the Arkansas Test

Many of you know I’ve been editing Jennie Alexander’s Make a Chair from a Tree for Lost Art Press. (yes, I know you want me to hurry…) At the same time, I’ve begun a meandering sort of research project that is only partially formed in my head. For a year or more now, I’ve referred to it as my “Craft Genealogy.” This is the first blog post on that subject. 

Much of this parallel project draws on the Jennie Alexander Papers, now housed at Winterthur Museum’s research library. JA kept notebooks from nearly the beginning of her chairmaking work, the earliest is dated 1973/4. There are other papers, notes and letters that I have here. Eventually, I’ll add these to the Winterthur collection. 

At North House, I gave a talk outlining some of it. It was mostly for me, but some of the audience claimed to like it. But they’re midwestern, they’re very polite. The focus of the talk was mostly about JA, Daniel O’Hagan and Bill Coperthwaite. All letter-writers. Many other people are involved – certainly Drew Langsner who is my connection to all of these folks.  While I was at North House, I stumbled onto a piece by surprise. 

In Daniel O’Hagan’s notes is a description of a stress-test Dave Sawyer used to apply to his ladderbacks, dated 1974: 

His chairs are so strong that he recommends what he calls the Arkansas test having learned it with other techniques from Arkansas craftsmen. The test is to tilt the chair on one leg and taking hold of a back post exert all one’s weight downwards on the chair which supports it all on one leg; by this any weak point will soon creak or break. ” 

The only Arkansas chairmaker mentioned so far in the Alexander letters was Charles Christian. More about him another time. JA eventually visited Christian, but I think had first  heard of him through Dave Sawyer. JA introduced himself to Sawyer in a letter dated May 1976 – but in an Oct 1976 letter to Sawyer, JA noted:

“It is a small world. I was going over my old notes the other day and saw that the Woody Brothers of Spruce Pine N. Car. had given me your name 2 years ago but I never got around to writing.”   

I don’t know how JA got onto the Woody Brothers of Spruce Pine, N.C. – Arval & Walter. Then-John and his wife Joyce had visited them in spring of 1974, and then traded a few letters back and forth. 

While at North House, I was browsing the bookshelves in one of the workshops. A variety of Scandinavian stuff, boatbuilding, timber-framing, etc. One little coffee-table National Geographic book “The Craftsman in America” (1975) – so I opened that, and found a photo that I recognized right away, but had never seen before. Arval Woody testing the chair just the way Daniel described Dave’s test. 

Chairmaking in the US is now is a small world, in the mid-1970s, it was even smaller. I see several explanations, none of which we really need. One is that Daniel mixed up Dave’s chairmaking friends, thus the Arkansas test might really be the NC test. Another is that the Woodys and Charles Christian knew each other, and they both did it. Another is that Dave is the transmission of this show-stopping demo – bringing it from the Christian shop to the Woodys. None of it matters. All I know for sure is when I opened that book at North House, and saw that photo, I knew right away I was on the right track. I heard Daniel O’Hagan’s voice say “It is providential!” 

PS:

I tried it yesterday and almost broke my neck.

I couldn’t balance, needed one hand on the bench. There’s plenty of weight on the chair still, I have enough to go around.

Brendan Gaffney got a better photo than I did; he’s still young & more nimble than me. 

 

PPS: The Woody’s Chair Shop is still going. https://www.woodyschairshop.com/

 

 

 

new small toolbox

In between a few recent projects I made a new small toolbox. Pretty early in the year for me to cut dovetails. It’s white pine, 11″ high, 12″ x 28″ on the outside of that lower skirt. Made it to replace an open tray that housed my boring tools and jigs for making JA ladderback chairs.  It was a great amount of blank space that bothered me, so you can see I started laying out some chip carving on the front.

But I can switch stuff out & travel with it too. Those snappy iron handles by Peter Ross make me want to pick it up.

There’s a till inside, for bits, line levels and other small stuff. Till lid is American sycamore.

One long divider inside, to separate the bit extenders we use in for boring the chair posts, the oak blocks for holding the posts when boring, etc. I’m going to make a removable tray to sit on top of that stuff next.

 

But I couldn’t leave it at that. I have two joined stools I’m coloring recently, so have been making a mess with milk paint. I had some mustard paint around that wasn’t going to make it on the stools, so I put some on this box. Then began the carving. I like chip carving, but don’t have the discipline to do the perfect job you see many doing these days. It’s too slow. Mine are best viewed from a distance.

Here is the toolbox with the open tray it’s replacing. And some of the stuff that’ll go in it.

And open.

It’ll never look that good again, it just got shoved under the other workbench. And there it will gather dust & get kicked around. That’s why I built it with the skirt to reinforce its construction. The chairmaking tools – braces, drawknives, bit extenders – are heavy. My mid-1980s Japanese-style toolbox is just to the left of it under the bench. In that are mostly student tools – extra spoon carving tools, random metal-bodied plane or two, extra braces, etc. Usually I move all that stuff to a temporary box when I travel. Now that will stay put & the yellow box will become the schizoid tool box. At home one thing, on the road another.

Here’s the toolbox that doesn’t move. I built it after Chris Schwarz wrote his book about them. And painted it too. I couldn’t bear to look at all that blank wood. I see from the links below that was January 2012. Time flies.

https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/2012/01/18/a-solution-to-too-much-blank-space/

https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/2012/01/19/another-day-of-painting/

 

Tim Manney’s shaving horse at Plymouth CRAFT

Last weekend Tim Manney came down to Plymouth from Maine to teach 6 Plymouth CRAFT students how to make his shaving horse. Tim;’s version is well-known now; he had an article in Fine Woodworking about it, (issue #262, Jul/Aug 2017) and in the same issue Curtis Buchanan was quoted as saying that he thinks he’s spent over 20,000 hours at a shaving horse, and that Tim’s is the best he’s used.

Tim’s main focus is that the horse can be built with everyday materials; but carefully-selected everyday materials. It’s almost all 2 x 6 or so material, some thinner stuff and a little bit of hard maple. This course was a bit of a departure for Plymouth CRAFT in that some of the work was prepped ahead of time by Tim, and there were even some machines invovled. Mostly a drill-press. Here’s some of the shots I got during the class.

Stacks of parts prepped by Tim.

Jake trimming some of the first glue-ups, the leg-to-rails.

Tim sneaking underneath, showing how to adjust the leg assembly prior to clamping the glue-up.

Tim marching down the line, checking on progress.

Winding sticks helping to line up the front & rear legs.

This was our first time running this class. We kept class size small. That gets a lot of attention, and lots of detail. Here David and Andy work together to line up the clamps on Andy’s horse. Craig must be on deck.

Half of the dumbhead assembly set up in place – to check its placement and glue-up.

This is the next step – the full dumbhead base now. It gets wedged below the “bed” of the horse.

Tim demonstrating layout for the wedge mortise.

Craig cleaning up the mortise with a chisel.

David has a small smirk on his face, as his horse is coming together.

Diane was amazing – absolute new woodworker, dove in the deep end. Now she’ll be off to a great start.

Not quite done, but nearly so. This one still needs the work surface under the head.

We got done in time to bring in some green wood & distribute some drawknives so everyone could test-drive their creation under Tim’s direction. Paula Marcoux & I shot photos of the group as they worked their horses for the first time.

Tim has measured plans available for his shaving horse, and we’ll get him back sometime to do this class again. First he has to recover. Here’s his shaving horse plans web-page https://www.timmanney.com/work/shavinghorseplans 

Plymouth CRAFT’s website – so you can sign up for the newsletter for future workshops – https://www.plymouthcraft.org/

 

finished my Curtis Buchanan chair

The two joined stools I’m making are mostly all cut, a little more carving to add to the small end aprons. Then I need to wait a few days before pegging them. So I took some time to continue my “finishing-leftover stuff” campaign. This time I went into the loft and dragged down my version of Curtis Buchanan’s democratic chair. (Well, it was a little beyond this point – the stretchers were in too.)

I had the seat, legs & stretchers all assembled. So what I had left was boring the posts for the crest rail, then test-fitting that,

and boring it for the spindles. Then just shaving the spindles and assembling. I say “just” – lots can go wrong in those few sentences. But as it happened, I made it through. Here I have the crest bored for the center spindle, and I shaved that & installed it. That stiffened things for boring the other holes in the crest. I set the other spindles in just to check their alignment, then moved them back out & bored it. 

I didn’t shoot any step-by-step photos, but I did set up the camera to shoot a sequence of the assembly. I set it for once a minute and just took what I got. Here I’ve marked the depth on the spindles’ bottom tenons, and I’m knocking them in place. Unlike Curtis’ video series, I glued this chair. 

After some alignment gymnastics, I am knocking down the crest onto the five spindles, then the posts come down into their tapered mortises in the seat. A lot has to happen. Hide glue next time, slower setting than the yellow glue. I got away with it…

Using a zig-zag ruler to check from seat to under the crest at both posts & center spindle.

Then splitting & wedging the joints.

Done. My first real chair of this construction since 1993. My lack of practice shows, but it will work fine for the shop. The ash legs split a bit as I drove the stretchers in. A few angles are off down under the seat. But I keep hearing Jennie Alexander’s voice back when I was making chairs with her – “The eye is very forgiving.” And when you sit in the chair, you can’t see it. 

You can make your own – Curtis posted step by step videos showing the whole thing. I think this link will take you to the whole set.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2DoQl6xBAUI&list=PLL_KlogKd1xf9GYjSfBVLKTp8KngC8q7j 

——————

Woodworking has taken me to some wonderful places, and I’ve met people who in very short order become great friends. And I’ve been thinking  recently of those I met down in Australia, particularly my friends in New South Wales. I was lucky enough to go there in the fall (their spring) of 2018. What a fabulous place, and such a terror to hear about these past few weeks & months. A benefit of social media is that it makes it easy to keep people posted about folks’ safety/situation, etc. It’s good to hear that so far they’re safe, but some have left their homes. Whether the houses will be there when they get back no one knows. Wish I could send all you folks some rain.

Chair assembly pt 1

I spent some time recently working on the undercarriage of the “democratic” chair designed by Curtis Buchanan. First, a very modern convenience; an Ipad on the bench, running Curtis’ excellent video series on youtube, so I can follow along with what he’s doing. https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLL_KlogKd1xf9GYjSfBVLKTp8KngC8q7j

 

Here, I’m set up to bore the legs for the side stretchers.

I flipped the chair seat around to get at the other legs – Curtis’ bench is in the midst of the shop, so he can get around the whole frame. I shoved some short alignment pegs in the bored mortises, to help line up the bit extension for the next set of holes. We used to use these in the JA chairs; not necessary but they don’t hurt.

I got smart & got the Ipad off the bench  – clamped it to the window frame. I got afraid I was going to smack into it. I can fix a busted chair part…but not the electronics.

Here I’m test-fitting the legs with their side stretchers in place. Gotta spring them a bit to get them in the seat mortises.

It’s been over 25 years since I made Windsor chairs with any regularity; and much of the process has been simplified since then. I spoke with Curtis last week, and we talked about how we used to bore this stuff, how to find the angles, etc. It’s all so much more direct now. The center stretcher angle he finds by setting two sticks (in my case, 2 rulers) = one across the side stretchers right above the mortise locations, the other sighted to line up with the first. Then strike a line across the seat – that’s the angle! I added a square to double-check the alignment of the two sticks.

Here’s where I got to – the rear posts are just jammed in place. I’ve caught up to Curtis’ videos. (well, except for leveling the feet) I could just bop ahead, but I might as well wait & see what he’s got up to in fitting the crest and spindles. I have plenty to do in the meantime.

This chair has a white pine seat, ash legs & stretchers. Posts are red oak, the spindles and crest I have made for it are hickory.

 

still doing to-be-dones

In between teaching and other commitments, I’m still plugging away at unfinished projects. This morning I went out to the shop and had a look around. I’m back to working on this chest of drawers. The morning sun created a visual assault on the moldings and turnings.

I’ve been cutting the joinery in the lower case – it’ll be three drawers of just about equal height. Then the upper case (above) is technically three as well, but two shallow side-by-side drawers, over a very deep single drawer. The lower case is just about done framing now. I have two horizontal pine panels to make for the rear. Then it’s onto the drawers. The side panels are re-sawn Spanish cedar, to match the side panels of the upper case.

There’s mortises chopped into the top edges of the lower case’s upper side rails. Tenons will project above the rail to engage related mortises in the bottom edges of the upper case. This will keep the cases aligned. Gravity does the rest.

I’ve sort of made up the format of the drawer fronts. I stumbled across a quilted/rippled board of maple one day ages ago. So I’ve resawn it as well, making thin plaques that get housed flush in the drawer front. Then Spanish cedar moldings will frame around them. And I’ll have leftovers of both that I’ll make into small boxes…

Meanwhile, I’ve been following along with Curtis Buchanan’s democratic chair videos – https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLL_KlogKd1xf9GYjSfBVLKTp8KngC8q7j and I’m almost caught up. Next up is  boring for the stretchers and assembling the undercarriage.

For that I just got this Millers Falls 18″ bit extension – it fits both auger bits and the more modern straight-shank bits. (or the ones I’ve tried so far, at least.)

An auger bit and an old (30 year old?) Stanley power-bore bit, with the business end of the Millers Falls extension.

I thought it said No 3; but I put my glasses on and see that it’s No 35. I think they came in other sizes too, 24″ maybe…

and last, this amount to just about my entire summer’s worth of spoon carving – 3/4 done rhododendron spoon. I’ll add it to the “to be finished” stuff.

Looking at some chairs

I first learned how to make ladderback chairs based on Alexander’s book, Make a Chair from a Tree. Then later, I studied a thin slice of furniture history from the perspective of those who made it. So what I know, or think I know, is pretty narrowly focused. There’s lots of kinds of chairs; generally I break them down into two forms – Joined chairs, like this one:

And turned chairs, like this one: 

turned chair, ash w rush seat

For now, I’ll concentrate on turned chairs.  Whether they have a board seat, fiber seat; spindles in the back, or slats – the common feature they all have is the round mortise & tenon joint. I think of JA’s chair as a turned chair that isn’t turned. Alexander’s earliest chairs were turned; here is a one-slat Alexander chair all in hickory, with a paper imitation rush seat. Made c. 1974. 

By 1976, Alexander’s chairs parts were shaved with a drawknife rather than turned. There is a long tradition of “un-turned” turned chairs, some reaching back to the 16th & 17th centuries. One helpful reference I found when studying London records was this, from the Company of Turners:

“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.” – this quote is from The Worshipful Company of Turners of London – Its Origin and History A.C. Stanley-Stone, (London: Lindley-Jones & Brother, 1925)

My italics. If “plain” matted chairs are distinct from “turned” matted chairs, then I conclude they aren’t turned. “Matted” refers to the fiber seat, usually rush. Paintings & prints are helpful to a degree in seeing what sort of chairs were in use at a given time. There’s loads of examples. This painting by Cornelius Decker (1618-1678) shows a 2-slat shaved chair in the lower right corner. 

Looking at it in detail, I see a few things. Square posts (well, sometimes they’re rectangular, but not round, thus “square”). Only 8 rungs, and the lower ones are quite close to the seat rungs. Doesn’t offer much strength that way. Either the chair has wracked so the rear posts are now canted back, or it was bored to achieve that. Rush seat. Moving those lower rungs down would strengthen the chair.

 

Meeting in a tavern, by De Jongh (1616-1679)

The chair in the lower right hand corner, has some perspective problems. But we can see several details. Might be 12 rungs, it’s at least 11; through mortises; a cushion; square posts.

this detail from Michiel Sweets’ (1618-1664) “The Academy”: 8 rungs, through mortises, rush seat, 3 slats. No bend to rear posts. Small chair.

Sweerts, The Academy

A mezzotint by Wallerent Vallaint (1623-1677). This is a detail; all we can tell is the chair has square posts, round side rungs, through mortise for a very tall slat. Either intentionally bored to cant the rear posts back, or wracked to just-about-falling-down.

Same artist, different chair. Note the raked rear post, clearly shown here. I’m of the opinion this is intentional to give the chair a bit more comfort than if it were bored so the rear posts were plumb. This time, two rear rails, with turned spindles between them. Discard any notion this chair was shaved/square posts because there was no lathe! Very low seat, allows you to work easily in your lap. Only 8 rungs. Rush seat.

Vallaint, boy in the studio

I made lots of shaved chairs in the years when I wasn’t making JA style chairs – mine were more like these period-style chairs. I could make the chair frame in a day, maybe 6 hours. The rush seat took me as long or longer! This one is maple posts and white oak slats. Rungs might be white oak or ash. Rear posts hewn above the seat to cant them back just a bit.

plain matted chair, PF

more of this sort of stuff here; Alexander, Trent & I (mostly Trent driving this article) on shaved chairs – http://www.chipstone.org/article.php/581/American-Furniture-2008/Early-American-Shaved-Post-and-Rung-Chairs