Wednesday, 20 August 2014

The plane maker

So a day or so after being in Virginia, then Tennessee and North Carolina, we headed South again in to South Carolina and to the home of Caleb James. I'd first heard of Caleb through Pete Galbert's blog. Then again when I found that Caleb was doing the drawings for Curtis Buchanan's Comb Back and Continuous Arm Chair plans. 

One look at the Danish furniture and cord weaving produced by Caleb and it's clear to see why Pete was so impressed with Caleb's ability. 

So when I was talking of my trip further South, Pete suggested a visit to Caleb would be worth the miles.

He wasn't wrong. Jeff and I arrived late morning and were shown down to Caleb's basement workshop by Caleb's wife Tracy. No dark undercroft here though. It's a light filled timber lined long room looking out to the greenery beyond. It's quite an inviting space. 

As with a fair few other American chair makers I've met, it was interesting to see where our paths had crossed, both with Curtis and Pete. But it seems to be a familiar trait in this field with people I've met recently and has been the case as far as I know back to the early 1980's and no doubt prior. Whether that original contact was someone like Drew Langsner, Dave Sawyer or another pioneering worker of wood, it's amazing to see what a definitive effect it has on an individual's life and not just their career. It's a great thing.

What did surprise me in a way was that despite Caleb's obvious natural talent for making chairs, it appears that he is going to focus primarily on making hand planes. Well to be a little more precise, it surprised me until I looked into his tool chest and saw this.

A few moments later after asking if I could try a little coffin shaped smoother, it was clearly obvious why Caleb should concentrate on planes. They're awesome. Comfortable in the hand and beautifully detailed and proportioned. So good in fact that the smoother came home with me. 

Here it is today being used to tidy up the spindle deck of a Windsor chair I'm making

There's evidence of a good deal of forward planning too, as neatly stacked piles of beech abound in the workshop,

Most destined for the sets of moulding planes that Caleb is rapidly becoming well known for.

Caleb also spoke of his thoughts of potentially running classes in his workshop in future, teaching the making of Danish styled furniture and of course planes. A no brainer in my book. To spend a few days learning what Caleb knows would be good value for money in anyones language. We finished our visit with a culinary highlight of the trip, a mexican lunch prepared by Tracy, which was that good I would have taken a picture of that too, if it were not for good manners!

I also learnt that Caleb and Tracy have relatives in Australia. I hope they drop in and visit next time they're in my neck of the woods.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Country Workshops

With sadness I read Peter Follansbee's blog post on the terrible loss of Naomi Langsner's husband Teo Reha in a logging accident. Particularly as I had spent time at Country workshops only a few weeks prior myself.

Out of respect to the Langsner family I'll keep my post on Jeff and my visit to Country workshops brief.

On leaving John and Nancy's home, we merely made a right hand turn from their driveway onto the Langsner's and wound our way up to the workshop. A beautiful old two story barn style building looking squarely down a valley in the Southern Appalachian mountains 

We arrived knowing that Drew was running a class that day, but had still welcomed us to visit. We spent a little over an hour there that day. 

Drew took time from his class to talk with us, which I'm very grateful for. In that short time we covered a lot of ground, classes, shaving mules and a lot of other stuff in between. And just as I've seen previously, you can see and sense the passion Drew speaks with when talking about what happens within those walls.

But outside of the conversations, just being there, in a place that has been the source of inspiration for so many others before me, was quite something. I'm sure I'll be back there sometime. There's too much to learn from Drew not to.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Carolina In My Mind

Unlike James Taylor's well known song, I didn't have to go to Carolina in my mind, we had Jeff's Toyota Tacoma pickup and after leaving the familiar ground of Jonesborough we headed for the mountains of North Carolina and the home of John Kraus. 

I had only heard of John and the spokeshaves he's renowned for, through the grapevine a few years ago. Then while Jeff and I were discussing our trip South he suggested we drop in visit him on our way to visit Drew Langsner at Country Workshops. No brainer, especially when I was to find out that he literally lived next door.

The road to John and his partner Nancy Darrell's house is a long and winding drive through the Southern Appalachian countryside. I made mention a few posts back on just how thick and lush the forests of the East coast are when I was staying in Massachusetts. There was certainly no difference here in North Carolina, if anything it's even more intense.

John greeted us at the door like I'd known him for a lifetime and before I knew it Jeff and I were standing in his small workshop attached to the side of his home, looking over some of his spokeshaves and other tools. John's workspace, although compact is a tour de force of interesting bits and pieces sitting on shelves, hanging from hooks or leaning in corners. And that's exactly where I saw the first of John's long bows. A beautiful example leaning behind the door.

Made from Osage Orange, which apparently is relatively plentiful in the area, this long bow was a thing of simple beauty. Before I knew it, we were outside the workshop and John was letting loose with a few arrows. John then bought out a few miniature bows that he'd made to study the various forms of long bows before he made full size versions. 

 Mid sized

They were perfect scale bows in their own right. It was a theme that I was to find repeated itself throughout the day.

Jeff and I were then treated to great home cooked lunch with Nancy and John. I was really starting to become accustomed to this Southern hospitality. Inside the house are examples of both nancy and John's incredible craftsmanship.

Nancy's lamp ceramic shade

 Everything from early ceramics by Nancy, to chairs and baskets made by John. Amongst a ceiling full of baskets, one stood out. It was a Nantucket style basket handmade by John. 

I said at the time and I still think it was one of the most impressive and beautiful objects I'd seen to that point of the trip. Perfect proportions, impeccably woven and the finest steam bent oak handle. It was all there.

After lunch Nancy took us for a tour of her new house in the making. A combination of solid timber framing and a contemporary framed home, it was an impressive building.

 At the rear at ground level was a drive through area which Nancy had said they had contemplated using as a workspace. 

That's where I noticed the superb joinery in the frame. 

Further down the hill we came to Nancy's workshop. Nancy's focus at present is relief printing, primarily with hand carved wood blocks. Her work was stunning. As I knew I was going to miss Lisa's birthday, I made a point of picking out a couple of Nancy's relief prints for her. 

Then there was a wood cut of John called 'feeding the birds,' which I couldn't resist.... so that was added to the list.

Heading back up to meet John at his workshop, I mentioned the detail of the frame in the new house. With that, John said, "well you'll like these then," and pulled out a miniature of the very joint I had seen in the house.

It was a great little working model and again showed a lot about John's approach to wood working. You could see that he thought out every detail of anything he made. And that thought process showed in the final product. Everything he made was beautifully rendered. Real honest attention to detail, a reflection of John himself.

I couldn't buy one of John's shaves whilst I was there as he didn't have any available, but a day or so later John rang to say that he managed to find one that he said he could send me. So as I type I'm patiently awaiting the arrival of that tool. It will be a great reminder of a highlight of my trip down South. Thanks John and Nancy.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Back to the beginning

Sunday morning, Jeff and I threw our bags into the back of his pickup and headed South on Highway 81. And notwithstanding essential coffee breaks, that's where we stayed for another 320miles. We were both doing something that we had not done before. Taking a road trip to visit and meet with chair and furniture makers alike and draw some inspiration from the innovative things they are all doing.

First stop, Jonesborough, Tennessee. The home of Curtis Buchanan. It had been 5 years since I had last seen Curtis's workshop. I had made my first Windsor chair there, a Continuous Arm Chair. I'm happy to say that with the exception of a new verandah on the side, nothing had changed. 

The same went for Curtis and Marilyn, who were their friendly and happy selves. It was great to sit around the table and catch up on about 5 years of goings on. Curtis's passion for his chairs and now the series of Windsor Chair plans he has started to produce and sell has certainly not waned either. It was the first time I had seen the plans first hand and I have to say that Caleb James, who drew them on behalf of Curtis, has excelled himself. The perspective that Caleb has managed to capture is outstanding.

 In fact the copy that I bought from Curtis may just end up on the workshop wall in a frame....

I could ramble on for ages about how enjoyable our time in the Buchanan household was, a wonderful dinner and a breakfast fit for royalty, but by far the most enjoyable part for me was the ability to able to talk to Curtis about his chairs, compare notes on joinery techniques and understand what was inspiring him at this point in his chair making career. 

After 30 odd years of making Windsors, it was apparent that Curtis was still experimenting and innovating. Whether it was the process he was now using to fit stretchers or hearing him excitedly recount mastering a new turning technique, it was all music to my ears. It reconfirmed for me what I learnt 5 years ago in the same place. Curtis was meant to make Windsor chairs.

Before we had to leave for our next leg of the journey Curtis made time to run through some plans for a new barstool he was developing and a few other things. Again a familiar theme reappeared. Sharing of information. Curtis retrieved a pile of plans and openly offered them to me to copy. Just the same as Pete few weeks earlier. Just the same as John Wilson the box maker ( & Curtis too on the same trip ) had done also, back in 2009. It's generous, selfless and inspiring. But aside from this, an interesting piece of  information came to light. In amongst the pile of plans was a small seat pattern for the Perch stool.

I had always known that the Perch was a collaboration between Pete Galbert and Curtis and that Dr.Galen Cranz had also played a part in it's design. But as it turned out, the plan I was looking at was the original developed on that day and clearly written on the plan was "for Hannah." 

Curtis explained that Hannah was the student who had come up with the original concept. It was certainly different from the plan I use today, which was given to me by Pete, but you could see the origins right there on that piece of card. It will make a nice addition to the introduction I give on the Perch at the start of the course I teach on the subject back home.

It had been 5 years since I first met Curtis. That trip had a profound effect on me. I returned home and began making chairs. Within a short period of time we sold our home in the suburbs and relocated to Kyneton in Victoria's Central Highlands. I resigned from my job and began teaching Windsor Chair making myself. We opened our shop and started our business.

We now teach around 100 Australians a year how to make Windsor chairs and stools, Shaker Oval boxes and Coopered Wooden Buckets. We encourage them all to keep making things long after they have left our workshop.We hope they are inspired when they leave. We encourage them all to share what they have learnt from us. We essentially try to do what Curtis did for me. 

I didn't make a chair with Curtis this time round, but I left just as inspired and content as if I'd just made ten. Thanks Curtis.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Square pegs

2 slat greenwood style chair

On the 5th day it was time to weave the seat of the chair and attend to the finishing touches, such as glueing leather pads on the bottoms of the legs and fitting the wooden pegs through the slats into the back posts. As my chair was not glued up Jeff gave me one of the 'greenwood' style chairs he had made some time ago to weave in its place.

Drill, square drive, round depth stop and jig for marking drilling positions

First Jeff showed us the process of marking drilling and fitting the square pegs into the slats of the back posts/legs.

 After marking out and drilling, the square end of an old brace style drill bit is driven into the hole, forming a nice square looking mortise. Square pegs a little less than an inch long are then roughly sharpened into semi- round shapes, but left square at the end where they will be visible above the face of the post. 

They are driven in dry and left proud about an 1/8" above the face of the post.  A simple carving knife fashioned out of a marking knife is then used to taper the tops of the pegs into a nice little pyramid shape. It's a great finishing touch.

Nice carving Tony.

Hickory bark is an interesting medium. In fact I don't really think I've used anything similar, perhaps with the exception of leather. Hard when dry, the bark becomes completely pliable and leather like after soaking in water for a number of hours. 

A few future seats worth of dry bark

Being a natural product, the variation in bark thickness and width was immediately apparent and made it interesting to try and get an even looking pattern as the weaving progressed. 

Here you can see the variation in colour between the far right and the rest of the chair.

Curtis had told me a long time ago that Brian Boggs had developed a bark processing machine that produced an exceptionally well finished product. Slicing the bark first into the correct width, it then removed the rough outer layer before splitting the remaining inner bark into two grades of weaving bark. It also wound it conveniently into a roll for drying. 

Said contraption.

Unfortunately Brian does not use the machine much anymore and the product it produced was no longer available. It's a pity as a rocking chair of Jeff's was woven with that product, and the difference was immediately apparent when you compared the two.

Jeff's rocker with Brian's machine cut bark

Jeff first ran us through the terminology of weaving, warps and and wefts and then gave us a brief demonstration before we began weaving ourselves. Jeff was also keen to point out that he had only ever had one previous student who had managed to weave a seat without making a mistake. That sounded like a fair challenge.

On the home straight.

I don't know that it took us too long to weave our respective seats, but it certainly didn't take Jeff long to notice that I had made a mistake in the pattern. Damn. Well, there goes that record attempt. Tony on the other hand managed to get through the entire seat without making the same error. Fortunately though, Jeff showed us how to rectify the mistake and after some clever adjustments it was back to being a perfect pattern.  

That evening we said goodbye to Tony and his chair as he started out on the long drive back to Massachusetts. It was a great week spent with a talented woodworker. He even introduced me to the famous (infamous?) Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwich….. which I'm still not sure about?? I'm looking forward to seeing where his two weeks with Pete Galbert and Jeff lead him in the future.

Day six was a packing day. Thankfully Jeff was used to packing chairs for shipping and with some combined effort we managed to pack my chair and a good deal of parts and components for jigs into two boxes ready for the flight back to Australia. The next morning we intended to set off on a journey further South that neither Jeff nor I had previously done. A chair makers pilgrimage of sorts.........