It doesn’t seem possible but next week will be the final week in my first year of the two year program at The North Bennet Street School. It has gone by much much too quickly for me and while I will enjoy a few weeks of not hearing the alarm sound at 4am I am really going to miss this place over the summer. And when I return in September, it will not be to 39 North Bennet Street, the school’s home for nearly 130 years, but rather to the new location of the school, on North Street (a few blocks away and still in Boston’s North End). In another post I will speak more about the move of the school and have some pictures of both the old and new locations taken during a tour of the school last weekend that I helped arrange for The Guild of New Hampshire Woodworkers.
Thinking back on the first year I am so blessed to have been given the opportunity to attend this famed institution. I’ve been engaged in woodworking as a hobby for many years, and have been very fortunate to be part of some great organizations like The Guild of New Hampshire Woodworkers and The Society of American Period Furniture Makers. Through both of these organizations I have attended workshops and met dozens of individuals who graciously shared everything they knew about the craft. In addition, I have been able to take longer classes with folks such as Al Breed and Mary May where I have tried to further develop my skills. That said, there is nothing like going to school at a place like NBSS every day and interacting with the faculty and fellow students.
Everybody enters NBSS with a different background and experience level, and different goals and aspirations. To some woodworking is a fairly new endeavor and while they may have demonstrated skills and artistic ability in other areas, holding a chisel and plane are new to them. Others like myself may have a bit more experience in that area but are not as comfortable with designing. In any case, we all start in NBSS at the same place and we all go through the same exercises and learning. And, no matter your skill level, there is something new to learn every day, if you open your mind to the possibility. Furthermore, the learning doesn’t just come from the faculty and the exercises, it comes from your fellow students and from the problem solving that occurs every day. On your own project, or on someone else’s there are challenges that arise every day, mistakes that happen and must be fixed, glue-ups that despite the best planning get chaotic. The collaborative atmosphere at the school makes all of these events an opportunity to develop your skill.
It is in many respects a self-paced environment. While there are targets for the projects and a certain pace you are expected to achieve, the speed at which you work is self determined. I’m not the fastest in my group, nor the slowest… I am working at a speed in which I can develop my skills, execute quality work and still press myself to be productive. As the first year comes to a close I can say that I am pleased with where I am and what I have accomplished.
The first semester consists largely of drafting and developing and/or improving hand tool skills. There are 20 or so full size drawings of joinery details that must be completed. This involves taking some information that is given and completing the iso and ortho views of the joint. Not only does this teach drafting, but also the woodworking joint. This is followed by a number of full size furniture drawings of increasing complexity. As the drafting is going on, we are receiving instruction in the sharpening , set-up and use of basic hand tools. Beginning with a 1″ chisel, followed by a number 4 plane, “sharpness” is redefined, and tools are configured to give excellent performance. A vintage Stanley number 4 hand-plane, with it’s sole flattened, iron sharpened, chip-breaker fettled, begins to perform as well as a brand new Lie-Nielsen. These tools are quickly put to use simply flattening and squaring the edges of a piece of rough sawn poplar. And flatness and square here have new meaning, as flat is now defined as a Starrett straight edge and a piece of tracing paper. Lap joints that fit tighter than ever before, dovetail practice, tuning up a router plane all lead to better quality results. Turning a mallet from stock we have hand planed and glued up is another NBSS tradition and then there is the tight fitting box to hold our oil stone, carefully made from walnut which we have excavated a recess using that one inch chisel and the router plane.
Our first furniture project is the one drawer shaker table which is a combination of hand tool and power tool work. Even if you have made a number of tables before as I have, there is much to learn here. Fitting the drawer using winding sticks was a new technique and one that I will incorporate more in the future. Lessons in French polishing and applying and rubbing out shellac also take place at this time, and everyone learns to mix their own shellac from flakes (something I have been doing myself for a long time). As the requirements for the Shaker table include a frame made from poplar, we learn to mix and apply milk paint. As I initially wasn’t thrilled about using poplar! I was very pleasantly surprised at how beautiful the black milk paint and oil/wax finish on the poplar looked with the highly polished black walnut top.
Not a part of the first year curriculum, but taking place every couple of years, the entire school embarked on a Windsor chair building project. This is detailed, with pictures, in another post. Then, it was time for the traditional NBSS tool chest, the capstone of the first year. This too, is detailed with pictures in another post.
After the tool chest is complete, we take on one final exercise, the building of a candle box. We are given a drawing (which has been used for years) and a sheet to record our time, and we proceed to build a dovetailed candle box with raised panel lid and bottom in walnut. This exercise, while timed, is really focused on quality of work. Upon completion of the candle box, we submit both it and the tool chest to the faculty for a complete review.
With the completion of the tool chest, we now move on to the three required projects, a table, a case piece, and a chair. The chair is generally done as part of a group activity and is a Chippendale chair, which I will probably take on toward the end of the second year. Next week, the final week of the first year, I will draft my table and case piece…and then spend the summer wishing I was still in school!