A couple of things – I finished that Windsor chair I made – painted red & black, all the rage w/ modern Windsor chairs. Takes more patience than I have. Next time I might do oil paint & be done with it. But…now that it’s done, it’s my new favorite chair.
It was great fun to re-visit making Windsor chairs. I hope to make a few more this year. We’ll see what I can fit in between other projects.
And I edited a little bit of video that I shot when I was carving that painted drawer front for the reproduction 1680s cupboard that’s underway. The execution of the carving is just the same as before – it’s just the visual impact is immediate because the “finish” is done first.
The previous version of this video is much longer, more detail. Even more repetition. Some of you might have seen it last year – but for anyone who wants to see more of the above – here it is
And one day a week or so ago we had some hooded mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) on the river. They don’t often show up here, just every once in a while. Usually winter…
Got the chair together, mostly without a hitch. I didn’t shoot any photos of the process, I had enough to keep track of as it was. I won’t go into the usual “here’s one mistake, this part could be better/curvier/wider”, etc – a friend last week wrote that his chair would be “amazing” – stuff & nonsense I said. I’m aiming for good enough. And I got it. As I said in an earlier post, this chair is pretty much the same as one I made 30 years ago. That one is still kicking, but had a run-in with some rowdiness that resulted in a hasty repair. Now I have a brand-new one – survived assembly so that’s a good sign.
The seat is white pine, turnings maple & ash. Hickory arm & spindles and the crest is white oak. I have all the fussy cleanup and finishing touches left. Then the notion of paint or not. I hate the thought of painting it – not out of any fixation with the natural beauty of wood. Just from a dread of all the work painting a chair entails.
It was in 2014 that my friend Michael showed me a settee of mine that he’d bought at a house-sale. And my reaction was that I didn’t think I could make it now. That was the impetus for me to delve back into making Windsor chairs. Not for my living – I’m too slow and clunky – but for the fun of making them and to recapture some of the skills I once had that got shelved.
After a few of Curtis Buchanan’s shaved Windsors – this comb back is the first one in 30 years really that I’ve made with turned bits, carved ears – the works. As I was working on this chair, I kept thinking back to that period in my career and the people who showed me what’s what – Curtis, Drew Langsner – Jennie Alexander. JA only ever made one Windsor chair, but was always thinking about them – particularly the undercarriage.
And our friend Daniel O’Hagan – in his notes is this, about comb backs –
“The melodious comb…crowning the whole work and supplying a place…a very convenient one…for hanging a coat, handbag, hat, or pajamas.”
Rick McKee & I went to the sawmill not too long ago & got 2 new oak logs. One red, one white. The red one’s for joinery, the white one’s for chairmaking. The past two weeks I’ve started sifting through them making them into parts of things.
We split them at the mill, I have no way to get the whole log down to my backyard & shop. The white oak was an 8-footer, and I only bought 6′ of the red oak, leaving the mill 12′. Eighty cents a board foot. Neither of them were the best logs, but they were the best we could find in some small piles of oak logs. And they’re both working out very well, better than expected even.
With winter coming on, storing the green wood is easier. No insects to be concerned with. Above are six-foot sections standing against a ivy-covered stone wall/embankment. Their bottom ends are not in the dirt, but standing on some reject oak sections. The greyer ones are pieces from previous collections that for one reason or another never got used. They become firewood. I like this vertical storage because it’s easier to select the next piece to work from. Rather than having to lift them from a pile, I just tilt them out and bring them down one at a time to be split further into parts. (at the top of that view is the road, just below out of sight is the riving brake, then the shop. That’s why you hear so much traffic in some of my videos).
But some green wood is in piles.
On the north side of the shop, on timbers to keep it off the ground, is a small pile of odds & ends. One chunk of the white oak, but only four feet long. Some turning stock, maple & cherry and a longer piece (the last one) of this year’s hickory harvest. In my experience, those cheap tarps are awful at keeping things dry but they excel at keeping things wet. Now that I have the white oak for bending chair parts, I’ll soon cut up the remaining hickory and make it into Windsor chair spindles. The turning stock is for the cupboard I’m making.
I have framed much of that cupboard, but had a few small, but long, rails to prep. Then onto drawer fronts and backs. These parts are around 40″ long. I start by planing a clear radial face, getting it flat & true. Then hewing off the two tangential faces back outside. Then back to planing. Then back to hewing & back to planing. Not the most efficient, but a nice rhythm to it. One I’m quite familiar with.
The cupboard has so many parts, more than 40 just for the frame, I label them as I make them.
But I don’t spend the whole day processing stock. I do that for the first half, then onto something else after lunch. So I got out the short square blocks that make some of the front stiles to the lower case & cut the mortises in them. These small (1 1/4″ to 1 1/2″ long) mortises are a pain. I have a hard time chopping them like a real mortise, so I bore them with an auger bit then clean them out with a chisel. So it takes twice as long. These blocks are 9 1/8″ long and 3 1/4″ square. There’s 4 of these in the lower case, and two shorter ones in the cornice. These two frame the top drawer to the lower case.
The white oak is for chair making. I’m only making one chair right now, the JA ladderback that I’m making as a video. I bent the posts for that a week ago. I don’t often get white oak – I’m a little leery of it for my joinery because I have a harder time drying it than red oak. But for chairmaking I love it. Bends like nobody’s business.
Here’s a reject chair post that checked a day or two after I shaved it. It was close to the middle of the tree and pretty wiggly. That’s what I didn’t bother bending it. I just stuck it in the corner and a few days later saw the checking. The ones I used, further out in the tree, are fine.
One chair I want to try to make this winter is Curtis Buchanan’s comb back – his “new” one which he’s been making for decades now. I needed a large chunk of thick stock to make the bending form & found some fake beams someone was throwing away at the dump. Nearly 3″ thick white pine. Perfect. This comb is 31″ long or so.
That’s much of what I’ve been up to. Soon I’ll have the cupboard framed and begin making the parts for the moldings, etc. If you were here last year you saw that same cupboard in great detail – here’s a link to a whole big pile of blog posts about it
I got that by searching for “Essex County cupboard project” – the search button often can help you find stuff I’ve blathered on about for the past 14 years or so. But the organization of the material is not great. You might get swept down some rabbit holes.
Some of you have heard some of this before. But it keeps rattling around in my head. So here goes. My main occupation is making carved oak furniture. I’ve been doing it since about 1989. But back then I had a few woodworking hats I wore, including chairmaker and basketmaker. By 1994 I specialized in the oak, and for the next 20 years it was all oak, all the time just about. A lot happened after 2014 and I built my shop here at home in 2016. Somewhere along the line, a friend of mine bought this settee at an estate sale. I made it in the early 1990s, probably 1992 or before. As soon as I saw it, the first thing that came to mind was “I couldn’t make that today…”
Ever since then, I’ve had an itch to re-learn how to make Windsor chairs. So I consider those and the board chairs/brettstuhls/Alpine chairs my hobby. (In my mind the JA ladderbacks are part of my main gig again – that’s another story.) Like many of you, I hardly ever have time for my woodworking hobby. But last week I got a nice 8/4 white pine plank, 16″ x 10′ – clear.
The chair above – another of my early 1990s-Windsors – lost a fight way back when. It wasn’t me fighting it – and at the time I did a hasty repair to it. I’ve never been happy with the result and set out today to make a new copy of it. One thing I can do now that I couldn’t do then is sharpen carving gouges. So right away I was off to a good start, carving the gutter. You’ll see I bored all the spindle and leg mortises before hollowing the seat. I know the Windsor chairmakers have changed things since I knew what was what, but this method still works.
I thought about stopping there, it was so perfect it could only go downhill.
But I slogged on. Used an adze for the initial hollowing, then onto an inshave.
Some drawknife work
Then a little scraper work and I quit for the day. I had pushed my luck far enough. As the afternoon light was fading I ran my hands across the seat here & there & highlighted with a pencil those areas where I want to refine it some.
I have the arm & comb all bent and waiting. And the legs rough-turned. So those will be next, I’ll finish them & ream their mortises. And on & on. Lots of chances for disaster still. But in the meantime I have a new oak log I’m riving for the cupboard. So that’s tomorrow.
I read last week that chairmaker Dave Sawyer passed away. I never knew him, but I felt very connected to his work through our many mutual friends. Over the past ten years or so I’ve been working on this idea in my head (and down on “paper” well, really this screen) about the people who taught me woodworking and about others, like Dave, who were part of what I call my “Craft Genealogy.” My intention is for it to be a book, but it’s a long ways off.
Four people who were huge influences on me were Jennie Alexander, Drew Langsner, Daniel O’Hagan and Curtis Buchanan. Dave was close friends with all of them, and their stories are intertwined.
I worked most closely with Alexander and Langsner; in and out of their homes on a regular basis. When Jennie was getting older we often spoke of what would happen when she went to the “boneyard.” Among the concerns were what academics call her “papers.” These eventually went to Winterthur Museum’s research library, where I then began to sift through them, all the way back to about 1973 or 74. The pandemic interrupted that research – but I’ll pick it back up before too much longer.
I knew Alexander as well as anyone did. From time to time, I used to ask how she came to write her book back in the 1970s. “It was in the air” she used to say. “If I didn’t write it, someone else would.”
In the mid-1970s, Alexander was a very-part-time woodworker. A busy lawyer with a young family, she could only work her chair stuff on sporadic weekends and holidays here & there. Many of us begin that way, squeezing in our craft when real life allows us some hours here & there. She learned mostly by studying old chairs in museum collections and experimenting with the tools and materials. And asking questions of anyone who might know something.
Through a couple different connections, JA was told of someone in New Hampshire who made chairs “the old way…” or something like that. And so, in 1976 Alexander wrote to Dave Sawyer and introduced himself and his chairs. And that connection pushed JA’s chairmaking further along than anything before.
So yes, chairmaking “was in the air” – but what I found out when I began studying JA’s letters is that it was in the air around Dave Sawyer.
Unlike Alexander, Sawyer was a full-time craftsman, at that point, making wooden hay forks and ladderback chairs. So Alexander would fire off questions in the mail & Dave would send ideas and comments back and forth. Eventually they got together in New Hampshire and down in Baltimore. From that beginning, they became lifelong friends.
Sawyer’s first letter to JA notes: “I’ve made near 200 ladderback chairs, most 3-slat, most with hickory bark seats – using just the same methods you do (unless you turn your posts – I shave mine).”
Alexander did turn her posts at that time, but soon shifted to an all-shaved chair. A version of that story is recounted in the new version of Make a Chair from a Tree. I suspect Sawyer was an un-credited catalyst for that change in technique. After some back & forth, Sawyer got right to the point:
“I want you to come here next June for a couple of days – ride the train from Baltimore – I’ll meet you in Bellows Falls at 12:30 AM or whenever (can also meet buses in Charlestown or Claremont, or I suppose you could drive if you wanted to be so foolish.) We can do barking one day and I’ll show you anything you like about chairmaking too.” [PF emphasis]
In the early 1980s Dave, then in Vermont, shifted his attention from ladderback chairs to Windsor chairs, and those are what he became most known for. And his were the best Windsor chairs produced in this country.
When I learned Windsor chairmaking from Curtis Buchanan in 1987, he shared as much as he knew freely – because he said that’s what Dave did for him. Curtis has tweaked a lot of chair designs over 40 years but the DNA of many of his chairs is pure- Dave Sawyer. Curtis always tells the story of Dave saying to him that his “questions were getting too good – you have to just come up here and I’ll show you what to do…”
I learned something from 1976 Dave Sawyer just a few years ago – the notch for splicing hickory bark seating. JA struggled with bark at first and Dave tried to sort it out for Alexander. In one of Dave’s letters he cut out a sample joint in paper & pinned it to the letter. 45 years later, I adopted it on the spot – Alexander never did, continued to tie knots in the bark seats throughout her career. Stubborn.
I’m still gathering material for this history of how this particular green woodworking branch formed and grew. It doesn’t begin with Dave, nor does it end with him. But he’s a critical part of the story. His impact was huge – back when it was really just a few dozen people exploring working this way. He retired many years ago but his son George took over making “Sawyer Made” chairs several years back. So Dave’s designs and legacy will carry on. My goal with my Craft Genealogy project is to put these people’s stories together, to make sure we don’t lose track of who the people were who got us here.
Took some photos today. First turn was Daniel’s – shooting some of his recent LEGO builds.
Then mine was shooting semi-proper shots of the recent spate of seating furniture. A couple of things come to me as I sorted these photos. Among them is that I actually do have to go have my camera’s sensor cleaned. I’ve been putting it off due to the pandemic, figuring it’s not that important…but I’m sick of all these spots all over the photos.
This chair is one I assembled either in late December or early January. I forget. I’m mostly happy with it, but I look forward to the next one. Those rear posts are ash, one heartwood, one sapwood. Give them time and they’ll blend together. I didn’t feel like painting it. Now it goes to the kitchen to replace the very first version of this chair that I did.
Below is the arm-chair version. Both of these are Curtis Buchanan’s design, with my change to the crest rail joint. And on the arms, I made a through tenon into the rear post – which you can’t really assemble unless you put some intentional slop in that joint. It’s glued & wedged. I’ll let you know how it holds up. I did some like it in the early 1990s that have held up.
The crest rail joint is a 3/8″ wide tenon, made by just tapering the crest’s thickness. There’s no tapering top & bottom. The mortise I made by boring a couple of holes, and paring it with a chisel. Then it’s pinned through the post. You could just as easily wedge it from outside post too.
Then going back and making a joined stool was a walk in the park. Red oak stool, white oak seat. On this subject, I’ve been splitting out stock for more of these – which gave me a chance to shoot some videos of the beginning of that process. When I did the youtube series about joined stools last year, I got the idea when I was already underway. So now I’ve backed up to shoot the beginning. They’ll be ready soon. Daniel is coming back as video-editor – he’s broke and wants some money.
I had to make a chair so I could shoot some missing photos for Jennie Alexander’s Make a Chair from a Tree. Red oak with hickory rungs. Hickory bark seat. Megan just sent me the most recent set of corrections, so now I go over them again – then we see where we are. We really are getting closer, you’ll see.
I’m making windsor chairs. And re-reading Nancy Goyne Evans’ Windsor-Chairmaking in America: From Craft Shop to Consumer. Nancy read a staggering amount of period records in her research for her 3 volumes on American Windsor chairs. This is the 3rd volume.
Finishing up work on Jennie Alexander’’s book with Megan Fitzpatrick on JA chairs. Shooting some last-minute missing photos; so making a chair this week to do so.
And reading Claudia Kinmonth’s Irish Country Furniture and Furnishings 1700-2000. In chapter 1, Stools and Chairs, she writes about súgán chairs – what I know of as a ladderback chair, but with a straw (súgán) seat.
As I was looking at those chairs, I thought of our friend Masashi Kutsuwa – and I dug out his book Van Gogh’s Chair –
I can’t read Japanese, but Masashi gave me an English synopsis of his book. It involves Shoji Hamada, “one of the most famous Japanese potters”, Tatsuaki Kuroda, Japan’s first living national treasure woodworker, Soetsu Yanagi (author of The Unknown Craftsman) and a convoluted tale of chairs from Spain that look like a chair painted by a Dutchman in France 75 years earlier. The chair was introduced into Japan by Shoji Hamada in 1963, after his travels in Spain that year. A few years later, (1967) Tatsuaki Kuroda visited the same workshops, recording in photos and film some of the chairmaking process.
Masashi’s book also includes a photo series of making copies of this chair form. In his notes he writes: “I visited Spain in 2015 and met the chairmaker’s family who welcomed Tatsuaki nearly 50 years ago. I also visited the last chairmaking shop in Guadix.
The 1967 film is on youtube – I just re-watched it. Amazing. As far as I can tell, the chairmaker maybe uses 4 tools; a frame saw, a brace & bit, and a knife that he both pushes and pulls (thus not a “drawknife”) – I saw some more tools, but didn’t see him use them; the film isn’t the whole chair-making process I don’t think. The posts are pith-centered (I could see that in Masashi’s book too) and when he split a section to make rungs – he used his knife to split it.
Back to Kinmonth’s book, she writes “Similar designs are also found on the continent, particularly in Spain and Portugal, linking them to a wider Atlantic European tradition. One celebrated version features in Van Gogh’s painting “Bedroom in Arles (1888).” Below is a sketch of the bedroom at Arles.
The súgán chairs also reminded me of a chair I photographed at my friends’ house a few years ago. This chair was bought at Brimfield, the famous Massachusetts antiques fair. Around here, these are usually thought of as being from French Canada – but it certainly has much in common with those other chairs – except the bowed seat rails; particularly the square or rectangular posts and narrow slats. This one has through tenons on the rungs and slats though. So different, but quite similar.
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.
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″.
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 –
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
All of my commute is in this photo, minus about three steps. I have a joined stool cut out, but waiting for the turned parts – some of the wood is still too green for crisp detail at the lathe. So while I wait for that, I thought I’d take a vacation and work on the windsor chairs I’ve been picking away at.
These are Curtis Buchanan’s “democratic” chairs (I’m making one side chair, and one arm chair – I hope) – so shaved, not turned. In the photo above, I bored & reamed a test hole, scribbled inside it with a soft pencil and tried the shaved tenon in the hole. Bumps and high spots get smeared with the graphite, to show you where to shave next.
Once I had the legs’ tenons ready, I reamed the seat. Here, I’m testing the depth – according to the plans Curtis drew up – that stretcher location should be something like 9 3/4″ above (below, really) the seat. This one is for the arm chair version.
Got ’em where I mostly liked them. Then measured for the stretchers. Because I’ve been fumbling around at these chairs, I hadn’t made the stretchers yet. Here, I’m back on the side chair – making its stretchers out of a mix of dry-ish wood and green wood.
Once I got them where I liked them, I put them in the kiln to dry the tenons, and will go back to finishing the arm chair’s seat while those get to the right moisture content.
One reason to see these versus (or in addition to) the ones Curtis already had on youtube is because he has changed things over several versions of making this chair. I think he said he’s done a dozen of them. I saw some things that were either changed, or more detailed in this set of videos.
AND – then there’s Pete Galbert https://vimeo.com/ondemand/galbertfoundations – I can see I’m down a rabbit hole. Pete’s a great teacher, so I’m planning on getting that video series as well – but right now I have to have breakfast, then go light the fire. Or vice-versa.
The other day I wrote about Robin Wood coming to teach at Plymouth CRAFT’s Greenwood Fest – the other “new” instructor is Curtis Buchanan. It’s yet another great pleasure for me to have Curtis come and join us. I met Curtis in 1987 when I was a student in his first class in making Windsor chairs, at Country Workshops.
If you aren’t up-to-speed on who’s who in American Windsor chairmaking, the best Windsors in modern-day America begin with Dave Sawyer of Vermont. It was Dave who taught Curtis back in the early 1980s; and Curtis took what Dave taught him and ran with it. He’s been making chairs now for 35 years or so…and making just the most beautiful chairs you can imagine. He’s taught all over creation; but rarely if ever goes out on the road anymore to work…so it’s an extra treat to get him up to New England.
Part of what Curtis will be doing at the Fest is demonstrating all the steps in making a basic version of one of his fanback chairs. He calls it a “democratic” chair – in that the tool kit is small, and the operations are simple to learn. But don’t think crude – his chairs are graceful and comfortable beyond expectations. I think he said riving tools, drawknife, brace & bit, and a scorp for the seat. Must be a saw in there somewhere…but not much else. I can’t wait to see it happen. He’ll also teach a short session on his 2nd-favorite tool – using the froe. (the drawknife is his first, but we have Pete Galbert repeating some of what he did this year…)
As he’s working, I betcha Curtis will tell some stories too…
And this from Jon Binzen of Fine Woodworking – “Anyone who has met Curtis will know that it’s as much fun to listen to him as it is to watch him work.” See the audio slideshow they put together during one of the sessions FWW did with Curtis. I had posted this before and described him as the happiest woodworker I know. And I still feel that he’s wrong in this audio, where he’s says “I’m not the best…” – Nonsense, he’s the best. – http://www.finewoodworking.com/2014/10/08/curtis-buchanan-windsor-master