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Chair classes are like soap operas. There are long periods where everything is reasonable and rational. And those are punctuated by brief forays into the bizarre, unreal or macabre.

As we close in on assembling our sack back chairs this week, several things are becoming obvious. First: With every minute that passes you are out further on a tightrope over the falls. One small slip, and you could bring the whole thing crashing down.

And second: The architects of the class at The Windsor Institute have carefully orchestrated every aspect of the class. We were being manipulated (I think), and we are thrilled about it.

Let’s talk about the second obvious thing: Being a Windsor puppet.

We spent the first day roughing out the spindles for our chairs with a drawknife and spokeshave. It was brutal work. In many cases, the rough blanks we worked looked like firewood and driftwood had a baby, and the infant was pure evil.

These blanks were wettish red oak, but they still managed to tear out, splinter, fracture and rupture no matter what you did to them. After a whole day of working the spindles, we were all ready to check out.

The next day, we roughed out the seats. Wednesday was spent on the arms.

Today we circled back around to the finishing the spindles to a fairly complex vase shape. And at first there was dread in the air. But the surprising thing was how easy the task was. Students were flying through the spindles. We were done in a couple hours, tops.

What happened? It’s obvious now. All the brutal and seeming unnecessary shaping work on Monday gave us the germ of the skill we needed to shape the spindles to final shape on Thursday. A few days of germination allowed the skill to seep from our head to our hands. Was this intentional? I don’t know. Is it genius? Absolutely.

As to the high-wire act, we had a few scares today. My father split his arm when he was drilling one of the holes for his spindles. The able assistants, Fred and Don, rushed over with the very encouraging comment: “Wow. I’ve never seen that before!”

Of course, it was an easy fix. Cyanoacrylate can fix many problems.

Other students had chairs with holes that were poorly positioned. Warped arms. Spindles that were as straight as a pig’s lower intestine (confession: that was me).

But almost everything went together today. We’re one small step away from completing our chair. But I know that I am also one small hammer blow away from turning the sucker into firewood.

– Christopher Schwarz

Other Mind-altering Woodworking Resources I Recommend

– “Measure Twice, Cut Once” by Jim Tolpin

– “Oak: The Frame of Civilization” by William Bryant Logan

– “A Reverence for Wood” by Eric Sloane

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Showing 6 comments
  • Bill Siegl

    Is it possible the spindles were easier to finish because they were now dry? I’ve made 3 chairs with Joe Graham in Ohio and they always seemed to have grain problems when green but finish better when dried over a stove for 4 days.

    Bill Siegl

    PS I can’t imagine doing spindles without a shaving horse

  • Fred


    It was great having you in for a class. We have as much fun as the students. Your comments remind me of what it was like being a student. A little scary on Monday but great on Friday, with a great looking comfortable chair,and a few new friends.

    Hope to see you up here again soon.


  • Ron

    "But I know that I am also one small hammer blow away from turning the sucker into firewood."

    That incident with the plane is going to follow you to the grave. :^)

    I gotta ask; you’re only going to make ONE chair?

  • Minnesota Grant

    Hey Chris,
    Thanks for blogging about your VACATION week at the institute. I have been contemplating vacationing there for quite some time now, so it is nice to get your take on it.
    More blood & gore & barley pop. What’s not to like?
    Just one thing…. You are killing me with all of your great book recommendations! Where am I going to put[hide from my wife so she doesn’t throw me out]all of these books?

  • Steve

    Strictly speaking, the LOWER intestine is pretty straight. It’s the UPPER intestine that’s all twisted up…

  • Dan Pope

    I am reminded of the opening scene from "The Patriot" where Mel Gibson gingerly lowers himself into a Windsor chair that collapses under his weight. It joined a stack of other failures in the corner. He just needed a class at The Windsor Institute.

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