Hudson: Nancy Gary had just assembled the parts of a Windsor chair, and now she was taking it apart again with some gentle raps of a hammer.
She’d probably do it a few more times over the course of her chair-making class.
It may have looked like a lot of redundant labor, but it had a purpose. Repeatedly assembling and disassembling a chair helped Gary internalize the construction process and better understand the chair’s structure and engineering, her instructor, Richard Grell, explained. It also gave her a little practice before the critical stage of securing the joints with wood wedges and glue, so she could avoid turning those chair parts into some pretty expensive firewood.
Grell is a respected Windsor chair maker who is passing along his techniques through classes at his Hudson workshop. His students don’t come away with the refined skills he’s developed over 42 years of chair building, but they do gain a foundation to build on and an appreciation of the craft.
And, of course, a chair.
Grell started teaching the classes this summer, about the same time he started cutting back on his production of finely crafted reproduction Windsors. Teaching, he explained, is easier on the body.
Making chairs is a physically demanding process. Like the 18th-century craftsmen whose work he emulates, Grell uses hand tools, so the power comes from him. Pulling a curved knife called an inshave to scrape depressions into chair seats and bending steamed strips of oak takes muscle.
He might let his students use an electric sander or saw now and then, but for the most part, he wants them to learn the old ways.
On a recent afternoon, Grell was coaching Hudson resident Gary and her two classmates, Warren Long of Hudson and Mitch Barnes of Louisville, through the assembly of child-size hoop-back Windsor chairs. The workshop could best be described as chair-making light: Grell had the students try their hands at all the basic skills, but he made many of the chair parts in advance to speed the construction process. More seasoned students can sign up to make an adult-size chair, which has them doing more of the work themselves.
But this was hardly as simple as putting together ready-to-assemble furniture from Ikea.
The students had to bend strips of oak, join pieces by carefully chiseling slits into wood and driving in wedges, shave away the excess, and much more.
They learned about the history of Windsor chairs and the properties of the wood species Grell uses — ash for the spindles, maple for the legs, poplar for the seat and oak for the arms and bow.
And they worked — sometimes alone, sometimes in a group. At one point it took every hand in the shop just to wrestle all the spindles into holes in a U-shaped piece that would form a chair’s arms.
It was strenuous, exacting, absorbing work. When Gary accidentally sliced her hand with a chisel, “I was more worried about getting blood on my chair than about my cut,” she said.
As Gary and Long labored at a work table in the middle of Grell’s workshop, Barnes practiced on the 200-year-old treadle lathe.
“It’s like chewing gum and walking,” he said with a grin as he struggled to coordinate the fine work of shaping a rotating spindle with a gouge while pumping a pedal with his foot.
Barnes, a website developer by trade and a woodworker by avocation, eventually wants to build a kitchen table and Windsor chairs, so he said taking a class from Grell allowed him to learn from the best.
“I get past the mistakes, or at least some of them,” he said. “… It’s actually a pretty complex process. It’s a lot more than I thought.”
Grell sees the classes as a chance to pass along the craft that has been the source of his living and his pride for four decades.
He learned woodworking from his grandfather but taught himself the art of making Windsor chairs by studying the work of 18th-century masters, often by visiting museums and historical sites. In 1972, he gave up a career in the aerospace industry to make chairs full time.
Today he is considered one of the best. His work has been featured in books and periodicals, and he has been honored with inclusion in Early American Life magazine’s Directory of Traditional American Crafts and induction into the Country Living Guild of artists and craftspeople.
Grell said he still enjoys 10-hour days spent in his workshop crafting chairs. But at 65, the exertion that has kept his body lean is becoming more punishing.
He embraces the chance to share his passion with others. The best part? “Watching people’s faces when they’re learning something new for the first time,” he said.
He hopes they’ll take away not just a basic knowledge of chair making, but an appreciation for handwork in general.
He wants them to develop the touch that tells them how hard to push a thumb plane when they’re whittling a spindle or the visualization that helps them determine how deep to carve a depression in a seat.
But what he also instills in his students, Gary said, is passion.
“He’s still excited about what he does, and that excitement comes through,” she said. “When he loves it, we love it, too.”
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also become a fan on Facebook at http://tinyurl.com/mbbreck, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckenridge and read her blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/mary-beth.