My Willow Phase

willow_footstool_IMG_0213

The unpleasant funny thing about visiting your family during the holidays is encountering your former woodworking self.

I’m in Charleston, S.C., with my dad this week and encountered my Late Willow Phase, a time during the 1990s when I was obsessed with rustic furniture. I had honestly forgotten about this phase (unlike my leather trousers phase).

For a couple years I drove around in my Volvo 240DL station wagon cutting willow switches out of ditches on the Westside of Cincinnati. I stored all these sticks in buckets in my shop, giving it an arboreal look. Using a drill and a tenon cutter, I made dozens of chairs, trellises, frames, anything you could fashion with sticks and tenons. It was my first pleasant encounter with bending green wood.

One Christmas we planned to visit my father in Arkansas. Lucy and I were broke, and my dad already owns everything he needs. So I took an afternoon to make this little footstool for him from a scrap of white pine and discarded willow switches from a chair project.

And here it sits today (I took it out on his porch for a photo). And for something that I threw together in a day, it’s not half-bad.

Phases can fade away or end abruptly. This one had its throat slit. One day I got a letter from a family that makes willow furniture with a bunch of photos of their beautiful pieces. The letter said: “We’ve seen your stuff. It sucks. This is what willow stuff should look like. Please quit.”

I did.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
This entry was posted in Personal Favorites, Uncategorized, Yellow Pine Journalism. Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to My Willow Phase

  1. John Paver says:

    I like it, screw them…

  2. Royce Eaves says:

    I like rustic willow on porches, maybe an entrance foyer, and places like that. I like the table. I don’t blame you for going through a phase and then deciding to go in another direction. Everyone has to make those kind of personal decisions.

  3. I want to see what this great willow furniture “should” look like.

  4. Loxmyth/Keshlam says:

    HOGWASH. Their comment should have been, and should have been interpreted as, “here’s what we’ve been doing. Hope you find it interesting, and perhaps inspiring.”

    Nobody has the right to tell another artisan to stop trying. Or for that matter to insist that their style, no matter how nice, is “what it should look like.”

    Burn that letter, but keep the photos.

  5. meanmna says:

    Hope you guys are weathering the weather OK. We are just across the bridge in Mount Pleasant and took a trip out to the grocery store yesterday afternoon and I was surprised how icy the roads still were. I love my Jeep.

  6. studioffm says:

    We all change directions and move on. Its a part of developing a person style of work. However I think your critic has far too large a view of himself or herself. None of us have the right to suggest that our work is in any way better than the work of a colleague, however umm … interesting that work may be. My early stuff is still cherished by relatives and brought out when ever we visit. To the huge embarrassment of myself and great amusement of my children . You made THAT dad ??
    happy new year to you all

    david

  7. That was a rough letter! And as a huge admirer of your work…glad they sent it!

  8. mcqacp says:

    Footstool looks fine… but the railing in the back ground? I don’t care but why is there 2 different style balusters and the closest ones seem to be different heights. I’ve never seen them mixed before. ( sorry for the anal-retentiveness)

    • My father’s home was built using bits and pieces from destroyed houses after the 1886 earthquake. The city was in an economic downturn at the time and building supplies were scarce. So that’s the story.

  9. Dean Mosey says:

    “This is what willow furniture should look like. Please quit. “. A certain sticker comes to mind…..”Sharpen This!!”

  10. Don Joyner says:

    Everybody’s a critic, apparently including a couple of the previous commenters. Your reaction to the willow-makers was a little surprising. I would have expected something like, “Kiss my willow tree.”

  11. Tom Bittner says:

    So I dabbled in pyrography, i traced from a photograph my Father in law painting a birdhouse with his very young granddaughter leaning on his shoulder in rapt fascination about the process. A precious moment that was recorded by my camera and the picture hangs on our wall. Anyhow i attempted to recreate the photo and after weeks of painstaking work i showed it to my wife who pointed at her father and said “ who’s that?” “ that doesnt look like him at all!” Haven’t touched the wood burning equipment since.

  12. spoiler says:

    To your point about revisiting your former woodworking self…. I live in a house filled with my woodworking evolution… furniture I built in my “Norm Abrams” phase…. stuff built in my “It needs to be completed before the semester starts up again” phase, My “David Marks- bentwood lamination” phase, and my “Wow! Wenge wood is cool” phase. Even my “Chris Schwarz- staked/campaign/danish modern” phase. To revisit a section from the ADB- I have a house filled with Red and Green furniture and sometimes looking at it exhausts me. I’m a tough nut however and I can steel myself with the knowledge that not every person can fill a home with furniture that tells the story of their life. Who knows what lies ahead as I look back at my current “Thomas Moser/Shaker inspired” phase. At least it will be a feeling of green.

  13. burroborracho13 says:

    My sister has what I hope is the only surviving example from my Quilt Rack Phase. Every time I visit I want to snatch and burn it. At least it’s still together after 30 years.

  14. Roger Hylr says:

    Oh, do publish their name an address if you still have the letter!!!

  15. tsstahl says:

    Purposefully devoid of useful information. I recently finished an item never before attempted. Somebody saw it and was surprised that it was heading for the burn pile. Person begged for it if it was just going to be burned. Had a real internal struggle over letting it loose into the wild. It is no longer in the burn pile, but with the admonition that I would deny any involvement with it.

  16. Richard Mahler says:

    Any willow or stick-with-the-bark-on furniture I have ever seen always fell into the category of “interesting to look at” which I assumed was the only goal or purpose of such things. The idea that there was good, bad or beautiful involved in the matter never occurred to me, or that it resided anywhere except on the porch of a rustic cabin in the middle of nowhere with the pretense that it was the best that could be had under straightened circumstances. I see the occasional example on Antiques Road Show and understand that it was a deliberate fashion and minor industry with a following and aesthetics for at least a century. I’ll make no judgements about something I don’t truly understand, but I still cannot personally muster much appreciation beyond “interesting”. A close long-time friend has a lake cabin porch furnished with half a dozen “fine” examples of such rockers that have been family heirlooms for 60 years – I appreciate that they are appreciated. We live in a diverse world and I regularly see television ads of entire furniture warehouses filled with brand new “stuff” that I would send to the nearest landfill, or chop up for firewood if I had a wood stove to put it in – assuming it is made of anything that actually burns.

  17. rons54 says:

    Hard to believe anyone would write something like that, so I hope that you are exercising some artistic license. If not, well, as grandma used to say, “Bless their little hearts”.

  18. Bob Jones says:

    Precursor to staked furniture, I presume.

  19. fitz says:

    Yellow pine journalism – heh.

  20. Mike Nicley says:

    Every time I visit my mother’s home I see the first spoon I ever made. It looks like it was carved by the giant from Jack’s beanstalk.

    My spoons still aren’t great, but looking back I can’t imagine how I let that one leave my house any way other than up the chimney. I try to let it keep me humble, a reminder that someday I may see the things I make now in a similar light.

    • Richard Mahler says:

      Mothers, and parents in general, have their reasons for keeping the gifts bestowed on them by their progeny, and it has little to do with judgement, or intrinsic object value, or aesthetics, and yet it has a kind of wisdom that surpasses the act, serving to keep us thinking about who we were, who we are, and what we may yet accomplish. It is but one of their unintentional gifts.

  21. Allen J Appel says:

    C. Schwarz self-effacing gallantry 🙂

  22. Scott Presson says:

    For me it was the “exotic wood to compensate for mediocre craftsmanship” phase. That one lasted ~15 years.

    …so far

  23. Terry Gandy says:

    Everyone should have a willow phase and I hope I have mine, one day. Thank you for all you do behind the plane and the keyboard. Blessings!

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