Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Students at Work

After all these years I still get excited about teaching new students the "art and mystery of the trade." Techniques and methods which I take for granted become fresh and new when I start to explain the process to a student who has never been exposed to such things. I believe that I get as much enjoyment out of the class as the students do (I hope).

With every student there is a different personality, a different tool box of talent, and a different perspective. I am always amazed at the varied approaches they bring to the table. "Why do you do it that way? Why not do it this way?" These types of questions lead the class down a different road every day, even though the structure of the program is essentially the same. I love tangent thinking.
My real pleasure is derived from the transformation of the student, essentially overnight, when they start out awkward, uncertain and uncomfortable sitting on the chevalet, trying to stay on the line and not break blades. With just a little encouragement and time the very same student is smiling, sawing with amazing accuracy and working as if they have been sitting on such an unusual woodworking tool all their life.

Since each of the chevalets also have their own quirks, my job is trying to fit the student to the tool. First of all I have to guess the best tool height for the sitting height of the worker. Normally, the knob of the saw frame should be about at the same height as the neck, when the person is sitting comfortably. This is not a very hard rule, but is a good starting point. Since the tension of the blade is set each time the blade is locked in by bending the saw frame, it is important that the saw be low enough to press the knob against the top of the shoulder. The upper limit is where the saw is easily visible in front of the face, so if it is too low the worker needs to bend over, creating a problem with back strain. Finding the right fit is the start.

Then there is the subjective comfort level of the tool. Perhaps the seat is too wide or narrow, the foot rest too low or high, the handle of the saw too large or small, the clamp worn out or fresh. It seems that I spend a great deal of my teaching time going from tool to tool and solving small details for the benefit of the student. Usually that process is resolved by the second day of class.

I attached a photo of two of the current students who are happily cutting out extremely small elements of their respective projects. The student in the front is now happy since I suggested that he change chevalets. He had started out on a 56cm tool which historically had been difficult to use, for reasons I cannot put my finger on. I have tried to improve it with modifications and have made it work much easier, but, with certain students, it still resists.

On the other hand, I have a 57cm size tool, which is actually the first chevalet I ever built in the 1970's. This particular tool has been through major modifications and so many parts have been changed or replaced that I affectionally call it my "frankenstein." You would think that naming a tool "frankenstein" would discourage students from using it. In fact, it is the only tool I have which can be changed from left handed to right handed use. I do not recommend making such a tool. Either you build it right or build it left, but do not make it both. It always takes a lot of time to make the proper adjustments each time I switch it from right to left or left to right. Always a poor compromise.

It took me two days to get it adjusted this week, and I was complaining the whole time. Finally, I got it right, and at the same time the student working on the 56cm chevalet reached a point where he just asked, "Is it me or the tool?" I confided to him that it was most likely the tool, and, perhaps, he should just try the frankenstein while I worked on his saw.

The minute he sat down and started sawing, his smile lit up the room. I had to smile too.


Anonymous said...

I'm in the class. It's fantastic, but a challenge. Like taking beginning violin from the concert master at the New York Philharmonic. Worth every penny !

W. Patrick Edwards said...

As a teacher, I often use the same analogy. I have played classical violin and viola all my life, from full orchestras to quartets. There is a direct comparison in the sense that, if you just walked into a store and purchased a violin, without any idea of how it was played, you would probably have a difficult time learning correctly.

The chevalet presents the same concept. Most people have never seen such a tool, or how it is used. All I can do in the short class I offer is demonstrate to the student how the tool is held, how it is tuned, how to read the "music" and give them some basic scales and practice etudes to work on. After that, if the student wishes to pursue the craft, and builds his own tool, at least he is started out with proper technique.

Just like I learned to play when I was a kid: practice, practice, practice. Look what 8 years of serious practice did for Aaron Radelow!

Chuck said...

As I recall, the chevalet I used when I was in the classes (I and II) was the one with the padded leather seat (much appreciated by the way). Is this the one you built and have named "Frankenstein"? I do know that once you fit to it, life is good and the saw blade zips through the packets with ease and personal comfort, even for an old guy.

Chuck Walker

W. Patrick Edwards said...


Indeed, this particular tool is my "Frankenstein" since it was the first chevalet I built in 1978 and has been through several extensive modifications, including the ability to saw left and right handed. Now we have put a picture on it of the actual Frankenstein.

It is the only tool with a padded leather seat.