slow-growing oak vs fast-growing oak

fast grown on the left, slow grown on the right. Red oak

The other day I posted a photo of some oak I’d planed for a joined stool, and mentioned that it was too slow-growing for chair work. I didn’t explain why, so this post will look at how oak’s growth rate affects its strength. This notion applies to ring-porous woods like oak, ash and hickory. Those are the ones I have the most experience with. I’ve used other ring porous woods like catalpa and sassafrass for various things, but I think of them as too soft for much furniture – certainly for chair work.

THESE NOTES APPLY ONLY TO RING-POROUS WOODS – THINGS LIKE MAPLE, CHERRY, ETC DIFFER. I DON’T KNOW HOW TO EVALUATE THEIR STRENGTH. SOFTWOODS ARE ANOTHER WHOLE STORY. MY BAG IS OAK, SOME ASH, ETC.

Below is a piece of white ash (Fraxinus americana) – each growth ring has two sections; the early wood/spring wood is the open porous bits. Then the latewood/summer wood is more dense. Generally the spring wood is the same size in each ring – the summer wood can vary from year to year, depending on various factors – light, water/nutrients, competition and more.

white ash end grain

Next photo is of two boards I’ve kept as samples to illustrate this concept for maybe 20 years. On the top is a fast-growing red oak; the bottom board is the slow-growing example. (these boards are in the opening view of this post too). Both came from southeastern Massachusetts, both are 6″ wide. One has about 13 or 14 rings, the other over 90. It becomes hard to see them near the right-hand edge.

For my joinery work, like this chest, I prefer the slow-growing wood. It’s much easier to plane and carve. The way the chest is constructed the lesser strength is not an issue. The stiles (corner posts) are nearly 2″ thick x 3 1/2″ wide, the rails are 1 1/4″ x 4″ or so. Drawbored mortise & tenons throughout. So no problem.

joined and carved chest, 2010

For this sort of chair – same story – huge parts, 2″ thick posts, 1 3/4″ thick seat rails. Slow-growing ash is fine for this.

But if you want to make a light but strong ladderback chair, like those I learned from Jennie Alexander and Drew Langsner – that stuff won’t work. The rungs on this chair are just over 5/8″ in diameter. The posts on mine are about 1 3/8″ thick – Alexander’s were thinner. So this is a case where you have to be sure your material is up for the stress placed upon it.

Here’s another end grain shot, of two green chair rungs I shaved very quickly this morning. The one on the left is that new log, 12 growth rings to the inch – deemed useless for chair making, but ideal for joiner’s work. On the right is something I pulled from the firewood pile – 6 growth rings to the inch. How nice that they worked out 12 versus 6. Easy comparison.

I shot a 2-minute video showing how you can test your chair parts (or possible chair parts)

Below is a shot of those two rungs – the top one is the fast growing one that bent quite a ways before de-laminating – if I had shaved it more carefully, it might have bent without its fibers pulling up like that. Then the bottom two sections are the shattered rung. On the bottom view you can see the year-by-year fracture.

results

Bruce Hoadley’s book Understanding Wood: A Craftsman’s Guide to Wood Technology is where I go to read about what wood is doing & why. The updated edition is from 2000. I see it’s still in print from Taunton Press – or wherever you buy books.

“I thought you were supposed to be good at this…”

I decided today to assemble the undercarriage of the next Windsor chair in my pile of projects. My goal was (is?) to go through the process a number of times without great spans of time between efforts. We’ll see. Today turned bad even sooner than I thought. This was the 2nd mortise I bored:

a re-creation of the moment of doom

I’ve made lots and lots of chair joints; ladderbacks & Windsors. As I have mentioned here, this recent re-introduction to Windsor chairs is after a hiatus of over 26 years. So I’ve been rusty at it. That’s what I suspected was behind me splitting the legs. The first 2 I made last year had splits in several of the joints, though none as bad as this. But today I decided I’m not that clumsy or “un-crafty”. It’s the auger bit – that’s what’s different.

thick lead screw

I never used an auger bit for chair work before, and I was following Curtis’ recommendation. But I think this one’s not well-suited to this application. I switched to a bit I’ve used for ladderback chairs, and didn’t split a thing.

slower, but less exciting

I got the bit above from Drew Langsner, I forget what it’s called. Maybe it’s a Stern bit, the ones JA switched to after the old Stanley Power-bore bits were discontinued. I’d have to sift through the pile to see, but instead I moved on and successfully bored my mortises, made 2 news legs – yes, 2. And got the thing together.

why is one front leg white oak?

So someday, someone might look at this chair & wonder why one front leg is white oak, and all the others red. Because I blew up two legs and needed to make 2 new ones. Had only one piece of red oak that would work, and one piece of white oak. That’s why.

The title of this blog post is a quote I have kept with me for years. I used to work in a museum setting, demonstrating woodworking. In the same exhibit were potters, fiber artisans, sometimes a basketmaker, etc. One day a high school kid was watching one of the potters struggling with a new form. After a long quiet period, the kid looked at her & said “I thought you were supposed to be good at this…” – I just about fell over laughing.

Today it was my turn, the joke was on me. Tomorrow it could be you. It comes to us all at some point.

Well, I’ll end on a good note – today there was a flock of about 8 eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) here for 15 minutes.

bluebirds, female on left, male on right

With them was a pine warbler (Setophaga pinus). Both a nice surprise.

pine warbler, male

some shop work today

I’ve been disinclined lately. No work, no photos, no writing. I’ll leave it at that. Started in some today. I got word that Michael Burrey had some free wood for me. Most free wood is not worth it, but his is.

red oak bolt

He had a butt-section of red oak, about 26″ long. Dead straight, it included the felling cut. So some shorter than this. The section in the photo above is about 9″ wide across that radial face. I had planned to use it for chairmaking – it could make all the parts (except the seat) for Curtis’ democratic chair – but when I looked closely at it, I saw one problem. It grew too slowly to have the strength required for chairmaking. This piece, a stile for a joined stool, has about 25 or more growth rings in 2″.

stile for a stool

Other sections out closer to the bark had 20 rings to the inch! Below is a 1 1/8″ piece – now a reject chair part – some of the rings are quite indistinct.

So it’ll only be fit for joined stools, maybe some box parts from the wider bits. Here’s a set of stiles, with a new year marked on them –

first set for 2021

There was also a few bits of leftover hickory slabs from sawing something or other. Also, dead-straight. This is about 28″-30″ long. I split one section up into spindle blanks, 3/4″ square, tapering to the top. Splitting & shaving hickory is as much fun as you can have at a shaving horse. A piece like this one will make about 18 spindles or more. I might make chair rungs from some of it for ladderbacks.

Here’s my most recent modern attempt at Windsor chairmaking. I’m mostly happy with it – I need to get the inshave sharper for one thing. But all in all, this one is fine. If you’ve been watching Elia Bizzarri and Curtis Buchanan make this chair recently or have seen Curtis’ youtube videos about it, you’ll notice I changed the crest rail.

I decided to try a different joint there – Curtis shaves the crest rail down to a 3/8″ diameter tenon to enter a mortise bored in the posts. I bored 2 holes in the post, pared the walls and ends of the resulting mortise, and shaved the crest down only on two faces; front & back. Leaving its height intact.

crest rail tenon

Showed it to Curtis – he didn’t mind the joint, but said “you added a tool!” (turns out I added two – I used a narrow chisel on the end grain, and a wider one to pare the walls.) Another thing this joint means is that you can’t pitch the crest up at the middle, like Curtis likes. Or you can’t do it easily. So mine’s pretty much flat on top. But I like it, and think I’ll do it on the next one too.

cleanup time

Planing that fresh red oak makes a mess of your tools. It’s important to leave enough time (& daylight in my shop) at the end of the afternoon to clear this crap off the irons. I can’t say “brass bristle brush” without tripping over the words – but that’s what I use. And WD40 – learned it from JA. I keep a thin wretched piece of plywood for these cleanup tasks, and some sharpening steps too. The only plywood in the place, except for the stuff that supports the under-floor insulation.

scrubbing

Friday I was over at Michael’s and we dug out some more of the butternut. The four on the left are 7′ long, 20″+ wide in places. That 3rd one from the left I split in half – and there’s some 9″-10″ wide quartersawn stuff in it. Wait til you see the box it becomes.

butternut

While I’ve been on this chairmaking kick lately (you’ll see more about it soon) – in addition to Elia & Curtis’ recent series, I watched the stuff Pete Galbert posted recently. He calls it a foundation course and that’s a good name for it. If you watch this, and pay attention, you’ll learn a great deal about wood, wood selection, chairs, seating and more. I’ve made chairs for 40 years and learned stuff. Highly recommended. https://www.petergalbert.com/videos

An on-line spoon carving class in January

I’m going to try the online class routine in January. Not that it will be that hard a stretch, I’ve opted to go with the most relaxed task-master going – Elia Bizzarri. He & Curtis Buchanan struck a pretty casual pose in their chair class, which I learned a lot from.

It will be 2 sessions, on Saturday afternoons. Then usually Elia makes the video of it available shortly thereafter. So you can watch it live, watch it later or both. One nice feature they’ve cooked up is the “pay what you can” notion. Details here: http://handtoolwoodworking.com/online-classes/

a chairmaking detour

commuting

All of my commute is in this photo, minus about three steps. I have a joined stool cut out, but waiting for the turned parts – some of the wood is still too green for crisp detail at the lathe. So while I wait for that, I thought I’d take a vacation and work on the windsor chairs I’ve been picking away at.

tenoning the legs

These are Curtis Buchanan’s “democratic” chairs (I’m making one side chair, and one arm chair – I hope) – so shaved, not turned. In the photo above, I bored & reamed a test hole, scribbled inside it with a soft pencil and tried the shaved tenon in the hole. Bumps and high spots get smeared with the graphite, to show you where to shave next.

testing depth

Once I had the legs’ tenons ready, I reamed the seat. Here, I’m testing the depth – according to the plans Curtis drew up – that stretcher location should be something like 9 3/4″ above (below, really) the seat. This one is for the arm chair version.

Got ’em where I mostly liked them. Then measured for the stretchers. Because I’ve been fumbling around at these chairs, I hadn’t made the stretchers yet. Here, I’m back on the side chair – making its stretchers out of a mix of dry-ish wood and green wood.

shaving center stretcher

Once I got them where I liked them, I put them in the kiln to dry the tenons, and will go back to finishing the arm chair’s seat while those get to the right moisture content.

I think you can still get the videos that Curtis & Elia Bizzarri did over the past couple of months – http://handtoolwoodworking.com/democratic-chair-online-classes/

One reason to see these versus (or in addition to) the ones Curtis already had on youtube is because he has changed things over several versions of making this chair. I think he said he’s done a dozen of them. I saw some things that were either changed, or more detailed in this set of videos.

AND – then there’s Pete Galbert https://vimeo.com/ondemand/galbertfoundations – I can see I’m down a rabbit hole. Pete’s a great teacher, so I’m planning on getting that video series as well – but right now I have to have breakfast, then go light the fire. Or vice-versa.

Ode to Joy

I first learned about Beethoven through Peanuts and Huntley/Brinkley. I was awake in the night last night, and thought of this wonderful video – I first saw it 6 years ago, and posted it then at Christmastime. It has nothing to do with Christmas, but that doesn’t matter. We could all use a little joy today no doubt.

This is not a box…

stool stick

I think I made about 6 carved boxes in the last month. I love making them, but some variety is nice too. So it was fun to go into the shop today and pick out some squared stock for a joined stool I have coming up next. At the end of the bench you can see 4 of 5 blanks for the stiles. I’m checking the first one against the story stick for the stool I’m making. I’ll pick the best 4 of the batch, and put the 5th one back in the pile.

truing it up

Some of these 2″ squares were planed from green wood in late September and they are just right now for working further. Not bone-dry, not sopping wet. In the photo above, I’m truing up the two outside faces. I called them 2″ squares, but they’re initially planed a bit over that, 2 1/8″ or so. That leaves room for this step, getting them nice & straight, with the outside faces at 90 degrees to each other.

checking w the square

After I like those two faces, I mark the 2″ dimension, and plane down to that.

marking gauge

From there, I go ahead to layout and mortising. I didn’t shoot any photos of that today. I’ve covered that at length here, in the book with Jennie Alexander and in the video series I shot last spring on making a joined stool.

Here’s the real thing I want to talk about – case hardening. I might be the only woodworker you’re going to hear extol the virtues of case-hardened oak. I trimmed about 2″ off the end of this stile – and could clearly see the darker middle of the blank, surrounded by lighter-colored, drier outer edges. A nightmare for some, heaven for me.

optimal condition for me

The next step for me is to chop four mortises in this piece – two of them 5/16″ wide by 3 1/4″ long, the other two only 2″ long. About 1 1/2″ deep. I can chop mortises in dry stock, but it’s easier when that stock has more moisture in it. (Usually a mortise takes me about 4-6 minutes – unless I get distracted by action out at the birdfeeders.) In this stock, I’ll quickly chop past the drier wood into the slightly wetter interior.

So why not just chop those joints back in September when it was sopping wet? I used to do so, but it’s a bit trickier. Really wet wood is a bit fuzzy to cut, the fibers mush around more so than cutting cleanly. And that touches on the really great feature of this in-between material. After mortising, I’m going to turn these stiles on the lathe – and that drier, outer wood cuts more cleanly – allowing more crisp detail (as much as you can get in red oak) than if the wood were just out of the log. (here’s a photo from way back when I was working on the book w JA )

turning a cove

Case-hardened stock in sawn boards might present a problem – here I’m using riven, straight-grained oak. Nearly perfect material. For more about case-hardening, you can read this https://www.fpl.fs.fed.us/documnts/fpltn/fpltn-213-1952.pdf

to make a joined stool – there’s a whole book – https://lostartpress.com/collections/green-woodworking/products/make-a-joint-stool-from-a-tree

and a series of videos – https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLB2LcmbKpkcZic8bc96QKMno2CdpFsNFX

I’m going to go back and add a couple of videos to that, I never shot the beginning…

a snowy day is perfect in the shop

We didn’t get as much snow as I hoped for; but beggars can’t be choosers my mother would say. I like being holed up in the shop or the house during a snowstorm, it keeps things nice and quiet out there. I haven’t shot any photos lately because I’ve made three boxes in a row that were essentially the same patterns. Here’s the 2nd yellow cedar box, done for a customer who missed out on the first one, so ordered one.

yellow cedar box # 2

These strapwork patterns vary only in the details, but generally follow a basic format.

box front detail

Earlier this year, I wrote about some of the background of this pattern https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/2020/06/19/strapwork/

One thing I learned about using carved lids is that you have to line up the centerline of the lid with the centerline of the front. Another step when fastening the lid. I took to marking the center of the edge with a pencil then planing it off after assembly.

carving pattern on the lid

I make the back of these boxes in oak still, so the wooden pin that engages the cleat to form a hinge has the necessary strength. The cedar would probably be OK, but I know the oak does the trick.

That’s it for boxes for now, I have one more on order – in January. Meanwhile, I have some clean-up to do, a joined stool for a customer and some chairs to get back to. I’d like to thank all the blog readers for their support during this strange year – I’m grateful to you all.

Boxes & more for sale; last for December

First off, thanks to those who responded to Maureen’s work yesterday & today. I greatly appreciate it. Now, a blog update. I know I’ve been posting lots of stuff for sale recently. Being off the road for the past nine months has been very nice, but it also dried up a great portion of my income. The other flip side of that is it gave me lots of time to make things. I hope to return to teaching in person in 2021, we’ll see how things unfold. I am planning an on-line class with Elia Bizzarri http://handtoolwoodworking.com/ where we’ll cover some spoon carving. He & I are planning on testing some stuff this month. We’ll both post details when we have them. It’ll be partially modeled after what Elia & Curtis Buchanan have done with their recent chairmaking stint; but I’ll have axes & knives in hand too.

In January (probably before) I’ll be concentrating on blog posts again, some carving, some chairmaking and spoon carving. I also have a 2nd set of carving drawings pretty much ready to go, but the timing was such that I’d be posting them maybe a week from now. I decided to hold them back til after the holidays. I didn’t want to add to any frenzy – no one needs it this year.

I also plan on getting back to some more video work in January. I’ve been busy trying to get the boxes done for December, but haven’t given up on the video work.

Meantime – I have three boxes and some other craft items as well as some videos & drawings available. Leave me a comment if you’d like to claim any of these, or send an email to peterfollansbee7@gmail.com

Here goes:

CARVED OAK BOX – SOLD
white & red oak, white pine bottom.
H: 8 1/2″ W: 23 3/8″  D: 13″
$1,000 includes shipping in US.

This first box got posted some time ago, but it didn’t sell right off, then other blog posts pushed it aside, and I put it in a chest & forgot it. Found it the other day…the box is some great riven white oak, the lid quartersawn red oak.

This pattern is often found on 17th-century work – a surprising amount of detail in small spaces. Glued & pegged at the corners, bottom nailed on w handmade nails. Handmade iron hinges as well. A lidded till inside.

arcading pattern box
arcading pattern box open

Carved box; oak & pine. Strapwork design with carved lid. SOLD
H: 8 1/4″ W: 23 1/2″ D: 11 3/4″
$1,500 includes shipping in US.

strapwork pattern, with carved lid

This box is a slightly new direction for some of my work. Until recently, I had mostly avoided carving the lids, but last month I made a box from yellow cedar and decided to carve its lid. I had seen a photograph of an English box with a “strapwork” pattern carved in its lid, and decided to do that. I loved the way it looked, and so did two other people at least (it sold & I took an order for a 2nd). My friend Rick DeWolf provides me with great quartersawn oak for my box-carving classes – this year he brought me the wood, but with no classes, I dove into making boxes & boxes. Among that stash was a great piece of 12″ wide perfect quartersawn stock. Bang! Carved the lid, then make a box to go under it.

the lid
open, with till inside
carved ends of box. Wooden hinge

You can see some streakiness through the oak on this box, the result of something or other in the tree. Time will mute all these oak colors together. Patience and patina rule the oaks. For that matter, the pine too. Here’s a photo I’ve posted before, showing a new box on the left, and one about 12 years old on the right. Both red oak and white pine. Both with linseed oil finish. The one on the right has been in use in our house now for 15 years.

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CARVED BOX, S-scroll design – SOLD
H: 7 1/4″ W: 17″ D: 11″
$850 includes shipping in US.

This one’s just a bit smaller than usual. I think the box front carving was either a demo or maybe a video I did this year…however it happened, I found the board all carved – so rather than waste it I made a box to go around it.

S-scroll box
S-scroll box

This one has an extra carving too – the till lid I made from a leftover white oak carving. You’ll only see it when you go fumbling around in the till.

till surprise

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Catalpa bowl
H: 5 3/4″-6″ L: 20 1/2″ W: 12″
$600 includes shipping in US.

I’ve made bowls with axes, adzes & gouges going back to the late 1980s. From time to time I take another stab at them, but usually just winging it. Then, I met Dave Fisher. I’ve watched Dave teach bowl carving a number of times, but I would usually see just some of the steps, not in order. This time, I tried to just follow Dave’s instructions based on his video with Fine Woodworking https://www.finewoodworking.com/videoworkshop/2017/11/carve-greenwood-bowl-david-fisher

It began when Joel Paul https://www.instagram.com/thepunkrockshaker/ kindly gave me 2 chunks of catalpa back in June – the first bowl I made was a gift, this one’s available.

catalpa bowl
catalpa growth rings

You can flip it over and wear it as a helmet. When I shot this photo, I realized I need to carve my initials on the bottom.

underside

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CARVED SPOON #1 – SOLD
rhododendron, L: 9 1/2″ W: 2 1/2″
$100 includes shipping in US

This spoon is made from a “crook” – a naturally bent or curved section from which the spoon derives its shape. The most fun spoons there are to make…

rhododendron spoon #1
side view
carved handle

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large round basket – white ash splints; hickory rims & handle. Hickory bark lashing
14″ diameter at rims, basket height 9″ to handle 18″
$600 including shipping in US.

handle & rims with hickory bark lashing
bottom view, showing spiral weave up the sides

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DVD – Build a Shaving Horse

$42 includes shipping in US
2 discs; 162 minutes.

I have 9 copies left of this video I shot with Lie-Nielsen Toolworks. They have plenty I’m sure, and they offer it as streaming video too. How to make the style of shaving horse developed by Jennie Alexander and adapted by me. Mine’s been in use since the late 1980s. I still use it all the time…


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Carving Drawings
17th-century Style Carving: Devon, England and Ipswich, Massachusetts, set #1
4 pages, 24″ x 36″, rolled in a cardboard tube. 
$66 includes shipping in US.

These have their own page describing them, but in summary – 4 pages 24″ x 36″ of drawings showing several designs I carve in my oak furniture. Full-scale chest panels, framing parts, box front. Step-by-step drawings showing how to establish the patterns…

You can order them directly on this page: https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/carving-drawings-17th-century-work-from-devon-england-and-ipswich-massachusetts-set-1/

Maureen’s Fiber Arts

I’ve been taking & sorting photos today; boxes and some odds & ends for sale tomorrow. In the meantime, upstairs Maureen’s been knitting and felting away and has posted a slew of things on her etsy site. Now I know what’s going on in the house while I’m out in the shop. https://www.etsy.com/shop/MaureensFiberArts

She’s adding shibori bags, knitted scarfs, and felted bowls (& more besides) – if you’re going shopping, have a look…

Scarfs, scarves – I looked it up – either works. Today is a good day for one here…

scarf
felted bags

We’re both very appreciative of the support of her work from readers of this blog. Frequently, I see someone’s name I recognize from here on her outgoing mail – it’s a great feeling, thanks everybody.

felted bowl