Getting stuck in as a Chippendale Furniture School student

Furniture student, Rupert Phelps', versatile sideboard

A blog by Rupert Phelps, a former telecoms consultant

This is my blog about the 15 weeks that I have been at the Chippendale International School of Furniture.

I was a Senior Technical Telecoms Consultant working for a rather large blue chip organisation in the town of Staines in south-east England; back in May 2010 I decided to pack in my exceedingly dull, sedentary, paid, existence in leafy Middlesex suburbia for a new more physical, creative, self-motivated, countryside lifestyle. Most of my friends thought I might have been going through a midlife crisis; they might have been right, but it was a proactive midlife crisis at that!

The ultimate goal is to become a self-employed furniture maker and designer. With little or no woodworking skills, the quest was set.

The Friday before the start date, I handed over my laptop, mobile phone and security pass. I moved up to Gifford on the Saturday, drank tea on Sunday and started the course on Monday.

The opening lecture was a safety one which frankly I don’t think I’ll forget for a while. Anselm was showing us how to wrap up severed digits in a cool box, and how to get to the hospital in the vain hope that they could be sewn back on. Hmm, okay… what had I signed up to!

It was then straight into chiselling, sawing, planing a box to house a chisel sharpening stone and, once completed, we had to start designing our first term project. This was on the first day, it was mad, no messing, just get stuck in.

The First Term

<>The first 10 weeks involved getting used to hanging out with 16 new fellow students from all walks of life and ages (from 18 to 54), and folks from abroad (America, Belgium, Canada, Ireland, Germany via South Africa, England and, of course, Scotland). You also had to get used to the 5 lecturers and tutors, who all had alternative problem solving techniques. This is where you ask a question and you can get 5 alternative answers – at first you take them all as gospel but then find out you will have to choose the best one from the list. This is something you quickly get used to and, if the first method does not work, then the second or third just might! There are a million ways to cut a plank – we’ve yet to skin a cat though!

The other important thing is that you learn to get used to the large, scary machinery. Most of these machines have big green and red buttons. Before pressing the green button, you have to refer back to lesson one on day one – treat these tools with good care and attention and they will be kind to you. You get to know exactly where the red button is too!

Skills acquired in the first term included general woodwork joints including the iconic dovetail joint, strengthening keys, block building in the form of a giant hoola hoop, barley twist, upholstery, shaker box, tree identification, wood identification, tool of the day. You also get to start constructing your apprentice box which is improved and added to throughout the course.

The highlight for me, in the first term, was completing my first ever piece of furniture. A lounge sideboard which can house a lamp, a tv, magazines, family photos, pet photos, etc. The sideboard has yet to have a finish and polish applied (all covered in the second term). This is where you really learn furniture making and, interestingly, furniture design, all from working with wood and applying lots of trial and error.

The Second Term

Well we’re now 6 weeks into the second term. Again, another accelerated term of learning. This has included so far veneering with exotic woods, working with bendy plywood to create fun looking shapes, French polishing and finishes, boulle work, oyster work, marquetry, parquetry and continuation of tool of the day and tree identification. We have also been on a visit to Glasgow where we had a private view of the Burrell Collection furniture vault, Glasgow School of Art (designed by Rennie Mackintosh) and an exhibition of John Makepeace’s furniture.

We started our second furniture project which is a veneered piece. I’ve decided to build a desk using rosewood veneer and bendy plywood. There will be a whole host of issues to combat along with knowing that you will need to perform a number of corrections later in the construction process due to unforeseen circumstances – again, all good learning en route to becoming that furniture designer and maker.

Throughout the two terms we have also had morning lectures from Anselm on furniture history, health and safety, design and business techniques. These are a perfect length, a maximum of 30 minutes, just enough time to soak up various details to think about in the world of furniture making.

<>We also perform student stand ups, which involve a student discussing their project and possible issues that you might come up against. This allows everybody to scrutinise and give suggestions on design and construction solutions in an open forum.

Other highlights have included lunch around the nice warm stove, especially when it’s been snowing buckets, with friendly banter and laughter, and ‘Wednesday homemade soup day’. The local Goblin Ha’ pub is a popular venue and you get to know the locals very quickly indeed.

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