About 10 years ago I was looking for an outlet for my creative energies beyond my day job as a graphic designer. My work provided interesting design challenges on a daily basis but lacked a tactile element that I sorely missed. And the work I produced lacked permanence, mostly marketing materials with a short shelf life. Being a craftsman in an earlier life, I have always been drawn to woodworking and began renovating an outbuilding on my property into a shop, not knowing exactly what kind of woodworking I wanted to do. Some people buy sports cars at their mid-life crisis—I bought a table saw.
Shortly afterward, I took a class on Windsor chairmaking with Mike Dunbar, and I was hooked. I loved the feel of shaping wood and found I was naturally good at it. I loved the process and I loved the idea that the chairs I made would most likely be around long after I was gone. I also loved filling my house with hand made chairs. I went on to take seven classes with Mike.
A couple of years later I took my first class with Brian Boggs. I had been drawn to Brian’s chairs from the first time I saw them, mainly for their beautiful design. The class was a revelation. What I hadn’t anticipated was Brian’s thoughtful and thorough attention to detail in every aspect of chairmaking and design. I learned about steam bending wood. I learned about wood movement and how to use wood’s natural properties to make a tight and lasting joint. I learned how to drill angled mortises into curved parts with incredibly simple jigs. I learned how to shape wood with Brian’s beautifully designed tools made for the purpose. I learned about tool edge geometry and sharpening. I learned what makes a chair comfortable. I was hooked again.
I continued making Windsor chairs and found two instructors (Pete Galbert and Curtis Buchanan) whose philosophy on joinery, design and innovation mirrored that of Brian’s. But I found myself drawn more and more to the ladderbacks. I made four or five variations of that first 2-slat ladderback. A couple of years later I took a two week class with Brian where I learned a simpler version of his signature 3-slat ladderback side chair. Having a good deal of experience at that point, the class reinforced and expanded my knowledge of chairmaking.
I met several people at that class with whom I continue to be in touch, including my good friend Bill Burslem who lives only 20 miles from me. One of the most daunting things for new chairmakers is coming home and equipping the shop with all the custom forms and jigs for making that next chair. As I made the forms and jigs I made an extra set for Bill. Then he and I each built our second 3-slat ladderback together. Over the next year or so several folks from that class traveled to my shop to make jigs and forms and to get a brief refresher on building the chair. Without knowing it, this informal teaching started me on the path to instructor for Brian Boggs Chairmakers.
In 2010 six of us from that 3-slat ladderback class took the 6-slat rocker class with Brian at his shop in Asheville. For woodworking fans of Brian’s furniture building his rocker is the ultimate accomplishment. Brian was giving a second rocker class a couple of months later and asked me to assist him in teaching it. He also asked me to write, illustrate and design a manual to complement the class instruction—sort of class notes on steroids. It’s been a wonderful thing for me to combine my professional graphic design skills with my passion for chairmaking. Over the past two years I have assisted Brian at his classes in Asheville and have also been developing manuals for five different chair classes. The manuals, on average, run about 70 pages each. They free students from having to take detailed notes and allow them to focus their efforts on understanding process and technique.
In 2012 I started teaching Brian’s chairs in my own shop in Strasburg, Virginia. I can work with one or two people at a time so students get a very personalized experience. The work of teaching and the work of writing and illustrating the manuals has forced me to think about each process in detail and how to convey that to a student. In teaching, each process is broken down into discrete steps so that the student is not overwhelmed and can concentrate on one small task at a time. The manuals are written with a similar approach and provide a step-by-step reminder of the things learned in class.
Which brings me to this blog. I see it as an extension and expansion of the work I have done in writing the manuals and teaching. I am hoping to capture the unique knowledge about chair design and construction that Brian has developed over 30 years and present it in a way that will encourage and enable you to design and make your own ladderback chairs. I plan on posting regular, detailed, illustrated explanations of processes and techniques, talk about overarching ideas so that you understand the why and not just the how, and describe the many tools, jigs and forms used in this craft. I will also add resource material such as tool sources and links to articles and videos by Brian. And finally, I am hoping that this becomes a community of sorts with comments, questions, and suggestions coming from you. Stay tuned.
Jeff Lefkowitz | August 12, 2012