Sunday ladderback chairmaking

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 rear post in oak – first square it up

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,

knocking the corners off

then cut the relief above the seat on the front of the rear post for bending.

shaving the relief on the front of the post

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.

bending rear posts

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!

3 sets of rear posts

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.

7 rungs; 3 above the froe, 4 below. Section is only 15″ long

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.

temporary kiln

still a few spoons left from last time. And some furniture – make me an offer on the furniture items and we’ll see where we get. House is getting crowded. https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/2018/07/01/spoons-and-furniture-for-sale-july-2018/ 

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me, Alexander and Joinery

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 Tree https://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:

For more detail of our joinery study, see our article from American Furniture 1996: http://www.chipstone.org/article.php/222/American-Furniture-1996/Seventeenth-Century-Joinery-from-Braintree,-Massachusetts:-The-Savell-Shop-Tradition

 

Made room in the shop for turning

Since I moved into my new shop a year & a half ago, I have shuffled semi-finished projects in & out of the way as I worked. I have a chest that has no customer; I made it for photos I needed for my book. I kept thinking I’d find a spot for it in the house. Seemed unlikely, meanwhile it fit nicely under the lathe. So, out of sight, out of mind. Until I needed to turn something. In fact, fitting under there it collected lots of stuff inside it, then I even put boards across the top for more storage. Terrible idea. 

With a lot of turned components coming up in my work, I had to finally deal with it. Spent several hours shuffling stuff around here & there – fitted the chest (still lid-less, still unsold) into the basement and cleaned up the shop. Now, all I need to do is re-learn turning.

Here’s a view from outside, through the open door. All that open space means I can get at the lathe when I need to. I have plans to make a shorter bed for it, so it takes up less floor space. But for now, I need the full-length for some long turning projects in the near future.

 

Prior to turning, I chop all the mortises.

Even bore the pin holes.

Mark the centers.

Turn ’em.

on a good day, I can make them look like this:

Here’s the square table frame, test fitted. Like an over-sized joined stool.

After this one, there’s a large turned chair coming up. That calls for ash. This is a five-footer, splits like it’s perforated. The rear posts will be 4′ long, 2 1/4″ in diameter. Whew.

Shaved octagonal with a drawknife, then mark the center and turn it.

The straight clear ash works like a dream. what a wood…

I can do that…

I spent two days recently ferrying around Long Island with my friends Bob Trent and Mack Truax. We were researching furniture for a project there in Cutchogue. More later about that, but I wanted to get this picture out into the world.

The back of a joined chest with drawer. Never touched by a plane at any spot, it’s all riven or hewn. And the hatchet had a run-in with some iron object, chipping the cutting edge. Blow the photo up and you can “read” each stroke of the hatchet based on the tracking made by the notch in the edge. This surface is not un-heard-of; but is a somewhat extreme example. Rougher than most…I love it.

Here’s a detail from the front. The arch fits in like a framed panel, then below it the columns, with their capitals and bases, are thicker, reaching back behind the plane of the arch/panel. (the column/base/capital on our right is original, the others replaced). THEN – the carved bit with the leafy-flower shape is nailed from inside to the backs of the frame. A pretty involved series of moves to create a great deal of depth. Needs a thick bottom rail.

Shooting in the tight spaces was hard, I didn’t even try to shoot inside the chest with the camera. Used an Ipad to shoot this grainy photo, but it gives you the idea of what is going on.

Not the craziest thing I’ve ever seen, but it’s not far off.

Bonus item was this New Haven box, with S-scrolls running all one way, rather than opposing/symmetrically. Trent files this under “Plan ahead!”

Carving the next wainscot chair stile

I’ve got my joinery book just about finished, I have a few things to photograph, and a couple of paragraphs to write. This carving pattern came after I was done writing, so it goes here instead of in the book. It’s a rear stile for a wainscot chair, 3″ wide.

After striking margins and a centerline, I struck the outline of the diamond shape with a broad chisel & mallet.

The inner part of that design is outlined again with the chisel.

These half-circle bits get 2 strikes of this deeply curved gouge. These are stuck to the margin…

Next, I took a large #5 Swiss-made gouge and used it to outline the large rosette. These photos are too close to see, but just about all of this is mallet work.

After outline, then I use the same tool to relieve the bits right around the rosette. Then a smaller #5 to finish removing background.

Inside the rosette, a small circle right in the middle, defined with 3 strikes of a small curved gouge.

Then remove a chip right up against that incised outline to begin hollowing the shape.

Then I can step back and use a large tool to remove more of that hollowing. By cutting the bit right near the center first, I’ve decreased the chances of knocking the middle out with this gouge. 

Once that rosette is hollowed, I use a very narrow gouge to define the outline of the petals.

Then remove a chip behind the 2 cuts that form the intersection of 2 petals.

Then a straight chisel to connect the parts, to define the edges of the petals.

A narrower chisel makes a straight line through the petal, followed by a punch (a fine nailset in this case) at the tip. 

Here’s a short (amateur) video done with the ipad, warts & all. It shows me carving the diamond/lozenge part:

strapwork carvings

I’ve been carving a lot of oak lately. Boxes and drawer fronts in this pile.

As I mentioned the other day, I have a box with a drawer underway; for a descendant of William Searle, one of the Ipswich joiners. These pieces get big and heavy – about 15″ tall, 26″ wide. Maybe 16″ deep.

I’ve only seen one & 1/2 period examples of this form, this one is based on the full example. The 1/2 example has lost its drawer; got cut in half at some point. Both were by the same maker(s); sometimes attributed to William Searle, sometimes to Thomas Dennis.

Lots of layout involved, and the outlines are struck with gouges and chisels, not cut with a V-tool. Centerlines, margins, arcs – all measured off with a compass. In this case, I’m trying to make a close copy, usually I make my own versions of this “strapwork” design.

 

But I got ahead of the story. While I had the box with drawer underway; I got an email asking if I would make a copy of the “other” one, the one that’s lost its drawer! And it had nothing to do with my having the first one on the bench. What are the odds that I’d get that note while working on a related box? I’ve got the first one to the point where all the hard parts are left – the drawer, applied moldings around the middle and base, and turned feet for underneath. Then the lid. I need to shoot some of that for the book I have underway, so rather than get involved in that right now, I got out a board to start carving the next box front.

It’s fun to see how the strapwork designs relate to each other, and how they are different. Scale is quite similar, about 5 1/2″ to 6″ high x 25″ wide.

 

I wrote in detail about strapwork back in 2013 – I found it by searching “strapwork” on the blog’s sidebar. https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/2013/02/08/strapwork-carving-designs/ 

Wainscot chair rear leg

I’m working on a few things at once; including another wainscot chair. Making the “rake” to the rear legs is the largest output of labor for a single piece of wood in my repertoire. And, the most conspicuous waste of material. But, it has to be done. I rived this white oak billet about 3 1/2″-4″ square, maybe 45″ long or so. I start then by hewing the tangential plane into something close to flat.

This is a departure from my standard practice – I usually always work the radial face first. It’s easiest to plane, and often rives quite flat. But in this case, I’m planing the side-plane of the rear post – so I can then layout the shape on this face. If you enlarge the photo below, you can see the growth ring orientation on the end grain.

Each wainscot chair I have seen is different in its angle/rake/cant – what ever we might call the shape hewn and planed above the seat. I like to align the top end with the grain – it makes plowing the panel groove easier. Chopping mortises too. But to do this, like in the photo below, it means the chunk of wood to give you this shape is pretty hefty. This particular chair isn’t raked all that much…some have a greater angle than this.

There have been times when I have shifted the template on the stock, to squeak the leg out of a thinner piece of wood. To do that, you bump it so the leg angles back both above and below the seat. Sometimes a riven piece of wood will have some blowout here or there so you have no choice but to do this. The downside is all the joinery is mis-aligned with the fibers of the wood. There’s no way around that to some degree, but the orientation in the first photo minimizes it.

After having determined the layout, I hew off the bottom/front and then bring the piece to the bench to plane the top front face. This is the radial face. On this chair, the surface will be carved.

 

Once I’ve planed the top and bottom front face (the top & bottom here are in relation to the seat height – above and below the seat.) Then I mark the thickness on the side view, and saw a relief cut from the back, at the point where the leg angles back. This is the same height as the top of the seat rails. But that’s later.

Now – depending on how straight the wood is, how tough your nerves are – you can rive off the bulk of that waste. I knocked the froe in, but left a chunk of wood for caution.

I jammed it in the riving brake, and it split as perfect as can be. It popped off right after I took this photo. Almost hit the camera.

 

I had left some wood that needed hewing; I did the top end first, that way if the hatchet slips it won’t hit the bottom end of the leg.

After hewing both ends, I set it up on the bench like this to shave each end in turn. There’s some fiddling around right where the angles diverge, but skewing the plane helps, and I got in there with a spokeshave too.

This is the finished planed leg. Once I do the other one, I’ll let them dry for a couple of weeks. At that point, I fine-tune the shape, matching one to the other more than to the template. As long as they’re close to the template, but closer to each other it will be fine. Then I cut the carving and joinery.

 


After lunch I worked on a carving for a box I’m making. A good day all around.