I finished work on the next video in the Joined Carved Chest series. This one I’ve been looking forward to – Carving the Drawer Front.
Some simple geometry and only about 5 or 6 carving tools combine to create a very full pattern across the drawer front. I’ve always liked this design and have used it as box fronts a number of times. I put together a lengthy sample (5 minutes) of what’s in the full 90-minute video. The video series is at vimeo.com/ondemand/follansbeejoinedchest
When Jennie Alexander and I studied these chests in preparation for our article about them, we sorted them into two main groups attributed to John Savell (1642-1687) and his brother William Savell (1652-1700). Our findings were that John used a different pattern than William – but only slightly different. This drawer, from the chest at Wadsworth Atheneum is, we believed (& I still believe), the work of William –
But the drawers from chests we felt were John Savell’s skipped the pinwheels around the middle of the drawer. A very small distinction, but one that requires some extra thought in the layout.
The video shows how to carve the one with fewer pinwheels, but it would be easy enough to adjust the geometry to do the other instead. Here’s one I did years ago for a chest I restored.
David Douyard https://www.daviddouyardchairmaker.com/ & I live within about a 2 1/2 hour drive from each other, yet we’ve only ever met in Australia. But we’ve traded notes & phone calls here & there. About chairs. Yesterday he wrote with a question about the interlocking joints on Jennie Alexander’s chairs. Not something I’ve gone into detail on before, so a chance to think some more about chairmaking and JA, now four years since her death in July 2018.
Back in the 1978 edition of Make a Chair from a Tree, Alexander built the front and rear sections of the chair first, then bored for the sides. She used the interlocking joints (photo above) to pin the front (or rear) rungs in place with the side rungs. This photo is from those days – the mortise is bored with a forstner bit and the tenons have shoulders – it might even be turned. Looks like all hickory.
I have an early JA chair here, made about 1973 or 1974 before she used interlocking rungs. It’s turned, all hickory. Shouldered tenons bored on centerlines, not on tangents. A beastly uncomfortable thing, but an important (to me, anyway) chair.
JA did not cook up the interlocking joints She learned the technique from studying old chairs in museum collections, disassembled ones were the best. Before she learned photography, she’d commission black & white shots from museums she’d visited with Charles Hummel. You can see in the photo below that both mortises are shifted above & below the tangent layout line.
This next one is a great photo showing the relationship to all these parts. The post with the mortises in it has been turned around to show us the mortises. Note the notch on top of the tenon at the bottom right in the photo. And you can clearly see the layout struck on the post, Great stuff.
Alexander drew the joint a million times to better understand the mechanics and to tell whoever would listen. And Alexander was a tinker-er. Locking the front and rear rungs in place was not good enough for her. She decided, very early on, that the main stress on a chair was fore & aft. So why not assemble the sides first and lock those in place? This sketch has the chamfer at the end of the tenon, flats on the sides and even the circumferential notch (later dumped by JA, Drew, etc). But clearly labels the side rung as the “subservient” tenon in this case.
That’s where she was when she & Drew Langsner met in the late 1970s. Drew helped figure out how to go about assembling the sides first. From then on all the JA chairs were built sides-first. Not at all intuitive. But it works.
And one of JA’s favorite parts was making test joints and cutting them open. Both to see the result and to capture the perfect photo of it. We shot hundreds of this sort of thing, both for these joints and the drawbored mortise and tenons we used in joinery. This one you can tell is a later-period example from the top of the blog post. All oak now, white oak at that (maybe it’s a red oak post). No shoulder on the tenon – all shaved. I’m not sure how that mortise was bored – there’s no lead screw of any kind.
I imagine eventually this one would be rejected – the mortise isn’t deep enough in the post. She preferred a very thin post, 1 1/4″ or so. Less sometimes. And a 1″ deep mortise. That’s pushing the limits of the material. It can get pretty frightening at times. Note the split in the post where the top tenon reaches the bottom of the mortise.
Is this technique necessary? No, not at all. Millions of post & rung chairs have been made without interlocking rungs. I still do it – I like the history of it and it’s fun. But it means nothing. I still flatten the sides of the tenons too, and Drew told me he stopped doing that over 30 years ago!
But I did dump the circumferential notch.
It’s simple to do if you’re turning a chair, but if you’re shaving it the notch is a pain. When the first book came out, there I was with a Stanley utility knife carving this stupid notch around the top & bottom of each tenon. Eventually JA decided that the most important surfaces on the tenons were the top and bottom and the notch removed material from them. So out it went. Some makers of turned chairs still use it. I bet it’s fun. JA’s note in the 1978 text says “some chairmakers used more than one notch” – how about three??
The interlocking joints made it into the new edition of the book. The notch did not…
As usual. An hour or two here & there, a half-day yesterday and I’ve begun the next project. These perfect oak boards I rived, hewed and planed from some bolts leftover from the joined chest I’m building. These are the beginnings of another joined press cupboard/wainscot cupboard – whatever you call it. The same as last time, but now I’m all warmed up. Plus I don’t have to photograph every blessed step of the way. So later this summer into the fall (& probably early winter) the blog will look a lot like it did last year. If you’re new here, this is what I’m talking about. I made that one during 2021, finished in early 2022.
For those who want to see the shop as it really is – not tidied up for photographs – here’s the shot right before cleanup yesterday after working about 3 hours on planing boards.
While I was working, the chest sat where the camera is for this photo. Things got shifted into the chest and onto one bench while I worked at the other. Then it all got shuffled again so I could clean up. Seems the shavings pile is always bigger than the board-pile.
The chest got its first coat of linseed oil today. I always like the way the carvings get better definition from the finish.
While all that is happening Jeff Lefkowitz and I are plugging away at the drawings and plans for the chest.
That translates to I find stuff I missed and write to Jeff to tell him we (he, really) has to redraw this or that detail. And he does it without complaint. I don’t know how much you know about Jeff’s work, but it’s outstanding. He really puts a huge effort into these drawings, wanting them to be the best they can be. If you’re not familial with his work, he’s done plans for Curtis Buchanan, Pete Galbert, Tim Manney, Jarrod Dahl, Dawson Moore, Bern Chandley and others I’ve missed. And two series of carving patterns with me. He makes us all look good. He does this in addition to his own chair work and teaching. See Jeff’s sites here – http://www.jefflefkowitzchairmaker.com/ and https://www.instagram.com/jefflefkowitz/?hl=en
There’s no timetable for the plans. They’ll be ready when we’re done. But we’re getting closer. You’ll hear about it.
I finished the chair yesterday. Somewhere along the way I drew up this template showing the sightlines I use to bore the leg mortises. I tape it right to the battens, stick a block of scrap wood under it so the adjustable bevel will sit on it and set the bevel & bore away.
It works pretty well. The auger bit chews up the oak battens some because it’s canted over pretty far – 25 degrees. Having the back’s uprights in place helps keep the legs from hitting those through tenons coming down from above. The back edge of the template is 4 3/4″ from the seat’s back edge. It worked perfectly, the legs miss the tenons by about 1/4″ or more.
Usually on the old chairs, the leg tenons come through both the battens and the seat. This cross-grain construction – the battens run perpendicular to the seat – almost guarantees that the seat will crack. Except sometimes it doesn’t. In all of my previous versions of this sort of chair I did the joinery so the leg tenons only penetrated the battens. This time I made the leg tenons long enough to come all the way through. So I threw the switch in my head that told me not to do it – and bored the mortises through the battens and seat. And glued and wedged the legs in place.
I didn’t think I’d like the tenons poking through the seat board, but I do. It’ll show up better when I put a finish on the chair. Then decades from now it will be harder to see again. Ash legs, butternut seat and back.
I’m going to tinker some more with these 3-piece backs, but I do have some wide walnut waiting to be brettstuhls. And one more ash bolt to rive. Better get to it.
Here and there I take some time to work on the “board chair” I’m making. I struggle with what to call it. This version has a 3-board back. But for now, I’ll stick with the German “brettstuhl” but recognize that it’s not a very good term for it.
Once I got the uprights fitting into the mortises, I then trimmed the extra length at the back end of the battens/cleats. Maybe you can see in that photo above that the upper tenons have already been drawbored – turns out this is not ideal. Small discrepancies in how those two uprights relate to each other means I need to adjust their shoulders for the crest to come down tight on both at once. So I made a note for next time – leave that drawboring til after fitting the upright’s lower wedges. (for now, I plugged the holes in the tenons and will re-bore them after adjusting the fit. Another learning-experience-chair.)
Once I had those uprights fitting in their seat mortises the way I liked them, I marked the baseline of the wedge-mortises. This wedged-tenon is one place where I do things differently from other brettstuhls I know about.
I first heard of these chairs from a Drew Langsner article in Fine Woodworking in the early 1980s. That chair, made by Drew’s mentor Ruedi Kohler in Switzerland, used wedges driven across the through tenons.
Most of the antique chairs I’ve seen pictures of use tapered pins instead of wedges. And they run from the back toward the front. I decided I like the wedges vs the pins but I like the fore-and-aft direction better. It does have a drawback – you have to miss the legs. (the picture below is from Chris Schwarz – he’s been to places where these chairs come from. I haven’t.)
I bore a couple of holes, then clean out between them to make these mortises. They’re too short to chop in the usual way. Laying them out looks weird because of the angle where the uprights meet the seat. And you have to be sure the mortise extends above the baseline so the wedge will bear on the cleat.
Now I’ll trim the length of these wedges, adjust the way the crest sits. Then bore for the legs.
I made the tapered legs from riven ash. Turned the tenons oversized, then air-dried them for a while. Last week, I moved them to my 4-wheeled kiln to dry the tenons further before turning them to final dimensions. These days I try not to go anywhere, but at least I get some use out of this car.