Last week I was at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking teaching a dozen woodworkers how to make a chair. Usually when I teach I write about the class ahead of time, but this was different from the norm. I was asked to fill in for another instructor who couldn’t make it to the sold-out class. I’ve been teaching at MASW for almost 10 years now, and I was flattered to be asked to fill in. The chair in question is an interpretation of a side chair from the Gamble house.
The challenge for me was to teach a class in building something that I had never built before. I’ve made (and taught) chairs and I’ve made (and taught) Greene & Greene pieces before, but I’ve never made this particular chair. In my mind it wasn’t that big of a deal; in my entire career as a woodworker, the best pieces I’ve made are the things I had never made before. Yes, I was going out on a limb, but I have a lot of experience being out on a limb. Marc Adams had confidence in me as did the students, so why should I have any doubts? For me the most important part of teaching woodworkers is to give a good example of the problem-solving process. That’s what making furniture is all about; making reasonable choices from a bunch of available options.
My goal for this class wasn’t to send the students home with a finished chair, it was to send them home equipped to make as many chairs as they needed. Several of the students had committed before the class to making sets of chairs on their return home. I wasn’t the only one out on a limb; some had committed to their loved ones to make four, nine and even a dozen chairs. Taking on a challenge when you’re not entirely convinced of your capabilities is the best way to take your skills to the next level.
It also increases your problem-solving skills and your ability to develop a workable strategy. We spent a lot of time talking about “what do we do when we get home and don’t have access to the Multi-Router?”. We also spent a lot of time discussing the options to make certain parts and certain joints with the resources available at the school. There were a few occasions where my assistant Zane Powell or the students presented a better method than what I had planned. That’s one of my favorite parts of teaching. I get to learn something I hadn’t thought of.
Working alone, solving problems by trial and error is the way I (and many other woodworkers) develop skills. If you learn that way, you must gain the ability to view the errors as learning opportunities, and the ability to prevent errors by thinking through the process. In this project we started with relatively simple mortise and tenon joints. As the stacks of raw wood looked more and more like finished chairs, the degree of difficulty increased.
Working in a group, you don’t have to make all the errors yourself to learn something new, and you aren’t stuck with only the solutions your thinking provides. Building a chair puts you in a position where you have to think “outside the box” and a good group makes that easier. We had a great group for this class and one of the things I saw was individuals proving they understood a step by explaining it to someone else.
By the end of the week, everyone in the class arrived at what you see in the photo at left, or very close. There is still a lot of work to do to call it a “finished” chair, but what remains is taking parts that fit nicely together and making them look nicer. That’s a matter of rounding edges and smoothing surfaces, a process more tedious than demanding. The joinery is tricky, and at the end of the class one of the students said “you really had us scared a couple of times, we didn’t think we’d be able to do that. But those are the parts where I learned the most”.
Almost every problem in woodworking comes down to this: this piece goes here, that piece goes there, and the other one goes in between. If you can figure out where each piece goes all you have to do is figure out the way they connect, lay out the connections and cut to the lines. The essential process is the same whether you’re making the cross rail fit between the front legs at a right angle, or you’re fitting the back splats that curve in one direction to the crest rail that curves in the other direction.
In this chair, we needed to fit some parts together to give us a reliable reference for where the other parts go. Some of that went quickly and some parts took a while. Eventually you need to make a leap of faith and cut the pieces. That leap is easier when you take it a step at a time and work with what you already have together. Then you’re simply cutting to a line. That’s the most basic task in woodworking.
I’ll be back at MASW next spring, click here for information about the upcoming Stickley Poppy Table class.