the start of something big

It’s the sort of call you can’t believe you’re having. “I’m fine with the price – my main concern is that it’s done right, and well-documented. If it takes all year, it takes all year.” I’m the luckiest joiner you know. I’ve been wishing for something complex and now I’ve got it. The cupboard above is what I’m going to tackle, it’s at the Massachusetts Historical Society. I took that photo in 1998 when I was there, studying it for an article I did with Bob Trent and Alan Miller. http://www.chipstone.org/article.php/554/American-Furniture-2001/First-Flowers-of-the-Wilderness:-Mannerist-Furniture-from-a-Northern-Essex-County,-Massachusetts,-Shop-

As soon as the fire was lit this morning, I got to work. I only had a couple short bolts of oak left, so that’s what I started with. That surface that’s facing up is a split! It’s as perfect as it can be. This piece is about 8″ wide and 18″ long – destined for the panels on the ends of the lower case.

a perfect bolt of red oak

It might as well have been perforated it split so well.

Snowy weather is ideal for green woodworking – no worries about the heat & sunlight causing unwanted splits.

ready to go inside

Then some skimming with the planes to make one face flat. I try to get the shavings into the basket, but there’s too many.

warming up

Then I scootch down and check the face with winding sticks and proceed.

These cupboards (the one pictured is one of 12-13 related cupboards) are the most complex pieces I know of from early New England. It’s more than I can keep track of in my head, so I began a checklist of which part is planed. These are the first 8; four panels, 2 muntins and 2 cornice rails.

if they could only keep that color

I marked each one of the framing parts on its end. Dated too. They’re planed slightly oversized, they’ll shrink a little.

names & dates

I cleaned up & sharpened the planes after that – the tannic acid made a mess of them. Then had a little time to figure out the angles I’ll need to plane up the upper case stiles. I never use drawings for joined chests, stools – even the wainscot chairs. But this upper case is a bit more complicated. I won’t need a drawing for the other parts – just to get those funny-shaped stiles. Now to find the next oak log.

maybe the only drawing I’ll need

Here’s the link to the Massachusetts Historical Society’s page about the cupboard – https://www.masshist.org/database/viewer.php?item_id=3231&pid=36

the brettstuhl continued

began carving the back

I worked some in the past week or so on the brettstuhl, or board chair. I didn’t want to copy my first carving exactly, so I just drew up part of it and dove in. The butternut carves like…well, butter. This board is quartersawn which makes it even more cooperative.

halfway there

In the photo above, I’ve made it halfway up the back. The designs and elements are taken from my 17th-century studies of oak furniture, just super-imposed on a different form. I didn’t shoot any photos beyond this one til I got one of the finished carving.

the carved back

Then I switched over to turning the leg tenons. I left them oversized and will turn their final dimension when they are dry.

roughing out

I followed that gouge with a skew chisel.

skew forming the tenon surface

I made eight of these legs, so if all goes well I’ll make another chair after this one. If all goes poorly, I have some extra legs just in case. Here’s set # 1. They’re in the kiln now.

oversized and ready to dry

So while those tenons dry, I got out some very long-stashed 6/4 white oak to make the battens that slot into the seat board. There’s two options (at least) for these – one is a shouldered sliding dovetail, and one is just a long bevel to form the sliding dovetail. I’ve opted for the bevel. Below I set the batten between bench dogs and tilted it over so the planing was pretty much just as it normally is.

beveling the batten edges

Here’s one edge done. Next time I work on this chair, it’ll be time for the bottom board – to make the tapered, beveled housings for these battens.

checking the angle

Next chair

(as I’ve been working on blog posts lately, things have been a bit weird. When I preview the post, to see the photos larger, I have to click them twice – first they go tiny, then the 2nd click enlarges them. That’s all I can tell you – otherwise, you’re on your own.)

I’ve made lots of kinds of chairs over the years, but the chair I started today is only my third attempt at a “brettstuhl”. Six or more years ago, I did one in walnut with hickory legs. As soon as I got this one done, I saw the flaw – I tapered the legs the wrong way!

walnut & hickory, 2014

It’s funny looking at that photo now – the chair is sitting right where my shop is now. So today I started in at the beginning, working some beautiful ash – and tapering those legs DOWN to the feet. The instructions I’m using on making this chair are from Drew Langsner’s Fine Woodworking article “Two Board Chairs” in the July/August 1981 issue. Below you see one leg done, the other riven oversized. You can make these at the shaving horse, but I did them today at the bench. (I sat at my desk all day yesterday & didn’t feel like sitting.)

First step is to plane two faces, then bring the whole thing to about 1 3/8″ square. This is very fresh wood, just split open a week ago. I want it to finish about 1 1/4″ at the thick end.

Then mark out the tapered foot, and plane down to that. See the end grain of this stick, I’ve drawn a 1″ square as my target to plane down to.

The fresh green wood planes so easily. Dead-straight makes it easy too. I make the octagonal cross-section after tapering. The piece is sitting up in a v-block behind me, and that brings it “corner up.” First shavings here are whisper thin (narrow, really, but who says “whisper-narrow?”)

I start near the foot and take a few strokes, then begin backing up as I plane forward. After a couple of strokes, the shavings get wider and wider.

There – I’ve got that mistake from six years ago remedied. Now on to the back board. I made a half-template out of 1/2″ thick pine and just traced around it. The board is quartersawn butternut, 7/8″ thick.

I’m no master with a bowsaw/turning saw. I get close, then fine-tune the result. I make stop cuts here & there, and apply beeswax to the tiny little teeth. And I keep telling myself, “easy does it.” This saw I made years ago with the hardware from Tools for Working Wood. https://toolsforworkingwood.com/store/item/GT-BOWS.XX?searchterm=bowsaw

Here, I followed some of the shape with a spokeshave.

Then I went over some of the detailed edges with a couple of carving gouges.

Here’s as far as I got – the holes I bored are to put the saw in to cut out the hand-hold. It was getting pretty low light in the shop, so I decided that was a good time to quit. Tomorrow’s another day.

two chairs assembled

ladderback & Windsor

I got two chairs assembled recently – a couple of days ago it was the ladderback on the left – for some photos we needed for JA’s book. Today’s was the arm chair version of Curtis Buchanan’s Democratic chair. https://www.curtisbuchananchairmaker.com/store/p40/Full-Scale_Drawings%3A_How_to_Make_a_Democratic_Arm_Chair.html

this shouldn’t work

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.

double wedges

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.

May be an image of woodwork

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.

test drive

this is the chair that didn’t want to happen – but I kept at it. https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/2021/01/11/i-thought-you-were-supposed-to-be-good-at-this/

And here’s the crest rail joint, on a side chair I made earlier – down in the middle of this post – https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/2021/01/10/some-shop-work-today/

slow-growing oak vs fast-growing oak

fast grown on the left, slow grown on the right. Red oak

The other day I posted a photo of some oak I’d planed for a joined stool, and mentioned that it was too slow-growing for chair work. I didn’t explain why, so this post will look at how oak’s growth rate affects its strength. This notion applies to ring-porous woods like oak, ash and hickory. Those are the ones I have the most experience with. I’ve used other ring porous woods like catalpa and sassafrass for various things, but I think of them as too soft for much furniture – certainly for chair work.

THESE NOTES APPLY ONLY TO RING-POROUS WOODS – THINGS LIKE MAPLE, CHERRY, ETC DIFFER. I DON’T KNOW HOW TO EVALUATE THEIR STRENGTH. SOFTWOODS ARE ANOTHER WHOLE STORY. MY BAG IS OAK, SOME ASH, ETC.

Below is a piece of white ash (Fraxinus americana) – each growth ring has two sections; the early wood/spring wood is the open porous bits. Then the latewood/summer wood is more dense. Generally the spring wood is the same size in each ring – the summer wood can vary from year to year, depending on various factors – light, water/nutrients, competition and more.

white ash end grain

Next photo is of two boards I’ve kept as samples to illustrate this concept for maybe 20 years. On the top is a fast-growing red oak; the bottom board is the slow-growing example. (these boards are in the opening view of this post too). Both came from southeastern Massachusetts, both are 6″ wide. One has about 13 or 14 rings, the other over 90. It becomes hard to see them near the right-hand edge.

For my joinery work, like this chest, I prefer the slow-growing wood. It’s much easier to plane and carve. The way the chest is constructed the lesser strength is not an issue. The stiles (corner posts) are nearly 2″ thick x 3 1/2″ wide, the rails are 1 1/4″ x 4″ or so. Drawbored mortise & tenons throughout. So no problem.

joined and carved chest, 2010

For this sort of chair – same story – huge parts, 2″ thick posts, 1 3/4″ thick seat rails. Slow-growing ash is fine for this.

But if you want to make a light but strong ladderback chair, like those I learned from Jennie Alexander and Drew Langsner – that stuff won’t work. The rungs on this chair are just over 5/8″ in diameter. The posts on mine are about 1 3/8″ thick – Alexander’s were thinner. So this is a case where you have to be sure your material is up for the stress placed upon it.

Here’s another end grain shot, of two green chair rungs I shaved very quickly this morning. The one on the left is that new log, 12 growth rings to the inch – deemed useless for chair making, but ideal for joiner’s work. On the right is something I pulled from the firewood pile – 6 growth rings to the inch. How nice that they worked out 12 versus 6. Easy comparison.

I shot a 2-minute video showing how you can test your chair parts (or possible chair parts)

Below is a shot of those two rungs – the top one is the fast growing one that bent quite a ways before de-laminating – if I had shaved it more carefully, it might have bent without its fibers pulling up like that. Then the bottom two sections are the shattered rung. On the bottom view you can see the year-by-year fracture.

results

Bruce Hoadley’s book Understanding Wood: A Craftsman’s Guide to Wood Technology is where I go to read about what wood is doing & why. The updated edition is from 2000. I see it’s still in print from Taunton Press – or wherever you buy books.

“I thought you were supposed to be good at this…”

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:

a re-creation of the moment of doom

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.

thick lead screw

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.

slower, but less exciting

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.

why is one front leg white oak?

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.

bluebirds, female on left, male on right

With them was a pine warbler (Setophaga pinus). Both a nice surprise.

pine warbler, male

some shop work today

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.

red oak bolt

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″.

stile for a stool

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 –

first set for 2021

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.

crest rail tenon

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.

cleanup time

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.

scrubbing

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.

butternut

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

An on-line spoon carving class in January

I’m going to try the online class routine in January. Not that it will be that hard a stretch, I’ve opted to go with the most relaxed task-master going – Elia Bizzarri. He & Curtis Buchanan struck a pretty casual pose in their chair class, which I learned a lot from.

It will be 2 sessions, on Saturday afternoons. Then usually Elia makes the video of it available shortly thereafter. So you can watch it live, watch it later or both. One nice feature they’ve cooked up is the “pay what you can” notion. Details here: http://handtoolwoodworking.com/online-classes/

This is not a box…

stool stick

I think I made about 6 carved boxes in the last month. I love making them, but some variety is nice too. So it was fun to go into the shop today and pick out some squared stock for a joined stool I have coming up next. At the end of the bench you can see 4 of 5 blanks for the stiles. I’m checking the first one against the story stick for the stool I’m making. I’ll pick the best 4 of the batch, and put the 5th one back in the pile.

truing it up

Some of these 2″ squares were planed from green wood in late September and they are just right now for working further. Not bone-dry, not sopping wet. In the photo above, I’m truing up the two outside faces. I called them 2″ squares, but they’re initially planed a bit over that, 2 1/8″ or so. That leaves room for this step, getting them nice & straight, with the outside faces at 90 degrees to each other.

checking w the square

After I like those two faces, I mark the 2″ dimension, and plane down to that.

marking gauge

From there, I go ahead to layout and mortising. I didn’t shoot any photos of that today. I’ve covered that at length here, in the book with Jennie Alexander and in the video series I shot last spring on making a joined stool.

Here’s the real thing I want to talk about – case hardening. I might be the only woodworker you’re going to hear extol the virtues of case-hardened oak. I trimmed about 2″ off the end of this stile – and could clearly see the darker middle of the blank, surrounded by lighter-colored, drier outer edges. A nightmare for some, heaven for me.

optimal condition for me

The next step for me is to chop four mortises in this piece – two of them 5/16″ wide by 3 1/4″ long, the other two only 2″ long. About 1 1/2″ deep. I can chop mortises in dry stock, but it’s easier when that stock has more moisture in it. (Usually a mortise takes me about 4-6 minutes – unless I get distracted by action out at the birdfeeders.) In this stock, I’ll quickly chop past the drier wood into the slightly wetter interior.

So why not just chop those joints back in September when it was sopping wet? I used to do so, but it’s a bit trickier. Really wet wood is a bit fuzzy to cut, the fibers mush around more so than cutting cleanly. And that touches on the really great feature of this in-between material. After mortising, I’m going to turn these stiles on the lathe – and that drier, outer wood cuts more cleanly – allowing more crisp detail (as much as you can get in red oak) than if the wood were just out of the log. (here’s a photo from way back when I was working on the book w JA )

turning a cove

Case-hardened stock in sawn boards might present a problem – here I’m using riven, straight-grained oak. Nearly perfect material. For more about case-hardening, you can read this https://www.fpl.fs.fed.us/documnts/fpltn/fpltn-213-1952.pdf

to make a joined stool – there’s a whole book – https://lostartpress.com/collections/green-woodworking/products/make-a-joint-stool-from-a-tree

and a series of videos – https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLB2LcmbKpkcZic8bc96QKMno2CdpFsNFX

I’m going to go back and add a couple of videos to that, I never shot the beginning…

a snowy day is perfect in the shop

We didn’t get as much snow as I hoped for; but beggars can’t be choosers my mother would say. I like being holed up in the shop or the house during a snowstorm, it keeps things nice and quiet out there. I haven’t shot any photos lately because I’ve made three boxes in a row that were essentially the same patterns. Here’s the 2nd yellow cedar box, done for a customer who missed out on the first one, so ordered one.

yellow cedar box # 2

These strapwork patterns vary only in the details, but generally follow a basic format.

box front detail

Earlier this year, I wrote about some of the background of this pattern https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/2020/06/19/strapwork/

One thing I learned about using carved lids is that you have to line up the centerline of the lid with the centerline of the front. Another step when fastening the lid. I took to marking the center of the edge with a pencil then planing it off after assembly.

carving pattern on the lid

I make the back of these boxes in oak still, so the wooden pin that engages the cleat to form a hinge has the necessary strength. The cedar would probably be OK, but I know the oak does the trick.

That’s it for boxes for now, I have one more on order – in January. Meanwhile, I have some clean-up to do, a joined stool for a customer and some chairs to get back to. I’d like to thank all the blog readers for their support during this strange year – I’m grateful to you all.