Thursday, March 20, 2008

Unpainted Furniture

This week Bill Jenkins is making a cherry armchair, which sparked a comment about unpainted chairs. There are a number of considerations to take into account with "natural" chairs. Of course the species is first. The various woods usually used in a windsor chair serve different purposes. This is still the case when working unpainted. Obviously, pine spindles would create as many problems as an oak seat. Most of the time, a reasonably hard wood such as cherry or walnut can be used in place of maple as a turning material. For spindles, I believe in sticking with the ring porous hardwoods such as hickory, ash and oak, unless you plan on sawing very carefully and increasing the dimensions for added strength. The contrast between woods can be used to good effect, but I often find it distracting from the overall design.

Which brings up the second important factor, which is the difference between a piece with a single unified (painted) surface and one alive with the image of the grain. I try to simplify the shapes in unpainted work, realizing that the action of the grain is going to draw a great deal of attention. Some of the shapes that usually look lovely painted, can look distractingly busy with the grain showing. I think of unpainted work like having a photo wrapped around the shapes, it really is a whole other element to consider.

Another consideration is tool marks. Often, under paint, the tool marks left by cutting tools can accentuate the form and add a great deal of visual interest. However, in unpainted work, toolmarks may muddy the flow of the grain. These are all decisions to be made based on the situation and the goal that the maker has in mind.

One of the toughest choices for unpainted work is the seat material. I find pine too intense, poplar and basswood too bland. I dream of a time past when chestnut was widely available! My closest choice to chestnust is butternut, but I'd also consider cherry, walnut or any other wood that is available in the widths and reasonably stable and soft to carve.

Now with all the warnings and difficulties out of the way, it should be said that learning to use the visible grain to accentuate the form is a great deal of fun and can be supremely rewarding. I do enjoy cutting into a seat blank and revealling layer upon layer of color and pattern, and I know that my clients like it too. Working with unpainted wood can be a great way of breaking the mindset that all the great forms have already been settled. It is a challenge, but in the spirit of advancing the craft, I think it is very worthwile.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post, Pete. That gives us a lot to think about. I like the image of grain as a photo wrapped around the shape of the chair - that's a great way to think about it.

Could you give a couple of examples of woods you've used together that have good visual effect? Also, have you made chairs completely from one type of wood (e.g., cherry)?

Anonymous said...

It looks like the back spindles are curved. Do you steam bend them? If so, do you bend before you shave them to final diameter?