Done. what a relief. Assembling this crazy chair is quite a test. One pair of hands is just barely enough. Earlier I had assembled the front and back sections. Now it was time to do the whole thing – sides and seat. Start by knocking the spindles in the rails. There are three sizes of spindles on the sides – longest under the arm, shortest under the seat and slightly longer than that above the bottom stretcher. Gotta keep them all together and ALL RIGHT SIDE UP. I hope none of mine are upside down.
Here’s one side unit driven into the rear post. I glued this chair, and wish I had bought a new bottle of glue. I was down near the bottom of this one, and it make horrible farting sounds as I squeezed it to get the glue out. I don’t use glue often enough to keep it fresh, or I would have used the liquid hide glue. My bottle of that went “off” due to neglect.
Test-ftting the front on to gauge the seat pattern. I didn’t drive this all the way on – that only happens once.
After much fiddling around, I made a seat template that I felt was close enough, then cut out and beveled the oak seat board.
and knocked things together. It took some heavy pounding, and eventually some bar clamps to pull things together.
I got it in the end – no calamity.
it’s funny to stand it beside the JA chair. Both icons. Both for adults, but you wouldn’t know it from this photo.
I think the answer is 112, but that counts the rectangular mortises too. Skip them it’s 108.
A reader asked if I cut the joinery before turning or after, thinking it would be difficult once the stock is round. I do cut it after, I bet you could do it lots of ways, but this is the way I’ve always done it, and with care you can get accurate joints this way. I learned some of these techniques way back with my predecessors at Plimoth Plantation, Joel Pontz and Ted Curtin. As always, it starts with careful layout. This seat rail is sitting in two “joiners’ saddles” – blocks with notches cut in them. I tend to position the stock with the growth rings running horizontally, this is probably over-kill. But it helps later on.
The reason the saddles are boosted up on that scrap board is because I’ve mis-placed my small square that I normally use to scribe the center plumb line across the end grain of this turning. I want the blade of the square right snug against the turning. Then I scribe a vertical line right through the center. Repeat on the other end.
These plumb centerlines become the basis for accurate tenon layout (same for mortises on the posts, actually). I scribe a line along the top of the turning connecting one end to the other. This line is only on the tenon, not along the seat rail itself. Then I can mark out from this centerline the thickness of the tenon – in this case 1/2″. Drop these down the end grain too. I highlighted these lines with a pencil so they show up.
Then it’s just a matter of cutting the shoulders and forming the tenon. I held it in the wooden bench hook, sawed with a backsaw. Careful to check that you’re coming down evenly. No need to hurry here.
Then I split the tenon cheeks. Once they’re both roughed out, check them with winding sticks so you know both tenons are in a plane. Then pare them flat.
Straight-grained ash splits like nobody’s business. Whatever that means…
Mortise layout is just the same. Then bore holes at the top and bottom end of the mortise. I use the square to help align the brace and bit. I have forsaken period accuracy for plain ol’ accuracy and am using auger bits instead of spoon bits. There’s 112 holes to be bored in this chair. One hundred and twelve. That’s a lot.
For my pole lathe, the 4-foot long rear posts of this chair are the upper limit of what I can reach. Even then, it’s pushing things a bit. To get the roughed-out blank on the lathe, I prepare it by working it as straight and even as I can. In this first photo, I have the split-out billet, having shaved off the bark, I’m using a chalkline to begin layout. I’m aiming for a square about 2 1/2″ by four feet long.
I hew the two radial faces, trying to get them down to the chalkline. The better the hewing, the easier every step after this part.
Then the same steps on the tangential faces; chalkline, hewing and planing. Depending on my stamina levels, I will plane this square as evenly as I can, or I’ll get it close and figure to finalize it during turning. This one was in-between. Straight is more important than clean. At this next stage, I’ve propped the squared blank up on a joiners’ “saddle” which is a nice name for a block with a notch in it, to prop the squared piece corner-up. Now I can shave off the corners, leaving an octagonal-cross section ready for turning.
The main chunk of work is turning the cylinder. Here I’m using a wide deep gouge to get it round and down to size.
Then a nice sharp skew chisel to clean it off.
There’s lots of scribed lines turned on the stiles; and a small bead or two. But the finial is the real test. Here, a narrower gouge starts the cove in the middle of the finial.
A skew chisel begins to form the ball under that cove.
The camera/tripod was in my way at this point, so that’s the last shot I have of turning the finials. here’s the finished results. The top bit gets cut off.
Lots more to look at on this chair; cutting the rectangular mortise and tenon joints; plowing grooves, etc.
I have a project underway that relates back to one of my earliest posts on this blog. I’m making a copy of a seventeenth-century turned chair with a board seat captured in grooves in the seat rails, rather than a woven seat around the seat rails. The chair I’m now building has four legs, back in July 2008 I wrote one of my first blog posts about a three-legged version. https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/2008/07/05/three-footed-chair/
here’s an earlier version I did of this chair:
Its main feature to my eye is the construction of the seat rails. Because the seat is a panel captured in grooves, the seat rails need to all fall at the same height. With woven seating, the seat rails are staggered in height, so the joints don’t interfere. (usually the side rungs are higher than the front and rear rungs, maybe always) But with the board seat, the joints actually intersect. Often, like the chair I’m working on now, it’s a combination of a rectangular tenon pierced by a round tenon. One thing all this means is the parts are very heavy and thick. Here’s the rectangular tenon test-fit into one of the posts.
I’ve used the following photo a lot over the years, it shows the round tenon running right through the rectangular one. This is from a 3-legged version, but the effect is mostly the same for 4-legged ones. Easier geometry.
This chair is ash, (Fraxinus, usually around here Fraxinus americana) riven from a straight-grained log, hewn and prepared (either by planing or shaving with a drawknife) then turned on the lathe. The seat rails are 1 3/4” in diameter, the posts are 2 1/8”-2 1/4” thick. That’s heavy stuff. Good straight ash splits evenly and easily, it’s a real treat to use.
The original chair I’m working from is one of two by the same unknown maker, both at Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth Massachusetts. One belonged to Governor William Bradford,
the other to the church elder William Brewster.
Brewster died in 1644, Bradford in 1657. His inventory included lots if itemized and well-described furniture:
“a Court Cubbard £1-05, winescot bedsteed and settle £1-10,
4 lether Chaires £1-12, 1 great lether Chaire 10s, 2 great wooden Chaires 8s, a winscott Chist & Cubburd £1-05, 2 great Carved Chaires £1-04, a smale carved Chaire 6s, 1 great Chaire and 2 wrought stooles £1, a Carved Chist £1″
Well, we know this chair at Pilgrim Hall is not the “carved” chairs, nor is it leather. So it’s either one of the “great wooden Chaires” or just simply the “great Chaire” that was listed along with the “wrought” stools. Aren’t they all wooden chairs, you ask? Often the adjective describes the seating material – thus these could be referred to in the period as wooden chairs. “Great” is taken to mean either “large” or often, “with arms.” One thing about the Bradford inventory that vexes me is the value assigned to the 2 great wooden chairs – 8 shillings. If the chairs are equals, then 4 shillings isn’t a lot for a chair like this. If the 2 great carved chairs are also equal, they’re worth 12 shillings each. A pretty big difference, I’d guess this chair is as much work as a carved one, maybe more. The great chair listed with the 2 wrought stools is harder to estimate because of the stools. “Wrought” usually means “worked” in some way. In stools and chairs, it’s often considered upholstered.
The Bradford chair is in better condition than the Brewster. It’s missing some height, the bottoms of the posts are right at the stretchers. One thing I like about this wear & tear on this original object is it clearly shows the type of bit used to bore this mortise – a round-bottomed hole like that is the result of using what we now call a spoon-bit.
Here’s a spoon bit, showing the rounded tip that makes a hole like the one above:
The upper rear rail is thought to be a replacement, as is the board seat. Brewster’s is missing several spindles, a couple of stretchers, upper rear rail and has a leather seat wrapped around the rails.
I’ll post construction notes and photos as I go. Lots to see in this chair.
For some details about the chairs’ histories, see the page at Pilgrim Hall’s website about their furniture. If you’re near Plymouth, don’t miss the museum. They have great stuff. http://www.pilgrimhall.org/ce_funiture.htm
My travel schedule is a bit back-and-forth right now. But I was home all week, and spent much of it working on a few custom furniture projects, mostly turning chair parts for a copy of a 17th-century turned chair with a board seat. I’ll write more about that very soon…
But today was ladderback chair work. I have parts for a few of them underway, but started the day by shaving more; a set of rungs (a dozen-plus) and a set of red oak posts. I try to squeeze these parts out of oak that is nice and straight, but somehow or other just a step down from something ideal for joinery work. There was only 2” wide clear stock (on the radial plane – it came from a narrow log) so all it could be in joined work was joined stools’ parts, or stretchers for wainscot chairs. I have a lot of stools to make, but decided I could spare a few pieces for the chair. In these photos, I have Alexander’s chair beside me – I needed to photograph it last week, and it’s sat in the shop since then.
Shaving this green wood is a breeze. The chair needs its parts to be straight, but this straight is checked by eye, not by a straight-edge, winding sticks and jointer planes. “The eye is very forgiving” said Alexander many times.
Make it square, taper the bit above the seat, shave the corners to an octagon,
then cut the relief above the seat on the front of the rear post for bending.
Here’s a shot from last time of the bending; just tying the cords around the ends. These posts sat in the form for 2 weeks and were in perfect shape when I took them out.
I had to make a 2nd bending form, because when I went to set up to bend this oak set of posts, I found a set of ash posts I made a week or two ago. Had forgotten about them. I can shave the pair of posts faster than I can make and screw together a bending form!
I cut a short section of ash for the rungs; this billet gave me 7 rungs. There were 3 rungs above the froe in this photo, and 4 below it. Splitting odd numbers like that only works for me in dead-straight stock, that’s pretty short. These rungs are only about 15″ long. I had a few scraps around that made up the remainder. I used to be able to shave a rung in a minute, today one took me almost two. Must be getting old.
In these chairs, the rungs are shaving oversize while green, then dried and shaved again to bring the tenons down to their final size. The notion is that the “super-dry” rung will a.) not shrink any, and b.) in fact absorb moisture from the slightly wetter posts and swell. This has come to be called “wet/dry” joinery. But – you gotta get the rungs all the way dry. Most chairmakers use a kiln…but I don’t have one. I used to put them in the oven, but our oven won’t go down low enough – under 140 F. Higher than that, you run the risk of making charcoal.
In the winter, I kept rungs in a batch stored near the furnace. I would take them out and weigh them periodically, and chart the weight. When they stop losing weight they’re dry.
In the meantime, I’ve kept this batch of rungs near the hot-water heater. Today, I weighed them (2 lbs 2.6 oz.) and then put them on the dashboard of my car while it was parked out front, where it gets lots of afternoon sun. Windows up. At the end of the afternoon – 2 lbs, 2.2 oz. I’ll put them back there each sunny afternoon this week. Hope to assemble a chair next week with ash posts and these oak rungs.
I was in the shop the other day, pinning a joined stool together. It’s not just ladderback chairs that make me think of Jennie Alexander. This joinery junket that I’ve been on since about 1989 is directly influenced by JA. I’ve told the story many times, and much of it is covered in our book we did with Lost Art Press, Make a Joint Stool from a Treehttps://lostartpress.com/products/make-a-joint-stool-from-a-tree
Here, I’m shaving the tapered pins that will hold the mortise and tenon joints together for all time.
And driving them in. All the while, I thought back over the years to all that Alexander & I did on this adventure.
It started with a slide lecture by JA, showing close-up details of dis-assembled mortise and tenon joints from early New England oak furniture. Really just one piece, a cupboard door. And mostly just one joint, in excruciating detail. JA never showed us the actual object, just the details & then extrapolated from that. Here’s my shot of the cupboard door, taken more than 20 years later. (Alexander’s shots were all slides, and I’ve only scanned some of them…I don’t have the detail shots inside the mortise…)
Here’s some JA shots from a trip we made to the Smithsonian to study a related chest I found published from their collection. This broken joint was endlessly fascinating to Alexander, and s/he probably shot a whole roll of slide film of just this one joint.
The detail. I remember Alexander requesting, and getting, a step ladder from which to photograph. (JA was about 5’4″ tall) Rodris Roth was the incredible curator there, more patient than anyone. She’s long gone now, but was often fondly remembered by Alexander. In particular, we were packing up our gear, then remembered one shot we failed to get. Rodris insisted we unpack and take the shot, this after a full day of shooting. JA never forgot that.
I’ve shown this piece of junk mail before -after hearing the initial lecture (either at Country Workshops or in Baltimore, depending on who’s telling the story) I had some questions. I wrote a letter to JA, and got this as part of the illustrated reply. This is the cross-section of a joined chest’s stile – Alexander coined the term “truncadon” to describe this tapered, riven chest post.
Now, to not repeat JA’s sins – here’s the full shot of the cupboard:
A great shot by JA of the upper rail’s carving:
And one of mine, showing the tapered cross-section of a chest’s stile:
It’s hard to keep up with all the action on the web these days. Used to be I read the blog aggregator https://unpluggedshop.com/ and that kept me up to date with many of my far-flung woodsy friends and colleagues.
Then came FB and Instagram. FB is a time-sucking hell-hole and I limit how much time I’m willing to give it. I mostly use it to keep in touch with friends I have who don’t read their email.
Instagram in particular really is active for the spoon-carving/green woodworking crowd. There’s a slew of people I follow there, and I can’t list them all here – but I’ll point out a few you might like, if you don’t already follow them. I just strolled through my list, knowing I’d be leaving a lot of great friends/carvers/woodworkers out – not a slight, don’t take it personally. I’ll do this again if people find it helpful…
But first, there’s one special non-woodsy one; Heather Neill.
https://www.instagram.com/pathcarvers/ – This is one to watch! It’s JoJo Wood and her newly-wed husband Sean Vivide setting up workshops near Birmingham, England. Not just “let’s teach people to carve stuff” it’s aimed at helping people find some benefit/healing through craft work. Here’s a blurb from their website:
“Part of our project is to help introduce traditional crafts and creative arts to sections of the community that would not usually have the access or the opportunity to experience the beneficial effects that they can bring. We work alongside organisations such as drug and alcohol rehabilitation, mental health services, low income families, prisons, carers and people who would find the effects and skills gained from participating in developing a traditional craft based activity useful for their day to day living.”