For more than 20 years, Charlie Sweitzer worked as a pastor with the McKinley Foundation. He retired in 1996, believing his work lacked a feeling of tangibility, of results. Then he took up chair-making.
By Aske Denning
From morning to late afternoon, Monday through Saturday, Charlie Sweitzer works in his shop, next to his home on West John Street in Champaign. He is 78 or 77... no, 78 years old.
This morning, he is ready to begin crafting a wooden rocking chair. Its distinctive back will be made of four bowed slats of bird's eye maple. The wood's name derives from the lumber's thousands of tiny, spiraling eyes, a pattern that makes the maple surface look like a map of a hilly landscape. Charlie is a little nervous about building the chair because the client living in the country outside Mattoon is a fellow craftsman Charlie admires.
"He's such a fine woodworker, so I'm very hesitant."
Back in about 2005, Charlie and his son, John, founded the Sweitzer & Sweitzer furniture shop. They sell handmade furniture inspired by the Shakers, a Protestant sect that emigrated from England to America in 1774.
The Shakers did not believe in ornamenting their furniture. Utility was seen as the highest worship of God. Although a Sweitzer piece can take weeks of labor, the men's creations are spare, clean and functional — honest, Charlie calls them.
"You can see how it is put together," he says.
Charlie, a tall, lean man with large, knuckled hands and a white, bushy beard, came late to making chairs. For more than 20 years, he worked as a pastor with the McKinley Foundation. He retired in 1996 believing his work lacked a feeling of tangibility, of results. That's when he took up chair-making.
It began with a present. Charlie was still with McKinley and on his birthday — who knows which one? — John gave him The Book of Shaker Furniture. John was already building furniture. Charlie had no idea why the hell his son had given him the book, but he was dissatisfied at work and so he decided to give chair-making a try.
He bought tools and attended workshops in Michigan and England. The book that was a birthday present from his son became Charlie's new Bible. Because Sweitzer & Sweitzer is a family business, people tend to think that the craft was handed down from father to son.
"Wrong," Charlie says.
In his first attempt at building a chair, Charlie drilled the angles incorrectly.
"Then there's nothing you can do, except cut up the pieces and burn 'em."
But with time, Charlie learned the lessons of craftsmanship from his son: patience and dogged attention to detail.
"He knows a lot about furniture," Charlie says.
The Sweitzers' shop today consists of three rooms, two for working and one for storage, as well as an attic that is stacked with raw lumber: white oak, maple, cherry, hickory and walnut. Sounds of the shop: A mallet knocking the arm of a chair in place, the sharp metallic whirl of a table saw, an old sawdust-covered stereo playing the Chatham Baroque ensemble or the Argentinean guitarist Gustavo Santaolalla. The shop's dusty air is dry to the throat, yet fresh from the scent of wood being cut, sanded and chiseled. Above the entrance, tilting to the left, hangs a wooden sign: SWEITZER & SWEITZER.
Besides the bird's eye maple back slats, Charlie's rocking chair will be made of cherry wood uprights, legs, stretchers, arms, rockers and a shawl rail, the top bar on which the Shakers would hang their garments.
Cherry is not as strong as, say, hickory or oak. But what it lacks in hardiness it makes up for in elegance. In its light-colored body run very fine, curved lines of grain. As the wood oxidizes, it develops a deep rose-colored patina.
By now, Charlie has built several hundred chairs, and from time to time, he builds a chair he admires. In such a chair, the joints fit tightly and cleanly, and Charlie has made the right selections in back slats and uprights so that the grain patterns flow elegantly.
This morning, after having drilled holes in the rocker's front legs, Charlie marks the back legs with a pencil to indicate where he will be mortising — drilling rectangular holes to hold the maple slats, which will be placed between the two back posts like steps on a ladder.
Chairs are a headache because their pieces meet at so many varying angles. Some angles are right, some are 15 degrees, others are 10, no, let's see ... 8 degrees! Charlie measures them all by hand, the old-fashioned way.
When Charlie began chair-making, John was worried that sharing his workshop would not work out. He knew Charlie was unhappy at his job, and John did not want his father's distress to infect the shop. But Charlie mellowed out immediately.
"We're actually able to get along," says Charlie, who gladly lets his son's work take priority over his own when the shop is busy with work. "But it has become very clear to me, as an indentured servant, that the only way I'm gonna get outta this shop is when I die."
With that, he laughs.
Charlie pulls out two sets of back slats. Four maple slats in each set, firmly fixed in frames meant to keep them bowed until assembly. He carefully assesses each set. Not just the grain of the individual slats and their amount of eye, but how nature's designs in the four pieces interplay with each other.
"I don't know," he mumbles as the sound of Santaolalla's melancholic charango fills the air. "I think I'll choose this set."
Charlie can't really explain. In the end, it is simply intuition. Next, Charlie sands the slats — first with a power sander, then sandpaper by hand. The final detailed sanding could be done in the dark because, at this stage, Charlie sees any roughness with his fingers, not his eyes. He measures the angle of the slats, writes "18 degrees" on a piece of blue reminder-tape, and moves down to his next step.
"I don't trust my memory," he says and checks a document of procedures an extra time before drilling four rectangular slits in each of the chair's back legs.
For cutting mortises, Charlie uses a machine built by a funny old duck of a woodworker in Wisconsin. "He builds 'em one at a time."
The mortising machine cuts are rounded, so Charlie needs to square their ends by hand. From a drawer stuffed with tools, he pulls out a set of chisels. His favorite is Japanese and formed like a fishtail. The chiseling makes muffled, crunching sounds as Charlie works the shape of his mortises.
Then something happens. Despite being fastened to the table by a clamp, one of the legs moves a touch as Charlie chisels it, and an edge of one the mortises goes a little off square. Charlie is not happy.
"This might be a throwaway piece. But we'll see."
Charlie didn't used to be so fussy. Working every day with John, who helps correct his father's mistakes, has made Charlie a perfectionist, which he never was. He is surprised. He used to believe he was too old to learn anything new.
"All right, now we're gonna fit these babies," he says to himself.
Making the back slats fit into the mortises of the uprights is a matter of trial and error. Charlie eventually gets to the mortise with the off-square line.
"Is that gonna work?" his son asks.
Charlie sands the end of the slat again and again and patiently attempts to press it into the slit, hoping to feel that perfect, tight fit.
"I think I can make it work," Charlie says and sands again, blows away the dust, goes to assemble.
"Shall we pray?" the former pastor asks.
These are not the golden years for Charlie; they are the forgetful and clumsy years. He sometimes forgets where he put his tools and his hands shake a little when they are idle. His body does not allow him to lift heavy pieces anymore. He has had to cut down on the number of art fairs he attends with John. Yet Charlie considers his life privileged.
"I walk 10 yards to work. I work with John at least five days a week." Charlie breaks into a warm smile. "He's so kind. I'm among the lucky."
On a wall in the shop hangs a framed quote from Thomas Merton, an American mystic and Trappist monk: "Build a chair as if an angel was going to sit in it."
It has been two weeks since Charlie began crafting his rocking chair. Its body stands assembled in the Sweitzer shop. The remaining process will include adding a seat of jute fibre and interwoven green and burned orange Shaker tape of cotton. Because Charlie wants this chair to be something special, he will apply six layers of finish, rather than the usual three or four.
"It came out OK," Charlie says as he takes a careful look at his work: a classic, a potential heirloom. He smiles.
"I think I'll be happy with it."
Aske Denning is a University of Illinois journalism student. This story was done in a spring semester version of Professor Walt Harrington's literary feature writing class. Funding came from the Marajen Stevick Foundation.