Editor’s note: The following is a short excerpt from “The Stick Chair Book,” which will be released this fall. Among all the how-to chapters in my books, I always try to add some chapters that add a psychological or historical dimension to the Part-A-into-Slot-B stuff. This is one of those chapters.
— Christopher Schwarz
With all the woodworking information available for free these days, it seems unlikely that there are still trade secrets amongst us.
But during 15 years of working with professional woodworkers to get their work published in a magazine, I had a lot of conversations that went like this:
“What kind of dye is that?” I’d ask.
“What brand? And what is the name of the color?” I’d ask.
There were also many techniques that were off-limits. The woodworker would say something like: “This is how I teach it, but it is not how I do it.”
These encounters troubled me. I thought all the secrecy stuff had died off with the European guilds. But apparently, I was wrong. In many ways, I sympathized with the professional. He or she was fighting a horde of amateurs who were willing to undercut the prices of the pros. Why should a professional offer aid or comfort to this amateur enemy?
On the other hand, as woodworker W. Patrick Edwards says, “To die with a secret is a sin.” How will the craft progress if we don’t share what we know?
As I plunged deep into chairmaking in the early 2000s, I found myself stymied by some operations relating to compound geometry. The techniques published in the books seemed entirely too awkward compared to what I knew about pre-industrial woodworking. There had to be a simpler way to do these difficult operations.
I took some chairmaking classes. These helped, but I felt like either:
- The teacher was also finding his way in the dark.
- They didn’t really want to tell me how they did it.
In 2010, I took a Windsor chairmaking course with Mike Dunbar at The Windsor Institute, along with my father and John Hoffman, my business partner. Dunbar, now retired from the school, had built a chairmakers’ terrarium. You started with the class on making a sack-back chair. Then you moved on to other chair forms. If you wanted to make chairs for a living, you could receive training on business, sales and marketing from Mike’s spouse, Susanna. Plus, the Dunbars, their employees and affiliates supplied students with tools, patterns and wood for amateur and professional chairmakers.
It was an impressive operation. Mike and his assistants were there at every step to help you move forward on your chair. The lectures were funny. The workshop itself was gorgeous.
There was one problem, however. The class materials. At the top of the handouts for the class was this warning:
Our students are authorized to use these materials for the making of chairs for personal use and for the making of chairs for sale. We do not authorize the dissemination, reproduction, or publication of these materials in any form and strictly prohibit the use of the materials in the teaching of chairmaking to others.
Again, I felt that same old conflict. There is the urge to protect what you know. But that same urge has caused a lot of knowledge to be stockpiled in the cemeteries.
During my week at The Windsor Institute, I filled a red notebook with all the details of constructing a sack-back chair. I also kept all the handouts from the class in a green folder – both now in my bookcase.
However, I never consult them. I’m almost afraid to read them because they might give me some ideas for making chairs that I am not allowed to pass on to others.
OK, wait a minute. I’ll be right back.
Good news, everyone. I went through the class materials and notes, and I didn’t find anything that was universally mind-blowing. Most of the juicy bits in my notes related to how to build that specific sack-back chair. Whew. I’m glad I don’t build sack backs.
Giving away knowledge has always been a part of my personality. I don’t like secrets. While it would be easy to assign that trait to my time as a newspaper journalist, I know it goes back much further. In fact, I remember the moment I became this way.
In 1977 I was in fourth grade at the local Lutheran school. That year, some of the kids in the higher grades were permitted to dissect sharks for biology class. So, one day when we were called for an assembly in the school’s common area, I hoped (against hope) we were going to see some shark guts or something cool.
Instead, there was some old dude standing in the center of the room, holding a regular piece of paper. We all sat down on the carpet around him, legs crossed. Waiting for the boring session about a dull piece of paper to begin.
“Let’s say we live in a world where ‘corners’ are the most valuable thing in the whole world. Can you imagine that?”
“Yeah, but I can also imagine some crazy dissected shark fetuses.”
“How many corners does this sheet of paper have? Yes? You? Why yes, you are correct! This sheet of paper has four corners!”
“You know what has more corners? Shark teeth. Rows and rows of flesh-ripping corners.”
“Now, what if a friend of yours came up to you and was really, really sad. Sad that she didn’t have a single corner in the whole world.”
“So, my friend is a circle?”
“What would you do? You don’t want to give up one of your corners. Because then you’d have fewer corners. But you feel really bad for your friend. And so, you decide to give her one of your corners.”
Then the guy holds up the sheet of paper. He rips off one of the corners and gives it to a kid in the front row. Suddenly I’m transfixed.
“Oh look, I gave up one of my precious corners. But now I have five corners instead of four. That’s strange, don’t you think?
“Then, another friend asks for a corner because he has none.
“Another one? How can I lose yet another corner?
“But I decide again to give up one of my precious corners.”
Rip. He hands a corner of paper to me.
“And look. Now I have six corners instead of five!”
The guy continues to rip corners off the sheet of paper and hand them out, increasing the number of corners with every rip.
No one had ever explained generosity to me in those terms before. And though I was only 9 years old (and I still haven’t seen a dissected shark), I was a different person from that day forward. Giving stuff away – money, time, possessions, corners, knowledge – always results in getting something greater back in return. The more I give away, the more I receive.
To this day, however, I sympathize with people who hoard their knowledge out of caution or fear. When you are in a dying profession such as woodworking, giving up your hard-won know-how seems like suicide.
But here’s what I’ve found. If the stuff you know is really good – truly excellent – you could end up like Garrett Hack, Christian Becksvoort or David Charlesworth. Amateurs and professionals will pay to learn what you know through classes. Publishers will pay for you to write it down. You might have a tip or trick named after you.
Or you can remain that bitter man in his shop up on the hill. Perhaps you know how to make buttons for attaching tables to their tabletops in one amazing swish on the table saw. But you aren’t performing that trick for just anybody.
It’s a great trick. One that could change the way everyone works in their shop in the entire world. Right?
There’s only one way to find out.
The following chapters detail how I build stick chairs. I’ve tried to include every “corner” that I’ve acquired since I first started building these chairs. Also, I’ve tried to give credit to the people who taught me the trick or the operation.
I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few good tricks and the names of some chairmaking friends who have shared their knowledge along the way. If so, I apologize.
My hope is that you will refine these operations and make them simpler, easier and foolproof. And when someone asks you how you make your sticks or your arms or your legs, you’ll be willing to rip off one of your own corners and give it away.
35 thoughts on “The Black (No, Red!) Book of Chairmaking”
Great lesson and so true!
Wow, I see how that could change a person. That is one of the most profound things I have ever read. This is why I read your blog and buy your books. All I can say is keep up the great work. Thank you
Great story. I’ve found that when “teaching” I often learn things that I didn’t know, both about myself and tricks that I wasn’t aware of.
I’ve dissected sharks. You didn’t miss much.
Giving may be rewarding, but I have found that the reward typically is only found when the gift is received by someone who appreciates it. Sometimes the reward may not come until after your life is over. Still, can’t take it with you.
I’m an intellectual property attorney, so the problems outlined above is a constant consideration in my work.
Are design patents worth anything to the professional woodworker/chairmaker?
I realize method patents are probably prohibitively expensive.
When I made my first Windsor chair with Mike in 1996 he said “their are no secrets in this shop” and we were welcome to copy all templates, not just the sackback. Several years later one of the first students in the Dave Washniki spokeshave class in his shop took their drawings and how-to and proceeded to fly all over the country teaching free spokeshave classes to Internet buddies, thus making it impossible to earn a return on their figuring out how to do it, Same problem as a hobby gardener undercutting a farmer trying to support himself buy not accounting for his time pricing at a farmer’s market.
That’s when all the copyright stuff happened, but it still isn’t lost, it is in the second edition of the book. Since he was into continuous improvement in the chairmaking process, the class in 2003 had tricks the class in 1996 did not which would make “methods” hard to define for a patent but important intellectual property.
Given he started the modern revival and even Sawyer started with some of his early drawings, I would say if you are trying to support yourself on something “new” it’s a consideration if you think the laborer worthy of his hire.
What’s not publicly available as far as I know is drawings and templates for a number of his chairs, but they can be recreated from the actual chair.
Esther who made 5 chairs with Michael Dunbar and several more on her own.
Thank you for all you share.
What a wonderful story lesson you have told us. My way too has always been to give to others what I have learned, just as my teachers have kindly done for me whether in formal education or in life.
Well, you brought it up, not me. I was always appreciative of Curtis Buchanan’s generosity – he was/is very helpful to his students. And he said that’s what Dave Sawyer did for him…and on it goes.
Thanks Chris for sharing the story from your experience / life. Very nice, learned something today.
Sometimes the hardest lessons to learn in life are the simplest to understand.
Treat others how you want them to treat you.
You reap what you sow.
Great food for thought, Thank you Chris.
Everyone enjoy your 4th! Stay safe.
Not knowing the secret techniques hasn’t kept Joe Basement from woefully undercharging for their work anyway (to say nothing about the soon-to-be landfill content churned out by Far East sweatshops), so you might as well share them so the techniques aren’t lost. Probably more money in teaching them to anyone interested than hoarding the knowledge too.
Yes, I have experienced my share of those who “protect the knowledge”. The secret, this conventional thinking, is known to everyone but you, but nobody shares the secret. Make your own way! Make your own rules! If the knowledge won’t be shared, there is no obligation to follow them. I, too, observed and learned this at a young age and it has tainted, hmm, I mean influenced me all my life. Having fun, too.
The ancient virtue of charity was not necessarily about money but about a generosity of spirit. We appreciate your example of generosity–much needed in our modern world.
When I was a mechanic apprentice some of the experienced guys we would work with sent us off on an errand when there was something to learn. Years later we were the teachers and none of us held back any knowledge we had acquired. Sometimes the “inexperienced” apprentice would come up with a better method and make our job a bit easier. I find that amateurs who sell things, be it vegetables or furniture below their value don’t last long in the business nor do they contribute much to the craft.
Thanks for your continued sharing and encouragement for the rest of us to do the same. My wife happens to be an Outdoor Education director at the camp we live/work at. One of her most popular classes is leading shark dissections for 5th graders. If you’re ever on the Oregon coast, let me know and we’ll get you hooked up!
I for one thank you for sharing your “corners”. I’ve tried to share my “corners” whenever possible. Thanks, Chris for being a great example and teacher.
Great lesson. Thank you for a corner.
I think that it is important to share knowledge one might have to anyone who is interested in learning to build quality furniture if we hope to someday see the production of paper covered particle board stuff reduced. I will do my best to share all of my knowledge when someday I begin to teach others the craft. Thank you for your efforts on that front, it is much appreciated.
Seems to me that there is a difference between copywriting/restricting written instructions that are not meant to stand on their own ( i.e. are part of a class) and trying to control knowledge. Presumably the written instructions only contained part of the magic and the Dunbars may have been worried that others may do a poor job of passing on second hand instructions.
Absolutely! I, too, attended The Windsor Institute, a few times. What great classes and Mike and his crew were awesome and entertaining! I wish I could finish that last chair I started, had I the time. I have the notes and am hoping to finish it sometime soon. But, maybe I’ll build a stick chair, with help from your book!!
Thanks for sharing!
You have kinder words for the corner-hoarders than I. Good story!
A great philosophy and a good article
In your “corners” story, when a corner of the sheet was ripped off, the person who received it did not get “one” corner, she/he got a triangle that had three corners.
My son is a highly successful computer guru who from the age of nine grew up in the burgeoning computer tech community of the past 50 years where anyone who kept secrets or did not share knowledge was quickly ostracized and effectively left behind! His friends and associates worldwide still cultivate that ethic and they have all benefitted in exceptional ways.
Reminds me of cryptography – in that business no one trusts a secret algorithm. You’ve got to do a lot of your own testing, then publish your method so the best minds in the business can pick over it, before anyone will take you seriously.
excellent article. I like to rip off corners as well.
As we said in the 60’s 70’s……(I can’t remember!)
Great story – great lesson. Thank you for being generous. I have found that sharing ideas means that people come back to you and look to you for your expertise. Few are willing to put in the effort to become truly excellent at their work. Those who do, even if they have no secret sauce, still stand out as the best in their line of work.
Thanks for sharing this, Chris. I once had a none-to-positive encounter with a woodworker who has been published a number of times in a reputable magazine. I was working on a piece of furniture he had published about, and asked him for some details that weren’t in the article. He noted, with significant frustration, that he taught a class on that particular item, and said that if I wanted to learn about it, I would need to take the class. It was a surprising response. But perhaps teaching is his main source of income, so “freebies” would cut into that.
Love and knowledge are kind of the same in that way
Some things need to be passed on, less they be lost.
It seems that there shouldn’t be “secrets.” I understand the concept of trade secrets, though, and this is at the crux of the conflict. How does one share what, most likely, was freely passed on to them? I also understand the frustration of a “professional,” who makes his living, and feeds his family, being undercut (sometimes by a lot) by the amateur, who is proficient, but not that great. That one receives much more when one shares, is foreign to many. The way that it was explained to you, and that you have passed on is a great way to explain it.
The concept of passing on knowledge to others, only to have them use it against you was rampant. It’s hard enough to make a decent living, especially now that lumber is like working with gold. The average consumer really doesn’t know whether they’re buying crap or quality, only if it falls within their price range.
In high school, we made a trip to the College of the Ozarks (now the University of the Ozarks) and dissected sharks. You really weren’t missing much, as another commenter said.
Thank you for being willing to share!
Of the several classes I’ve taken with our living masters, Mike’s Sack Back class is my favorite. You may rememder we shared a bench that week. The photo brings me back. Mike is a legendary teacher and the shop was so much fun. It was Lost Art Press: Live!
One thing about “corners” is that you can forget when you first learned something, or maybe discovered it on your own. The key is not to worry about who gets the credit. Humility and generosity go well together.
I think LAP was just starting when we were at Mike’s. I’m very impressed by your tremendous success and thankful for all you’ve leared and taught through your various enterprises.
Best to you and John.
Hell yes. In my experience one trait corner hoarders generally seem to share with each other is bitterness. Not only is society at large harmed, so is the holder of the secret.
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