Huck Finn is just ignorant, that’s all

ladderback chair
kid’s ladderback chair

Back when I started green woodworking, chairs were my thing. I learned them first from John (Jennie) Alexander’s book Make a Chair from a Tree, then slightly later from Alexander first-hand. In that book is the incredibly amazing technique of stripping hickory saplings for the inner bark, to be used as a seat-weaving material. To me, the best seating material going – looks and feels better the more you use it. (the notion for this photo came from one Tim Manney did a few weeks ago – thanks, Tim)


bark seat

Like pounding ash splints for basket-making, peeling hickory for the inner bark is a concept that amazes me every time I do it. I rarely get to harvest any hickory bark these days, but keep a stash of strips for basket work. I was lashing the rims onto some baskets the other day, and although I have some very fine smooth ash splints that are ideal for this work, I also have some leftover hickory bark. Unbeatable.


Working with it reminded me of two references to it in Mark Twain’s work – the first one I remembered is from the Autobiography, (the modern vol 1; for that matter the old volume 1 too) When describing his uncle’s farm in Missouri, he mentioned:

“Down the forest slopes to the left were the swings. They were made of bark stripped from hickory saplings. When they became dry they were dangerous. They usually broke when a child was forty feet in the air, and this was why so many bones had to be mended every year.”

In the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer is advising Huck Finn to get a sheet with which Jim will make a rope ladder in planning his escape. Huck has other ideas:

“Why, Tom Sawyer, how you talk,” I says; “Jim ain’t got no use for a rope ladder.”

“He has got use for it.  How you talk, you better say; you don’t know nothing about it.  He’s got to have a rope ladder; they all do.”

“What in the nation can he do with it?”

Do with it?  He can hide it in his bed, can’t he?”  That’s what they all do; and he’s got to, too.  Huck, you don’t ever seem to want to do anything that’s regular; you want to be starting something fresh all the time. S’pose he don’t do nothing with it? ain’t it there in his bed, for a clew, after he’s gone? and don’t you reckon they’ll want clews?  Of course they will.  And you wouldn’t leave them any?  That would be a pretty howdy-do, wouldn’tit!  I never heard of such a thing.”

“Well,” I says, “if it’s in the regulations, and he’s got to have it, all right, let him have it; because I don’t wish to go back on no regulations; but there’s one thing, Tom Sawyer—if we go to tearing up our sheets to make Jim a rope ladder, we’re going to get into trouble with Aunt Sally, just as sure as you’re born.  Now, the way I look at it, a hickry-bark ladder don’t cost nothing, and don’t waste nothing, and is just as good to load up a pie with, and hide in a straw tick, as any rag ladder you can start; and as for Jim, he ain’t had no experience, and so he don’t care what kind of a—”

“Oh, shucks, Huck Finn, if I was as ignorant as you I’d keep still—that’s what I’d do.  Who ever heard of a state prisoner escaping by a hickry-bark ladder?  Why, it’s perfectly ridiculous.”


It’s November here now, no time for harvesting any bark. But come spring, I’m going to keep my eyes out for a good hickory sapling. My stash is getting low.


bowls & spoons at Roy Underhill’s

the week that was – two 3-day classes of spoons & hewn bowls at Roy Underhill’s Woodwright’s School. No daytime temps under 90 degrees F., mostly higher. The students hewed like demons, but were glad to stop at the end of the day… thanks to all the students & friends who came out & did such great work. Pictures with captions now:

fresh stcamore
sycamore spoon blanks
Whyaduck? Whyaknife?
trying out the twca cam
tulip poplar bowl stuff
splitting bowl stock
the hardcore used black walnut for bowls
working hard
you can’t tell how hot it was from this picture


AC inside HOT outside
in here, was AC. I sometimes watched from there. they were doing fine
so humid you could see the air
so humid you could see the air
gone to town
emerging bowls
a face for Bob Van Dyke
spoon rack
unusual spoon rack
the shop
put down the bowl pick up the spoon
the gouge work



cod 2003

At my house, the carved joined stuff is in every room. I have tried many times, and always failed, to count the pieces of furniture in this 4 1/2 room house. You’d be amazed at how much stuff you can cram in here. (I’m in the kitchen right now – 9 pieces of free-standing furniture, 3 hanging on the wall, and all the built-in cupboards above the counters)

 plain chair

This week, I have been making this little, big rush-seated chair. Little because it’s a low seat, generally small-size chair. Big because it’s not subtle – the posts are almost 2” square, the rungs fit in holes that are 15/16” in diameter. So little big chair. It’s based on 17th-century chairs that we mostly know from Dutch artwork, more-so than from surviving examples. (next up for it is trimming the posts here & there, weaving the seat…) These are ancestors of the ladderback chairs that I first learned back in the late 1970s/80s. Here’s one that I did about 1984 or so. A more recent kid’s version too.




I began as a chairmaker. Made ladderbacks, rockers, Windsors – then got into the 17th century & made wainscot chairs, 3-legged & 4-legged. Turned chairs ditto. Leather chairs. Chairs w boxes in the seat. Kid’s chairs, high chairs. My semi-latest chair was the walnut brettstuhl.

But at our kitchen table, the chairs we use at every meal and then some are Windsor chairs I made 20-25 years ago.

c a chair

At my desk too. I once had one of those stupid office chairs, then I came to my senses & remembered that I am a chairmaker. Windsors are lightweight, comfortable, attractive. Sturdy. Fun and challenging to build; carving, turning, shaved work, sculpted seats. good all around projects. And so much variety.

Two things happened this week to remind me of how much I like good Windsor chairs. Lost Art Press announced the release of Pete Galbert’s long-awaited book on Windsor chairs. You already know about that…

One of the days that the mail got through here, I received Curtis Buchanan’s next installment in his printed plans for his chairs, this one a fanback side chair, one of my favorites.

Curtis Buchanan fanback side chair

c b plans

I learned Windsors from Curtis, starting in 1987. I really like his approach, both to his chairs and to his life. If you’ve seen his youtube series on making a Windsor chair – then you’ve seen Curtis’ style, very human, simple, direct – and he makes especially beautiful chairs. This set of plans is 4 pages; some 1/2 scale, some full scale. Two different turning patterns, bending forms, seat profile & plan. Boring angles – a course in Windsor chair making in 4 pages. I’m ordering Pete’s book, but I’m keeping Curtis’ plans too – you never know when I might reach into my past & make some more chairs. We must be able to squeeze one or two more in here…


Curtis’ plans & videos

Pete’s book:

my wainscot chair video





a plain chair

There’s a bunch of stuff going on around here. I shot photos of the carved box with drawer project for a couple of days; then had to set that down for the back half of this week, so I could build one of these “plain” chairs. I built this one here at home, so there’s no photos of this work. Maple legs, ash rails, oak slats. If I backed up any further to take this photo, I’d be tumbling into a pile of who-knows-what…


rush chair sans rush

Time to trim the legs’ tops; then add a rush seat. I was trying to think how many tools it was – splitting tools; hatchet, drawknife, spokeshave, brace & bit, crosscut saw, mortise chisel – I used an awl and knife also. Maybe that’s it. If pressed, you could drop a couple of those tools…but I guess I should add the shaving horse, and a low bench for boring & assembly. 

This one is based mostly on Dutch paintings of the 17th-century; this style of chair was the first project I ever made when I was at Plimoth Plantation. Indeed, this one’s for them, too. Here’s one that has been in use there for many years:



I came to calling them plain chairs because of a reference in the Turners Company of London, about pricing for chairs, “plain matted” and “turned matted” – so if the difference is the turning, then here’s what an un-turned chair might look like. There’s a few surviving oldies around, but they are hard to date; and most did not survive. I have seen a few die out at Plimoth after 15-25 years. You can patch ’em back together some, but sooner or later, it’s just easiest to chuck ’em and make a new one. 

Typically I make them with low seats, best for working in, rather than sitting at a table. Like this photo Gavin Ashworth took when Trent, Alexander & I co-authored an article about such chairs in American Furniture. I think it was 2008. 

110 West 80 St-4R, NY, NY 10024 212 874 3879


Other stuff in the works – finishing up a bunch of baskets I started this summer, (there;’s some in the background of the top photo) finishing some hewn bowls also. Spoons as usual; and I just started cutting out stock for a chair different from anything I’ve done in nearly 30 years.  Next week I’m going to finish assembling the carved box with drawer -just received some quartersawn sycamore (plane tree for you overseas readers) for the lid. Wow. 

This weekend is time to photograph stuff for sale; mine & Maureen’s. She has added some new felted autumn stuff,  if you’re inclined, have a look. More soon both here & there.



the Green Wood project

We could all use a hit of positive news – and I got some from Scott Landis in my inbox this morning. Scott you might remember as the author of the Taunton Press book on Workbenches (yes, there were workbenches before C. Schwarz!) – I met Scott when he, Alexander & I were all students in a class Curtis Buchanan taught on making a bow-back Windsor chair in 1987 at Country Workshops.

Nowadays Scott is the president of Green Wood, an organization that trains (mostly, but not only) young people in places like Honduras and Peru to make sustainable wooden products from rain forests. Curtis Buchanan, Brian Boggs and other craftsmen have made trips down there to begin training folks in these woodcrafts, starting back in 1993.

GW.yearend2012.13daa8a48c65d GW.yearend2012.21fb3776e0eda




“The photo … shows Curtis at work in El Carbón in the mid-1990s. And the middle photo shows some of the new furniture that is being made today by young artisans whom Curtis and Brian have never met. In fact, GreenWood has not visited this community for at least five years, and we have not conducted a training workshop there in nearly twice that long. These are the fruits of seeds we planted two decades ago in what could best be described as hardpan clay. El Carbón is beset by every manner of hardship—from crushing poverty and natural disaster (Hurricane Mitch) to massive hydroelectric development and the pervasive violence that plagues the whole country. This vulnerable Pech village illustrates the simple but enduring truth that, even under the most challenging conditions, good ideas will eventually take root. If that’s not sustainable development, what is?”


Rather than me trying to write about it, just follow the link and see for yourselves. If you are signed up for the newsletters from Green Wood, then you’re onto it. If not, now’s the time to see what these folks are up to. There’s a button where you can donate $$ via paypal. It came at the right time for me. Some of Alexander’s extra tools might make it down there, who knows…





Joinery, not-oak

a quick post between tool sales…

I often get asked about what woods besides oak will work for the joinery methods I use. I have little experience with non-oak joinery woods. But recently I was sifting through some digital files, and found these shots of our bedstead. I built it about 12 years ago. Our house is too small to rear back & shoot the whole bedstead – so you get some detail shots only.


I contrived the construction. Period bedsteads are often assembled with iron bolts through the stiles into captured nuts buried in the long rails. I chose to sidestep those issues and use a through tenon with a wedge. But the format of the footboard here is just a chest front really, with extended stiles above. The stiles and long rails are ash, the panels and muntins are red oak. I worked the ash just as I did the oak; riven radially, hewn & planed. Drawbored mortise & tenons. Over time the color discrepancy gets muted. The footboard is four panels wide, the center muntin is wider than the other two muntins.

  bedstead foot board

The headboard was designed around the two horizontal panels that I had. These are white oak, the stiles and brackets are red oak and the long rails are ash again. Behind the bedding is a single white pine panel reaching down to a lower rail. That’s probably ash too, though I forget. I designed this headboard based on our room, and I didn’t want it to block the row of windows above that look out at the river. So I added a row of turned spindles trapped between two rails.


bedstead headboard

The long rails are 2 x 8s, again in oak.  I screwed two long ledger strips of oak to the inside of these rails, and have loose boards sitting across these ledger strips to support the bedding.

Ash is an all-time favorite wood of mine. Unfortunately it’s under attack these days. Lots of it is being cut, let’s hope it gets used for something other than firewood & chips. See the website here for the latest on the Emerald Ash Borer.



further riving details

I got another note from Drew Langsner this morning; here it is.
riving shingles in Japan
Hi Peter,
Here’s more on riving. This photo is of a gentleman who demonstrates riving shingles at Hida Folk Museum, near Takayama City in the Japan Alps. You can easily see that he’s been doing this for hundreds of years. He is riving chestnut.
  It’s not shown in this photo but he will often rive a billet into thirds. Here’s the technique. He starts a split 1/3 of the way across the width. Shortly after the froe enters the billet he removes the froe. He then drives it half way in the remaining two-thirds of the billet. Immediately the froe is removed, replaced into the first opening, and driven down some. Then removed and replaced back into the second split. This continues until one of the side boards pops off. Then he finishes riving the other piece into halves. Very neat trick. I think the chestnut makes this somewhat easier than other woods because it is more bendy and therefore doesn’t pop apart as fast as a wood like red oak.
  Also note his riving brake. I’ve been riving wood for shingles, chairs, fencing for 40 years now but had never seen anything like this. The brake not only holds the wood in place. It also puts pressure (tension) on the outer side of the curve and this causes the fibers along the curve to come apart as the split opens up. 
One other trick. The master warms the wood over a small fire before riving. In winter this defrosts it. But I think that all year around it makes the wood a bit more bendy.
The froe is almost identical to the ones we use. 
(Photo by Drew Langsner from the 2010 Country Workshops Japan Craft Tour)
Thanks, Drew. We’ll see more about the CW froe soon.