the box for a minute. Try compound-angle joinery for a week and you’ll laugh at boxes afterward.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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15 Responses to To Make Better Casework, Don’t Take a Class in it

  1. mgh63 says:

    This. I’m not a writer in any way, shape or form but this is accurate concerning woodworking. Took a class by Mike Dunbar a few years back and instantly noticed my thought processes had changed when doing casework (or any handcrafts for that matter). Unfortunately, Mr. Dunbar is no longer teaching but find a chair class and sign up!

  2. blefty says:

    I just finished a class with Curtis Buchanan in Jonesborough, Tennessee, two weeks ago. A guy flew in from Sweden and a retired internal medicine doctor were the other students. It was a wonderful week! I learned more from Curtis and the other two students in one week than I could have imagined. We made sack back Windsors. When my chair was being difficult Curtis stepped in and I saw 34 years of experience go to work as he “coaxed” the crest rail into fitting during glue up. I was in awe. And I am now much less-afraid of green wood and compound angles.

  3. I love these insights, regarding both woodwork and writing. So, are you going to write a book on how to write about woodwork? 🙂 (Honestly, I would buy it, being curious and encumbered by my own cloak of stupidity.).

  4. Paul Murphy says:

    I’ll never forget the Andy Marlow quote I read, “If you can make a chair, you can make anything.” Six years of chairmaking was how I started my career. I wouldn’t have chosen it, but I’m so very glad that it was so.

  5. jayedcoins says:

    This is sort of out there… but does anyone know of a good teacher/class for chairmaking in the southern Michigan/northern Ohion/northern Indiana area? I’m in SE MI and would be willing and able to drive 2 hours or so and stay a night or a few for a class. But getting to some of the classes further down south is unfortunately not realistic for my current station in life.

    • I *highly* recommend Tillers International in Scotts, Mich.

      http://tillersinternational.org/

      Take the shaving horse class with Jim Crammond. You’ll love Jim. Then take one of his chair classes. Tillers is a fantastic place and a fantastic organization.

      • jayedcoins says:

        Chris, you’re a hero… this place looks great and it speaks to my newbie-ness that I haven’t heard of it! 🙂

        And not only do the classes look amazing, but it gives me an excuse to stay in Kzoo for a couple days and imbibe at Bell’s cafe in the evenings.

        • Few people have heard of Tillers. More should. They do amazing and important work.

          I see the shavehorse class is being now taught by John Sarge – he’s awesome, too. Do get in touch with Jim Crammond as you venture into chairs. He’s local to your area and a great guy.

          • jayedcoins says:

            I too noticed that they didn’t have Mr. Crammond on the 2016 schedule for chairs, but after I get a chance to do the shavehorse class with Mr. Sarge I’ll ask and see if they know if Mr. C is still teaching chair making.

            I just got curios and did a quick Google and it sounds like Mr C. is based out of Monroe, which is just a hard stone’s throw south of here. So hopefully I can get the shavehorse education to start and then get in touch with Mr. C to see if he still teaches chairs.

            • David Knight says:

              @jayedcoins I was just with Jim Crammond today at an Ohio Tool Collectors meeting and mentioned this post to him. He is working on the 2017 schedule right now, and I suggested he add a class or 2, since the interest will be there (now). Tillers is an awesome place. They don’t do fancy projects; everything is down to earth, nuts and bolts. I took the shave horse class with John Sarge a couple years ago and use my horse regularly. Good luck and hope to see you there sometime.

              • jayedcoins says:

                Hi David, very cool! I gather a chair making class will run a few bucks, so hopefully they can offer a few of them this year so I have time to save some bucks! Hope to be able to do this and would be fun to meet some people.

  6. I agree, I took a class with Dave Fleming from Ontario a long time ago and it was great, learned tons… That said, I didn’t take many woodworking couses so far, maybe one other one, and I doubt I will take more other than maybe an other chaire making one!!

  7. Thomas Dugan says:

    You can substitute “boatbuilding” for “chairmaking” in the post, and it will still ring true. Of course, building boats is usually done near water, something that doesn’t constrain chairmaking. And you might not actually *want* to take a boat home at the end of a class. But the thinking needed to do both is really similar.

  8. eaia says:

    Having made several Windsor chairs under the supervision of experts (John Robinson & Kurt Lewin,) I would say definitely that it is a challenging activity. My skills as a furniture maker are similar to the skills of a rough out carpenter but making chairs was a very satisfying activity that taught me a lot about joinery, angles and patience. The chairs are a wonderful addition to my household. Thanks for posting this Chris….now back to my writing.

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