Chairs

I remember making my first chairs in 1968; hard for me to imagine! Patience for a variety of processes is not something you are born with and patience combined with the teen age seems even the more incongruous — a period in need of the greatest level of development, from what I have seen. Thankfully, I didn’t have to find it on my own. I had a mentoring craftsman named George hovering just the other side of the workbench, me at one corner, he at the other, saying, “Plane it!” or, “I wouldn’t plane that.” or, “No way, Jose!” Perhaps then, “Scrape it! Split it! Pare it!” The heartache of having to redo meant reaching out to understand and there are some things you have to learn in the doing of it, no matter how good the explanation of another, no matter what’s read, etc. Reaching deeper to within with the need to understand and master is best achieved by the ignorance of a subject you feel. It starts with that internal searching for the cause of a very slight vibration — an iteration left in the surface of the wood by a plane often and wrongly called chatter but most likely plane skip, skidding, friction sticking or a dozen other reasons including thick and heavy overweight planes without the flex and versatility more modest planes have. Those walls of resistance and the subtle resistances were there in every made move, the ‘catch’ of the plane, the file’s ‘stutter’ and ‘stammer’ in the saw gullet and the ‘jibing’ of the spokeshave’s taunt when we least expect or want it. It was the swift turn of the wood in the vise, the flipping of the plane to a pull instead of a push that became part of the immediate solution, the cure, if you will. I believe I pull my plane, spokeshave, scraper as much as I push them but not because some Japanese advocates suggest I buy Japanese tools but because it was an industry-standard in my early day of learning my craft. Part of the fuller education an apprentice in training got right there at the bench that you could never nor still ever find in just a book. The immediacy of George’s prompts was invaluable. It’s this that’s mostly gone. That one-to-one face-to-face impartation of a mentoring man opposite you. I haven’t seen it in the last fifty years or so of making, anywhere yet it is something I have done with many new to the craft and that over a number of years in their training. But then there were the times when George just left me to it. I’d feel his eyes on me as he slowed to a gradual stop to stare bemusedly at my struggling, wondering if I’d ask for help or just muggle through, muscle through to learn something new on my own. These were cathartic moments as in the split-second flicker of light, that moment of revelation where you just suddenly get it and you get it just for yourself in a way that no other being can tell you and it’s yours, yours for life. And it’s this that separates crafting artisans from the all-knowing know-it-all smart-alecks that have become ever-more prevalent in today’s woodworking culture.

People talk about luck. I never believed in luck. Never saw the term of any real value. I was not lucky to apprentice. It wasn’t such a happenstance thing at all. I had decided on a path, a calling if you will, and pursued it with all that was within me. This still happens. How do I know? Hannah, John, Jack. They knocked on my door and the door opened wide to them. These are the free spirits that will carry my craft forward as I did when I started back in 1965.

Working with George especially, and all of the other men I worked under later, left me in no doubt of my position on the totem pole. Starting at the bottom and serving the men was the best thing that ever happened to me. I made tea, swept the floor around every man’s workbench many times a day, and then, with no extraction system hooked up to any machine in the shop, and wood being milled for the work of ten or so men, machine shavings from half a dozen massive machines had to be bagged and that could easily be an all-day job week in and week out. “BOY!” became my new name from day one and throughout the first two years until the next apprentice came along. You had to graduate to first-name terms being used. ‘Boy.’ was the title given to the newest apprentice and in many ways, it was easier that way. You had no illusions about yourself, your ability or your status and position. The bottom is a good start for anyone.

I have been finishing off the dining chairs for the Sellers’ Home series on making dining chairs and though a chair takes me about two days of handwork per chair, filming multiplies the task-time manyfold. What was two to three weeks’ work has been two and a half months for nine chairs if I include three iterations in prototyping. The processes I used took my wood from rough-cut commercial mill-sawn wood to a finished chair with each in relatively quick succession and the issue of what can a machine do better than handwork inevitably creeps into the minds of other makers out there. I will admit that having used machines alongside hand tools for three decades, it took strong determination to wean myself off the dependency that took place through the years. With my long-term experience in both realms of woodworking, and with a 40′ by 80′ workshop, my quest would be greatly different to yours. How so? I was teaching classes with 20 students who in a given month would use 150 pieces of wood to make a series of 10 projects. That’s 3,000 sections in various soft- and hardwoods of equal or greater proportion. Well, there can be no doubt that a power planer reduces the rough-sawn to planed four square and parallelity lickety-split. In the schools I started that went full-time and year-round over two and a half decades both in the USA and here in the UK, I had no choice, but when I started teaching and training online, and with my apprentices too, I felt it was time to disconnect from the woodworking grid that had now taken over the world of real woodworking to replace it with machine-only methods. Remember, when I began teaching hand tool woodworking, there were only a handful of types even throughout the world. But then the question comes up, what are the gains and the losses? My wood was consistently reduced in size by repeated cuts on the bandsaw. These rip cuts were essential on the back legs because nothing ran parallel and I had dog-legs with knees throughout. Once cut, all of the pieces came to a finished level with half a dozen swipes to every facet with the bench plane. Wood from the planer still needs this remedial step one way or the other as the planer rarely gives a finished level ready to apply finish to. Now I do know about spiral cutterheads and they work well, as I am often told. Do I want them or the planer in my workshop? I don’t. The pollution would be just too much. Pollution? Use a dust extractor! I’m not talking about dust and chips pollution. I’m thinking the very presence of the machine itself first, then there is noise pollution. On it goes, “Been there and done that!” I’m not going back. And don’t get me wrong. Owning and using power equipment like that is just fine with me. I don’t think reducing stock to size using them is some bad thing. I think we must all choose for ourselves what we want. `i think too that I have proven for many decades that you can achieve some of the finest work if you never turn on a machine. I am fitter for my decision now than when I was 50. Stronger and healthier, I move forward working my full-time career as I did at 15 when I began. I’m just as interested, just as enthusiastic, just as happy if not happier!

22 thoughts on “Chairs”

  1. Luck is where hard work meets opportunity is what I was always taught.
    If you are determined to do something nothing will stop you.
    I understand your shying away from machines when possible, I happen to like using them.
    I’ve rebuilt old woodworking machines that were made before I was born or when I was very young and enjoyed every minute of use and fixing them. They would have been discarded or sold as scrap and history would have been lost. Cast iron parts that were set outside to age was the norm at the time. That sure isn’t done today, throwing them out would be pollution.
    I like hand methods as well and it has helped me become a better woodworker.

  2. Video not working for me either… on computer or phone, and I’ve tried different browsers?

    I’m going to take a short in the dark and guess that the original is perhaps in some apple format??

    Matt

  3. Thanks Paul. I think the toughest thing working alone in my garage are these little tricks and tips. No doubt I’ve learned some on my own but it would likely be learned quicker if I were a formal apprentice. Such is life. I am in my early 50s and close to stopping my day job. My current plan is to go back to “school” and study woodworking for a year or two. I am happy with my progress to date (thanks primarily to your online school). I want to further refine my skills and year or two of focused studies under the watchful eyes of others will help. There are quite a few good schools in USA such as Krenov School and North Bennett. I’m even thinking it might be fun to live abroad to study. Do you have any suggestions or tips on how to choose a school to study? I do plan on visiting the places in person before making a decision.

    1. Hi .
      just read about Joe wanting to further is experience in woodwork and looking for a place to learn . If he looks up International Boatbuilding Training College Lowestoft. They offer some good courses not just on boatbuilding but woodworking. I think he will find he can find something.

  4. Thanks again for you posts. I enjoy them greatly.

    I have been woodworking a good number of years as a hobby and spent many hours learning to use a variety of power tools. About 6 years back the last of our kids left home and we chose to live in any apartment community. As you can imagine there is little tolerance for the noise of machines in that environment. Not to mention a lack of room. So I picked up the disciplines of using hand tools and the old ways of woodworking. I never knew how different it was to plane or saw different woods. I can now speak about them and how some are more difficult than others, but most important to me is this intimate relationship with those different woods and the hand tools. I enjoy the hobby far more now.

  5. Hello, Mr. Sellers. I really learned a lot from your videos on WWMC. And your blog posts gives me a kind of completion – this one was as interesting as all the others – it’s always interesting to try to understand people who has an opinion on life and what’s in that life.

    Only the embedded video here doesn’t work. I will surely survive without seeing it, it’s just my curiosity… oh, how I’d love to see what’s in it.

    My regards to you and your team – just go on!

  6. Interesting you mention pulling the plane, I’ve never seen a Japanese woodworker push theirs! I like to pull the plane too but, as a left hander, I always try to switch hands as much as possible and learn to work with my right hand. Over the years, I’ve found it useful to do things both handed where possible as I’m often in a position where I’m using somebody else’s setup and have to adapt or just use the weaker hand. With woodworking, it’s usually the vice or dog holes or whatever securing mechanism used being at the wrong end of the bench for me, or a bevel on a knife setup for a right hander. I read somewhere, sometime, that it was good for your brain to use your weak hand to do things too, although the evidence doesn’t appear to show in me! Thanks for a great post Paul.

    1. Hi Rico,
      Like most I’m right handed but when I’m doing a lot of sawing with a pull saw I often use my left hand to balance things out.

  7. tayler whitehead

    i was lucky, when i trained i had a “Ken”. a patient man who was always ready to steer me in the right direction, never lost his temper and taught me most of what i know. like you paul, i have never forgotten him. often when i come to a problem i ask myself, what would ken do? i am now retired and living my best life. maintaining my house and garden, having a small workshop where i can make “honey do’s”. my last project was a dresser for the kitchen and the complete breakdown and rebuild of two antique mahogany corner chairs. i would hate to think how dull my life would be just sitting still and watching life go by. producing something of beauty is always worth the effort, for the satisfaction it brings,

  8. Like many I went back to woodwork during lockdown. Found your videos and I absolutely love it. Working purely with hand tools is quite peaceful and when people say “Why don’t you use a power sander for that?” I always reply that, instead of making something they could just get in the car and drive to IKEA to buy one.

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