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One Week, One Chair

The joy of working with old-fashioned hand tools.

I READ A PIECE about 10 years ago in the Wall Street Journal about a guy in New Hampshire who taught people how to make a Windsor chair in just one week. As the handyman owner of an old house in New York City, I've never had the space or time for a serious shop, so my projects have been things that can be done on sawhorses on the deck in good weather, and my tool collection is motley, to say the least. Besides, I have a full-time day job selling complex database software and training people to use it. I filed the newspaper clipping in the “I would like to do that someday” bin and got back to work. Still, I yearned.

Finally, last summer, I carved out a week away from my desk and signed up for the “Sack Back” course at The Windsor Institute in Hampton, NH. This is where Mike Dunbar, the subject of the now dog-eared article, holds forth on the revolutionary virtues of Windsor chair design and leads a dozen students at a time with very mixed hand-tool skills through the stages of shaping, bending, carving, and assembling a chair. By the end of the week, the class has produced a dozen solid chairs—with 120 fingers still in place. Mike and his staff have trained about 6,500 people to date, the oldest a man of 86, the youngest a girl and boy of 12.

Among us in Mike's spacious, sunlit studio were a special ed teacher, two high school shop teachers hoping to add chairmaking to their curricula, two aircraft maintenance men, a cabinetmaker from British Columbia, a school bus inspector, a union shop steward, and a mother-daughter duo from New Hampshire. All but the mother-daughter team had moderate to excellent woodworking skills using powered shop tools. But none of us had much experience with such exotic hand tools as the draw knife, spoke shave, gutter adze, compass plane, or travisher, so we were all, in some sense, beginners. Most of us were there to broaden our woodworking skills, some with an eye to post-retirement income. Mom and daughter were there to have fun learning something together, and they did. They also needed only a very little more coaching than the rest of us.

Class Begins. Mike Dunbar models his classes on that 18th-century transition point when a Master Chairmaker would assign to apprentices the task of making dozens of identical legs and stretchers on the lathe and reserve tasks calling for skill and judgment to himself and his journeyman chairmakers. Thus, on the first day of the basic Sack Back course that everyone takes before going on to fancier models, we all started out with a slab of pine nearly 2-inch thick for the seat, two 46-inch pieces of red oak about 2-inch square, seven 23-inch pieces of red oak about 1and 1/2-inch square, and a plastic bag holding all of the turned maple pieces. The red oak pieces had been riven, or split with wedges, from logs cut in the spring, which means they were still “green,” or wet inside. Riven wood has the bundles of fiber that form the wood grain running parallel, uninterrupted by the miller's saw, and so can be bent more easily.

We made a couple of timesaving uses of power tools, cutting out the seat blanks with a band saw, for example, but most of the week was spent with hand tools. We used a draw knife and spoke shave to shape the “green” oak pieces down to the point where they could be steamed and bent to the U-shapes that become the bow and arm, and to whittle the back spindles close to their final dimensions so they could all be dried in the furnace room at the same time. Successively, we shaped the seat, mounted the legs and stubs (front spindles), finished shaping the spindles and socketed them into the seat, mounted and drilled the arm and bow, and threaded the spindles through them. It sounds like a complex process and it is, but with each step logically presented and demonstrated, your chair practically grows before your eyes.

Teaching an Old Craft. It helps that Mike Dunbar is an inspired teacher. Skilled, enthusiastic, always open to a better way. The stairwell to the office displays photos of each class (and its chairs), about 26 a year, and certificates honoring students who originated improvements. A “Van Hovenometer,“ for example, is a piece of maple tapered like the chair leg but without the decorative turnings. Named after Jim Van Hoven, the device helps measure angles of the tapered holes drilled in the seat bottoms.

Many of us took home more than a chair. Carol Malloy told me she and her daughter liked the chance to “stretch our comfort zone.” Jeff Fowler, an expert woodworker, said he feels in touch with his chair in a unique way: “I can feel the tool marks and remember each step in making it. "For me, the class was a chance to slow down and step back in time for a week. As classmate Tom Jeffrey said, “The masses of shavings that accumulate on the floor instead of sawdust, the quiet sound of work with hand tools made me think about what a colonial-period shop must have been like.“ I may have to go back next summer to ponder this while I work on the sculpted seat of a Nantucket Fan Back Windsor.

David Fay Smith lives and works in New York City. He is the author of A Computer Dictionary For Kids and Other Beginners (Ballantine Books). This article was published in NRTA Live & Learn, Fall 2006.

Watch for new stories every Thursday in Live & Learn, NRTA's publication for the AARP educator community: Celebrating learning as a creative lifestyle.

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