the only act of shaving I know

I’ve said it before, ‘ll say it again. I have great friends. Rick gave me an ash log last week – 8’ long. Straight & clear. One of my favorite woods, especially for chairmaking. I’ve spent parts of the last few days beginning to work up the sections into chair parts. Splitting and shaving, then more splitting and shaving. Here’s some sections waiting their turn. They don’t look it here, but the ash bolts are more than 5 feet long. (on the left side of this photo)

ash on the left, some red oak behind

I split and shaved and then bent three sets of rear posts for ladderback chairs (two in this photo). There’s more of that to come.

JA chairs-to-be

I also roughed out a set of turnings for a Windsor chair – 4 legs, 3 stretchers and 2 arm posts. Those I rived, shaved, then turned just in a general way to get them drying a bit. Then I picked through the remnants from those two jobs – to shave what’s left into ladderback rungs and Windsor spindles.

roughed out chair parts

These were all essentially leftovers – after I split out the other chair parts – so today I shaved them into 3/4″ square-sections. Random lengths. The longer stuff will be Windsor spindles. Any that already taper along their length – ditto. The stuff between 14 1/2″- 18″ will mostly be ladderback rungs. Some will be spindles. The shortest stuff there is 11″ – each Windsor arm chair has 4 short spindles. There’s more than a year’s worth for me! And the top of that heap are roughed-out stretchers for one of Curtis Buchanan’s democratic side chairs. I have the seat & legs made – but needed the stretchers. Now – big problem is where to put all this (& more right behind it). Today I committed a hideous sin – stuck them in a temporary place. On the lathe bed.

chairs & chairs

There was very little waste – a few handfuls of firewood so far. These two pieces (below) I rejected because they grew so slowly – there must be more like them, but I haven’t run into it yet. The green arrows show how the most recent growth was slower still. Weak as a kitten – if that’s really an expression.

slow growth & slower still

At the end of the afternoon, I went outside and found one more off-cut. Stupidly, I cut whatever I needed & left this piece at 14″ – 14 1/4″. If it was even 1/2″ longer it would have been perfect for ladderback rungs. As it is, some will make it, but half will be too short. But it split like a dream. I got 14 blanks from it – didn’t lose one. One piece of firewood.

perfect, but short by 1/4″

The picture below shows me splitting off the pointed inner bit. But I got one blank from that pointed side – the wood was so straight it split perfectly. (that’s how I ended up with 14, even though only 13 were marked out.)

2nd split

I’ll shave those next time. Some will make it for ladderbacks – others will be good for something.

next time

My next ladderback is going to have ash posts & hickory rungs. These posts were made long ago – the rungs are in the kiln. But I have to sort out the shop & clean it up before I can make this chair…

next ladderback

Ash – what a wonderful wood, but using it always makes me sad – millions of the trees have been killed off by the invasive Emerald ash borer – (this tree I’m working was dying from other causes if I remember correctly what Rick told me) – I don’t keep on top of that situation – but just now I found some encouraging efforts about identifying resistant ash trees – let’s hope they make it –

white ash heartwood & sapwood

seat weaving, slow learning

seat weaving setup

Sometimes I’m a slow learner. When I made the chair-making video this winter, I wove the bark seat as I sat on a stool – pinned between 2 cameras-on-tripods; and up against the workbench. I flipped the chair up & down in my lap as I wove the top and bottom of the seat. It all worked – but today I did another seat, mostly without a camera and it went swimmingly. 

I set a board so it hung off the front of the bench – and sat the chair on that. This time I wove the seat before putting the slats in – that makes winding the first strips (the warp) easier because I didn’t have to fish them under the bottom slat. Also easier to flip the chair around without the slats. I’m more comfortable working while standing for the most part, so this was an improvement in that regard as well. 

pulling the long strips through the warp

In the “I thought you were supposed to be good at this department” I had to twice pull some weaving out because I messed up the pattern. In both cases I didn’t see it until I went to weave the next row. 

asleep at the wheel

A butterknife helps fish the weaver through the warp when things get tight. Don’t use one from the kitchen, get one from a yard sale or somewhere like that. Your family will be glad you did.

it gets tight near the end

This seat, done for now, took 2 strips of bark, each over 30 feet long. There’s one joint under the seat. When the strips dry in a day or two, all these strips will shrink in width. I’ll then pack them tighter again and weave in some filler strips to finish the seat. I put one of these filler strips in already, on our left here. There will be one at the front, and one or more on the right side. Then I’ll make the slats. 

done for now

A few of these chairs in the works. Maybe even an extra video segment. We’ll see.

Leftover chair, leftover video

A couple of things – I finished that Windsor chair I made – painted red & black, all the rage w/ modern Windsor chairs. Takes more patience than I have. Next time I might do oil paint & be done with it. But…now that it’s done, it’s my new favorite chair.

comb-back, 2023

It was great fun to re-visit making Windsor chairs. I hope to make a few more this year. We’ll see what I can fit in between other projects.

side view

And I edited a little bit of video that I shot when I was carving that painted drawer front for the reproduction 1680s cupboard that’s underway. The execution of the carving is just the same as before – it’s just the visual impact is immediate because the “finish” is done first.

The previous version of this video is much longer, more detail. Even more repetition. Some of you might have seen it last year – but for anyone who wants to see more of the above – here it is

And one day a week or so ago we had some hooded mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) on the river. They don’t often show up here, just every once in a while. Usually winter…

hooded mergansers

Painted & carved drawer front

Last year I made this carved & painted drawer front the other way ’round. Carved first, painted after. I tried the reverse this time.

painted, then carved

Most 17th-century carvings I’m familiar with that include paint have it as the background. So it’s like a 3-D coloring book. Carve out the recesses, then paint them. Like this English box:

carved box, Devon; detail

But the cupboard I’m making has only one carving on it and its foreground is painted black. Here’s a detail from the original.

detail 1680s cupboard, Essex County, Massachusetts

Prepped the oak board a few months ago. Trimmed it to size, then painted it black with dry pigment mixed in linseed oil/thinner/fast-drying medium. Then laid out the pattern with a compass, marking gauge, awl & square.

the layout

When that step was just a concept, I was concerned that the layout would be difficult to see. But the tools scratched right through the paint so the lines were bright. BUT – if you do this, make sure you have worked out the geometry first. I made a layout error and had to re-paint and wait til the new coat of paint dried. Just a day or two with that drier added, but a stupid mistake that could have been easily avoided.

This carving uses no V-tool for the outlines. I struck the shapes with a few different gouges and chisels.

striking the outline w a gouge

Then using a very shallow, narrow gouge, began removing the background. This particular carving is pretty shallow.

it’s like sgraffito

Here’s a detail showing that background. Eventually it will get a coat of linseed oil so the oak behind will not be so stark. That’s much later though.

some background done

Whether you carve first or paint first, you must be careful at various points. There’s touch-up regardless of the method. This approach certainly makes the painting easier – and the carving is not any more difficult. So maybe it’s the way to go…

done for now

Here’s a post, including a video, from last year when I carved the same drawer front. Pre-painting.

Carving practice

I can’t remember the last carving I did. I had this box front (the one with the painted background in the photo) carved for quite a while – youtube says 2 years! Very late in the day today I began sorting some stuff to turn it into a box. I wanted some pattern to carve on the sides – but didn’t want anything too involved. Below the box front is the beginning of what I carved…

It’s my version of some carvings I saw over 20 years ago, on my first-ever trip to England in 2000. Victor Chinnery took me to a church in Durrington, Wiltshire that had a lot of 17th-century carved decoration reinstalled in the pews. Each pattern looked different and the place was full of them. I got a few lousy photos – managed to scan a few of those old slides some years ago and salvaged a couple.

detail of carving from Durrington All Saints Church

I didn’t dig out the photos when I was working – I only had 20 minutes of daylight left and wanted to get something down on the oak. I have this little box I made back then – I keep some loose tools in it under my bench. So that was my source for today’s version.

small tool box

The nice thing about these particular period carvings is the seemingly endless variety. Very little v-tool work. Most of the outlines are struck with gouges to determine the shapes.

detail, Durrington All Saints church carvings

These patterns have what I call “approximate symmetry” – they don’t have to be perfect. Your brain likes to see patterns and will tolerate the variations. Or mine will, anyway.

half carved box end

Right after that trip to England I made a couple of boxes with these sort of patterns. It was fun to revisit that stuff today – I’ll scrounge around the shop and find the stuff to finish that box with…

PF carved box, 2000

Below is the youtube video from maybe 2 years ago of carving the piece that will be the box front.

Chairmaking Video Trailer

I decided to stay warm today in the house, rather than trying to get the shop warm. So I took this chance to go back to video-editing and made an actual trailer for my chairmaking video that shows some of the woodworking. (I had done two other excerpts – one 2 minute intro and another long one about Jennie Alexander and chairs.)

This one’s about 9 1/2 minutes long and shows some of the steps involved. The entire video is 8 1/2 hours long and shows you most everything I could think of about making this chair. It costs $75 and you can access it at

a Satisfied Mind

Got the chair together, mostly without a hitch. I didn’t shoot any photos of the process, I had enough to keep track of as it was. I won’t go into the usual “here’s one mistake, this part could be better/curvier/wider”, etc – a friend last week wrote that his chair would be “amazing” – stuff & nonsense I said. I’m aiming for good enough. And I got it. As I said in an earlier post, this chair is pretty much the same as one I made 30 years ago. That one is still kicking, but had a run-in with some rowdiness that resulted in a hasty repair. Now I have a brand-new one – survived assembly so that’s a good sign.

Sophie test driving the chair

The seat is white pine, turnings maple & ash. Hickory arm & spindles and the crest is white oak. I have all the fussy cleanup and finishing touches left. Then the notion of paint or not. I hate the thought of painting it – not out of any fixation with the natural beauty of wood. Just from a dread of all the work painting a chair entails.

front view

It was in 2014 that my friend Michael showed me a settee of mine that he’d bought at a house-sale. And my reaction was that I didn’t think I could make it now. That was the impetus for me to delve back into making Windsor chairs. Not for my living – I’m too slow and clunky – but for the fun of making them and to recapture some of the skills I once had that got shelved.

After a few of Curtis Buchanan’s shaved Windsors – this comb back is the first one in 30 years really that I’ve made with turned bits, carved ears – the works. As I was working on this chair, I kept thinking back to that period in my career and the people who showed me what’s what – Curtis, Drew Langsner – Jennie Alexander. JA only ever made one Windsor chair, but was always thinking about them – particularly the undercarriage.

And our friend Daniel O’Hagan – in his notes is this, about comb backs –

“The melodious comb…crowning the whole work and supplying a place…a very convenient one…for hanging a coat, handbag, hat, or pajamas.”

An earlier post about my new chair is here

Unfinished Research

Carpenters’ Company Records

I took that picture in 2004 or 5 in London. Back when I was in museum work, I was researching the Joiners’ Company Records, looking for the names of London joiners who went to New England. This image however is from the Carpenters’ Company records, it’s too long a story to go into now. I eventually published a little of that research – I recently re-found it online here

But I have spent part of this morning looking back on a different article I worked on for years but never finished and thus never published. The subject was too broad – and kept going off in great tangents – it was to be about 17th-century apprenticeships, journeymen and the trade “companies” of London (and elsewhere in England). Apprenticeships of course were used here in New England too, but the other components -journeymen and trade companies (today we’d call them “guilds”) didn’t really transfer over here. So I opened my notes from reading The Worshipful Company of Turners of London – Its Origin and History by A.C. Stanley-Stone, (London: Lindley-Jones & Brother, 1925) 

van Vliet’s turner, 1635

 “ …no person using the misterie (the craft) was to be allowed to be a master workman, or set up a shop for such work, until he had satisfied the Master, Wardens, and Assistants that he had served seven years as apprentice and two years as a journeyman, and had also made such pieces of work as might be comanded.”

I take this to mean that a turner working within the city limits had to show his “indentures” – papers proving he’d served his time, additionally, at times he might be directed to make what the company elsewhere refers to as a “proof piece.”  Here’s two examples of these situations: 

“11th November 1614  Lawrence Clarke was fined £3 for setting up his shop without having served two years as a journeyman and was directed to make for his proof piece a linen wheel and bring it to the Hall. On the same day, Thomas Fawken…was ordered to make for his proof piece a man’s arm stool.”

What an “arm stool” is I don’t know. Today we don’t think of stools as having backs, let alone arms. But backstool is a common term in 17th century England and New England. This might be the only time I’ve seen the term arm stool.

Back to Stanley-Stone’s book:   

“There was a certain amount of fear that some of the proof pieces produced by applicants for membership might have been made by someone other than the applicant, and to meet this, on the 20th May 1617 it was ordered that there should be a lathe, a cutting block, and a winding block set up in the warehouse to make the proof pieces by such as were appointed to make them. The lathe had not yet been set up on the 13th July 1617 when Richard Chamberlain was ordered to make…a high stool for a child.” 

Well, I know what a lathe is – and I’m pretty sure what a “cutting block” is – but the winding block I still don’t know & won’t guess.

Moxon, pole lathe

Randle Holme illustrated a turner’s chopping block, described as a “Block is made of Elme tree, or some other Soft wood set on three feet. Some Turners use in stead a peece of a trunk of a tree of a foot and a halfe high or more from the flore.”

Randle Hole, turners’ chopping block

I’m glad for these histories of the trade companies – but it’s important to keep in mind that the author(s) are at times quoting the period records, at other times summarizing them. There’s one I’ve used many times – this record about the Company seizing chairs – 

“20th February 1615 It was directed that the makers of chairs about the City, who were strangers and foreigners, were to bring them to the Hall to be searched according to the ordinances. When they were thus brought and searched, they were to be bought by the Master and Wardens at a price fixed by them, which was 6s per dozen for plain matted chairs and 7s per dozen for turned matted chairs. The effect of such an order…all chairs which came into London had to be submitted to the Company and if approved, were taken over at the fixed price. The Turners reaped the benefit by the removal of possible competition.”

The definition of the word “foreigner” varied quite a bit, in some cases it refers to  “persons not owing allegience to the British crown,” in other cases, a countryman come into London for work, “non-freemen of the city and Companies.” In either sense a foreigner was often treated harshly. These notes are from E. B. Jupp, An Historical Account of the Worshipful Company of Carpenters, (London, Pickering & Chatto, 1887). “The former were constantly the objects of popular persecution, and sometimes fell victims in the unequal struggle. The latter were obliged to take up their freedom, or were fined for daring to exercise their calling.”

These chairmakers bring their chairs to the city, thinking to sell them, but the Company seizes them & pays for them at prices determined by the Company!  Then there’s the whole “plain matted chairs” versus “turned matted chairs” issue. I have taken this to mean some of these chairs are shaved rather than turned. Matted chairs have fiber seats, often rushes. I used to make versions of them based on a few surviving examples and Dutch art – & collaborated with Bob Trent & Jennie Alexander on this article about that type of chair –

PF rush-seated chair, before 2003

A common problem was turners working for joiners or carpenters. One fear was that the joiners or carpenters were learning to turn their own work. And it seems the Company would look the other way if a fine was paid:

“12th November 1622  William Gryme was charged for putting his apprentice to work at the trade of Turning within a joiners to make Turner’s work for the joiner, and was ordered to take him home … 6th July 1630…Christopher Bere was charged with working in a joiner’s house and teaching them the trade of Turning.”  

“…it was ordered that every Turner who worked and turned in the shop or other rooms of any Joiner, Carpenter, or Coachmaker should pay ten shillings for every week he should continue so working after being warned.”

Stent panel, England, early 17th century

Outside of the city, joiners and turners worked side-by-side – or were even one person. The well-known Stent panel clearly is not London-made – or if it is, then a fine was paid for these two workmen to be working together. When I first learned about the London Companies, or trade guilds, I thought they were nice succinct packages – turners here, joiners there, that sort of thing. But one catch is that a tradesman only needs to be a member of a London Company – it doesn’t have to be the one aligned with his trade. 

“7th March 1625…complaint of the Master and Wardens of the Company of Turners against Richard Newberrie and others free of the Company of Salters, but using the trade of a Turner, for making, as they alleged, “insufficient bandeleeres” and for refusing to bring their wares to the…Turners Hall…”

Another of Stanley-Stone’s summaries is worth looking at:

“18th February 1629…a Petition…that the Company of Turners “is verie smale,” and consisted altogether of “handy trades men”; that within the last five years about thirty householders free of other Companies had earned a living by turnery, and were not under government as regards their trade, but took as many apprentices as they liked to the great harm of the Company of Turners…”

Early Planemakers of London

That can really throw a monkey wrench in research. If you wanted to know about joiners in London at that time – you’d think if you learned all about the Joiners Company, you’d be covered. But somehow you have to cast your net wider. The most detailed example of this sort of thing is the book Early Planemakers of London: Recent Discoveries in the Tallow Chandlers and the Joiners Companies by Don & Anne Wing (the Mechanick’s Workbench, Marion, Massachusetts, 2005) The Wings got through this problem backwards – they found an “early” plane marked with the name John Gilgrest – and by searching his name found him listed in the Tallow Chandlers Company – the whole story (as of 2005) is outlined in their excellent book.