I’m writing this post/starting this blog in response to the class I just took last week with Peter Follansbe. It was a 6 day course up in Plymouth, Mass on making the Jennie Alexander ladderback chair. Gina bought me the course two days before it started after seeing a post that someone had dropped out last minute and they were hoping to fill the spot. I’ve been wanting to take a course with Peter, or really any “master” woodworker, for years now. When Gina saw the post for whatever reason she decided it was time for me to go and made the decision that she would stay home with Miki while I took off a week of work to learn how to make a chair from a tree.
I’ve been working professionally as a woodworker for 8 years now, but never had any formal education in the field, not even woodshop in high school. I’ve lived in the camp of simply learning through experience, trial and error, books and videos. I started working in a busy cabinet shop for minimum wage sanding doors for 12 hours a day, 6/7 days a week. I slowly snuck myself into being a part of other processes and projects and learned the basics of building with wood. I’ve worked for a handful of other shops and woodworkers always picking up new techniques and approaches to the process. It’s been eight years of working as hard as I could, studying at night how I could build whatever current project I had in a more accurate and efficient way.
My woodworking style up till now has been informed solely by those two objectives. Since I started in a primarily machine driven shop, I’ve learned to use those machines to give me those accurate and efficient results--and gotten quite proficient at it. The books I read and videos I watch to get better at woodworking almost always feed this approach and make me want more and better machines. Which in the end, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The way I’ve set up my shop, with even a modest collection of machines, has given me the ability to make a living as a woodworker building really fun and exciting projects. When it is a for-profit woodworking situation, I think it’s pretty hard not to think that nice machines will make you more money in the long run.
Yes, money does rule the world--especially when you have a baby at home--but no one gets into woodworking for the money. A lot of woodworkers I know, especially one man shops, have a spouse with a “legitimate job” providing health insurance and a decent income which seems to keep some of the pressure off the woodshop to meet certain financial goals. When I started woodworking I was single, living in a minivan, eating a slice of $1.50 pizza for lunch everyday, and having the time of my life. I was learning how things are built, and how to use different tools for different purposes--it wasn’t about money, it was about learning. And honestly it’s been like that even to this day. But since having a kid, and starting Leeward as the sole income for our household, that learning has shifted from the excitement of “what else can I make!?” to “how can I make this as fast as possible while still keeping the same high standards of precision and finish”.
And then, “Hey, you wanna go take a class with Peter Follansbee like you’ve always wanted to?” My immediate reaction was, “Are you kidding me? We can’t afford for me to take off a week of work, let alone pay the tuition which is more than I’d probably even make in a week!” A surprising reaction, given that I’ve wanted to take a class like this for years, that my wife is telling me that it’ll be fine, and that these classes sell out in minutes and it might be a long time before I could even get into one of them again. After maybe 10 minutes I gave in and agreed, and immediately felt that feeling I hadn’t felt in years of getting to learn a new skill. It ended up being fine, we had gotten a little ahead in our work schedule and Gina seemed excited to have some time without me around (surprising, but I’ll take it ;)
The class, as I said, was making a ladderback chair that Jennie Alexander designed 30 years ago alongside Peter Follansbee who was teaching the class. I had no idea who Alexander was, and no idea of the history of the chair. Jennie had written this book in 1978 called “Make a chair from a tree” showing his process from a log to a finished tree with only a handful of simple hand tools. It’s the kind of thing at this point in my life that I would have looked at and thought yeah I’ll do that when I retire and have too much free time. Over the course of the 6 days we rived out parts from a single 5ft log of red oak, used drawknives to rough shape them and spokeshaves to final shape. We talked about grain direction incessantly, and how best to use these ancient tools most efficiently and accurately…
Exactly--Alexander was like me, always trying to find ways to do things efficiently, but as accurately as possible at the same time. But there was this other intention that he had, and that Peter has, which is--interaction. Throughout the process of making this chair I realized that I had to actually work with the wood for the chair to actually work. I couldn’t just make an adjustment to a fence and make the piece I was riving break off straight. Wood is strongest against its grain, which is why you split wood along the grain not from the side of the tree (maybe more of an obvious statement than I’d like to admit). I forget who originally said it, maybe Drew Langsner, but Peter quoted him as saying “we exploit a tree’s weakness to access it’s strength”. Up until that point I had been overcoming it’s strength to utilize a slightly weaker strength. Throughout the process of riving out perfectly straight grain parts and working them into posts and rungs I realized maybe for the first time why wood is such an incredible material.
Something else I grew to appreciate in a whole new way was the tools I was using. We learned how to sharpen a drawknife and then how to use it to bring a wonky riven timber into a perfectly straight, balanced post. I realized how accurate I can be with nothing but a sharp piece of metal with some handles. It was so much fun finding this balance between myself, the wood, and the tool I was using. We built these chairs that will last a hundred years or more utilizing a simple understanding of trees and sharp tools. They’re not perfectly symmetrical, or smooth, but they’re comfortable and they work and actually look better to me that most things I’ve made.
No I’m not about to start making everything with hand tools, I know I can’t make a living that way, at least not yet. I’m excited though, to actually interact with wood, while still being accurate and efficient of course. My plan is to make a set of these chairs for our dining table. I want to keep woodworking for the joy of it, not that the stuff we do with Leeward isn’t fun, but I think doing something that’s not paid for and doesn’t involve machines will only make the Leeward stuff better and maybe even become Leeward stuff eventually. I’ll try to document the process here as I get started! If you read this far, you probably feel similarly to me in some aspect of your life, so I hope this helped in some small way. Cheers!