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.
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…
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:
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.
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.
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.
I first saw photos of Chester Cornett’s chairs in Alexander’s Make a Chair from a Tree in 1978; but didn’t know it. For various reasons, some of the chairs in that book are attributed, some are not. There’s three of them in there; here’s one:
Some years later, Drew Langsner showed us a VHS of Chester, called “Hand Carved” produced by Appalshop, a non-profit dedicated to “document, disseminate, and revitalize the lasting traditions and contemporary creativity of the region.” That film is where I first learned the story of Chester. I guess Alexander then showed me The Hand-Made Object and Its Maker a book by Michael Owen Jones. This was published in 1975, and expanded and revised as Craftsmen of the Cumberlands: Tradition and Creativity in 1989.
Now -before anyone makes fun of this chair – I’d like to see you make it with a handful of tools. A four-rocker, eight-legged walnut rocking chair with hickory bark seat.
This one is walnut & hickory bark. The seat rungs might be hickory too.
The most basic chair is itself a beauty. I think this is what Chester called a “settin’ chair”.
The relief shaved in the rear post to make it easier to bend is in the radial plane here, not the growth ring plane like JA always did. I just was looking at some of Kenneth Kortemeier’s chairs, and was planning on swiping this idea from him. Then here it is on Chester’s too.
The front post, oriented just like JA taught us, medullary rays bisecting the angle between the front and side rungs.
It was amazing to see these chairs in person. Regardless of the design debate about his over-blown rockers, Chester was often in full control of his tools in making a chair. The oak rocker here is a perfect example. I’ve thought of him as an idiot-savant whose gift is chair-making. His sad life was a struggle; but he was a natural with a drawknife and brace and bit.
This clean-up is harder than I thought. It takes longer, anyway. There’s a pile of baskets, the best of which are here – some finished, some nearly so. All of these were sitting up in the loft for a year-plus. But at least now they can get used.
Here’s the ones for today’s work – I have some last bits of hickory to split, shave & bend for handles & rims.
Two stools – the one on the right is brand-new, just finished last week, maybe it was the week before.
The joined stool is #3 of a pair. I made parts for three when I was making them for the Cutchogue Old House project. Then realized the order only called for two. So this stool, all turned & joinery cut, went up into the loft. I brought it down when I was prepping for my Winterthur demo last month, did some quick carvings on the rails, then pinned it. Today I plan on making the seat board, pinning that & tomorrow painting it red.
Birch bark canisters.
Ugh. I am very taken with this work, but have only spent a little time with it. Last fall Plymouth CRAFT hosted a class by Jarrod Dahl – and I learned a lot from those sessions. This one I had cut the finger joints some time ago, made a bottom, but ran out of bark so couldn’t make the bands that usually go around the upper & lower ends. I decided last week to forget them, and made a top for it, and fitted it with a basket handle. A little chip carving finished it off. 6 1/2″ diameter, 9″ high.
While moving some large books around in the house, I found a small sheet of birch bark that I had flattened & forgot about. It turned red – I don’t know if that was from the book, the paper between it & the book or what.
But I made a small canister from it, and had some short pieces to make the bands. Now a handle & it will be done.
Some post & rung work:
The ladderback chair I started during Plymouth CRAFT’s first chair class early in May. It came home in pieces, but I figured I better build it now or just burn it. Assembled it yesterday. Slats are next. The stool parts beside it are overflow from the finished stool above. So I’ll finish both of these up, then they are slated to get rush seats instead of hickory bark.
In my cleaning, I keep running into bits of wood stored around – “Oh, that’s going to by X, Y or Z someday.” This one is mahogany – a wood I have never used. I think Bob Van Dyke gave it to me. One little piece, what could I make from one piece? One of Roy’s sliding lid boxes.
I’m back home now; earlier this week I was one of the presenters at Winterthur Museum’s “Furniture Up Close” – it was a great time there; I love re-connecting with the museum world; it’s where I learned so much about furniture. Got a preview of spring while I was down in Delaware, back here it’s still the future. Spring is an amazing time at Winterthur – the full name is Winterthur Museum & Gardens for a reason.
But after a month of near-constant travel or preparation for travel, I’m glad to be here for a while. A long string of large projects; the queen-sized bed, the dresser and settle; is now behind me. Now I’m going to make small stuff; carved boxes and ladderback chairs. I shot almost nothing at Winterthur and did shoot nothing at Cutchogue when Pret & I installed the dresser and settle…
Next up is the chair-making class with Plymouth CRAFT. My latest JA chair, with a bark seat mostly done by Rose – I’ll add the last filler strips this week.
I started in yesterday on either making or gathering a few of the bits & pieces we’ll need for 6 of us to be working on this stuff. I use a gauge like this for sizing the rough-shaved posts and rungs. 1 3/8″ on one notch, 3/4″ on the other.
These V-blocks we use when boring the posts; the thick ones came from JA’s shop, I made a set yesterday, but had no thick stuff. Should work fine anyway. The other little frames on the right are for temporary mock-up of the rear posts, for alignment purposes. And some various bits; 20th & 21st century-style.
I shaved these rungs here & there – these will be issued AFTER the students split & shave replacements for them.
Same is true of these posts. In practice, each class prepares the material for the next class. Thus I started it off, now it’s on them.
Well. Here goes. 2019 marks my maiden solo voyage in teaching students how to make Jennie Alexander’s ladderback chair. My version of it anyway. We’ll be following the general format I learned from JA and Drew Langsner, who together and separately taught this class for decades. I learned a lot from both of them about this chair; and assisted in classes at both Country Workshops and Alexander’s shop in Baltimore. In the early 1990s I worked with JA on the 2nd edition of the book Make a Chair from a Tree.
Riving, drawknife work, boring with a brace & bit, mortise & tenon joinery, steam-bending. Lots to cover in this class, it’s where I began as a woodworker in 1978.
We’re going to do it as a 6-day class with Plymouth CRAFT, just 6 students in the class. Dates are Friday May 3- Wed May 8th. 6 spots, so if you think you’d like to tackle this (and 6 days of Paula’s lunches) best sign up early.
(Two things – I wrote “solo” but Pret Woodburn will be there to assist much of the time. He just never wants credit for all his helpfulness. And May? – what was I thinking? It’s the pinnacle of the birding year – right after this class, I’m going to Mt Auburn Cemetery to see warblers during their spring migration.)