ROCK VIDEO

Chair maker creates DVD to teach others how to build fine chairs

2009-10-11T00:05:00Z Chair maker creates DVD to teach others how to build fine chairsJAN FALSTAD Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
October 11, 2009 12:05 am  • 

Scott Morrison, whose Montana home and workshop sit just above the Yellowstone River outside of Columbus, pointed to a recently finished wedding gift waiting for its shipping crate: A handmade rocker for two.

A San Francisco man ordered the double rocker for his bride and asked Morrison to engrave a message under the seat: "Grow old with me. Rock the nights away."

"I still get a thrill every time I build a chair. I just love the fact somebody else is going to love this like I did," Morrison said.

During his first career, Morrison worked as a NASA space shuttle engineer and started a California company that helped GPS locate 911 calls. In 1997, he and his wife, Valerie Morrison, surrendered their computer software careers and moved to Columbus to follow a dream of crafting fine furniture, chiefly chairs.

After eight years establishing his business, Morrison now has a year backlog of orders for the two-dozen designs he makes. A Morrison footstool sells for $150 while a top-of-the-line rocking chair crafted from rarest woods can cost $12,000. That life should keep them busy enough, but the Morrisons enthusiastically tackle new projects.

In August, after five months of painstaking filming and editing, they released a six-hour DVD set that shows every cut, spoke shave stroke, measurement and ebony peg to make an heirloom rocker. The instructions are for the average, if adventurous, woodworker attempting to create a legacy chair.

Buying a similar chair from Morrison would cost $6,000 to $12,000, depending on the choice of wood. If the chair is made of tiger maple, the cost of the wood alone runs $1,000 to $1,500.

When Morrison was programming software during the day and attempting to make chairs in his garage at night, the legendary California woodworker Sam Maloff was encouraging.

"He told me in so many words, 'I like you. Keep doing this.' And all he asked is that I say it was based on his work," Morrison said.

Maloff died in May and the woodworking community is smaller now without him, Morrison said, but his tradition of sharing knowledge must continue.

"People who do with their hands and do for themselves, I think that is a dying art. And I want to support the resurgence of artistry," he said.

The first video took months to finish because the Morrisons decided to do the production work themselves. That meant climbing some steep learning curves, figuring out basic cinematography and learning three computer-editing programs.

"I just looked at the scope of the project and I said, 'Holy Cow. How am I going to get this done?' " he said.

Valerie Morrison shot some scenes 10 times until she caught her husband's exact measurement or movement. The do-it-yourself production saved an estimated $20,000 in production costs, they said.

The Morrisons recently purchased a wireless microphone to avoid the off-mike audio of their first effort. And they are looking into buying a professional-grade camera.

Until Rockler or another catalog called Woodcraft begin marketing the DVD set, the Morrisons are selling their product directly on their Web site: www.finewoodworker.com

Since "Building an Elegant Rocking Chair" was completed in August, customers have ordered more than 100 copies.

"The reaction has been nothing short of phenomenal," Scott Morrison said. "But woodworkers who have been around a long time don't really have access to the Internet, so to see this video in their catalogs would really help sales."

Almost all customers so far have paid $199 for the DVDs and the actual templates of the rocker parts. Without the templates, the DVD set costs $60.

During the filming, Scott improved from stiffly reading his lines off of cue cards to ad-libbing.

"Toward the end, he sounded really natural," Valerie Morrison said.

Rocking away

As a child, Scott Morrison used to fight with his three brothers for the privilege of sitting in their great-grandmother Rose's cigarette-marred, creaky rocking chair, a routine that helped draw him to chair making.

"Because they are not only a piece of furniture, but a piece of the person who owned it," he said.

Cutting the pieces and then grinding, sanding and scraping them into sensuous forms take the most time and effort. The repetitive sanding leaves Morrison's hands beat-up and sore for Monday fly-fishing with his son, Grant Morrison, who worked in his father's shop for a year before hiring on as a Billings police officer.

Despite the reverence the Morrisons have for tiger maple, cherry, black walnut and other rare woods, there is no "Don't touch that" talk when their daughter's boy, CJ Kline, shows up.

Wielding a permanent black marker in his chubby hand, the toddler scribbles first on paper and then on a future seat of rare black walnut from Oregon. Both grandparents shrug off the marks, which will fall victim to the sander in a few days.

"They're chairs, for crying out loud," Scott Morrison said, laughing.

"I know he'll be in the shop at probably age 5," Valerie Morrison said, anticipating a third-generation woodworker.

Despite the highs and lows of producing their first video, the Morrisons expect to finish a second "How To" this fall featuring a less-complicated rocker. They are helping a neighbor film the first of five videos called, "Cooking Like My Jewish Grandmother." And next spring, they plan to film a fly fishing video using three dimensional animation to show how a dry fly should land and float on the water.

Their future videos need to be more entertaining, Valerie Morrison said, so she is working to emulate Pixar Animation Studio's successful approach.

"We would like to put together a woodworking video where we teach somebody how to build a project, but the person teaching you is a 3D character, as opposed to Scott," she said. "And nobody's doing it."

Last week, a man from Moscow (Russia, not Idaho) called about buying three barstools. Global sales are made possible through digital Internet, Scott Morrison said, and he is planning another video to teach others how to run a woodworking business from a remote area.

"This allows me to take orders from all over the globe and live in the most beautiful place in the world," he said.

Contact Jan Falstad at jfalstad@billingsgazette.com or 657-1306.

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