Wednesday, January 27, 2010


There are lots of traditions in this world, some better left behind and some that I aspire to carry on. I've worked in plenty of shops where information was doled out as needed and even then with a jaundiced eye. I'm not so sure what there was to fear, but it never sat right with me.

The baluster turning has been around for hundreds of year, and no one turner gets to claim it as wholly their own, therefore, I believe that it belongs to all of us. The baluster that I turn is influenced by my favorite parts of Dave Sawyer and Curtis Buchanan's turnings with a bit of my own flavor thrown in. Dave has a lovely sense of the flow that a baluster should have and the intense thicks and thins of Curtis' leg are challenging to turn and add a visual spring to the chair.

But the tradition that I'm talking about is not about turning a leg, it's sharing the information. It's a much happier world to live in, period.

By visiting , you'll open a page on my web site with the full sized patterns. Just hit print and the patterns for my leg and armpost will print on 4 pages that can be physically cut and matched to make one pattern with the leg on one side and the post on the other.

Then go make some shavings and the next time someone asks you for some hard earned piece of information, remember, you're part of a tradition.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Curves in Focus

Sometimes wishes can come true, especially if they border on the mundane. Often during the design process, I've wished for a large, non marring, accurate way to measure and record the curves of my chairs. I like to compare and contrast so that the best results can be carried forward and to understand what makes them that way.

As I was thumbing through a Garrett Wade catalogue, amongst the hordes of stuff they now sell for the "Gentleman gardener", I came across this tool. It's a 18 inch contour gauge and it was made just for me. At about $70, it is way pricey, but for every time that I wished that I had one, I took the plunge. (For an extra dollar, I got the "set" with the 6" version as well)

I've already run around the house comparing curves with lot's of "a ha's" and "hmm's". My grand plan is to record the cross sections of my favorite seats and make some templates to reference while carving. I'll post my results soon.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Call Me Ishmael

When it came time to move my tools from my old shop in the basement to the new freestanding shop, I took a careful look at each tool and the role that it played in my work. I wanted the new space to be uncluttered by tools that didn't pull their weight in the work that I do now. Many decent tools didn't make the cut, and stayed on the shelf in the basement.

When I made the move, none of the chairs that I made had square mortises, so the mortise chisel that I picked up at a shop on Cape Cod in 1997 has gathered dust for years, even though I knew it was a beautiful tool. I had even taken the time to put a new handle on it, which makes it look like it belongs on an old whaling ship (I have no idea what I was thinking with the copper).

The chisel is made with a laminated piece of high carbon steel and holds a great edge. It's shown here with the smaller chisel that I use to clear the chips.

Recently, I was looking online for a 5/16" mortise chisel, when I remembered my shelf of dusty tools. There it was, but to my dismay, it was 3/8" with a tapered cross section. Now according to the stuff that I've been finding online, the chisels that are tapered away from the full thickness like this are preferable, but I've always found that square chisels track in the hole better and don't tear up the sides.

So you know where this is going, I ground the taper out until the chisel was rectangular in cross section, probably destroying any collector value, but to me making it a tool worth ascending to the new shop.

Here's the wall of the mortise, I had trouble getting this clean a result when the tool was tapered.

And here's the chisel sitting in it's own hole.

Now that it's performing so nicely, I even cleared a spot for it on the wall behind my bench. Welcome back Ahab.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Start to Finish

Here are the beginnings of another rocking chair.

Starting another project has brought to mind the one skill that comes into play in every project. That skill is the ability to see a project all the way through, with pleasure and a small amount of dignity.

From conception to completion, making something can be a wild ride. First, there's the excitement of making something new. I can see the finished piece in my mind, perfectly realized and fulfilling all of my goals. Then comes the first stages, often a honeymoon, where the parts are being made and the first hints that the maker is indeed human start creeping in.

On to the joinery, where excitement yields to focus, dogged determination and sometimes a hint of melancholy as the scope of the project finally starts hitting home. This is also the stage where I start saying things like, "I'll put that on the bottom", or "no one will ever see that".

Next it's on to assembly, where the object in front of me fully confronts the gilded image in my head, accompanied by the thought "it'll all come together better when it's finished". This is often where projects can stall out, bled of the momentum of starting and confronted with the reality of the labor yet undone. If left at this stage, the parts turn to stone.

Then it's a battle, mano a mano,"I will finish this thing and move on to something fun" (which is anything but this). This is where that time tested technique of "rushing" comes into play along with it's constant companion, "the stupid mistake". As I push across the finish line, the satisfaction of a project complete can be bittersweet. Soon, I begin to look forward to the promise of the next project and leaving all the small joys and ills of the experience embodied in this one.

Usually, after a period, the trials of making the object fade away, and the project takes it's rightful place in my esteem, as something that taught me a lot and in the end, looks pretty fine.
Sound familiar?

Having run through so many projects, I've come to focus on leveling out both the ups and downs of making things. Creating something should come with all of the emotions we can muster, it's a great mirror for the maker. But my goals as a maker and teacher are increasingly becoming about recognizing and enjoying each of the stages of seeing a project to completion.

To make something is to risk failure and exposure to the unknown, I'm beginning to think that not only is it inherent in the process, but it might just be the whole point.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Open Classes and Open Pores

I'm happy to announce that we've chosen dates for the class that I'll be teaching at Highland Woodworking in Atlanta. On October 23rd and 24th I'll be teaching a demonstration seminar on chair building that will include the whole process from log to finish, to be followed by a 5 day hands on course in chairmaking from the 25th through the 29th. We are still working out the details about the projects, but I am very excited to be returning to work with the folks down there.

The classes here at my shop in New York are starting to fill into the fall. Because of the wait, I've decided to start a new list for folks who might be interested in filling a canceled class with a few weeks notice. On occasion, someone can't make the class that they've booked and I'll turn to my list of potentials to fill it. I'll call you in the order which I received your name. It always pains me to ask folks to wait to come take a class, I can remember the burning desire to learn...what am I saying, I still have it! Please send me an email if you'd like your name on the list. Thanks

As for the open pores part of the post, as I've written, I have been pushed and stretched by my experience with the walnut. The level of precision and accuracy that it beckons has been challenging and refreshing. I can't wait to take what I've learned back to my painted work.

One thing that I've been careful to maintain is the open pores. I've read plenty about filling pores and sanding with the oil to fill pores. Even when I paint a chair, I'm careful to let the pores show through the wood for the added layer of texture really gives a warmth to the piece.

The walnut is no different. I noticed that even when the light is reflecting directly off a part of the chair, the pores still show. I'd hate to have the surface so uniform that all that I saw was the light bouncing. That's beginning to look too much like plastic, or dare I say it Formica!

To keep the pores open, I've been careful to use a new paint brush to clear out the pores after sanding and before oiling. Of course, the parts of the chair that were shaved to their finish surface will have perfectly clear pores, so it also helps keep all the surfaces matching. Is it a small point, perhaps, but as I mentioned, the walnut insists.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Back in the Light

After my brief foray into power planing, it felt downright cleansing to split out some white oak for the crests of the chairs that I have to make. The tree that I have isn't stellar, but I was able to cut a 26 inch section that yielded 4 ideal crest blanks.

I am discarding the sap wood in these, partially because I don't want the contrast in the final unpainted chairs, but also because the slight discoloration on the bottoms is enough of a sign that some strength has been lost. Winter around my splitting brake is a double edge sword, I hate clearing the snow (why don't I just cover it?) but I love that it's frozen to the earth!

I really enjoyed pulling the shavings along the large radial plane. I didn't even notice how wide they were until I look down around my feet.

Below is the finish shaved surface. I agree with Peter Follansbee on this, "It's what quartersawn wood wishes it was". The 2 1/4" flat tenons at either end of the crest will benefit by being in the radial plane, which shrinks substantially less than the tangential.
The broad flat medullary rays are a great sign that I managed to shave along the fibers and didn't twist the board. If you twist the board, the rays squiggle diagonally across the surface and while it might not put the bend at risk, it means that end grain has been exposed and might lift during bending. While this white oak is very agreeable to bending, shaving along the fibers is just as easy as not, so that's where my effort goes.

When the final shaping on the crest is done, it will break up the regularity of the pattern, which I find pleasing. This crest bent without complaint.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Walk on the Dark Side

The response was so kind regarding my walnut chair, that I thought it would be a good time to spring some of the darker side of my latest work on you! Below is a photo of the little machine shop that I set up in the shed next to the shop. I know, well lit and organized with efficiency and safety written all over it, right?

I bought the saw about 15 years ago and it's served me well. It spent the last 6 years or so in parts in my basement with a stack of junk on it. I thought that giving it a home would inspire me to finish building the windows in my house and my kitchen cabinets. While those best intentions are on hold, it's found it's way into my chairmaking, along with a few of it's minions.

We all have to live with the demons of our choosing, and one of mine is that I try choose my method because it is the best way to use the materials or create the result. I promise my customers that they'll never have to pay me to be romantic. (insert joke here).

Obviously, working green wood with hand tools has fit the bill for my chairs and my quest for relevant process. As long as I was making round spindles, shaving them from start to finish made sense. Not only are they stronger, but perhaps most importantly, shaving them to a finish is easier because once I've established the surfaces along the fiber line, I never have to wonder which direction to cut. It's always from the thick part toward the thin, which makes getting a lovely tooled finish simple.

When I started making the chairs with the flat spindles, which get scraped and sanded on their wide face anyway, the priority of easy shaving gave way to wanting a constant thickness for more even bends. So now, I can't believe I'm saying this, I shave the spindles from green wood and then pass them through my planer, flipping them a few times, to take off the last 1/16".

Of course, passing green wood through a planer just seems wrong, but the results are proof in the pudding. I use bending forms that capture the spindles from both sides, and any unevenness in the thickness or shape would be reflected in the part. Below are the planed spindles. The flat surfaces are even, but the edges retain that lovely organic feel of shaved wood.

I know that I could plane these by hand, but given the presence of the planer, I'd have to admit to myself that I was acting just out of aversion to the power tool, then again, I could do worse things, like sending green wood through a planer!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Bright Blue

The "Bright Blue" that I'm referring to is from my post about the limited palette that I used to paint with. After a year or so of using muted colors, bright blue came along and changed the way that I looked at painting. The walnut of my latest chair has brought along a similar awakening.
I've worked with "pretty" wood, such as cherry, but the lush surface of the walnut and the ease of working it is a whole new game.

Perhaps it's because it is so dark and fine grained that every little detail seems to glow. It creates countless opportunities to play with light and shadow, but it comes with an obligation as well. Any ill considered or muddy area will shine just as brightly as the best made shapes and marks. Luckily, this stuff is not interested in fighting.

As I was monkeying around with the crest bending, and ending up with some castaways, I took it as an opportunity to readdress the crest shape. I settled on the shape below.

I really like the look of it in the chair. The motion of the cut away sides helps move the eye back to the spindles and the center of the chair, plus it was plain old fun to make. Below is the entire chair, all in all, I'm pleased with the results.

One of the unexpected results of working with the walnut was the pace with which I made the piece. Something about it slowed me down, not by much and perhaps it was just a perception, but I felt more conscious of what I was doing. Knowing that any small mistake would be glaring might have something to do with it, but it wasn't all nerves, I enjoyed it.

Below is the seat, which I glued up from three pieces. I used the glue up technique to align the growth rings that I covered in a previous post and it worked out great. While under close inspection, the joints reveal themselves, at first it looks like a one piece seat. I really don't mind if folks play "where's the joint", but I take some joy in them having to really focus to find it!

Now I'm sitting down to write an article about building this chair which will hopefully come out this year.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The "Half Ass" in All of Us

I don't know if it's excitement, impatience or just the flow of ideas, but I have always loved rigging quick and dirty solutions to the problems that arise in the shop. To me, an elegant solution to a problem doesn't mean that it has ebony inlay or articulating arms with lock stops. Normally the process goes something like this
1.Have a problem
2.Brainstorm a solution
3.Crudely make it a jig to make it work (always with the promise of making a refined version if it does indeed function as promised)
4.Never make the refined version

As I was talking to the students at The North Bennet Street School, which is known for the fastidious, refined work of the students, I encouraged them to embrace their "inner half ass", and to my glee, I guess that they heard me.

Here is a drawknife grinding solution that Steve Kinnane came up with because he lacked my grinding apparatus.

It's a lovely solution to the problem. The block can be clamped to the tool rest at and angle so that the handles don't bump into the motor and setting the angle is as simple as moving the block back or forward. The one limitation of the set up, as it is, is that the blade must be straight, but, with the slightest of extra thought and effort, a version that can handle curved blades isn't far behind. Frankly, I don't need one, so I'll let necessity be someone else's mother on this one.

On other business, I've got one coat of oil on the walnut chair so look for images of it soon.

And for those with interest, my teaching schedule here at my shop is booked full until September, so please contact me if you are hoping to schedule a class.

Finally, my current stock of Galbert Calipers is so low that I've disabled the ordering page on my web site. I am starting another production run, and will post when to expect the new tools. If you'd like to get on a list to purchase one, please email or call me.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Boy, That Looks Familiar

Last night as I drifted off to sleep, this image stuck in my head. It reminded me of something, and then it hit me, boy am I a dope. It's the marks that the bandsaw made on the bending form!

Here's the culprit.

I've been known to make some pretty rough and ready bending forms, it's actually one of my favorite parts of chairmaking that I can cut a shape on the bandsaw at a moments notice and bend to it. The white oak that I normally work with never softens to the point that the tiny surface variation creates a problem.
But the walnut is a different story. It gets so soft when steamed that the tiny ridges left by the bandsaw cause a slight crease that is the beginning of the compression failure. It's important to note that the ridges aren't just embossed into the surface of the walnut, which would steam out, but that the failure they start goes deep into the wood.

Smoothing the form and fairing the curve is no problem, I simply run the spokeshave across the surface while holding it skewed, which cuts the high spots.

Here is the finished surface, I even sanded it.

With the air dried wood, I've been using an overbend form to push the wood beyond the final curve before I relax it and kiln it into final shape. The bend went beautifully on the smoothed form which also had less extreme of a bend than the previous attempt. After bending, I let it sit in the form for a few hours and then take it out to sit overnight. Below, you can see the springback after I unclamp the bend. One of the beauties of using air dried wood is that the bends set almost instantly.

You can see in the image below that the bend, when placed against the final form is actually a tighter curve, just what I want.

My friend Andy Jack wrote me with some sage advice about bending. He recommended that if I was having no trouble on the expanding surface yet compression failure, that I might be steaming too long. This makes great sense as a means to developing the steaming times of any wood, the point being that oversteamed wood gets too soft and fails on compression and that there is no reason to steam beyond the point that the expanding surface can stretch to the bend.

So for now, I'll console my feeling like a dope for not refining my form properly with the satisfaction of having learned something.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Other Failure

The other morning was too lovely to pass up.

It was about 12 degrees out as I made my way to the shop, which isn't unusual this time of year. I try to bank the fire before bed so that the shop isn't too cold, but it's usually around 35 or 40 degrees when I get to work. I don't mind too much, it keeps me moving and within an hour the layers start peeling off as I get it to around 50 degrees.

As you can see, I went well beyond my usual comfortable working temp in order to do a glue up. Using hot hide glue in winter can be tough because I try not to use too much retarder in my mix. Any additive to the glue weakens it (less glue in the mix), so I heat the shop ahead of time when I know that I have a tricky glue up.

The "Other Failure" that the title refers to is compression failure when steam bending. Anyone who has bent wood or even imagined bending wood has probably run into the more common failure, which is on the expansion side of the bend. It can come as a few fibers separating and lifting (easily fixed with little or no loss of strength) or a catastrophic shearing. As I sawed the wood for my walnut chair, I thought that my greatest issue would be on the expansion side of the equation because the parts don't strictly follow the fibers the way that shaved parts do.

I am happy to report that the air dried walnut bends beautifully. It seems to melt into the form. Of course, the chair doesn't have the extreme bend of a sack back etc... but I was surprised at the ease of the bends. I steamed each piece for about an hour, which is longer than my normal 30-40 minutes for green wood. I did have a couple of breaks on the bent stretchers, but the radius was quite tight and the shape of the parts (turned) are the main cause of the failure.

Where I've had trouble is on the compression side. The walnut collapses under the pressure when the bend is too tight. Here is a photo of a crest rail that I bent. It was smooth before the bend, what you are seeing are the waves of collapsed cells. Big bummer.

If this were a painted chair (never mind that the oak that I normally use doesn't fail so intensely in this way), I could smooth the surface and paint away happily, but the walnut has some ideas of it's own. Unless I was to shave away the material beyond the failures in my smoothing efforts, which are at least 1/16th of an inch deep, the faint line will refract light differently and be visible!

Perhaps the some combination of steaming time, thickness of material and radius of bend could minimize this issue. I've tinkered a bit (I'm on my third crest) and haven't got any real conclusions. It's been one more learning experience with the walnut, luckily I'm filled with curiosity about the limits of the new material and not beating myself up over the failures.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Limited Palette

In my first painting class in art school, I followed an exercise that made a great impression on me. The task was to paint with only four colors. White, Black, Burnt Sienna (sort of a rust color) and Yellow Ochre (mustard). The idea behind using the such a limited palette, was to push for a deeper understanding of the way that the colors, although subtle, can work together to create the image. With this palette, if you want a spot of bright red, you must tune the rest of the painting to make that spot look red. The palette also builds awareness of the relative light and dark of a color, for instance, blue isn't just a color, it's a dark color in relation to yellow etc...

Above is a painting by Vincent Van Gogh. It is an example of the limited palette in action.
Below is a portrait that he painted in which I've muted out the colors.

You can see that whatever colors he chose, he had complete mastery of the using them to describe the form. Below is the painting with the color restored.

I wish you could see this work up close. The variety and saturation of the colors is breathtaking, but as you can see in the muted image, they all play their role.
Well what does this have to do with chairmaking?! After that first class, I continued to work in the limited palette for a year or so, and the day that I squeezed a blob of bright blue out of the tube felt like I was entering a whole new world. As I have been working on my latest chair, in walnut, I have been having that same feeling.

Here is the seat, drilled, reamed and ready to carve. One of the challenges that making Windsor chairs presents is to create a dynamic chair without relying on the inherent beauty of the materials to carry the load. It's a great way to connect with the limits and abilities of the material.

As I carved this seat, it became very apparent that I was dealing with a different animal. The hardness and richness of the material (not to mention the smell) evoked a whole new range of reactions.

The gouges in the image above were made with the adze. I was taken with clarity of the marks and the effort that it took to make them. Below is the rest of the adze work.

For me one of the great lessons in using green wood and making chairs, has been using processes that leave their mark as the finish surface. It's efficient, fun and beautiful. I enjoy the subtle feel of the marks left by the spokeshave, drawknife and skew chisel. On painted chairs, these marks a great amount of interest.

But as I worked with the walnut, using the inshave and travisher as seen above, I realized that this wood calls for a slightly different touch. While I have left the spokeshave marks on the legs and other round parts, I knew that this seat wouldn't be done until the tool marks were tamed and the wood alone was visible. This stuff must be revered, or why use it?

While not overly hard, carving this stuff feels like a work being set in stone, I've been unusually self conscious, almost embarrassed pushing the stuff around! Here is the seat roughed out. As usual, I'll finish scraping it after it's legged up.

I recall reading somewhere that Sam Maloof said that walnut was his favorite wood and that he could spend a whole week sanding a chair. Boy, that has always seemed like punishment to me. But having spent some time with this material, it does make more sense.

So what does this all mean, do I set aside my froe and start building lumber racks? Not quite, but it has changed the way that I look at the form and the materials, and what better way is there to start the New Year.