The Black (No, Red!) Book of Chairmaking

NONE SHALL PASS: The notebook where I recorded what I learned at The Windsor Institute. It is off-limits for my work today.

Editor’s note: The following is a short excerpt from “The Stick Chair Book,” which will be released this fall. Among all the how-to chapters in my books, I always try to add some chapters that add a psychological or historical dimension to the Part-A-into-Slot-B stuff. This is one of those chapters.

— Christopher Schwarz

With all the woodworking information available for free these days, it seems unlikely that there are still trade secrets amongst us.

But during 15 years of working with professional woodworkers to get their work published in a magazine, I had a lot of conversations that went like this:

“What kind of dye is that?” I’d ask.

“Red.”

“What brand? And what is the name of the color?” I’d ask.

“Can’t say.”

There were also many techniques that were off-limits. The woodworker would say something like: “This is how I teach it, but it is not how I do it.”

These encounters troubled me. I thought all the secrecy stuff had died off with the European guilds. But apparently, I was wrong. In many ways, I sympathized with the professional. He or she was fighting a horde of amateurs who were willing to undercut the prices of the pros. Why should a professional offer aid or comfort to this amateur enemy?

On the other hand, as woodworker W. Patrick Edwards says, “To die with a secret is a sin.” How will the craft progress if we don’t share what we know?

As I plunged deep into chairmaking in the early 2000s, I found myself stymied by some operations relating to compound geometry. The techniques published in the books seemed entirely too awkward compared to what I knew about pre-industrial woodworking. There had to be a simpler way to do these difficult operations.

I took some chairmaking classes. These helped, but I felt like either:

The teacher was also finding his way in the dark.They didn’t really want to tell me how they did it.

In 2010, I took a Windsor chairmaking course with Mike Dunbar at The Windsor Institute, along with my father and John Hoffman, my business partner. Dunbar, now retired from the school, had built a chairmakers’ terrarium. You started with the class on making a sack-back chair. Then you moved on to other chair forms. If you wanted to make chairs for a living, you could receive training on business, sales and marketing from Mike’s spouse, Susanna. Plus, the Dunbars, their employees and affiliates supplied students with tools, patterns and wood for amateur and professional chairmakers.

Sack Back in Progress: My father (left) sights John Hoffman as he drills the initial
mortise for a leg in a sack-back chair at The Windsor Institute.

It was an impressive operation. Mike and his assistants were there at every step to help you move forward on your chair. The lectures were funny. The workshop itself was gorgeous.

There was one problem, however. The class materials. At the top of the handouts for the class was this warning:

Our students are authorized to use these materials for the making of chairs for personal use and for the making of chairs for sale. We do not authorize the dissemination, reproduction, or publication of these materials in any form and strictly prohibit the use of the materials in the teaching of chairmaking to others.

Again, I felt that same old conflict. There is the urge to protect what you know. But that same urge has caused a lot of knowledge to be stockpiled in the cemeteries.

During my week at The Windsor Institute, I filled a red notebook with all the details of constructing a sack-back chair. I also kept all the handouts from the class in a green folder – both now in my bookcase.

However, I never consult them. I’m almost afraid to read them because they might give me some ideas for making chairs that I am not allowed to pass on to others.

OK, wait a minute. I’ll be right back.

Good news, everyone. I went through the class materials and notes, and I didn’t find anything that was universally mind-blowing. Most of the juicy bits in my notes related to how to build that specific sack-back chair. Whew. I’m glad I don’t build sack backs.

Giving away knowledge has always been a part of my personality. I don’t like secrets. While it would be easy to assign that trait to my time as a newspaper journalist, I know it goes back much further. In fact, I remember the moment I became this way.

In 1977 I was in fourth grade at the local Lutheran school. That year, some of the kids in the higher grades were permitted to dissect sharks for biology class. So, one day when we were called for an assembly in the school’s common area, I hoped (against hope) we were going to see some shark guts or something cool.

Instead, there was some old dude standing in the center of the room, holding a regular piece of paper. We all sat down on the carpet around him, legs crossed. Waiting for the boring session about a dull piece of paper to begin.

He began.

“Let’s say we live in a world where ‘corners’ are the most valuable thing in the whole world. Can you imagine that?”

“Yeah, but I can also imagine some crazy dissected shark fetuses.”

“How many corners does this sheet of paper have? Yes? You? Why yes, you are correct! This sheet of paper has four corners!”

“You know what has more corners? Shark teeth. Rows and rows of flesh-ripping corners.”

“Now, what if a friend of yours came up to you and was really, really sad. Sad that she didn’t have a single corner in the whole world.”

“So, my friend is a circle?”

“What would you do? You don’t want to give up one of your corners. Because then you’d have fewer corners. But you feel really bad for your friend. And so, you decide to give her one of your corners.”

Then the guy holds up the sheet of paper. He rips off one of the corners and gives it to a kid in the front row. Suddenly I’m transfixed.

“Oh look, I gave up one of my precious corners. But now I have five corners instead of four. That’s strange, don’t you think?

“Then, another friend asks for a corner because he has none.

“Another one? How can I lose yet another corner?

“But I decide again to give up one of my precious corners.”

Rip. He hands a corner of paper to me.

“And look. Now I have six corners instead of five!”

The guy continues to rip corners off the sheet of paper and hand them out, increasing the number of corners with every rip.

No one had ever explained generosity to me in those terms before. And though I was only 9 years old (and I still haven’t seen a dissected shark), I was a different person from that day forward. Giving stuff away – money, time, possessions, corners, knowledge – always results in getting something greater back in return. The more I give away, the more I receive.

To this day, however, I sympathize with people who hoard their knowledge out of caution or fear. When you are in a dying profession such as woodworking, giving up your hard-won know-how seems like suicide.

But here’s what I’ve found. If the stuff you know is really good – truly excellent – you could end up like Garrett Hack, Christian Becksvoort or David Charlesworth. Amateurs and professionals will pay to learn what you know through classes. Publishers will pay for you to write it down. You might have a tip or trick named after you.

Or you can remain that bitter man in his shop up on the hill. Perhaps you know how to make buttons for attaching tables to their tabletops in one amazing swish on the table saw. But you aren’t performing that trick for just anybody.

It’s a great trick. One that could change the way everyone works in their shop in the entire world. Right?
There’s only one way to find out.

***

The following chapters detail how I build stick chairs. I’ve tried to include every “corner” that I’ve acquired since I first started building these chairs. Also, I’ve tried to give credit to the people who taught me the trick or the operation.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few good tricks and the names of some chairmaking friends who have shared their knowledge along the way. If so, I apologize.

My hope is that you will refine these operations and make them simpler, easier and foolproof. And when someone asks you how you make your sticks or your arms or your legs, you’ll be willing to rip off one of your own corners and give it away.

Editor’s note: The following is a short excerpt from “The Stick Chair Book,” which will be released this fall. Among all the how-to chapters in my books, I always try to add some chapters that add a psychological or historical dimension to the Part-A-into-Slot-B stuff. This is one of those chapters. — Christopher Schwarz With…Read MoreThe Stick Chair BookLost Art PressRead More

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