Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A Case of the Vapours

Among the aspects of chairmaking that I've been trying to address is the finish. I am generally an advocate of the painted chair. When using a variety of woods to serve a variety of functions, paint is a great way to emphasize the chair as a whole object. I have been making unpainted pieces for a while now, and learning a great deal about the differences in design and construction that follow. One of my goals, to spend more time shaving pieces and less time at the lathe, has led me to create chairs that are all oak, except for the butternut seats. The oak, besides splitting and shaving beautifully, has a feature that I am excited about, because it can straddle the line between painted and unpainted chairs. I am talking about fuming.

When exposed to an ammonia rich atmosphere, the tannins naturally found in oak darken. This darkening is a chemical process in the wood, and unlike stains, will not obscure the grain patterns. Anyone familiar with the rich dark brown of Mission style furniture will know what fumed oak has in store.

I hope to use this method to unite the silhouette of the piece while also showcasing the grain. I have made other pieces with fuming before, and enjoyed the transformative magic that happens.

Here is a cross section of a sample that I made. You can see that the color is actually in the wood.
Below is a simple setup that I am using to darken the wedges and pins to create a bit of contrast in the final piece. You can see that all you need is an airtight container and a bit of household ammonia. The idea is not to let the ammonia touch the pieces, but simply evaporate into the chamber.

Here is one of the wedges ,after about 8 hours time, placed next to a shaving made when forming the wedge. The color shift is obvious, but will grow even more so when oil is applied.

I have been having fun arranging the grain so that the rays will play a large role in the overall look of the piece. Once fumed, the rays take on a shimmering quality.

Below is Peter Mich working on his continuous arm chair last week. Peter had already made over 40 chairs. I was pleased that Peter saw the value in making a continuous arm with me, even though he had already learned to make one elsewhere. It gave us a chance to really focus on some solid technique.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


Wading through the sea of influences that have an impact on my thinking and work can be both daunting and inspiring. Whenever I can't seem to drag myself out to the shop (think freezing cold dark mornings or perfect summer afternoons) I crack a book or two and look and the work of others, and I am soon pulled pack into needing to make something.
Sometimes, inspiration can come from unexpected places. Below is a picture of the last piece made my Henri Matisse. At the time that it was made, he was confined to his bed, where he cut out shapes in colored paper and had an assistant pin them to the wall to make his compositions. The stained glass window is in the Rockefeller chapel of the Union Church of Pocantico Hills. I saw this window when I was 15 years old, and I have been thinking a lot about it lately.

So what is so special about this window?

The tradition of the rose window is one of opulence and symmetry. The greats of Europe are intricate and ornate as they hold center stage in the cathedral, meant to inspire awe and hold their own in the greatest displays of architecture of their time. Matisses window plays a different kind of role. At first, when looking at it, it is a simpler version of the rose window. But on closer inspection, one sees that within the rigid framework, that no two pieces are alike. Symmetry and similarity give way to freedom, lightness and life. It may sound simple, but I spend a lot of time trying to deal with its ramifications.

I have been designing new work lately with a different set of priorities. This year, I have been trying new technologies and designs in an attempt to add my bit to the tradition of chairmaking. I have had some success at it, but the final element has been missing, fun. Not to say that I don't enjoy the work, but I have known all along that once I'd resolved some of my initial goals, that the process would have to be reapproached with the aim of bringing more joy to the making, as well as to the chairs.

I think that every craftsman is in this postion at one time or another, sure the work is beautiful, but what a pain! So with simplicity in mind, I've been reviewing my goals, and the works of many masters. I have been looking carefully at chairs of all sorts, trying to distill the elements that I admire and the ways that the process and forms coalesce. In some instances, such as Sam Maloof, I find the process torturous (way to much abrasives!) but am awed by the fluid forms and overall gesture.

So off I go to the shop, with many voices echoing in my head, until I start to work, and they quiet down, so that I can get some work done.

I'll be posting photos of the new work soon.

Sunday, August 10, 2008


Maybe its the scale or the lovely gray of the weathered beams, but the finished shed frame reminds me of an elephant. In one of the books that I read to learn timberframing, they used the analogy of a timberframe supporting the building like a skeleton, where as modern framing is a rigid skin. One look at this says it all.

There are some similarities that I've come to enjoy between timberframing methods and chairmaking. I spent the last week teaching Ernie Palmieri to make a continuous arm. Ernie has been a woodworker longer than I've been alive. He's built everything from houses to fine furniture (including a rocker that he completed before taking my class). We spent a lot of time laughing as Ernie learned some of the more "organic" methods that can be employed in making chairs from trees. It's a whole different type of precision. He would laugh whenever I said that we were going to "eyeball" the work. On a couple of occasions I reminded him that squares and tape measures are read by "eyeballs" as well!

The great departure from standard woodworking, by which I mean the kind where parts can be made from a plan and then be interchanged in assembly, is that in a chair, you build to the chair, not the plan. Pieces become assigned locations and the process must take the actual shape of the existing pieces into account to determine the next step.

In timberframing, the beams are not cut to standard dimensions. To my sawyer, a quarter inch here and a half inch there are pretty much standard. The beauty of the timberframe process, is that the layout of the joints enables the builder to work beyond standardization, which I find to be quite graceful.

Here is a beam mortised into a post. The concept is the same as in woodworking, but with one difference. Instead of planing the post to a standard size, I simply notch the shoulder of the tenon into the post far enough to leave a standard 4 inch thick piece. It is by measuring from the depth of this notch that I can determine the length of the beam. A four inch post on both sides adds to eight inches, subtract from the overall length desired for the structure (twelve feet) and I know to cut the tenon shoulders eleven feet and four inches apart. With this creation of references, I soon came to understand how an entire structure could be made using logs that were flattened and squared on only two sides. How's that for "organic"!

Here is the one part of creating the layout that may take some real headscratching before diving in. The cross bracing is meant to control wracking by preventing compression. Often, they weren't even pegged. With all of the extra wood hanging around on the posts and beams (not to mention the braces themselves), finding the correct references to create the triangle and determine the length of the hypotenuse can be a challenge. I laid out string to show the actual geometry. You can see that based on the references used, there is a logic. I found a book by Jack Sobon to be incredibly helpful in learning to get exact dimensions from inexact timbers. If it weren't for the intense physicality of the process, I could see being happy as a timberframer, it is a great challenge, but I prefer being able to lift my product easily over my head. So chairs it is...

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Big Tenons

Here is the process for cutting the tenons for my timberframe shed. I used a combination of hemlock and white pine. Basically, my choices were based on whatever I had leftover from building my workshop. When I built the workshop, I tried to use the pine for posts (which mostly get mortises) and the hemlock for beams (mostly tenoned). The pine is much easier to cut mortises into and the hemlock offers more strength for beams.

Here is my homemade marking gauge. The center spur was helpful when I used to drill out my mortises with a 2 inch forstner bit.

Here I have used my circular saw (my first powertool, now approaching its 20th year of service!) to kerf to the proper depth around the tenon.
After knocking off the waste, I cleaned the tenon up with my slick (think large chisel that cuts like a drawknife). This was a particularly gnarly piece of hemlock and didn't give the prettiest results, but they'll be around long after I'm gone.

Here is a view from the top of the tenon.

With the help of my friends Bill and Rich, I erected the structure the other day. There is something amazing about seeing the whole thing raised in an hour or so. While working on the frame, I kept thinking, "this will be the last timberframe I do" but once it was up, the simplicity and grace of the frame has me looking forward to the next one. Whenever building with mortise and tenons in the standard table and cabinet size, I suppose we believe in their utility because we are told to. How often are we around to see the true benefits of the extra effort to create solid joinery? But in a timberframe, there it is, push with all your might and the joints answer back with a strength that resounds. So much of woodworking seems to be about pursuing the expectations of strength and quality that I cobble together from a myriad of influences, I find that the simple strength of the timberframe is an answer in itself.