The Hidden Agenda

I have a few classes coming up that offer interesting opportunities to learn some of the less commonly taught skills.

The Slat-Back Chairs from J. Miller Handcrafted FurniturApril 21st through 26th in my shop, I’ll be teaching how to make  my slat-back chair. This is both a chair basics class and a class in some really sophisticated techniques. And it’s all very do-able. You’ll learn about cutting and smoothing curves, and also about lamination as a way to make exceptionally strong, thin curved components. The joinery on this chair covers what you’d need for almost any other joined chair; and I’m excited to be able to show off all kinds of methods for making even the most complex mortise and tenon joints simple. Chairs have been my focus for the last 30 years, and this is a chance to tap into the insights, techniques and tricks that I’ve learned.

Stool/Table for the Wortheffort Woodworking School ClassOn May 9th – 11th, I’ll be at the Wortheffort School of Woodworking in San Marcos, Texas. The project here is a small stool or table (it works and looks good either way). This is an opportunity to master hand-cut mortise and tenon joinery, and there are a few dovetails thrown in just for fun. Mortise and tenon joinery is the backbone of all woodworking; it’s the best joint for joining parts in most furniture projects. But it somehow gets short shrift compared to the dovetail (its showy, and much more famous sibling). I’ve been cutting mortise and tenon joints using countless different methods since my very first days as a woodworker. And I’ve been teaching what I’ve learned (and continue to learn) for almost 20 years.

And then on May 19th through 23rd, I’ll be at the Port Townsend School of Woodworking, in Port Townsend, Washington (a spectacularly beautiful town on the Puget Sound) I’ll be teaching a class on building case pieces. The project is a small nightstand, but the fundamental construction techniques apply to all kinds of traditionally joined casework. We’ll cover frame and panel construction, mortise and tenon joinery, and half-blind dovetails; along with gluing up and smoothing panels, ship-lapped backs, and more. This is an ambitious project, but it all comes together beautifully, with lots of methods that make the seemingly difficult much easier.

So what’s the hidden agenda? Throughout each of these classes, I’m secretly trying to make you a significantly better woodworker. I’ve been pretty focused over the past few years on what really makes a difference in a person’s woodworking abilities (leading to the publication of my book, The Foundations of Better Woodworking); stuff that doesn’t get a whole lot of play in your typical book or article. And I’ve found that this foundational stuff makes a huge difference for my students. I’m constantly looking out for little things that I can help you to understand what you’re doing better, and ways you can use your body more efficiently and accurately to get the work done.

And don’t miss the Lie-Nielsen Hand Tool Event taking place in my shop this coming weekend (April 11th 10 am – 6 pm, and April 12th, 10 am – 5 pm).

New English Workshop

British flagI’m excited to announce that I”ll be teaching at the New English Workshop in March of 2015. I had met Paul Mayon (one of the founders of this new British woodworking school) at Handworks last May, and Paul recently invited me to come over to teach. In my excitement, I somehow promised I would come up with a new stool design for the class; I’ll write a bit about that process next time.

Paul has put up a couple of great blog posts on the New English Workshop website. The most recent of these relates his reaction to our recent, wide-ranging phone call, and continues with a bit of a review of my book, The Foundations of Better Woodworking (Paul also gave the book a great review in the British magazine, Furniture & Cabinetmaking). The earlier post is a little harder to characterize (Charles Bronson? I’m cool with that). You’ll just have to scroll down to see.

Talking about chairs….

This past fall the folks at Grainger stopped by to film a short video for their “Everyday Heroes” series. I had a lot of fun talking about my work with them, but we concentrated on my rocking chair. Don’t worry… no promotional stuff; just some talk about chairs.

30 years!

Toccata Chair from J. Miller Handcrafted FurnitureIt’s hard to wrap my head around the fact that I started building furniture full-time 30 years ago.

But in another sense, it feels just about right. There’s great confidence and satisfaction at having come so far from my early efforts. And the past few years have been particularly satisfying and full of exciting changes.

The recession certainly had an impact on my furniture orders, but the writing and teaching portions of my career have grown dramatically. I have been teaching at most of the country’s top woodworking schools and have increased my workshop offerings at my shop here in Chicago as well. I wrote a new book (my fourth), The Foundations of Better Woodworking, and released a companion video as well. I’ve recently written more than a dozen articles for major woodworking magazines, including a cover article for Fine Woodworking.

This change in the balance of my work has also given me a little more time to develop new designs, and these efforts has been very fruitful. My new rocking chair and the Toccata Chair (above) are both from this period. Lots of other exciting ideas are percolating along in various stages of development.

I’ve made major changes to the shop as well, most notably with the construction of four terrific new workbenches that help me in my work and provide better work stations for students in my classes. I’ve also added and upgraded some of my other equipment, which has improved shop capabilities, speed, and safety.

On a personal level, the kids are now both off in college. What might have been a tough transition (for us, the parents) has been made easier by their delight in being on their own, and our delight at having them out on their own.

So many thanks to my family, friends, customers and students for 30 years of support!

Difficult tenon shoulders made easier

The Tenoning Frame and Armchairmaker's Saw

The Tenoning Frame and Armchairmaker’s Saw

The tenoning frame and armchair maker’s saw (see my article in the February 2014 Popular Woodworking magazine) are great for cutting ordinary tenon shoulders. But these tools are also perfect for cutting tenon shoulders on curved parts, and equally good at cutting angled shoulders on straight parts. In fact, the only real difference in any of these cases is in the set-up of the part in the tenoning frame.

Setting up the workpiece in the Tenoning Frame with the spacer block and scribing disk

Setting up the workpiece in the Tenoning Frame with the spacer block and scribing disk

Straight parts and right-angled shoulders are easy; put the part in the jig against a square registration fence and align the shoulder with the layout guide. I usually do this not just by eye, but by feeling for the scribing disk registering in the scribed shoulder line.

With angled parts, you can do exactly the same thing if you have a wedge to help you set the angle. Just place your wedge between the workpiece and the side of the tenoning frame and slide the workpiece up or down until the scribed line registers with the disk on the spacer block. Note that you can orient your workpiece so that either the wide face or the narrower edge is clamped in the jig, depending on which way you need to angle the shoulders.

Using a wedge to set the shoulder angle

Using a wedge to set the shoulder angle

You could do the same thing with curved parts by making a making up a curved positioning jig to match the curved part. But you could also try a different approach that I have found works faster. Replace the scribing disk on your spacer block with a spokeshave blade (or any other small blade with one flat side) mounted flat side down. Better yet, just screw the blade to the opposite edge of the spacer block. Using this to register the scribed line, it will be easier to line up your scribed shoulder line perfectly level in the tenoning frame. The blade works

The spacer block with a spokeshave blade

The spacer block with a spokeshave blade

with angled shoulders, or even straight ones, but I find that with these, it’s easier to work as I suggested above, using either a square fence or a wedge in combination with the scribing disk.

It works well to leave the workpiece in the tenoning frame to cut the cheeks of the tenon as well. It will be well positioned for this work, and there’s no need for any additional set up.

The set-up for cutting the shoulder on a curved part

The set-up for cutting the shoulder on a curved part

Another way to angle the tenon shoulders

You can also set up to angle the shoulders this way

The beginnings of my 2014 schedule

I’ve just posted my teaching schedule for 2014 in my shop. I’m still nailing down some of the out-of-town stuff, but will post that as it firms up.
For now, I know I’ll be in:
San Marcos, TX (Wortheffort Woodworking School) the weekend of May 10-11,
Port Townsend, WA (Port Townsend School of Woodworking) May 19-23,
Warren, ME (Lie-Nielsen Toolworks Weekend Workshop) July 26-27,
Franklin, IN (Marc Adams School of Woodworking) September 29 – October 3.

Woodworking in Texas

I just got back from the Texas Furniture Makers’ Show in Kerrville, TX, where I was one of three judges (along with Asa Christiana of Fine Woodworking Magazine, and Omar Perez, a furniture maker in Houston); I also gave a talk on making chairs. The show has some amazing furniture, and is well worth a visit if you find yourself in the Texas Hill Country (it’s at the Kerr Arts and Cultural Center in Kerrville through November 30th). I first walked into the gallery where the show was set up on Friday evening, and I must admit I was a little taken aback; how was I ever going to be able to judge a collection of great furniture like this? Asa and Omar felt much the same way.

"Safari" Cabinet by Timothy Anz

“Safari” Cabinet by Timothy Anz

But getting to know each of the pieces a little better over the course of the evening and then Saturday morning, I began to focus on what made a particular piece really stand out. For me, the judging process concentrated on a handful of things. This may not always be true (different judges, different opinions), but it may give you some insight into what may go on in the mind of someone judging.

I think there are a few very important things that distinguish great furniture from good furniture. First and foremost is a design that demonstrates a good deal of thought. Every detail should have a reason for being there, and nothing should look like it was just an easy choice (or no real choice at all). I suppose I’m also saying that each of these choices should be a good choice; one that fits in with the work as a whole, and one that effectively serves some purpose. But I will also say that I tried not to let a particular style influence me. The piece needed to be outstanding in the area the maker chose to work in.

Jewelry Chest by Randolph Secrest

Jewelry Chest by Randolph Secrest

I looked for sensitivity to and mastery of the material. There was a range of materials, woods and styles (this wasn’t only woodworking, although most all of the pieces were in wood). Did the piece take advantage of the possibilities of the material? Did it avoid the pitfalls? I looked for short grain issues, cross-grain movement conflicts, etc. But I also looked for sensitive use of grain in creating an overall effect.

Then came careful execution. I looked to see if doors and drawers fit well, with even reveals and good action. I checked that details were crisp, joints tight, curves flowing smoothly, and all surfaces smooth and well prepared.

Table by Brandon Berdoll

“The Brazos Beauty” Table, by Brandon Berdoll

And finally, I felt that the finish should show as much consideration and care as the rest of the piece; no pebbly sprayed finishes, or poorly rubbed out finishes, or pieces that look like they needed another two coats of finish. Now, I’ve done plenty of shows before, and I realize that time constrains what can be done. But if you’re looking to put forward your best impression, you really need to leave time for the finishing!

When I looked over all the pieces, it was clear that a few really stood out from the rest; even though all were all extremely good. Deciding amongst these few stand-outs was not easy, and all were really winners in their own ways.

So congratulations to all of the participants, and to the winners!

I’m happy to be home, and happy to have a break in my out-of-town teaching for the year. Now it’s time to put together next year’s schedule in my shop and around the country. Look for more here soon.

Highland Woodworking Chair Class

Highland WoodworkingI just got back from teaching Chair Building and Design at Highland Woodworking in Atlanta. It was a class full of enthusiastic woodworkers, and we covered a whole lot of material.Chairmaking class The most fun for me was on Sunday afternoon, when we tackled designing a chair as a group, complete with building a full scale prototype. I was excited about this; it’s one thing to talk about what the various criteria for designing a chair are, or to go through construction techniques. But it makes it much easier to see what all of this means in the context of actually going through the process.

Chair sketches

The whiteboard during our group design exercise

So almost everyone sketched out an idea, a doodle, or just a seed on an idea of a chair on the whiteboard, and we discussed, made choices, modifications, and then started in on a prototype. And a few hours later, we actually had something we could sit in, walk around and critique.

I’ve got one more weekend of teaching/travel (the Texas Woodworkers Show in Kerrville, TX) and then I can stay put and start to think about getting more of my shop work done. It’s been a busy teaching season. I’m looking forward to the break!

Working on the chair prototype

Working on the prototype

Thanks to Bartee Lamar for letting me use these photos he took during the class!

Chairs at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship

We finished up the Chair Design class at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship on Friday, after which I high-tailed it down to Boston for a too-early flight home on Saturday morning. I was in full recovery mode for the rest of the weekend; lots of sleep, a run, some good home-cooked food, and some more sleep.

Chair from CFC Chair Design class

Jed’s Chair

Now it’s time to reflect back on the class. I was – as I usually am – very impressed with both the ambition and the overall designs that the students came up with. Very few people designed within their limits. I made a point of trying to push people beyond their comfort levels (some squirming ensued). But I made an even bigger point of showing them how to actually get where they wanted to go. Everyone was pretty excited by the time we did a show-and-tell for the other students at the school on Friday afternoon. And there were a lot of really nice – and very individual – chair designs.



Chair from CFC Chair Design class

David’s Chair (Child size)

I was lucky to have a terrific assistant while teaching the class. Reed Hansuld is a Toronto-based furnituremaker (moving soon to Brooklyn) who went through the 9-month program at CFC a number of years ago. His help made getting everyone through this ambitious class much easier. It’s worth checking out Reed’s web site ( and his designs. I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot more about him.

Chair from CFC Chair Design class

David’s Chair (Adult size)

Chair from CFC Chair Design class

Tony’s Chair

Chair from CFC Chair Design class

Keith’s Chair

Chair from CFC Chair Design class

Kyle’s Bar Stool

Chair from CFC Chair Design class

Jay’s Chair

Chair from CFC Chair Design class

John’s Chair

There’s more than one way…

Designing chairs does not fit into a one-size-fits-all pattern. We all explored comfort in somewhat similar ways (the quick and dirty prototype), but from there, we did a variety of different things. Some of the students spent some time drawing, but limited perspective drawing skills led most to explore other methods. We made some full size mock-ups out of building insulation foam, cardboard, solid poplar, and MDF. Once student made up a 5″-tall model, which we photographed against a white paper “backdrop.” Another turned to SketchUp. In truth, anything that allowed us to see the idea in 3-dimensions and play with options was fair game. Modifications and improvements were made. Ideas were changed. And we’re moving ever closer to some wood prototypes that look more like real chairs, and which we can also sit on.

There’s plenty of work to come. Lots of particulars still to work out. And then all of the joinery to figure out, along with some shaping, laminating, smoothing, and more. Stay tuned!

Building insulation foam for exploring chair ideas

Building insulation foam shapes easily, screws together (sort-of), and allows you to quickly explore an idea

Chair model

A small model, photographed against a paper backdrop can be a surprisingly effective way to test out an idea.

Poplar chair prototype

This idea was complex enough to merit going to wood.

Chair prototype in cardboard

A cardboard prototype

Building insulation foam chair

The foam has no structure. Interesting look, though!