A Chairmaker’s Tour, Day 1

I had the great pleasure recently of having Glen Rundell, a chairmaker and teacher from Australia, come to my shop to learn how to build a 3-slat post & rung side chair. Glen took his first chair class with Curtis Buchanan in 2009. It was life-changing experience that directly led him to leave his job of 18 years in Melbourne, sell his home in the suburbs, and move himself and his family to the Victoria Central Highlands town of Kyneton where he began making Windsor chairs to sell and teaching others how to build Windsor chairs and Shaker boxes. To further diversify his business Glen and his wife, Lise, also sell local handcrafts and on Friday and Saturday nights empty all the tables and open a wine bar called The Chairmakers Wife that sells local wine and cider. In an unusual twist the bar is BYOF, or bring your own food. Glen is the bartender. As if Glen weren’t busy enough this past March he and Lise promoted the Lost Trades Fair which had 35 participants demonstrating and selling hand made crafts including coopering, chairmaking, tool making, fletchering (arrow making) and many more skills that are in danger of dying out. The Fair was a great success with 7,500 visitors to this town of 6,000. Plans are underway for a second Fair in March 2015 with 100 participants. Sometime after Glen’s class with Curtis he also took a class with Pete Galbert, the well-known Windsor chairmaker, tool designer, and soon to be author. Glen began this trip to the U.S. by visiting and staying with Pete in his Sterling, Massachusetts home. During his visit he got to hang out with Pete, visit the home of tool seller Patrick Leach, attend a huge flea market in Brimfield, Mass., and even spend two days in Maine at the Lie-Neilsen Open House rubbing shoulders with woodworking luminaries.

While I was communicating with Glen about his class I suggested that while he was on this side of the world we might want to take a trip down to Asheville, North Carolina (only 400 miles from my shop!) so that he could meet Brian. That was the beginning of what turned into a five day, 1,500 mile tour of chairmakers, toolmakers, teachers, and even a sawyer, in Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina.

Before departing Glen needed to box up his chair for the flight home. Because it would be too expensive to ship an assembled chair back to Australia, he decided to leave his chair in parts and assemble it himself at home. He still got to experience the assembly process by watching my other student, Tony, put his chair together. And he got to weave a hickory bark seat on one of my chairs that needed a seat. Here is Glen with all of the finished parts of his chair ready for packing.

And here are the parts boxed up along with master jig and form templates as well as some jig parts. In order to meet checked luggage requirements the box measures 42″ x 12″ x 8″ and weighs less than 50 pounds.

The first stop on our tour was the home and shop of Curtis Buchanan in Jonesborough, Tennessee. I took a class with Curtis in 2009 so it was a reunion for me as well. If you have ever watched any of the YouTube videos of Curtis demonstrating how to build a Windsor Chair then you have a very good idea of what he is like. He and his wife, Marilyn, made us instantly feel welcome. They have a beautiful home on Main Street in Jonesborough and are very involved in the local community, especially the farmers market, which Curtis was instrumental in founding. His current community project, with lots of support from the town, is a grocery store stocked entirely with locally produced food and goods. Here is a photo of his shop as seen from the house. One of the striking things is that, from the front of the house the view is of Main Street with cars, buildings, etc. But the view from the back of the house, looking towards the shop has the feel of being out in the middle of nowhere.

The back of the shop has a covered porch that was recently added to accommodate four shaving horses that students use in classes with Curtis.

The interior of the shop is dominated by an enormous work bench and is crammed full of chairs, chair materials and parts, hand tools, a large old lathe, and a small bandsaw.

Curtis has several of these Windsor chair seat carving benches that he and his students use when carving seats. The bottom of the bench is filled with 125 pounds of sand for stability. He anticipates selling plans for this bench sometime in the future.

Hanging in one corner of the shop is this odd looking chair seat. The material is approximately 2″ thick and is composed of sheets of 1/8″ plywood painted black and laminated together. The purpose is to serve as a model for a topographical drawing of the seat in 1/8″ increments that is included in plans that Curtis sells for his comb-back Windsor chair. The plans, which complement Curtis’ YouTube series, are drawn by Caleb James. They include detailed, full-scale drawings of every part of the chair including turnings and bending forms, along with the topo map of the seat. All relevant information such as drilling angles, site lines, and dimensions are also there. The plans are exceedingly well done and are a must-have for anyone wanting to build this chair. Curtis also has plans available for a continuous arm Windsor. The C-arm plans include everything that the comb-back plans do, plus an astounding perspective drawing of the front and side view of this chair. Curtis is planning on adding many more plan sets in the future so chairmakers will be able to build the chairs that he has perfected over more than 30 years as a chairmaker.

Here’s a photo of Curtis (left) and Glen (right) in the shop. Curtis is very generous and shares information freely. In addition to talking shop and sharing tips, Glen was able to take back drawings for a new stool that Curtis has been working on, and learned an interesting fact about the original development of the Perch stool that he teaches in his school in Australia.

It was inspiring to see Curtis, after many years as a chairmaker, continue to perfect his craft, and search for new ways to reach aspiring chairmakers. A perfect start to our journey.

On day two we travel south about 50 miles into North Carolina to visit toolmaker John Kraus and The Country Workshop’s Drew Langsner.

Jeff Lefkowitz