Sunday, April 1, 2012

John C. Campbell Folk School - Shaker Box Workshop

I just got home from an exciting week at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, NC, where I took a Shaker box making class lead by Lenton Williams. This is my 6th trip to the Folk School and my 6th time taking an incredible class. If you ever have a chance to get to Brasstown, jump on the opportunity.
The drive from St. Louis to Brasstown, takes you along the Ocoee river, which hosted kayaking competitions during the Atlanta Olympic Games. Depending on the time of year the damns may be open and you can find kayakers and white water rafters.
Once at the Folk School you are surrounded by nature and peace and quiet. This is a view from the back porch of the Keith House, the main dormitory and office building. I usually stay in this building since I opt for the cheapest housing option. Since you spend so little time in your room, the bunk house style living is really not a problem. This year they just remodeled the bathroom I stayed in, so the newly tiled floor and large shower stall was really nice.
The wood working studio is located just across the road from the Keith House, so is quite convenient. Every class I have taken at the Folk School has been in this building since the basketry studio is located on the back side. The wood shop is well equipped with a full range of high quality wood working tools.

The week begins with an orientation to the school, dinner and a trip to your studio and introduction to the class.
Bright and early on Monday we get started. Lendon demonstrated making the middle sized box of the nesting set of five boxes we will all start out with. The boxes are made by soaking a band of thin wood, in near boiling water for about 20 minutes, and then bending it around an oval core. The over-lap is marked and band removed from the core and taken to the vice.
The swallow-tails are nailed down with tiny copper tacks through pre-drilled holes. Care must be taken to make sure that the tips of the tack cinch over on the inside of the box while not splitting the wood.
Shapers are inserted into the top and bottom of the bands to maintain the shape of the box. The lid bands are bent around the formed box to create a custom fit. At this point the bands are placed into a drying box.
 Once dried the inside of the bands are carefully traced so that the solid lid and base can be shaped.
The lid and base plates are rough-cut on a bandsaw then final shaped on the disc sander. The table on the sander is tilted at three degrees to create a beveled edge so the plates are literally wedged into the bands for a super tight fit.
No glue is necessary on these boxes. The lid and base plates are held in place with tiny pegs. Holes are drilled around the edge of the boxes where the pegs will be inserted and cut off flush.
Lenton brought a wide selection of bands with the swallow-tails rough cut and pre-drilled for us to choose from.
Not only did we have a variety of sizes to choose from, we also had a variety of woods, including maple, cherry, walnut burl and curly maple.
On the first day we get right to work on our own boxes. The flat end of bands are thinned on the belt sander and the swallow tails are beveled with a sharp knife.
Buy the end of the first day I had my nesting set assembled and ready to be sanded and finished.
While the smaller boxes a single person can handle by themselves, the larger boxes require a set of helping hands. Here Lenton helps nail the bottom band of a large #8 box.
 The boxes are finished with a coat of oil and buffed with wax for a nice glow.
One style of box we had the option to make was a #4 swing-handled carrier. For this box holes must be drilled in the sides to accommodate a brass rivet to act as a hinge.
I made my carrier out of cherry. The swallow-tail fingers are offset to allow for the handle to be centered while not piercing the copper tacks.
We also had the option of making our own set of cores, or forms to make more boxes once we returned home.
While the goal was to make eight boxes I ended up making 17, including not only my maple nesting set of 5 five, but also two large button boxes, two presentation boxes with curly maple lids, and three cherry and three maple round pin cushion boxes. Fortunately I had brought my wool fabric with me to make some of my embroidered pin cushions, so was able to make two simple Shaker style cushions for my new boxes.
On the last day of class at the Folk School everyone gets to see what everyone else was working on all week. Here is our class and the exhibit of some of our boxes.
Here are the individual boxes I made over my 5 days at the John C. Campbell Folk School.
On my previous five visits I have always taken a basket class. This session was on making traditional coiled sweet grass, pine needle and palmetto palm baskets. Their baskets turned out great. Guess that will have to be another trip to the Folk School for me.
Each morning's view was breath taking as the fog lifted over the mountains. I am already counting the months until I can get back to the tiny town of Brasstown, NC and the John C. Campbell Folk School.


  1. I love all your pictures! I cannot wait to go in May. I have never been!

    1. You will love it. The weather should even be better when you are there. I lucked out and the trees were all in bloom. It was really pretty. Be sure to go to morning song each morning, especially the first morning when Jan Davidson gives the history of the Folk School. The others are usually very entertaining as well. Don't count on dieting while you are there, the food is great and they serve you plenty. If they have a wood turning or blacksmithing demonstration one evening go to that too, they are always very interesting and often times they draw a name to get what they made while demoing.