Thursday, November 29, 2007

A Good Brown

I have been trying to come up with a way to paint a chair brown without it looking flat. I have a beautiful mahogany railing in my house that served as my inspiration. I actually had to make some pieces to complete the rail and I didn't have any mahogany so I used poplar and my milk paint to make a solid approximation. Here is a photo of the latest chair stretcher that I painted this way.

It is a three coat recipe. The first coat is mustard yellow, that's right yellow, bear with me. The next coat is 2 parts barn red and 1 part mustard. The third coat, mixed very thin is 4 parts federal blue, 1 part barn red, 2 parts mustard, and 3 parts black. It is importand to let the coats dry thoroughly. The last coat should be applied thin like a stain. If it looks too thin, just plan to apply a second coat. It may take some experimentation, but the payoff is worth it. I highly recommend making samples before jumping onto a chair, and if you change the recipe for the better, let me know!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Frankenchair brought to Life

Here is a photo of the finished prototype of my "frankenchair". I am pleased with the new techniques, designs and finish that I tried with it. In trying to simplify the joinery around the armpost and crest, I found the opportunity to play with some new shapes and ideas about how these things go together.

I wanted to give the side posts a lighter more flexible feeling, without looking flimsy. After deciding to use a tapered tenon into the crest, I searched for a precedent. I couldn't find much and realized that the top is really a hybrid of the rod back and the fan back. I plan to make one like it with a rod back or birdcage top.

Below is an image of the unpainted chair from above. It shows the shaping of the crest rail that echoes the arms. I will post images of the finish, a variation on the black on red and the recipe for mixing the paint.

New Arm

Here is a photo of the new arm that I put on my latest chair. It satisfies a desire that I have had for years, which is to have a gentle concavity on the top of the arm. It echos the other curves of the chair and gives a lot of life to the overall design. I'll be posting the finished chair soon as well as a new finish recipe that I am excited about.

To make the arm, I simply turned a round blank, located and made the joinery and finally cut out the top. The simplicity of making it tells me that something is going right. I often look at the ease of the process that I am using for confirmation. If something that I am doing seems overly complex, risky or difficult, it is a red flag that I haven't solved my problems completely or that my goals are not in keeping with the best use of the wood.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Sap Issues

Pine has a lot of good qualities for chairmaking, it grows into large trees quickly, carves beautifully and has beautiful grain. However, when I was learning to paint chairs, it presented a great difficulty. The abundance of sticky sap that resides in pine does not like to be painted, and often the paint will chip off from the sap filled pores during the burnishing process, revealing little white patches in my black seats! This is problem really comes to light because I prefer to burnish hard to get a high sheen. For those content with a matte finish, this may be a non issue. Here is a photo of a nasty pitch pocket that I came across while making the prototype from my recent "Frankenchair". I chose this piece of pine knowing that it would be going into an experimental chair.

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The problem comes from milk paints quick drying. This creates a dramatic surface tension that can form a weak bond to dirty or sappy wood. The photo above shows the sap pocket after heating with a heat gun to liquefy the surface sap. Next I rinse the seat with naptha twice (wear gloves!) The photo below shows the seat after rinsing.

Finally I stain the seat with a water based walnut stain, which raises the grain. As you can see, the stain covered the sappy area easily and gives me confidence that the paint will hold as well. I do use extra-bond in the first coat on the seat, sort of a belt and suspenders approach. Subsequent coats are plain milk paint. Following this process has yielded me trouble free results for years, regardless of the sap content of the seat.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Seat Grain

When I first started making chairs, I notice that my scraping and sanding process would sometimes allow the grain of the pine to show through nicely. The problem was that I couldn't control it. So I set about finding the right steps to take to show the grain.

Here is a photo of a newly scraped seat. You can see that I've wet part of it and the grain has raised. When scraping the seat, the denser part of the growth rings cuts cleanly while the softer wood compresses just a bit. Later when the paint hits it, the softer wood absorbs the moisture and pops up, revealing the grain. That's how I understand it, now to control it.

To get consistent results requires a very sharp and finely honed scraper. No scratchy file marks or ragged burrs. I scrape the chair as though sandpaper will never touch it (it barely does). Using a raking light and moving the chair around will help you to see any problem areas and running the palm of your hand to feel the surface helps too.

Once the surface looks perfectly smooth and shaped, I sand very lightly with 220 grit. Next, I like to use a walnut hull stain to raise the seat grain. It shows any unsightly problems. If there is a trouble area, I let the seat dry and rescrape and repeat the sanding and staining. Once the grain is raised and I like the results, I move on to painting. I let the first coat dry hard and then sand very lightly with 220 grit again. This should cut through the high spots and give a clear vision of the grain that will be visible. Oversanding at this point will result is smooth patternless areas in the final seat. Then I finish painting the chair, no more sanding.

I suppose the best way to gain experience with this technique is to do sample and eliminate the sanding altogether. This way you will see the results of your scraping technique and the phenomenon of the compressed/raised grain. The sanding is really just to knock down fuzz and can be introduced later.

Saturday, November 17, 2007


Here is a photo of the sack back that I rubbed down the other day. I wanted to show the change in surface that occurs after using the gray scotchbrite pad to burnish the paint. As you can see, it completely knocks down the roughness and leaves a nice sheen. A rubbing with 0000 steel wool will finish it off and get it ready for oiling.

One of my favorite aspect of making chairs by hand is the various textures that naturally find their way into the piece. As I've said before, I prefer to use sandpaper only for knocking down grain that has been raised by scraping and because I do little scraping, most of the surfaces are straight off of the sharp edge of my tools. While painting the chair unites the silhouette, as you get closer to the piece, the various surfaces start to shown themselves.

I work diligently with my scraper to finish the seat pan so that the grain will shown and not tool marks. Here is the edge of the seat.

The bow is a place where I like the spokeshaved facets to give a muscular stringy look, building confidence and awareness of the bows role in supporting weight.

As important as the tool marks are in describing shapes, their absence is equally important when flat is called for. I like light to strike the top of the hand, light it up and then glance off as I keep moving.

In more machine based work, surface quality is often dictated when removing the machine marks. This most often points to sandpaper and the homogenous surface that it leaves. Yes it's all beautifully smooth but the lack of variation can be stifling. While you may be invited to touch it in one spot, that is where the connection ends. The various woods and shapes in a chair offer a great opportunity to explore surface as a means of describing the shape and role of the piece.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

More Painting

Here are a couple of sack backs that I am painting for a client. They are shown with the first coat which is a brown that I use as an undercoat when painting chairs blue or in this case blue/green. It is a stage in the painting process that looks awful. The color is muted and dull, but under the subsequent coats it will add a rich warmth that makes it well worth the trouble.

I have described my mixing process in other postings, but I think that it is worth showing a little more in depth. I prefer to strain the clumps and impurities out of the milk paint to achieve the smoothest paint possible. In the photo above, you can see that after mixing the paint and letting it sit for an hour, I can pour off the smooth paint through the filter while the foam stays in the cup. I mix my paint differently depending on the color, the one rule of thumb being, it must be just thin enough to pass through the filter. Then I can always add water to thin it more if desired. I often use thin paint, preferring to build it up in layers creating a more "even uneven" finish. If the paints gathers in large waterspots on the surface, it is too thin.

As you can see in the photo above, I paint it on thin, just letting the tooth of the previous coat pull the paint off the brush. Two coats like this and then the rub down and oiling. I'll post the finished product later.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Yard Sale Test

The other morning I awoke to this. As beautiful as it was, it confirmed that the next 4 months are going to be about all about firewood. By the afternoon, it was gone.

I was looking through a woodworking magazine the other morning. I like to show the projects to Sue and ask her to put them to the "yard sale test". This simply means to answer whether you would buy or even inquire to buy the finished piece at a yard sale. Of course I understand that there is no accounting for taste, we are all different. I know people who don't like anything made of wood! The point of the "yardsale test" is to look beyond the pretty wood or the effort and skill that went into a piece and to question whether it is something that you would want to live with. Would it speak to you across a yard full of plastic kids toys and exercise equipment?

Designing with wood is a challenge. It is an evershifting material that grows with all sorts of surprises. Using wood in a way that reconciles its strength, beauty and workability can be hard enough, but in the end there must be some tough questions about what has been achieved. I think that a good comparison can be made to cooking. It isn't enough to use great ingredients, the best kitchen appliances and a whole spice cabinet if the end product isn't something you'd want to eat.

As I have continued making chairs using windsor technology, I have marvelled at the brilliance of old designs that have stood the test of time and appeal to a wide array of people. I feel fortunate to have found a product that is both fun to make and to live with. The challenge for me is to add to this, not trying to reinvent the wheel. It can be intimidating. Especially when I step back and ask myself, does it pass the "yard sale test"

Friday, November 9, 2007


A while back I got a couple of inquires about the birdcage side chair. This is a very tough chair because every part of the top it curved. Whenever I work on designs like this, I find it best to make a "Frankenchair" out of old parts and new ideas. They generally end up as ugly constructions of copper, tape and plywood. Without the help of a CAD program (I spend enough time at the computer) getting the right curves to intersect at the right places can be a real challenge. The visual and comfort aspect of the chair need to be refined simultaneously to get the desired result. I usually try to use enough quick joinery and tape to make the chair stable enough to sit on. Granted, you may not want to be too rough, but it's enough to give me and idea of the comfort level.

Here is a chair that I am currently working on. It is going to use curved stiles, crest rail, and spindles as well as arms. I plan to use simple joinery in the first solid prototype figuring that changing out some parts is probably in the cards. I will post progress as it comes.

Thursday, November 8, 2007


Thanks for the good questions on the last entry. Your questions help inspire new posts, so unless you want to hear about my breakfast, keep em coming!
I generally cut off any part of the butt end that flares dramatically. It just isn't worth the hassle and the tensions can be unpredictable and a pain to split. To preserve the oaks, I seal with anchor seal right after cutting. Unless the cut is fresh, the sealer doesn't work, microcracks set in too quickly. I then try to keep pieces as large as possible until I use them. If they get too small, I sink them in my pond.Yes, I have had to dive in to get some wood that slipped out of the rope and pick off a leech or two!
My main storage strategy is to keep the wood close to the ground and out of the sun. Oak can keep this way for years.

The maple starts to rot too quickly during the summer months so I split it into turning size bolts and keep it in the freezer, next to the banana bread.

The idea with an easy spoiling wood like maple or hickory is to keep it wet enough so that it won't crack but not so wet that it rots on you. I no longer worry whether my maple stays green for turning. I would rather it dry out and deal with turning being less fun than risk it rotting. Another benefit is that air dried maple shrinks less after turning.

Luckily, I go through logs fast enough that I don't have many storage issues. The oak log that I just bought has some unfortunate knots that weren't visible until I split it. I still expect to get at least 10 to 15 chairs from it.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

A New Beginning

Here is a photo of my new white oak log being loaded onto my trailer. Having the log lowered by a chain can really save wear and tear on the trailer. Looking at the photo reminded me of my first foray into working green wood. My wife and I had to leave Manhattan and drive to a tree service guy about and hour north. He was curious about what I was going to do with the wood, so was I. The hickory and soft maple pieces that he gave me fit in the trunk of my Honda and we headed home. After making my first chair with this wood, I knew that I wanted to pursue green woodworking. As luck would have it, the landlord decided to double the rent of my little 5th street shop and I realized that I could either rent a shop in Brooklyn (still not many trees to be had) or get a place in the country for the same cost. The rest as they say...

I am very happy with my 14ft trailer. For the first years of my chairmaking, I simply had the log put directly into my truck. I quickly learned that loading was the easy part. A few years ago after much abuse to my body and truck, I finally got the trailer. To get the log out of the trailer, I use a long lever to raise one end high enough to slip a plank across the sides of the trailer and under the middle of the log. Then I clamp the plank to one side and use a peavy to roll the log off the other. I work very slowly and cautiously. I may be messing around but the log sure isn't. This is just the beginning of my respect for the log. I know that in every situation, one of us is going to give, I just try to make sure that it's the log, and not me.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Tinkering and Tweaking

Here is the final version of my new steamer reservoir. I sized up all of the tubing and got a PVC bulkhead that seals the bottom of the jar. A length of rubber hose and and it's done. I found that the larger hose allows air to move more freely and do a proper job of keeping the kettle full at the optimum level. The most interesting and unexpected attribute is that the steam percolates up the tube and preheats the jar so well. The system works great.

This little foray into problem solving is one of my favorite types of activities. I love looking at a problem and thinking in terms of similar systems and then searching out the means to adapt them. Left to my own (no bills to pay), I would probably tinker in my shop all day. Many times, my ideas and efforts amount to little but the new found understanding of why they don't work! But when I'm on the hunt for a solution, I am having the time of my life.

The way that my process normally works is to begin with a quick and dirty version of whatever I am testing. Usually it is enough to let me know if I am on the right track. Sometimes, the first version works so well that I keep using it for years, taking a bit of pride in the fact that ugly things can work beautifully.

After my idea is confirmed, I usually head to the junk shop or the hardware store, seeking out materials and ideas to more gracefully realize the concept. On occasion, my poor wife has gotten caught up in my quest, a great show of patience on her part. This time we got lucky, I found a qualified clerk who let me to the right components.

I enjoy investigating old technologies as well as visiting others shops and seeing the innovations and ideas that spring to life as they meet the challenges of creating. Sometimes it is easy to default to the wisdom of the past, but I think that the much admired craftsmen of old would expect us to find our own way, in our own time, to the most appropriate solutions.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Thanks CFA

Yesterday I had 15 visitors to the shop for the CFA sponsored workshop. It turned out to be the perfect number of visitors for the size of my shop. We covered all the big basics, sharpening, splitting, shaving, bending, turning, carving. I was happy to see that the ages and genders of the participant varied greatly.

It is always fun for me to show the basic techniques in chairmaking to an unitiated crowd. It's easy to forget how unusual it is to see wood taken from a log and transformed into a chair. Luckily the bend went smoothly and the turning came off without a catch!

I am considering offering a shorter version of my standard class for those who can't muster the entire week off. It would be a two or three day perch (stool) making class that will focus on the tools and basics of seat carving and assembly. On that note, I will be teaching a five day class at the Peters Valley Craft School in New Jersey next June. The class will make tall stools with backs (barstools) and focus on the use and maintainance of handtools.

Thanks again to Ryan and the folks at CFA for organizing and transporting the participants yesterday, we should do it again next year.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Falling off a Log

Much of the type of craftsmanship in chairmaking is risky and depends on the eyes and hands of the maker as well as an ever growing understanding of the process. This can make for some hairy moments as well as some unique opportunities to harness the imperfections that are bound to be present for our benefit.
I describe this to students like falling off a log. Yes, it is most likely that we will succumb to falling, but perhaps we can choose which direction. Below is a photo of two tenons on the rear legs of a chair before being reamed. Now, in a perfect world, they are exactly the same dimensions because I turn their diameters and angles using the same methods. Luckily for me, they almost always show some size difference.

I use this to my advantage by always choosing the smaller of the two tenons to ream into the seat first. This way, if my reaming doesn't come out perfect (it happens), I can reach for the leg with the larger tenon and get a few extra turns of the reamer. It is often enough to make a pleasing difference. Of course, then I have to nail the other leg reaming, but if I hadn't used the smaller tenon first, I'd have had to nail them both.

This way of working makes the work seem natural and forgiving. I believe in finding methods to better control the process and its outcome as much as I believe that each chair offers the potential to face our human fallibility with grace. I often remind myself "Shoot for perfection, settle for beautiful".