Highland Woodworking
Turning the Corner: Shaker Bench Class
By Temple Blackwood

Last month, three local cabinetmaker/furnituremakers signed up for the Small Shaker Bench class I had offered to my local community. They were responding to my promise that it would change their entire view of using the gouge, 3/8" beading & parting tool, and skew chisel (especially the skew) or they would get their money back and a seasonal pass for FREE PARKING!! at my shop. The class also included four other people who were fairly new to woodworking, all of whom had completed my Basic Woodturning Spindle class.

My conversation with my cabinetmaker friends focused on their limited amount of woodturning experience, and the various projects that they had asked me to do for them over the years: chair parts, split-turnings, finials and belaying pins. To me, their problems and hesitation boiled down to one important factor, practice with the gouge and skew. From my perspective of teaching students over the years, I felt that all of the students, especially these three accomplished woodworkers who had for many years labored for days and weeks over a single piece, would be motivated with a simple project like this small Shaker bench that could offer both some creative design opportunity and extensive practice with the skew chisel. In preparation for the class, I milled the legs, stretchers and spindles for twelve small benches plus one larger bench requested by one of the experienced woodworkers who had talked his wife into deciding on the design and seating material and who had agreed to weave the seat once the bench was finished. To relieve the innate pressure on the students and anticipating some serious catches, I prepared five leg blanks for each student (only three of the seven students needed to use the fifth blank as it turned out).

I turned five different styles of 1-1/2" X 8-1/2" legs in different woods (walnut, cherry, ash, maple, hickory) and discussed how to create and use a story-stick to sustain consistent measurements for the different features on each leg and stretcher.

Given the novice woodturning level of each student, the first night included a complete project instructional demonstration with me using the gouge and skew to quickly and efficiently shape a copy of each style leg, rail, and stretcher while they observed, took notes and asked questions. Using two of the newly turned sets of leg, rail, and stretcher, I completed two previously prepared, incomplete benches.

Next, I followed through with drilling the holes, assembling the bench, and having the students help me weave each style of seat, the last step giving each of them an opportunity to work with the corded-rush seating and Shaker tape to understand which one they would want to choose for their own bench.

During the three subsequent evenings of three-hour workshops each of the seven students was able to complete at least one bench and in three cases, two benches, each with a different woven seat.

At the end of the class, every one of the seven students, from raw woodworking novice to expert furniture artisan, expressed a new-found pleasure and confidence using the skew and also produced remarkably consistent, multiple turnings.

The experience of focusing on a simple project like this one (each student had a gift-goal in mind) and gaining the practice with the roughing gouge and skew through the repetition of the legs, rails, and stretchers, created a level of confidence and skill that will doubtlessly help these emerging woodturners challenge themselves at new projects.

One of my experienced woodworker students timed himself, and from raw prepared blanks to finished Shaker tape seat, he completed his second bench in three hours. Along the way, he enjoyed the Zen of cutting the wood as it likes to be cut and immersing himself fully in an excellent product. The accomplishment clearly shows on his face.

This month's book recommendation to read or inspiring re-read: The Craftsman Woodturner by Peter Child.

Article link: Turning a Small Classic Child's Bench.

Click here to browse through Highland Woodworking's Woodturning department

Located in Castine, Maine, Highlands Woodturning gallery and shop offers woodturning classes and shop time, a gallery of woodturned art, custom woodturning for repairs, renovations, and architectural installations. You can email Temple at temple@highlandswoodturning.com. Take a look at Temple's Website at http://www.highlandswoodturning.com/

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