by Elia Bizzarri
from the November 2011 issue
I slept on a cot in the loft of the shop, cooked on a portable burner, and walked my dirty dishes through the garden to the basement sink. Curtis Buchanan walked in at seven one morning to discover white splotches on a pair of freshly painted chairs waiting to be delivered. Oatmeal-water splotches. He tried re-oiling, steel-wooling and every trick learned in his 25-year-career.
For the unfortunate reader who has never seen Curtis’s black-on-red paint job: It is a stunningly beautiful finish. It’s also a laborious undertaking involving five coats of paint, finger-numbing rubbing with steel wool, then several coats of oil followed by rubbing, wax and more rubbing. So when Curtis said there was nothing for it – I would have to scrape the seat down to bare wood so he could repaint it – I knew how much work that meant for him. But he didn’t tell me to cook outside from now on; he never said a recriminating word.
Several years earlier Curtis had agreed to have me – a 17-year-old kid – spend a week in his Jonesborough, Tenn., Windsor chair shop. I split logs for him and he showed me a few things. I became Curtis’s sole apprentice, though my position was never formalized. Ours was a relationship built on trust, not on words or papers.
Curtis is, in 18th-century terms, my Master, but I also learned from others. With the housewrights at Colonial Williamsburg, I handplaned the doors for Payton Randolph’s purple storage shed. Arranged by Roy Underhill, that opportunity had its start years earlier:
“That’s Roy Underhill!” shouted my mother, as we walked through Colonial Williamsburg. With her more-than-slightly embarrassed son in tow, she proceeded to explain to the ever-interrupted Roy that her 8-year-old son watches “The Woodwright’s Shop” every week and loves building things. Then she asked a question no sane 20th-century mother would ask: “Where can Elia get a woodworking apprenticeship?”
Perhaps fate and mothers walk hand-in-hand. I now teach at Roy’s Woodwright’s School.
If there is one iconic tool of the chairmaker, it is the drawknife. In my youth, both Drew Langsner and John Alexander taught me the tool’s use; I had the drawknife licked – or so I thought.
In Jonesborough, Curtis effortlessly whittled a complicated chair spindle, handed me the drawknife, and told me to make him some spindles. The firewood box claimed my first three; the rest had some slight potential. Four or five years later, I was making spindles as fine as Curtis’s and I was happy.
One January I embarked on my Great Northern Tour, the ultimate goal being the Vermont home of Curtis’s mentor, Dave Sawyer. Dave is an MIT graduate who builds a chair like a Ford truck – precisely by the plans. He wanted me to carve spindles. No problem, I thought. I’ve whittled hundreds of spindles. The first took 10 minutes and landed in the wood stove; the next claimed 15 minutes with a similar end; the third took 20 minutes only to join its charred and flaming friends. Dave said, “I carve spindles – ‘whittling’ sounds rough, like a Boy Scout with a pocket-knife.”
Slowly, I realized that craftsmanship is not a destination, but a road to be traveled. Rather a pretty drive, but with detours, potholes and the occasional oatmeal splatter. PWM
Elia is a professional Windsor chairmaker who lives and works in Chatham County, N.C .
Editor’s Note: In conjunction with Wood & Shop Productions, we are happy to announce that Elia has just completed a video on building a continuous arm Windsor rocking chair – eight hours of detailed instruction!