Building a Windsor-style rocking chair with Greg Pennington at Pennington Windsor Chairs was, to date, my favorite woodworking project. It opened up a new, very physical, very engaging side of woodworking I hadn’t before experienced. I loved using a wedge and sledge hammer to split the tree. Not only did it make me feel strong, it also helped me to better understand how wood works and how to get the most strength possible out of a single piece of wood.
Making a chair is, I think for most woodworkers, a major benchmark for progression in their craft. Having seen the Patriot, and being quite comfortable in the realms of square furniture, I really had no intention of ever making a chair. It seemed like it was a whole other skill and toolset than I currently possessed, and I am always wary of casting my net too widely and bringing no genuine knowledge or practiced skill to a craft. As they say, a jack of all trades is a master of none! That is- until I was offered the chance to take a class with some of my dearest friends in the shop of renown chairmaking instructor Greg Pennington.
For me, woodwork has always been motivated far more by relationship than by finished projects. I’ve found the best way to get to know people deeply is by joining them doing something they truly love. My journey as a woodworker started at my grandfather’s workbench. He was a pretty quiet guy most of the time, but he came alive in his woodworking shop. I loved my grandpa, and spending time with him meant spending time pulling and straightening nails, sweeping sweet cedar shavings off his shop floor, or just watching him work. After my grandfather’s passing, when I was twelve my love for woodworking was re-awakened just a six years ago as a way to spend time hanging out at my sister’s house and getting to know my new brother-in-law as he taught me about using handtools to build furniture. Woodworking then became the connection point for another precious older gentleman, 97 years young, who would go on to become an adopted grandpa of sorts and mentor me further. Then I found the maker community on Instagram, which opened up a whole other world of deep frienships with other folks passionate about making things with their hands. I met leather workers, farmers, musicians and blacksmiths, and my desire to see their eyes light up when talking about something they truly loved led me to start tinkering in those crafts as well.
I mention all this because yes, I built a chair, and yes, sitting and rocking in a chair I quite literally found within a tree stump in just a matter of weeks with a few handtools feels pretty awesome, but far more awesome was spending a week learning from a master. Greg loves what he does, and his eyes sparkle when he talks about every step and technique that bring an heirloom quality chair out of a fallen oak tree. The week I spent in Nashville at Greg’s school was quite literally one of the best weeks of my life. Greg was an incredibly patient and skilled instructor. We worked hard with our hands, we talked about everything under the sun, we drank beer, and we laughed until our ribs were sore. And, at the end of it all, somehow, I’d become a better woodworker with a greater understanding of how wood works, and I got to bring home a chair.
This project involved a lot of firsts for me, first time using a shavehorse for it’s intended purpose, which was especially helpful a few weeks later when it came time to build several for the woodworking school I work at. It was my first time riving wood, and I learned about how to predict and correct for grain runout. I learned how to properly use a spokeshave, how to be braver when roughing out stock because it results in so much LESS work later, how to turn square stock into an octagon and then round, and how to drill compound angles with space lasers. I got way more creative with securing round stock in vises designed to hold square stock, I learned how to make and use wedges effectively, and I confirmed that the sanding and finishing process of a chair is just as miserable and loathsome a task with chairmaking as it is with every other woodworking I’ve done in the past.
One thing I really liked about chairmaking is how many of the tools can be made with some rudimentary knowledge of blacksmithing. So, of course, as is always the case for me, In completing this project, I somehow added about fifteen others to the “someday” list, so look for those in the coming months and weeks.
Check out my new YouTube video on my chairmaking experience by clicking below!
**Photos in this article are by Fell Merwin, and by Melissa Morrison**