Make a Chair from a Tree

Make a Chair from a Tree

Recently Pete Galbert wrote about the coming 3rd edition of MACFAT “It’s no exaggeration to say that this book changed my life…” – I too have used that expression in talking about that book. As I’ve been thinking about it lately, one person whose life changed immensely because of the book was Alexander. John, Jennie, JA, Alexander  – I feel like Billy Pilgrim, unstuck in time. So some of what I think about involves John Alexander, some Jennie. Before anyone gets in a snit over it – I mean no disrespect. I was as close to JA as you can get.  

PF JA Theo

Lately, I’ve been working on the beginnings of a book that I hope will come to pass. It involves some threads and stories of how the people who taught me woodworking learned themselves, how they intersected – and one of the central players is Alexander. To that end, I’ve been reading about 700-900 pages of what could be a couple thousand pages (I haven’t seen all the notebooks yet, the pandemic put a halt to that research for 1 1/2 years) of notes and letters in Alexander’s papers. It tells quite a story. 

intersecting rung tenons

I wrote a short intro to the new edition, noting that in the first edition JA wrote: “I’ve made more friends in the past year than I had in the previous five years.” – and that was before Alexander went to Drew Langsner’s & began teaching chairmaking. From that point (1979) on, things really took off. 

In one letter, JA wrote “I am an attorney by profession, that is my cash crop so to speak. However I am equally concerned with my craft.” Well, that’s not strictly true. I never saw JA take time from woodworking to do legal work, but the reverse was often the case. He’d write letters and notes while waiting for his case to be called in court. Lots and lots of them. Always woodworking was churning around in his head; even when his professional life kept him busy and out of the shop. 

1978

I never have known anyone who read as much as JA did, nor I guess have I known anyone who wrote as much as she did. But one thing is very clear, the woodworking and the relationships developed through it were the most important and significant part of JA’s life outside of the family. 

All those phone calls in Jennie’s last years were about excruciating minutiae about making the chair. Always questioning, always pushing to make it easier, better, more accurate. It really did give her something to live for, long after shop work was out of the question, the chair kept JA alive. She knew she’d not see the book. It didn’t matter, for her – it wasn’t the end, it was the journey. She knew we’d take care of the rest. 

Jennie Alexander 2014

And now 42/43 years later, MACFAT & Drew Langsner’s Country Woodcraft are back to life and better than before, thanks to  Chris and the rest of the Lost Art Press gang. Boy, do I feel old. And grateful. 

Chairs for sale

I’ve been making a few chairs & sticking them up in the loft. Now that space is full and I want to keep making chairs. Time to sell this batch off and start another. The way I tend to do this is I post them here and if you decide you’d like one, leave a comment claiming the chair. Then we can sort payment either through paypal or by check in the mail. Shipping in US included. If you’re near southeastern Massachusetts you can pick them up.

UPDATE

UPDATE – well, the ladderback chairs sold right off the bat. You won’t see the comment claiming them because the buyer has asked that his name not be published there…

If you were hoping for one of those chairs and missed out I can always make you a chair. Just email me & I can put you on the list.

Ladderback chair, red oak with hickory rungs, hickory bark seat – SOLD

H: 33 1/4″ W: (across the front posts) 17 1/4″ D: 17 1/2″ (seat depth is 12 1/2″) SH (seat height): 17 1/2″
$1,200

This chair is one of the first in which I re-oriented the rear posts to show the radial face as the front of that post. A small change to the standard JA chair, for fanatics only. Means nothing otherwise. But I like the look of it. I also left these rungs generally octagonal, except where they enter the posts.

Below is the hickory bark seat on this chair – I had a mixed pile of bark, some from one tree, some from another. Over time the use will burnish the bark to a nice polished surface. Hickory bark makes the best seat I know.

——————-

Ladderback chair, red oak with white oak slats, hickory bark seatSOLD

H: 33 1/2″ W: (across front posts): 17″ D: 17 1/2″ (seat depth 12 1/2″) SH: 17 3/4″
$1,200

Below you can see the more “normal” orientation of the rear posts – so a different pattern on the wood depending on how it’s oriented. I assemble the chair frames, then poke around to see what I have on hand to make slats from – that’s how this red oak chair got white oak slats.

and its hickory bark seat. This was thick bark that I split in half, and used the inner part of that split for the warp (front-to-back) and the outer part for the weft.

——————-

Child’s ladderback chair SOLD
H: 26 7/8″ W: 14 1/4″ D: 13″ SH: 14″ seat depth 9 3/4″
$900

Something I used to make as a regular offering, but this is the first since my re-entry into chairmaking. (I made some in 2009 for my kids when they were small, but that’s it.) Ash with white oak slats, hickory bark seat.

Everything about it is the same as the full-size JA chair, but just scaled down. Harder to see in ash, but again these rear posts have the radial orientation. I’m leaning towards making that the way I do these now.

———————

Next up is something new. I was thinking this year I’d concentrate my chairmaking on the ladderbacks and the shaved windsor chairs. Then I got detoured into making some of these brettstuhls or board-chair or Alpine chair. I’m not sure what to call these. They’re fun chairs to build, simple but challenging. The two chairs here are close to what I’m after. I’m going to keep tinkering with these chairs for a little while anyway, I have walnut left to do three more.

Brettstuhl #1 Butternut & ash
H: 34″ W: seat – 17 1/2″ feet – 21 3/4″ D: 20″ SH: 18 1/8″
$1,200

The seat and the back are butternut, the battens underneath are white oak and the legs are riven ash. The legs tenon into the battens and the battens are captured by the back’s tenons – which are in turn wedged below. It’s a brilliant system. At the end of this post is a video showing how to assemble these.

Another view under there, showing how these parts connect.

Here’s the carved back

and the side view

Brettstuhl #2; Black walnut & ash
H: 33 1/2″ W: seat- 17″ feet- 20″ D: 18 1/2″ SH: 18 1/4″
$1,200

After I used up the wide butternut I had on hand, I went out & got a 16″-18″ wide plank of black walnut. Air drying for years & years, it was perfect for what I wanted. This is the first chair from that plank. I’ve begun to change things a bit from Drew Langsner’s 1981 article that I started with – here I’ve trimmed the front corners off the seat, I’ve seen photos of historic examples with this pattern. Also a thumbnail molded edge instead of just a simple chamfer like the butternut chair above.

The carving:

In this view you can see the shape of this seat

On the backs, I’ve just echoed the scrolled shape with a V-tool on both of these chairs.

here’s the underneath of this one. Same as before, white oak battens and ash legs. The battens are 1 3/8″ thick, quartersawn.

The brettstuhls I’m planning to ship partially un-assembled – here is a video showing how to put one together (first how to take it apart…) – it’s really quite simple. You need to be able to tell right from left and count to 2. A mallet for most of the persuasion, some light taps from a hammer for the last bits.

Another piece about the brettstuhls – it seems as if their feet stick way out beyond the chair itself. I thought so at first until I stood one up beside a Windsor chair I made. There’s several factors at play here; the spacing of the seat mortises for the legs, the rake & splay of the legs and to some extent the length of the legs. Here’s the butternut chair beside the Windsor and they aren’t all that different in the footprint.

next brettstuhl assembled

It was April 10th when I wrote here on the blog about the previous assembly of one of these chairs. I was too busy in May with the Essex County cupboard project and birding to spend much time chairmaking. So it wasn’t until today that I assembled the next one – 6 or 7 weeks apart. That’s a long enough gap to un-learn things for me.

One thing I changed this time is the seat – a thumbnail molded edge instead of just a bevel. And the front corners snipped off – something I saw scrolling through photos of antiques and museum pieces online.

black walnut & ash

I bored the mortises for the rear legs with the back in place – an attempt to keep the rear leg from bumping into the through-tenon of the back under the seat. It almost worked – I must have wiggled on one of them. But a minor wiggle.

boring rear mortises

I turned the leg’s tenons to their final dimension (in this case 15/16″ x 1 3/8″ long), Then sawed a kerf in them for a wedge and knocked them into the battens. With glue too. The batten is lifted off the bench top so the tenon can protrude through the top of the batten.

sub-assembly

My notes from last time said “make the tenons longer so they all exit completely.” A combination of the angle the mortise is bored at and the length of the tenon can leave the tenon either through like this one, or not quite all the way through like some of the others today. Oh well. Not the end of the world. I still wedged them and they glue helps too.

wedged tenon before trimming

Driving in the tapered beveled battens is pure fun. They’re very loose for a good stretch, then all of a sudden they get as tight as can be. Brilliant concept.

driving in the legged-battens

Then I insert the back in its mortises through the seat and the battens. I don’t use a mallet, it’d be easy to split that back right in half. I’ve done it, a very discouraging move. After it’s all the way in, I scribe for the wedge mortises in the through tenons.

fitting the back in place

I consulted the previous chair when I laid out the mortise for this wedge. I made it 5/16″ wide and just eyeballed cutting out the wedge angle. Then I used the wedge to lay out the angle of the mortise.

locating the wedge mortise baseline

Knocking the wedge in from the back. I drive it in, mark where I want to trim it front & back, then knock it out, trim it & put it back.

knocking in the wedge

Here’s today’s walnut one beside April’s butternut example. These chairs are a great combination of challenging and fun.

The impetus for this diversion into these German/Austrian/Italian/Swiss etc chairs was first of all Drew Langsner’s article “Two Board Chairs” in the Jul/Aug 1981 issue of Fine Woodworking. At first, I felt skittish making them because I’ve never studied an old example. But 2020 blew that notion out of the water anyway. So I started in, figuring I’d make some blunders here & there, some changes to Drew’s instructions and find my way into them. One thing I have seen online is the wedging that fastens the back under the seat is usually a pin, not a wedge. I like the wedge idea that Drew learned in Switzerland, but I run mine from the back toward the front – not side-to-side like the way Drew learned. All those options work of course. I have enough walnut boards to make three more. But they’ll take me some time. There’s that cupboard to get back to…

[if you missed the April brettstuhl assembly post – here it is https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/2021/04/10/brettstuhl-2-done/ ]

brettstuhl #2 done

Before I dive into splitting & planing a new oak log, I figured I’d take today to finish up the brettstuhl that was 3/4 done.

brettstuhl #2

Some of what I tackled today. First, make sure the legs are dry. The scribbling on them is their weight in ounces over the past couple of weeks. They’ve been in a kiln made of insulation board, heated by a single light bulb. Kept at about 140 degrees.

dry bones

Then figure out the placement of the mortises and the angles of the legs. I built the first one based on Drew Langsner’s 1981 article “Two-Board Chairs” about a chair he built with his teacher/mentor Reudi Kohler. But here & there, I changed a few things. And on this one, I changed them some more. Drew sent me some notes on his chair, measured the angles for rake & splay, etc. But I’ve been looking at images online from various sources too. Often these chairs seem to have an exaggerated degree of rake & splay. So that’s what I aimed for this time.

sightlines for mortising

After some mock-ups I laid out the sightlines on paper, then taped that in place because the battens and underside of the seat do not form a plane to easily lay things out on. I had to nip off the corners of the paper so I could bore the mortises. I have no mind for math, I used the “chairpanzee” contraption made available by Lost Art Press – https://lostartpress.com/products/the-chairpanzee-analog-computer to figure these angles.

boring with adjustable bevel as guide

It’s all well & good to figure all those cool angles, but you still have to bore them on the money. I got close, but could have been better in a couple instances. These mortises are 15/16″ in diameter, 1 3/8″ deep.

rear legs

And there’s the problem – the far leg here bumps into the back’s through tenon below the seat. Not fatal, I just trimmed that tenon some. Only my pride was hurt, and I’m used to that.

#1 on our left, #2 on the right

I like the looks of the new one much better. More lively. But as I viewed it beside the previous example, I thought I’d over-done the angles. Figured those feet would trip people up walking by the chair.

#2 beside my version of the democratic chair

Then I began to measure it against a version I made of Curtis’ democratic chair (another post later…) and they both are about 17″ across the front of the seat, with footprints of 21 3/8″ (the brettstuhl) and 20 3/4″ (the democratic chair). So both of these chairs’ front feet jut out beyond the seat a bit. I guess the thing to do is use the new one some & see what happens. And go measure some of the other chairs around here…

works in progress

some recent chairs

I haven’t taken many photos lately, which is why there’s been no posts. I have been working, though. As I wait for the oak I planed up to dry some before I begin framing the cupboard, I’ve been making chairs. And I have a few more to do – I am shopping for a new oak log to finish prepping the cupboard stock, but started another brettstuhl, a joined stool and some more ladderback chairs. Below are the next three- each waiting for the next step.

next 3

The joined stool parts are at the end of the bench. Joinery is all cut, but I’m letting them dry a little more before I do the turned decoration. Maybe a week.

Then the brettstuhl – that one’s next. Right now, the oak battens are drying in the kiln, and later today I’ll begin shaping them & fitting them to the seat board. So that one will be done in the next three or four days. (longer if I find an oak log Friday…)

The ladderback chair in the front of this pile – its rungs need to go in the kiln now. There, they’ll dry a few more days and I can then bore & assemble that chair.

Someone asked about how I store bits & pieces for many projects at once. In my small (12′ x 16′) shop, it’s tricky. The chair parts are easiest – they get split & shaved, then tucked up in the ceiling/floor joists above my head.

chair parts drying

The stuff for the joined cupboard I’m doing is difficult, in part because the parts are big, but mainly because there’s so many – maybe 60 pieces in the frame. Here’s part of them, stickered & sitting on the loft floor.

stacked & stickered

The absolute worst storage, if you can call it that, is this one – a heap standing in the corner.

storage or out of control wood pile?

I think I’ll tackle this heap first today. The bent chair posts can go into some racks between the rafters. Then I’ll sort out the cupboard parts here, and stack them somewhere. some of this is bound to become firewood – so that can go outside. And on & on.

Brettstuhl assembled

Spent the day fitting the brettstuhl together.

Brettstuhl assembled

I had put the ash legs in a kiln powered by one light bulb. Over time I weighed them, and they stopped losing weight a couple of days ago. Hence, dry. I didn’t get photos of the first half of today’s work, boring the mortises in the battens for the legs. I had the battens in place in the seat, and bored from below. Used 2 adjustable bevels to set the rake & splay. Here’s photos of the rest of the day. First a front & rear leg fitted into a batten. Through-wedged tenons, 15/16″ in diameter. Ash legs, white oak batten.

legs & batten

Before fitting the battens into the seat, I chamfered the edges of the front & sides of the seat. This could be a molded edge (it is in Drew Langsner’s article I used to build from) – but a chamfer works too.

chamfer w drawknife

Once I had the two battens fitted with their legs, time to knock them back into the seat. They are not interchangable. I marked them inside the housing.

Then slide/heave/push, but don’t pound the back into the mortises cut in the seat & battens.

one good use of too much bulk

From there, I scribed the baseline for the mortises in the back’s tenons. Then back out it comes.

scribing for mortises

I bored these mortises, then pared with a chisel. I felt the butternut was a somewhat fragile wood, and it’s tight quarters in there for chopping a mortise. So brace & bit and paring chisel work. Make sure the top end of that mortise is ABOVE the baseline scribed. The wedge needs to bear on the batten’s surface, not the end grain of this mortise.

The other end is angled some, maybe 6-8 degrees or so. Too steep is less likely to grab.

more boring

then I pared the end grain and the walls inside that mortise. It’s 5/16″ wide. Centered on the tenon’s thickness, which is about an inch. Then I planed some wedge stock, I used hickory in this case. I just wanted something harder than the butternut. Not sure it’s necessary. I always chamfer the ends of wedges like this – both ends. That way if you ever have to adjust them, you can knock them this way & that without beating them to bits.

Then put the thing back together & drive the wedges in. These next two photos are a bit out of order – the wedges are still extra-long, and not yet chamfered. And the batten too is extra long. I took the wedges out to trim their length, then chamfered them. Took the back out so I could easily trim the battens flush with the back edge of the seat.

Then put it all back together. This is an earlier test-assembly. One nice thing is there’s no hurry and you can take the back in & out to make whatever adjustments you need.

Here’s the other view of the finished chair.

brettstuhl side view

I want to do another one soon, otherwise everything I learned doing this one will go out the window & I’ll have to learn it again. Next time, more taper to the legs. More rake & splay.

brettstuhl batten-fitting, etc.

two boards, no legs

I worked all day, but you wouldn’t know it. I felt like I was moving in slow-motion. But I was being extra careful – I want this chair to come off without a hitch. The photo above is where I quit. I’ll show you what I did to get to that point.

The day started off laying out the housings for the two oak battens under the seat. Drew’s plans in the old FWW said the battens were 2 1/2″ in from the edges of the seat. I marked that line, then used an adjustable bevel to layout the angle from the beveled batten.

adjustable bevel & awl

But the battens are tapered in width, in addition to being beveled on their edges. So another adjustable bevel to find the inside edge of the batten-housing.

Lots of layout

After double-checking this layout, I began by sawing the edges of the housings, as far as I could. They stop about 1 3/4″ from the front. After a while, I was tilting the saw up a bit, and using the teeth just under the handle – the teeth you hardly ever use.

saw as much as I can

I chopped out what I could get at near the back of the seat. Just breaking out the waste between the two saw kerfs.

chisel work begins

Then more chisel work.

Then even more chisel work.

paring with a long wide chisel

There’s no need to see the whole blow-by-blow. That’s probably too much already. Check the depth…

I aimed for 3/8″ deep

Then tested the battens, made adjustments, and tested them again. I had to give these some pretty good whacks to get them in there. Satisfied.

Mortising was long & slow – after the layout, I bored two 7/8″ holes in each mortise. The bevel helps aim the brace & bit.

The butternut’s easy, then comes the oak battens

More chisel work, more test-fitting.

paring the mortises

That seemed to take a long time. But it was then past mid-afternoon & I was getting tired. That’s a good time to slow down, not speed up.

testing some more

It’s in place, I need to trim the shoulders of the tenons – I had cut them square, forgetting they compliment the angle of the back. Next time, some wedges for these through tenons, then the legs.

the brettstuhl continued

began carving the back

I worked some in the past week or so on the brettstuhl, or board chair. I didn’t want to copy my first carving exactly, so I just drew up part of it and dove in. The butternut carves like…well, butter. This board is quartersawn which makes it even more cooperative.

halfway there

In the photo above, I’ve made it halfway up the back. The designs and elements are taken from my 17th-century studies of oak furniture, just super-imposed on a different form. I didn’t shoot any photos beyond this one til I got one of the finished carving.

the carved back

Then I switched over to turning the leg tenons. I left them oversized and will turn their final dimension when they are dry.

roughing out

I followed that gouge with a skew chisel.

skew forming the tenon surface

I made eight of these legs, so if all goes well I’ll make another chair after this one. If all goes poorly, I have some extra legs just in case. Here’s set # 1. They’re in the kiln now.

oversized and ready to dry

So while those tenons dry, I got out some very long-stashed 6/4 white oak to make the battens that slot into the seat board. There’s two options (at least) for these – one is a shouldered sliding dovetail, and one is just a long bevel to form the sliding dovetail. I’ve opted for the bevel. Below I set the batten between bench dogs and tilted it over so the planing was pretty much just as it normally is.

beveling the batten edges

Here’s one edge done. Next time I work on this chair, it’ll be time for the bottom board – to make the tapered, beveled housings for these battens.

checking the angle

a little snowfall, some chair & stool stuff

It is January, so it should look like this. And now, for a little while, it does.

Down by the river. It’s not much snow, but at least it’s something.

I’ll go light the fire, and pretend to work – while really I’ll be watching the bird feeders. This joined stool is ready for assembly, I guess I can fit that into my busy day.

Masashi Kutsuwa sent me a link to another video of the Spanish chairmakers. This one is more recent, and has amazing detail of some of the process. That push knife and spoon bit action is out of this world. The chair work starts at about the 11:00 mark.

from Masashi’s note: “The young chairmaker in the video, who made and assembled those chairs at incredible speed, is Mr. Manolo Rodriguez, who I met at Guadix in 2015! He appears in my book P132-135. (I realized the young man on youtube was Manolo after my book was published!) “

Masashi also tells me that Amazon JP does international delivery. So if you’re interested in his book about the “Van Gogh” chair – that’s one way to get it.

https://www.amazon.co.jp/-/en/%E4%B9%85%E6%B4%A5%E8%BC%AA-%E9%9B%85/dp/4416516061/ref=sr_1_5?dchild=1&keywords=%E3%82%B4%E3%83%83%E3%83%9B%E3%81%AE%E6%A4%85%E5%AD%90&qid=1611621775&sr=8-5

two chairs assembled

ladderback & Windsor

I got two chairs assembled recently – a couple of days ago it was the ladderback on the left – for some photos we needed for JA’s book. Today’s was the arm chair version of Curtis Buchanan’s Democratic chair. https://www.curtisbuchananchairmaker.com/store/p40/Full-Scale_Drawings%3A_How_to_Make_a_Democratic_Arm_Chair.html

this shouldn’t work

Once you have the undercarriage assembled, it really shouldn’t be able to then fit in the tapered mortises – but there is enough flex in the structure to pull the legs apart, so it can all go together.

double wedges

I saw Elia Bizzarri wedge the chair legs with two wedges in the video series he & Curtis did of the side chair. First you open up the top edge of the mortise fore & aft, I used a round file. Just a bit. Then you split it twice and drive the wedges in. Easy does it though, you can shear off part of the tenon if you try to spread it too much. Below is a test joint I made a few weeks ago & cut open to peek inside. That hourglass shape won’t come back out.

May be an image of woodwork

It turns out I’m a lousy student – I changed the crest rail tenon – and I did the arm-to-rear post joint differently from Curtis’ plan too. I bored a tapered through mortise in the post, and put enough slop in the tenon on the back end of the arm so I could get it installed into the rear post and down onto the front arm post. Then wedged it from behind (& above.)

The nice thing about making Windsor-style chairs is you don’t have to wait to sit in them. As soon as they’re assembled, you’re done. Next week I’ll have to weave a seat on the ladderback.

test drive

this is the chair that didn’t want to happen – but I kept at it. https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/2021/01/11/i-thought-you-were-supposed-to-be-good-at-this/

And here’s the crest rail joint, on a side chair I made earlier – down in the middle of this post – https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/2021/01/10/some-shop-work-today/