Time away from the shop

I love being in the shop. My full time job at Berea College is running the Woodcraft program and I have one or two projects happening in my own shop at all times. Lately they’ve all been chairs. There’s a bench in the works but my work is predominantly chairs right now. As a maker, I feel off somehow if there isn’t work happening in my personal shop. It is something I have grown to understand and accept about myself – that I will build, create or design something new – even if I’m unsure why. It is part of what makes me a craftsperson.

My time in the shop is greatly enhanced by getting out into nature and spending time with others. Covid has challenged the ability to visit with friends and family, making the time spent outdoors all the more important. I forget this at times. It seems to unconsciously happen. Bad weather for a stretch. A hiking date falls through. Or I find I am lazy (and too engaged within the shop). What happens? Beside being in worse physical shape, I find myself “fighting” the work. I’m not clear minded. My efforts feel forced instead of flowing easily. It’s a tough thing to describe. It effects the quality of work, that’s for sure, because I am less patient with the challenges and less willing to adjust my attitude. I’m in the shop to “get things done” – that’s always the case when I am at work – but without the connections away from the shop it effects the quality with my projects. Willingness to sharpen is a perfect example: when I’m off then I keep going, dull tool or not. It’s when I’m balanced and in tune to the project that I’ll adjust my efforts to do my best work. (I know I should keep all my tools perfectly tuned at all time. It doesn’t happen. They are sharp, just not razor sharp. When I’m balanced I make the time to sharpen, clean and prepare for the next shop session. Impatient me only works on the next task related to the chair).

I found this out over time. When life is balanced, I am more balance with my work. It makes simple sense. But it was hard to make the connection because I do not get out for hikes or visit friends to make my woodworking better. I do it because I love other people and am quieted by the beauty of nature. I look forward to friends and nature on their own. I don’t consider doing them because of some symbiotic relationship to my craft. That feels gross.

But I now recognize what happens when I miss out on others and the woods. My shop time suffers. I used to think I wasn’t focusing properly…that I was in an “off mood” that would pass and I’d regain focus. That is not the case. It is a lack of friends and family or the lack of the outdoors.

My furniture is better, both in quality and my experience, when I get away from the shop. And I’m always thrilled to get back to a chair build after a little time away.

recent settin’ chairs

Slow moving over the past few months. At least it feels that way. Making during the early mornings and weekends feels slow as it is, add in a few mistakes and detours and a project has the appearance of a truck stuck in the mud and the wheels spinning, not going anywhere.

I swapped out the slats on these chairs. That’s what slowed them down. I bent the first sets, had them dry in a rack for a couple of weeks before shaping and putting them it. They were too ugly to keep around. I am harsh on my work, so I like to live with things for a week or so before doing anything drastic. So I waited. Put the chairs out of sight then came back to them. I disliked the slats even more when I returned. The world doesn’t need ugly chairs, so I cut them out.

Adding slats as the last step isn’t a problem…..it’s the approach taken by a group of makers within the chairmaking community. So there’s little issue with quality or approach, it only cost some time to work back to the finished point. The lesson from bending last is that the slats should be as thin as possible. It’s only the chair frame holding the bend in place and thin slats bend easier than thick.

Both have hickory seats. One ebonized with iron and tannins. The other finished with a natural walnut hull stain. I love that one…the walnut stain and garnet shellac gives the oak a nice mellow look.

I needed patience with these two – sometimes it works that way. It’ll never be confused with the works of the Mace family of North Carolina, but the walnut-stained chair took a few design characteristics from their distinctive sitten’ chairs. The front facets on the slats, for example, along with the three slats and the upper bent post. Those Mace chairs are the real deal. They feel right in every way.

The proportions are another change with these two. The posts were bulked up to 1 5/8″ and the rung tenons to 3/4″. The chairs feel much more substantial previous builds with 5/8″ tenons. I know Alexander pushed everything as thin as possible, along with the best practices for the joinery, but sometimes thicker materials just makes for a stouter chair. Then again Alexander used white oak for everything…maybe there’s a substantial difference between the black oak I’m using and her material.

Onward. Next build is a contemporary chair. Part benchwork and part green wood with this one. Crest rails are already in the bending forms. I’ve had a design in my head for a while now and I want to get too it before it fades. I’m excited….it always excites me when ‘monstrosity’ is one potential outcome.

loose ends and holiday deadlines

In high school and college I would race to make gifts during this season. Late nights spent in my grandfather or neighbor’s wood shop, hustling to complete the gifts by Christmas. This season brought on that same feeling again with a run of 13 cherry wooden carriers. As always, I underestimated the amount of time it takes to do a quality job. Half were done for Christmas day (complimented by the faint smell of linseed oil) and the other half became New Year’s presents to unexpectant friends.

They may be late for Christmas 2020, but this is the first gift of 2021. There’s usually a silver lining in each miss.

nested basket set

The loose end was the greenwood lounge chair. It’s of red oak with a stained hickory bark seat. Sits lower and a bit wider than my recent chairs. I built this over the summer and hung the frame on the shop wall. At that time I thought it needed a red seat but didn’t see a good option for it. A red Shaker tape weave didn’t seem right. Possibly red cord though I didn’t seek out source. That idea didn’t feel right either though.

This past week I decided to take it down and complete it. The bark seat comes from the all the outer bark from this past spring’s hickory harvest. It has significant striations and is a little thick, which makes for a challenge in getting a tight weave. It’s the perfect surface to experiment with staining. This has a walnut oil stain on the bark that went on evenly and compliments to garnet shellac on the red oak frame. The combination warms both the wood and the bark, something that is lacking from an earlier chairs with the same materials that only received oil during the finish process.

Baskets and a chair, finished by year end 2020. The year brought plenty of challenges but also time with family, time in the shop and the start of a writing project. 2020 was challenging, frustrating, and stressful yet there is much for which to be grateful. Excited for the possibilities of ’21.

Thanks for reading, sharing and following along. Wishing you a joyful new year.

peace, andy

upcoming classes at Pine Croft

Pine Croft (in Berea, KY) will host a series of classes this April and May, 2021. I have two classes on the schedule: a wooden carrier class April 10 & 11 and the greenwood stool April 30, May 1 & 2. The wooden carrier is nearly full, if it hasn’t reached capacity yet, and there are a couple of spots remaining in the greenwood class. Each class will host a maximum of six students.

For those who are not acquainted with Pine Croft – in it’s previous life it was the Kelly Mehler School of Woodworking. Berea College now owns the property and is reopening the wood school as The Woodworking School at Pine Croft. I’m helping, both as an administrator and an instructor, to get the school up and running again. 2020 was a wash, with safety precautions knocking down our scheduled classes. We’re planning a reduced schedule for the upcoming spring and will adjust if conditions require it.

Berea’s beautiful in the spring, hope you’ll consider a class. Take a look at the precautions listed on the Pine Croft site – we’re planning on courses and will evaluate again as the spring approaches. Because of the uncertainty, the registration deposit is $100 to hold a spot and there’s a full refund (on both the deposit and the class cost) if we need to cancel.

I’ll teach two classes and assist a couple of other great courses: Aspen Golann‘s Carving Class in April and again when Megan Fitzpatrick teaches the Dutch Tool Chest in May. Excited to teach alongside them. Here’s hoping that spring’s a breath of fresh air.

detail: wooden carrier handle

away awhile

It’s been a few months since I entered a thought. It’s possible I haven’t had any recently. Seemed like a just a few days ago, but it’s now December and August was long ago. Something about the pandemic and working during it has completely distorted my sense of time.

One last thought on the Wallace Nutting book, which I completed and returned in August (seemingly eons ago). The lasting impression and what will stick with me anytime I hear his name: he burned all his business records around the same time he wrote his biography, so historians have a difficult time verifying his claims.

No doubt he ran a successful photography, real estate and furniture business – selling early American nostalgia to a growing middle class. But why burn all the records? Seems ornery. In a way it intrigues me further. Was it an act of housekeeping? A kind of Marie Kondo, records-do-not-spark-joy purge? That brings a smile to my face if it was. Or an accident? Seems doubtful. Or, and also fun to consider, why destroy the records of a life’s work – that of a successful business? Maybe there was something fun or unexpected in there.

That piece of the story, the burning of records, brings a splash of excitement when I think of Nutting. It changes my impression of the flat character – rigid New England minister making old brown furniture and old-timey photography. I work around his chairs every day in the wood shop. They now bring a smile to my face when considering the man.

Recommended: Wallace Nutting and the Invention of Old America by Thomas Andrew Denenberg

creative history

I’m currently working my way through Thomas Andrew Denenberg’s book Wallace Nutting and the Invention of Old America. I’ve been dismissive on reading through Nutting’s history, for fear of boredom and factory furniture. But Denenberg’s volumn is nothing of the sort (alright, there is stiff furniture in it, but it’s given me a greater appreciation for Nutting – he shared the Arts and Crafts ethos within his furniture business. It wasn’t pure capitalism and the race to the bottom, quality wise).

I plan to share a little more in the future about Nutting and the connection to Berea, KY in an upcoming post. Just a little here for now. Nutting was a Harvard-educated minister turned photographer, antiquarian, furniture maker and entrepreneur and a New Englander through and through. I’ve always had some understanding of the man, but only a vague, hazy sense of his connection to craft and art. He turned himself into a cottage industry around the turn of the 20th century, creating and promoting the idealized version of an early American life.

Two quick passages from Denenberg’s book, to give a sense of things. The first makes be smile because I’ve been a member of New England churches, and I can hear this lame joke coming from the pulpit (if the pastor had hard opinions about furniture styling).

Writing of this hybrid furniture, Nutting oscillated between avuncular storytelling and biting, almost profane criticism. “It is like a bug put together from six bugs and brought to the professor with the bland inquiry by the student, ‘Please tell us what this bug is?’ The professor fixes on it for a moment a sardonic look, and says ‘Yes, gentlemen, it’s a humbug.’

p. 131

Again, the pastoral instincts come appear in later writings. Various styles and traditions invoke virtue (both in design and craftspersonship), though I’ve never heard anyone use a “think of the children” argument when criticizing furniture for lack of integrity.

Surface finish referred to issues of honesty and quality in Nutting’s thinking in the same way that construction details bespoke of Arts and Crafts morality. He wrote with disdain of the “cheap furniture [that] floods the American market….Far more attention is given to the finish than to the form or the substance. For instance, I see before me as I write a table of oak, on which is stamped by machinery a design intended to make the buyer suppose that the table is quartered oak. The old scheme of imitating the grain of wood with paint was bad enough, and this is still worse. It is a falsity and is intended to deceive. It isn’t an honest thing for children to see.”

p. 149

Wallace Nutting and the Invention of Old America goes for about $35 on the used book market.

Pine Croft, Berea College and Woodworking

Maker and author Nancy Hiller posted a nuanced look at Berea College’s history and woodworking efforts. She’s taught in Berea before, at the first incarnation of the school – The Kelly Mehler School of Woodworking. She was aware of the College and it’s “tuition free” education. The article explores the connections between Berea’s mission (and how the mission drives the decision making process), the craft work happening here, and the College’s recent purchase of the Mehler school and property.

I play a part in this part of the story. I typically share my after hours woodworking on the blog. Most of my work is with the Berea College though – running Woodcraft (training and operating the shop) and with Pine Croft. It should be highlighted here more.

It’s strong work, as Nancy is just as skilled in writing as she is in making and design. I encourage you to take a couple of moments to read it – it’s about much more than woodworking.

Find Nancy’s piece on the Lost Art Press website: click here

Header Photo: Pine Croft. Photographer: Justin Skeens

not worth the effort

A red maple tree, about 10″ in diameter at the base, came down during all the hickory bark work. I went back to collect chair material for posts and front legs, maybe the slats as well if things went well. It didn’t go well.

The bark showed a slight spiral – I should have take that as a warning. But it was already down and ready for use. Opening it showed the true challenge – the truck twisted over 90 degrees in a 40″ length. I fought with the wood for a little while before coming to my senses and walking away. This tree would make great spoons and exellect cordage, but for chair work it looked miserable. So I collected all my tools and went back to the black oak log, used for a few earlier chairs this year. It stinks like limburger cheese and is boringly straight and clear – perfect for the next set of ladder backs.

bolts of red oak, 42″ in length, sitting upon a quartered white oak

My hope was to make a chair in a similar style to the one shown below – turned maple posts with hickory rungs. Here in Kentucky, red maple and hickory were a common combination for split bottom chairs, as both woods are plentiful in the eastern mountains. Though not clarified (either by location or materials) in Eaton’s book, my guess is the chair below is maple posts with hickory rungs and slats. It shows characterists of KY and TN chairs – simple, unadorned turnings, thick posts and legs, and a woven hickory seat. (I’d to see more of the chair in the foreground as well).

Settin’ Chair, From Allen Eaton’s book “Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands” (Dover Press)

A recent thought while researching all these wonderful mountain chairs: the maple posts were commonly turned, while the ring porous woods (oaks, hickories, ash) were most likely shaved. Makes sense, the maple can hold a nice detail at the lathe and the oaks work beautifully at the shaving horse. Maple’s not as tough as the other woods – maybe that explains the massiveness of the posts and legs.

back to the woods

Back into the woods – this time to find the materials to bottom the Dave Sawyer – style ladder backs and to start collecting parts for the next set of chairs. This was my first time harvesting hickory bark from the forest. I had been warned about how physically demanding the work could be with the tree on the forest floor and needing to work on top of it for hours. It definitely lived up to that reputation of hard work. After working two trees the first day (mistake – one tree is plenty), I came home completely exhausted, yet pretty happy to have bundles of bark.

thick bark, herringbone pattern (3 over, 3 under) with linseed oil

The head forester at Berea dropped the hickory trees for me over a two-week span. Our season here is between late May and July 4th. The sap is up and the bark is slipping and it’s much easier to get it during this window than at any other time of the year. It’s best to peel the bark as soon as the tree falls, but I needed to wait a day before getting to the first couple of them. No trouble, they peeled well. I needed to wait a couple more days before working the 3rd tree – it still peeled, but took a little more effort to get it off the trunk. The last tree was peeled as soon as it was dropped and it was notably easier. This all happened in late May. Four trees is plenty of bark – a wild guess is that each of the 20′, 8″ diameter trees (the average of the four trees worked) yielded 5-6 seats each. That’s plenty of bark for my chair output, and enough to share some.

The bark came from a pignut variety of hickory. There’s not too much to harvesting it, though my ignorance shined through at a couple of points. The outer bark needs shaved away – that takes hard work, but it’s straightforward and relatively forgiving. The drawknife peeled that outer bark away quickly. It was recommended that the inner bark should be shaved thin – maybe an 1/8″ or a little less – but I left it as thick as possible. Mostly because it was tough to get a good, close, consistent shave while working on the ground, and because fatigue set in. It’ll need split each coil before it’s used for a chair seat.

Peter Follansbee’s writings were my foundation and research before heading into the woods. https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/2017/06/19/hickory-bark/   That, along with Brian Boggs/Lie Nielsen DVD, Drew Langsner books and a few conversations with Steve Farmer (who’s collected and sold bark for years here in Berea).

Side note: I put thick into the ladder back. It cracked while drying on the diamond-patterned mineral deposit areas around the tight bends. Too thick. Splitting the thickness of the bark into an outer and inner (then using the inner for the seat) removes the dimond pattern and results in a more uniform seat that can be pulled much tighter. The outer bark isn’t waste – it can be used for other projects, though I wouldn’t put it in a chair. Lesson learned – work the bark thin for best results.

minor splitting in the mineral areas of the thick bark

When harvesting bark, most slice the bark off the tree at a consistent width. Around 1″ or whatever is intended for the chair. I attempted that, but my knife wandered and I wasn’t happy with the results (it’s probably fine, minor changes in width disappear when woven into a seat). So I took some with the utility knife at 1″ and collected the remainder at a wider width – maybe 3″ or 4″ wide. I’m using a leather strap cutter in the shop to uniformly slice the bark to width. Soak the coil of bark for a few hous, cut it to width, then split the thickness. It’s more work after getting it out of the woods, but I am able to do a better job in the shop than while working out in the woods.

Leather strap cutter, fixed to the bench. First run all cut at 3/4″

Thought on tree diameter. I’ve always heard that 6-8″ diameter saplings are best. After doing this, I figure that’s true for a couple of reasons. First off, it’s much easier to handle a smaller tree than something considerably larger. That was definitely my experience, as the 10″ sapling was much tougher to move around than the 6″. The other reason has to do with the thickness of the bark. The smaller tree had much thinner bark in relation to the 10″ sapling, possibly to the point that it will not need split again before using. That’s a big advantage – shave off the outer bark and some of the mineral striations and it’s ready for a chair. Obviously the larger diameter yielded a fair bit more bark, but there’s more work involved in collecting it.

After collecting the bark (and resting), I went back for chair rungs from the saplings. The next three chairs worth of rungs are now drying in the kiln, waiting for the upcoming “settin’ chairs.”

gratitude for craft

The past ten weeks have, at the very least, been unsettling. I find myself worried about our health, or concerned for our community and nation. There are additional reasons for the anxiety, but this isn’t meant as a post about it.

Ruby’s recently completed shop brush

Instead, I want to express my gratitude towards wood craft. During this anxiety, entering the shop and focusing on my craft has brought a renewed calm. I’m thankful the opportunity and drive to create. I’m a woodworker, though I imagine it’s the same for potters, bakers, makers and artists of all stripes – for those who can get into their shops and kitchens and studios.

I’m drawn to green wood and hand tools. As I’ve clunkily explained before, working the wood from the log provides an immediate connection to the wood and our community. It’s also quiet and physical, two aspects I appreciate in my craft woodwork projects. There’s a rhythm to working the wood wet – a natural movement of the body that synchronizes when the work is done correctly. Yes, it’s physical and taxing, but the body is not meant to fight against the wood. It’s to work with it. There’s a harmony here that I’ve chased during these past weeks. It’s a part of the process, a part-of-yet-separate-from actually making the piece, that I completely enjoy.

The other piece of this is that our kids have followed me into the shop. I’d need to chase them away I worked primarily on machines. Noise and safety and dust and all that. Now we all make together in the same shop at the same time. There’s been a burst of creativity through this period as well. We head down to the shop three or four times a week. Spontaneous creativity follows, with the time and head space to chase the new ideas. Sometimes our kids don’t make anything, they simply enjoy the process of making shavings with a spokeshave or driving nails into scrap wood. I can rough out a part or two for the most recent green wood project, or not, depending on the intensity and number of inquiries coming from them.

crossbow/sword – a little sawing, nailing and carving

The images are of a couple recent projects still in the shop. The lead image of of a doll house chair Francis made for his sister. It appears to be a little stick chair. I don’t want to step on it in the night, so it must remain in the shop. The other build is either a crossbow or a sword, or possibly a multi-weapon of some sort. Sadly, it is not permitted in the house either. He’s currently making a collection of wooden axes for the purpose of chopping at the brush that surrounds our apartment.

Of course, I need to have a quiet shop when doing a glue up, intense figuring or planning work, so I find time to work alone as well. This isn’t a uptopia.

But I’ve found myself grateful for our ability to wander down to the shop, make some shavings, and engage with the craft in a renewed way.