Nostalgic Chairmaking: 40 years

 

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my start in woodworking. Forty years ago I made my first “real” pieces of furniture; ladderback chairs from John (Jennie) Alexander’s Make a Chair from a Tree. The book came out in 1978, I remember when I first opened that package. The chairs I made then, from that book, would really make me cringe now – but that’s not the point. (thankfully, I have no idea where those chairs are, but I have this drawing of one saved in an old sketchbook. That chair was made before I met Alexander and Drew Langsner in 1980.)

For years, I made these chairs, and then Windsors – before I made any oak furniture. Then once I started on the oak joined furniture, those chairs sort of fell by the wayside. I made a couple kid-sized JA-style chairs when my children were small, but that was it.

Otherwise, large oak carved chairs or turned (also large) chairs – all that 17th-century stuff. We saw one of my wainscot chairs displayed in the Hingham Massachusetts Public Library the other day. I made it based on an original made in Hingham in the 17th century.

But I’ve been planning for a while to “re-learn” how to make JA ladderbacks. These chairs are more demanding than my wainscot chairs – the tolerances are much tighter, less forgiving. I made a couple attempts recently that I wasn’t happy enough with to finish – so today I took the day off from joinery and worked on one of these chairs. First thing I did was to review Jennie’s DVD about making the chair. If you are interested in these chairs, I highly recommend that video. http://www.greenwoodworking.com/MACFATVideo 

(yes, Jennie & Lost Art Press are working towards a new edition of the book – but get the video in the meantime. It covers every detail of making this chair.)

The part I had to re-learn is how to orient the bent rear posts while boring the mortises. That’s what I went to the video for; the rest I still had. Included with the video are drawings for a couple helpful jigs to aid in those tricky bits. This morning I made several of those jigs – but didn’t photograph any of that. I didn’t get the camera out until I was boring mortises…

In this photo, I’m boring the mortises for the side rungs into the rear post. If you get this angle wrong, you might as well quit now. I forget now who came up with this horizontal boring method – but I learned it from Jennie & Drew Langsner. They worked together many summers teaching classes to make this chair. The photo is a bit cluttered (the bench is cluttered really) so it’s hard to see. But the bent rear post needs to be oriented carefully. But once you have it right, then it’s just a matter of keeping the bit extender level and square to the post. there’s a line level taped to the bit extender. Eyeball 90 degrees.

Alexander’s non-traditional assembly sequence is to make the side sections of the chair first. So after boring the rear & front posts for the side rungs, I shaved the tenons in the now-dried rungs. Mostly spokeshave work.

I bored several test holes with the same bit, to gauge the tenons’ size. Chamfer the end of the tenon, try to force it into the hole. Then shave it to just squeeze in there. No measurements.

Once the tenon starts in that hole, you get a burnished bit right at the end. That’s the guideline now. Shave down to it.

Yes, glue. I don’t often use it, but this is a case where I do. The chair would probably be fine without it, but it doesn’t hurt. Belt & suspenders. Knocking the side rungs into the rear post.

Make sure things line up, and the front post is not upside-down.

Then bang it together. Listen for the sound to change when the joints are all the way in.

Then time to bore the front & rear mortises. This little angle-jig has the unpleasant name of “potty seat” – I wish there was another name for it. But there’s a level down on the inside cutout – so I tilt the chair section back & forth until that reads level. Then bore it.

 

It’s hard to see from this angle, but that chair section is tilted away from me, creating the proper angle between the side and rear rungs.

Then re-set for the front mortises.

I was running out of daylight – and any other task, I’d just leave it til tomorrow. But with glue, and the wet/dry joints, I wanted to get this whole frame together this afternoon. Here I’m knocking the rear rungs in place. That’s a glue-spreader (oak shaving) in the front mortise.

Got it.

Expect to hear a lot more from me this year about making these chairs; their relationship to historical chairs, and also about the people who taught me to make them. It’s been a heck of a trip these past 40 years.

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Passing the Baton: Country Workshops & the Maine Coast Craft School

meet me in the country

I keep hearing bits and snatches of news about things down near Marshall, N.C. – home of Country Workshops. In his newsletter from the last part of 2016, Drew Langsner mentioned that things were slowing down. For 2017 there are only 2 tutorials this summer. So I wrote to Drew, asking “Is this it?” “Yup”, came the answer.

Drew showing bowls
Drew showing bowls

End of an era is an understatement. All those years, all those classes, trooping into their house and home. I think it started about 1977 or so. I first went there in 1980, to learn ladderback chairmaking from then-John Alexander. By the mid-80s, I was a regular attendee, and in 1988 a summer intern, ending that season with a large class in timber-framing where we built the “new” barn. Once I got a museum job in the mid-1990s, I didn’t get down to Drew & Louise’s for a while, then went back as an instructor and once a student in 2010. My earlier post about Drew & Louise, and their Country Workshops saga is here https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/2012/11/13/how-did-i-get-started-country-workshops-the-langsners-is-how/

This summer will be the end, both of the workshops and the tool store. But Kenneth & Angela Kortemeier,will take up some of where Drew & Louise are leaving off –  their new school, in mid-coast Maine, is starting up the same time Country Workshops is winding down. Kenneth has quite a resume, including  stints as Drew’s intern, and a period living with John Brown making chairs in Wales.

img_0074

dscn9649

Here’s the fledgling website, a new place to watch. http://www.mainecoastcraft.com/  Drew told me that part of what Kenneth & Angela will be doing up there in Maine includes taking over some tool sales involving the great tools by Hans Karlsson and Svante Djarv that Drew has helped bring to the US. And more…

l-r Dave Fisher, Drew Langsner, Louise Langsner

BUT – one other part of this story. This June, Drew & Louise are coming to Plymouth to be our special guests at Greenwood Fest. I’ve asked Drew to put together a slide history of Country Workshops, and they’ll be around for the festival to meet up with old friends and meet new ones. This is a chance to thank them in person for all the work they’ve done for decades. Many green woodworkers in America and beyond can trace their roots to Drew & Louise, even if they don’t know it…

Last Maine trip for 2015

mill pond

I’m just back from two-plus weeks in Maine. Jogge Sundqvist came over from Sweden to teach a 2-day class in the techniques of sloyd; working riven green wood with axe and knife. It’s always greatly inspiring to work alongside Jogge.

outdoor class

I sat on the other side of the monitors while Lie-Nielsen shot a video the week before the class. Then after the class several of us, including Drew and Louise Langsner, took off on a mini-tour of coastal Maine, making several stops including a visit to Dickinsons Reach, the site of Bill Coperthwaite’s home for many decades. Here’s old friends and new: Drew Langsner, Peter Lamb, Louise Langsner, Jogge Sundqvist, Masashi Kutsawa. 

at bill's

It’s nearly 2 years now since Bill’s death, but as a small group of us explored his homesite, his impact was tangible. Jogge found tools and gifts from his father, Wille to Bill, and we spoke at length about the 1976 trip that landed Wille at the Langsner’s home in western North Carolina. Thus began Country Workshops, the school the Langsners have run since about 1977, which is where I met John (Jennie) Alexander in 1980 and Jogge in 1988.

Wille's spoon crook
Thanks to the staff at Lie-Nielsen, all the great students who came from near & far, and our hosts on the tour. More to come. Lots to think about. I have to sort out my desk, pay some bills and tend to some household stuff, then it’s back to woodworking. I’m so full of ideas, I don’t know where to begin.

some spoon carving knives

On to the spoon-carving knives. My first knife that I remember, a Frost Mora knife. My handle. Old now, I use it with the kids. It’s an excellent knife. You could use this knife and not need to read any further.

frost sloyd

My every-day knife, aslo a Frost blade/PF handle. A bit heavier than the first one; similar shape, with that curved end. I use it all the time, from spoon carving, opening mail, it’s my knife at lunch-time when I’m out in the shop/woodpile.
everyday sloyd

everyday frost sloyd

But, like the hatchets, we all tend to go further looking for the knife. Here’s one, from Del Stubbs’ Pinewood Forge. http://www.pinewoodforge.com/

an unbelievably good knife. We’ll see one of his hook knives too. I have used this for a long time as my finishing knife, for the final cuts on a spoon. That’s why I got the short blade, I’m not doing all the work with this knife. This knife showed me what “sharp” means. Still a favorite.

DS sloyd

DS sloyd bevel

Came with this great birch-bark sheath. the website has instructions on making them, I have done several for my other knives.

DS sheath

 

sometimes I want a really large knife; this is the largest Svante Djarv offered from Country Workshops. Heavy, thick knife, great shape to the cutting edge. I use it for rough-shaping large spoons. http://countryworkshops.org/Store.htmlSD sloyd

SD sloyd blade

But, then came the best knife. really. Nic Westermann’s sloyd knife. I got mine through Lie-Nielsen, we use them there when I teach spoon carving classes. When they have them, they offer them for sale. His hook knife too – (I’ll get to that). I can’t find them right now on the LN website – Nic is teaching there this summer, but his class is full – he will also be presenting at the Open House – https://www.lie-nielsen.com/workshop/USA/96

The knife is outlandishly good (even better than “unbelievably good”) – a very thin blade, which took me a bit to get used to. Great shape, perfect bevels, it works so well I am always happy to pick it up & carve with it. Leaves a great burnished surface.

knives

thin blade

 

Hook knives. Remember the hatchet story, with Robin Wood’s affordable hatchet? Here’s his solution to hook knives. My handle. Thin blade, long, sloping curve. Nice shape and excellent action when cutting with it. I use a dozen of these when I teach – they are a great introduction to spoon carving. this one he calls “open sweep” – I really like the shape. He’s posted videos of using it, and sharpening it here:  http://www.robin-wood.co.uk/shop/spoon-carving-knife-blade-right-hand-open-sweep/

 

RW hook w handle

RW hook profile

RW hook w bevel

RW hook thin profile

 

 

Hans Karlsson’s hook knife, mine from Country Workshops. I used these for years; I have them in lefty & righty. HK hook lefty

 

 

Here you can see the shape of this curve. HK hook profile

Now, one of  Del Stubbs’ hook knife. Mine’s the #1 open sweep…like the sloyd knife, sharp as all get out.

DS hook

DS hook profile

 

 

But, I am converted. Nic Westermann’s hook is the one I use the most. Hollowed on the inside, like Japanese chisels & planes…great shape, great cutting. I have carved through some spoons because I was so entranced with this hook. Write or call Lie-Nielsen in the US, Nic’s website is here: http://nicwestermann.co.uk/

 

NW hook profile

NW hook inside

NW bevel

some spoon carving hatchets

It’s been a long time since I’ve talked about which tools I use for spoon carving. I’ve received some questions lately about axes/hatchets, so I’ll start there. First off, this ain’t joinery, these are double-bevel hatchets. The single-bevel hatchets I use for making flat stuff. these can do that, but they excel at hewing shapes, which the single-bevel can’t do –  in my hands anyway.

4 hatchets

 

First off – new to me – a Svante Djarv “Little Viking” hatchet I got through Country Workshops – http://countryworkshops.org/Axes.html  (2 of these axes are from there, so you could just go read Drew Langsner’s descriptions…)

I like this hatchet a lot, so far. I especially like using a hatchet with curved cutting edge, and this one has a nice pronounced curve. I think it helps emphasize the slicing action of hewing. Might all be in my head, but it’s what I’m used to, and therefore what I look for. Drew’s table says 28 oz., and 5 3/8″ cutting edge. I wish the handle was a little thicker at its back edge, and at some point, I plan on re-handling this and some others. But I’m getting used to the handle that comes on it –

 

SD head

SD bevels

 

 

Here’s the next one when it was new – Hans Karlsson’s Sloyd Axe. I’ve used this one a lot, and recommend it to students & others who are looking for a great all-around hewing hatchet for spoon & bowl work. I’ve had it for 2 1/2 years, and it’s held up great. Lighter than the SD hatchet above, thinner “bit” results in shorter bevels. Many are drawn to the light weight, a heavier hatchet is sometimes tiring for people not used to them…

new hatchet from Country Workshops

My thoughts about the handle are the same; I tend to like to make my own. And have intended to for this one, but here I am now 2 1/2 years later, still using this one with its original handle. I think it’s too thick right below the head – I took it to Alaska & the handle shrunk with the low humidity. Now’s my chance…

new HK model

 

If I were on a budget (which I should be at the rate I buy hatchets) this next one is the one – made for & somewhat by – Robin Wood. Robin designed this hatchet with the idea of getting something for spoon carvers who aren’t necessarily going to spend the $200+ for a hatchet. It fills the bill nicely. Right now, it translates, with shipping, to about $80. http://www.robin-wood.co.uk/shop/the-robin-wood-axe/  (notice I didn’t talk about the prices of the other ones, but both of the above are over $200) – small, light, curved cutting edge. You could carve spoons with this hatchet all your life and never need another. But most woodworkers I know have more tools than they need…

 

RW head

 

The one I have used the most over the past many years is an old one by Hans Karlsson, no longer offered at Drew’s place…I like its long head – just a bit longer between the poll and the cutting edge than the modern HK one. But it might just be that I’m used to it, having used it so long. Right now, I am using the SD Viking one for bowl=hewing.

old HK head

SD & old HK
new SD and old HK

 

I don’t own a Gransfors Bruks carving hatchet. I have used them some, they’re nice. I like the weight of them. Drew’s page on hatchets has a good description (“hewing axe refinements”) of the bevel shapes and how he suggests correcting the GB hatchet. In all, I have 5 spoon hatchets right now, so am not hurting for another…but someday I’ll add a GB just for good measure.

 

Drew comes north in 2015

drew's lowback chair

 

There’s lots of new readers here, so I can repeat something I’ve said here many times. When people ask me where/how I got started in this kind of woodworking, I always tell them about Country Workshops, the school down in western North Carolina run by Drew and Louise Langsner. Here’s a link to perhaps the most coherent post I did about it – https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/2012/11/13/how-did-i-get-started-country-workshops-the-langsners-is-how/

But tonight I’m writing because over the years I’ve had many people say they’d like to go there, but it’s a long drive (approx 20 hours for me; Massachusetts to North Carolina) – but in 2015 Drew is coming to New England to teach a course in making the chair pictured above. He’ll be at Lie-Nielsen Toolworks in Warren, Maine in late September. https://www.lie-nielsen.com/workshop/USA/73

If you’ve been wanting to meet Drew and take a class from him, here is a VERY rare chance to do so – I don’t think he’s ever taught in New England before. The chair is one of my favorites, rock-solid and very comfortable. I first met Drew in 1980, when he was hosting a class by Alexander in ladderback chairmaking. Drew’s been teaching chairmaking for almost that long…

Maybe Maine is a long drive for you too, but so what. Jump on it if you are inclined. Don’t wait for next year… It’s a small class for Lie-Nielsen’s program, and their facility is just a great place to take classes. Excellent venue, and great, helpful staff. I highly, highly recommend it.

Whoops – wrong bowls

Sunday is the first day of bowl-turning class with Robin Wood – but I have been hewing bowls lately.

row of bowls

I have only ever made these one-at-a-time, and then usually years between versions. Right now, I am working on a batch of about 6 or 8 of them. One thing I miss is having room to really photograph some of the process, and a store of scrap wood to shim, wedge & otherwise cobble stuff in place. Had to use a carved rail to shim the underside of this bowl while I shaved the end grain.

clamping

Some of them are the “upside-down” orientation. I have most of these ready for drying, so I plan on finishing them later in June. But by then, my head will be filled with the possibilities of turned bowls and wh0-knows-what-else from my trip to the North House Folk School. http://www.northhouse.org/ 

Exciting times.

 

upside down

I have known Drew Langsner for 34 years and he’s been making these longer than that. Here is a link to the Country Workshops site, with Drew’s article about how he works these bowls. http://countryworkshops.org/Carving%20Large%20Bowls.html

And don’t forget the youtube site Country Workshops has with the Bengt Lidstrom video