Chair Stories: My Friend, The Bluesman

John Dee’s 90th Birthday Party

The phone rings.  I put down my red chair-order book, lean forward in my chair, lift the receiver.  
“John Dee died last night.”

What do you say when a 92 year old man dies?  I mumble that I am sorry. But what am I sorry about?  We hang up and I go back to my order book, mechanically thumbing the pages till I find the right entry.  Lexington Green.  I always double-check the paint color before I paint a chair.

I lean back in my chair and look out the window, the side window of our house. My truck is parked in the driveway next to my wife’s car.  I think back six years ago, to the time when John Dee Holman got into my truck for the first time:

“Four on the floor and a fifth under the seat!,” he said, noticing my gear shift. I was learning he had a saying for everything. A month before, John Dee and his wife had moved to a house three miles from me.  I had seen him sing the blues for years, but had only just met them the month before.   We drove to the auto parts store, talking about the condition of the road and the tunes on the radio.

“The spark from this plug kills old Arthur,”  John Dee told the teller as he handed me a new spark plug.  “It’ll make you jump, but it sure does fix the arthritis.”

On the way back to John Dee’s house,  he told me how to cure constipation and catch snakes.  We listened to 8-Track Flashback on the radio while he put the spark plug in my generator.  It still wouldn’t start. I went home, happy.

As I sat looking out the window remembering this story and others, remembering the times he sat in my shop playing his guitar, his daughter-in-law frying fish outside, people dancing, talking and eating,  I realized why I was so sad.  John Dee and Joan had welcomed me into a group of people and a culture that was far different than my own.  Welcomed me with open arms. We had eaten food together, danced together and laughed together. My friends and his friends had become friends. Thank you John Dee.


Posted in Chair Stories

Reject Baseball Bats Turned Chair Legs

Brian Boggs called one afternoon a couple months ago. “There are two 18-wheeler loads of green hard maple baseball bat blanks and scraps at this mill in Pennsylvania I just left,” he said. Alexa spouted directions in the background as he made his way back to the hotel. “I haven’t made Windsor chairs in over 20 years, but I know good chair legs when I see them. First the bat blanks are split from a log, then they go through a big saw that cuts parallel with the riven surface, then they go through a doweling machine to turn them to 3″ diameters.”

If it had been anyone else calling, I probably wouldn’t have given it much thought. But Brian should know what he’s talking about. And the stuff is green (unseasoned). So I ordered a pallet of 207 reject 38″ bat blanks – 2500# worth – that had been graded to be knot free in 22″ chair leg lengths.

It seems like pretty good stuff. Seth and I rejected 60 blanks due to grain run-out issues. The remainder seem to have chair part lengths with straighter grain than most clear lumber would have, but not always quite as straight as the riven blanks we make. I’ve turned a couple chair legs from it, without a hint of tear-out (see photos below). Read more ›

Posted in Chairmaking Tools and Supplies

A Day in Curtis’s Shop

I spent two days with Curtis Buchanan, Marilyn and Summer last week, visiting and hanging out in the shop.  This was my first trip playing with my new fancy-pants camera – here’s some photos I took.

Curtis’s garden on the evening I arrived.

Through the trellis….

….to the shop.

Read more ›

Posted in Chair Stories

The Drawknife I Love

Troy and his wife picked up a set of four loop backs and one continuous arm last week. Troy took a class from me a couple years ago – my chairs will join his chair to form a complete set of six. His a story of his chairs:

Drawknives are the tool I’d collect if I ever start collecting tools, which I never will. The emblematic tool of the chairmaker, drawknives turn rough splits into nearly finished parts quickly and precisely. Making spindles for two chairs using my favorite drawknife, I remembered the day I bought it.

It was 6:30 in the morning, and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I was sixteen and surrounded by thousands and thousands of tools. Nearly a hundred antique tool dealers had converged on Ed Hobb’s Raleigh, NC farmyard, tailgates and tables overflowing with tools for coopers and blacksmiths, wheelwrights and machinists, carpenters and sawyers.

An old cardboard box on a tarp behind someone’s truck was labeled “$10 each — 4 for $20.” It was loaded with tools. On top was a drawknife. The drawknife was rusty, its wooden handles missing. But I can make handles. The steel looked good, the shape was right. I rubbed away some rust to reveal the maker’s stamp. “PEXTO,” I later learned, stands for Peck, Stowe and Wilcox, a prolific tool manufacturer that in 1902 grossed over a million dollars in sales.

Back home, I turned hickory handles on my spring-pole lathe, a foot-powered lathe I made from a bungee cord, a rope and a forked branch. I used scraps of copper plumbing pipe as ferrules to keep the handles from splitting, then drove them into place on the drawknife’s tangs. An hour spent sharpening the edge, and it was a drawknife again.

I have whittled thousands of spindles with that drawknife over the last twenty years. Oil from my hands has turned the handles a deep mahogany color. The blade is polished to a high sheen with hundreds of sharpenings. I own over a dozen drawknifes, but this is the knife I love.

Posted in Chair Stories

French Spoons with Jane Mickelborough

“What did you do during the pandemic, ”  friends will soon be asking.  Now you can have a good answer:  “I made a set of French eating spoons for our dining table.”  Boy, will they be impressed.

First we’ll learn to carve a French eating spoon.  Then we’ll learn to decorate it with wax inlay. Incredibly detailed wax inlay. We’ll have little clips of Jane doing the work so you can see how it’s really done, then you can watch me try.  The best part is watching Jane grimace as I struggle – we’ll laugh a lot and learn a lot too.  What could be better?

Part 1: April 10th, 10am Eastern

We split the blank from a maple log and carve it with drawknife and shave horse, knife and gouge. Jane has developed a carving process that allows the blank to be easily held in a conventional shaving horse. She’ll also demonstrate using a paroir de sabotier (clog-maker’s knife) to carve a spoon.

Part 2: April 24th, 10am Eastern

After the final shaping of the spoon blank, Jane shows us a variety of chip carving techniques. Then we fill the carvings with wax inlay, just like the traditional French spoon carvers.

Visit the webpage to register.

In Jane’s words:  I am fascinated by wooden spoons–what appear to be simple, everyday objects are, in fact, very subtle three-dimensional shapes. Ten years ago I discovered the tradition of spoon carving here in Brittany, NW France, where I live.

Back in the 18th – 19th centuries these beautiful boxwood spoons were made to be taken to religious festivals and to weddings. Everyone had to take their own spoon and knife. This seems to have evolved into “who’s got the best spoon?”

While these spoons were fairly simple shapes, the handles were richly decorated with metal and wax inlays. It’s this shape of spoon we shall be making in these two classes.

Posted in Classes Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,

Clogs and Coracles

For being in the middle of a pandemic, my life is pretty full.  Tools and chairs have been selling better than ever in my career. I have made over 200 reamers in the last 12 months and am about to run out again – whew!  The online classes are doing well and have been a wonderful way to collaborate with people that I have admired for years.  Who would have thought a pandemic would bring us together? 

Here are a couple short British Pathe films of English craftsmen. They thoroughly amused me.  You can watch them both in about 6 minutes:

Coracles! They make a basket and go fishing for salmon in it. Really cool.

I’ve always been fascinated by clog making – it’s like a chair seat for your feet. The tools are super cool too.

Posted in Craft Films

Velda’s Chair Class with Curtis Buchanan



I first made one of Curtis Buchanan’s  Velda’s Chairs about six or eight years ago when a neighbor came by my shop and ordered two bar stools and a settee in Velda’s style. They wanted the chairs unpainted, so I drove three hours to find walnut seats big enough, only to discover they had been case-hardened in a kiln. They warped like potato chips when I carved them. I tried everything I could think of and finally got them flat again. The chairs turned out quite well and I have since made a dozen or so and taught a class at Anderson Ranch on making them.  That class was three weeks long – it’s a big chair.

I’m excited to be teaching this chair online with Curtis, starting in April.  Here’s the details:

Biweekly Saturdays from April 3rd through August 7th, 2pm Eastern

One of Curtis’ most popular chairs, Velda’s Chair has rarely been offered as a class–until now! Curtis and I team up for a 10-episode series to build both the arm chair and rocker versions of Velda’s Chair. We’ll show every aspect of building the chair, from procuring wood through the final assembly. The exact tasks that we cover in a given class may get massaged around a little as we go along, but we promise to finish in 10 episodes. Visit my website to register.

Here’s a few video clips from the Democratic Chair series with Curtis (filmed at the Woodwright School because my internet was out):

Using a Bowsaw (or turning saw):

Scorp Work:

Drawknife Cuts on the Seat:

Posted in Classes

Chairmaker’s Woodturning Class, plus Bowl Carving with Dave Fisher

I remember the day I first heard of Dave Fisher.  I was standing in front of my shop talking with one of my students about Instagram and he mentioned Dave Fisher.  He seemed surprised that I’d never heard of him, so he pulled out his phone and started looking for Dave’s Instagram account. 

This is usually a non-starter for me. Most of the time I find myself gritting my teeth as I peer over the person’s shoulder at a tiny screen.  But Dave Fisher’s work was different.  Beautiful flowing curves and crisp tool marks filled the screen.  They were, quite simply, the most beautiful wooden bowls I had ever seen.  Beautifully photographed too!

Then Curtis Buchanan met him at Greenwood Fest and kept telling me what a nice guy he is.   He’s been high up on my list of people I’d like to meet ever since.  I am thrilled that he has agreed to teach a three-part bowl carving class with me.   We’ll meet virtually for the first time during the class in a couple weeks.

The week before Dave’s class, I’m going to teach a class on Woodturning for Chairmakers. I’ve been intimidated about teaching woodturning online, but during the reamer class I realized that we have so many cameras that in some ways it might be better than learning in person. You can go practice, then watch the recording, then repeat over and over till you can turn your brain off and just turn. Here’s the scoop:


We’ll talk about turning green and dry wood, and look at how different wood species work in the lathe. Setting up the lathe will be discussed and we’ll look at a few different home-made tool rests. Techniques for sharpening and using the roughing gouge, spindle gouge, parting tool and skew chisel will be shown in detail. Elia will then turn samples of double-bobbin, baluster and bamboo chair legs and answer all your questions. $40 or pay-what-you-can – register on my Online Classes page.


In this first session, we’ll begin with the orientation of the future bowl in the log. We’ll go on to prepare the blank and use a compass in various ways to establish reference points for a symmetrical layout. We’ll learn adze and gouge technique for creating the hollow. We’ll leave time for questions and discuss managing green wood before and during the carving stages. $40 or pay-what-you-can- register on my Online Classes page.


In this session, we’ll layout the foot on our still-green blank and learn a systematic approach to sculpting the complex exterior surfaces with an axe, a drawknife, and a gouge. Alternative tools and methods will also be discussed. We will take time to discuss drying procedures and other considerations to avoid cracking. Again, we’ll leave time for discussing questions thoroughly. $40 or pay-what-you-can – register on my Online Classes page.


After two weeks of drying, the green-carved bowls will be ready for the final transformation. We’ll learn various holding strategies as we refine the hollow and flatten the bottom. We’ll also explore various texturing options and fluting as we finish the side and end surfaces. We’ll refine the upper rim and cut the important final chamfers. We’ll also briefly explore various decorative options. Oil finishing will be discussed and there will be time for questions. $40 or pay-what-you-can – register on my Online Classes page.

Posted in Classes

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