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.
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!
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I 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. 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.
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!
Thanks to Bartee Lamar for letting me use these photos he took during the class!
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.
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.
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 (reedfurnituredesign.com) and his designs. I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot more about him.
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!
We got off to a running start yesterday for the Chair Design class at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Maine. We did a rather different kind of woodworking – the quick and dirty kind – but by the end of the day, everyone had a prototype that they could sit on. Everyone also had a much better understanding of what makes a comfortable chair. We actually modified the prototypes multiple times over the course of the day, and with each modification, that understanding grew. I found this all quite exciting, as students would go from, “This is ok,” to “Oh, this is much better,” to “Oh wow! This is great!”
These comfort prototypes answer some of the important questions when building a chair, but now we’ve started down a similar path with many of the visual elements. To figure out how their chairs will look, everyone is both drawing and doing rapid prototypes in insulating foam, MDF, cardboard, or poplar. And then there will be countless modifications as we get closer and closer to a good design.
I’ve learned a lot about mortise and tenon joinery over the years. It’s my mainstay joint for chairs, and as I mentioned in my previous post, it can get pretty gnarly. But many of the techniques, tips and tricks I’ve learned can be a big help even on the everyday mortise and tenon joint. I’m teaching how to cut the basic joint and some of its variations by hand next month at a Lie-Nielsen Weekend Workshop (September 28th and 29th, at Lie-Nielsen Toolworks, Warren Maine), and there are still some spaces available. Give the folks a Lie-Nielsen a call if you’re interested.