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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walnut joined stool assembled

It’s been ages and ages since I did any turning on a regular basis. I have a lot of it coming up this fall and winter, and in preparation for that work, I decided to start with some joined stools. The first one is in walnut instead of oak.

My lathe is the last piece in the workshop puzzle; as it is now, it’s been buried under/behind 2 chests, and all sorts of wood, projects, etc. So I shoved all that aside and turned these stiles recently. I started the first session with sharpening the gouges and skews, and turned one stile. So the next morning I did the other three. I’ve covered this stuff in the joined stool book and the wainscot chair video with Lie-Nielsen – but here’s some of it. First off, mark the centers on each end. I scribed the diagonal lines, then set a compass to see what size circle, and how centered it was (or wasn’t). I decided it needed a nudge a bit this way & that – so when I punched the center, I moved a little bit over.

Then rough out the cylindrical bits –

Then I use a story-stick to mark where to cut the various elements of the turnings, here one cove is cut and I’m lining up the stick to locate the other details.

 

I alternate between a skew chisel and narrow gouges to form the shapes.

 

Once I was finished with the turnings, time to bore the tenons for the pins, and assemble. Here, roman numerals ID the stretcher-to-stile.

 

Mark the joint, and bore the peg hole in the tenon.

 

No one, NO ONE, likes the way I shave pegs. I’ve done thousands this way, and it seems to work for me.


 

The peg-splitting & shaving tools; cleaver (riving knife) by Peter Ross; tapered reamer by Mark Atchison (for opening holes when the offset for drawboring is too severe), 2″ framing chisel.


Make a bunch of tapered pins and hammer them in one-by-one. I line it up over a hole in the bench so the pin can exit.

After assembling two sections, then knock in the angled side rails, and pin the whole thing.

 

Frame assembled, wants some walnut for the seat board. I have a wood-shopping trip coming up…I don’t have 11″ wide walnut around.

All the joined stool work is covered in detail in the book I did with Jennie Alexander – I have a few copies left for sale, (leave me a comment if you’d like to order one, $43 shipped in US) or get it from Lost Art Press – https://lostartpress.com/products/make-a-joint-stool-from-a-tree 

Shaving horse book available through Plymouth CRAFT

UPDATE: SUNDAY JULY 2

Plymouth CRAFT only had 6 copies of the Shaving Horse book by Sean Hellman – so if you want to order that, go directly to Sean’s site: http://www.seanhellman.com/product/shavehorse_book/

there are other tidbits left at Plymouth CRAFT, shirts, hats, a few copies of Woodworking in Estonia – https://www.plymouthcraft.org/online-store

proceeds help keep Plymouth CRAFT running, and that means Greenwood Fest too!

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Shaving horses are in the wind it seems. On the wind, maybe. That’s how Jennie Alexander used to refer to her book Make a Chair from a Tree. “The chair was in the wind…” meaning if she didn’t write the book, someone was going to.

The wind is carrying shaving horse ideas a bit lately. A year or so ago, I shot a video with Lie-Nielsen on making my (simple) shaving horse. To be released sometime in the semi-near future.

An old one of me & Daniel shaving white cedar

Recently, Tim Manney had an excellent shaving horse article in Fine Woodworking, accompanied by Curtis Buchanan’s piece on how to use one. It makes me want to build a new shaving horse!  Tim’s also selling detailed plans for building his, http://timmanneychairmaker.blogspot.com/2017/05/shaving-horse-plans.html

 

 

Sean Hellman, a green woodworker over in the UK, has a new book out about shaving horses, Shaving Horses, Lap Shaves and other Woodland Vices: A Book of Plans and Techniques for the Green Woodworker.

Sean’s book – It’s 130 pages, showing a multitude of different shaving horse designs; the dumbhead style, English style, spoon mules, and methods of use, some riving brakes, and other “woodland vices.” Large format, 8 1/4” x 11 3/4”.

Here’s the link to Plymouth CRAFT’s shop, selling a few odds and ends leftover from the Fest. https://www.plymouthcraft.org/online-store

 

They’re so 20th century…

I have been trying my hand at some at 20th-century woodworking. Going back to where I started, making a ladderback chair like the ones I learned from Jennie Alexander and Drew Langsner. I made them quite often back in the 1980s, but by 1992 I probably made my “last” one. The only ones I made since then were two small ones for the kids when they were little, December 2009. Here’s Daniel showing how much they have outgrown them.

This is one of the late-period chairs Alexander made with our friend Nathaniel Krause. Slender, light, but strong. Very deceptive chair.

But for years, I was swept up in the 17th century – and chairs, turned or shaved, were HEAVY. Here’s one of my favorites I made back then, maple, with oak slats. The posts for this are probably almost 2″ square. The rungs are 1″ in diameter (same as JA’s posts!) with mortises bored 3/4″ in diameter.

 

Some of the turned ones are even heavier, and this is not the biggest. All ash.

So today I shaved the rungs down to size, with 5/8″ tenons. The rungs are not much heavier than that – they don’t need to be. The rungs have been dried after rough-shaving, in the oven until the batch of them stopped losing weight. Then shaved down to size.

I bored a test hole in some dry hardwood, then jam the tenon into that hole to burnish it. then spokeshave down to the burnished marks. I skew the spokeshave a lot, to keep from rounding over the end of the tenon.

Long ago, I learned to bore the mortises at a low bench, leaning over the posts to bore them. Later, Alexander and Langsner started doing the boring horizontally. Use a bit extender to help sight the angle, and a level taped to the extender too. It’s so sophisticated. I’m sure today’s ladderback chairmakers have passed me & my brace by…

it’s a Power Bore bit. Was made by Stanley, I guess out of production now. I have an extra if something happens to this one. 

Then knock the side sections together, check the angles, and bore for the front & rear rungs.

Still needs to go a little to our right..that’s a level in my hand, checking to get the side frame oriented so the boring is level.

Then more of the same.

Then I knocked it together. Yes, I used glue. Probably not necessary, the oven-dry rungs will swell inside the somewhat-moist posts. but the glue doesn’t hurt anything. I never glued the larger chairs pictured above.

I got the frame done. Next time I work on it, I’ll make the slats from riven white oak. I’ll steam them & pop them in place. then weave a seat. Either hickory bark or rush. Bark is best.

Small tool kit – those pictured here, plus riving tools, a mortise chisel. Saws for trimming things to length. Not much else. Oh, a pencil. Yikes.

revisiting an old favorite

I’ve been trying to finish off this chest with 2 drawers lately. I’m close, but have to go to North House Folk School soon, so the last bits will be in 2 weeks. Today I spent making the last 12′ of moldings – out of a total of over 45 feet! Rabbet plane first…

rabbet-before-molding

…followed by hollows & rounds….

round-for-hollow

Late in the day I still had some daylight. I have been using the last 30 or 45 minutes each day to hew some spoons for evening carving…but today I split some reject joinery-oak and started shaving the rear posts for some ladderback chairs. Must be because I’ve been thinking of Drew Langsner lately…

Here you can see the chest with a couple of clamps holding the drawer’s moldings in place. Shaving the chair posts was like old times…
shaving-posts

Here’s the inspiration – one of the last chairs from Jennie Alexander’s hand…and Drew’s book The Chairmaker’s Workshop. I had to look up a few things to remind me of what I was doing.

shaving-rear-post-ladder-back-chair

The last time I made these chairs was some shrunk-down versions for when the kids were small, December 2009. These chairs are put away in the loft now, outgrown…

kids-chairs-2

kids-chair-frame

 

I hope to bend the posts Friday, then leave them in the forms while I’m away. Hopefully there will be some chairmaking going on in March…

 

 

 

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…

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.

lashing

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.”

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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.

stash