Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Hands-on learning feeds the body, mind, and soul

Betty Firth
Posted 4/11/17

I’ve always thought it would be a kick to work with wood and even make some furniture and was fascinated with the unique and often whimsical designs of bent willow rustic furniture…traditional …

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Hands-on learning feeds the body, mind, and soul


I’ve always thought it would be a kick to work with wood and even make some furniture and was fascinated with the unique and often whimsical designs of bent willow rustic furniture…traditional but funky, combining delicacy with strength and beauty with resiliency in a way that seemed very feminine. The previous owner of my house had made some of those chairs with beautiful, asymmetrical designs, but they were already sold by the time I saw them. She had also created bent willow style shelving in the kitchen with wooden shelves and the bathroom with glass shelves, and I convinced her to leave those, which only seemed right––they were handcrafted for those spaces, after all––and I was thrilled to have them gracing my new home.

A woodcarver friend of mine taught me how to make a spoon, and I made some halfway decent-looking cabinet doors for my kitchen in Steve Smrekar’s community ed shop class, but that still wasn’t the same as making a piece of furniture. So, when John Bajda demonstrated his techniques for making a bent willow chair at the Ely Folk School during Ely Winter Festival, I was all eyes and ears. I was also working at the folk school, and we scheduled John to return this month for a full class so people could learn how to make their own chairs.

Students had the choice of harvesting their own materials or paying extra to have John collect and bring them. Only two of the students brought their own materials, using the cutting list John provided as a guide for the quantities to collect and the measurements for all the pieces. John brought materials for the other students and precut the frame pieces to save class time. John worked in public schools as a math teacher, counselor and administrator, and since retirement he has taught woodworking through community ed. He is teaching people in an adult day care center so they can make the chairs independently and sell them to support the center. His love of teaching was evident in his patient and cheerful help throughout the day, and the students all commented on his skill in guiding them through the steps of piecing everything together. Before we even got through the morning, we were talking about when he could come back to teach more classes.

John had suggested that it’s very helpful to have people working in pairs, as it gets tricky trying to hold the pieces in place while using the air nailer without putting a nail through your own hand or sending a speeding nail wildly toward someone else. I’ve used a lot of hand and power tools on many projects through the years, but this was my first experience with an air nailer. I found it startling when the compressed air was released when I pulled the trigger, because it blew toward me, sometimes in my face. I never did get used to that, even after a couple hours, wincing every time.

My friend, Anne-Marie, was my partner in chair-making, and we decided to make a smaller version as a gift for her daughter, Adebu. Anne-Marie harvested birch from her land for the frame, and we used a combination of tag alder, also from her land, and pussy willow branches that John brought to make the curving arms, back, and seat. The willow branches, bursting with furry buds, created a delicate, flexible fan growing out of the chair back. We also used some pieces of willow that had interesting gnarls and bends that made the chair even more quirky and unique. It was beautiful, fit for a fairy princess or a much-beloved daughter.

The other pair who harvested their own materials used red dogwood branches alternately with green willow for a very striking design. Those who did not choose to keep the branches growing up out of the back, as we had, had the option to weave them into a design in the back of the chair. Everyone loved the unique results, happy to have successfully built strong, beautiful, and surprisingly comfortable chairs, and amazed that we had completed them in six hours, even with a lunch break.

John explained that he does make finished furniture, but really enjoys the simplicity of rustic furniture. You don’t have to be as fussy for it to turn out well, and he encouraged us not to be perfectionists. He repeated throughout the day, “Don’t worry about it. It’s good enough for rustic!” Rustic furniture, also referred to as twig furniture, is what the pioneers made to furnish their homes as they opened up the land in the ever-westward expansion. There was plenty of wood from the trees they’d removed to clear the land for planting. They could make rough but sturdy furniture with a minimum of tools. Of course, they had to make do without air nailers, but those handy with an ax and carving knife would have made mortise and tenon joints with no need for nails at all.

Participating in the class was a wonderful antidote for too much time behind a computer, making it very real to me why I think the folk school is an important addition to Ely. One of the things that drew me to Ely was what I saw of a “can-do” attitude. I met people who still knew how to figure things out, using their head and hands to fix or create things, and took pride in their ability to do that. After a storm sweeps through, people head out with their chain saws to clear each other’s driveways and roadways. That just never happened on Portland Ave. in Minneapolis where people might come out to watch the city crews deal with the downed trunks and limbs and complain when that took too long. I don’t think I knew anyone who had a chain saw. Now, I own one, and I know very few people who don’t.

One definition for creativity is the making of something new or the rearranging of the old in a new way…and I think it’s important for our mental health and maybe even for our souls to have creative experiences regularly. I’m sure the neurologists and psychologists can (and have) explained it in terms of neural pathways, release of stress and so on, but I just think it’s pretty simple: it’s fun to learn new things, it’s satisfying to master a new skill, and we grow a bit larger in many ways every time we tuck one more lesson, one more skill, into our kit bag that we carry with us through life. It’s even more fun to do it with a bunch of friends or people you just met, facing your incompetence together. In our class we had a trio of sisters who took the class together for a hands-on reunion, and they had a ball.

We are probably hardwired through our DNA to be able to figure things out for our own protection, survival and comfort or we wouldn’t have made it this far on the evolutionary timeline, but these day many of us work hard to pay others to do many things we no longer know how to do, so we don’t have the inner confidence that comes from just knowing how to do stuff that needs doing. On Saturday, I could see the satisfaction on the faces of the people around me who just couldn’t quit smiling as photographs were taken and they carried their new chairs to their cars. And John had a pretty big grin, too.


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