Frank Vargo handcrafts fine traditional Windsor chairs, while teaching a new generation to reinvent woodworking.
|Cross-hatching and the use of triangular shapes are engineering methods applied to woodworking that enhances the strength of the delicate-looking, but sturdy Windsor-style chair.|
In 1978, a teenaged Frank Vargo was walking up some snowdrifts on a pair of snowshoes he had built himself when a local traditional woodworker happened to drive by. Fred Urbank noticed the shoes and asked the young man if he was interested in woodworking. Thus, a long-standing friendship was struck between the fatherless teen and the older man, who taught young Vargo woodworking and set his protege on the road to becoming one of Northeast Ohio’s most sought-after master craftsmen.
The young man worked for his mentor, traveling with him for years teaching seminars on dovetailing. He also obtained a technical college degree and worked at millwork and commercial cabinet shops, before striking out on his own, where he experienced success building fine museum reproductions of chairs and a wide array of other projects.
“I’ve built everything,” Vargo says, “from timber frame bridges to framing homes. I’m really good at cutting joints (especially difficult “bird’s mouth” joints) and making wood fit together.”
The Doylestown, OH-based Vargo built his reputation without advertising, with word-of-mouth primarily serving to bring a wide range of projects to his door throughout the years. Additionally, he became well-known for the production of fine Windsor-style chairs.
According to Vargo, these chairs reached their pinnacle in the 1760s when furnituremakers mastered the knowledge of the materials used and how to manipulate them.
“In a traditional Windsor chair,” Vargo says, “you look for a straight-grain tree that will split nicely. One of the keys to why these chairs work is that there is really more air than chair. It’s the negative space that really makes them work: the space between the parts.
|This chair with a hinged backrest is an example of Frank Vargo’s more modern designs.|
“You can turn a leg out of a green piece of wood thinner. The grain runs along the long axis, capitalizing on the strength of the wood. You can cut thinner, so it looks lighter and more elegant,” he continues. “You can make bold turnings, like have a great big goblet shape, but it can get very thin at the neck because you’ve still got the grain running straight through it.
“The seat may be made of butternut, poplar or pine, something that carves easy. But you are making it out of fairly green lumber, so it is going to shrink. You use that to help yourself,” he adds.
“They had a little device like a bucket of sand and would heat it over a fire. They would stick the tenon that was going to go into the hole in the feet of the leg into the sand and that would dry out the very end of it,” Vargo further explains. “When you dry out all of the moisture, it shrinks to the smallest size it will ever be. When you put that dry tenon into that wet hole the first thing it does is expand. Then as the chair sits, it dries out a bit.”
No glue is necessary, although Vargo says he does use a bit, mostly for lubrication. He also points out that the triangle shapes used throughout these chairs also greatly enhance the strength.
Vargo shares his knowledge and passion for traditional woodworking, teaching both adults as well as grade school students at the Spring Garden Waldorf School, recently challenging the youngsters to design and build chairs using the least amount of wood possible.
“I’ve been doing traditional woodworking for 30 years and I am getting more interested in doing more original work.” Vargo says. “Teaching is the best job I’ve ever had because these kids will accept new ideas and have ideas of their own. Making a joint fit and finishing a chair is nice, but when you help someone else do it, the joy doubles.”
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