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.
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.
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.
I’m making windsor chairs. And re-reading Nancy Goyne Evans’ Windsor-Chairmaking in America: From Craft Shop to Consumer. Nancy read a staggering amount of period records in her research for her 3 volumes on American Windsor chairs. This is the 3rd volume.
Finishing up work on Jennie Alexander’’s book with Megan Fitzpatrick on JA chairs. Shooting some last-minute missing photos; so making a chair this week to do so.
And reading Claudia Kinmonth’s Irish Country Furniture and Furnishings 1700-2000. In chapter 1, Stools and Chairs, she writes about súgán chairs – what I know of as a ladderback chair, but with a straw (súgán) seat.
As I was looking at those chairs, I thought of our friend Masashi Kutsuwa – and I dug out his book Van Gogh’s Chair –
I can’t read Japanese, but Masashi gave me an English synopsis of his book. It involves Shoji Hamada, “one of the most famous Japanese potters”, Tatsuaki Kuroda, Japan’s first living national treasure woodworker, Soetsu Yanagi (author of The Unknown Craftsman) and a convoluted tale of chairs from Spain that look like a chair painted by a Dutchman in France 75 years earlier. The chair was introduced into Japan by Shoji Hamada in 1963, after his travels in Spain that year. A few years later, (1967) Tatsuaki Kuroda visited the same workshops, recording in photos and film some of the chairmaking process.
Masashi’s book also includes a photo series of making copies of this chair form. In his notes he writes: “I visited Spain in 2015 and met the chairmaker’s family who welcomed Tatsuaki nearly 50 years ago. I also visited the last chairmaking shop in Guadix.
The 1967 film is on youtube – I just re-watched it. Amazing. As far as I can tell, the chairmaker maybe uses 4 tools; a frame saw, a brace & bit, and a knife that he both pushes and pulls (thus not a “drawknife”) – I saw some more tools, but didn’t see him use them; the film isn’t the whole chair-making process I don’t think. The posts are pith-centered (I could see that in Masashi’s book too) and when he split a section to make rungs – he used his knife to split it.
Back to Kinmonth’s book, she writes “Similar designs are also found on the continent, particularly in Spain and Portugal, linking them to a wider Atlantic European tradition. One celebrated version features in Van Gogh’s painting “Bedroom in Arles (1888).” Below is a sketch of the bedroom at Arles.
The súgán chairs also reminded me of a chair I photographed at my friends’ house a few years ago. This chair was bought at Brimfield, the famous Massachusetts antiques fair. Around here, these are usually thought of as being from French Canada – but it certainly has much in common with those other chairs – except the bowed seat rails; particularly the square or rectangular posts and narrow slats. This one has through tenons on the rungs and slats though. So different, but quite similar.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
With them was a pine warbler (Setophaga pinus). Both a nice surprise.
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.
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″.
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 –
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This chair survived assembly, barely. I remember reading a Dave Sawyer quote “If a chair survives assembly, it should last __ years.” Something to that effect anyway.
But it was not without its excitement, all driven by my haste and being decades out of practice. One post was “windswept” – it leans out further than its mate – which is a reaming mistake. Galbert’s book has a good discussion of all the ways the posts on a chair like this can be wrong and how to avoid them. (chapter 17: Reaming in Chairmaker’s Notebook https://lostartpress.com/products/chairmakers-notebook )
The other mistake I made was using yellow glue. Never again, it’s hide glue for me from here on in with chairs. The joints seized and it took a lot of effort to get things together. I should have marked a line on the spindle tenons where they join the seat. One or two of them might not be all the way home.
But it’s all wedged and is now a shop-chair I don’t need. But I’m determined to make a few chairs like this in succession – the first one I assembled in January, and this one here in late October. Better to not have 10 months between attempts.
The live class is 2 hours on Saturday afternoons, then it gets posted where you can re-watch it later if you happen to be a poor note-taker like me. And there’s a suggested price, but they want anyone to be able to take this class regardless of money, so you can pay what you will as well. Hard to beat a deal like that. And already it’s paying off – Curtis pointed out that he’s been building these chairs for a few years now, and since he made the videos about it, he’s changed a few minor things here & there…so this is the “updated” video series on making this chair.
For my first Windsor-style chair in decades, I was happy enough with that one. Which is different from “I was happy with it.” One problem I had was the legs splitting at the joints.
I suspected my tenons were too large. I talked to Curtis about it, and if I remember right, he said because of the steep angle (say where the side stretcher meets the leg) you can get splitting. Suggested yes, make the tenons a bit smaller than I might in a ladderback chair. I was using white ash. I think another factor was the auger bit I used. It has a thick lead screw that might have contributed to the splitting.
For me, one of the most glaring problems was boring the mortises directly in the tangential plane of the legs. And the orientation of the leg is dictated by the orientation of the seat. In this case:
the long fibers (the “grain”) of the seat run front-to-back.
The growth rings in the legs’ tenons (the whole leg actually) are therefore oriented so they run perpendicular to the fibers in the seat.
The leg is split so the wedge is also perpendicular to the fibers of the seat.
This makes the front view of the front legs (and back legs) the tangential plane. And it means when boring the mortises for the side stretchers you’re boring directly into the growth ring plane. Where ring porous woods split very easily.
BUT – I hate looking at the tangential plane of ring porous hardwoods like oak, ash, etc. And on my first democratic chair, the front of the front legs (and back of the back legs) is this plane.
I thought about switching the leg orientation 90 degrees to the “usual” format. Then you wedge it just the same. This puts the leg’s radial plane, which changes less than the tangential plane, running in the direction in which the seat moves the most from one season to the next. So in a worst-case scenario the seat could split I guess, if it shrank a lot versus the leg tenon which wouldn’t shrink much. I think if you use a softwood seat like white pine, and hardwood legs, the seat will compress before it will split from the legs. I bet any problem would be at assembly, not afterwards. I could, of course, be wrong. It’s been a long time since I was really a chairmaker of this sort.
In the usual orientation, the leg’s radial plane lines up with the long fibers of the seat. The seat does not shrink in this direction at all; maybe the tiniest fraction of an inch. If you were to make the change I was thinking about, the radial face would now be the front view of the legs. Better visually for me, but now you’d still be boring into the radial face./growth ring plane, where ring porous hardwoods also split very easily.
In the ladderbacks I learned from John Alexander and Drew Langsner, we positioned the posts’ growth rings at an angle to the rungs…they coined the phrase “post and rung compromise.” They didn’t make up the concept, it came from studying old chairs. The reason for it is to reduce the chance of splitting the legs when driving the rungs in – the mortises are bored between the growth ring plane and the radial plane. Below is one of Chester Cornett’s chairs, showing the front post oriented with this post & rung compromise. The radial crack bisects the angle between the front & side rungs. But you see how neither of those mortises are in the radial or growth ring plane. Some of Chester’s chairs that I saw used sassafrass posts, this one was white oak, very slowly grown.
I decided to try something this on my democratic chair #2. I was moderately successful. The legs & stretchers on this chair are also white ash, and had grown a bit too slow for this application. Too many growth rings make them a bit weak. I oriented the stretchers in the usual way – their hardwood-to-hardwood mortise & tenon joints seemed more critical to me than the hardwood/softwood leg-to-seat joints. So the growth rings on the side stretchers are parallel to the floor – those on the center stretcher are perpendicular to the floor. This means the mortises for the center stretcher are bored into the radial face, directly in the growth ring plane.
One side stretcher cracked slightly like on the first chair. I keep learning.
But it was the legs that I moved around. I re-positioned them just a bit, turning them in their tapered mortises so the growth rings were angled to the fibers in the seat. The wedge, and the wedging action, are still perpendicular to the long fibers in the seat.
This way I was boring the mortises for the side stretchers one facet off from the growth ring or radial plane.
It worked pretty well, one leg has a small split, but that might be more due to the slow growth rings than anything else. Next time, I’d choose a faster-growing log, and I might turn the tenons rather than spoke-shaving them. It’s better than first time out, almost to where I’m happy with it.
I don’t need the calendar to tell me the season is changing – the light in the shop is distinctly different now, a bit lower, coming around a bit earlier. A nice time of year…
Our neighbors put out some stuff for sale by the side of the road from time to time. I wouldn’t let Maureen bring home a small table last week, so I couldn’t bring home these chairs this week. But I could photograph them…some fun stuff to see. One with four slats, but still a small chair.
A hideous knot in the rear post – ugh. But it’s lasted quite a few years.
This was my favorite of the pile. Worn down on the feet, probably was about 4″ higher I’d say.
I like the top slat of this one.
They were $20 apiece – nobody bought them. Not enough traffic these days, I guess.
I’ve had chairs on my mind lately. I told you I pay attention to Curtis Buchanan’s work. Recently I bought a set of his new drawings for the democratic arm chair.
I finished this example of the side chair earlier this year – and started another. Now I hope to finish that one and then make the arm chair.
I shaved parts for the arm chair in red oak, but mine are a bit heavy. I’ll wait a little to see how much they shrink, then will go over them just a little more to slender-them-up a bit. Or down, I guess.
Curtis’ shaved chairs really hit me right at the right time. I made Windsors many years ago, learning from Curtis and Drew Langsner. Quite some time ago, my friend Michael Burrey took me into his house to show me some things he’d bought at someone’s estate sale – including this continuous arm settee I made back in the late 1980s/early 1990s. I took one look at it, and immediately thought “I couldn’t make that today.”
and that got me to thinking about how I’d like to recover some of those techniques/skills. Then along came Curtis’ democratic chair. It reminded me of some shaved chairs I made way back when, inspired by my friend Daniel O’Hagan. Here’s a settee my brother and his wife still have, I must have made it around the same time as the one above.
This one I still use, I’m sitting in it right now – it’s my version of Curtis’ sackback chair, just with shaved bits instead of turned bits. Tulip poplar seat, cherry legs/stretchers/arm stumps. White oak, ash & hickory above the seat.
In case you’ve not got to Curtis’ chairs & plans yet – here’s his links:
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!”
I tried it yesterday and almost broke my neck.
Brendan Gaffney got a better photo than I did; he’s still young & more nimble than me.
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.
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.