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Woodworker's Gazette
Gazette Archive 3/8/04

Notes from an Apprentice
by Gail O'Rourke
A visit to American Sycamore Woodworkers' Retreat Windsor Chair Class

I recently made a trip to the American Sycamore Woodworkers' Retreat for a class on how to make Windsor Chairs. To say that this class forever changed the way that I look at hand tools and enriched my life as a woodworker is an understatement. Let me start at the beginning.

Michael and Dana Van Pelt partnered to create the American Sycamore Woodworkers' Retreat in Cloverdale, IN. Opened for instruction in 2000, they are dedicated to offering the opportunity for woodworkers with all skill levels to improve their capabilities. They offer classes taught by some of the most recognized artisans in the country. They provide the finest tools available to create the projects, partnering up with Delta Machinery and Porter-Cable Equipment. The surroundings are soothing and refreshing. Their mission is that their guests enjoy their stay, build a fine piece of furniture, learn new skills, and have a memorable woodworking vacation experience.

My first visit to ASWR was for the shaker box class. The instruction was excellent. I finished a nice nesting set of 5 shaker boxes. I knew that I wanted to go back, I also knew that I was ready for a greater challenge. I looked at the 2004 calender and there was so much to choose from. After discussing the alternatives with my husband I committed to taking the Windsor Chair class. My husband, my biggest supporter, committed to manning the house and the kids while I was away for a 6 day class. In my other life, I am a stay at home mother to three elementary age children. A week off to just work wood sounded like an amazing opportunity and a little bit of a vacation.

So I headed off to ASWR. I awoke early to coffee and muffins, and to meet the instructor and the other students in the class. I wasn't there 15 minutes before someone mentioned "no power tools." What? I thought to myself. Well, as the smile crossed my face, I said to myself "well, I wanted a challenge didn't I?" When I worked for a custom kitchen cabinet maker, time was money and saving time was directly related to using power tools. But here all we had was time, as long as it didn't last more than six days.
The instructor, Blaine Berry, is a master chairmaker in the Indianapolis area. Many will see him at the state fair exhibiting his craft and you may even find yourself stopping to listen to a story or hear a (bad) joke or two. He is a delightful person, always with a smile on his face and a helping hand, the perfect qualities for an instructor. His knowledge of woodworking and love for chairmaking do not go unnoticed. He is an inspiration and his energy is contagious.
Armed with enthusiasm and determination, we got right to the chair making. Where the hours went during that week, I will never know. We worked at a steady pace with time for laughs and camaraderie, good homemade lunches put out by ASWR and plenty of coffee breaks. We were in the shop early and stayed late. We slept well.
There is a precision with chairmaking that is demanded. Patience and accuracy are important to making a fine piece of furniture. This was great practice and we learned that if we took the extra time to get it done right the first time it would save on the labor required to fix a mistake. We used tools I hadn't seen since geometry class, the protractor and compass, measuring and remeasuring angles for everything. Hand tools were foreign to me before this trip. Being new to the field of woodworking, I had the opportunity to use many new tools that I had never even heard of before.
The gutter adz to chop out the butternut seat:  
The draw knife and spoke shave to make and form the oak spindles:
The brace, spoon bits and reamer to drill the holes for the seat, continuous arm and legs:
I also had the opportunity to bend the wood for the backs of the chair. This learning experience alone was well worth the trip. We had the opportunity to steam the oak backs and then bend them into the jig to form the back. The principles that we learned about steaming I can apply to many future projects.
At the end of the six day class I left with many things. I left with a new beautiful hand made windsor chair. Hopefully, the first of many. I keep this chair at my desk, a place that I sit daily, to remind me of my accomplishments. I left with a new experience and a great respect for the power of hand tools. I will look at where I can incorporate them into my future projects. Most importantly, I left with new friends. I have found great friends and supporters in Dana and Mike Van Pelt. Their "you can do anything" attitude and willingness to see you reach your goals are a perfect match for my enthusiasm and love of woodworking.
I am fortunate to be woodworking at my age. I feel as if a lifetime will not be long enough to learn all that I want to. However, I am going to try my best, to learn more, to experience more and to build and make and create more. If you ever have a chance to attend a class at ASWR, please do, it will be an experience you won't forget. If you ever have a chance to build a windsor chair, please do, it wil be an experience that will change your life.

Gail O'Rourke

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