They’re so 20th century…

I have been trying my hand at some at 20th-century woodworking. Going back to where I started, making a ladderback chair like the ones I learned from Jennie Alexander and Drew Langsner. I made them quite often back in the 1980s, but by 1992 I probably made my “last” one. The only ones I made since then were two small ones for the kids when they were little, December 2009. Here’s Daniel showing how much they have outgrown them.

This is one of the late-period chairs Alexander made with our friend Nathaniel Krause. Slender, light, but strong. Very deceptive chair.

But for years, I was swept up in the 17th century – and chairs, turned or shaved, were HEAVY. Here’s one of my favorites I made back then, maple, with oak slats. The posts for this are probably almost 2″ square. The rungs are 1″ in diameter (same as JA’s posts!) with mortises bored 3/4″ in diameter.


Some of the turned ones are even heavier, and this is not the biggest. All ash.

So today I shaved the rungs down to size, with 5/8″ tenons. The rungs are not much heavier than that – they don’t need to be. The rungs have been dried after rough-shaving, in the oven until the batch of them stopped losing weight. Then shaved down to size.

I bored a test hole in some dry hardwood, then jam the tenon into that hole to burnish it. then spokeshave down to the burnished marks. I skew the spokeshave a lot, to keep from rounding over the end of the tenon.

Long ago, I learned to bore the mortises at a low bench, leaning over the posts to bore them. Later, Alexander and Langsner started doing the boring horizontally. Use a bit extender to help sight the angle, and a level taped to the extender too. It’s so sophisticated. I’m sure today’s ladderback chairmakers have passed me & my brace by…

it’s a Power Bore bit. Was made by Stanley, I guess out of production now. I have an extra if something happens to this one. 

Then knock the side sections together, check the angles, and bore for the front & rear rungs.

Still needs to go a little to our right..that’s a level in my hand, checking to get the side frame oriented so the boring is level.

Then more of the same.

Then I knocked it together. Yes, I used glue. Probably not necessary, the oven-dry rungs will swell inside the somewhat-moist posts. but the glue doesn’t hurt anything. I never glued the larger chairs pictured above.

I got the frame done. Next time I work on it, I’ll make the slats from riven white oak. I’ll steam them & pop them in place. then weave a seat. Either hickory bark or rush. Bark is best.

Small tool kit – those pictured here, plus riving tools, a mortise chisel. Saws for trimming things to length. Not much else. Oh, a pencil. Yikes.


10 thoughts on “They’re so 20th century…

  1. It looks really easy in your hand…

    I am surprised that you don’t put the slats in place as you are working side to side.
    How do you get the exact measurement/needed length of the slats this way?
    Would that work if the slats would be round (sorry, I am sure the term is different then, but I don’t know it), like the rungs at the bottom part ?
    Accoding to slats, you don’t use wood shrinkage of the posts to your advantage?


    • Rene – I make thin slats, and steam bend them into place. By over-bending them, you can pop them into the mortises. I’ll show it when I do it. And yes, I don’t rely on the posts shrinking onto the slats in that case. They get two wooden pins driven through the posts to secure them in place.
      a back like the chair in the 4th photo above has to be installed as you assemble. Thin bendy slats can go in after…

  2. Peter,

    Thanks so much for your blog and the work you’ve done! Furniture from riven wood has been a game changer for me for sure! I have only built a couple of case pieces, and enjoyed it, but also kind of didn’t… It’s hard work, and can be expensive. I can get access to logs for cheap or free, split them into chunks that I can easily fit in my hatchback, and then make a chair, spoon, or bowl from them! Awesome.

    One question I do have – do you shape main post with a draw knife/spokeshave before bending it? Or do you use a lathe? I have found that if the section of log I’m working isn’t perfectly straight, I have trouble making a straight chair part with the drawknife. I have recently resorted to planing two sides with a jack plane to give me a straight reference face without constantly needing to check my progress with a straight edge. It seems that a lathe would just automatically make the part straight. I don’t yet own one though, and probably won’t for quite a while.

  3. What size mortise chisel do you use for the back slats? Also, I can’t get my head around how the back slats bend into their mortises. It doesn’t seem like it can be a simple ‘C’ shape bend because otherwise it wouldn’t fit into the mortise on each end (the tenon would meet the mortise at an angle, no?)

  4. It is fascinating to see Follansbee making a two slat post and rung chair. Since he whizzed off into 17th century joinery in 1980, he has produced very few of them. A few things have changed in the past 37 years. I will limit myself to just one comment.

    About the bit. The Stanley PowerBore Bit is distant history. It suffers from a number of shortcomings. The Stern Universal Bit made in Austria by Diefenbacher Tools,, is made of better metal and better designed. It lacks the unnecessarily long lead point of the PowerBore. I have used the Stern Universal Bit for 30 years without complaint.

    Some of my other “old-age” peregrinations are found in my 1999 DVD Make A Chair From A Tree available for $28.00 from Anatol Polillo 3706 Ednor Rd Baltimore, MD 21218.

  5. Joe M. Good question.I flare my back post inside top tips 16″ apart.. The top slat mortises does not create a simple curved slat. The thin 1/8″ top slat has a slight comfortable flare back in its middle. The slat holds up well.The slat mortises and slat are both exactly 1’8″ thick at assembly and both mortise and tenon are both close to shop moisture content. It seems to work best when the slat is heated in a kiln rather than adding moisture by steaming.

  6. Hi! I was wondering if there is any reason the straight mortises in the legs are. It run straight through (and wedged if using dry wood) as opposed to blind mortises? It seems like it would be easier to drill straight through than to fiddle with special bits without lead points/ spurs/ threads…

    Thanks :) for sharing all your work!

  7. Nate. There are a number of ways that the post and rung mortise and tenon joint can be made. After centuries of variation the most common joint adopted is joint with a mortise that at the time of assembly contains a low amount of moisture and a bone-dry tenon that is slightly oversized. The bone-dry tenon absorbs mortise moisture and swells into the mortise. The tenon ends inside the post’s mortise to allow the moisture exchange and also prevent lateral movement of the tenon. This swelling joint is really quite successful.The Stern Universal Bit indeed also has a small lead point and well designed spurs and cutters. It is also made excellent metal.

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