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Members of Lumber Club Marfa outside their workshop, in Marfa, on January 22, 2021. Photograph by Abigail Enright
Country Notes

The Girls of Lumber Club Marfa Work to Master the Craft of the Three-legged Stool

A good wooden stool is simple and sturdy. During the past few years, a small group in Marfa has used this idea to create a business that has, well, legs.

The weekly meeting of Lumber Club Marfa has commenced. The day’s braid count is moderate: Mae and Willa have two braids each, Mabel has one, Edie’s hair is held back by white earmuffs, and Colette, who has a pixie cut, abstains. The meeting opens not with the recitation of an oath or the singing of an anthem. Instead, a question is in order. “How’s the energy level?” asks Larry Bamburg, the club’s founder and, at 46, its sole adult. Five girls, ages 6 through 11, gaze back at him. It is after school, a Friday, and most of Larry’s audience sits slouched atop an ice chest. “If you’re feeling good, then you’re on stool prep. If your energy’s low, you’re building boxes,” he says. Edie, at 6, is the club’s youngest member. She leaps up and down, flapping her hands. “Mabel. Willa. You’re on boxes,” Larry says. “Help out Edie so she doesn’t get burned on the hot glue gun.”

Mabel, who is 11 and Edie’s sister, gently corrects him. “She’s not allowed to use the hot glue gun.” 

“Okay, well, she can help y’all out.”

Lumber Club Marfa originated in 2016. Larry’s children, Mae and Willa, then 6 and 4 years old, had used markers to color on a wooden stool at home. Rather than getting caught up in an angry or punitive “we do not draw on furniture” moment, Larry enjoined them to make a three-legged stool, one that wasn’t off-limits in terms of kid embellishment and yet simple enough to undertake in terms of design. “We spent the weekend on it,” he recalls. “I ripped all the wood. I cut it to length, and they did what they wanted with it—put stickers on it, glued felt on it, had fun with it. That was the first time getting them into the shop.”

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Finished three-legged stools.

Photograph by Abigail Enright

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Club member Edie Melgaard holds a freshly cut seat.

Photograph by Abigail Enright

Back then, a constellation of events had Larry feeling restless. He was shaken by Donald Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” comment and subsequent election. The Bamburg family was navigating some new challenges at the girls’ school, and the girls were of an age where the presence of smartphones had started to impede spontaneous play. Neither child was particularly sports-minded and the area scouting club didn’t quite suit them, either. Larry wanted his kids to be able to learn and create and do on their own unfettered terms.

“I was dealing with that notion of trying to contribute in some way as a responsible person in a town,” he says. “I wanted to put something together that helps, drawing on the work ethic that’s inherent in the ranching culture here.”

The answer, he thought, was woodworking. Larry is an artist who tends to explore convolutions of thought or process. Woodworking requires persistence, patience, and endurance; it’s “a foil,” he says, “to whatever you run into in life.” When the children’s friends came over, Larry began sometimes suggesting that they make a three-legged stool together. He asked local carpenters for scrap wood and, over time, one stool became several. Someone had the idea to sell them, so they were placed at the Marfa Brand Soap shop in town. Surprise, they sold. “We’d make five and sell them all. We’d drop off more when we made more.”

A three-legged stool is sturdy and adaptable, apt not to tilt. Lumber Club Marfa stools are imperfect but pristine in function and appealingly wonky. They stand about eighteen inches high and twelve inches wide, though not always. Their seats might be fat, or skinny, and perhaps not precisely round. Threads sometimes show on the stools’ legs. Mistakes happen in the making, such as drilling a leg hole in the wrong spot or chipping the underside of a seat. Rather than pitching the mistake onto the scrap pile, the girls take a die set and stamp “Oooops” next to the goof.

“It’s about getting them to learn the skills for each task, learning tools safely so I can trust them,” Larry says. “It’s a balance between having them meet the mark and having to solve some problems. I push them to notice that it all communicates an idea. How many threads you want to put on it? Here’s a knot in the wood. If something magic happens with the knot, you can leave it. You can sand it and make a bevel. What does it take for them to see the magic?”

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Club founder Larry Bamburg and member Colette Fowlkes prepare to shape the legs of a stool. Photograph by Abigail Enright

Lumber Club Marfa continued in this way for a couple of years: a core group of six or eight friends of Mae and Willa, almost all of them girls, plus the occasional boy, coalesced and met each Friday, more or less, depending on holidays, summer vacations, birthdays, and who had to make the four-hundred-mile round trip for the dentist in El Paso. Larry leased a barn as a workshop and a space where the club meets. Outside the barn is a red-painted windmill and a hot walker meant to exercise horses, though it more commonly serves as a motorized swing for the girls, like a slow-motion carnival ride. Lumber clubbers are apt to be outside at some point in the meeting, poking at a coachwhip snake or tearing around wearing superhero capes they’ve made from cardboard. “Efficiency,” says Larry, “is not the goal.” He points to a large “20” written on the barn’s wall, a beacon from a landmark day when they drilled and tapped twenty seats. It took them two whole years of learning, playing, and making to get to that point. “Now,” he says, “after four years, they’re perfectly capable little people.”

As they’ve aged, Larry has taught the girls more steps, introduced more equipment, and ceded more
responsibility and decision-making to them. Eventually he will involve the
m in sourcing materials, replying to order requests, invoicing, and so on. For now, they mostly make stools. “Have you ever glued legs?” Larry asks Colette, who is eleven. It’s a November afternoon and David Bowie plays on the radio.

“No.”

Larry applies a dab of glue to a leg hole and moves the glue around with a toothbrush. “Two squirts,” he says. “Brush it all the way in. Spin the seat and push it into the threads like this.” Colette carefully takes over.

“Like this?”

“Yes. Now take the leg, get it straight, and thread it until you know it will catch.”

Colette and Mae watch Larry demonstrate.

Colette then holds the seat steady as Mae threads a leg into a gluey hole and it settles into place. They repeat these actions for each leg. “It’s pretty tight, right?” Larry says, testing the legs for give. “I’m gonna say it’s good.”

Udder Perfection

Until the advent of mechanized milking, three-legged stools were used primarily to milk cows. The three legs offered more stability than a four-legged stool on uneven ground.

Colette flips through a notebook with the word “Bible” written on the front. Noted inside are all the stools they have had on order since they started counting a couple years ago. She asks Larry how this one should be recorded. “N-A-S-A,” he says. This stool, and two others, are being finished and shipped to Baltimore, for use by scientists building the James Webb Space Telescope, a project with which an old friend of Larry’s is affiliated. “The scientists are working at their maximum potential,” he says. “And these girls are working at theirs. It seemed like a good fit.”

Colette and Mae take turns stamping “Lumber Club Marfa TX” on the seat’s underside, plus an “Ooooops” by a divot in the wood, the words “For NASA, JWST,” and several exclamation points. 

Edie sidles up. “My class is learning about space,” she says.

“The JWST is basically a time machine, seeing stars backward in time,” Larry replies.

“Is it a telescope that shoots into space?” she asks.

He thinks for a moment. “It sees stars.”

The completed stool is weighed, then the girls carry it past Willa and Mabel, who build cardboard shipping boxes using glue and tape. “Glue is stronger than tape,” explains Willa. Some of the boxes are small, to use as spacers within the larger box. “That’s so the stool doesn’t get ruined in the process of it going where it needs to go in the mail,” Mabel adds.

“Why do you sound so Texany, like you’re from Austin?” says Willa.

“Well, you were born in New York,” says Mabel.

“We’re actually Marfaners,” Willa says. “I love being a Marfan.”

The stool is set in an alcove, where it’s photographed, with Larry’s help, and then nestled into a box and sealed with an extravagant amount of colored duct tape—stripes and stripes and stripes of colors. The other two NASA stools are likewise boxed with lots of packing paper and their own colorful tape exteriors. Edie uses a Sharpie to scrawl planets on the side of a box while Mae and Colette write the stool’s material, its weight, and its dimensions on the outside. The girls’ parents are showing up. The kids run around gathering their things, hustle out the door, holler goodbye. Edie’s book on space is left behind. The boxes are ready to ship. On the radio, David Bowie sings about a star man. La, lala lala, la la la la, lala lala.

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Fowlkes works with a piece of lumber, wearing gloves she decorated to have painted fingernails. Photograph by Abigail Enright

About two years ago, a photographer from Marfa happened to bring up Lumber Club at a dinner with an editor from Architectural Digest. One thing led to another, and in June 2019, a one-page story and photos appeared in the magazine. That’s when things really ramped up. Lumber Club created a website out of necessity, but there’s no standard order form. Instead, customers have to write an email to the girls. And there’s a wait of six to eight months. Also, the stools start at $300. No, designers don’t get discounts. No, the girls don’t make bar stools.

“It’s set up in a way that forces a reduction of orders, forces people to be more human,” says Larry. “You can’t just click and buy four when you’re drunk.” Though Larry presently handles most of the office work, and there’s an accountant who helps with taxes and a bookkeeper to keep things straight, the girls sometimes pitch in. “I can say, ‘Willa, we need to send out ten invoices.’ Their emails are great—the language, the sweetness, the intention, all the emojis are just beautiful.”

The girls have recorded about 240 orders since they started keeping track a couple years ago. The majority are for single stools but some are for four or even six. Larry estimates they’ve produced perhaps four hundred pieces total since the club began. Sales of the pieces have paid for a jointer, a planer, and a tapping machine that two girls rotate as they walk in a circle, singing a song. The orders pay for walnut and mahogany and zebrawood, sandpaper, belt sanders, and band saws. Whatever proceeds are left over after expenses are funneled into separate college funds established by the girls’ parents.

The Architectural Digest story brought interview requests from other outlets—the Rachael Ray Show, the Kelly Clarkson Show—but the club isn’t interested. They’d miss the point, Larry says. It’d become cute, a narrative about girls wielding power tools, when what’s actually important is the freedom they have to simply be who they are. “This is not an affectation,” he says. “These stools are little trophies of accomplishment. That kid pulled that thing off and it’s cool. That realness is real.”

Another Friday afternoon. Today’s braid count is high: Mae, Willa, and Abi have two braids each and Mabel, one. Colette abstains. Willa oversees Abi at the drill press. They’ve been friends since age two. Abi lines up a seat, clamps it, and lowers the bit to drill. “The drill press is my favorite tool,” Abi says. “It’s kind of relaxing. The drill press makes the holes for the legs and then it goes to the tapping machine to make the threads.”

The girls are unselfconscious at Lumber Club, intent on their work. They sing with the radio. Their clothes and hair grow dusty. The way they look is unimportant. This process is not a contest and each child learns each task and tool as age and experience allow. Nothing is called a “thingie.” The machines and tools are dangerous, so Larry has taught the girls to be precise in their language, confident, competent, and focused on what they’re doing and why.

Abi removes the clamps and brushes the wood curls from the seat. She sets it aside and puts another seat on the table, lining it up. “Are you going to be all right if I start tapping?” Willa asks.

“Yes.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.”

“Is it clamped?”

“It’s clamped!”

Outside, working solo, Mabel leans over a template and draws a circle for a seat on a piece of mahogany. When it’s drawn, she clamps the wood and cuts it out with a jigsaw. One down, many more to go. Mae passes by with a rough piece of pinkish-white solid-surface acrylic. “This is four layers of it,” she explains, the early stage of another stool bound for the Webb telescope, like the wood stools from the week before. “We’re using this material because wood has too many dust particles. The head scientists will sit on the wood stools. This one can go in the telescope’s clean room. It’s really heavy, so we drilled holes in it to reduce weight. We’ll use an edge sander to make it a smooth rounded circle. The tools we use on wood, we can use with this too, but it will be a clean surface without the dust.” And with that, she lowers her safety glasses, positions her ear protectors, adjusts her respirator, and begins to sand. 

This article originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Three Legs to Stand.” Subscribe today.