When I went to Woodworking in America in ’09, Jeff Hand and I agreed we’d take a chair-building class from Jim Van Hoven. There were four of us who went together to run the hand-tool olympics booth. We drove down to Chicago together, Jim, Mike Siemsen, Jeff and me. I’d never seen a well-made one up close nor sat in one, and I had little interest in the windsor chairs that Jim builds. Partly it’s their formal look, but the form just never grabbed me. But I was very interested in other chairs made with green wood (ladderbacks) and having a master chair maker right here near the Twin Cities and the chance to take a class from him seemed like an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I was going to take the class to learn about the style of chair, and some new skills in spite of the chair I would build.
The class was fun and inspiring. Taught up at Mike’s school there were only four of us taking the class from Mike and Jim. Six days spread over three weekends. For me that was a good format because it gave me a week to turn the legs, and I needed all of it. Mike is a hoot, and a good host. And Jim really knows the chairs. My favorite line from the class was when Jim told us to “try not to screw up more than necessary.” That cracked me up, but also turned out to be appropriate advice. Many of the steps that seemed like they might need to be very precise, and that you could kill yourself setting up jigs for, are actually very forgiving. It seemed that if you were careful and paid attention that a lot of things turned out well as long as you got it close at each step.
But the big surprise was that this chair charmed the hell out of me. The process is very physical. It seems that absolutely every surface is curved (an awesomely good thing), every angle not a right angle. Three different kinds of wood, each one having the perfect characteristics for the section they’re in. And we finished it all off with milk paint. I’d never seen that before either, and I love it’s depth and toughness.
It’s now my favorite chair. The story of this chair didn’t end with the class. But I’ll tell the rest in the next post.