Editor’s note: Thanks to everyone who entered our True Tales of Woodworking Contest, in celebration of the release of Nancy Hiller’s new edition of “Making Things Work: Tales of a Cabinetmaker’s Life.” We enjoyed reading every one of the entries – it was difficult to choose a winner (a good problem to have!). We’re running some of our top choices here (lightly edited to match LAP editorial style), and will announce and share the winning story on Saturday, Feb. 1. Nancy will also be sharing some of the entries on her Making Things Work blog, so be sure to tune in there, too!
In the 1980s, I made and sold Windsor chairs, using mostly old techniques and tools. Mike Dunbar’s “Windsor Chairmaking” was my handbook, and Santore’s “Windsor Style in America” was my inspiration. One friend’s 100-acre forest provided the trees, which I cut down with a chain saw; another friend’s gorgeous Percheron mare, a draft horse with hooves almost the size of dinner plates, hauled them out.
Instruction was hard to find. I remembered how scary it had been, as a kid in junior high shop class, “poking a bar of steel into a spinning chunk of wood”* – it hadn’t turned out well.
Today, excellent instruction is available on-demand in downloads and streaming videos; Peter Galbert’s wonderful materials come to mind. Forty years ago, a beginner would have to go to the teacher. After wasting four months trying unsuccessfully to figure out how to turn wood, I finally found a mentor, 300 miles to the south, whom I met at a workshop 300 miles west.
One of the most challenging things for me was learning how to drill the seat for the legs. I quickly experienced the heartbreak of destroying a carved seat by drilling the legs wrong. The technique shown in Dunbar’s book used two angle gauges and a hand-held brace with a spoon bit; that didn’t work for me. I found it easier to use a single line of sight with a single angle gauge (a common technique, today). I used an antique Delta floor-standing drill press with a foot pedal to bring the bit down into the wood. That left both hands free to hold the big wooden chair seat in position. To get the correct angle for the legs, I built a wooden tilting table that bolted to the work surface. It worked great and I could tilt it either way – front or back.
I often demonstrated chairmaking at the local Farmer’s Market. On one of these occasions, a young guy watched me from a distance. Eventually, he showed up at my door, introduced himself, and said he would love to watch me work, and learn how to build a chair in my workshop. I quickly realized that Eddie had a lot of potential; he had worked with mentors far more talented than I was, repairing 17th and 18th century furniture, stuff that I had seen only in museums. I taught him by simply showing him what I did and explaining why I did it. I said there were probably better ways to do all of it, but I just hadn’t found them.
I suggested the best way to make his first chair was to find a big fireplace, so he could burn his first attempt; he shouldn’t take it too seriously – that would minimize the stress. Eddie ignored me, of course; he was determined to make his first attempt a really great piece of work. And he was doing quite well; he spent several days carefully cutting and carving a seat to a very pleasing shape, and then turned some very nice legs to go with it.
Eddie was very capable, so I let him work pretty much on his own, unless he asked for help. I occasionally took a peek to keep him out of trouble. The challenge was teaching without interfering, finding that line between oversight and overbearing. I showed him how to set up the drill press to bore the holes in the seat, and then watched from a distance. I knew how easy it was to reverse the angle of the table, and have the chair legs gathered tight together on the floor, like a goat on a rock.
I saw him setting it up wrong, and I just couldn’t bear to let him destroy that beautifully carved seat. I also wanted him to learn to think about what he was doing. I didn’t take my eyes off him as I quietly backed off into the far corner of the windowless shop. I waited to see if the light would go on in his head, but he pressed on. When he finally had everything ready (and backward), Eddie reached up and flipped the switch on the drill press motor. I pulled the switch in corner. The shop went dark, the machine fell silent, and Eddie yelled “NOOOO!!!!!” as he finally realized what he’d been about to do.
When we finally stopped laughing in the dark, I turned the power back on and we got back to work. His first chair turned out very nice, and he still has it decades later.
— Ed Rumsey
*David Fisher’s colorful reason for carving rather than turning bowls:
“There’s something about a twenty pound chunk of wood spinning around at five hundred rpm that makes me not want to poke it with a bar of steel. I like my chunks of wood to sit still in front of me.”