The People Have Spoken

What good is a wooden eating spoon?

If you ask the people who frequented my Etsy shop since its inauguration two weeks ago, not much. So far among the tally of items sold: cooking/serving spoons – 10, eating spoons – 0.

Redbay eating spoon.

It’s a bit of a shock to the system for an old spoon carver like myself. I’ve surrounded myself with an Instagram feed and Facebook Groups that include a daily abundance of carved spoons. I’d estimate that 90% or more of the spoons that I see on social media are eating spoons.

It makes sense if you’re a carver. Cooking and serving spoons are big. They take at least two or three times as long to carve as an eating spoon, and they take up a commensurate quantity of space in the kitchen. Once you get the spoon carving bug, you’ll probably start out with a few cooking spoons before quickly realizing that they’re going to consume every junk drawer in the kitchen if you don’t start giving some away. Sure, a few of the prized specimens will remain in the vase on the counter meant for oft-used utensils, but you’ll quickly settle on your favorites and the rest will stored in a dark corner, forgotten and forlorn.

Eating spoons, on the other hand, take up little of both your time and space. You can turn out a rather nice one in an hour or two. Unlike cooking spoons, for which a single spoon will suffice to prepare and serve an entire meal for the family, eating spoons are used in quantity. They’re cheap to ship and easy to carry to swap meets, so they make a convenient currency among spoon carvers. Most spoon carvers, therefore, will quickly switch from carving cooking spoons to mostly eating spoons.

But we forget, sometimes, how strangely the rest of the world views us and our wooden eating spoon habit. I know, sometimes it seems as though the whole world is carving spoons, but trust me: That’s just another social media bubble that we’ve created. “Normal” people think wooden eating spoons are weird. Eating spoons should be metal. They should stack neatly in a flatware tray, not lovingly displayed on a wall rack. They should have shiny polished bowls, not gently faceted surfaces from the hook knife. To “normal” people, the wooden eating spoon elicits imagery of a peasant sipping watery porridge from a communal bowl. It’s a relict of a bygone era.

The wooden cooking spoon, meanwhile, reminds people of grandma’s chicken and dumplings. Or grandpa’s peanut brittle. It feels nostalgic, but not antiquated.

The irony, of course, is that many of the most talented and creative contemporary woodworkers I know are spoon carvers. Check out the work of Maryanne, Amy, or Adam if you don’t believe me. My own work may not compare to theirs, but I can tell you that few things bring me as much joy as eating a bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream with a little birch spoon that I carved for myself at Greenwood Fest three years ago.

Honestly, I think a wooden eating spoon is a bit like good beer or bourbon: You probably won’t like it the first time you try it, but if you’re motivated to like it, it’ll soon be one of those simple pleasures in life that you’re not likely to want to give up (and unlike beer or bourbon, you’ll not find yourself half-naked and surrounded by empties in the back of a pickup truck if you have one too many wooden spoons). Geez, I’m a terrible salesman. To conclude this subtle sales pitch, my little menagerie of eating spoons are patiently awaiting new owners. I’m rather proud of them. I think you’ll enjoy them as much as I do if you give them an honest try. But I must confess, I doubt if I’ll be carving many more. As far as I’m concerned, the people have already spoken.

Muscle Memory

It’s been a long time since I’ve made any serious attempts to play the piano. When I lived by myself in a small brick house on a mountainside in North Georgia, I practiced somewhat regularly. My great aunt gave me an old perpetually out-of-tune upright that sat in the living room of my painfully outdated ranch house, and when I tired of painting bedrooms and laying tile and tearing out fake wood paneling, I’d pick out a song and sit down at the piano during the evenings, trying to teach myself to play it.

I have no formal musical training, aside from a couple years of abusing the trumpet in elementary school. I definitely wouldn’t say that I can read music. It would be more accurate to say that I can interpret music, in much the same way that I can interpret French, with the assistance of Google Translate. I just see five parallel lines and an oval with a tail and think “Every…Good…Boy…Does…A-ha! That must be a D. Now I can find middle C and count down one key, and there’s the D on my keyboard!”

I never developed that instantaneous recognition of the notes and the seamless connection between my mind and my fingers that is required of a musician. Learning to play a song was a long, slow process that relied on careful practice and memorization – essentially cutting out any vestiges of consciousness and eventually getting to the point where I could rely entirely on muscle memory to play a song. I don’t recommend this method – it’s a shitty way to learn music – but I will admit that it is a very powerful way to learn one specific song. Eight years later, I can still bang out a nearly flawless rendition of the intro to “Don’t Stop Believin'” whenever I sit in front of the piano.

I noticed an interesting phenomenon when I would teach myself in this manner. I’d practice for a couple of hours, making quick improvement but still fumbling through the difficult parts. Eventually, I would reach a plateau during that session, and any further attempts to push on would only result in regression. Reaching that point was my cue to stop.

The next day, I would sit down to play, and often my fingers would nimbly execute the parts that had given me trouble the day before. There was always a finite limit to the amount of progress I could make in a single session, but it seemed that a period of rest allowed my mind to subconsciously tweak its instructions to my hands and fingers to the extent that I often made more progress between practice sessions than within them. It was a strange, but reliable, phenomenon.

In general, I don’t know that this insight relates very well to woodworking. Unlike playing the piano (or any instrument), most woodworking processes are not inherently driven by tempo. If I’m planing a board, I can plane quickly or slowly – it only matters that the plane has enough inertia to plow through the cut. I can stop at any moment to check the board for straightness or twist, or to sharpen the iron, or to modify the cutting depth. Same with a handsaw. If I note that the saw is veering off course, I simply slow down, adjust my grip, or maybe change saws. As a hobbyist, time is not of the essence; results are.

For sure, frequent practice to build muscle memory plays an important role in your speed and efficiency as a woodworker, but the nature of our craft means that even the greenest amateur can achieve stunning results if they proceed slowly, with patience and attention.

In much the same way, I could easily play Chopin, if there were no requirement that I hit the keys with the proper cadence. I’d simply take a few seconds to ensure each note I strike is the correct one, and suddenly I’m a concert pianist, right? Of course, that’s not how music works (fortunately for the audience), but it’s not a completely inaccurate analogy for woodworking. The finished masterpiece is not time-dependent; all that you see is the culmination of hard-won proficiency and patient exertion. Greater proficiency requires less exertion, and vice versa, to achieve the same effect. How much of each factored into the piece can be difficult to quantify ex post facto.

I’m certain there are many exceptions to this dichotomy, but one that has become clearer to me in the last six months – around the time I began building Windsor chairs – is woodturning. Unlike many hand-tool processes, the rhythm of lathe work is strictly enforced by the spinning wood. This remains true regardless of whether the radial velocity is imparted by a tether attached to a foot pedal, or (as with my lathe) some distant coal-hungry generator attached to a diminishing series of metallic wires.

Attempt to violate the rhythm, and your work will suffer. When rolling a bead with a skew chisel (the hardest single process in turning a chair leg), the handle starts low and gets raised; the tool is rotated along its longitudinal axis; and the entire tool is slid along the tool rest. All at the same time, with precisely correct coordination of the movements. If ever there were a time-dependent process in woodworking, this is it.

I’m not sure that it’s possible to understand the complexity of this procedure if you’ve never attempted it, but Curtis Buchanan’s video above does an excellent job of breaking down the individual steps. The consequences of failure, depending on how you go about failing, can be as simple as cutting an ugly bead instead of a beautiful one, or as sudden and dramatic as a snake-bite when the edge suddenly catches the wood and slams it into the toolrest. (And that’s happened to me more often than I care to remember.)

fanback turning
Curtis Buchanan baluster leg detail

With woodturning, practice is more than just a useful thing that will help you accomplish your work more quickly in the future – it is prerequisite to the ability to even accomplish the work in the first place. I’m not saying that it isn’t possible for a beginner to walk up to the lathe and manhandle a length of maple into a familiar shape, but I am saying that you can’t simply scrape and sand your way to perfection. The difference between the work of a master is conspicuously different from the work of the less practiced hand. The fairness of the curves, the cripsness of the fillets, the proportions of the major and minor dimensions, and the way that the shapes relate to one another – to the critical eye, there is no way to feign mastery of these virtues. And I am far from a master.

So, on Monday, I walked into my workshop and fired up the lathe. I turned one leg in just over an hour. The second leg was going well enough, until I cut the cove 1/8″ too thin. (I broke that one in half – not in anger or frustration, but just so I wasn’t tempted to actually used it.) And the third leg took even longer than the first, maybe an hour and a half. With midnight approaching, I turned in for the night, a bit dismayed that I had regressed in the intervening month since I completed the last chair.

Then on Tuesday, I reeled off two more legs, each better than the first two, in 35 minutes apiece. It felt good to see real progress after a hitting a plateau the night before. It felt familiar.

Perhaps, with enough practice, my hands will simply remember what to do without the refresher. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to walk up to my lathe and crank out a baluster leg in 15 minutes. Perhaps, when that day comes, I’ll find a piano and play a little Journey to celebrate. You know, if I still can.

How Many Tools Does a Man Need?

 

I’ve made efforts to simplify over the past few years. It happens in fits and starts, usually two steps forward and one step back. When I began accumulating woodworking tools, more than a decade ago, I don’t think it ever occurred to me that I would ever want to get rid of a tool.

“He who dies with the most tools wins!” “You can never have too many clamps!” Woodworking forums are rife with kind of nonsense – especially those devoted to hand tools. Maybe that’s because hand tools can multiply more slowly and seemingly innocuously than power tools. You don’t need to immediately find a place in your toolchest for that handsaw or chisel you picked up for five bucks. Just drop it in the bucket with all the others, you’ll fix it up…eventually.

But what if you don’t? What if you walk into your shop one day and realize that all of the free time you’ve spent haunting flea markets and antique stores in search of a deal have robbed you of time you could have spent actually building things? How many hours could you have practiced your craft, becoming more intimately familiar and connected to the tools that you already own? What if those forsaken tools yield, not a well-loved and well-stocked shop,  but a shrine of guilt that plagues your conscience ever time you set foot in what should be your place of respite?

I have found myself facing this situation on more than one occasion. I typically deal with it by going on a tool restoration binge. Saws, chisels, and planes get de-rusted, handles get cleaned, repaired or replaced, and blades get sharpened. Slowly, the hours that I spent collecting the tools become insignificant in comparison to the hours that I spend restoring them.

Then comes a decision: Keep, or sell? I am not a collector. I don’t need five 1″ chisels (which is the number I am currently sporting). The problem is, of my five 1″ chisels, I have only ever used one of them on a regular basis. The others were never in proper shape, until this week. My regular user happens to be the ugliest of the bunch – the plastic-handled Irwin in the middle. I’ve had it for 10 years. I know that it’s a perfectly good chisel. But how can I sell the other four (more attractive) chisels without ever giving them a fair shot? What if one of them takes a freakishly keen edge and holds onto it for twice as long? How can I deprive myself of the opportunity to find out which of these chisels is the best?

1-in Chisels
From top to bottom: Henry Taylor bevel-edge chisel with boxwood handle; Charles Buck firmer chisel with octagonal beech handle; Irwin bevel-edge chisel with blue plastic handle; unmarked firmer chisel with elm handle; and Ohio Tool paring chisel with elm handle.

These are the games that my mind plays with me when I have too many tools. Owning too many things (whether it be clothes, shoes, dishes, tools, or toothbrushes) is antithetical to my world view. Yet most of the time, I just live life on cruise control, gleefully indulging my caveman collector instinct. Especially when something is a bargain. And then one day I look up and realize that I’m spending more time accumulating and maintaining my things than enjoying my life. And upon that realization, I begin enjoying life much less, until the balance is restored. I am not a minimalist, by any means, but with each passing year I try to be more fully cognizant of my relationship with my stuff. It has become clear to me that I am almost always happier with less of it.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go build something out of wood – something that requires a lot of chisel work – so I can figure out which of these beautiful damned things I can be rid of.

On Selling Crafts

I have made a lot of wooden things over the last decade or so. Tables, chests, chairs, benches, desks, beds, bowls, spoons, plates, vases, tools, floors, sheds, playhouses…you name it. When I stop to think about how much I’ve actually built, it’s a bit overwhelming.

A lot of that stuff is still in my house. I have very little furniture that wasn’t built by me or at the very least repaired/refinished by me. (One project that I’ve never seemed willing to tackle is a chest of drawers. Just so…many…boxes… So we still make do with ugly dressers, but one day I’ll address that shortcoming).

The next largest portion of my work has been gifted to family and friends over the years. It’s always a pleasure to visit with people who own my work to see how it has held up and aged over the years.

By far the smallest portion of my work are things that I’ve sold. Sure, I’ve sold quite a bit over the years, ranging from $10 wooden shotglasses to a $2,000 quartersawn white oak Arts and Crafts office desk. I have never been completely comfortable with selling things, though. A couple years ago, I came upon this article by renowned British woodturner Robin Wood that I think articulates my primary hesitance with selling craft work. The article is fairly comprehensive, but here is the relevant paragraph:

The difficulty many craftspeople have with price is this. You put your heart and soul into your work, when you offer it for sale it is not like selling potatoes or lemonade, it’s not just business, it is more like asking the public to pass judgement on you as a human being. If you put a high price and people sneer it feels terrible but if you undervalue your work that is no better for your soul. The trick is to find a fair price for the work and skill and then to find people who value and appreciate it.

That quote really got right to the heart of the matter and stuck with me. When I sell work, I feel compelled to make things to a much higher standard than I would require for an item that I planned to keep for myself. I aim for perfection in my work, but ultimately I am OK with small flaws and irregularity as the mark of handwork. For some reason, I don’t trust my customers to have the same appreciation so I always seem to go overboard with the work that I sell, and yet I’ve never been comfortable asking a price that would be commensurate with the skill and effort involved.

To worsen matters, most of the work that I’ve sold has been to friends and close acquaintances (not surprising, since I’ve never advertised anything). There is nothing inherently wrong with that, of course, but my difficulty here is feeling as though I should offer a discount for friends on work that I’m already in the habit of selling too cheaply. I would usually rather give the work away, because at least then I get to feel altruistic instead of like a poor businessman.

The end result of my unsatisfying history of selling work has been that I tend to find whatever excuse I can to avoid it. I have actually made a fair bit of money through my woodworking hobby (enough that is is a net gain and not a net drain), but very little of that money has come through the sale of craft work. Mostly it comes from wood sales (I always saw more than I can possibly use) and a smaller portion from old hand tools that I bought on the cheap and restored.

Fortuitously, I did have a good friend a few weeks ago who asked me about a sizable commission for her husband’s Christmas gift. She ended her request with the words “and don’t feel bad charging me what’s fair”. It was a much appreciated sentiment and I felt more comfortable knowing that she expected to pay full price for the work and not the “but-I’m-your-friend” discount that some people seem to expect. I was more confident in giving a quote that was fair to both of us.

In the end, it turned out to be one of my most enjoyable commissions, because I know the work is going to a couple who will appreciate it, and I don’t feel as though I short-changed myself in the process. (By the way, I’m purposely avoiding any discussion of what I made or who I made it for on the off-chance that her husband reads the blog.)

As these thoughts tumbled through my head over the last month, it occurred to me that my discomfort with selling my work for a fair price has bled over and caused me to avoid buying craft work at a fair price. I think that my tendency to discount the value of my own work has inadvertently led to my discounting the value of others’ work. I have this problem more so in unrelated crafts – I love pottery, for example, but my own collection of craftsman-made pottery is limited to a couple of inexpensive (but beautiful) coffee mugs. The more complex work is beautiful, but it just seems so expensive! Oh, the irony.

With woodwork, I can typically look at a piece and fully understand the time and skill and effort that it took to bring it to fruition. The problem here is that my first thought is not “I want to buy that!” but instead “I could make that!” Well, that’s really a silly way to think about things. There is no way that I can become proficient at everything. A good craftsperson can spend years focused on a single task and there is no reason that I should hope to replicate it without doing the same. Weaving an ash-splint basket and carving the ball-and-claw feet on a Chippendale chair are both “woodwork” but it is obvious that the skillset involved in each task are vastly different.

With that in mind, I decided to take some of the proceeds from my recent commission to purchase a spoon from a craftsman who has inspired me in many ways – Peter Follansbee. True, I’m a spoon-carver as well (and a pretty good one I think) but it’s been several years and I’ve still made no effort to learn the chip-carved decoration that Peter does on his spoons that I admire so much. Perhaps I never will, but that shouldn’t preclude me from enjoying it.

A very nice early Christmas present to me. Not a gift that was injection-molded in Chinese plastic and shipped 10,000 miles only to end up in a landfill by next year’s Christmas. I expect this little beauty to be my kitchen companion for many years.  And hopefully a lesson learned in valuing the work of a fellow craftsman.

Why Windsor Chairs?

My friend Jessica won last week’s spoon drawing. She is from just across the state line in St. Mary’s, GA, so rather than shipping the spoon, she offered to come pick it up. She and her husband Josh are cool people and we don’t hang out with them often enough, so we just made plans to spend the whole day with them instead.

Saturday morning, we went to “Pioneer Day” at the Okefenokee Swamp. They had a blacksmith, a spinner, a bowyer, a cane-grinder, and a cane syrup boil. My daughter especially enjoyed feeding sugar cane into the cane grinder. What kid wouldn’t love that? I enjoyed talking to the bowyer. His bows are made from Osage-orange, which wouldn’t have been the traditional wood for natives in Southeast Georgia, but he was from Arkansas, so it made sense for him. He even had a quiver of arrows made from riven white ash and turkey feather fletching. I’m not much of a hunter, but it was cool stuff.

I enjoyed the old Chesser Island Homestead. I remember going there as a child and admiring the log cabins and the roughsawn planks of the farmhouse. This time, I took notice of the furniture in the house. There were scads of ladderbacks, many of them in various stages of disrepair. A couple of them were quite nice, though. The chair on the left (below) had a seat of white oak splints, a material which – along with hickory bark seats – seems to get plenty of attention these days from books and modern chairmakers.

Honestly, though, the buckskin seat (in the middle) is as typical a seating material as any for old ladderbacks. Those things were all over antique shops in South Mississippi, and there were at least two of them in the Chesser farmhouse. Never seems to get mentioned much in woodworking books, though, presumably because it doesn’t come from a tree.

I also couldn’t help but snap a photo of the one Windsor chair in the house, a factory-made chair with a shapeless seat and stocky bamboo turnings. Yeah, it’s ugly. Much easier to make an ugly Windsor chair than a pretty one. Helpful to look at the bad ones too, though, if you aim to make a good one.

After we left the Pioneer Day festival, we all headed back to our home for some barbecued chicken (cooked over live oak and maple scraps, of course). I gave Josh and Jessica a tour of the workshop and we talked at length about the Windsor chair build. I know most people probably don’t even know what “Windsor chair” is, and even fewer (okay, many, many fewer) are as obsessed about them as I am. I must have gotten a little starry-eyed, because at one point Jessica asked, “So, why Windsor chairs? What’s so special about them?”

There are a lot of good answers to that question. Indeed, I’ve written about it before. but that night my answer was this: Windsor chairs are the only furniture form that I know of that can’t be improved in any way with power tools.

Sure, there are points in the process where you could introduce a power tool to gain some speed, but almost without exception, you will be giving up quality. The legs cannot be replicated by a machine with the same crispness as a hand-turned leg. A machine can make them all identical, but they will all be identically inferior. The seat cannot be shaped to the same organic look with a router or even a CNC machine. The spindles cannot not be shaved to precisely follow the grain – and therefore to perfectly preserve their strength – without the wedge, the froe, and the drawknife. Even the snugness and precision of the joints cannot be replicated without the continuous measurement and correction of the hand-made process. Joints are made to fit one another, not a plan a set forth by an industrial designer.

Last night, Peter Follansbee shared a link where master chairmaker Curtis Buchanan says it better than I ever could. You might as well listen to the guy who has made a few thousand chairs, rather than some dude who is halfway through his first:

Nothing’s like using the tools. Nothing. If I couldn’t make the chairs using these tools then I would find something else to make with these tools…

I could spend the next 30 years making continuous-arms and comb-backs and being completely content. And I think contentedness is very underrated. To me it’s a goal to be content, to be very content, just doing that same thing over and over and over again, which might sound boring to some people, but not to me at all. It’s just a lovely thing to come down here and do, day in and day out.

Click here to listen to the whole interview. It might just be the best 10 minutes of your day:

Productive Procrastination

On Sunday, I finally rid my shop of three pieces that have consumed my time and shop space for the last month. You already know about the sassafras kitchen table. I also had a couple of tripod tables kicking around my shop the whole time.

Halloween 012
Cherry on the left, river birch on the right.

They’re based on a design from the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill near Harrodsburg, Kentucky. Kerry Pierce has an excellent book on the furniture from this village – it was probably my most-referenced woodworking book for several years. The table on the left is cherry, like the original. I made it back in 2011, and it’s one of my favorite pieces – simple and attractive, requiring only a paucity of time and materials. I can easily make one in three evenings.

I brought it back into the shop because the finish needed some work. When I originally built it, I finished it using just oil and shellac. The finish looked nice at first, but somehow, an open bottle of rubbing alcohol was left on the top…shellac dissolves in alcohol…you can figure out the rest. There’s been a disfigured blotch on the top for a while now that needed to be repaired. I sanded down the top and re-finished the whole thing with a few coats of lacquer.

Halloween 015
My enviable finishing room.

While I had the table in my shop, I decided to build another in river birch. I have a couple 15″-wide boards of slightly-figured birch that were just begging to be used, so I submitted. It was only a few evenings, right?

Halloween 063

Profile

Once those projects were out of the way, there was really no excuse to avoid the Windsor chair any longer. My plate was clean. I still wanted to build a new shavehorse, but there was no rush, since I won’t get the material to make the upper half of the chair until Thanksgiving. (My old shavehorse – a Jennie Alexander design – has seen plenty of use over the last decade, but it’s uncomfortable for long sessions). My dad, who lives in North Georgia, has set aside a nice white oak log for me to use for the crest rail and spindles. Coastal Florida is a bit of a desert for Windsor chair woods.

Halloween 065
The fact that it almost fits my 3-year-old daughter is probably a good indication that this shavehorse is really too small for me.

Everything from the seat down – the legs, stretchers, and the seat – can be built using the tools and materials that I already have. No excuses for not getting started. So, of course, on Monday evening I walked into my shop and immediately put off the Windsor chair for just a bit longer.

Horse 003
Is procrastination still bad if you’re building cool things?

Instead of pulling out some poplar for the seat, I scrounged up a maple board and began building my new-and-improved shavehorse. And of course I chose the most complex (but also the most excellent) design around – Peter Galbert’s “Smarthead”. I figured I could knock it out in two evenings. I thought wrong. Hopefully one more evening to go…

I’m afraid the Windsor chair has become a bit of a white whale for me. I’ve been reading and dreaming about it for so long, I’m a bit scared that my creation won’t live up to my dreams. Am I the only one who does this? Is it normal to put our dreams on hold in a ruthless attempt to keep them pure? It’s uncomfortable to think that we might not be up to the task. But it’s heartwrenching to find out for sure. That applies to a lot more than just Windsor chairs.

When I first started woodworking, I was fearless. My first dovetails were cut with a Stanley flush-cut saw and a crappy 1″ chisel that I re-ground into a 1/2″ chisel so it would fit between the tails. I don’t want to think about how much time I spent at the grinder to pull that off. They weren’t perfect, but I wasn’t expecting perfection. I was just happy that they fit together. As my expectations were elevated, though, so too did my trepidation.

Not in every case, of course. I’ve built a lot of tables. The first piece of furniture I built was a coffee table. The second piece was my workbench, which is still just a table. The third and fourth pieces were end tables. The fifth was another coffee table. I can’t even count the number of tables I’ve built, of all shapes and sizes. They don’t scare me a bit. Once I have a design in mind, I just walk to my lumber stacks and begin picking out the material. I reach for my saw and and my square and I start cutting. There is no mystery and no reservation.

But a Windsor chair is a different story…Multiply the number of joints by 10. Multiply the complexity of the angles by 100. Multiply the importance of an aesthetically and ergonomically sound design by 1000. I’ve come to view them as the apogee of woodworking engineering and design. And with my respect comes no small amount of unease.

These thoughts stirred my mind and kept me awake as I lied in bed last night. Today, I decided put the thoughts on paper pixel, and then put them to rest. I know I’m up to the task, and the only person I have to prove it to is myself.

No more dreaming. It’s time to start doing.

Why Do We Aim For Perfection?

I’ll admit that I have a bit of a soft spot for crude antique furniture. I don’t mean crude in the sense that it’s poorly built or falling apart or left to rot for 50 years in a dank barn. I’m talking about the furniture that was built quickly and competently and well-used for a century or two, but without much consideration for the complete removal of surface blemishes and measuring marks. There’s something about the tool marks on a chair that connects me to the man who made it. Instead of seeing my own reflection in French-polished perfection, I see a window into another world.

Was the maker in a hurry? Was furniture-making his profession, or did he just build some chairs during the winter to pass the time before spring planting? Did he have a well-equipped shop or did he make do with a rough collection of tools? Did he take the time to sharpen his tools or did he press on with a plane that was well past due for grinding?

Every woodworker leaves a trace of his or her methods in one way or another, but in rough rural furniture, the questions and answers leap out at you before you even think to ask them. I was thinking of this after inspecting an old children’s ladderback chair that belongs to my niece. I sat in my brother’s living room inspected the chair for every tool mark I could find.

The chair probably originates from somewhere near the North Georgia antique shop from whence it was rescued. The paint color is a fantastic blue and red with stylized flowers on the back slats.

Children's Chair 1
Well-painted furniture only gets better as the years go by.

The real story is in the woodwork, though. The first surprise is the choice of the wood itself. This chair is made completely of yellow pine. It’s the only pine ladderback I’ve ever seen, and it probably only lasted this long because it was made for 30-lb toddlers instead of 200-lb men. Stranger still? The wood was riven (i.e., split from the log as opposed to sawed). That’s not unusual at all for chairs of oak or ash or hickory, but this is the first I’ve seen of riven pine for furniture. The riving marks are everywhere you look:

Camping Oct 2015 037 Camping Oct 2015 041

There’s evidence of hatchet work as well:

Camping Oct 2015 039
The flat spots on this foot appear to be the work of a hatchet. Also notice the grooves from the lathe work on the lower part of the foot. It appears the maker used a gouge instead of a skew chisel here.

The rungs were shaved with a drawknife, not turned. This is not unusual, but it’s interesting that the maker didn’t even attempt to make them round. They’re nearly square in cross section, with just the edges chamfered:

Camping Oct 2015 034
Very crude rungs.

The mortises for the back slats appear to have been cut with a pocketknife – and they probably were. Apparently this was common practice in southern Appalachia as documented in the first Foxfire book.

Camping Oct 2015 033
Notice the over-cut mortises. You can see where the knife scored the beads above the mortise.

Finally, a view from above. The maker didn’t even attempt to bend the slats – not surprising, since (a) yellow pine isn’t exactly known for bending well and (b) rough chairs like these were often made with flat slats anyway.

Camping Oct 2015 036
The slats weren’t bent as they are in more refined (and comfortable) ladderback chairs.

In spite of (or really, because of) all of its flaws and asperity, I love this little chair. Who knows how many diminutive derrieres have rested in this seat over the years? Its current owner is certainly a fan – I caused quite a stir when I took the chair into the yard to photograph and joked with my 4-year-old niece that I would be using it to start a campfire.

As we poked and prodded the chair, I mentioned to my brother that I would find it hard to make a chair with the same kind of surface quality as this one, even if I made a reproduction. I know I’m not the only woodworker who shoots for a higher standard in my own work than I look for in an antique.

So what’s the deal, then? Why do we insist on such perfection in our own work while admiring the crude pragmatism of the old?

My brother, who is not a woodworker, but is one hell of a musician, offered an analogy that I found interesting. Apparently there was a bit of a trend recently in British rock to sound intentionally rough and unrehearsed – the instruments were left just a bit out of tune, the music was played a little sloppy, the vocals maybe not quite on key all of the time. The idea being that the bands were aiming for the nostalgic imperfection of the Rolling Stones, rather than the flawless polish of Rush.

It sounds like a good idea. I’d take the Stones over Rush any day, right? The problem, however, was that the music ended up sounding, well, contrived – at least, to fellow musicians. They wanted to sound soulful and natural, they but instead they sounded like they were trying to be imperfect.

I think it’s this idea of striving for imperfection that I take issue with. I’m afraid that my furniture would not resemble the brisk work of a competent professional, but the formulaic inconsistency of those godawful “handscraped” floors that seem to be popping up everywhere these days.

Handscraped floors
WTF? Whose hands did you scrape these floors with? Wolverine’s?

One could argue that the man who made this chair had more in common with a garage band than the Rolling Stones, and they would be right. The truth is, he wasn’t at the top of his game. There are far better examples of chairs in the historical record, with more attractive proportions and more careful surface finish. I don’t think it matters, though. Have a look at this blog post at Popular Woodworking if you’d like to see an example of an 18th century masterpiece complete with turning marks and tearout from riving. The blemishes are smaller and more discreet, but they’re still there, and I still try to avoid them.

I think it takes a surprising amount of skill to pull off this sort of historically accurate imperfection. Robin Wood can do it with his medieval bowls and spoons. Peter Follansbee can do it with his colonial chests and joint stools. But both of them have more than a couple of decades of experience working with traditional tools in traditional ways. I’m but a neophyte hack compared to those men.

What it boils down do, I’m afraid, is that I chase perfection to hide my own lack of skill.

My Dysfunctional Relationship with the Windsor Chair, Part II

Part I

It was September 2005. I had just earned my Bachelor’s Degree in forestry from the University of Georgia a few months earlier, and I was jumping right in to my graduate classes. I don’t remember much from that semester, honestly, but one class that stuck with me was my Advanced Wood Properties and Identification class. It was one of the best classes I ever took, and it was taught by my major professor.

On the first day, the professor gave a fascinating lecture on the history of pernambuco wood, or pau do brasil (Caesalpinia echinata). The tree is native to Brazil, and once flourished along the coast in great abundance. Portuguese navigators realized soon after visiting the that the tree’s heartwood could be extracted to retrieve a highly prized red dye, and the race was on. Trees were harvested and logs exported to Europe by the millions. Excessive exploitation resulted in a precipitous decline of the valuable trees by the 18th century, but not before luthiers realized that the dense wood was ideal for making bows for stringed instruments.

A serendipitous combination of density and stiffness, plus the proper cocktail of natural extractives (the chemicals in wood that give heartwood their color, odor, and rot-resistance) make the wood unrivaled in its suitability for violins bows. Though the tree is now listed internationally as an endangered species, pernambuco bows still command a hefty premium to bows of lesser quality woods. The wood can only be harvested from trees that die naturally, which amplifies its scarcity and preciousness.

The lecture struck a chord in my mind – specifically, the idea of selecting a species of wood that is most perfectly suited to the task for which it’s used suddenly seemed quite shrewd and elegant. In the woodworking that I did at that time (mostly bowl-turning, and the occasional dovetailed box), there was really not much need to consider the properties of wood, aside from its appearance. I selected bowl blanks for their attractive coloration and grain patterns. It didn’t matter if the wood was light and soft (like boxelder) or hard and dense (like cocobolo). As long as it was pretty, I would turn it into a bowl. No big deal.

The lecture created, in my mind, fertile ground for a more thorough appreciation of the dignified simplicity of the Windsor chair. I believe I learned from Curtis Buchanan the rationale behind the diparate collection of woods found in the traditional American Windsor:

  • Sugar maple for the legs and turnings: Strong and dense, sugar maple can be turned to delicate proportions, yet still maintain the rigidity needed to support a sitter daily for a couple of centuries. Unlike similarly strong woods, it has small pores, which means that turnings can hold crisp details without chipping. Plus, it splits well, so getting straight-grained, riven wood, with simple tools, is easy.

    turning
    The delicate details of a hard maple leg. Credit: Elia Bizzarri
  • White pine or poplar from the seats: Sure, we could use elm like the masochistic Brits, but American chairmakers chose a soft, easily carved wood to make their shapely, comfortable seats. The wood has just enough give to lock the harder woods of the legs and spindles into place.

    seat
    A shapely shield seat in white pine. Credit: Curtis Buchanan
  • Oak, hickory, or ash for the rails and spindles: These ring-porous hardwoods split easily – perfect for creating long, impeccably straight-grained sections for the upper pieces of the chair. Splitting, rather than sawing, preserves the stregth of the wood, and makes for successful steam-bending, which allows the wood to be shaped to better match the countours of the sitter’s body. Additionally, all of these woods are strong enough to be whittled thinly, allowing the parts to flex for comfort, yet still retaining sufficient strength.

    crest
    Graceful spindles and crest rail in oak. Credit: CartersWhittling

    Equipped with this new understanding, I began to see Windsor chairs in a different light: no, the wood wasn’t selected for the boldness of its color, nor the flashiness of its grain. Each wood was carefully selected to create a strong, light, and architecturally refined structure, that also happens to be comfortable as hell to sit in!

My Dysfunctional Relationship with the Windsor Chair, Part I

I still remember the first time I saw a Windsor chair chronicled in a respectable woodworking publication. It was probably in 2005. I had just made my first major tool purchase – a lathe that still sits in my shop today – with my savings from a summer internship as a forester in North Carolina. I still didn’t have a shop, so the lathe sat in the carport in front of our house, alongside a deep freezer. There was only one electrical outlet in the vicinity, so plugging in my lathe plus my working light meant that the deep freezer had to be unplugged while I worked. On more than one occasion, I failed to plug the freezer back in after a lathe session (much to the consternation of my father). I’m pretty sure the cost of the rotten meat and vegetables approaches what I spent on the lathe itself, but let’s get back to the topic at hand.

I had a voracious appetite for woodworking magazines. My dad, though not much into woodworking himself, somehow ended up with a subscription to Popular Woodworking, and I greedily devoured every picture and word of every issue that made it to our house. I started buying issues of Fine Woodworking from Home Depot to sustain my appetite in between issues of Popular Woodworking.

My favorite section from that magazine was the Reader’s Gallery. It usually covered four pages and was filled with creative and virtuosic work that covered the breadth of the craft. There was rarely a piece that failed to take my breath away; even rarer was the piece that I felt would ever be within the scope of my abilities.

A decade later, I can’t recall many specific pieces from those pages, though I’m sure their influence still resides in my subconcious. But there is one piece that I still remember fairly vividly. It was a comb-back Windsor arm chair. Painted black, sitting proudly and traditionally, it seemed quite the contrast to the original and quirky forms that surrounded it. I remember reading the list of woods that comprised the stately seat: sugar maple for the legs, white pine for the seat, oak for the rails, and hickory for the spindles.

curtis buchanan comb back
The chair look about like this (Curtis Buchanan comb back)

I know what you’re thinking: It was love at first sight. I was taken aback, and it’s been my dream to make this chair ever since.

Well, no. Nothing could be farther from the truth. At the time, I thought that the blasé chair had no place within the pages of that magazine. Why would anyone combine such a motley assortment of woods, I wondered. Any then paint the fool thing?! Why not build it out of a wood that was worthy of such efforts? Cherry, walnut, curly maple? At that time, my attention was captivated by wood above form. I had no clue why anyone would use oak, pine, hickory, and plain maple to build a chair that could be deemed a masterpiece. And paint? Why, there was a special place in hell reserved for people who painted wood. Even bland and uninteresting wood deserved a clear finish! Didn’t it?

I think my feelings were, at that time, heavily influenced by the chairs that we sat upon at family dinner, from the very first spark of a memory in my toddler mind. They were Windsor chairs in fact, but not spirit. They were factory-made from solid maple. The seats were unshapely and uncomfortable. The spindles were too thick and didn’t give. Don’t even get me started on the shape of the comb. The finish was a sickly stain and varnish that couldn’t decide if it wanted to be brown or tan. The glue was failing on many of the joints, and the chairs creaked and wobbled and rebuffed my dad’s efforts to fix them with those stupid epoxy injection systems.

Bad Windsor Chair
They looked kinda like this. Please, cover your childrens’ eyes if you have any innocent young ones looking over your shoulder.

Thankfully, those chairs are long gone, but the memories stayed with me as I gazed perplexedly at the pages of the magazine.

Part II