A Class From Lonnie Bird:  Master Wood Worker
Posted May 23, 2013

Fellow students: Mike, Chuck, Tushar, Tony, Jason, Jeff, and Greg with their tables.

When I first started woodworking, there were few options for formalized classes of instruction. You could sort of apprentice yourself to some cabinet shops for a week or two and learn from watching one of their masters perform his daily tasks, but very little in the way of actual class rooms full of benches with an instructor standing up in front of it all. Now you can look in any wood working magazine or scan the internet and find classes being offered in all manner of woodworking in all corners of the country. About 10 years ago, I attended a class at Rosewood Studios, near Ottawa, ONT., that was advertised as wood working with basic hand tools. Although I got some things out of the class, I thought we spent too much on sharpening (and other diversions), and not enough on actual use of planes, chisels, hand saws, marking gauges, etc. This sort of cooled my idea of learning through classes and I became content to learn from books, DVDS and pounding things out on my bench.

Still, I knew from other experiences that real-time classroom instruction, surrounded by other students can be an invaluable learning tool and I began eyeing some courses offered by expert wood worker Lonnie Bird at his place in Dandridge Tennessee. Well known and well published in the wood-working world, Lonnie Bird specializes in building replicates of late eighteenth century colonial furniture, in addition to offering project classes. Lonnie requires his basic Wood Working Essentials class as a prerequisite to any of his actual project classes and, as most of his classes fill up quickly, I figured there could be some real knowledge to be gained from the Essentials Class, even for an experienced woodworker like myself. I was not to be disappointed. So, in early May 2013, we packed up the truck with hand tools, suitcases, bicycles, 18 CDs of the unabridged Moby Dick, and of course, Spencer and headed for the hills of eastern Tennessee.

Image at Appomattox Courthouse
Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia, where the Civil War ended.

Lonnie’s home and shop are in a beautiful setting – a private mix of rolling pastures, hardwood trees, creeks, barns and other buildings. The shop (hand benches upstairs, machines on the lower level) and residence are separated by an inviting screened-in porch area for lunch and coffee. Although Lonnie encompasses the full range of Appalachian hardwoods in his projects (cherry, poplar, and tiger maple) his real passion is for walnut, especially crotch wood. We were privileged to get a tour of his two drying barns, full of stickered slabs of hardwoods – an impressive sight. Lonnie also indulges himself in that other great enjoyment to some of us wood workers-- the actual procurement of logs and the excitement that unfolds when those logs are first passed through the sawmill.

Our class ran 8am to 5pm for 5 days, with the 8 attendees coming from within the Southern States and all range of backgrounds – MD, Research Physicist, Airline Pilot, a couple of CEOs and other highly professional individuals… a great group of guys that certainly added to the overall enjoyment. Previously gained wood working skills varied considerably also, from mostly novice to others, like me, with several years of experience. Some things I liked from the beginning was the fact that 1) we would all actually be building ourselves a project: a small Shaker-style table with a single drawer, 2) that it was the same project for all of us (differing only in the choice of hardwood), and 3) that it would offer exposure to a wide range of hand tool skills. We would be laying out and cutting mortises, fitting tenons into those mortises, cutting dovetails on stretchers and leg ends and fitting all of those pieces together for a good glue-up. Additionally, we would construct a drawer with 2-thru and 2-half blind dovetails and fit the drawer to the case opening. We would receive instructions on the latest techniques for sharpening chisels and hand planes (sharpening accessories were always available from Lonnie throughout the class), as well as techniques to optimize the use of those tools. Overall, a very through journey thru some fundamental, but essential wood working skills… skills that will provide considerable confidence for moving to the next level.

Lonnie gives his students the choice of bringing their own wood or purchasing a precut package, in either walnut or cherry, from his assistant, Jason. All of us had opted for the precut package and, in retrospect that was probably a good choice, as time constraints could have become a consideration. The packages were all machine planed to the proper thickness, apron tenons were precut, legs cut to length and then tapered by Jason just before glue-up. Drawer pieces were previously cut to length and width, with the front and rear pin boards rough-routed (for this project, Lonnie likes to cut the pin board first and trace to the tailboard). Table tops were glued, cut to size and machined planed to thickness. While all of this precutting efficiently moves the class along and allows the students to concentrate on hand skills, to me it seems there could almost also be a separate, but parallel class performing all of the milling work. For me, it can sometimes be a daunting task to pick through a pile of rough lumber, eyeing proper sizes, grain, checks and knots, and other considerations and then rough milling all of those selections into a perfect collection of boards to start the project with. Jason certainly handled all of that admirably. Talking with several of the other students, most of which didn’t even have a table saw or jointer, milling rough lumber might be a skill set they will need to acquire before putting all of their new hand tool skills to use.

One of the joys of using hand tools, as Lonnie was trying to impress upon his students, is running a sharp and properly tuned hand plane over pieces to remove signs of machine work. Lonnie highly recommended bringing a Veritas #05P36 bevel-up smoothing plane to the class, along with the optional fifty-degree blade. All of the attendees (myself being the only exception, as I didn’t want to retool and was comfortable with my Lie-Nielson #164 bevel-up plane) obliged, with most their new Veritas planes arriving still in their shrink-wrap packaging. Admittedly, becoming adept at sharpening, tuning, and pushing that plane to obtain desirable results is usually not something learned in a day or two for most of us. The Veritas is certainly a wonderful plane -- solid, heavy duty, and incorporates lots of clever engineering and adjustment options (I really liked the built-in lateral blade adjustment option). However, I observed some real struggles in the class as the students were a bit overwhelmed in getting it properly set up and tuned in order to achieve reasonable success. As Veritas received orders for a least 7 of these planes as part of this class alone (in addition to Lonnie's other classes), maybe they should consider having a rep. available for a few hours one day to guide students over the finer points of using their fabulous plane.

All and all, this was a good class – a very worthwhile experience for all level of wood workers. Lonnie was always there (strong opinions, notwithstanding) to answer questions, demonstrate techniques, offer suggestions and encouragement, and generally keeps the pace of the class going to everyone’s satisfaction. As a bonus, we were all treated to a tour of his house and the incredible selection of furniture that he has crafted over the years. Truly inspiring to think that, now having completed his Wood Working Essentials class, we have the skills to be admitted to one of his advanced classes to construct pieces of that caliber. I hope that some of us will be doing just that.
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