Chris Williams is visiting from Wales this summer to teach two Welsh comb-back chair classes in our shop. Session 1 is June 5-9; Session 2 is June 12-16. Registration opens for both today (March 15, 2023) at 9 a.m. eastern on our ticketing site.
Sometimes students ask what they can do to prepare for a class in handwork at our storefront. In the past, I’ve told students to sharpen their tools and try to read up on the project or the topic we’re covering in the class.
But I don’t think that’s enough. I’ve been teaching woodworking for almost 20 years, and I’ve watched students who succeed versus those who struggle. Here are some suggestions to consider if you have a class coming up with us or any other hand-tool instructor.
Get in Shape a Bit
This recommendation is for hand-tool classes only. When I have taught machine-based classes, it’s not as much of a factor. During a week-long handwork class, a fair number of people are exhausted by Wednesday evening. And the last two days are difficult – sometimes uncomfortable.
Though we emphasize conserving your energy and show ways to sit down while you work (Roman-style), students are on their feet a lot. If you are a mouse-worker in an office, standing for eight hours in a day can wear you out.
So, wear the most comfortable, lightweight shoes you own (fashion is a low priority here). Plus clothes that move easily (gusseted pants and shirts work with you; not against you). And to prepare for the standing, we recommend getting in decent cardio-vascular shape. That is as easy as taking a 30-40 minute walk each day. This will work wonders for your ability to stand at the bench for the long hours.
Forget your weight-loss diet during the class. You need energy. We have a lot of students who skip breakfast and/or lunch and are absolutely spent by 3 p.m. You need protein and carbs to do the work. It doesn’t have to be junk food. But you need to eat.
We emphasize using your core as much as possible in handwork. But your arms need to be in decent shape to assist with planing and sawing tasks. The best exercise for this is – shocking – planing and sawing. (More on this in a moment.) But if you can’t practice in the shop, try some beginning strength training. You can find many simple tutorials on the internet for this.
Depending on the class you are taking, I recommend some different exercises to try in the week leading up to the class. If you are taking a class on chairmaking or staked furniture, there is a lot of planing. I mean, a LOT of planing.
There is a point at which you learn how to “ride the bevel” of a coarse tool, which greatly reduces the effort required to plane a stick or taper a leg. This is not something you can teach through words. It’s something you have to figure out yourself.
When smooth planing or jointing work, there is a lot of downward pressure required to end up with straight edges and flat boards. With chairmaking the goal is to use minimal downward pressure because you might take 60 or 70 strokes to shape a spindle. So you have to feel where the cutting edge of the tool is, put it to work and try to get the sole out of the equation as much as possible.
Scratching your head? Here’s how to start the process of finding that magic moment.
Take a 3/4” x 3/4” x ~15” stick of straight-grained hardwood. Place a small stop in your face vise. Press the end of the stick against the stop with your off hand. Plane the stick with a block plane set for a rank cut.
Try to make the stick into a dowel. After it’s round, use taper cuts to make it into a magic wand with a pointy tip as quickly as you can. Plane fast. Skew the tool. Try to find a place where the cutting edge is the only thing contacting the work. (It’s not possible, but it’s the goal.)
Do a stick like this each night for a week before class, and you will ace my class.
Also, learn how a cordless drill works – especially the clutch and speed settings and how they interact with the torque of the drill.
Saw to Success
Megan’s classes on casework joinery involve a lot of sawing and chopping. Most people seem to struggle with the sawing. Frank Klausz had a straightforward solution to prepare a student to cut dovetails for the first time: 100 lines.
Draw 50 lines that slope to the right (like one side of a dovetail) across the end of the board. Scribe in a 3/4” baseline. Then saw right next to those 50 lines, one after the other. Try to do each one a little better and faster. When done, saw off all those kerfs. Now draw 50 lines the slope to the left, put in a baseline and saw those.
This accomplishes a few things, some of them not obvious.
First, beginners usually own a new saw with freshly filed teeth. These teeth are grabby and difficult to start. About 100 kerfs helps break in the saw.
Many beginners have difficulty starting the kerf. Doing 100 lines one after the other rapidly (it takes less than an hour) teaches you to take the weight of the saw off the teeth when starting. I like to tell students that they should almost hover the teeth over the wood as they begin to push forward.
And the 100 kerfs help you fall into a comfortable sawing stance. Figuring out where your feet should be, how your sawing arm should swing free and that the work should be level to your elbow. Oh and stop trying to choke the saw to death (not a euphemism).
I’m sure I could come up with more exercises, but I’d worry that I’d scare you off. But these simple things will definitely make your week (or weekend) here a lot more rewarding.
Over the last 18 months, I’ve taken two different classes at the LAP storefront— Chris’ stick chair class and Megan’s Dutch tool chest class. As a repeat customer, I had a much better sense of what to expect from my second class than my first, and Megan encouraged me to share some of it with prospective students. So here it is:
What you see (here on the website) is what you get. If you harbor any suspicions that Lost Art Press is a big business masquerading as a tiny storefront to boost sales, relax. It’ll be Megan or Chris that unlocks the door in the morning and fixes the coffee machine. That unfamiliar lady walking through the shop is not the assistant manager of digital marketing. It’s Lucy, Chris’ wife. So the vibe of the blog posts and the books is the vibe of class. Ample historical asides and double entendre. No liability wavers or in-class marketing.
Class will be consuming. Class hours are generally 9 a.m. -5:30 p.m., with slack on both ends to accommodate people who need a bit more time. Don’t count on significant breaks besides lunch. And unless you’re made of bouncier stuff than me, don’t be ambitious about squeezing in work emails and calls after class; you’ll be tired, and, more important, you don’t want to miss the chance to go out for drinks and/or dinner with classmates and the teachers.
When in doubt, wait to buy tools. You’ll get a tool list ahead of class that will list a few things you really do need to bring and a lot of things that you can bring or borrow. While it’s tempting to splurge on new tools ahead of class, consider that you’ll know a lot more about those tools after your class. You’ll have tried tools owned by Chris, Megan and your fellow students, and you’ll develop some opinions. (For example, Megan is partial to her No. 3 smoother, but one swipe with it told me it’s too small for my hands.)
Covington is kind of great. You’re headed to Covington for a woodworking class, but Covington is a lot of fun too. Unless you’re a local, get an Airbnb, Vrbo or nearby hotel. You can walk everywhere. Megan and Chris will give you good advice on lunch and dinner, and you won’t go wrong if you follow it. The pickings are more slim for breakfast. Coppin’s in the Hotel Covington opens at 7am. Nice but a little on the fancy side. The Bean Haus opens at 7am too, and is cheaper, but the food (eggs, breakfast sandwiches) is only so-so. Spoon opens at 8 and serves decent premade breakfast burritos and sandwiches ’til the kitchen opens at 9.
Come for the learning, not the project. If you’re like me, you’ll want to fuss over mistakes during class and try to get your tenons/dovetails/chamfers/surfaces perfect before moving on. Don’t. You can be a perfectionist at home, and you can make another chair/chest/whatever later. The class project just a MacGuffin for the lessons, so while you’re in class, be a learner—watch what other folks are doing, try different ways of doing things (even if you suck at them), and eavesdrop when the teacher is advising others or showing them how to fix a mistake. Working for several days straight on a project in the company of other learners is a very rare treat. Don’t waste it obsessing about some tearout.
– Sambhav N. “Sam” Sankar
Editor’s Note: You can read up on some of things we love about Covington and Cincinnati in this post, that we do our best to keep up to date. (I added a few new favorites last Sunday.)
Next Tuesday at 10 a.m. Eastern, registration will be open on our ticketing site for classes in the second half of this year – including two from visiting instructors. (Note that if you click through to read more about each class, you’ll see a “buy tickets” button – but you can’t buy tickets until 10 a.m. Feb. 21.)
Classes are limited to six students (seven for one class…because Will Myers travels with his bench, thus we’ll have an extra), so each student gets plenty of attention from the instructor…whether they want it or not. And if you want to take a class and travel with your family, there’s plenty of fun and interesting stuff around here for the non-woodworking visitor.
In addition to the classes mentioned above, we’re taking applications for an Aug. 14-18 Comb Back Stick Chair class with Christopher Schwarz. The class description follows (and includes an explanation as to why we’re trying this approach with this – a relatively advanced – class).
Build a Comb-Back Stick Chair with Christopher Schwarz Cost: $1,800 (price includes all materials and lunch every day) 2023 Class Description, Tools & Materials
Build a comfortable stick armchair in the vernacular tradition using many tools and materials that are familiar to the typical woodworker.
The form is inspired by historic examples of 18th- and 19th-century stick chairs from Wales that have been refined by John Brown and Christopher Williams – two of my favorite chairmakers. I designed this version to be built with American woods, familiar bench tools and a few specialty chairmaking tools.
Students will be encouraged to customize their chairs (no two stick chairs should be alike). The hands, armbow and comb can all be changed to suit the builder’s style. Students also will be shown how to design their chairs to be more contemporary or ancient-looking. (Stick chairs are chameleons.)
While stick chairs are an ideal form for a first-time chairmaker, it does require intermediate woodworking skills, plus some muscle and stamina. Students should be very comfortable with edge tools and be able to sharpen and maintain them. You will need to be adept with a cordless drill. And be prepared for hours of shaving while on your feet (we have wooden floors here, FYI).
This class requires long hours and will make you tired (but happy at the end of the day). Because of the nature of this class, we bring in lunch every day for students. Plus, all materials (wood, glue etc.) are included in the cost of the class. So the price is higher than a typical week-long class.
This class will be filled via a somewhat random drawing. To apply, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “August 2023 Chair Class” by Feb. 24. In the email, please let us know your name, and the most difficult woodworking project you have built on your own (not in a class). And, using no more than four sentences, let us know why you want to take this class (personal enlightenment, professional development, you want to teach others etc.) There are no right or wrong reasons.
Why are we trying this application process? We’ve watched some students who are extremely skilled or others who are new to the craft get frustrated because the pace of the class is too slow or too fast. We are simply trying to find a pool of students with similar skills. If we have a big group of beginners, we will put together a beginner class. Likewise if the applicants are mostly advanced woodworkers, we will gather a class of experts. We are just trying to improve the classroom experience for everyone.
On March 1, we will let everyone know who is in the class and who is on the wait list.
From time to time, we get asked about our “professional setup” for dust collection. It’s not what you might expect from a (semi) professional shop…or maybe it is exactly what you expect, given that we’re known for hand-tool stuff.
But we do use machinery – particularly for stock prep and rough cuts. Plus, there’s a fair amount of sanding in making stick chairs. Our machine shop (aka “The Electric Horse Garage“) is, however, quite small; there’s no room for 6”-diameter piping or a large cyclone. Instead, we have two Jet Vortex dust collectors for the large machinery. One is hooked up to the jointer and planer, with manual gates that we open/close to direct the suction to the machine in use. The other is for the table saw. I don’t know about Chris, but before I turn on any of these three machines, I first poke the bag to make sure the dust level isn’t too high. Trying to birth an overfull garbage bag full of fine dust between the uprights is a bear, especially on the table saw (that dust is heavy!).
For the spindle and belt/circular sander, we have a small Ridgid unit hanging on the wall (which reminds me – I’d best check it given last week’s chair class; the collection bag doesn’t hold much).
On handheld machines such as the random orbit sanders and the Domino Joiner, we hook up Festool dust collectors (I bring mine in from home during classes so that we can set up two stations). Key is the addition of a 98-cent hose clamp to keep the collar from slipping off the machine’s dust port. (You can just see it in the image above.)
In the bench room, the only stationary(ish) machines we have are two bands saws. One, Chris’s venerable Delta/Rockwell, predates dust collection ports, but on the new Jet band saw we hook up the shop vacuum if we’re making anything more than a short, quick cut. Might as well go through the teensy bit of trouble of hauling out the vacuum, given that we use that same vacuum to clean up the machine and floor after using the band saw. Every time.
For larger stuff, let it never be said you can’t find a broom around here. We have plenty – all from Berea College in central Kentucky.
P.S. This is Chris, chiming in. This year we are going to add an electrostatic air scrubber to our machine room. We are serious about keeping the dust down. Also, the only sanding on the stick chairs is on the saddle. I sand about 5 minutes per chair. Beginners have to sand more. So it can seem like a lot when six beginners build chairs.