Thursday, December 27, 2007

New Year, Old Chair

Since starting Chair Notes, I've gotten a lot of contact from woodworkers seeking information and inspiration as they embark on their first chair. With the coming of the new year, I thought it might be appropriate to show my first chair. For years this chair languished in dark corners, a reminder of all that I didn't know when I started chairmaking. Now it has a special place, where I see it daily, as an expression of honest enthusiasm and willingness to embrace new ideas. Awkward as it is, it is my favorite chair.

While living in Manhattan, I was looking for a change from the cabinet making that I had been doing. The noise, dust, danger and sheer massiveness of the work didn't bode well for my long term. I also knew too many "woodworkers" who had barely touched a piece of real wood in years, plywood proves to be a more realistic provider when paying for space, machines, electricity, employees and materials. So I rented a tiny shop, shared with a guitar maker, and set out to find something that I could make in a small quiet space, with effective hand tools, cheap materials and most importantly fun.

Over the next year, inspired by a magazine photo of Curtis Buchanan's Birdcage sidechair, I worked through learning the technology of working green wood into chairs. What I didn't know, was that I'd taken on one of the toughest chairs to make. Every piece above the seat is curved and must meet up like a seamless net (you can see some places on my chair that I would never call "seamless"). And I can still recall scratching my head for hours trying to figure out a system for drilling and measuring the "box" stretchers. I think you can see why my attitude towards my first chair has changed from dismissal to amazement, after all, it has four legs that touch the floor!

To those of you making your first chairs, I have one piece of advice, keep them close. Proficiency will come soon enough and you'll come to appreciate the earnest leaps of those early works.

Friday, December 21, 2007


Here we are on the shortest day of the year and I think that this log pretty much reflects the mood. Even twenty years after leaving the south, I still can't seem to get used to these short days!

This year has been great. Between all my students, clients and blog response, I've felt very lucky. Thanks to everyone.
Next year promises to be interesting. I'll be working on more writing projects, introducing a tool of my own and of course making new chairs. I'm more interested than ever in feedback and ideas for the blog, I love seeing the photos of work and ideas in the chairmaking community.

I wish everyone a happy and healthy holiday,


Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Guest Blogger Elia Bizzarri

Here is an image of the finished volute carving. I hope the series was of benefit. I'll describe the gouges I used next.

The next section is by Elia Bizzarri. He is looking for feedback on his essay about reamers. Thanks for taking time to reply here or directly to Elia at Elia is a great resource as a chairmaker willing to supply the rest of us with good tools built correctly for the trade. So here's Elia,

I have tried write a non-biased look into the pros and cons of two common tapers used for leg to seat joints in Windsor chairs. That said, I have had a hard time finding many advantages for eleven degree tapers. I would love to hear from anyone who uses eleven degree tapers regularly or has any other comments on this article.

6 degree versus 11 degree tapers

I personally prefer six degree tapers for a number of reasons. Shallower tapers makes a stronger joint because when the joint is driven home it locks tighter, and takes more force to remove, than a similarly sized joint of a steeper taper. Shallower tapers should also theoretically be stronger because the difference between the smallest and largest diameters of the tenon is less; when the seat changes thickness with changes in moisture content the mortise will try to pull away less from the sides of the tenon. All this can be taken too far as shallower tapers are more likely to split a seat during assembly than steeper ones.

Taking this to the extreme, why not use cylindrical tenons like those on the stretchers and spindles? Assembly is easier with tapered joints and the tighter the stretcher joints in the undercarriage the more this will be noticeable. When using hand tools, it is harder to bore a hole at the correct angle then to drill an approximate hole and then ream it perfect. Tapered joints don't squeegee glue off the joint the way cylindrical ones do, thought admittedly this is a minor issue. However, one oft mentioned advantage of tapered joints in my opinion does not hold water; that tapered joints get tighter from the weight of the sitter. A joint is allowed get tighter only when that joint fails and our goal should be to make a joint that will not fail because it is tight to begin with.

Aside from issues of strength, six degree tapers are easier to use than eleven degree tapers for several reasons. Less wood to remove from the mortise means the reaming process goes faster. Also, the reamer is less likely to get started at a drastically incorrect angle because narrower tapers have more bearing surface on the cylindrical hole.

On an aesthetic note, I find that six degree tapers allow me to slim down the turnings where they enter the seat making them less bulky. However, eleven degree tapers tend to be smaller where they come through the seat making the joint less obtrusive.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Knuckles Pt.4

I couldn't resist this photo of the intitial paring of the volute. I generally try to carve this step to a uniform depth. Sometimes the stop cuts aren't deep enough to have the chip, or ring in this case, fall free. I never tear the chips out, instead, I carefully retrace the stop cuts until it is cut free.

My goal now becomes refining the over all shape of the volute and carving deeper where the volute begins. The depth gets progressively shallower as the cuts go toward the center.

Below an image of the paring into the curved carving on the outer part of the hand. The curvature creates a few problems worth mentioning. The curve means that the endgrain is exposed which can lead to difficulty in the stop cuts and paring. Striking to hard or deep when establishing the stop cuts can cause short grain failure and lead you to looking for part of your carving on the floor! Be gentle until you understand the weaknesses.

The most glaring trouble comes when you start paring. Because of the exposed endgrain, you can't always carve in from the outside to the inner circle like you can on the "flat" knuckle. The chisel will slide inbetween the fibers and follow or tear them as you try to carve. The image below shows the "safe" direction for paring.

This direction must be followed all the way around, awkward as it may seem, with only a slight range of variation to the left or right. Experimentation, and picking up parts of your carving a couple of times will show the viable direction to carve.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Drawing Volutes

I draw my volute carvings by following a simple sequence of lines and focusing on a few requirements. I begin by drawing a line near the outer perimeter as seen in drawing A. Then I draw a larger radius curve out to the flat area as seen in B. It doesn't matter if it is perfect, it is a reference and can be changed later.

Drawing C shows the beginning of the interior shape. When drawing it, my goal is to have the negative space above the line by decreasing. Another way to put it is to say that the line will be moving closer to the line from drawing A. A small point worth mentioning is that the initial boundary of my volute is a true circle, but the final shape diverges because as the volute wraps around, it's radius decreases. This can be seen in the small space on the bottom right of the carving. I carve this area away later.

Drawing D shows the final wrapping of the line to form the inner circle.

My main focus for a successful drawing is the negative space (shown darkened in drawing E). This shape should be a curved taper. If any part gets thicker as it head towards the center termination, I know that I must adjust something. My goal is to have the eye follow without interruption to the center of the carving.

Below is a photo of the incised line that I make as the stop cuts for my carving. By using gouges of differing sweeps in sequence, I can follow and refine my drawing. I don't make the initial cuts too deep in the oak, a couple of passes is better and helps me to define the depth of the carving.

Designing your carvings can be done around the tools you have available. Play around drawing the shape and then see where your tools might fit, I always prefer a compromise between the tools and the drawing versus buying every useful gouge!

Knuckles Pt.3

Here is the knuckle after I use the V gouge (yes, they are hard to sharpen) to better define the lobes of the carving. Then I use a regular chisel to help refine the shape.

Here I have used a Nicholson rasp (the finer of the two) to further refine the shape. I don't complete the shape now, preferring to carve the volutes and then form the knuckle to them.

Here is the rough drawing of the volute. I do it freehand (years of art school finally pay off). The shape and depth of the volutes is open for interpretation. You can draw them according to strict mathematics or just do what looks good to you. I follow a few simple guidelines. I want the negative space, meaning the part that I'll carve away, to decrease in width evenly as it wraps its way around the center and terminates. I have had a lot of questions about drawing this shape, I will post a step by step next.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Knuckles Pt.2

After the blocks are glued on the underside of the hands, I mark the desired thickness of the knuckles (here 1 1/8th inches). Then I use a drawknife and finally a handplane to bring them to the line. As the picture shows, I draw the circle that represents the outermost part of the volute.

I find that the drawknife and the shavehorse are the fastest way to remove the initial carving. Here is the knuckle after meeting the drawknife.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


Now that every gouge in my shop is razor sharp (I wish), it's time to do some knuckle carving. Carved knuckles are a bit of aesthetic flourish, no real point to them but to excite the senses. I recall looking at photos of Sam Maloof working on a chair and envying the fun he seemed to have using hand tools to shape the wood. His work may seem more "form and function" without curlicued volutes and balusters, but to my eye he spends most of his time indulging in shaping wood. It's easy to forget, but making shapes in wood is all a woodworker does, and carving knuckles is a great reminder.

I am going to be doing a photo essay on carving knuckles. Here is where I begin, by gluing on a block of wood with the grain direction the same as the arm to form the bottom of the carvings.

I use handplanes for the flattening of the glue joint and am very picky about it being dead on. A flat plane iron (which can only be honed on flat stones!) is key as well as a willingness to be honest. Does the joint fit without movement? When you press on one side does the other lift? Try again.

Here is where the essay is heading, I'll show the inbetween photos next.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Gouge Grind

Here is the result of the "sideways"grind. As the grinding reduces the size of the blunted edge, I take great care to not let the tool heat up and burn the thin edge. I am freehanding the angle, but I do check it and try to keep it in the 22 to 25 degree range, depending on its intended use. If I am carving stop cuts in oak, I will use a stouter edge that carving gutters into pine. I also keep my finer tools honed and ground for paring type cuts, no mallets there.

After the grinding, there are a couple of ways to proceed.The name of the game is honing the edge with a very gently rounding of the edge. I know that using buffers and strops will round the edge so my focus in on minimizing this result to the point that it benefits the cutting ability of the tool and doesn't hinder it. I head back to my Bear-tex wheel and use the same "sideways" technique, being careful to hold the tool so that the buffing wheel is unable to catch the edge. Once I have turned a small burr to the inside, I polish the bevel on a hard felt wheel with green polishing compound. The all that is left is to remove the burr. I use the buffing wheel or a leather stop. It is important not to round the interior surface too much trying to remove the burr or you'll find yourself back where you started.

I am an advocate of garage sale or junk shop gouges, not just because they are cheap, but because this lack of investment can encourage experimentation with grinding and honing. Grind it, burn it, buff it, try it, try again, learn. I still do and still am.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Gouge Rehab Pt.2

Here is the inside of the gouge after polishing and blunting. I had to use some 320 grit sandpaper wrapped around a dowel to get to the bottom of the pitting. I then followed with some 400 grit and went to my buffing wheel. I used the Bear-tex rubber wheel and then a hard felt wheel with some buffing compound. I have become an advocate of buffing ever since I got a Bear-tex wheel. It cuts somewhere between a fine grinder and a felt buffer.

Here is the blunted edge before grinding. As you can see, the last time that I ground it, I did so in the "standard" way.

Now I like to grind freehand and sideways, foregoing any hollow grind. Because a slight rounding over of the edge helps the tool exit the cuts, I prefer to keep the bevel flat from heel to toe. I'll show the grind next.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Gouge Rehab

Here is Brian Turano enjoying his chair. I'm sure that after slipping down my driveway, he is ready to get back to Hawaii!

I have a couple of comb back rockers in the works and plenty of carving to do. It has me thinking about gouge sharpening and rehabilitation. Most of my gouges are of the garage sale variety, although I have managed to get some Swiss made over the years. The mishmash gouges sometimes have questionable quality but the price is always right. I will also be detail which gouges make up a good set for most chair detailing (I haven't forgotten JF).

Like all sharpening, it is vital to understand the condition of the tool as it is. I do this with the endgrain pine test. The nasty gouge on the left was the condition of the tool before sharpening. Plenty of subsurface damage. The gouge on the left is the after result. I will show the process that I followed.

As you can see below, the interior of the gouges is rounded over (by repeated buffing and stropping) and a bit pitted. The first step in rehabbing the tool is going to be cleaning up this surface. The next step is going to be blunting the edge, and with this in mind, I can aggressively polish the surface without fear of rounding the edge further. After blunting and grinding, I will be diligent to not round the edge again.

I'll show the process and results of the polishing the interior next.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007


This has been an interesting week, seeing the world of winter through the eyes of my student from Hawaii. Although he is a native New Englander (he started surfing in the Atlantic), he has been in Hawaii long enough to be excited to see snow. Apparently, the temperature is always within 10 degrees of 80 there and the length of the days doesn't vary like it does here. I couldn't resist this shot out the window of the barn, my only complaint is that the sun setting so beautifully behind the house was at 3:30!

Tuesday, December 4, 2007


Sometimes absolutely everything goes right. The holes are perfectly aligned, the tenons correctly sized, the back is beautifully symetrical, and yet somehow, one of the spindles is bowing out and jamming you in the back.
I guess that at some point with nothing left to lose, I started using this jig to correct errant spindles.

First, I heat up the offending spindle in the area that will take the bend. I am careful to heat it slowly and without getting close to scorching it. Once heated, I simply use a hand clamp and my parenthesis shaped board to pull the spindle into the correct position (actually past it to account for spring back). You can see that I cover the ends with foam to keep from marring any finished surfaces. I have been able to do some dramatic alterations with this method (sometimes more than one heating is necessary) and the results have proven to be permanent as far as I can tell. Good Luck.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

A Good Brown

I have been trying to come up with a way to paint a chair brown without it looking flat. I have a beautiful mahogany railing in my house that served as my inspiration. I actually had to make some pieces to complete the rail and I didn't have any mahogany so I used poplar and my milk paint to make a solid approximation. Here is a photo of the latest chair stretcher that I painted this way.

It is a three coat recipe. The first coat is mustard yellow, that's right yellow, bear with me. The next coat is 2 parts barn red and 1 part mustard. The third coat, mixed very thin is 4 parts federal blue, 1 part barn red, 2 parts mustard, and 3 parts black. It is importand to let the coats dry thoroughly. The last coat should be applied thin like a stain. If it looks too thin, just plan to apply a second coat. It may take some experimentation, but the payoff is worth it. I highly recommend making samples before jumping onto a chair, and if you change the recipe for the better, let me know!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Frankenchair brought to Life

Here is a photo of the finished prototype of my "frankenchair". I am pleased with the new techniques, designs and finish that I tried with it. In trying to simplify the joinery around the armpost and crest, I found the opportunity to play with some new shapes and ideas about how these things go together.

I wanted to give the side posts a lighter more flexible feeling, without looking flimsy. After deciding to use a tapered tenon into the crest, I searched for a precedent. I couldn't find much and realized that the top is really a hybrid of the rod back and the fan back. I plan to make one like it with a rod back or birdcage top.

Below is an image of the unpainted chair from above. It shows the shaping of the crest rail that echoes the arms. I will post images of the finish, a variation on the black on red and the recipe for mixing the paint.

New Arm

Here is a photo of the new arm that I put on my latest chair. It satisfies a desire that I have had for years, which is to have a gentle concavity on the top of the arm. It echos the other curves of the chair and gives a lot of life to the overall design. I'll be posting the finished chair soon as well as a new finish recipe that I am excited about.

To make the arm, I simply turned a round blank, located and made the joinery and finally cut out the top. The simplicity of making it tells me that something is going right. I often look at the ease of the process that I am using for confirmation. If something that I am doing seems overly complex, risky or difficult, it is a red flag that I haven't solved my problems completely or that my goals are not in keeping with the best use of the wood.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Sap Issues

Pine has a lot of good qualities for chairmaking, it grows into large trees quickly, carves beautifully and has beautiful grain. However, when I was learning to paint chairs, it presented a great difficulty. The abundance of sticky sap that resides in pine does not like to be painted, and often the paint will chip off from the sap filled pores during the burnishing process, revealing little white patches in my black seats! This is problem really comes to light because I prefer to burnish hard to get a high sheen. For those content with a matte finish, this may be a non issue. Here is a photo of a nasty pitch pocket that I came across while making the prototype from my recent "Frankenchair". I chose this piece of pine knowing that it would be going into an experimental chair.

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The problem comes from milk paints quick drying. This creates a dramatic surface tension that can form a weak bond to dirty or sappy wood. The photo above shows the sap pocket after heating with a heat gun to liquefy the surface sap. Next I rinse the seat with naptha twice (wear gloves!) The photo below shows the seat after rinsing.

Finally I stain the seat with a water based walnut stain, which raises the grain. As you can see, the stain covered the sappy area easily and gives me confidence that the paint will hold as well. I do use extra-bond in the first coat on the seat, sort of a belt and suspenders approach. Subsequent coats are plain milk paint. Following this process has yielded me trouble free results for years, regardless of the sap content of the seat.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Seat Grain

When I first started making chairs, I notice that my scraping and sanding process would sometimes allow the grain of the pine to show through nicely. The problem was that I couldn't control it. So I set about finding the right steps to take to show the grain.

Here is a photo of a newly scraped seat. You can see that I've wet part of it and the grain has raised. When scraping the seat, the denser part of the growth rings cuts cleanly while the softer wood compresses just a bit. Later when the paint hits it, the softer wood absorbs the moisture and pops up, revealing the grain. That's how I understand it, now to control it.

To get consistent results requires a very sharp and finely honed scraper. No scratchy file marks or ragged burrs. I scrape the chair as though sandpaper will never touch it (it barely does). Using a raking light and moving the chair around will help you to see any problem areas and running the palm of your hand to feel the surface helps too.

Once the surface looks perfectly smooth and shaped, I sand very lightly with 220 grit. Next, I like to use a walnut hull stain to raise the seat grain. It shows any unsightly problems. If there is a trouble area, I let the seat dry and rescrape and repeat the sanding and staining. Once the grain is raised and I like the results, I move on to painting. I let the first coat dry hard and then sand very lightly with 220 grit again. This should cut through the high spots and give a clear vision of the grain that will be visible. Oversanding at this point will result is smooth patternless areas in the final seat. Then I finish painting the chair, no more sanding.

I suppose the best way to gain experience with this technique is to do sample and eliminate the sanding altogether. This way you will see the results of your scraping technique and the phenomenon of the compressed/raised grain. The sanding is really just to knock down fuzz and can be introduced later.

Saturday, November 17, 2007


Here is a photo of the sack back that I rubbed down the other day. I wanted to show the change in surface that occurs after using the gray scotchbrite pad to burnish the paint. As you can see, it completely knocks down the roughness and leaves a nice sheen. A rubbing with 0000 steel wool will finish it off and get it ready for oiling.

One of my favorite aspect of making chairs by hand is the various textures that naturally find their way into the piece. As I've said before, I prefer to use sandpaper only for knocking down grain that has been raised by scraping and because I do little scraping, most of the surfaces are straight off of the sharp edge of my tools. While painting the chair unites the silhouette, as you get closer to the piece, the various surfaces start to shown themselves.

I work diligently with my scraper to finish the seat pan so that the grain will shown and not tool marks. Here is the edge of the seat.

The bow is a place where I like the spokeshaved facets to give a muscular stringy look, building confidence and awareness of the bows role in supporting weight.

As important as the tool marks are in describing shapes, their absence is equally important when flat is called for. I like light to strike the top of the hand, light it up and then glance off as I keep moving.

In more machine based work, surface quality is often dictated when removing the machine marks. This most often points to sandpaper and the homogenous surface that it leaves. Yes it's all beautifully smooth but the lack of variation can be stifling. While you may be invited to touch it in one spot, that is where the connection ends. The various woods and shapes in a chair offer a great opportunity to explore surface as a means of describing the shape and role of the piece.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

More Painting

Here are a couple of sack backs that I am painting for a client. They are shown with the first coat which is a brown that I use as an undercoat when painting chairs blue or in this case blue/green. It is a stage in the painting process that looks awful. The color is muted and dull, but under the subsequent coats it will add a rich warmth that makes it well worth the trouble.

I have described my mixing process in other postings, but I think that it is worth showing a little more in depth. I prefer to strain the clumps and impurities out of the milk paint to achieve the smoothest paint possible. In the photo above, you can see that after mixing the paint and letting it sit for an hour, I can pour off the smooth paint through the filter while the foam stays in the cup. I mix my paint differently depending on the color, the one rule of thumb being, it must be just thin enough to pass through the filter. Then I can always add water to thin it more if desired. I often use thin paint, preferring to build it up in layers creating a more "even uneven" finish. If the paints gathers in large waterspots on the surface, it is too thin.

As you can see in the photo above, I paint it on thin, just letting the tooth of the previous coat pull the paint off the brush. Two coats like this and then the rub down and oiling. I'll post the finished product later.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Yard Sale Test

The other morning I awoke to this. As beautiful as it was, it confirmed that the next 4 months are going to be about all about firewood. By the afternoon, it was gone.

I was looking through a woodworking magazine the other morning. I like to show the projects to Sue and ask her to put them to the "yard sale test". This simply means to answer whether you would buy or even inquire to buy the finished piece at a yard sale. Of course I understand that there is no accounting for taste, we are all different. I know people who don't like anything made of wood! The point of the "yardsale test" is to look beyond the pretty wood or the effort and skill that went into a piece and to question whether it is something that you would want to live with. Would it speak to you across a yard full of plastic kids toys and exercise equipment?

Designing with wood is a challenge. It is an evershifting material that grows with all sorts of surprises. Using wood in a way that reconciles its strength, beauty and workability can be hard enough, but in the end there must be some tough questions about what has been achieved. I think that a good comparison can be made to cooking. It isn't enough to use great ingredients, the best kitchen appliances and a whole spice cabinet if the end product isn't something you'd want to eat.

As I have continued making chairs using windsor technology, I have marvelled at the brilliance of old designs that have stood the test of time and appeal to a wide array of people. I feel fortunate to have found a product that is both fun to make and to live with. The challenge for me is to add to this, not trying to reinvent the wheel. It can be intimidating. Especially when I step back and ask myself, does it pass the "yard sale test"

Friday, November 9, 2007


A while back I got a couple of inquires about the birdcage side chair. This is a very tough chair because every part of the top it curved. Whenever I work on designs like this, I find it best to make a "Frankenchair" out of old parts and new ideas. They generally end up as ugly constructions of copper, tape and plywood. Without the help of a CAD program (I spend enough time at the computer) getting the right curves to intersect at the right places can be a real challenge. The visual and comfort aspect of the chair need to be refined simultaneously to get the desired result. I usually try to use enough quick joinery and tape to make the chair stable enough to sit on. Granted, you may not want to be too rough, but it's enough to give me and idea of the comfort level.

Here is a chair that I am currently working on. It is going to use curved stiles, crest rail, and spindles as well as arms. I plan to use simple joinery in the first solid prototype figuring that changing out some parts is probably in the cards. I will post progress as it comes.

Thursday, November 8, 2007


Thanks for the good questions on the last entry. Your questions help inspire new posts, so unless you want to hear about my breakfast, keep em coming!
I generally cut off any part of the butt end that flares dramatically. It just isn't worth the hassle and the tensions can be unpredictable and a pain to split. To preserve the oaks, I seal with anchor seal right after cutting. Unless the cut is fresh, the sealer doesn't work, microcracks set in too quickly. I then try to keep pieces as large as possible until I use them. If they get too small, I sink them in my pond.Yes, I have had to dive in to get some wood that slipped out of the rope and pick off a leech or two!
My main storage strategy is to keep the wood close to the ground and out of the sun. Oak can keep this way for years.

The maple starts to rot too quickly during the summer months so I split it into turning size bolts and keep it in the freezer, next to the banana bread.

The idea with an easy spoiling wood like maple or hickory is to keep it wet enough so that it won't crack but not so wet that it rots on you. I no longer worry whether my maple stays green for turning. I would rather it dry out and deal with turning being less fun than risk it rotting. Another benefit is that air dried maple shrinks less after turning.

Luckily, I go through logs fast enough that I don't have many storage issues. The oak log that I just bought has some unfortunate knots that weren't visible until I split it. I still expect to get at least 10 to 15 chairs from it.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

A New Beginning

Here is a photo of my new white oak log being loaded onto my trailer. Having the log lowered by a chain can really save wear and tear on the trailer. Looking at the photo reminded me of my first foray into working green wood. My wife and I had to leave Manhattan and drive to a tree service guy about and hour north. He was curious about what I was going to do with the wood, so was I. The hickory and soft maple pieces that he gave me fit in the trunk of my Honda and we headed home. After making my first chair with this wood, I knew that I wanted to pursue green woodworking. As luck would have it, the landlord decided to double the rent of my little 5th street shop and I realized that I could either rent a shop in Brooklyn (still not many trees to be had) or get a place in the country for the same cost. The rest as they say...

I am very happy with my 14ft trailer. For the first years of my chairmaking, I simply had the log put directly into my truck. I quickly learned that loading was the easy part. A few years ago after much abuse to my body and truck, I finally got the trailer. To get the log out of the trailer, I use a long lever to raise one end high enough to slip a plank across the sides of the trailer and under the middle of the log. Then I clamp the plank to one side and use a peavy to roll the log off the other. I work very slowly and cautiously. I may be messing around but the log sure isn't. This is just the beginning of my respect for the log. I know that in every situation, one of us is going to give, I just try to make sure that it's the log, and not me.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Tinkering and Tweaking

Here is the final version of my new steamer reservoir. I sized up all of the tubing and got a PVC bulkhead that seals the bottom of the jar. A length of rubber hose and and it's done. I found that the larger hose allows air to move more freely and do a proper job of keeping the kettle full at the optimum level. The most interesting and unexpected attribute is that the steam percolates up the tube and preheats the jar so well. The system works great.

This little foray into problem solving is one of my favorite types of activities. I love looking at a problem and thinking in terms of similar systems and then searching out the means to adapt them. Left to my own (no bills to pay), I would probably tinker in my shop all day. Many times, my ideas and efforts amount to little but the new found understanding of why they don't work! But when I'm on the hunt for a solution, I am having the time of my life.

The way that my process normally works is to begin with a quick and dirty version of whatever I am testing. Usually it is enough to let me know if I am on the right track. Sometimes, the first version works so well that I keep using it for years, taking a bit of pride in the fact that ugly things can work beautifully.

After my idea is confirmed, I usually head to the junk shop or the hardware store, seeking out materials and ideas to more gracefully realize the concept. On occasion, my poor wife has gotten caught up in my quest, a great show of patience on her part. This time we got lucky, I found a qualified clerk who let me to the right components.

I enjoy investigating old technologies as well as visiting others shops and seeing the innovations and ideas that spring to life as they meet the challenges of creating. Sometimes it is easy to default to the wisdom of the past, but I think that the much admired craftsmen of old would expect us to find our own way, in our own time, to the most appropriate solutions.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Thanks CFA

Yesterday I had 15 visitors to the shop for the CFA sponsored workshop. It turned out to be the perfect number of visitors for the size of my shop. We covered all the big basics, sharpening, splitting, shaving, bending, turning, carving. I was happy to see that the ages and genders of the participant varied greatly.

It is always fun for me to show the basic techniques in chairmaking to an unitiated crowd. It's easy to forget how unusual it is to see wood taken from a log and transformed into a chair. Luckily the bend went smoothly and the turning came off without a catch!

I am considering offering a shorter version of my standard class for those who can't muster the entire week off. It would be a two or three day perch (stool) making class that will focus on the tools and basics of seat carving and assembly. On that note, I will be teaching a five day class at the Peters Valley Craft School in New Jersey next June. The class will make tall stools with backs (barstools) and focus on the use and maintainance of handtools.

Thanks again to Ryan and the folks at CFA for organizing and transporting the participants yesterday, we should do it again next year.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Falling off a Log

Much of the type of craftsmanship in chairmaking is risky and depends on the eyes and hands of the maker as well as an ever growing understanding of the process. This can make for some hairy moments as well as some unique opportunities to harness the imperfections that are bound to be present for our benefit.
I describe this to students like falling off a log. Yes, it is most likely that we will succumb to falling, but perhaps we can choose which direction. Below is a photo of two tenons on the rear legs of a chair before being reamed. Now, in a perfect world, they are exactly the same dimensions because I turn their diameters and angles using the same methods. Luckily for me, they almost always show some size difference.

I use this to my advantage by always choosing the smaller of the two tenons to ream into the seat first. This way, if my reaming doesn't come out perfect (it happens), I can reach for the leg with the larger tenon and get a few extra turns of the reamer. It is often enough to make a pleasing difference. Of course, then I have to nail the other leg reaming, but if I hadn't used the smaller tenon first, I'd have had to nail them both.

This way of working makes the work seem natural and forgiving. I believe in finding methods to better control the process and its outcome as much as I believe that each chair offers the potential to face our human fallibility with grace. I often remind myself "Shoot for perfection, settle for beautiful".

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Steamer Revisited

Thanks to everyone that took the time to comment on my post about the red oak log. I knew that it was bound to start a conversation. All of us have different experience and different wood, and being cheap as I am, I will continue to monkey around with the red oak that is next to my shop until I can be certain that it won't bend!

Someone mentioned my steambox in one of the responses and it got me to thinking. My steamer has served me well for a long time with almost no breaks, but there has always been one thing that bothered me and I figured that now would be a good time to deal with it. The Lee Valley steampot that I use cranks out a huge volume of steam, the only problem is that it runs out of water too quickly. Having to refill the steamer during use has always been a pain as well as introducing an unnecessary variable.

I have been thinking of hooking up a reserve tank that would automatically fill as the pot got low. I believe that I recall reading that someone somewhere had done this. Now to figure how to do it.

I have an automatic dog waterer that works like an office style water cooler. When the level in the bowl goes down, air can enter the bottom of the upside down bottle and release just enough water to block further air from entering the bottle which stops water from running out. I figured that there must be a way to use this principle with the steam pot.
After some tinkering, I came up with this simple setup. The only difference between this and the dog waterer is the heating element. It works great. The steamer can easily run for an hour (previously it seemed to only run for about 30 minutes).
One of the unexpected benefits of the set up is that the air that enters the reserve jar is hot and preheats the water so that as it drops into the steampot, the temperature doesn't drop. It also seems to have a percolation type exchange, I don't understand all the physics, but I do know that the jar gets damn hot!

Another benefit of the setup is that when the pot goes below a certain level, almost all of the water drops out of the jar. This acts as a sort of a timer, it takes about 45 minutes for the reserve jar to empty (the pot is still going strong) which is perfect for my usual steaming.

In the name of testing, I took a white oak arm that I mismeasured (should've finished my coffee first) and put it in the steamer. It bent beautifully, so beautifully that I dediced to keep going. It took this bend without giving up a single fiber.
Now that I have my steamer supercharged, I plan to give that red oak another chance. I still don't think that I'll be buying more of it, but I hate to waste a good log.

Friday, October 26, 2007

CFA Workshop

I will be hosting a free chairmaking workshop on Saturday November 3rd, sponsored by The Catskill Forest Association. You can contact them to register or for more info at I will demonstrate splitting, shaving, sharpening, bending, seat carving and turning, as well as general chair info. So get going to the beautiful southern Catskills in New York, see you there.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Last Red Oak

I went to my sawyer for a log last Saturday. I was taken by this view as I came over the hill in an area known as the Beechwoods.
Much to my dismay, my sawyer had just sawn the last of his white oak logs and only had red oak to offer me. Knowing that I had a student coming Monday gave me little choice. So I chose a relatively small red oak, given that more white oaks would soon be available.

I don't normally use red oak. It has a texture and lightness that I don't care for, preferring the density of white oak. Also, the only dramatic breaks in bending and spindles that I've personally seen have been in red oak. It's a shame really, because large, clear red oaks are always easy to find in my region.
But, beggars ...

Here is Bruce Bidwell cracking the log. Everything went smoothly, although it was a little more hornery than usual. I realize while we were splitting out our pieces that there is a great difference in the way that this red oak splits. It was much more difficult to control the splits than I am used to with white oak, it didn't have the fibrous quality.
Once we got the wood to the shave horse, I also found the red oak to be less fun to shave. Normally, with white oak, my drawknife slips between the fibers and follows them easily. With the red oak, I found that I had to pay much more attention to the visual clues to confirm whether I was with the fiber line. But we shaved it, and Bruce has a fine set of spindles to show for it.

Bending wood with a student is always a fun time for me. After all the hard work that they put in, learning to split and shave along the fibers, they get to see the results as the wood becomes fluid.
I think you know where this is going.
The trouble started immediately. As I pulled the piece, expecting it to flow around the top of the curve, I heard the cracking. A cross fiber shearing, not the subtly lifting of errant fibers, but a full on break.
There was nothing to be done.

Every log is different, and I've had some fine luck with bending red oak. Perhaps it's too easy to accept when a prejudice seems confirmed, and I'm sure I won't be able to resist another try (steamer problems?), but for now, I won't be buying any more red oak.

Luckily, I remembered that I had sunk a bolt of white oak in my pond last summer for just such emergencies. And tomorrow we start again.