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This article is from Issue 15 of Woodcraft Magazine.
Lonnie Bird’s School of Fine Woodworking
By Larry Brown
DANDRIDGE, TENN., IS A SMALL TOWN in the heart of a sportsman’s paradise. Bordered on the south by Douglas Lake, the historical burg is a haven for boaters, fishermen and hunters. A few miles to the south of town the Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers miles of trails for the casual hiker and the serious backpacker. Camping and horseback riding are also staples in the area. Dandridge is 20 minutes east of Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and the unofficial gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains – Gatlinburg.
In 2002, Dandridge gained yet another attraction when noted woodworker and author Lonnie Bird decided to open his School of Fine Woodworking, offering six classes that first year. The school’s popularity grew rapidly, and today it can be difficult to secure a spot in one of the 15 classes offered yearly. In 2006, Lonnie’s Woodworking Essentials class had a waiting list of over 300.
Lonnie began woodworking in junior high. A few years later he apprenticed at a woodshop in Virginia. He recalls this period fondly, noting the good humor and occasional practical joke that went along with learning from the shop’s craftsmen. He likes to bring those memories into his shop, often sharing stories with humorous and instructive endings.
Following his apprenticeship, Lonnie began to teach woodworking at a college in southeastern Ohio. After 13 years as an instructor, he decided to start his own school, where he could work more closely with a smaller number of students at once.
The woodworking school is a dream shop, a beautiful three stories of rust-colored brick. The lower level of the school is the machine shop, fitted with modern power tools for milling lumber to almost final size. All of the milling is done by Lonnie’s assistant, Jason Bennett, to save students time better spent refining their hand-tool skills and completing their projects. Jason is also available to help students and explain power tool techniques.
Although Lonnie believes that using power tools can save time in the early stages of a project, his lessons emphasize that nothing compares to the fit and finish that hand tools provide.
Students’ rough-cut lumber waits in the upper level, the school’s storage area, until it is needed for milling.
The school’s main floor is the action center. Walking into the main work area on a sunny morning can be a little intimidating for first-time students. However, Lonnie soon puts everyone at ease, and students are soon so busy learning they don’t have time to be nervous.
Lonnie limits his class size to nine, and each student gets his own workbench in this bright and spacious work area. The room accommodates 10 workbenches easily, but is small enough to feel almost cozy. This close proximity aids in teaching because every student can easily see anything Lonnie points out in the room, and they are only a few steps away when he calls them together for a lesson.
All of the projects are designed by Lonnie to be constructed with time-honored mortise-and-tenon and dovetail joinery. When students are finished, they take home an heirloom piece of furniture they are proud to show family and friends.
Lonnie’s skills as a teacher show in his pre-class preparation. When students arrive, the teaching begins and doesn’t stop until the end of the last day. Students are often surprised at how much they have accomplished when class is over.
Perhaps this is because Lonnie loves to teach, and his enthusiasm for the subject is contagious. When not teaching a specific lesson, Lonnie makes himself available to assist students personally in one-on-one sessions in which he helps students discover the answers for themselves rather than just telling them how to do something.
By focusing on proper hand tool techniques, Lonnie leads his students toward a higher level of craftsmanship. The first thin shaving from a new student’s hand plane soon lead to drawers that fit snugly with no gaps; sawing to the mark on a practice board soon leads to perfect-fitting dovetails.
Lonnie offers classes for all skill levels, but his most popular class by far is Woodworking Essentials. Among the many lessons of this six-day class are sharpening hand planes, scrapers and chisels, project layout, mortise-and-tenon joints, handling wood movement, hand-cut dovetail joints and constructing and fitting drawers. Students leave with a well-made table and a host of new skills.
Other classes cover a range of subjects including carving, turning and mastering fine casework. Classes in 2006 ran from three to six days in length. However, the class lineup is slightly different each year, and at times includes classes that are two weeks long. Building a Keeping Box is a new class for 2007.
Tuition in 2006 ranged from $396-$795 and included all assembly materials, such as glues, screws, and sandpaper. Students are expected to provide their own hand tools and lumber. A cut list for each class along with a list of the hand tools required is mailed to each student. Lonnie also includes a contact for ordering wood pre-cut to rough dimension, which can then be delivered to the school before class begins.
Lunch is included with tuition, and is served buffet-style on a breezeway connected to the shop. Lonnie’s school is a family affair, with his wife and children often helping by preparing and serving the midday meal. The relaxed setting helps the students get to know one another, and gives them a chance to question Lonnie about woodworking subjects not covered in class.
More information on Lonnie Bird’s School of Fine Woodworking can be found on Lonnie’s Web site: lonniebird.com.
—Larry Brown is a network administrator for an Ohio utility company and a woodworker. He lives in Trenton, Ohio.
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