Tuesday, July 29, 2008


Here is the finished cherry, butternut and hickory rocker that I have been building. The design and construction had a lot of interesting lessons that I plan to take forward into new work.

Here is where the design of the back began. I used my student Stacy to test out the curve of the spindles, which I cut into a 4 inch thick chunk of pine left over from my timberframing (I will get back to that soon!). By notching the back of a dummy seat and clamping the rig to my shave horse, I was able to adjust both the curvature of the bend and the relationship between the back and the seat. Also, by slipping a wedge under the seat, I was able to adjust the tilt of the chair. It worked out great and I based all of my curves and angles on it.

Here is the bending jig that I used to bend 8 spindles (one extra!). It worked out nicely.

Here are some more images of the finished chair. It is very comfortable. I had a variety of folks sit in it at the Narrowsburg Riverfest on Sunday and got uniformly positive reviews. I plan to delve even further into the physics of rocking and comfort on the next chair. I also played with the spread and splay of the front legs to balance out the large and shapely top.

My next rocker will be all white oak with a butternut seat. I plan to fume the whole finished piece in ammonia to darken the oak. I've done this before on tables and small kitchen pieces and love the results. I am also adjusting the design to make it possible to finish nearly all of the surfaces with a spokeshave, I have seen too much of my old nemesis sandpaper lately. Next week brings a new student into the shop, so I'd better get out there and get my personal fussing overwith!

Friday, July 18, 2008

In the Cycle

Every year, summer promises to be a relaxing series of lazy days, and of course every year, I pack more into each day than is reasonable. There is just so much to do. Between gardening, building projects, firewood prep (winter is always just around the corner) and of course, chair work, there doesn't seem to be enough hours. These days, the shop is a hotbed of activity. After a decision last year to free the shop from orders to allow time for new designs, I am enjoying the process of realizing new pieces. I've had fun trying out some new geometry and thanks to months of development, I am having no problem creating techniques to make it happen. I've been spending a lot of time gathering ideas and influences from the world around me and trying to stretch my comfort both visually and technically.

Here is a rough mock up of the rocker that I am making. I hope to have it finished for a show that I'll be in next weekend. After the show, I will return to my timberframe shed series.

I have been using some interesting data from the Humanscale 1/2/3 book (which is out of print and impossible to find, so let me know if you have one sitting on the shelf!). The few pages that I've seen have been very interesting and in putting the data to the test, I think that I've made my most comfortable rocker to date.

Since leaving city life behind eight years ago, I have become more attuned to the cycles happening all around me. The may be seasonal, natural or of my own making, but whichever, I am increasingly fascinated. Something feels very right when disparate activities feed into each other. Today, I took notice as I was carving a pine seat. I start with my air dried planks. I cut around the knots to get seat blanks, the knotty sections become bending forms. While carving, I set the shavings aside to use for bedding for my chickens, which someday will fertilize and mulch my garden. The larger pieces cut away with the bandsaw (more sawdust mulch) will burn in my syrup rig in the spring (hot quick fires work best). Beyond the potential of recycling and being a more responsible consumer, the real joy of this cycle is the labor saving. Now that I am immersed in the country, everywhere that I look seems to offer an opportunity. I used to wonder how folks used to live without modern conveniences, perhaps my interest in handtools originated in this curiosity. As I give into my interests and let them expand beyond woodworking, I have a real sense of belonging.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Big Furniture

Sometimes while being introduced by friends, they'll refer to me as a carpenter and then rush to say craftsman etc...In truth, the reason that I bristle at being called a carpenter is because I am incapable of building a square, level structure using standard cut boards. It's a skill that I admire and have no claim to. So when I need to construct a shed or building, I immediately turn to timberframing to find myself in comfortable territory, after all, a timber frame is nothing but a large piece of furniture. This year I have set out to build a shed off of the side of my workshop for wood storage and more importantly firewood. The pain of chipping my firewood out of the ice in mid February for the last 8 years is enough to mobilize me on a 90 degree day!

Here are a few of my homemade (or handled) timber framing tools.

But to show once again that I am no luddite, here are the ones that I rely on to get the job done and get me back to my chairmaking. I told myself that I'd sell them as soon as I'd finished my workshop, but there are these little projects that keep popping up!

The real star of the show is the chain mortiser. It takes all of the pain out of hogging out mortises two inches wide and 7 inches deep. Every joint still gets finished off with the slick and corner chisel, but having built a small shed without it, I assure you, it's worth it. The most interesting part of the process is the layout of the joints, because none of the timbers are evenly sized. There is as much as 1/2 inch difference from one beam to the next. This is where an old way of working wood comes to offer a freedom that uniform lumber forgot we needed. I'll detail the process as I raise the building. It may not be chairmaking, but I bet the connections will be pretty clear.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

A New Way 3

Here is the final step in my new method for drilling out legs for stretchers. It's pretty simple. I have always used V blocks held in my vise to hold the leg parallel to the surface of my workbench, then, with a bevel square set to the correct angle (4 legs, 4 angles!) I look in a mirror, hold the drill parallel to the bevel square and drill. Now I do things a bit different.

I start by placing the leg in the V blocks with the mark to be drill pointing straight up. Instead of holding the leg parallel to the top surface of the bench, I raise one of the V blocks until the line marked on the tape becomes parallel to the top of the angle block set on its side. I can easily see this in the mirror.

Here is a shot of Stacy getting used to seeing the drill bit in the mirror. It's important that the drill bit and the measuring block have a small gap between them as they appear in the mirror. It's easier to judge their parallelism with a small gap. It is also important that the mirror is placed on the benchtop parallel to the leg itself and not the edge of the benchtop. You'll notice that because the leg is generally held by two different spots that have different diameters, that it isn't parallel to the edge of the bench, (if you wondered where I got the idea for my caliper, there it is).

Here's Stacy drilling out here mortise. You can see that the measuring block is now standing on its angle cut and she is holding the bit parallel to the side of it.

Now that I've covered the particulars, this process can be reduced to three simple steps. Mark the leg with the angle block, parallel the mark to the table top with the angle block, and drill with the angle block.

A couple of peculiarities may come to any who try this method. One is that it will require that the tops of the legs face different directions while drilling. It does ask for a bit of ambidextrousness but is hardly a deal killer. Also, when working with the complex shape of baluster legs, it may be best to turn the seat upside down to allow easier marking on the taper at the bottom of the leg.

To drill out box style stretchers (where each stretcher spans from one leg to an adjacent one, I found it best to drill and assemble the front two legs and the back two legs. Then after dry fitting them in the seat, I used the string to locate the centers for the side stretchers. By carefully placing this center mark straight up in the V blocks, I avoided any other measuring. It worked nicely on all nine of the chairs that my students made at Peter's Valley.

I haven't used the method for drilling into the side stretchers for an H style stretcher, but it is possible. For now, I am happy to have simplified my life just a bit more. I'd welcome any feedback from anyone that give this method a try. Good luck!

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The New Method 2

Here is the beginning of the photo essay on the new marking and drilling method that I have been using. I can honestly say that I've never had such ease and accuracy legging up, or getting a room full of folks to leg up. The idea behind it is simple. Instead of trying to pull a reference off of the leg, I use a premade angle block to impose the reference on the leg. Then by using this new reference and the same block, I can drill the mortise dead on.

Here's how the marking goes.

Start by noting the height on each of the legs where the stretcher enters. Then orient the legs in the seat and use string and rubberbands to connect the two marks.

By pulling the string ends straight towards each other, the string will self center and when you release the rubberbands, they will put the string directly on the center of the leg as it faces the other. Mark these spots, they are where you'll drill.

The next step is to mount a straight edge across the two legs with spring clamps parallel to the string. By moving your head up and down, you will be able to see when the straight edge eclipses the string. If it touches one end first, it isn't parallel.

Then take the block you've cut with an angle that is a good guess at the average angles for the chair (78 ot 79 degrees should be good for most) and place it in front of the leg on the straight edge. I like to put tape on the leg for clarity and easy removal of the line.

Next, mark the angle from the block onto the leg. It is important to stay true to the side of the block. The carpenters pencil works great because the flat on the pencil rides on the flat of the block. Don't try to mark the crotch where the block and leg meet, because it only touches in a small area. Think of it more like scribing a line from the flat block.

Here you can see the mark as it sits on the leg. Obviously, it isn't in line with the axis of the leg, but it won't matter. The mark is the new axis. I came up with this method when having to drill into curved parts where there was no axis, so I made one. In the next post, I'll show how to use this new axis and the block to drill the mortise.

A New Way

The Furniture Society Conference a couple of weeks ago turned out to be quite a success. My caliper was well received and the curved settee sold quickly. I am almost sorry to the settee go, after years of thinking about it, I only got a couple of weeks to live with it, but of course there is a mortgage to consider!

It was exciting to be around so many of the folks who've inspired and instructed me (mostly through publications) over the years. It was a veritable "who's who" in the woodworking world. A real treat.

Since my return I have hardly gotten to step foot in the shop. After staring into space for a couple of days as promised, I went full bore back into chop saw and drywall screw heaven, finishing my planting boxes for the garden (seasons don't wait), erecting a steel and tarp building for my firewood(seasons don't wait)and working on my book.

Luckily I had some students come by yesterday to pull me away from the computer and back into the shop. It was the perfect opportunity to create a photo essay of the new process that I have for measuring and drilling the stretchers in chair legs.

Above is a block with an angle cut across one end. This is the angle that is used for drilling into all the legs in the chair.

First, it may be worth answering the question, Why a new method? What are the benefits? My old way, and probably yours, worked for a lot of chairs, so what's the point. Well, my old method involved simply measuring the angle between the axis of each leg and the axis of the stretchers, then using this measurement to drill the leg. Sounds simple enough until you think about the number of places for things to go awry.
The potential inaccuracy of the measurement and the confusion of different angles for different legs (in a classroom environment multiply by 10) begs for simplification. I've found that the new method not only simplifies the process, but dials in the accuracy greater than my other method. I hope that is teaser enough.

So what is the angle cut into the block. Well, it depends on the chair, bear with me here. Most chairs have range of angles that get drilled into the legs that don't vary but a few degrees. The block that I used for the bar stool recently is cut at 79 degrees. I know from most of my chair work that this is a good average for most chairs, perhaps I'll find that some chairs will like an average of 76 degrees etc... but for now, my block is working fine and there is a huge room for play here.

In my next post, I'll start at the beginning and run through the whole process, so you can see how a chair with a variety of angles between the legs and stretchers can be drilled using just one angle.