Not Your Typical Beginner’s Project – Blacker House Chair
If you were to rank woodworking projects by degree of difficulty, chairs would be at the top of the list. They aren’t like boxes or tables with nice square corners and predictable sizes of component parts – everything on a chair is odd. If you were then to rank chairs by degree of difficulty, those produced in the workshop of Peter and John Hall for the homes designed by Charles and Henry Greene would be at the top of that list. Greene & Greene chairs up the ante considerably; legs are trapezoid or parallelograms and the back crest rails are complex shapes carved out of a four by four, definitely a challenge for even the most experienced woodworker.
At the Lie-Nielsen event here at our shop last week, Chuck Bender tracked me down and told me that a reader had arrived with his version of a Blacker House arm chair. When Chuck told me who the maker was, I was surprised because I had been reading about this project online on the Greene & Greene group on Yahoo! and didn’t realize that the builder was within driving distance.
One of the interesting things about this project is the fact that it is the first piece of furniture made by the builder. I wouldn’t recommend any chair as a first project, and certainly not this one. Fortunately, Jalen Waggoner of Frankfort, Ind., had the determination to ignore that kind of advice and forged ahead. Jalen can do that kind of thing because he is at an age where anything is possible; he just turned 14 a few months ago.
The chair was a project for his school, and in addition to building something he also needed to do research, document the process and write a detailed report. Jalen’s dad, Jeff, provided guidance and use of his shop and tools, but stepped back and let the kid do the work. Jalen sought out advice from experts, ignored them when they said “pick an easier project” and sifted through techniques to come up with ways to make this project manageable. He posted much of the project and the steps he took through a blog on LumberJocks. If you’re wondering how long this took, the project started last summer, and he has about 170 hours into it so far.
This is all impressive stuff, no matter what the age or experience of the maker. Factor in youth and inexperience and it becomes much more so. This is the work of an extraordinary kid, and when a young man is willing to take this kind of risk, ask for help and act on it, produce excellent work and present it in meaningful words and pictures, a lot of the credit has to go to the family that raised him.
It’s easy to be cynical about the future in general and the future of woodworking in particular, until you meet folks like Jalen and his dad. When I first read about this project, I thought it was reaching too far. Seeing this chair in person, and meeting Jalen and Jeff, made my day. And it had the same effect on everyone who got to see it.
The next time you think you can’t do something, that a project is beyond your skills and experience, I hope you’ll remember this example and give it a try. You’ll need to do some research, seek some advice and separate the wheat from the chaff in the answers you receive. You’ll need to stretch yourself and risk wasting some time and material without any guarantee of success. The most rewarding projects I’ve made have been the ones where I’ve gone out on a limb rather than play it safe. I’m grateful that a 14-year-old talked his dad into loading his chair into the car and taking it for a road trip last Friday, and that my original assessment was dead wrong.
Jalen’s chair is entered in a competition with other projects from students that use the same curriculum as his school. In my mind, he’s already won. He has physical evidence of what can be done if you don’t listen to those who say you can’t, do your homework and don’t give up. My only question is the one I asked as we said goodbye: “What next?”
Interested in Greene & Greene? Come join us in Pasadena for Woodworking in America this October. If you can’t make the trip, here are a couple of books available in our store: