Nostalgic Chairmaking: 40 years

 

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my start in woodworking. Forty years ago I made my first “real” pieces of furniture; ladderback chairs from John (Jennie) Alexander’s Make a Chair from a Tree. The book came out in 1978, I remember when I first opened that package. The chairs I made then, from that book, would really make me cringe now – but that’s not the point. (thankfully, I have no idea where those chairs are, but I have this drawing of one saved in an old sketchbook. That chair was made before I met Alexander and Drew Langsner in 1980.)

For years, I made these chairs, and then Windsors – before I made any oak furniture. Then once I started on the oak joined furniture, those chairs sort of fell by the wayside. I made a couple kid-sized JA-style chairs when my children were small, but that was it.

Otherwise, large oak carved chairs or turned (also large) chairs – all that 17th-century stuff. We saw one of my wainscot chairs displayed in the Hingham Massachusetts Public Library the other day. I made it based on an original made in Hingham in the 17th century.

But I’ve been planning for a while to “re-learn” how to make JA ladderbacks. These chairs are more demanding than my wainscot chairs – the tolerances are much tighter, less forgiving. I made a couple attempts recently that I wasn’t happy enough with to finish – so today I took the day off from joinery and worked on one of these chairs. First thing I did was to review Jennie’s DVD about making the chair. If you are interested in these chairs, I highly recommend that video. http://www.greenwoodworking.com/MACFATVideo 

(yes, Jennie & Lost Art Press are working towards a new edition of the book – but get the video in the meantime. It covers every detail of making this chair.)

The part I had to re-learn is how to orient the bent rear posts while boring the mortises. That’s what I went to the video for; the rest I still had. Included with the video are drawings for a couple helpful jigs to aid in those tricky bits. This morning I made several of those jigs – but didn’t photograph any of that. I didn’t get the camera out until I was boring mortises…

In this photo, I’m boring the mortises for the side rungs into the rear post. If you get this angle wrong, you might as well quit now. I forget now who came up with this horizontal boring method – but I learned it from Jennie & Drew Langsner. They worked together many summers teaching classes to make this chair. The photo is a bit cluttered (the bench is cluttered really) so it’s hard to see. But the bent rear post needs to be oriented carefully. But once you have it right, then it’s just a matter of keeping the bit extender level and square to the post. there’s a line level taped to the bit extender. Eyeball 90 degrees.

Alexander’s non-traditional assembly sequence is to make the side sections of the chair first. So after boring the rear & front posts for the side rungs, I shaved the tenons in the now-dried rungs. Mostly spokeshave work.

I bored several test holes with the same bit, to gauge the tenons’ size. Chamfer the end of the tenon, try to force it into the hole. Then shave it to just squeeze in there. No measurements.

Once the tenon starts in that hole, you get a burnished bit right at the end. That’s the guideline now. Shave down to it.

Yes, glue. I don’t often use it, but this is a case where I do. The chair would probably be fine without it, but it doesn’t hurt. Belt & suspenders. Knocking the side rungs into the rear post.

Make sure things line up, and the front post is not upside-down.

Then bang it together. Listen for the sound to change when the joints are all the way in.

Then time to bore the front & rear mortises. This little angle-jig has the unpleasant name of “potty seat” – I wish there was another name for it. But there’s a level down on the inside cutout – so I tilt the chair section back & forth until that reads level. Then bore it.

 

It’s hard to see from this angle, but that chair section is tilted away from me, creating the proper angle between the side and rear rungs.

Then re-set for the front mortises.

I was running out of daylight – and any other task, I’d just leave it til tomorrow. But with glue, and the wet/dry joints, I wanted to get this whole frame together this afternoon. Here I’m knocking the rear rungs in place. That’s a glue-spreader (oak shaving) in the front mortise.

Got it.

Expect to hear a lot more from me this year about making these chairs; their relationship to historical chairs, and also about the people who taught me to make them. It’s been a heck of a trip these past 40 years.

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10 thoughts on “Nostalgic Chairmaking: 40 years

    • Not me, David. We’ll have Curtis Buchanan & Pete Galbert for that – and Tim Manney did ladderbacks at the first GWF. And you were right the other night about the carving inside that box. Just as you said.

  1. Thanks for posting this. I’ve just finished another JA chair and I learn something new each time one goes together. I can only imagine the insights over forty years. Looking forward to hearing more.

  2. Just finished my first this afternoon. The video was so helpful. Hope to weave the seat tomorrow. Can’t wait for your posts regarding the history. Cheers, Travis

  3. Great photographs.
    IIRC the method for boring the posts is different in the book and the video? In the book all the boring is done vertically in a low bench and in the video it’s horizontal with the jig? I’m away from books so can’t check that.
    The horizontal method with the jigs and levels looks more complex but is much more accurate.
    Than’s for this.
    St.J

  4. The book is amazing, as is Drew’s chair book. The video cleared a lot up. I’ve had one successful chair and one that blew up on me. Working on the third now. Peter, do you have a method for measuring out the slat length? Can’t wait to see the new MACFAT from LAP. These chairs are quite rewarding and a blast to make.

  5. I just noticed, completely off topic, that the Buell joined chest illustrated in some old books, from the Erving Collection and presumably owned by one of his great-granddaughters, has the Roman sarcophagus wave pattern on the stiles much like the back panels of the Hingham armchair. As you recall from the Windsor CT publication, the elder Buell lived in Windsor but his woodworker son lived in Killingworth on the CT coast. The total oeuvre consists of three boxes and the chest, not a lotto go on!

  6. Often wonder about 17th century ladderbacks, they must have been common as they’re often featured in woodcuts of the time. cf Mathew Hopkins Witchfinder General – the witch in the woodcut has a couple, have any survivors been dated to that time I wonder.

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