Saturday, March 31, 2007

An Unnameable Shape

I recently received a question about the pommel (as I call it) on the seat. The pommel is the sharp arris (a line formed by the meeting of two shapes) that runs between your legs as you sit in the chair. The question was whether there was a purpose for this detail. Now, I am no expert on the history or evolution of the seat shape (See Charles Santori, Nancy Goyne Evans or John Kassay) so I can really only speak from my own interest and experience. In my opinion, the shape of the seat is one of the wonders of chairmaking. Obviously, no single chairmaker walked out to his shop and invented this form before lunch! It is the work of many minds and sensibilities over many versions and years. This is one of the great joys of chairmaking, walking in the shoes of my predecessors and learning their thoughts. To me, the pommel is an aesthetic choice with little or no comfort advantage. It creates an accent that refers to the shape of the human that will sit in it. By mapping a negative image of our bodies onto the seat, we are naturally invited to have a seat! The pommel also serves to draw the eye towards the center of the seat and keep it moving. You'll notice that any successful shape keeps the eye moving, just like a hand following the highs and lows, gathering more information on the shape.
More important than the pommel, is that the sitter has room for their legs on either side of the pommel. If these areas are not properly relieved, it can interrupt the circulation at the back of the legs. I make the pommel with my travisher (another good reason for a flatter travisher profile) and finish it with a curved scraper. I refer to the seat as an unnameable shape because it is really a series of shapes that flow together into a pleasing shape, meeting the our needs for comfort and beauty. By following a clear process, we can achieve a shape that gives no hint of its flat origins, but has an obvious logic all it's own. Truly a marvel.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Leave it to Dave

The photo above shows a couple of wood carriers that I made based on a design by Dave Sawyer. I found the design in the FWW book on bending wood and coveted them long before I met Dave. These wood carriers have already hauled about 16 cord of wood on its way to heating my house. They are a wonderful example of the potential of wood to exceed other materials in workability and strength. Although they weigh only ounces, they can hold more wood than I can lift. Dave speaks of using ash but I made mine out of hickory.
As a cabinetmaker, I learned to cut boards into a variety of shapes and to make the beauty of the grain dance. But wood is more than just pretty. So now I look to bridges builders, bowmakers and instrument makers to understand the utility of wood. When selecting a tree, I am looking for the most boring straight grain available, choosing strength over appearance. I often joke that what I do is caveman woodworking, (usually when the sledge hammers come out) but it is this kind of approach that gets the most from the wood. I suggest that anyone interested in green woodworking make a couple of these, it may just change your idea of what woodworking is, or can be.

The Devil

The photos above are of a chair devil that my friend and fellow chairmaker Rich Pallaria recently gave to me. Rich is going to assist me this year at the Penland School of Craft in North Carolina as we teach a combination class with the blacksmiths about toolmaking (The class is fully enrolled). I was excited to see what Rich had done with the chair devil, which is really just a housed scraper that functions much like a spokeshave. He went against conventional design, which is to use a block of wood of a specific size and to have the handles and blade housing remain similar. This leaves you with either small handles (tiresome to hold and lacking in leverage) or a bulky housing (which obscures the view of the workpiece). As you can see, Rich started with a larger block, to accomodate the handle size, and then reduced the housing area! With the increased leverage and clearer vision, this tool is a pleasure to use. The rosewood sole plate should last a long time. I don't use chair devils much, preferring the finish cut offered by a spokeshave, but there are areas where the wood simply won't shave cleanly (the compression side of bent pieces can be difficult) and the chair devil can really fit the bill. I highly recommend making your own. Drew Langsner has some great instructions on the process and scraper blades can be made from any soft steel or ordered from the catalogues. Once you've made a flat soled chair devil, I assure you, you'll want to make curved ones of all sorts! There are few pleasures in woodworking like seeing a shaving spill from a tool that you made yourself, unless, of course, you have the good fortune of having a friend kind enough to make it for you.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

More Seat Talk

I thought I'd touch on a few more seat carving notions. The first image shows how far I carve the seat with the adze, using the technique that I describe in the earlier posting. You'll probably notice that the holes for the legs are already drilled, and reamed for that matter. I know this is a minor chairmaking controversy but I can say that I've never dropped my adze down the holes, not once! I do actually have my reasons for proceeding in this order. When in the whole of woodworking, do we ever eradicate our reference face, and then measure off of it. By drilling into a flat surface, I ensure that my drilling is accurate and simple. The idea that the holes will interfere with the carving has never been my experience. The only time that I could see this happening is if you are using a travisher or inshave that has such an extreme sweep (far more than needed and regrettably what is most often manufactured) that it can actually be affected by the holes. This is another of my reasons for using a flatter radius on my seat carving implements.
The second photo is proof in the pudding. It shows the seat after using the inshave and travisher. I wait to scrape the seat until after the legs are in it. The whole arguement of drilling first or not is really quite unimportant, either way, four legs WILL hit the floor! Much more important is to push yourself to ask the tool in your hand to leave a better shape and surface. It is the key to gaining speed in the process. Just remember, learn to do it right, then learn to do it fast.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Gluing Up Seats

I have always avoided gluing up seat blanks for my chairs. I figure that the time saved using a single blank and the security of not having a joint in the seat easily made up for the extra expense. But recently I have been using butternut, and the availability of wide pieces is slim. For seats where the grain runs side to side, I have found that I can match the grain so that the joint is virtually invisible and actually gives the seat a more striking appearance.
Anyone who's glued a tabletop has come across the technique of alternating the growth ring direction on the boards. It helps to keep the final piece flat. If you think about the growth rings as seen in cross section (or end grain), they will move towards straightening out. By alternating them, you minimize this tendency versus compounding it. Imagine a panel that curls like a potato chip versus one that has some waves. Well I've found that by using this technique on my chair seats and carefully matching the angle of the grain where the joint is, that the carving "erases the joint"
If you look at the photo of the end grain above, you'll see that I've accentuated the growth rings with a pencil to show their orientation. To make this joint disappear, I try bring the boards together where each of their growth rings is at a similar angle. When this is done correctly, the image that the grain reveals when carved will be seamless. It's as if you've created a new way for the tree to grow! I always arrange the board that will be carved for the deepest part of the seat so that it has the outer part of the tree facing up (growth rings down). This gives a lovely "topographic" look to the rings as they descend into the deepest point. Also, by using a narrower board at the back of the seat, I ensure that the joint is located in a heavily carved area (avoid passing the joint through any future spindle locations) and therefore helping to obscure it. Taking the boards from the same plank to match the color helps in unpainted work You can see the finished results in the bottom photo. Rarely does anyone know that the seat is a glue up and often, once told, they cannot find the joint.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Appropriate Technology

For me, chairs and chairmaking are a means to an end. My real goal is to spend my days in a quiet, dustless shop doing hand work on an object that is beautiful, useful and fun to make. I am a terrible musician, so chairs it is. When was in Manhattan working in cabinet shops, milling planks or plywood while wearing a respirator, eye protection and ear protection for 8 hours or more a day, I decided something had to give. So I rented a small workshop, which I shared with a guitar maker and set out to figure out what I could make that would fit the bill. We each had about an area about 10' X 10'. What could I make in this tiny space? I jealously watched my shopmate using hand tools to make his gorgeous archtop guitars and began to seek out the technology and object that would set me free. For a modern cabinet maker, your chisels and planes come into play on occasion and are often the first foray into handtools, however, power tooling has come far to eliminate their use altogether, especially in the time hungry competitive world of cabinetry. I recall being gently mocked for hand tool use. The big lesson was that the point of hand tools cannot be to compete with power tools on the turf of modern production methods. Like John Henry racing the steam shovel, you can do it, but it'll kill you, or your business, in the end.
This is where the appropriate technology comes in. Choosing technology for romantic reasons, when you're in business, quickly gets old as the bottom line starts aching. The speed with which I can work green wood from a raw state to a finished piece as well as the increase in the strength and flexibility of the piece make get sense. In this way, I am not competing with power tools, they simply don't meet the requirements of the materials. Yes, there is a learning curve. My students carve a seat in a few hours, I do so in around 45 minutes. Couldn't a machine be rigged to do it in less? Maybe. But when I'm done I don't have to sand and most importantly, I am capable of creating new work with a seamlessness that setting up a new jig or programming a new CNC computer might kill. One must fit their own priorities into the equation to learn where the line between romance, power overkill and appropriate technology lies. I don't want to run a factory, I don't want to have employees, I don't want my designs written in stone. Luckily for me, there are enough folks out there who appreciate the difference in quality of a hand made chair to allow me to work with the methods I choose.
On occasion, I do recognize that some part of my process benefits from power use (yes Gerry, it's routing the rocker slots) but more often than not, the rarity of the occasion doesn't justify buying the tool, using valuable shop space to house it, time to maintain and set it up, and the noise and dust that it will create.
A few years ago, Fine Woodworking had a picture of Curtis Buchanan sitting on the porch of his tiny shop shaving spindles. I am suprised by how many of my students have seen this picture and were compelled to seek out the quality of the time spent as much as the quality of the object. One even, kept this picture pinned up in his cubicle, that's right Curtis, you're either a pin up model or a poster child! The limitations imposed by my tiny NYC shop led me to discover chair making and, more importantly, that it is up to me to choose how to spend my time, and no powertool can do that for you.

Friday, March 23, 2007


On to the act of bending. There are a few concepts that might help you when considering bending a piece. It is the heat that allows wood to bend, not the water. The moisture in the wood and the steam act to transfer the heat, try taking a heat gun to a spindle and gently heat an area (be careful not to scorch it!) As you heat, it apply pressure to bend it and you will be able to permanently set a bend (or straighten it!) It takes longer and risks degrading the wood through overdrying, but it works. I like to turn on my steamer and let it heat up for 10 minutes or so before putting in a workpiece (with a center mark for aligning with the form and a string to fish it out). I have found that steaming a green piece in my particular steamer works fine after about 30 minutes in the steamer. Air dried wood may take and hour and I don't recommend steaming for longer than this as you risk degrading the all important outer fiber, and if they go, it all goes.
There are two actions going on in the wood as you bend it. The outer fibers go into expansion and the inner go into compression. You will probably find that wood (even though it will most likely fail on expansion more than compression) likes to stretch more than compress. Somewhere near the middle of the bend is a neutral axis that stays the same. As the bend gets tighter, the wood will reach a point at which it won't compress any more and this neutral point shifts, causing extra pressure on the outer fibers and POP! Any scientists out there should for give my laymans understanding of the actual physic, but it suits for my understanding. Most distortion of the bend will happen on the inner face of the bend and if you look closely, you'll see that the inner side actually becomes thicker. Think of the inner face as a loaded spring looking for a place to release. The outer face, barring any fiber breakage is generally well behaved and can be easy to shave clean later. This brings up a good point. Any wood cut with metal, which means all of it, will reveal this interaction by staining in the steamer. All pieces should be oversized enough to shave clean later. The inner side may act hornery because of the waviness of compressed grain and may scrape easier.
Now the wood is in the steamer. I take this time to set up my form and practice the movements I will use. This walk through will ensure that all of my bending tools are in place. When I take the workpiece out of the steamer, I count on having about 1 minute to get the major bends done (adjustments can happen for 5 or more minutes). I try to move with purpose, not panic.
Practice it until you feel comfortable.
Once I remove the bend from the steamer, I place it in the form and lock it in the center with a peg and wedge. Finally the bending! Pull in a fluid motion, no quick jerks. Your speed shouldn't be too fast for the fibers or to slow for the heat! Only experience will tell. I pull the bend against the form and place a peg to hold it in place, I don't worry about the wedge yet, it is far more important to bend the other half before it cools than to fine tune the first half. This is an easy mistake to make, you'll have plenty of time to noodle around later, get on with it!
So it starts to break! Have a bunch of tacks on hand and at the first sign of a fiber peeling off of the out face, pin it back. Any breaks that run across the workpiece are likely to lead to a total fracture. There are as many different problems to encounter as bends to make. But experience will show that through consistent work, success becomes more likely. I rarely lose a bend. That said, some logs just don't like it! I've had hickory that I could tie in a knot and hickory that breaks when I look at it. Try to be consistent so you can make the right jugdements as to the problem you may be having.
When I am bending a complex curve, like the continuous arm you see in the photo, I will remove the steam pot from the steamer and keep it next to me. When I get to the secondary bends, which have been cooling as I bent the first ones, I will pour the boiling water over the wood. Then as I bend it, I keep a well gloved hand applying pressure on the moment of the bend. I cannot think of a single bend that I've lost since doing it this way.
One last dirty little secret. If the fibers do start to peel away, tack it and then finish the bend. Grab your Gorilla Glue, or any other moisture activated polyglue and smear it into the area as best you can. Wrap the area tightly with celophane tape and behold the miracle! The glue will expand into the fissure and heal it. But of course, this will never happen to you!

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Road to Bending pt.3

Finally to the steambox! There are many ways to make an effective steamer. My choices have been guided by cost, availability and flexibility. My box is simply 3/4" CDX, set on an angle to drain and a Lee Valley steam pot. It is easy to see some sort of magic need for an airtight chamber, but remember this isn't a pressure device, just steam. I have had some pretty leaky cobbled boxes (folks at Williamsburg last year may remember!) and they work fine. I think that it's much more important to focus on sizing the box properly. While the steam pot I use is amazing, I still built my latest steambox to be just large enough to accomodate my largest bend, no more. You can see in the photos that I have a second (unused) tube to the box. I used to have two pots hooked up (I managed to burn the old one out), but have found that one is plenty. I have dowels across the bottom of the interior to support the workpiece and aid in circulation. In the photo of the door you can see the tongue joint that I used on the sides, it works great in this application. although screws, caulk and a butt joint would fit the bill! Steamers are one of those tools that need not be overbuilt, largely because your needs will have you redesigning it from experience soon enough. Two more important points, don't bother to paint or seal the wood and have an easy means of adding water to the pot. A pot like this, even though it shuts off automatically when dry, should be allowed to cool before refilling. So constant monitoring of the water supply will ensure not having any delays in the process. I simply pull the rubber hose out of the end of the aluminum insert to add more. And, oh yeah, always wear gloves when working with steam, it can burn you easier than you think!

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

A Sincere Thanks

I would like to thank the folks who moderate and run the woodworking forums where I have posted my link. They and their members have been courteous, encouraging and patient. I am starting to realize the extent of the value these sites represent. I have spent a lot of time alone in my shop trying to work my way through the problems I encounter. One of the reasons that I love teaching is that it gives me an opportunity to share my passion but also to guide people just like me in avoiding the discouraging pitfalls and confusion I've encountered. These sites are truly a helping community full of great information and inspiration. I only wish I had them when I started, I may have saved myself some time, money and heartache. I have posted links to the sites that have been so helpful to me and hope you'll use them to get access to the variety of information and community they have to offer.

The Road to Bending pt.2

The first bends I made were as an apprentice cabinet maker. I learned to kerf substrates to make them flexible and then laminate them. Later I would make bent laminations with thin strips. That's a lot of work! Don't get me wrong, these techniques have their place and in cabinet work, create great freedom. When I go to prepare my stock for bending, I like to think that I am still doing bent laminations, only now instead of strips of wood, I use years of growth.
I choose fast growth logs for my bends. A careful examination of the endgrain of a ring porous wood will reveal that the early growth (the porous "grainy" wood) is always about the same size. The variation comes in the dense late growth. In bad years, the growth of the late wood may be no more than the early yielding a ratio that is 50/50. I prefer for the late wood to be much greater in proportion. Think about it, which chair would you rather see a 220lb man plunk down it, one made of porous early wood or dense late wood?
Once I have split my stock, I proceed to follow the fiber with my drawknife and shape the piece. This is where you will actually be deciding if your bend will succeed (I am referring to the extreme bends needed for chairs, more subtle bends can probably succeed with planed wood). I never use a handplane to size my bends, the goal is to follow the fibers, even if they bend, NOT to flatten the piece. Once I've followed the fibers on a reference face, I can mark the thickness and rest assured that when I shave the other side, I will be following the fiber line when I get to my mark. It is vital to let the drawknife do its job. I will go into this more later (it's probably the single most important thing to comprehend in making a strong chair, thanx Mr. Sawyer) I always use my bevel up drawknife for this kind of work. I find that it splits the wood away, as opposed to the bevel down which seems to encourage me to try to exert control. Once the knife is in the cut, just pull (skewing and slicing of course!) and let the knife find the fiber line. The beauty of green wood is that with a little practice, it will peel like a banana. The photo is of the dreaded arm bend on a continuous arm. You can see the growth rings where it steps down in size and then the single year that is the outer surface of the bend. I simply try to leave no place for it to fracture, just like a bent lamination. Equal thickness is also vital. The tension of the bend will head immediately to any thin spots and cause a kink if not a break. I always try to have my riskier bends take place so that the outer and inner part of the bend are in the tangential plane. If I told you to take off your belt and wrap it around your hand, you would probably do it by placing the broad face against your hand and wrapping it. To me, this is also the best way to bend the wood (the growth rings are the belt here) without creating undue distortion. I may very well be off on this and I know it can be argued!
Basically, my goal in stock preparation is to create a mini tree, with the surfaces running perfectly parallel to the fibers.
Next, my steamer

Monday, March 19, 2007

The Road to Bending pt.1

I recently got a question about my steamer setup and it got me to thinking about covering the topic of bending wood. As I thought about it, I realized that most of the important action comes long before the steamer gets turned on!
Bending green wood gives chairmaking its creative freedom. I can draw a line on a piece of plywood, cut it out, and bend a piece to shape within minutes. It is truly acrobatic. To get this freedom, there are a few basic techniques to follow, luckily, the bending is built into the nature of the tree.
The strength of a tree depends on its flexibility, the ability to bend in the wind will be the same characteristic that we exploit in bending with steam. To preserve this characteristic, we split the wood. Careful splitting with a froe can produce pieces very close to finish dimension and with the long fibers intact. The froe is a levering tool. The split is guided by driving the froe into a bolt of ring porous hardwood (oak, ash, hickory etc...) and pulling on the handle, which torques the blade. Splitting a bolt into equal halves normally results in a straight split. Proceeding slowly will allow the fibers time to separate, think of pulling apart a stalk of celery. If the desired piece is less than half of the bolt or the split starts running towards one of the sides, you can pull on the larger side and redirect the split. Dave Sawyer has a great way of explaining this. He says that the goal is to equalize the curve that each side has leading to the split. If the curves are the same, the split will run straight. I've found that this can be achieved not only by pulling on the heavy side but by adding more weight to the light side. I do this by placing the heavy side down, with the froe in the split, and putting my weight on the light side (see photo, with strangely disembodied arms). This has the desired effect of equalizing the curves by stressing the heavy side and restraining the light side. Often, I will actually apply a constant force to the froe, not quite enough to run the split, and then pull down on the light side as described. It takes less stress for the wood to split along the fibers, as opposed to breaking them, and when the pressure that I am applying by pulling on the wood is enough to equalize the curves, the split will run start running. This may sound complex but it is simple in practice and vital to both following the fiber line and getting the most out of my logs. Here are a few tips to using the froe
1. The wood will always split easier in the radial plane
2. Try to keep the pieces as square in cross section as possible, the more extreme the rectangle, the more difficult it becomes to direct the stresses effectively
3. Split off any wavy pith wood first, the tensions in wavy wood can throw off your judgement about what is equal mass
4. Split off the sap wood, often weakened by decay, it may be necessary to split it halfway and then flip the bolt and come in from the othe side. Adding mass to the sap wood by pulling on it may help the split run straighter. If it does run out, no big loss, it's waste anyway.
5. Let the wood do the splitting, don't bully it. Wait until the wood responds and then listen. When the noise of fibers separating stops, proceed with more pressure
6. Blame your froe! I am in the process of discovering what a good froe needs to be and the store bought one that I've been using since my antique one broke, ain't it! The blade is too wide and too fat at the top. The pressure it exerts is overwhelming and tough to control. More on this later
I'll be continuing this line of info through the bending process, I hope it's helpful and appreciate feedback

Hew to the line, let the chips fall where they may

This is the setup I like to use to hew my seats. My friend Curtis told me of a similar rig that he uses and I told my friend Rich about it. A few days later, Rich showed up with this elegant design. It is lightweight and allows me to quickly reposition the seat and carve away, without ever having to clamp or bend over! (Richs only mistake was loaning it to me!) As you can see, I only cut out the front of the seat for the carving operation, I've never understood why anyone would cut out the whole seat and then spend time finding ways to hold it. When I am ready to shape the back, I simply cut it out, put the seat in my vise and round it.
Next to the seat setup, you see my adze. It is a homemade number that is light weight and performes beautifully. A few years back when I was teaching a large class, I made about 5 of them and found this one to be my favorite. I got plans for making it from a FWW article many years ago. I made the blade by taking some O-1 tool steel and heating it in my fireplace, banging it into shape and then following the hardening process. Ray Larsen does a great job talking about this in his book "Tool Making for Woodworkers". I recommend it highly. Soon I'll go more indepth into how I make blades, it's not as tough as it sounds.
Dave Sawyer taught me to use an adze properly. It isn't just hacking away. As you can see in the photo, the idea is to make a series of chopping depth cuts, in rows. I start chopping along a centerline perpendicular to the fibers, then chop a row BEHIND the initial one. This allows the unsupported chips to break, making the fishscale pattern. After working my way to the edge of the "bowl", I turn the seat 90 degrees on my handy podium and adjust my swing to take clearing cuts. These cuts follow the weak plane that has been formed by the depth cuts. This leaves a level recessed area. Now that I have this recessed area, the top flat surface of the seat is safely isolated from my chopping and I really go to town. The next chopping sequence is similar but more aggressive as I make my way down to my depth marks. When finished, the surface looks as though it was carved with a gouge (really it was, an adze is simply a swinging gouge with no need of a mallet).
I recommend this process, which may seem slower than just hacking away, because once you gain control and establish a rhythm, it is lightning fast and the accuracy you'll gain means a finer result and less work with the next tools. I only adze for a few minutes, but each time, I aim to leave a better surface and cut closer to my line. Bookmaker Jim Croft, a man who makes books the way they where made in Charlemagnes time, told me that the phrase, "let the chips fall where they may", was origionally "Hew to the line, let the chips fall where they may".
So keep your broom handy and get to chopping!

Sunday, March 18, 2007

A Good Weeks Work

Here are a couple of shots of Gerry Moss, one taken one Monday morning and the other on Friday afternoon. We had a very productive week that was cut a bit short by the blizzard. Gerry and I spent about 3 hours snowblowing and digging our way out of my 300 ft driveway. Good luck driving home Gerry! I'll be posting more photos of Gerrys week in the shop as soon as I figure out how to use Picasa. Gotta run, it's snowing AGAIN!

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The New Tripleback

I finished the new triple back for Gerry Moss yesterday and today it's on its way to St. Louis. I was pleased with the scale of the crest. As I was making the chair, I realized that I wanted it to look both like a sack back with a comb and a combback with a sack bow. I was trying to avoid making the crest look like an add on or afterthought, instead trying to make it part of the whole.
All in all I am happy with it, and more importantly, so is Gerry!

Friday, March 16, 2007

Talking Travishers

Travishers are one of the tools that make me want to make chairs. They are as fun to use as they are effective. There are some simple misunderstandings about travishers that I've come across and the problem isn't just the users, it's the manufacturers.
I make my own travishers. My first one was with a blade from the bargain bin at Garrett Wade and later ones with blades that I make myself (much easier than it sounds). I have three observations that are common to most manufactured travishers. The first is that the handles are wrong, unless you are a barrell or bowl maker. I like the handles to reverse the bend of the bottom. This is a small gripe, but the control gained by having the handles in a comfortable position makes a difference.
My second observation is with the extreme sweep that I see on most travishers. The seat of a windsor chair looks incredibly shapely, but in reality, the curves are relatively flat. The steepest curve on my chairs is at the back of the seat and can be carved out to a final shape by running my travisher at the angle shown in the photo. I know to stop when the travishers profile is imparted to the curve. Most travishers have such a tight radius that it is like trying to achieve a finished surface with a scrub plane. It is important to getting a scraper ready surface to be able to take thin, wide shavings.
My final observation is about the shape of the sole on a travisher. The sole, the wood in front of the blade, should have a gentle radius, curving away from the blade. Unlike modern spokeshaves with flat soles and depth adjusters, the depth of cut on a travisher is dictated by the soles point of contact with the workpiece (old wooden spokeshaves often work this way as well). I used to wonder how I was supposed to adjust the blade on these old tanged tools, I'm not! By tilting the tool in use, I am able to take a deep cut or a fine shaving, it's fantastic.
The one thing about cutting this way is that it is not intuitive. Our natural tendency is to pull out of a cut, or attempt to take a lighter cut by leaning the tool back. The problem with this is that it brings the contact point closer to the blade and actually deepens the cut! Look at the result and you often see tearout at the end of the cut, where the cut gets deep and the shaving is ripped from the seat. It also results in a shaving that is thickest at the end and doesn't like to clear the throat.
I teach folks to use the travisher by stressing "Not cutting". Try running the travisher on the sole without contacting the blade. Go ahead and scrub away, it may seem silly, but this is how it works. As you are scrubbing away, the tool is bound to catch a small shaving. When it does, lean forward onto the sole and you'll notice two things. The blade will dissengage and the shaving will get thinner at the end and spill out the throat! Keep doing this until your instinct changes to tilting the tool forward at the end of each stroke. It is tough to retrain the instinct to pull out of the cut by tilting back, so practice. One thing that might help is to lighten the pressure that you are applying with your thumbs at the back of the tool. You'll notice that the tool will automatically want to roll forward as you do, coming cleanly out of the cut. Just remember, coming out of the cut requires rolling away from the blade on the sole! Control in cutting is as much about the wood that you leave behind as the shaving you take.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Burr Management aka Sharpening

Sharpening is a mystery largely because a sharp edge lives in a world to small for the naked eye to see. We end up checking the results of our efforts on the wood and relying on process because we can't see what is actually going on without magnification.
Besides coming up with a process that works, (for me it generally relies on grinding the shape and then honing the bevel on waterstones) I've found that an understanding of what happens in that microscopic world can have great results in my full sized work.
On that micro level, even the most highly polished and finely shaped edge is really a series of jagged teeth, like a mountain range, made up of space as much as steel. In use, these teeth can break and bend, leaving a dull edge. The finer that I hone my edge, the smaller the teeth become and the less likely they are to break of or bend. It could be said that the sharper the edge is, the sharper it will stay.
The first key to getting the edge to be so sharp is to get the burr (the tiny unsupported edge of metal that bends over as you hone) to fall off on its own. This is done by switching from the front of the bevel to the back as you work your way through the grits of stones. What this does, is to abrade the tiny web of metal that is attaching the burr to the edge. Pretty soon it becomes so thin that the burr will detach. This is a very important opportunity to get an even finer edge. After the burr has fallen off, continue to pull the blade on the finest stone for a few strokes, keeping the bevel flat on the stone. Do the same on the back. The stone should be drying out and the slurry turning into a fine dry paste. This will polish the edge and burnish it to a higher grit than the stone is rated for. The edge should be ready to cut the end grain of a pine board to test for sharpness.
Often, after using a blade for a while, I'll notice a decline in the edges performance. It may be that the edge is dull only because those tiny teeth have deformed and seem to form another burr. So I go back to my finest stones and repeat the process of dropping the burr. It's a real time and metal saver to realize that you may still be able to keep the edge sharp just by managing the burr. Of course, at some point (sooner than we like to think!) the edge isn't just deformed, it's worn off, and the process starts over.
Choosing the correct geometry for the intended use will also extend the usefullness of an edge. More on this and microbevels soon.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Learning to Learn, Learning to Teach

I got my computer back today, with my new hard drive and without all my information! I guess I still have a lot to learn about computers and how often one should back up their work!
As I've been working with Gerry Moss through the parts making phase of his chair, I've been thinking a lot about an experience that I had back in the city. It's amazing how much a five minute experience can affect the way one sees things.
I was fresh to New York and fresh on a crew of cabinetmakers installing a large library. One of the crew showed me how to read a spirit level, and much more. I know, it's simple, when the bubble is in between the two lines, it's level. So I thought. First he set the level down on the piece that we were working on and asked me which side was higher. I looked at the bubble and told him to make the adjustment that would bring the bubble between the lines. He then asked me again, which side was higher. Now the bubble was inbetween the lines, so I had to look closer to see which line it was nearer to. Again I told him to raise one side, just a hair. Surely it was level. He then asked me again, which side was higher. So I looked again, closer, and sure enough, I could barely see a difference, but it was there. Again we raised one side and again he asked me which side was higher and I looked at the bubble and there was literally no space on either side of the bubble, it was barely touching both lines. I declared it level and he didn't even check, he just agreed.
Ever since that experience, I've come to understand the learning process and the teaching process as part of the same thing. It's all about asking questions. I still refine my skills and ask my students to do the same by posing the questions that require a deeper look and hopefully a deeper understanding. And the most important lesson that I learned that day is that, in the end, I am all responsible for the final answer to the question "Is it done?" It is that responsibility that has driven me ever since.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

New student, New Chair

This week I'll be working with a new student, Gerry Moss. Gerry has asked me to also make a chair for him so he'll go home with a pair. What you see here is a sackback with a combback crest. I designed the crest last week, it took two versions until I was happy with it. The first was a bit too small, I think that the key to this chair is making the crest on top look integral to the design and not just an add on. As you can see, even though I generally draw new chairs, I will often mock them up to visualize the real deal. Three dimensions always hold big suprises and it's worth working to see it before commiting. I'll post more images of the process as Gerry and I make our way. A special thanx to my pal Rich for letting me use his computer.

Running with the Sap

Well, my computer is still being repaired, so I have retreated into the world that I understand. Making syrup and making spindles. I've been looking forward to this day since the sap stopped running last year! I love making maple syrup, it gives me an excuse to get outside during a time of year that would otherwise just be a transition time from dirty snow to mud. The other day when I made a small test batch, Sue held the jar of still warm amber syrup and said that it was "like holding the heart of the tree". Standing in the woods, checking my buckets (I have 28 this year, should be enough for about 5 or 6 gallons!) I love the barren stillness. It's quite a feeling to step into the shop and chuck a piece of maple in the lathe throw a scrap in the fire and realize I'd be lost without wood.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Cabinet Scrapers pt. 2

There is no snappy photo today because my computer is in the shop and there is only so much that I can do here at the library!
Back to the cabinet scraper. Now you've filed and honed the edge square and sharp and turned a tiny burr. I'll say once more, TINY burr. This is the most common problem I've seen students have with scrapers. A large burr will cut well for about 2 strokes and then break off, leaving a dull jagged edge. How do you know if the burr is too large? Can you feel it without concentrating?, then it's too large.
Once you feel that the burr is correctly formed, take the scraper to the wood and practice not cutting. Yes NOT cutting! As with any tool, it is easy to be distracted by our human desire to see the thing cut wood. So start by holding the blade perpendicular to the surface and place your hands around the sides and your thumbs together at the bottom of the back. I like for my thumbs to touch each other and the surface of the wood. They provide all of the dampening and control. Push the blade forward along the wood. It should slide easily as long as you aren't leaning forward into the cut. Do this a few times. Then lean forward into the cut slightly, and I mean a degree or two. Does it still slide? If it does, lean another couple of degrees forward and push. At some point, the burr will catch and you will feel huge resistance. This is the angle at which the tool should lean forward during use. The common mistake is to lessen the resistance by leaning too far forward, which scratches the surface and destroys the burr quickly. If you have any trouble in finding the correct cutting angle for your burr, simply return to the "perpendicular not cutting" position and do the process again. Please let me know how this technique adds up against you're previous experience. More on actual scraping technique soon

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Cabinet Scrapers, Common Problems and Cures

Cabinet scrapers are one of my favorite tools. Once you get them down, you will do things faster and with a finer finish than you ever expected! Which brings me to the first problem in learning to use them, What to expect? As a self taught craftsman, I slowly learned over years of effort the real potential of the scraper. At first, I made some dust, then some scratches, then some shavings and finally outright carving. As I worked, the mystery of why it worked sometimes and not others gave way to understanding, and as with most things it ends up being pretty simple.
The first rule is to expect shavings, not dusty little ones, big plane shaving type curls. To understand the basics of scrapers, look to Bruce Hoadleys book "Understanding Wood", it is a wealth of good info, but it won't tell you what you're doing wrong. From my trials teaching, I hope to peg a few of the problems you're having.
A major problem is rounding the edge too much to turn a burr. The process of stoning the scraper to a mirror finish on the face and edge and a clean 90 degree angle where they meet is full of potential misteps. As a test, try filing the edge flat and square to the side and then take it directly to the wood. Hold it perpendicular to the surface and gently push forward while leaning it towards the direction of the cut (just a little bit forward, more on this later) It will cut beautifully. It will also leave a lot of telltale scratches that we try to avoid by honing, but at least you can see what a sharp edge will do. If this is a new result to you than you know that you need to work on honing a sharp square edge. Try holding a square edged block of wood next to the scraper as you run it on the stones. And switch between honing the face and the edge. Be critical, look carefully at the edge that you've created. Is it geometrically clean and polished? The edge should already feel sharp and take a small shaving without even turning a burr.
Once you have this edge, the next step is to turn the burr. This is a very likely place for your troubles to continue. I start by work hardening (compressing the metal and hardening it) the edge and pointing the burr. I do this by laying the scraper flat on my bench and running my burnisher (could be a screwdriver handle or anything harder than the scraper) flat along the face. A little oil on the burnisher will help. Now a tiny (and I mean tiny) burr has been formed and is pointing straight up along the edge. Now I hold the scraper in one hand and rub the burnisher (held perpendicular to the face) along the edge. Do this about 3 times and the burr will now point toward the face of the scraper. Now angle the burnisher, slightly and run it along the edge again. What I am getting at is that the burr should be tiny (much stronger and resistant to breaking) and barely angled. Most of the problems I've seen in burr turning are attributed to rolling the burnisher way to far. You don't need to end up at a 30 or 45 degree angle, 5 degrees will do. You'll see why when I talk about using the scraper next posting.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Milk Paint pt.3

One of my favorite adages is "An expert is someone who's made every mistake in a given field". I may not have made all the finishing mistakes, but I've made enough! Milk paint is the simplest of finishes as long as you want from it what it wants to give. When you start insisting on different results is when the trouble starts. I have always strived for a subtle mottled finish that has a warmth that begs to be touched and seems as natural as the wood itself. Not an imitation of wood, but an enhancement.
This brings me to the last steps in my painting process. After the paint has dried thoroughly, I rub it with a grey scotchbrite pad to cut the grit on the surface. Be careful around the edges, the same pressure that barely affects a flat surface will burn through the paint on the edges exposing the wood underneath. A little of this looks nice and will certainly increase with use, but I like to leave it up to my clients to do this. Be careful on softwood seats, light rubbing with a worn scotchbrite will avoid leaving scratches. I rub and rub and rub and rub. When I am tired of the scotchbrite, I switch to 0000 steel wool and put on my respirator. The steel wool will bring the paint up to a lovely sheen. I am careful to eveny rub the deck at the back of the seat, the spindles are natural barriers to being thorough and require extra care.
Once I am happy with the overall finish, I ask myself the all important question, "Am I ready for oil?"
The oil is the point of no return. The milk paint will not stick to an oiled surface, any further paint work will require scraping back to bare wood and starting over. I have scraped many a seat in persuit of a fine finish. If you have a question about how the paint will look with oil on it but are not willing to commit, try applying some denatured alcohol. This will give a good idea of what you will get with the oil.
I mix 2 parts of boiled linseed oil, 1 part spar varnish and 1 part mineral spirits and apply liberally. Let it soak in and reapply to any parts that look dry. After about 30 minutes, or before it gets too tacky to remove, wipe off all the oil. Then wipe it off again, and 30 minutes later wipe it off again. Any oil left on the surface will leave shiny "hot spots" that look terrible and are near impossible to get rid of. The next day, another coat can be applied, but won't soak in as much so there is no need to be so liberal in applying. Subsequent coats are the same.
There is no magic to the oil mix. It must meet a few simple requirements. It must soak in (hence the thinning with mineral spirits), it must build up and dry (hence the spar varnish) and it must be able to be applied without drying too quickly (hence the linseed oil). The spar varnish also adds water resistance. I always tell my clients that the 4 coats that I apply are tender in the first few months but in time will gain a great resistance to water and wear. Later I'll touch on my techniques for layering colors.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

More on Sharpening Turning Tools

I had a few questions from a reader that coincided with some info that I wanted to focus on soon anyway, so here goes. Sharpening lathe tools is a different game than most other tools. A few years ago when I taught a turning class with Dave Hout at John C. Campbell, I was shocked to see Dave walk in with his bag of turning tools, all banging around and then dump them out on the table. Dave is a turner, a real turner and I came to learn that turners go straight from the grinder to the lathe, so why bother babying your tools if you're going to grind them anyway!
I should say that I am a turner by necessity and have worked mainly to meet my needs at the lathe as a chairmaker. There are certainly those who know a great deal about turning, like Dave Hout and many have examined the issues more deeply than myself. My goals at the lathe are simply to make the most fluid turnings, as fast and perfectly as I can. I also turn without sanding which is what forces me to sharpen somewhat differently than some turners.
As I stated before, lathe tools need to be sharpened often and have the correct geometry. Correct geometry in this case means that there is no rounding over of the edge. At worst, the bevel can be flat (like a chisel), but if it rounds over, it becomes harder to engage the wood. So the hollow ground left by the grinder gives the best results because the actual edge is so easily introduced to the wood, giving control. It isn't that the edge is sharper, it's the geometry. Under magnification, any edge is seen to be made up of tiny teeth. The grit of the abrasive determines the size of the teeth, grinder (large) through to 10,000 grit stone (fine). The large teeth left by the grinder will break off and dull more easily, which is no problem because of the ease of sharpening on the grinder. The smaller teeth left by honing will leave a smoother surface and stay actually sharper but as soon as they do dull, the edge will gently round and make cutting more difficult. If you can accept the slightly coarser surface left by a tool that has only met the grinder, it is a fine way to always have the best geometry. My experience with this is limited to my parting tool (which I grind and then push into a softwood block to knock off the burr)
My solution to the problem is to grind often and hone minimally. I allow the smallest of flat to appear (see the photo of the gouge) and am quick to grind it away and hone again. Yes, you burn through the steel quicker but the turnings and the ease you will have making them will make up for it. I return to my finest stones often. Sometimes, you will find that the actual edge and geometry are correct, but those tiny teeth have bent over in use. A quick touch up on a fine stone will point the teeth in the correct direction and compress the metal making it harder. I return my skew to the stone after every leg and take a few strokes. The extent of my ability as a turner is limited by the condition of my tools, and I have seen the same in my students. The glassy finish and control are worth spending as much time sharpening as turning. The cruel joke of turning is that as you are learning, you will use the tools for much longer to achieve good results, meaning they are dulled more often in the process. I use my skew for only a few moments per leg, and when the leg is done, return it to the stone. But like I said, I'm a chairmaker and hope I haven't made any of you turners out there cringe!

Turning Tips Unplugged pt.2

This is a picture of Blacksmith Marc Maiorana in my class at the Penland School in North Carolina. Marc is a fantastic blacksmith. He and I found so much common ground that we've created a blacksmith/greenwoodworking/toolmaking class that we'll be teaching at Penland this summer.
A few more tips to improve you're turning while the lathe is unplugged. Of course I have to talk about sharpening! Imagine if I laid out 10 boards, each 10 feet long and I handed you a razor sharp carving gouge. Then I asked you to carve singe line down the length of each board. Would the gouge be razor sharp at the end? Now think of the piece spinning in the lathe. How quickly would you travel the same 100 feet?
For a turning tool to be controllable, it is vital that it's edge not only be sharp but geometrically correct. By riding on the bevel at all times, turning becomes stable and fluid. The problem comes when the tool dulls and rounds ever so slightly. Then in order to engage the cutting edge, one lifts off of the safety of the bevel and CATCH! The problem is compounded by the fact that a dull tool cannot take a light cut, so by the time you do get the cutting edge to engage, the size of the cut is overwhelming and you lose control. Which brings me to the next topic,
Quit bullying the tool! It is more common to think that we should squeeze the tool to death rather than go sharpen it. The problem is that as we tense up we lose our ability to respond with any sensitivity. It is also exhausting! I show my students, that just two fingers at the back of the handle can control the cut. Hold the tool like a bird, just firm enough so it can't fly away. Remember, the tool rest is a fulcrum and the reason we have those long lathe tools is to benefit from the leverage it gives us. Anyone who has tried turning with the tool rest too far away can attest to that!
A last thought for the day is to recognize the importance of our body's role in turning. Turning is a dance, you can't stand in one place. It's vital that you keep your knees bent and practice moving your body in a way that will allow the tool to do it's job. I take a tip from the Japanese here, always move towards stability. Our tendency is to start cutting what is right in front of us as we stand balanced and then as the cut proceeds away from us, we reach away, falling out of balance. If you place yourself in the position that you will be at the end of a cut, and then shift your body to where the cut begins, you will be moving towards balance and a more fluid cut. I like to keep my elbows in and the back of the handle touching my body whenever possible, benefitting from the stability of my whole mass. Get used to moving more than you expect.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Chair Design, You're Sitting in It

Designing a chair is a pandora's box of problems and ideas. The main problems we face, besides building a wood platform 18 inches off of the floor, is to come to understand the requirements of the human body at rest. We are all different and no single chair can be perfect for everyone, so we are already lowering our standards from ideal to servicable. The good news is, we have been sitting in an imperfect and ergonomically incorrect chair our whole lives. My friend Galen Cranz, author of "The Chair" states the one truth that I count on, "the best position is the next position". One of the best qualities of a windsor chair is that it allows the sitter to shift into many different positions maintaining comfort and avoiding fatigue. I try to judge each chair that I make by the ability to be comfortable for long periods, not just the initial impression. Over time, it becomes apparent whether a chair is comfortable. Pay attention the next time you are in a restaurant, is the chair that you're in comfortable? Watch your dining companions, are they slouching to attain balance or fidgeting to be comfortable? This is a great testing ground. I love to watch my dinner guests sit for hours in my chairs as they take on different postures. A chair that holds you in one position soon becomes a torture device, think of airplane and car seats.
Probably the best place to start in design is to find a chair that you like and work from the basic measurements to create a drawing or mock-up in the style that you desire. Quick and dirty is a good rule of thumb, I use 1/2 inch flexible copper pipe to try new bends for spindles and dummy legs that can jam into any seat. Once you have the mock-up together, live with it. Put it at the table or in the living room and use it, not when you're thinking about chair design but when you're thinking about eating, reading or watching a movie. I'll be designing a rocker in the rodback style over the next couple of weeks and will show the process and address the issues as I come across them. So sit back and relax.

Turning Tips Unplugged

Turning is a skill that takes a great deal of practice to do consistently. The good news is that there are many things that can be done to help even before you turn on the machine. One is lighting. I like to use a raking light, which is simply a light off to the side of the lathe. A raking light casts shadows on inconsistencies of shape and makes the condition of the surface easier to see. Another consideration should be the condition of the tool rest. It's a cruel joke that early in your experience, you are more likely to "catch" a tool and have it ding up your tool rest, making fluid cuts even more difficult! Take a few minutes to file and smooth your tool rest. A good waxing also goes a long way, I always keep a block of paraffin and a scotchbrite pad (to smooth the wax) handy.
Having trouble with a tool not cutting and all of a sudden grabbing a huge bite? Turn off the lathe, and check to see if there is any compressed wood on the bevel of your tool. It's enough to keep you from the cutting edge until it's too late and you lose control. Clean off the junk on your finest stone or buffer. Green wood especially loves to build up on a tool this way.
One last pointer is to have a plan, which is different from just a pattern. As you see in the picture, I have roughed out a turning, carefully locating all of the major diameters and shapes. This is the beginning of a series of tasks that I do in the same order every time I turn. Think about it like driving to the grocery store. If you go the same way all the time, preferrably the fastest route, you will immediately notice a wrong turn or where the potholes are. And if you are like me, there are many potholes along the way! By first roughing out the entire piece, I have a much easier time ensuring that all of the elements are present and correctly spaced. As you can see, they are rough, but they are there. I never start by finishing any one part before locating the others. As an art student, I took note that Picasso finished the eyelashes on a portrait before he detailed where the body was! I was no Picasso then and I am no Picasso now. So unplug your lathe and become a better turner!

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Milk Paint pt.2

This is a photo of a chair that my neighbor Bob Brown bought from me a number of years ago. Bobby is a hay farmer and cuts firewood. Bobby is in his seventies and has a bad back (he needs a supportive chair) and as I help him unload our firewood, I am always fascinated by his hands. They are farmers hands, the size of a baseball mitt and rougher than anything they touch. When I set out to make a chair for him, I decided that the hands on his chair should reflect the man, so I designed it with extra large knuckles, forgoing any tight spots that his fingers couldn't reach. Every night, Bobby sits in his chair and as you can see, rubs those knuckles. There are few things that make me swell with pride like thinking of Bobby in this chair.
On to applying milk paint. In the earlier post I addressed the mixing process, so now we have a cup of premium creamy paint. Next is thinning the paint to apply it. For most solid color chairs or undercoats, this is probably a fine ratio. Before applying the paint, make sure that the wood is clean and free of oils. Milk paint dries so fast that it creates a dramatic surface tension, if the surface is contaminated, the paint bond can break. I actually heat pine seats with a heat gun (liquefying the surface sap) and rinse it with naptha (wear gloves and ventilate well). In first coat of paint on a pine seat I also use the extra bond product sold by the Milk Paint companies, following the directions on the bottle. When brushing on the paint, I am careful to always paint one part at a time and to work back into the wet edge of the paint. Milk paint dries so fast that returning to an area that has started to dry can result in having it build up (as opposed to blend in) and shift colors! The first coat will look pretty rough and soak in quickly. Later coats will go on smoother. A quick tip is that if you aren't looking at it, you aren't painting it. To paint the inside of legs or around the turnings, follow the brush will your eyes. Milk paint doesn't just flow into every little spot, you have to put it there. It's critical that you let the paint dry thoroughly in between coats, 6 hours or overnight will do. I know, it seems dry after a few minutes, but the paint is so soft still that recoating it will desolve the previous layer and cause potential adhesion issues. In between coats, you might want to check for areas of raised grain. After letting the paint harden, these areas are easily sanded. I don't burnish the chair inbetween coats, which might cause adhesion issues. Just let it harden and paint it again. More on burnishing and oiling later.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Clean it up!

This is an image of Virginia Chairmaker Chuck Harris, back in the old shop and using Pat Edwards Old Brown Glue. Chuck has made a few chairs with me and has been indispensable in finishing the new shop. After the hard work of moving the big beams around, I had managed to injure my shoulder and come down with a terrible cold. Chuck came to the rescue and helped me and Glenn Palmieri, Rich Pallaria and Bill Whalen finish out all the exterior work. Thanx Guys.
A while back, as I was gluing up an undercarraige, something dawned on me. I looked at the burnished tenon, coated in pine sap (from the fitting and reaming process) and realized that I was not even following the basic directions on every bottle of glue! Free of dirt and oil. That is what a surface must be to get proper adhesion. When would you ever take two pieces of wood and, as prep for gluing, compress the fibers (burnishing) and rub it with a material that won't bond (pine sap)? So now, I take an extra minute to clean the tenons with denatured alcohol, which cleans off the sap and raises the grain enough to allow glue to bond. This goes for all of the other joints as well. Think about how much handling the pieces take in the process of hand fitting and how much contamination the surface has! Maybe it doesn't make that much difference, or any at all, but it takes no time and after all the work that has gone into the chair prior to gluing, I am willing to try.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Milk Paint Primer

To talk about milk paint, the first thing to address is the question "How can you paint that beautiful wood?!" The basic idea that gives the windsor it's flexibility and durability is that the woods are chosen for strength over beauty. By splitting the wood instead of sawing it, we ensure strength and a minimal amount of wave in the grain. Also, by choosing different woods for different parts, the painting brings it all together and draws attention to the silhouette, not the grain. It becomes a line drawing in 3-D. The beauty of milk paint is that when its done well, it holds tight enough to the wood that it can accentuate its "woodness" that invites the touch and guides the eye. I have been making unpainted chairs lately with cherry, butternut and oak. These chairs require a different design, because of the visual punch of the woodgrain, but that's for another time.

But back to milk paint. I describe milk paint to my clients as a thin layer of pigmented plaster. It really is just milk, lime and pigment. If you've ever tried to put a tack in a plaster wall, you know how tough plaster is! It effectively becomes limestone again. It is an incredibly easy paint to work with if you want the rough look of a primitive or aged piece. The problems come when you start asking more of the finish. One of my most revered adages is that you can't rush a finish, and it applies here. The companies that sell milk paint are expecting you to want the rough look, so the instructions that they include are geared towards that. I find the paint way too thick to use this way. A quick note about the different companies. I will mention the Old Fashioned Milk Paint Company and the Real Milk Paint Company. I use the product from both companies depending on the desired color or result. If I want a layering of colors that I can burnish to a medium sheen, I use the Old Fashioned Milk Paint. Honestly, their product is not as easy to use or as tough a finish and their colors are not as subtle (my opinion) but there is one major advantage that has me using their product. Their paint isn't as tough, which means that it will burnish to a higher sheen and layer better. The Real Milk Paint Company produces the milk paint that we've all heard of, tough as nails and matte as construction paper. I love their colors, the peacock is truly gorgeous. But you can only burnish it to a low sheen and because it covers so well, layering and getting the mottled look is not easy. I used the Real Milk Paint Company when I want a single color and a softer sheen (also the Real Milk Paint Product will last for weeks once mixed). My mixing process is similar for both, though I've had many more issues with the Old Fashioned Paint.
I tend to mix the paint so that it is thin enough to filter through a cone shaped paper filter that you can get at the hardware store. I mix one part paint to 3 parts water and stir or shake it. One important note, different colors may take less water, such as yellows and blues. If you are starting out with milk paint, stick to the greens, reds and blacks. After mixing, let the paint sit for 1/2 hour or so (this is where the patience begins) and then mix again. Now let it sit another hour or so. You'll notice that the top has a foamy crust and the bottom a sludge. I don't want this, I want the creamy fine paint in the middle. So don't stir it up, just tilt the cup and watch as the fine paint slides out from under the crusty foam and pour it into the filter. Let the paint filter through as it will, maybe tap the filter but don't try to force the paint through. Yes, you are going to throw out a lot of paint, believe me, you don't want it. Now you should have a cup of premium paint that only needs thinning to desired consistency. I'll go into applying it next.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Good Enough for Chair Work?

The construction of a windsor chair offers a great deal of opportunity for, shall we say, imperfect construction. The flexibility of the wood and the genius of the design (developed over centuries) can make a series of imperfect parts and joints add up to one nice chair. This is one of the enticing things about first learning to make chairs. They are complex enough without throwing "perfection" into the mix. This is all fine, as long as it doesn't develop into bad habits that become limitations. I have seen all sorts of techniques that work, but that in my view have no future. By this, I mean, that while they may serve the purpose for which they are being employed, they will not serve to advance ones skills, abilities or understanding.
The picture that I've posted is of the drilling set up that I use for all of my mortises into legs, arms etc... It's a good example of a technique that has grown with my abilities and designs. The V notched holders in the vise keep the workpiece perfectly parallel to the bench top on which rests my angle tool, square, and mirrors. By positioning myself during drilling so that I can glance from one mirror to the other, I drill with great accuracy. Now why be so accurate?
In my early work with undercarraiges, I began to use this set up even though it may have seemed like overkill. I can hear the voices now, "I just set up a bevel gauge and shoot!" Maybe so, but now, when I am drilling the mortises for my rodback duckbill joints, where I drill the shoulder with a forstner bit and the mortise will a bradpoint and both must align "perfectly", I am glad that I didn't stop at "good enough". The minute that it takes me to set up is well worth the accuracy gained and the advances in skill and design that come with it. I like to remind myself that another minute spent making a better chair is insignifigant in view of the centuries that I hope that the chair will endure.

Woodworking Years

Pictured here is my wife Sue, Director of the Western Sullivan Public Libraries and Chairnotes Covergirl. Well, Sue and I had to cancel our vacation to Florida. We were supposed to soak up the sun for a week but she has a terrible sinus infection AND the flu, so we are going to stay put. Bad for us, good for the blog! A funny thing keeps happening to me. As different people find me through my work, they come to find that I am younger than they expect. I'm 37 and feel like I've earned it! I'm beginning to think that being a woodworker is akin to living in reverse dog years. Not such a bad thing when you think about it, but in reality, put me in a room full of teenagers and they look at me like I'm way past my prime. According to Curtis Buchanan, a woodworker peaks in his 60's, full of knowledge and experience and still capable of dexterity. I don't know if this is true, but I can say that many of my students in this age group have an energy and vitality that I hope to maintain myself. Maybe there is something to living in woodworking years.