Back to School: Country Workshops

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This article is from Issue 9 of Woodcraft Magazine.

LIKE artisans of yore, students in a Country Workshops ladder-back chairmaking class sit at shaving horses to shape chair parts with drawknives.

Country Workshops 

By Brooks Townes

The Simple Life

A FEW YEARS AGO, a photo of a neat little lapstrake, gaff-rigged sailing skiff caught my eye in the pages of WoodenBoat magazine. It was newly built with a dark blue hull, red sails, oak trim and spruce spars nicely varnished.  

The magazine said it was built by Drew Langsner at Country Workshops in Madison County, N.C. Madison is a beautiful, sparsely populated county north of the arts-and-crafts city of Asheville, 2,500 feet in elevation and hours from the nearest ocean.  

“Say what?” I said to my dog. “Who way out in them-thar hills knows what a salty gaff sloop is, let alone how to build one!?” 

A leisurely pilgrimage

I wanted to meet this boat builder, so after a deadline one day, I took a drive. At the Madison County Sheriff’s Office, a kindly deputy gave me directions — a 30-mile drive over a twisty sun-spattered, two-lane road bordered by kudzu, past southern mountain cabins and red barns, some with “See Rock City” still faintly visible on their roofs.  

Way back in those hills still known to harbor moonshiners, I crossed a fast-water creek over a little wooden bridge with no railings and continued up a long driveway, tunneling through stands of leafy hardwoods. An occasional small, carved “CW” sign nailed to a tree pointed the way. Around a bend, the sky reappeared above a mountain pasture, a pond and a large, lush garden. Beyond that stood an old, three-story tobacco barn with lots of windows, and a large cabin of broadaxed logs, built in the Scandinavian style.

My unexpected arrival brought Langsner out of the barn and shop where students were drawknifing chair parts. I introduced myself, and he told me he and a pal had built the pretty blue boat I’d seen in the magazine as a personal project, inspired by a boat-building class at the school. “We were curious about lapstrake boat construction … also, we wanted a boat.”    To many woodworkers, Country Workshops is famous; to some it’s a Mecca — a quiet, healthy, peaceful place to learn hand-tool woodworking from a variety of masters. It’s like a monastery where one can live for a week, immersed in learning. The food is fantastic, the views astound, and the cool mountain nights are silent — except for katydids, tree frogs, an owl or two, and on some early mornings, a pileated woodpecker tapping in the woods above the cabins. 

Country Workshops has been teaching hand-tool woodcrafts since 1978 through classes and tutorials, plus yearly Langsner-led overseas study tours. Students learn about traditional woodworking and living country-simple, with elegance, much the way our forebears did (but without the discomforts).

Formerly a tobacco barn, the structure at left is now home to shop and classroom areas at Country Workshops. At right, a log guest cabin offers privacy and rustic charm. Lodging and meals are included in class tuition prices.  

A SWISS ALPINE COOPERAGE STUDENT works on staves that he will join together to form a cylindrical cask.

Importing knowledge

It’s interesting how Drew Langsner and his wife, Louise, got here. In the ’70s, they left their home in California and traveled the Old World, researching traditional craftsmanship across the globe. Their resulting book, “Handmade,” was well received upon its publication in 1974. They’d spent months traveling, studying and working with artisans such as woodworkers, coopers, weavers and bakers in Greece, Turkey and the Swiss Alps. 

The Langsners, drawn to the simple self-sufficiency of these craftsmen, returned to the United States determined to carve out a similar living. They explored the states, considering Oregon and Maine and elsewhere. They decided that more people still lived simple, self-sufficient farming lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains than anywhere else in the nation. Plus, the hills there were still blanketed with hardwood forests.  

With little money but lots of energy, the Langsners acquired their 100 acres with its barn and a drafty old box-built settler’s cabin. After a couple of winters in that cabin, they decided they needed a real house — and that was the beginning of Country Workshops.

“The well-known log house builder, Peter Gott, lived just five miles away. We had the idea of having him teach a class here, and I could be part of the class and learn some of his log-building techniques,” Langsner said. “We had also recently enjoyed a visit from a Swedish woodworking teacher we admired, Willie Sundqvist. We wrote a letter to Willie asking if he could teach also, carving bowls and spoons. He agreed. The following summer we held two, one-week classes in carving bowls and spoons and one five-day class in log building. That was in 1978.”

The classes were a success, which led Langsner to invite a friend, expert ladder-back chairmaker John Alexander, to teach post-and-rung chairmaking the following summer.  By then the old tobacco barn had been turned into a shop, “and we’ve had that chair class every year since,” Langsner said.

A RUSTIC BOWL EMERGES from a split section of log in a “Carving Bowls and Spoons” class. Here, Lisa Myatt measures its depth.

Decisions, decisions

As Langsner’s interests in woodworking widened, so did Country Workshops’ class offerings. Now classes are offered in American Windsor chairmaking, ladder-back chairmaking, rustic Windsor chairmaking, carving bowls and spoons, making a post-and-rung rocking chair, Japanese woodworking, Swiss cooperage, making a classic shaving horse for spokeshave and drawknife work and willow basketry (taught by Louise). There’s also a class called “Woodworking for Women.”

After all these years, the programs are well organized. On my subsequent visits students have commented on the positive, encouraging learning environment, especially those just discovering how much can be done with hand tools.   

It’s an education just to watch how Drew and visiting instructors accommodate all learning levels with lots of individual attention. Without fanfare, they take up slower students’ projects to use for demonstrating a technique in order to keep the students moving along together.  There’s plenty of camaraderie among students, with the more advanced aiding the less experienced, and all end up with a nicely completed project to take home.

Months after that drive to find the man who built that boat, I returned to Country Workshops for a ladder-back chair class. I had to admire Langsner’s calm and skill, and his organization — also the artful, bucolic retreat both Langsners have created. 

If you decide to take a class, you’ll use the school’s top-quality tools, sleep well, and eat delicious meals three times a day from Louise’s garden, augmented by meat and cheeses from Asheville’s better markets.  The school also sells a fine array of hard-to-find traditional tools, books and woodworking videos. Each fall, Drew Langsner conducts a study tour of respected craftsmen’s shops in Europe or Japan.  

Classes are kept small, so every student gets plenty of individual instruction. Summer classes last five days, include six to eight students and range in price according to the complexity of the projects. Bowl and spoon carving classes last summer cost $625 for everything — all materials, use of excellent tools, a comfortable room in a rustic cabin shared with one or two others, and three fabulous meals each day. A five-day rustic Windsor chair class costs $775, again with everything included but transportation to and from Country Workshops.

Winter tutorials are shorter and more intense, and limited to four students each. All include meals and a private, heated room. They range from $400 for a weekend course making a classic shaving horse to $950 for a four-day, intensive ladder-back chairmaking tutorial.

More involved projects — making a rustic Windsor settee or hearth chair, for instance — are open only to accomplished woodworkers, run five days and cost $1,000.

For more information, go to countryworkshops.org or give the Langsners a call at 828-656-2280.

Brooks Townes of Weaverville, N.C., has been a daily newspaper reporter, ocean sailor, and for 30 years a maritime writer. He has built furniture and several wooden boats, restored a couple more boats and he made his bed.

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