The other day I wrote about Robin Wood coming to teach at Plymouth CRAFT’s Greenwood Fest – the other “new” instructor is Curtis Buchanan. It’s yet another great pleasure for me to have Curtis come and join us. I met Curtis in 1987 when I was a student in his first class in making Windsor chairs, at Country Workshops.
If you aren’t up-to-speed on who’s who in American Windsor chairmaking, the best Windsors in modern-day America begin with Dave Sawyer of Vermont. It was Dave who taught Curtis back in the early 1980s; and Curtis took what Dave taught him and ran with it. He’s been making chairs now for 35 years or so…and making just the most beautiful chairs you can imagine. He’s taught all over creation; but rarely if ever goes out on the road anymore to work…so it’s an extra treat to get him up to New England.
Part of what Curtis will be doing at the Fest is demonstrating all the steps in making a basic version of one of his fanback chairs. He calls it a “democratic” chair – in that the tool kit is small, and the operations are simple to learn. But don’t think crude – his chairs are graceful and comfortable beyond expectations. I think he said riving tools, drawknife, brace & bit, and a scorp for the seat. Must be a saw in there somewhere…but not much else. I can’t wait to see it happen. He’ll also teach a short session on his 2nd-favorite tool – using the froe. (the drawknife is his first, but we have Pete Galbert repeating some of what he did this year…)
As he’s working, I betcha Curtis will tell some stories too…
And this from Jon Binzen of Fine Woodworking – “Anyone who has met Curtis will know that it’s as much fun to listen to him as it is to watch him work.” See the audio slideshow they put together during one of the sessions FWW did with Curtis. I had posted this before and described him as the happiest woodworker I know. And I still feel that he’s wrong in this audio, where he’s says “I’m not the best…” – Nonsense, he’s the best. – http://www.finewoodworking.com/2014/10/08/curtis-buchanan-windsor-master
I’m out the door in the AM heading off to MESDA (the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, that is)
so I had no intention of posting a damn thing tonight. Until I opened the physical mail & in it was a tube from Curtis Buchanan – more chair plans. This time his continuous arm chair. I made one of these (I made quite a few of them, but we only have one) in 1992 following plans Curtis gave me then. This photo’s his –
For those of you keeping track of this sort of thing – I didn’t order these from Curtis. He just sent ’em to me. We’re old friends, and he’s a generous guy. So yes, he sent me freebies, and I write about them so you can know about it. BUT he did’t ask, “hey will you write these up?” – he’d never do that. But, I figure you want to know about great hand-tool woodworking. that’s why you’re reading here. If you don’t know Curtis, you will enjoy getting to know him. By now, many of you have seen his home-made videos on Youtube. He just added a slew of them about sharpening. Curtis’ approach is real straightforward. His work is outstanding, just beautiful.
well, not really today, but I have been at the museum for 20 years. I moved my tools down there in April 1994…and since then have concentrated pretty much entirely on 17th-century style English and New England furniture. I love doing it, the stuff is great & there is a lot to learn still…formerly I made ladderback chairs, baskets, Windsor chairs and other “green woodworking” stuff. I set almost all that aside, except for the spoons (done mostly at home) and an occasional basket.
But in recent years, I have had a pull to make other furniture…the catch is at the museum, except in the off-season, I can’t have a bunch of non-17th-c furniture sitting around distracting attention. A further complication is that there is no shop at home. Here’s one reason why:
There are restrictions about what we can build so close to the river. I have never pursued whether or not we can get permission – because I haven’t the time nor money to build anyway…and that’s not even mentioning the need for more room in the house with 2 growing-nearly-8-yr olds.
But these nagging furniture ideas keep coming up, a while back there was an exhibit at Winterthur of Pennsylvania furniture that had lots of stuff I liked. I sort of incorporated some of that into my tool box…but the paint was 17th-c English patterns.
The variety bug has gotten stronger in recent months. A trip to Drew & Louise’s certainly helped it along. I always am drawn to this chair of Drew’s – my all-time favorite of his.
I started one a few winters back, but botched the reaming of the leg mortises in the seat. Might be salvageable…
En route home from Drew’s, I stopped to see Curtis Buchanan…that didn’t stem any tide either.
There’s 4 of us in the household, and we have 4 chairs around the kitchen table. It’s a small kitchen. Forget this trumped-up photo, it doesn’t really look this neat & tidy. We tuck 2 chairs where this stool is…and one at each end.
Three of them are old windsors of mine, from the early 1990s. A bowback sidechair, a sackback armchair, and a continuous armchair. So chair # 4? Something like my wainscot chair is pure stupid for use at the table, when you actually have to use the table for other stuff between meals. Godawful heavy. So that’s out. I have one more windsor, but it’s a high back comback armchair. It’s in the way, so it sits here at my desk. I had a sort of oversized ladderback chair, and everyone here hated it. so the 4th person to the table always got stuck with it & complained. A Boston-style leather chair (see the photo) is comfortable to me, but heavy – and the others don’t like it much. I have a large turned armchair in ash, hickory bark seat. Great chair, literally; but we need another side chair, not another armchair.
Then, a hickory log showed up at work. I thought, “it will bend” – so I decided to try another windsor. I used to really like the fanback sidechair, and I didn’t have one. I think they went to some grandchildren when my mother died. I forget. So I searched around the house & shop for my notes from before 1994. Found some paper patterns, seat shapes, etc for the fanback. but not the whole set.
Got to the shop, and remembered that I had tucked some windsor seat templates behind a bookcase in 1994. The bookcase in this most cluttered section of the shop:
I thought the stuff I wanted was in the corner, so I moved the bundle of rushes, and cleared some room, held my breath & tugged. Out came several plywood (I think you heard me right) templates based on designs Curtis gave me many years ago. Maybe 4 or 5 different chairs. The 7 spindle fanback was one of them. Great. All the angles recorded, spindle & post length.
One night after work, I quickly split and shaved a batch of rough spindles. A breeze down memory lane, working at a shaving horse. Nothing better than good hickory.
Now I have hickory for the spindles, comb, and rear posts. Just gotta shave, turn & otherwise get it together. i’ll figure out the legs & stretchers, but for the seat? I knew there was some chainsaw-milled elm around. Big huge beastly boards. Would require 2 people to sift that pile, dig out those monsters, cut them down to size, etc. I thought I still had a small piece of it around. Found it, but too narrow & cracked. Back to the drawing board. Some 3” thick pine planks around. Seemed extreme.
Oh, well. I shifted my thoughts to the fan – I knew the hickory will make a great fan. But where’s the pattern? Maybe it’s behind the other end of the bookcase. (to the left in the photo) So I moved a huge pile of oak planks, and got near the back of the bookcase. Too dark to see. No flashlight. One of the young guys had a phone with a flashlight on it. Could see something back there, maybe it’s a bending form. Stretched, grunted & pulled.
Out came a fanback sidechair seat – all carved, bored, reamed. WIth a tailpiece. 20+ years old. Older than the kid with the flashlight on his phone.
Curtis is sending the plans with the fan shape, bending form pattern.
Ol’ Daniel would say “It is providential”
much more to this story to come.
PS: There was a comb-back seat also all carved, bored, etc.
My woodworking career began with logs. I first made lots of ladderback chairs for several years, then in 1987 I spent a week as a student in Curtis Buchanan’s first Windsor chair class at Country Workshops, run by Drew Langsner in Marshall, N.C. The following summer, I was an intern at Drew’s place, so got to sit in on Curtis’ next class. That time, I didn’t make the chair again, but tried to soak up the content that was over my head the year before. After that, I would regularly write or call Curtis for more plans, details and chairmaking tips. I eventually made somewhere around 50 Windsors before detouring into joinery and oak furniture. Every blog post I write here is composed while sitting in my copy of Curtis’ comback arm chair that I made about 1990.
I was quite surprised when I opened the mail the other day & received a set of DVDs from Curtis, along with 3 pages of full-sized plans for making the current version of his comback arm chair…
Maybe you’ve seen Curtis’ videos on Youtube, but now you can get the full set directly from him in a binder. It’s broken down into 10 discs, amounting to around 11 hours of video. There is an additional disc that has more than 30 photographic views of the completed chair from almost every conceivable angle. These are home-made videos. If you have ever met Curtis, then you know what to expect. It’s just as if you were watching him explain the process as he makes the chair. I’ve done several how-to videos, and no matter how much practice I have at explaining my craft, to stare into the camera’s lens and talk to it is weird. Curtis tried a professional video production once, but quickly realized that it’s not his style. But don’t confuse informality with un-professional. Curtis really teaches you how he makes this chair, step by step…if I had any room at home, I’d take a shot at making another.
Just to be clear, I did not buy these discs. Curtis sent them to me gratis. I have always been struck by his generosity, and have tried to keep it in mind as I have been an instructor and teacher for the past several years. Curtis always shared his drawings and plans whenever I asked, I remember him telling me that’s what Dave Sawyer did for him, and so he did it for others. For all I know, these videos might still be up on Youtube for free. But if you are interested in chairmaking, or want to be, I’d say buy the set from Curtis. They are very reasonably priced, and if you opt for the drawings too, then you’ll be well on your way. Curtis still teaches down at his home shop in Jonesborough, Tennessee, just about the quaintest place you can imagine. Here’s the link – buy the discs under the tab for “classes” http://www.curtisbuchananchairmaker.com/home.html
One of the best thrills I had in recent years was when I taught a box-making class at Drew’s and Curtis came to be a student. After 20 years, I finally had something I could give him.