Well, my 20 year dream of making my own Windsor chair has come and gone! If only life were always that interesting. A week after the intensive 6 day Windsor chair making course was completed it now truly feels like it never really happened. But of course when I sit in that chair I know that I am not dreaming.
There are 2 aspects to Windsor chairs that I have always admired (particularly after developing a bad back). Form and comfort. If you have never sat in a well made Windsor you do not know what comfort is. Sit in one and you will be bewitched! The form (and construction) generally ensured that most of us weekend woodworkers do not have the skills to build one on our own.
So, enough musing. Many thanks to Alastair for running a great course, and in the process, offering other like minded individuals an opportunity to develop their skills, appreciate the use of beautifully crafted hand tools and finally inflame their desire and passion for further development. The boys are a fount of knowledge, and in building the Windsor chair, you take away a lot more general information than you would imagine. For example, something as silly as that great sandpaper they use that seems to last forever (which we were strictly not allowed to use on our chairs!!!!) and those wonderful Dragon rasps, not to mention the Lie Nielson tools! I could go on and on but it is chairs I am supposed to be discussing right?
In summary, the course was much more physically demanding than I had anticipated (the first few days where you seem to be make no progress can be a little frustrating). But it was also much more fulfilling in many different ways. Since finishing the course I recommenced working on a couple of small bookcases that called for reeded tapered legs (I am extending an existing French bookcase so it sits wall to wall). Normally I would never have had the patience for this and would have turned the legs but not reeded them. Well, after sitting on a shaving horse for hours and hours and hours, I reckoned that I could knock this one over. I did and it cost me about 16 hrs of turning, reeding and sanding (8 legs). A stack of time that I could not normally justify. But attention to detail is what it is all about and after 6 days of playing around with hand tools in the chair course I had built up the confidence, and patience, to have a go. The legs look great and I am almost as pleased with these as I am with my chair.
Lastly, I am very pleased that MGFWood is able to offer courses of this quality. It is something that is sorely lacking in this country. I will be back in January to do another chair course and would encourage anyone interested in developing their skills to consider taking up one of the courses on offer.
Well done again guys. It was a truly inspiring week! I can not wait for the comb-back to be offered!!!!
Recently I participated in a one-day Shaker Box course at MGFW with two objectives in mind: One, to make some of these instantly recognisable oval boxes by hand using traditional techniques, and two, to experience an organised class at MGFW prior to participating in a longer and more involved course.
Over the day I, and the seven other participants, each completed three boxes of different sizes using a variety of beautiful Australian and imported exotic timbers. Tasmanian Blackwood, Ringed Gidgee and Coobah (Acacia Salicina) are my favourites. In his very well setup workshop Alastair showed us how to perform each step. We then tried to emulate Shaker craftsmen chamfering the swallow tails, heating and bending the sides and bands around their forms and clinching them with copper rivets, and finishing and precisely fitting the top and bottom to each box.
Alastair was ever ready to advise us on what to do and how to do it with plenty of good humour when things went awry. His enthusiasm for working with timber and fine woodwork is unlimited, and he clearly enjoys teaching and mentoring people with similar interests. MGFW is much more than doing only what is necessary to complete the task: Alastair encourages every class participant to discover and share with him a deep respect and admiration for the craftsmen of yore who, with their traditional tools and techniques and love of their work, produced exceedingly elegant and functional items that are used and greatly admired to this day.
I achieved much more than my initial objectives for the day - I now have a long list of people who would like one of those beautiful Shaker oval boxes , and I am really looking forward to a forthcoming Windsor chair-making course.
Simple Gifts indeed - thank you Alastair!
Leigh, June 2011
“Class - I spent 2+ years in Melbs and have many great memories from the stay. Perhaps my fondest memory is of being chin deep in the drink searching, WITH OUR FEET mind you, for old bridge planks that had been tossed in the river. Alastair and I and the kids in our swimmers, the two adults cackling like complete mad men in between 1 to 2 minute dives underwater. Cackling, Silence, Cackling, Silence….and repeat. Well the bridge planks worked loose and we spent a goodly amount of time working off the dirt and processing them back to their inner beauty. Every time the weathered/grey bit was peeled back, there was Revelation! Alastair is a great teacher and his most exceptional quality is bringing out the creativity and passion of a woodworking artist. The true purpose of the class for me was, not to specifically produce a bowl or a bookcase, it was to tap into that inner creative being. To produce, to create, to bring forth something out of nothing. Whatever that something might be”.
“The home of Fine Woodworking in Melbourne - I joined Alastair’s class about 2 years ago and I have been very satisfied with it. I really appreciate the friendly and relaxed atmosphere, along with the quality of the work done around me. Alastair is always very helpful, and he makes sure the equipment is well maintained and safe. I also appreciate the fact the I can decide what project I want to work on. I have learned a lot of new skills and it is always a complete absolute pleasure to go to my wood work class every week”.
“If you are interested in the finer points of furniture making this is the place to be. Under Alastair’s stewardship, the Melbourne Guild of Fine Woodworking emphasizes craftsmanship and individual style. Prior the joining the MGFW I attended several other woodworking clubs and TAFE courses in Melbourne. In my opinion the MGFW is easily the best. Classes are relaxed and self paced and the facilities and machinery are excellent. The atmosphere is supportive and the quality of the furniture that leaves the premises is a constant source of inspiration. I recommend The Melbourne Guild ofFine Woodworking to anyone looking to take their woodworking to the next level”.
“Joining the Fine Furniture Open Course was a great move for me. Alastair is a talented professional with great knowledge and skills and with high performance standards. He is very generous in sharing his knowledge to teach and mentor students to achieve more than they’d have thought possible. The workshop sessions, which both develop traditional hand-tool skills and make use of the workshop’s quality machinery, are always challenging, enjoyable and deeply satisfying”.
“My family and I had just recently moved here from the United States and I wanted to find a place where I could take some woodworking classes and maybe learn a few things. I’ve been doing woodworking as a hobby for years and although I love it I’ve never been that good at it. I found Alistair’s website while searching for a school and noticed he was going to be at the Timber and Woodworking Show so I went to see him and find out more about his school. After talking with him I couldn’t help but be impressed with his training so I decided to take one of his Open Courses and see if he could help me. After a few classes Alistair approached me about taking one of the upcoming Windsor Chair Making classes he was offering. He said he had this bloke named Peter Galbert who was coming here from the US to teach two different classes. My response to him was “I really don’t have any interest in making a Windsor Chair” and he said “trust me, it will change the way you do woodworking forever”. I thought it over and decided to trust his recommendation and sign up for the class. I went into it thinking it would be really nice to meet Peter Galbert because he is very well known in the US as a chair maker and who knows, I might just learn something. I hate to admit it but Alistair was right. It was an amazing experience and it has completely changed the way I look at woodworking! I couldn’t believe how much fun it was and now I have this beautiful chair that will last for generations. It was incredible to take the same tools that chair makers have been using for the last few hundred years and turn square chunks of timber in something so graceful and beautiful. I can’t wait for the next chair making class so I can do it all over again! My plan is to take at least the next two classes at least and then when I leave Australia next year and go back to the US I plan on flying out to Peter Galbert’s shop and take a class with him. I’m hooked!
My thanks to Peter Galbert for coming to Australia to share his knowledge. I’d like to give Alastair a special thanks for giving me that little nudge I needed to take the class and for having such a great place to learn.
Last and definitely not least, I want to thank Alistair’s lovely wife and daughter for spoiling us with such nice pastries every day at tea time”.
Jeff Smith, 2012
“This was my second course with Alastair and Glen. It was very interesting to compare the different methods of working the wood from the first course. All the different ways of doing the same thing. Peter Galbert was a new perspective on chair making. He didn’t spend much time measuring angles, he used mirrors. I liked his methods. He did have a bit of trouble with our wood. Apparently their wood in the US is like Plasticine. I enjoyed the class and ended up with a rocker. The boys are very generous with their time and help”.
Peter Page, 2012
“Coming from Canberra, I thought it was a big call to attend a course in Melbourne but the sound of the Shaker Box course sounded so good I decided to give it a go. What a decision! I have already chosen more courses I wish to attend, and am juggling work to get to them!! Thank you Alastair (and family) for a great day - I cant wait to come back!!”
Damian Wardle, 5th March 2012
“I have just finished my second Shaker Bentwood Box Course and I have to say I am now addicted! I first completed this class in October 2011 and was so proud of my boxes, everyone had to look at them. They have this WOW factor and although everyone keeps asking what do I use them for, I enjoy simply looking at them and touching them from time to time.
As a result of more than a few friends indicating quite clearly that they would appreciate one of these boxes as a gift, I signed up for my second class in May 2012, fully intending to give each of the three boxes as presents, but as I lost myself once again in the process, I became attached to the boxes and the thought of giving them away became more and more unlikely (although I did repeat a size, so perhaps I can bear to part with one of the boxes after all). I think I’ll need to sign up for the next course and try to make some that I can use as gifts – there is an increasingly growing list of people who want one!
Doing open classes, and intensive courses at Melbourne Guild of Fine Woodworking is changing my life. Finally I have a hobby that absorbs, challenges and allows me to be creative where I lack creativity. Alastair is an amazing teacher who never criticises, but suggests that ‘perhaps some tweaking here’ (which results in a better finish and me learning more). He gently guides in teaching about wood, techniques, safety, use of machinery, finishes without making me feel like an absolute beginner even though that is what I am. He encourages and isn’t fazed by the different personalities of students. He steps in when something gets a tad too difficult – he senses when I am about to give up!
There is so much to learn, but I am learning at my own pace and most importantly, learning to slow the pace – a necessary counterbalance to my work and the rest of my life. This kind of woodwork is far removed from flat packs and instant objects, but so very satisfying on so many levels. I guess it is similar to the ‘slow food movement’ (definition: “an alternative to fast food, it strives to preserve traditional and regional cuisine and encourages farming of plants, seeds and livestock characteristic of the local ecosystem”) and I am just loving it!”.
Diana Heatherich - 29th May 2012
“I have three beautiful Shaker boxes in my study. I made them recently with the help of Alastair Boell at the Melbourne Guild of Fine Woodworking, and they’re supposed to be a wedding present for my niece. But I’m not sure if I can part with them! Made of American Cherry with a contrasting Blackwood inset in the top, they are replicas of the functional boxes the American Shaker community started making over 200 hundred years ago.
In the one-day Shaker box class Alastair runs at his well-equipped workshop in Box Hill, I learnt the entire process for making the boxes. Alastair provides all materials, and we (group of eight of us) started by cutting the distinctive swallow-tails which stabilise the joint holding the box together; soaked the cherry to enable it to bend into the required oval shape around pre-cut forms; and secured the box and its top with the delicate copper tacks which are true to the Shaker tradition.
It was a thoroughly enjoyable day and whether you’ve done no woodworking at all, or quite a lot, you’ll come away with three boxes and the satisfaction of making them from beautiful material for a great result. I think I’ll need to go back and do another Shaker box class with Alastair because, no, I can’t part with the three I’ve made!”
Lucy Callaghan - 26th June 2012
“Highly recommended for anyone that wishes to learn from an inspiring, humble master of the trade. I gained a wonderful insight into the relaxing and challenging world of hand crafted woodwork. I also met a fantastic bunch of people!”
Matt Stonehouse - 14th July 2014
“After years of self taught furniture making full of mistakes and bad joinery I thought it was time to improve my skills and sign up to a course in the Melbourne Guild of Fine Woodworking. Two and a half years later and I am glad I did! The instructors at MGFW are fantastic teachers with immense patience, knowledge, artistry and enthusiasm to help anyone learn the age old wisdoms of fine woodworking and improve their craft. In a world that promotes rampant consumerism and short lived products, this school is a bastion for timeless craftmanship. I was also inspired by the fantastic work being made by other students, which is also a reflection on the school. I highly recommend learning at this school and found it immensely fulfilling, if only I could come to MGFW everyday!”
Rob Law - 11th Nov 2014
“I attended my third Shaker Bentwood Box class on Sunday. Why have I done three? Well, for me, they make unique gifts for special people and I needed 3 in a short space of time. At the end of the day, you go home with three complete boxes which only require sanding and oil/polish/wax before they are ready to be presented as gifts. The timing was perfect. I also love doing this course as it is quite relaxing (and makes a welcome change from domestics or working at my part time job). You not only learn new skills, but it helps me practice the skills I have learnt previously as well as have an opportunity to learn new tips and techniques. The group is not too large and there is always a mix of interesting people from diverse backgrounds with a range of woodworking skills and abilities, all of which are catered for. What is lovely about this course is that it is perfect for the absolute beginner and a great introduction to the world of fine woodworking, appreciating traditional trade skills and learning that slowing down and being patient leads to success and contentment.”
Diana Heatherich - 17 March 2015
“The Perch Stool - April 2015
Thoughts on my experience of making a piece of furniture from a photo at the Melbourne Guild of Fine Woodworking.
I was recently sent a brochure from a friend. On it was a photo of a rather plain but somewhat elegant timber stool. The shape of it was beguiling, intriguing and captivating. I thought, “I could make that!”
So, I sent in the money, filled in the form and attended a workshop weekend in April.
That was the easy bit, it was the commute to the far side of town that was the hardest bit of the weekend.
Upon arrival at the Guild workshop, I felt quite at home, coming from a woody back ground, the smells and machines were just like being back where I used to spend 1/3 of my day.
The course leader, Jon Grant introduced himself to the group of hopefuls and set out what we were expected to achieve, by day and by the end of the Sunday afternoon. It sounded a big ask really to get there and I was expecting to maybe having to finish the project at home.
The other gents on the benches showed a divers field of expertise, some were retired, or from a wood turning club, or used a computer most of the day . One fellow had already made a stool previously and on that occasion, he was still gluing up very late on Sunday. With that in mind it looked like we were going to have to work pretty hard to achieve our goal of an assembled item by knock off, Sunday.
Jon, precisely and deliberately set out the steps that we were to follow, with good practical demonstrations. First up was to mark out the seat and drill the holes for the legs. Just using a pistol drill and a few cleaver tricks, a very good degree of accuracy was achieved at drilling holes at different angles. The next stage was to flip the seat over and start carving the dish for the seat. With good setting out and accurate depth setting, everyone was able to achieve a good shape that everyone felt comfortable with. All the hand tools were new to most, but it didn’t take long to get the feel for them and to use them with confidence.
Next task was the turning of the legs and spreader rails. Again, with good templates, reasonably accurate measuring and tuition, and with a little bit of GAD, this task was also completed.
A coming together of minds on the Sunday, persuaded us of a plan for the assembly of the 6 individually handcrafted pieces of timber. The drilling of the holes in the legs for the spreaders was intriguing and involved some lateral thinking on how to hold the drill. When it came to assembly, we were to use animal glue, stuff that I had heard about but which I thought had been made obsolete by the time the second fleet arrived. Its obnoxious smell certainly gives it a bad rap, but its properties of fast drying made its choice immediately apparent. As assembly is a piece by piece approach, its good to have stuff set in place before moving on.
After cleaning up and cutting the legs to length to achieve a steady piece, that was basically it. Low and behold a work of art and a practical comfortable seat, and the street lights had not yet come on. All of the participants were proud of what they had achieved over the last 3 days, Jon was pleased that the goals that had been set were realised without stress or panic. I was just glad that what I had made looked like the photo on the brochure.
My thanks to Jon, Alaster and Doug for the sharing of their knowledge, the use of their equipment and workshop. The whole week end was a rewarding and informative experience, I now know what a scorp is, and a radius plane, how animal glue still has a place in the 21st C and a new found respect for Japanese draw saws. Oh, and you do learn a little more about yourself too. An excellent week end, worth the experience and expense. Would recommend this to anybody.”