Doing it for ourselves

These days we like to do it ourselves. At Country Workshops, a school for traditional woodworking in Madison County, you can do just that. Edged against a forest of tulip poplar, oak and maple, Drew and Louise Langsner’s 100-acre homestead provides respite from the busy world, and a place to experience “slow craft” at its finest.

The traditional woodworking classes take place in a converted two-story tobacco barn, where the Langsners began teaching workshops 32 years ago, when the barn had a dirt floor and drafty walls. They have since made many improvements — wiring for electricity, a wood stove, sleeping quarters and a retail shop just above the classroom studio space.

Open, screen-less windows overlook quiet pastureland and a nearby homestead garden filled with seasonal greens and vegetables, picked before each meal and served up fresh to the table in hand-woven willow basketry. Louise teaches basketry workshops a few times a year. She prepares the meals, and offers cooking and baking classes hinging on interest. Her sourdough bread is memorable.

The wood shop itself, situated among willow branches, has an open, simple feel. There are several piles of logs and planks (future chair legs and serving bowls). Shaving horses, axes, augers, rasps and various other fine hand tools, and a few electric lathes, fill the space. The shop is traditional, but not primitive. Drew doesn’t shun electric tools — it’s just that he values traditional tools more. The mark a hand tool leaves behind creates a one of a kind piece, rich in gesture. A future heirloom.

Drew jokes that he is not an “historic re-creationist.” While his work is traditional, there are modern details that bespeak signature work. Famous in the woodworking world for his Windsor chair, his latest work, a multi-hollow serving bowl, is an interesting stylistic departure. The shape of the bowl, hand-carved into the wood, is at once familiar and indefinable. “The shapes are supposed to make you think of something, but you don’t know what,” he says. Where the shape leaves off, the imagination picks up.

The Langsners have spent time in Europe, visiting artists at their homesteads and workshops, gleaning traditional and modern design through relationships with craftspeople. Langsner finds many of his ideas are hybrids of what works.

Most of the instructors are international, and travel from places like Scandinavia and Japan to teach summer workshops. This year, the Langsners are excited to host Osamu Shoji, who is teaching Japanese Woodworking: Making an Andon-A Wood Framed lamp with Paper Shading.

Another interesting offering: Since 1991, Drew has organized an international crafts tour (chosen based on the country’s craft traditions and Drew’s contacts there), and this year, the tour will be of Japan (from October 19 to 29). The trips are “very much off the tourist path,” and there’s a full description of the itinerary on the Country Workshops’ web site.

Other highlights include Jogge Sundqvist’s Swedish Sloyd Craft (spoon and bowl carving). Carl Swenson’s Art of Coopering (the method used to make oak barrels and other containers), and renowned chair-maker Tom Donahay’s class, Post And Rung Rocking Chair, where participants can make a chair to take home. Langsner offers his own workshop, Ladderback Chairmaking, where students make a chair out of a single red oak log. Yes: a big red oak log. Hand tools and materials will be provided.

Many of these workshops send you home with a hand-built object and, most significantly, with the woodworking skills to continue the craft at home. The talented instructors, Louise’s wholesome cooking and the general sensibility of the homestead lifestyle make for a top-notch, almost mythical experience.

The Country Workshops’ retail shop offers a collection of the finest American and European tools available, as well as shaving mules made by Donahay, and design plans for the ambitious DIYer.

Visit www.countryworkshops.org for an online storefront where you can order specialty tools, catalogs, Langsner’s books, get driving directions and register for classes.

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