more suggested reading

A while back I wrote about some reading material that pertains to furniture studies; Chipstpone’s American Furniture journal is one prominent title that I never miss.  I just got the 2010 issue of that the other day…so it’s available now from wherever one buys books.

 I cut my teeth on furniture studies back in the late 1980s/early 90s with a complete focus on New England furniture of the seventeenth century. Before long that led to some dabbling into English furniture, the source of the stuff here in New England. Alexander showed me Victor Chinnery’s book, Oak Furniture: The British Tradition and the journal Regional Furniture. The latter has become another journal that I don’t miss, even when there’s nothing in an issue that directly interests me, I still collect the issue. You never know where things will lead, so it’s simplest to stay enrolled in the Regional Furniture Society and get the journal as well as their excellent newsletters. I read the newsletters from cover-to-cover, and usually come away wishing I was in England so I could sign up for some of their study days and tours. Maureen & I got to go on one of the weekends up in Yorkshire, just before the twins were born. We’ll get back at some point…

American Furniture 2010 and Regional Furniture 2010

 The Society is excellent, a throng of enthused amateurs and professionals, folks in the antiques trade, furniture makers, museum professionals and many other walks of life. The 2010 issue of the journal came earlier this winter, and has 6 articles in 175 pages; fitted out with color and B&W pictures. Here’s the contents:

  •  Forest Chairs, the First Portable Garden Seats, and the Probable Origin of the Windsor Chair.  Bob Parrott
  • Lake District Press Cupboards and Salt Cupboards. Sarah Woodcock
  • New Light on Fish and Verlander.   John Stabler
  • Makers of Dy’d, Fancy and Painted Chairs.  John Boram
  • More about Gillows’ ‘Country’ Chairs.  Susan Stuart
  • Elaborated Woodwork in Devon Churches.  Don White

 Furniture studies have no uniform approach; and the work done through the RFS differs from what we read in American Furniture; I like having my toes in both pools. There’s a lot to take from both journals. If you are inclined, see the RFS website to join the society, as a member you get that year’s journal and newsletters; there are also back issues available, more than 20 years’ worth! There’s a link on the membership page of the website where you can pay with paypal, saves having to convert $$ to £…

eagles, not oak. again

Sorry to let the oak-fiends down again. Spent the day cleaning furniture – but went out to cut some spoon wood early afternoon. Found these guys.

juvenile eagle
the other juvy eagle
best of the day

a bonus raptor, this red-tailed hawk came by as well.

red tailed hawk

There was an adult eagle around, but he didn’t want his picture taken apparently.

Back to woodworking next time.

odds n ends

A few strands of things here tonight. I have been in & out of the shop the past few days, so not any real concentrated time there this week. My main task at my day job in the winter is to clean the wooden furnishings for the re-created seventeenth-century village at the museum. This stuff gets seriously cruddy in the 8 months-plus that we’re open to the public. It’s about 130 pieces of furniture altogether. Here’s a view of some of it, much has been polished with linseed oil. Over time the finish becomes quickly patinated; the mix of smoke from the hearths, dirt, handling & use, and repeated annual coats of linseed create a pretty murky dark mess.

winter work

But, the view out of this building is quite nice; and it’s where the eagles sometimes show up, less lately than a month ago, but enough to keep me coming back.

juvenile eagle Feb 15

Back in the shop, I did manage some time on the walnut chair. Now I am at the point where I need to cut the joinery for the arms, then saw, chop & shave them out. I decided to make “flat” arms, rather than arms that are joined up on their edge. Most wainscot chairs have their arms up on edge, but there is a large group that have them laid out the other way. I figured for this high chair, it might accommodate a modern tray, or tuck under the table easily if the arms are done this way.  That means a turned tenon on the top of the front stiles. Usually on this sort of arm, the turning above the seat just runs all the way up to the tenons. Because I didn’t make this decision until now, I have a squared block above the turned section, as if it were to have a rectilinear tenon. Oh well. Not the end of the world.

turning tenon

So I put the pieces back on the lathe, and turned them down to ¾” tenons. The walnut turns beautifully; it’s funny, in some of the pictures it looks like wet clay. Now I will scribe the location of the mortise on the face of the rear stiles. Once I have those joints cut, I can re-fit the chair frame, and make a template for the arms’ shape. This weekend I guess.

turned tenons

A reader asked about the hammer I use in my work. I answered in the comment section, but will put it here too, in case someone missed it & wondered about it as well. The hammer I have is a leftover from a shoemaker’s kit. Mark Atchison made it, I presume based on some period example seen either in archaeology or a surviving artifact. It weighs about 16 oz; so a little light for my purpose. It works fine, I have used it since 2001. If I were shopping for a hammer for joinery work, I would opt for something heavier. Alexander suggests Japanese hammers, which are very nice tools.

small hammer

 Incidentally, wrought nails are excellent for small kids; the heads are sized well for an easy target.

While keeping an eye out for eagles, I have seen a number of things this way & that.

hooded mergansers
red shouldered hawk

And today’s visitor:

grey fox

walnut high chair & workbenches

next is arms & seat

The walnut high chair is finally settling down. The pieces I carved yesterday were quartered stock, so behaved better than the rest.

The faces of the stiles got shaped first, a sort of double-ogee, then gouge-cut decoration in this face. To cut the shape, I first cut a centerline with the V-tool (and mallet, its only appearance pretty much).

then I put the mallet down

Then using a nearly flat gouge upside down, shaped the convex portions down to the V-tool cut.


Next I took a deeply curved gouge and started nibbling away at shaping the outer limits of this pattern. This stuff cut very nicely at this point. Then it was just a matter of cutting straight into the faces with a shallow gouge, and relieving back to that incision.

shavings of the day

As I found out the other day, hand pressure is perfectly adequate to carve this wood, and mallet work is probably overkill.

here’s a detail of the chair’s back:

chair back

I fnally cut the rear stretcher, and this photo is for Alexander. It’s a sawn tenon, a rare thing in my shop. Fit right in the mortise as is.

sawn tenon


During this project I have discovered something about the workbenches in my shop. For a variety of reasons, (mostly fear) I have resorted to using my old Ulmia workbench for a lot of this project. I bought this bench back in the early 1980s, and for more than 15 years it was my everyday workbench. It got a lot of use, and about twice a year I would scrape its surface and treat it with linseed oil.

10 years ago I built my “joiners” bench, using a piece of white pine 4” thick by 17” wide x 8′ long as the main section of the bench top. The pine was chosen principally because it would dry in just a few years versus an oak top that size; and the stock was nice & clear. I built the frame from oak, and added a board along the top to increase the working depth of the top to about 24”.

joiner's bench

Using the joiner’s bench took some getting used to, but within a short time it became quite simple to work at. One un-planned benefit of this bench was the softwood top doesn’t get slick like a hardwood one. A few years ago I used a maple bench here in the shop for something or other and found it to be like a bowling alley – the boards kept sliding around on me. Never used to happen until I got used to the pine top.

But this walnut chair has shown me another feature – the Ulmia now is quite dark with its years of grungy finish, and after using the (bare) pine bench for so long, I found it was sometimes hard to see the tools on the bench – a matter of what you get used to I guess. I never had a hard time before. I think later this winter, I’ll scrape the Ulmia and not oil it. Just in case I use it again for something.

Further readings about the workbench here

There’s lots more, you can search from the main page of this blog for “workbench” and you’ll get inundated.

walnut high chair carving

Today was the day for carving the high chair’s back panel. I decided on a design that I know well, removing one variable in the project. I didn’t want to learn a new design while carving a new wood too.

 The panel is pretty small, about 9” wide by 10” high; so I had to adapt the design to fit the space. To get to that point, I decided to draw it in chalk; ordinarily I would just scribe a centerline on the panel and start carving…too chicken with the walnut. I have only a little extra wood so wanted to get it right the first time.

chalk outline & V-tool work begun

The pattern I chose is from the Devon, England group of joinery, also seen in Ipswich Massachusetts, c. 1660s-1700. I have gone over carving this stuff a number of times here on the blog and in print for Popular Woodworking Magazine (June 2009). One thing about this design is there is very little background to remove. Lots of detail, but lots of leeway too…here it is in oak.

in oak


All I had to do was translate oak-ish techniques so they would succeed in walnut. By now I had enough of an idea how to get that done. The V-tool work proceeded as usual. Maybe a little less oomph with the mallet, but otherwise just cut most of the outlines with the V-tool.

I used hand pressure to incise some of the detail shapes, where in oak I would just strike them once with emphasis to cut the shape. To achieve this, the movement comes from the lower body, rising up on my feet, & coming down with my weight.

hand pressure

Then I snuck up on them removing wood just outside where I relieved things with either the V-tool or hand-pressure & gouges.

removing background

Once I had carefully cut down all the limits of the background, then I took out the waste areas. I did all this work with hand pressure, where I would mostly do it with the mallet in oak. Some of this stuff is covered in detail in the DVD I did last fall with Lie-Nielsen; for instance, the position of my hands on the tools, and bracing the forearms against the torso for stability. Beginners often miss the idea of how to hold the tool, and where the cuts come from in your body…I learned a lot of that stuff when I was a repeat student at Country Workshops many years ago. It has stayed with me throughout my woodworking career, and that’s why I stress it in any instruction I do.

Then some shaping, beveling etc to finish out the pattern.

shaping with bevel up

Some punchwork on the background and accents on the panel itself completed the carving. Then it was time to cut the panel, and bevel its back edges to fit the grooves in the frame. I would use a hatchet on oak for the gross removal of stock, but again, chickened out in walnut. It does plane quite nicely, so this was easy work. I just held the panel in a wooden bench hook to plane the bevels.

bevelling back of panel

Then test-fit. Next time some arms, finials, and seat. And carve the faces of the stiles. And make the rear stretcher. Oh, I thought I was almost done.

test fit
starting to look like something

For more on this type of carving, I’ll be out & about a few times teaching carving & demonstrating in 2011.  Some details are already available, others to come. I’ll do a carved box workshop at Country Workshops in June

I’ll also be at the Northeastern Woodworkers Association Showcase in Saratoga Springs this March 26 & 27.

In October I’ll be at Woodworking in America, not sure they have their details up yet….

Roy Underhill’s place in July, for making  a joined stool.

I hope to do some Lie-Nielsen events, just haven’t figured out where/when yet. The video is previewed here

and their site is here

re-sawing walnut

When I am working in the shop regularly, it’s easy to come in each morning pretty much pick up where I left off the day before. Winters I work sporadically in the shop – so sometimes the continuity is broken up a bit. Plus I try to do some of my own woodworking in this season, stuff that doesn’t fit in the 17th- century work, like the Welsh chair I have underway lately. So lots of back-and-forth.

 Because there’s sometimes a lag between sessions in the shop, I like to plan some physical work to start off with each time. Usually it’s just the simple act of hewing & planing some stock like the other day’s post about oak. Recently though, I warmed up by resawing some of the stock for the walnut high chair. I have some 1” thick stuff set aside for the carved back panel and the seat board. One inch is too thick by a long shot – it would make the chair too clunky. So I set out to re-saw the stock into ½” thick pieces. I don’t do a lot of this, but just now & then. I used a regular old rip saw for this job, but one I have just filed a week ago or so. I decided to use the modern cabinetmaker’s bench with vices to hold this stock for sawing. I could use a holdfast to secure it on my joiners’ bench too.

resawing walnut

 Resawing like this is simple in concept, and pretty tough in practice. I marked a line all around the edges of the board with a sharp marking gauge, scored deeply to really define where I wanted to saw. Then I set the board in the vice, with one corner pointing up. My first cuts run across this protruding corner, sighting down the edge nearest me, and across the end grain of the board. I’m not trying to cut all the way across the end grain, just starting to let the saw ride in an ever-lengthening kerf. After a time, I flip the board around, with the other corner jutting upwards.

on & on

Now I work down the opposite edge, and bring it across the end grain. Within a few minutes’ sawing, the kerf now is connected across the end grain. At this stage it’s a matter of extending the kerf down the edges of the board, flipping it one way then the other. I guess the way this works is that the edge nearest you is the easiest to see, so you watch the saw come down that edge, while guiding it through the already established cut on the end grain. Rather than run the saw down the edge across from you, out of your sight, you take the board out of the vice & flip it around. Gives you a moment to catch your breath too.

board now upright


After I have sawn down both edges a bit, I set the board upright in the vice. Now the goal is to saw out the little apex between the two triangular areas you have already sawn. For this bit, the saw is held with its teeth parallel to the floor. Then it’s back to angled cuts, back & forth, until you extend the kerfs all the way down the board. After a time, I put a wooden wedge in the top of the kerf to keep it from closing on the saw.

wedging the kerf

As I got near the end, I had to keep aware of the vice now pinching closed what I was trying to open with the saw. It’s human nature to saw harder & faster as you get closer to the end, but that ain’t the way to go. I try to work more lightly as I get near the end. For the last bit that separated the halves of the board, I took the piece out of the vice and propped it on my chopping block to make the last cut.

Here’s the end result. I then took these and stacked them in the shop with spacers between them – even with dried stock; it pays to wait when you’ve opened something like this. Weird tensions can be released. Better to find them out before I stick this stuff in the chair.

resawn panels

I’m no expert sawyer, but manage sometimes to get it right. I spent about 30-40 minutes sawing this peice, including running back & forth to the camera for photos. The panel is around 12″ -14″ wide x about 24″. It’s not like it’s pitsawing

next step on the Welsh chair (not Windsor)

While I have been taking some shop time this winter for the extra-curricular chair that I started, I have relied heavily on Drew Langsner’s The Chairmaker’s Workshop for details on making one of these chairs. But the inspiration for Drew and for me is really rooted in Wales. John Brown’s book Welsh Stick Chairs is a beautiful little book. If you like chairmaking and don’t know this book, I highly recommend it. A couple short essays about the history of the Welsh stick chair (I’ve been calling mine a Windsor, and Brown must be rolling in his grave) and about John’s background and how he came to be a chairmaker. I never got to meet him (he taught at Country Workshops twice I think… I had hoped to make his first class there, but had a niece’s wedding I couldn’t skip. I don’t know what happened the 2nd time.)

The bulk of the book is a photo essay of John making a high-back chair in his small shop. Very simple tools, and pretty deft techniques. I often think a book like this is preferable to a how-to book; it’s like lo0king over his shoulder while he makes his chair. Both Drew’s book and John’s are available from

planing tapered oak legs

Here are my legs being tapered at the bench. These were stock for joined stools that got rejected for one reason or another, and will make perfect tapered oak legs for this chair. Once I have planed them into squares, I sit the foot of the leg in a “joiners’ saddle”  – a small block of wood with a large V-notch cut in it. This automatically puts one arris up in the air, then I shove the top of the leg against the bench hook, and start planing the facets on it. Keep rotating the leg, and shaving each corner til you get an octogon, (not a hexagon as Brown says in his book – that’s an error.)

joiners' saddle

Later, I was working the seat again. Here I am spokeshaving the edges after having trimmed them earlier to define the outline. Mine’s an old Stanley 151 spokeshave. By the time the real souped-up spokeshaves were available, I was no longer really a chairmaker, and as a joiner I rarely use a spokeshave. This one works OK; if I did a lot of work with a spokeshave, I’d look at the new versions.

shaving seat's edge
spokeshave detail

This project is something I am trying to fit in around my regular work, but so far I have managed to get the bulk of it to move along. Now I gotta go searching around for some stock for the arms. I have plenty of ash & hickory leftovers from turned chairs for the spindles.

back to oak

Here’s some last thoughts about walnut. The driving point that I was trying to make is that the bulk of my techniques apply to oak – and don’t transfer well to walnut. (they’re even worse in cherry, but that’s another story.)

 Some readers joked “stop trying to make oak furniture in walnut” and there’s something to that, but there is a lot of 17th-century joined furniture done in English walnut; and some also in American Black Walnut. The latter is usually decorated with moldings, not carving. The English ones have both decorative methods.

My gut feeling is that the frustration I feel working this timber is mainly tied to its kiln-dried state more than anything else. I’d bet money on it.

Enough. the walnut high chair is nearing completion, so I took some time to get stock ready for what comes after.

planing white oak

Yesterday & today I have been working up some of the funny white oak that I split a while back. Once the snow piled up in earnest, any urgency was out the window. Storing green wood is quite easy during a winter like this – just leave it in the snowbank. I dug some out, and split it into blanks that will go toward some wainscot chairs I have to make this spring. It felt great to split, hew & plane some oak again. What a wood.

If you read the post about this log, you’ll remember it had some weird event in its life (probably lightning strike) that separated its core along the growth rings.  Even with that bizarre feature, there are some bolts that yield 9” wide panels; but the grain is a good deal twisted, so there’s extra work to do.

hewing upstroke


end of stroke

Working the twist out means some more hewing than usual, and when it’s this wide, I like to use a hatchet with a handle kicked out away from the plane of the hatchet head. Once again, I am using an excellent German hatchet from Jennie Alexander’s collection. (thanks, JA) To get the handle out of the way, some use a bent handle, like on a broad axe. Others have heads/eyes that are cranked over. That’s the case with this one.

German joiners' hatchet

When I get to planing a board like this, the first approach I use is to plane directly across the board with the fore plane/scrub plane. That’s the quickest and easiest way to flatten the face of this stock.

fore plane, across the grain

At this stage, I have left it this way, when I get back to this stock in a month/month & ½; then I will work it more carefully and complete the planing process. Here all I was after was producing the rough stock.

done for now

me & walnut don’t agree

wainscot chair half done

Having worked wood essentially as a mono-culture since the late 1980s, I have little experience with woods that aren’t oak. But you have recently read a couple of posts that show me working with black walnut. The high chair I have underway is the first project I have done in this timber since I-don’t-know-when. I remember making a post-and-rung chair from it before; and I carved two dovetailed boxes that I never made lids for…(they sit in my shop, full of junk, maybe to be completed some day, maybe not.)

 So I am getting a bit of a feel for the walnut, and am missing the riven oak that I know so well. So far, walnut is not for me. I understand that many woodworkers and many furniture users, collectors, etc really go for walnut. I have felt like some deranged woodworker, complaining about one of the most popular woods going…but then I get over it very quickly, and go back to complaining.

What I don’t know is the factor that makes me dislike this wood. Because I have changed too many variables, I can’t pinpoint the problem. This stock is a.) flatsawn from a log that wasn’t particularly straight, b.) kilndried and c.) walnut.

Well, I have worked flatsawn oak before and although it’s not as good as riven oak; it’s still oak. I have never worked kiln-dried oak before, and don’t want to. What it comes down to is that I am very lucky, and spoiled, to use the quality of oak that I get.

Here’s some of my walnut woes:

torn out plowed groove


In this short rail, I had to plow a panel groove for the back of this wainscot chair. I didn’t select the stock carefully enough, and tried to plow into the rising grain. Tore the living daylights out of this thing. It was trash in seconds. I made a new rail, chosen from a better pieces, and deeply scored the edges of the plowed groove with a sharp marking gauge before plowing. Lesson learned. I should have seen it coming, but didn’t think as I picked up the plow.

carving walnut

 Carving it doesn’t work the same way oak does. I never learned carving from anyone, just developed my techniques based on studies of period works, and trial & error in the shop. I blam away, doing a lot of work with a mallet. A while back I compared notes with Al Breed who carves a lot of mahogany. He often makes relief cuts outside his layout, and sort of sneaks up to the finished elements. Says the wood can break off if he tries to go right to the layout…that’s the same sort of thing I have been finding with the walnut. So what I can do in oak in a matter of minutes takes a good deal longer in this walnut.. Maybe if I were to stick with it, I’d get quicker at working it. I found it feels a little crispy, like it breaks where the oak would slice…some of this I attribute to the kiln-dried aspect more than the flatsawing. Now of course, all my whining is absurd, people have been carving walnut quite nicely for centuries. I guess the real point here is that the methods I developed in isolation apply to oak quite agreeably, and don’t transfer all that well to walnut. for me.

Mortising was the most distinctly different, I’d say. I could take much larger chips out of the oak than I can of the walnut, but this I blame on the crooked grain of this particular selection of boards. Here’s some pictures of mortising.

small bites

I’d expect to take a chip 3x that size in oak…tried it in this walnut and quickly backed up and took smaller bites. Here’s the thrust of the problem though:

layout of mortise in runout grain

Turning is the place where the walnut has it all over the oak – almost. Over red oak anyway. Good white oak can turn like this, nice & crisp & burnished. But the walnut really turns like a charm.

So I am plodding along, and to make matters worse, I decided in the midst of this project to make my first windsor chair in about 10 years. Smart move. But fun…

Now what is the morale of the story? I think of House of the Rising Sun, telling youngesters not to do what I have done… (“you young woodworkers, learn many different timbers, don’t just stick to oak…”) – but then I say, Nah, go with Mark Twain: “Put all your eggs in one basket, and watch that basket.” Oak or pine, that’s what Daniel O’Hagan once told me. All you need…

elm seat, pt 2

refining the seat's shape

Here’s the elm seat from the other day. I got to work on it a little while yesterday. It’s a nearly-quartersawn section; just near the front edge of the seat the board gets close to the heart of the tree. It was shaving very nicely at this point, & I’m close to getting the hollow in the seat done.

Right now I don’t have a functioning bow/frame saw, and am not going shopping anytime soon. So I took the simple way out to cut the pattern of the seat – I just made a series of straight cuts that I will follow with drawknife & spokeshave work.

ripsawing the rough outline
roughed-out seat

Next time, I’m going to work the outline before I then refine the front edge, then bevel underneath. It’s fun to make this seat. I have only done one windsor seat in hardwood before, and that was a tulip poplar seat, back in 1988. This elm is as air-dried as anything can be around here these days; it was cut c. 1995. Most of my wood is measured in months, sometimes weeks, since it was a tree, so this is something altogether different for me. Shaping the elm is fun work, I have only made it into flat panels before, and it’s not very good for that…

Here’s the scene (cropped) out the window of the shop. Didn’t bother with binoculars and eagles, visibilty was pretty bad, but the scenery was great, if that makes sense.

snowy landscape