I never knew him

I read last week that chairmaker Dave Sawyer passed away. I never knew him, but I felt very connected to his work through our many mutual friends. Over the past ten years or so I’ve been working on this idea in my head (and down on “paper” well, really this screen) about the people who taught me woodworking and about others, like Dave, who were part of what I call my “Craft Genealogy.” My intention is for it to be a book, but it’s a long ways off. 

Dave Sawyer, c. 1981 photo by Drew Langsner

Four people who were huge influences on me were Jennie Alexander, Drew Langsner, Daniel O’Hagan and Curtis Buchanan. Dave was close friends with all of them, and their stories are intertwined. 

I worked most closely with Alexander and Langsner; in and out of their homes on a regular basis. When Jennie was getting older we often spoke of what would happen when she went to the “boneyard.” Among the concerns were what academics call her “papers.” These eventually went to Winterthur Museum’s research library, where I then began to sift through them, all the way back to about 1973 or 74. The pandemic interrupted that research – but I’ll pick it back up before too much longer. 

PF JA Theo; photo Drew Langsner

I knew Alexander as well as anyone did. From time to time, I used to ask how she came to write her book back in the 1970s. “It was in the air” she used to say. “If I didn’t write it, someone else would.”

In the mid-1970s, Alexander was a very-part-time woodworker. A busy lawyer with a young family, she could only work her chair stuff on sporadic weekends and holidays here & there. Many of us begin that way, squeezing in our craft when real life allows us some hours here & there. She learned mostly by studying old chairs in museum collections and experimenting with the tools and materials. And asking questions of anyone who might know something.

J. Alexander, c. 1978

Through a couple different connections, JA was told of someone in New Hampshire who made chairs “the old way…” or something like that. And so, in 1976 Alexander wrote to Dave Sawyer and introduced himself and his chairs. And that connection pushed JA’s chairmaking further along than anything before.

So yes, chairmaking “was in the air” – but what I found out when I began studying JA’s letters is that it was in the air around Dave Sawyer.

Dave Sawyer at Country Workshops, early 1980s, photo by Drew Langsner

Unlike Alexander, Sawyer was a full-time craftsman, at that point, making wooden hay forks and ladderback chairs. So Alexander would fire off questions in the mail & Dave would send ideas and comments back and forth. Eventually they got together in New Hampshire and down in Baltimore. From that beginning, they became lifelong friends. 

Dave Sawyer ladderback, mid-1970s

Sawyer’s first letter to JA notes: “I’ve made near 200 ladderback chairs, most 3-slat, most with hickory bark seats – using just the same methods you do (unless you turn your posts – I shave mine).”

Alexander did turn her posts at that time, but soon shifted to an all-shaved chair. A version of that story is recounted in the new version of Make a Chair from a Tree. I suspect Sawyer was an un-credited catalyst for that change in technique. After some back & forth, Sawyer got right to the point:

“I want you to come here next June for a couple of days – ride the train from Baltimore – I’ll meet you in Bellows Falls at 12:30 AM or whenever (can also meet buses in Charlestown or Claremont, or I suppose you could drive if you wanted to be so foolish.) We can do barking one day and I’ll show you anything you like about chairmaking too.” [PF emphasis]

In the early 1980s Dave, then in Vermont, shifted his attention from ladderback chairs to Windsor chairs, and those are what he became most known for. And his were the best Windsor chairs produced in this country.

Dave Sawyer chairs (from an auction results webpage)

When I learned Windsor chairmaking from Curtis Buchanan in 1987, he shared as much as he knew freely – because he said that’s what Dave did for him. Curtis has tweaked a lot of chair designs over 40 years but the DNA of many of his chairs is pure- Dave Sawyer. Curtis always tells the story of Dave saying to him that his “questions were getting too good – you have to just  come up here and I’ll show you what to do…”

Curtis Buchanan’s 1987 class at Country Workshops, photo by Drew Langsner

I learned something from 1976 Dave Sawyer just a few years ago – the notch for splicing hickory bark seating. JA struggled with bark at first and Dave tried to sort it out for Alexander. In one of Dave’s letters he cut out a sample joint in paper & pinned it to the letter. 45 years later, I adopted it on the spot – Alexander never did, continued to tie knots in the bark seats throughout her career. Stubborn.

sample for joined hickory bark strips

I’m still gathering material for this history of how this particular green woodworking branch formed and grew. It doesn’t begin with Dave, nor does it end with him. But he’s a critical part of the story. His impact was huge – back when it was really just a few dozen people exploring working this way. He retired many years ago but his son George took over making “Sawyer Made” chairs several years back. So Dave’s designs and legacy will carry on. My goal with my Craft Genealogy project is to put these people’s stories together, to make sure we don’t lose track of who the people were who got us here. 

Dave Sawyer at Country Workshops c. 1997, photo by Drew Langsner

a couple of new chairs

butternut chair 2022

I built this chair a while ago, but added a linseed oil finish lately and now it’s presentable. I’ve lost track but this might be about the 6th of these chairs I’ve made in the past couple years. I’ve written before about my introduction to them through Drew Langsner’s long-ago article about one he made with his mentor Ruedi Kohler, the Swiss cooper. Like Drew, another big influence on my work was Daniel O’Hagan (1923-2000). I met him through Drew’s classes back in the 1980s. When I met Daniel, I owned a tablesaw, jointer, drill press, electric lathe, circular saws, portable electric drills, etc. I came home after one week with him and made a couple of phone calls and all those tools left my shop at once. That was 1985. I’ve never missed them.

I’ve had the chance recently to read through his old notes. Daniel wrote about these chairs in his shop notes over the years. That’s what spurred me to revisit making these European style chairs. They’re great fun to make. Just the right combination of ease and complexity.

1969 notes about German style chairs

This one is butternut again. The carving is a mish-mash, I really wasn’t concentrating on it, I just wanted to quickly fill the blank spaces. Mixing chip carving and gouge-cut carvings is silly, but my goal was to get on with the chair itself.

through tenons where the legs meet the battens and seat

When I first made them, I was following the article by Drew. At that point, Ruedi Kohler had adapted his chairs to use blind tenons where the legs met the battens under the seat. I did the same for my first several chairs. On this one, I decided to go ahead and bore those mortises through both the battens and the seats. This invites the seat to split – the battens run 90 degrees to the seat’s long fibers. The minute I assembled this one, I liked it. The reason? It looks like the old chairs I see in museum collections, etc. Maybe it’ll split, we’ll see. Some do, some don’t.

butternut with ash legs

I’m going to do a couple more with this format – the 3-piece back. It’s 2 extra joints, but only needs some narrow stock. And I like the open space in the back of the chair.

I also finished an arm chair based on the plans developed by Curtis Buchanan and Jeff Lefkowitz.

shaved windsor armchair

Although I tinkered a bit with Curtis’ details, I’m a copyist when it comes to a chair like this. This one’s got red oak arms, white pine seat and the rest is hickory. The major change I made I’ve discussed here before, I used a rectangular tenon where the crest meets the posts. Curtis’ is a bored 3/8″ hole in the post and he shaves the crest down to fit. I wanted to keep the crest full-height across the chair. That means I can’t “crown” the crest like he does, in fact it tends to droop a bit in the middle. It’s a trade I like. The crowning is more important to Curtis than the ends of the crest.

shaved windsor 2022

This is my 2nd attempt at this arm chair, (I’m sitting in the first one here at my desk) and I’ve made maybe 3 or 4 of the side chairs. This one went the best – no hassles. All the joints were tight but not so tight as to split any of those parts. It went like it was supposed to. Finally. Maybe I really can re-learn how to make windsors. We’ll see.

Curtis’ plans are here – https://www.curtisbuchananchairmaker.com/store/c8/Plans_for_Arm_Chairs.html

Some of my posts about brettstuhls https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/?s=brettstuhl

back at the bench

I’ve been in the shop part-time lately, just hadn’t taken any photographs. I have been spending part of my time making chair parts from a section of hickory I brought home from my bark-trip in July. Still trying to relearn what I used to know 30 years ago. I can’t find stuff I had last week, but I knew just where the old plans for these chairs were. This is a comb for a comb-back armchair.

bent comb for Windsor chair

And an arm for it. Not the best bend, but the best I’ve done this past week. The few wrinkles will plane out when I go to use the arm.

off the form, but tied to keep its bend til I need it

But yesterday was my first day back to joinery in nearly a month. Started making the drawer parts for the joined chest video series. I cut the drawer front to fit the opening. Looks like it’s all done, but those are the drawer sides tucked under the chest.

looks like it has its drawer

I want the front to have some space all around it so it doesn’t stick. This is why I had business cards printed all those years ago.

checking the spacing

I plowed a groove in the drawer sides to match the runner that’s set in the drawer opening.

This test-fit is too tight. Needs a couple of shavings off the top edge of the drawer side.

too tight

Like this:

better

Next up is half-blind dovetails, rabbets and nails.

Interlocking joints; post & rung chairs

David Douyard https://www.daviddouyardchairmaker.com/ & I live within about a 2 1/2 hour drive from each other, yet we’ve only ever met in Australia. But we’ve traded notes & phone calls here & there. About chairs. Yesterday he wrote with a question about the interlocking joints on Jennie Alexander’s chairs. Not something I’ve gone into detail on before, so a chance to think some more about chairmaking and JA, now four years since her death in July 2018.

side rung locking a front or rear rung in place

Back in the 1978 edition of Make a Chair from a Tree, Alexander built the front and rear sections of the chair first, then bored for the sides. She used the interlocking joints (photo above) to pin the front (or rear) rungs in place with the side rungs. This photo is from those days – the mortise is bored with a forstner bit and the tenons have shoulders – it might even be turned. Looks like all hickory.

I have an early JA chair here, made about 1973 or 1974 before she used interlocking rungs. It’s turned, all hickory. Shouldered tenons bored on centerlines, not on tangents. A beastly uncomfortable thing, but an important (to me, anyway) chair.

early JA chair

JA did not cook up the interlocking joints She learned the technique from studying old chairs in museum collections, disassembled ones were the best. Before she learned photography, she’d commission black & white shots from museums she’d visited with Charles Hummel. You can see in the photo below that both mortises are shifted above & below the tangent layout line.

disassembled post & rung chair joints

This next one is a great photo showing the relationship to all these parts. The post with the mortises in it has been turned around to show us the mortises. Note the notch on top of the tenon at the bottom right in the photo. And you can clearly see the layout struck on the post, Great stuff.

interlocked mortise & tenon joints

Alexander drew the joint a million times to better understand the mechanics and to tell whoever would listen. And Alexander was a tinker-er. Locking the front and rear rungs in place was not good enough for her. She decided, very early on, that the main stress on a chair was fore & aft. So why not assemble the sides first and lock those in place? This sketch has the chamfer at the end of the tenon, flats on the sides and even the circumferential notch (later dumped by JA, Drew, etc). But clearly labels the side rung as the “subservient” tenon in this case.

That’s where she was when she & Drew Langsner met in the late 1970s. Drew helped figure out how to go about assembling the sides first. From then on all the JA chairs were built sides-first. Not at all intuitive. But it works.

And one of JA’s favorite parts was making test joints and cutting them open. Both to see the result and to capture the perfect photo of it. We shot hundreds of this sort of thing, both for these joints and the drawbored mortise and tenons we used in joinery. This one you can tell is a later-period example from the top of the blog post. All oak now, white oak at that (maybe it’s a red oak post). No shoulder on the tenon – all shaved. I’m not sure how that mortise was bored – there’s no lead screw of any kind.

later JA cross section

I imagine eventually this one would be rejected – the mortise isn’t deep enough in the post. She preferred a very thin post, 1 1/4″ or so. Less sometimes. And a 1″ deep mortise. That’s pushing the limits of the material. It can get pretty frightening at times. Note the split in the post where the top tenon reaches the bottom of the mortise.

detail of above

Is this technique necessary? No, not at all. Millions of post & rung chairs have been made without interlocking rungs. I still do it – I like the history of it and it’s fun. But it means nothing. I still flatten the sides of the tenons too, and Drew told me he stopped doing that over 30 years ago!

But I did dump the circumferential notch.

the circumferential notch

It’s simple to do if you’re turning a chair, but if you’re shaving it the notch is a pain. When the first book came out, there I was with a Stanley utility knife carving this stupid notch around the top & bottom of each tenon. Eventually JA decided that the most important surfaces on the tenons were the top and bottom and the notch removed material from them. So out it went. Some makers of turned chairs still use it. I bet it’s fun. JA’s note in the 1978 text says “some chairmakers used more than one notch” – how about three??

three notches

The interlocking joints made it into the new edition of the book. The notch did not…

done

I finished the chair yesterday. Somewhere along the way I drew up this template showing the sightlines I use to bore the leg mortises. I tape it right to the battens, stick a block of scrap wood under it so the adjustable bevel will sit on it and set the bevel & bore away.

sightlines

It works pretty well. The auger bit chews up the oak battens some because it’s canted over pretty far – 25 degrees. Having the back’s uprights in place helps keep the legs from hitting those through tenons coming down from above. The back edge of the template is 4 3/4″ from the seat’s back edge. It worked perfectly, the legs miss the tenons by about 1/4″ or more.

boring leg mortises

Usually on the old chairs, the leg tenons come through both the battens and the seat. This cross-grain construction – the battens run perpendicular to the seat – almost guarantees that the seat will crack. Except sometimes it doesn’t. In all of my previous versions of this sort of chair I did the joinery so the leg tenons only penetrated the battens. This time I made the leg tenons long enough to come all the way through. So I threw the switch in my head that told me not to do it – and bored the mortises through the battens and seat. And glued and wedged the legs in place.

in for a penny

I didn’t think I’d like the tenons poking through the seat board, but I do. It’ll show up better when I put a finish on the chair. Then decades from now it will be harder to see again. Ash legs, butternut seat and back.

July 2022 brettstuhl

I’m going to tinker some more with these 3-piece backs, but I do have some wide walnut waiting to be brettstuhls. And one more ash bolt to rive. Better get to it.

thinking about chairmaking

3-plus chairs underway

I taught a class in making the Jennie Alexander chair with Pete Galbert & Charlie Ryland just recently. During the class, I put on my “old fart” hat & told stories of JA’s chairmaking career. Then back home I’ve been working on a few chairs – the parts for which have been made & stored here for quite a while. It got me to thinking of how the chairmaking changed from what’s in the original 1978 edition of the book, to the revised one in 1994 to the present 3rd edition. And now will change again as more & more people are making these chairs. I looked recently at that first edition – I made chairs from it before meeting JA & Drew Langsner – but it’s pretty stingy on instruction.

In the first edition (1978) there’s no kiln, no steambox. JA dried rungs in the basement nestled up above a pipe from the hot water heater. (How did JA dry things in a Baltimore summer?) A chairmaker JA corresponded with in the early 1970s dried rungs on the tin roof of the shop. In the south. Gets hot up there. 

Geli Courpas reminded me once that back in the mid-to-late 1970s they bent the posts green, so a more subtle bend than in the later chairs. Below is a lousy photo, cropped from a larger view, showing one of these early 2-slat chairs with slight bend to the posts.

The book talks about boiling the posts prior to bending, but doesn’t do it. 

bending rear post, 1978

At first, her chairs were assembled with pretty wet posts. Easy & forgiving, but not the best for a long-lasting joint. The work JA did with Bruce Hoadley showed that a lower moisture content in the post resulted in a stronger joint. That gave rise to the air-dry post/oven-dry rung. 

So all that is changed/fixed in the present text – it shows how to super-dry the rungs, how to steam & bend the posts and other detailed improvements on the earlier text. 

improved bending form for rear posts

I made a layout error in the class that led to some plugged mortises in students’ chairs. Everyone was very understanding. I recently learned from reading JA’s notebooks that during the photo shoot for the first book she put the front rungs in the rear posts (or vice-versa) – was able to get them out & redo things. But mistakes are easy to make. Once JA told me that a working title of the book was “The Fifth Post.” 

I rived and planed some legs for another of my Alpine chairs. Was able to split an odd number so made 5 legs. Just in case. 

only need 4 out of 5

a week of chairmaking

assembling a sample chair

Time to pack up for a week of chairmaking at Pete Galbert’s. Well, every week there is a week of chairmaking. But for me, it’s a shift in focus. This is only my 3rd class since the pandemic began. I used to travel frequently for teaching, not sure how much of it I’ll do going forward. One thing is constant – I know I’ve packed too much stuff, same as always. I’m bringing parts made by the previous class (filled in some with stock I prepped) and the students will make new ones to replace these – here’s 10 chairs’ worth of back posts in a bucket, with some filler added.

back posts for 10 chairs

I’ll bring one of the last chairs JA made (on the left below) and one I made last year.

JA left, PF right

So we’ll shave green parts, bend them in these forms and move onto the stuff that’s ready to go.

back post bending forms

I didn’t have enough rungs dry ahead of time. So I made 10 dozen and we’ll set these in Pete’s kiln. These all came from some oak bolts that I had rejected for the cupboard I built. But the wood was fine for these.

red oak rungs

The hickory chair I was making came out fine. I’ll use it for the slat-demo, maybe seat weaving too. Depends on timing.

hickory chair

Well, that’s been my week mostly. Time to stuff it in the car, class begins tomorrow morning.

—————

PS: If you’re a subscriber to my vimeo chest-building project. I’m working on it steadily. But I’ve run into glitches with vimeo and the support staff there are on it, trying to guide me through some wrinkles. Sorry for the delay, I’ll announce it here when new content (carving the top rail) is up & running.

top rail to a joined chest

a new chair

I was thinking about chair-making a lot lately, just had no time to do any. Now I do. First thing I did after cleaning the shop for 2 days was take this brettstuhl down from the loft and changed the outline of the seat. It used to look like this:

last year’s brettstuhl

That seat shape was pretty close to what Drew Langsner wrote about when I first learned of these chairs back in the mid-1980s. When I started building them in the past couple of years, I used that same shape at first. Then the more I saw of antique examples (online, not in person…) I decided I like this shape better:

that’s better

Then I went back to the chair I resumed work on the other day. An alternative to the chair above, this time with a 3-piece back.

chip carving

Yesterday I chopped the mortises in the seat board – starting with a brace & bit. These mortises are 7/8″ x 1 3/4″. I do them in 2 steps, first in the seat board, then in the battens.

ten degrees

Once those are chopped, I laid out the trenches for the battens. I saw and chisel most of this, then clean it up with a router plane. I pretty new tool to me. These battens were extras from making a couple of these chairs last spring, so beveled, not dovetailed on their edges. That means you can use the batten to guide the saw’s angle. If you’re careful. I do most of this sawing with the heel of the saw, teeth I rarely use.

white oak batten, butternut seat

Then knock out the waste.

bevel down

I use my large framing chisel to begin the cleanup.

it only reaches so far

I have done enough of these chairs now, and plan on more to warrant the addition of a router plane.

router, starting to get the hang of it

After I got the battens fitting & chopped the back’s mortises through those, I bored the mortises for the legs. These are 15/16″ diameter holes. Mine don’t exit through the seat – I made the legs a long time ago & the turned tenons weren’t long enough to do so.

boring leg mortises

I turned the now-dry tenons to their finished size, glued them & wedged them.

glued & wedged

Some more fussing with the back, more mortising & wedging of the tenons through the seat. here’s where it stands now – some trimming here & there to finish it off tomorrow.

butternut above hickory below

I have two classes announced for 2022

I get a lot of questions about when and where I’m teaching in the near future. I find it very hard to plan stuff these days. All I’ve committed to so far are two small classes – one at Lost Art Press and one at Pete Galbert’s. I’m not planning on many classes, there might be a couple more in 2022. It all depends on how things go as things move along. Or don’t.

carved oak box class at Lost Art Press

Lost Art Press – I’m looking forward to going back to LAP – it’s the carved box class. Making the parts, doing a whole slew of carving and then assembly. An interior till adds to the fun. 5 days, Mar 28-Apr 1, the Feast of Fools. What could go wrong? Tickets go on sale Mon Nov 29th at 10am.

https://www.tickettailor.com/events/covingtonmechanicals/613699/

chairs underway at Pete Galbert’s

I taught a JA chair class at Pete’s in October and we had such fun that I said yes to doing it again. April 18-23, he just posted it on his website. Tickets go on sale Wednesday Nov 24 at 8am. Here’s the link:

https://www.petergalbert.com/schedule/2020/7/13/make-a-chair-from-a-tree-with-peter-follansbee-8brcj

I can save you some trouble beyond those two listings – I don’t know where or when any other classes I might teach will be. The only other one I have in mind right now is un-scheduled and it’s at Roy Underhill’s. He & I need to get together and suss out the timing. But it won’t be before these two. That’s all I know right now.

Vacation days

I resisted as long as I could, but I finally caved & took a couple days for some chairmaking. I’ve had the parts for this brettstuhl hanging around since mid-summer, almost all made. Just needed to finish the carving, cut out the back, trim the seat board, cut the housings for the battens, chop the mortises for the back & wedges then put it together.

half a brettstuhl

It started back in the summer, when I got it into my head to get a grathobel. Some help from some friends in Germany and I got one on the German ebay. An indulgence, but not a terrible one.

grathobel -in English a dovetail plane

So back in July or so I made the legs, battens and started carving the back. Then let it sit. I finished the carving yesterday and cut out the shape of the back. Then started in on the housings under the seat for the battens. Sawn & chiseled, then got out a router plane to bring things down to a finished depth.

router plane

The battens are tapered in width – so the best way I found to fit them is to make them extra long and then test them, and make a mark where the front of the batten stops.

first test fit
marking the progress

Then I take it out, and shave it some. Two or three shavings for a timid approach. Last thing I want is it to be loose.

trimming the edge

Then it goes back and I knock it forward & make a new mark. And repeat until it drives all the way to the end. I crept up on it.

four or five attempts

Then mortising for the back.

boring the waste for mortises

This time I cut the mortises in two steps. I had them in the walnut seat to begin with – it helped me locate where I wanted the battens. Now I’m boring through the battens – then follow this with chisels to finish the mortises for the back. It took a good bit of test-fitting & fussing. That’s what happens when months & months go by between chairs. For me, anyway.

fitting the back

I want to have to force the back through the seat, but not drive it with a mallet. I found out the hard way once that knocking that on its top end can connect the dots & split the whole back apart. I don’t want to learn that lesson again.

mortising for wedges

Then more boring & chiseling for the wedge mortises. Seems some old chairs use pegs instead of wedges. I decided I like the wedges. Might not make a difference.

back & seat wedged together

The battens I’ll trim after assembly, might need to trim the wedges too. But by the time I got to this point, it was too late for the next step – boring the leg mortises. Tomorrow.

tomorrow’s another day