Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Perch Stretchers

One of the persistent difficulties to working green wood is understanding its advantages and the processes that can exploit them. How wet? How dry? When do I shape it? It can be confusing to the newcomer.
This installment of the perch building process gives a great opportunity to clear up a few things about green wood. There are only a few reasons to work green wood, and if you take them into account, it should be pretty clear when and how to use it.

Number One: green wood splits and shaves along the fibers which allows for stronger, yet more flexible parts. This enables the thin turnings and solid bends.

Number Two: green wood cuts easily with handtools, enabling quick shaping without the need for powertools

Number Three: green wood is cheap and easily found, with the only drawback being that trees don't come in squared lumber. Of course, in green wood chairmaking, the parts rarely use the type of flat references that dried lumber provides

When using green wood and making process decisions, I ask myself which of these benefits is essential and which is merely helpful. In making the stretchers for this perch, I have tried to take advantage of the green wood advantages where possible and abandon them where the returns diminish.

There are a few options when making the stretchers for the perch.

One, I could have split the wood green, turned it green, dried it and then sized the tenons to the final dimension. This works fine and has the advantages of the strength of the split wood and the ease of cutting green wood. The drawback is the time it takes to dry down the piece and the need to dramatically reform the tenons before assembly.

Option two is to split the wood into billets, rough shape the stretcher, dry it down and then turn the entire piece once it's dried. Once again, the benefits of the green wood splitting and roughing help out and turning the final shape from a slightly oversize rough wouldn't be too difficult in the dried wood. Plus, I would be able to turn the tenon to the finished dimension at the same time that I turn the rest of the stretcher to shape.

Option three is to saw the blank from a dried piece (being careful to follow the fibers as though it was split), turn the stretcher (not as much fun in dried wood), dry it down, and then turn the tenons to final dimension. This is the option that I chose, mainly because the curly maple that I am using is already in the dried plank form. I am definitely sacrificing the ease of cutting for the benefits of speed in drying (the plank is already air dried) and the ability to cut close to finish dimensions.

Turning is different from shaving, in that the center axis of the turning can be easily made to follow the fibers through either splitting or sawing. I would never substitute sawing for shaving when making spindles or bends.

In the video, you'll see me turn the stretchers with the tenons oversized .025". This is because the wood is already dry and experience tells me that it won't shrink dramatically in the kiln. If the wood was green as in option 1 above, I would oversize the tenons .060" or .080".
I know that talking about thousandths of an inch can be a bit odd at first, but don't be intimidated, it's just a way of talking about the movement of the wood that is tough to describe accurately with out resorting to such tiny increments. My goal is always to turn the tenon to a size that will leave me trimming a minimal amount after drying. The goal is a final tenon of .625" or 5/8". When the piece comes out of the kiln, I want the dimensions of the tenon, as measured along the growth rings to be just a few thousandths oversize, for easy trimming to the final .625". It is of course easier to hit this mark if the wood is dry to begin with, which is why I tend to exercise option 2 above as my general practice.

To sum up, when deciding how and when to use green wood, the considerations of strength, ease of working, availability and flow of process, all come into play. If you find one factor that calls for the sacrifice of another, just make sure that it's one you can live with.

The posting on seat carving is coming up.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Reaming in the Legs

Here is a video of the reaming process. We finally get to see all this unusual geometry add up to a chair. It's important to have faith in the strange numbers and angles. I hope the video helps with this vital and difficult step.
Next I'll be covering measuring the stretchers and carving the seat. Any feedback about the info presented is helpful as I try to fill in the gaps.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

More Studio Shots

Here are the studio photos of the new Crested Rocker in fumed white oak and butternut.
I was excited to see it in the clean light of the photo studio.

I am looking forward to making a birdcage version of this chair, after I finish two of them in cherry that I am working on.

The instruction and video on reaming the legs and carving the seat is in the works.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Flattening and Drilling the Perch Seat

Here is the next installment in the perch making process. This video covers the hand flattening of the seat and the drilling for the legs. Of course you could use a planer and jointer to get this seat flat, but I use my handplanes, which only takes me a few minutes and teaches me a lot about the nature of the specific piece of wood that I'm using. I'm sure that there will be a few questions, so let me know if there something that I can clarify.

There are a few reasons that I drill the holes by eye. One is that the reaming process gives the opportunity to refine the angle of the hole, but most important to me is the speed and portability of the process. I could set up a drill press or some other semi-permanent rig, but then each time that I wished to change an angle I would have to adjust the jigging. Getting comfortable drilling by eye only takes a couple of practice holes and then you'll have a skill that you can take anywhere, at any angle, to any piece.

Monday, December 15, 2008

My Hero

Here is a very victorious Chairnotes covergirl after saving the lives of our chickens from a marauding hawk.

I was in the shop and Sue stopped in for her normal "I'm home, give me the dogs". As she was walking back to the house, I heard a crazy ruckus and the "drop everything" tone in her voice. I ran outside to see Sue, the dogs, a chicken and a massive hawk in a scene of total chaos. Sue charging the hawk, feathers flying, dogs going berserk, chickens running.

When the feathers settled, we counted one chicken hiding in the woodshed and three under the porch, but we have 5 chickens. Now, every story that I've ever heard the starts with "we had chickens" ends with a gruesome tale of blood and feathers, so I was prepared for the fact that we lost one. But then Sue remembered seeing one run past the door of the shop while we chatted, and sure enough, tucked under the far end of the workshop was number 5. So our gals hid the rest of the day, and perhaps we won't get our 3 eggs tomorrow (hey, it was traumatic for all of us), but for now, we are all safe in our houses.

I am working on a video to demonstrate the drilling technique that I use for the perch, after all, xmas is coming and we have a deadline!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Perch Legs (Video)


Thanks for all the great feedback on the Perch posting. There have been a few topics brought up that are worth addressing. The seat material can be any wood that you care to carve. If you are using a softwood such as pine, I suggest using a 1 1/2" to 1 3/4" thick piece. If you are using a hardwood, you could go as thin as 1 1/4". The perch presents a great opportunity to become accustomed to drilling and reaming. Those who are new to the process, may benefit from creating a practice seat out of softwood (my first practice seat was 2X4's glued up!). This way the process will show it's quirks during the dry run.

As far as tools for the perch, I would suggest the 6 degree reamer from Elia Bizzarri at This is one of the last great woodworking bargains. The seat of the perch is only scooped out 5/8" at the deepest point. This is shallow enough to carve with a gouge and finish with a scraper, but if you are thinking of making more than one, I suggest the travisher that Elia sells (based on my design, but I have no stake in the business). It's a great tool and works beautifully. Perhaps your first perch sale or gift can cover these costs!

By its nature, the perch is a custom object. The goal is to tilt the sitter forward to encourage the lumbar curve to do its job. Each person will need a different height. The perch that I show is good for an average sized person (finally being average pays off!). I custom size them by putting books under the feet of the perch or the sitters feet until they are comfortable. One of the reader comments mentions a web page that describes the concept beautifully

As I mentioned before, the perch was a collaborative effort with input from Galen Cranz and Curtis Buchanan. Galen has literally written the book on chairs. The problem is that she finds that our entire relationship to chairs is faulty at best and unhealthy at worst. We live in a world designed to suit the work and dining surfaces we create, and let our bodies take up the slack! She inspires me to try to improve the design of my chairs to better suit the sitter. Her book is a must read.
The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body, and Design (Hardcover)
by Galen Cranz (Author)

I hope these diagrams are easily read. These are just suggestions for the legs, if you are without a lathe, just shave the legs with a drawknife and round them with a spokeshave, don't let tools stop you!

Here is a video of the leg turning, I hope it helps

Monday, December 8, 2008

A Holiday Gift

I was considering posting the plans for my perch as a holiday gift to ChairNotes readers, but as with so many thoughts, time seemed to run short and other priorities took hold. But then someone contacted me the other day to request the plans, and put it right back at the top of the list.

I designed this perch with Galen Cranz and Curtis Buchanan a few years back when we were teaching a class on body conscious seating. Galen, an expert in The Alexander Technique and now head of the Architecture Department at UC Berkely, set the goals:

To use windsor technology to create a seat that would make sitting upright easier and encourage proper alignment of the vertebrae.

The perch does this by keeping the pelvis rolled forward, similar to when you are standing. This way, the natural spring S curve of the back is maintained.
I love watching people faces as they sit on the perch for the first time. It's near effortless and nothing like they expect.

This is also a great project to undertake as an introduction to windsors. The legs can be turned from dry wood, as long as it is straight grained, and the seat isn't deeply scooped, so you can forgo some of the coarser carving tools.
My one warning is that your friends and family will line up for theirs, so either be prepared to make a lot of them or keep it hidden when they are around!

Below is the pattern for the seat. I hope that you can make out the numbers. Obviously, the exact shape of the seat can vary a bit.

Perhaps the strangest part of the perch, especially to experienced chairmakers, will be that the legs all rake towards the front. The front leg is quite a bit shorter than the rear and causes the forward tilt in the seat. It tilts so far forward in fact, that the legs take on an even rake, both forward and back. I've drawn a quick sketch of the perch and then one next to it that shows the legs when the seat is resting horizontally. Odd isn't it! So take a moment to get used to it and start gathering materials.

I'll post the leg patterns next as well as a video of the turning process. Then I'll continue to post on it until it's done.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A Link Worth Following

I first met Brian Boggs about nine years ago at a 2 day seminar that he taught at Purchase College. I was still working in cabinet shops in NYC and was trying to make my way to chairmaking. I had John Alexanders book and plenty of woodworking experience, but the leap to green wood was still daunting. So I jumped at the opportunity to watch and listen to Brian.

The other day, I came across this 63 minute lecture that Brian gave recently at the Woodworking in America conference. I poured myself a cup of coffee and tuned out the rest of the world for a while.

As usual, Brian's intense pursuit of quality and understanding was an inspiration.
So do yourself a favor, check it out.

Brian Boggs at the Woodworking in America Conference

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Freeloaders

Did you ever get the feeling you were disturbing someone?

Well it finally happened. After months of feeding and caring for my little flock (5), I got eggs! (the green egg is silly putty to fool the ladies) I had started referring to them as "the freeloaders" after a friend told me that it was probably to far into winter for them to start laying (they need 14 hours of daylight). But, with a heat lamp on a timer and a little gentle encouragement (I've been teasing them for being lazy) they have risen to the occasion. The eggs are small (which is normal with early production) but the yolks are a rich yellow, almost like butterscotch. Because they run around all day, even in the snow, eating what they like, it looks like they know best.

It's obvious to me that they were excited to contribute to the Thanksgiving feast (or that they believed my threats of being the main attraction on the table).

I will be posting more on the shop activities soon. I am as busy as ever, but my writing time has been spread between a magazine article and my book with Curtis. I am looking forward to the long weekend (and sneaking off to the shop while everyone else is turkey napping!)

I wish everyone a happy and healthy holiday.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Stools and Surfaces

Lately, I have been making parts for stools while teaching or as a break from more complex pieces. The stools offer a wonderful opportunity to work out some ideas about process, surface and aesthetics without a massive investment of time. Below is a stool with curved legs made of white oak and a pine seat. The stretchers were split and shaved, dried and then chucked in the lathe to turn the tenons before shaving to a final shape. I rough turned the legs, let them air dry, steamed the lower portion and bent them. The next day I took them out of the forms and because they were previously air dried, they held the shape shown. I finished them with spokeshaves.

This stool is a first attempt at the project that I will be teaching at Arrowmont next March. My goal was to make an elegant yet simple piece that the class could complete in 5 days and still have the time to cover all the aspects of tool use and wood technology that goes into the piece. All of the surfaces, except the top of the seat, are defined by the tool marks that made them. Not only does this suit the hand tool focus of the class, but it also suits the final look of the piece and the process. I could turn a perfectly smooth leg, but the final result under the paint would be lifeless, and the probability of damaging it during bending would leave me sanding (not my favorite).

Below is a piece with a very different focus. This "perch" has a seat with a forward tilt. Normally, I use one at my computer where it is very comfortable for the working posture (mine is at the showroom and I am struggling to stay upright on a "normal" stool). This piece is finished without paint, which calls for a very different set of processes and results.

Normally, I find curly maple best suited for violins and the such. I find it a bit flashy for large pieces of furniture. But this little perch is small enough that a little flair is easily absorbed. In this case, I turned and oiled the legs on the lathe. My goal was to create a perfect surface with no tool marks visible to conflict with the glowing image of the wavy grain. I used a skew to achieve this level of finish because any sanding would dull the natural glow of the figure.

You'll also notice that the seat is carved without the sharp pommel that the painted stool has. When the grain of the seat is showing, I find that sharp points can make for distractingly active grain patterns. Of course this is a personal preference, but I generally find that I like to simplify seat designs when they are left unpainted.

Below is the footrest and leg of the painted stool. The toolmarks are easily visible. My goal, as with a lot of my painted curvy pieces, is to make it look like the chair grew that way. I find that the long facets, coupled with the color, look very natural.

Here is a close up of the curly maple leg on the perch. Its fun to touch it and discover it's smooth, even though the surface looks wavy.

As much as the final look of the piece drives these decisions, I find myself trying to work out solutions that leave me a clear (and fun) path to completing the piece. Whenever I find myself mired in sandpaper while building a chair, I know that it's time to take a step back, build a stool and find a different way.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Apple Wood

I find no better distraction from the stresses of chairmaking (namely the complex joints on the rocker arms that I am making) than heading out to the woods with my chainsaw to enlist some apple wood for spoon carving. I am fortunate to have many apple trees that are years overgrown and respond to a good cutting with more apples next year. Apple wood has a gorgeous color and texture. It glistens when sliced with a sharp blade. I also wanted to make some spoons for my new showroom.

Apple trees undulate and squirm in a way that makes sense only to them. It can be perfect for spoons, with the bends built right in, but can also be a tangle of disappointing knots and sapwood. Below are some of the ladle blanks that I harvested recently. I've roughed them out on the bandsaw (a dangerous technique) and will hollow out the bowls before drying them. Once dry, I'll finish them off with spokeshaves and scrape and sand the bowls. The carving gouge is shown for a sense of scale.

Here is a recent spoon finished with walnut oil. It hangs nicely on any nail or lip. I carved the sides with an undercut. One of the joys of spoon carving is the freedom to follow each one to a unique solution, in harmony with the grain direction and the special offering of the tree.

As usual, these spoons will go to clients or for gifts, and my kitchen will be left with my ragged and wacky first spoons (that I could never repeat, and therefore cherish the most).

Sunday, November 16, 2008

More Engagements

I'm happy to say that I'll be helping Curtis Buchanan teach chairmaking next year on three occasions. I always look forward to working with Curtis, I think that his reputation speaks for itself. We will be teaching the Continuous Arm Rocker at North Bennet Street and at Highland Hardware. This rocker is one of my favorites, if you come to my house in the evening, you'll generally find me parked in mine.
The class at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship will be making a fan back. This class has the added benefit of noted turner Nick Cook from Atlanta teaching the turning portion of the class. Curtis will be off during this portion but I'll be there.
And I will also be teaching a class, with the benefit of Brent Skidmore as a visiting artist, and Elia Bizzarri assisting at the Arrowmont School of Crafts. I will be posting the progress of the piece that I've designed for this 5 day course.

One thing that excites me about these classes, is that Curtis and I will have a chance to bounce ideas off each other and the students to refine the process in large classes. We are always looking for new and better ways to teach chairmaking to greater depths and results.

With these engagements, my year is pretty packed and I'd encourage anyone interested in working with me at my shop to reserve a spot early, as I won't be able to accomodate as many students as in years past.

I've posted the dates of the classes on the sidebar of the blog for easy reference, hope to see you there!

Below is a photo of a drawknife that I came across on my recent trip to Virginia for a friends wedding. I was walking through a junk shop when this beauty jumped out at me. Folks often inquire what to look for in a knife, so here goes.

It has just about everything that I look for in a drawknife. The blade is stamped Warranted Cast Steel, which is supposedly the best of its kind in the era that it was produced, and experience has bore it out in my shop. It does seem to take and hold a fantastic edge.

Also, the handles, which are unique in their ornate turning are solid as can be. I have to admit being a bit smitten by their shape, boy did they care back then!
The tool was relatively rust free and clean but for a couple of chips in the edge. The only fault that I find in the tool is the slight curve of the blade, both along the edge and the back. This means that I can't create and measure flats as simply as I might with a straight blade, but I may find special uses where these curves come in handy (like cutting the relief in the crest of my new rocker) Anyway it was not one to pass up, especially because it was only $20.

I liked using it so much that I left the facets that it made on the bottom of a recent stool, rather than turning to the spokeshave to finish up. People often question why I need so many drawknives (I have about 12) and I use the large classes that I teach as a good excuse, but I'm sure that they see through me pretty easily!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Free Range

I've learned a couple of things about chickens lately. One is that they are very amusing, running around like aliens on the landscape, the other is that free range is just another term for having chicken poop everwhere! I was happy to find my dogs relatively disinterested in birds running around (most chicken keeping tales end with a murderous canine) but not so pleased to see my porch covered in landmines. It looks like the porch screening project has moved to the top of the list!

Here is Steve Wagner planing down a seat for his continuous arm. Steve was given the class as a retirement gift and I think that he is a bit surprised by how much work goes into building a chair, so much for the easy life.

One of the questions that just won't die concerns how long a log can be kept green and usable. One of the reasons that I like using white oak is the longevity of the log. Unlike maple, ash and hickory, white oak can be kept for a long time without succumbing to rot. I usually try to keep the log a whole as possible and in a shady spot or under a tarp. When I have small splits that aren't going to be used for a while, I sink them in my pond. I've often wondered what the limits of this method are. I know that folks are digging ancient trees out of bogs and lakes all over the place, but I was concerned about the potential change in properties in the wood from extended submersion.

This piece has helped put my mind to ease. It was in my pond for about a year, long enough to get a nasty coating of green goo on the outside. But after I cut it open, I was happy to find beautifully intact heartwood. It worked and bent just beautifully. While I don't expect this to put an end to the storage questions, it is an encouraging hint to the possibilities.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Perfect Timing

It really isn't often that one can bask in the glow of perfect timing, but getting the roof on my new woodshed, the day before the first snow sure felt good!

My most recent rocker design allowed me to try many things that I've always wanted to try. One of the most surprising and simple of the new technologies is the square peg. It just doesn't seem like it would work, driving a square peg into a round hole and ending up with a clean square showing. But it does!

The process begins with the drill bit. I've been told that this works best with bits that are 3/16" or less. The one that I used on my chairs is a bit larger and worked fine. Once the bit is selected, it's time to shave some square pegs that are just a hair larger than the bits diameter (this will account for the hole being slightly larger than the bit).

Once the peg is shaved square, I chamfer the end that will enter the hole first. On my second chair using square pegs, I drove the peg 1/8th" into a steel plate with the same size hole as the bit. This created a perfectly sized end to enter the mortise.

Below is an image of the pegs after being driven home. One has also been chamfered into a pyramid shape. At first I was surprised that the peg didn't split the mortised piece, but after doing it a few times, I realized that to do so, the diameter of the peg would have to be larger than the mortise. Because only the corner of the pegs are larger than the mortise, they simply compress as they cut their way into the corners of the mortise. By the time the peg is driven all the way in, all that you can see is the clean corners.

I highly recommend giving this one a try, if for no other reason than to stand back and be amazed that it works.
I've enjoyed seeing folks at my new showroom being drawn to the contrasting pegs. They just can't help but touch them, a fine result.

Friday, October 24, 2008


Anyone who's read through my blog is aware of two facts about me, I'm a tightwad when it comes to buying tools, and I firmly believe in measuring by eye. Refining the ability to measure by eye is actually less about seeing and more about questioning. For instance,when determining whether to surfaces are square, if I look at it and try to make it square, I will quickly convince myself that it is square, or worse, square enough! But if I ask myself, how is it not square? I am on the road to accuracy. It takes a bit of energy, and honesty, but the assumption that you are off will reward you with keener vision and results. My lovely bride sent me this link the other day

This site is fantastic. It is a series of visual tests where you determine by eye certain geometric tasks, and are graded on your accuracy. I have only done it once, and plan to do it again (my score was 2.90). It was interesting using my "shop brain" while at the computer. Take a couple minutes and visit the site, it's a must for shop monkeys!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

New Beginnings

I can tell when I've been delinquent in my blog posting when calls start coming in checking on my health! Honest, I'm fine, but the past few weeks have been a whirlwind. I am proud to announce that my chairs are now on display at The Matthew Solomon Gallery in Narrowsburg, New York

It's taken some effort, on top of my production and teaching schedule, to get the new space up and running. Matthew Solomon is a friend of mine and a brilliant ceramic artist. We are both excited about the new venture.

Below is a picture of another exciting beginning. I was surveying my property for a cherry tree to cut down for some new chairs, and found this nice straight one that seems to have some sort of disease. I chopped through the gummy excretions and the sap wood to find the heart still perfect. Lucky timing! I love it when the tree provides a good reason for the timing of its cutting.

Also lucky for me, is that I had a gorgeous fall day and two friends to help me mill the tree up. Here is Rich Pallaria (on the left) and Don Scott. I couldn't ask for two better helpers or company in the woods on a crisp fall day. Cherry doesn't like to split nicely, and I hate to waste good wood, so I've taken to milling it into 2 inch thick boards that give me the choice of creating turnings or perhaps seats.

Here we are milling the trunk. It is slow going but for chairs, the technology fits the bill. I'd hate to be milling 1 inch stock, because of the waste of the kerf and the time consumption, but for chairs, I get plenty of wood for the effort.

Here is the resulting lumber, stacked in my new shed addition (the roof will go on next week, I hope). I placed the drill to give a sense of scale. This is wood that would fetch a premium at the lumber dealer, and I feel lucky to have it plentiful and free on my property, then again, have you seen my tax bills!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

High Speed

Here is a short video that I made while turning the staircase balusters. I sped up the video (I'll post the real time version next) to show how the baluster takes shape in stages.

I try to group tasks so that the piece retains mass, which helps reduce vibration, and to change tools less frequently. Also, by having intermediate steps, I repeat tasks, such as turning all the beads at once, or roughing out, without having to constantly change my focus. All these things help make a complex turning more simple.

Watching this in fast motion makes it look way too effortless. Believe me, turning dried red oak like this took all the concentration I could muster!

Thursday, September 18, 2008


The days are getting shorter and the nights colder here in New York. Now I am stacking firewood and thinking about next year.

I will be teaching at a few schools other than the individual classes at my workshop. In March, I will be teaching a 5 day class at Arrowmont in Tennessee. Noted wood sculptor Brent Skidmore will be a visiting artist in the class.

In August, I will be helping Curtis Buchanan teach a 2 week class at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Maine. Curtis and I have a lot of fun when we teach together and this would be a great opportunity to experience a lot of different techniques. We may also be together at another school but the details are still to be worked out.

I am happy to say that the first of the independent reviews of my caliper is out. The review, written by Betty Scarpino (who is the new editor of American Woodturner) can be seen at

Woodworkers Journal Ezine

Now I gotta go light a fire in the shop, aargh!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Game Plan

I recently began a project turning some balusters for a friend who is renovating an old house. The original chestnut balusters are spaced too far apart for safety with small children. I did a similar job in my own house and enjoyed turning something besides chair legs.

These turnings offered a perfect opportunity to show something that I've been meaning to post about for a good while. Creating a process for turning parts is one of the most essential components to making a successful turning. When I began learning to turn, I started making shapes at one end and worked my way down the length of the piece, finishing off each shape as I went. This not only creates a lot of wasted motion constantly exchanging tools, but ignores the problem of vibration that can be avoided by better sequencing. It can also be more difficult to shape the various beads and coves without having the shape that comes next to it defined. Let's face it, learning to make the shapes is hard enough without the confusion thrown into the mix!

For this baluster, I made 3 separate patterns. The first one defines the largest diameters and the different areas that will get more details later. The second one notes the final depth cuts that will be used and the last one has all of the measurements that I need to finish it off. By having 3 distinct steps, the whole turning process flows.

Below are a few balusters in different phases. The one on the left is simply the transition from the square to round. The second one over is the first pattern complete. From this blob of a turning, the final one (on the right)is surprisingly close.

In the image below, you can see the parts formed in the initial turning. I chose them because they defined the major or most easily confused elements. I also chose them because they could be roughed out with a single gouge. After this stage, I move on to the final cuts. By leaving these thin areas for last, I greatly reduce the vibration. Imagine leaving only 3/4 inch in one area and then trying to rough out shapes next to it. A recipe for vibration.

Once I move on to the final cutting, I always start finishing in the middle of the piece. This leaves more material near the ends and helps reduce vibration. The areas near the head and tail stock tend to vibrate less anyway, so working the middle first has always made sense to me.

It did take me a little head scratching to break this turning into a series of patterns and then into steps within the patterns. But within turning only a few of them, I was able to recognize where I was in the turnings and know what step was next. It's a fun challenge, but turning this dry red oak reminds me of the reason that I became a green woodworker!

As an aside, I am matching the old chestnut (shown on the far right of the top photo) by painting the red oak with a very thin coat of orange milk paint, then staining the piece with a thin chestnut stain, and finishing it off with orange shellac. I think that I am close enough to the old (rather sloppily finished) balusters to fool the 4 year old that will be seeing them up close.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


It's been years since I chopped my last "square" mortise, as opposed to the round ones that I use all the time in my chairs. Chopping a mortise with a chisel defies the imagination. It seems like it would be nearly impossible to chop a mortise that would be uniform in width and depth, not to mention going straight into the wood. But I'm happy to report that it isn't that hard at all. Of course a little practice doesn't hurt, but the key lies in using a chisel the exact width of the mortise and orienting the workpiece so that the mortise is vertical.

I use the wooden clamp to hold the post in place. The flat on the front of the post registers against the flat on the jaws and insures that the mortise is vertical. Another clamp hold the wooden clamp tight to the bench. You can see the initial chops that I made to establish the mortise. Once these chips are cleared, I repeat the pattern only deeper. It's important to have the bevel opposite where the chip is forming. That way, the natural tendency of the chisel to shift away from the bevel will help free the chip.

Here you can see the mortise after being dug deeper. The chisel on the benchtop is an old chisel that I reground at 90 degrees to the original bevel, so that it would be thinner than my 1/4" mortise. I use this to clear the chips and level the bottom of the mortise without affecting the sides.

Here I am marking the crest to locate the shoulder of the tenon. Obviously, hand chopping mortises like this is no way to do "production" work. But in this case, where I have 2 mortises per chair, it's 20 minutes of careful handwork that I enjoy, not to mention that improving my dexterity with the chisel can't hurt.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Chair in Motion

There is only so much that can be conveyed in still images. In this most recent rocker, I was striving to create motion, in both the lines of the chair, but also in the actual wood. Folks who have tried it out have all commented on the gentle "give" of the back. I have wanted to build a chair that had the flex of a combback, but without the arm passing across the back.

The ability to match the curve of the back is only part of the challenge. If the chair works only in a single position, the sitter will soon become fatigued and need to shift. I found that the added dimension of flexibility can help create comfort while the sitter takes on a number of positions, because the weight distribution of the sitter actually reforms the shape of the chair. It may sound obvious, cushioned chairs do it all the time (often with too much "give"), but we're talking about a wooden chair here, and by using split wood, shaved along the fiberline, I think that the challenge of making a "hard" chair "soft" is met.

Thursday, September 4, 2008


Here is the new rocker fully assembled and ready to fume. I am sure that you'll recognize many of my influences in it.

Here it is after a couple of days in the fuming chamber (shown below) with some janitorial strength ammonia. I should say that anyone attempting this should be careful to avoid the fumes. I did this by hoisting the cover up to the roof of my barn with a pulley while standing away from the area. This way the fumes could dissipate safely.

I removed the chair from the chamber and oiled it, only to realize that I wanted it darker, so I put it back in the chamber and the color continued to shift despite the oil. I am very pleased at the way that the oak and the butternut changed colors so similarly. It looks like the whole chair is made from one type of wood.

This shot shows the thin spindles. They have just enough give.

One of the most lovely qualities of the fuming is the way in which it accentuates the rays. I oriented the crest and spindles to show this. I like the way that it looks like a scribbled drawing that catches the light. I guess that there is still a painter in me somewhere.

Here is the chamber that I built. It is a simple box made from 1"X 2" and 2"X 2" lumber covered with plastic. I cut a hole in the plastic about 3 inches square and covered it with clear packing tape to create a window so that I could judge the progress.

I am looking forward to playing so more with this method of coloring the wood. The clarity of the grain (especially in the seat), and the deep colors add a lot.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Staying Flexible

As I set out to design my recent rocker, I did my best to refine and refresh my goals as a chairmaker. It's easy to get caught in preconceptions and force of habit, so staying flexible has become a primary goal.

One of the parts of chairmaking that I love is shaving wood at the shavehorse. Sitting quietly as I follow the fibers and form shapes is a real joy. My recent rodbacks have fulfilled a great deal of my aesthetic curiousities, but have pulled me too far from the shavehorse (and towards the lathe).

The shaving is also the key to unlocking the amazing strength and flexibility of the wood. It seemed like focussing myself back at the shavehorse might be fun as well as an asset to the comfort of the chair.

I spent a lot of time looking at other chairs of many styles, and found myself captivated by the ladderbacks that I saw in John Alexander's book Make a Chair From a Tree.

In his book, John shows how far a chair can be trimmed down to essentials. For instance, his slats are less than a quarter of an inch thick! Well, that got me thinking.
So this recent chair is all about flexible wood.

As you'll see, many of the elements of the ladderback have found their way into this piece. Below is the joint where the crest and stiles come together. I have borrowed the square mortise (boy is that fun to chop) and the square pegs. I also found that the relief along the front thins the stile out enough to create a lot of "give".

Here is the spindles in their rough form. They are just below 3/8ths of an inch thick. I shave, steam and bend them. Then, I form the tenon at the bottom and go about refining them.

What you see above are the arcing lines that define the locations of the details. The bottom line is where the spindle is relieved on the front and back from around 1/2 inch to 3/8ths inch. The next mark up is where the width of the spindles flares to 1 1/16 inch wide. And the top mark is where the spindles begin to taper to the 3/8 inch top. The effect is subtle but creates a more visually interesting field than keeping them all uniform and also give the widest support to the part of the spindle that bears the most weight.

I'll be showing the assembled chair soon. By forming a curved back, out of thin pieces, the top of the chair is extremely comfortable and capable of forming to the sitter, while offering good support. I think this one might even usurp my trusty continuous arm rocker as "my chair" in the living room!

Monday, September 1, 2008

Parabolic Rocking

As I got to the last part of my recent chair assembly, I decided to try a hunch and redesign my rockers. The rockers on my chairs have always been simply portions of a large circle with an area at the back that has a slightly larger radius. This flatter area at the back of the rockers acts as a brake, slowing the motion and helping it reverse. I have always felt that rockers that are simply a portion of a circle can rock back too far and make me tense.

After years of "winging it", I decided to try laying out a parabola, which naturally and fluidly flattens out toward the ends. After some tinkering with the numbers, I settled on the dimensions and layout shown below.

The layout is pretty simple (and cool!). Start with a baseline that is 38 inches long. Half way across it draw a perpendicular line that is marked at 4 1/8 inches and 8 1/4 inches off the baseline. Next draw lines from the ends of the baseline to the top mark on the perpendicular. Then mark off the sides into equal increments (the more the better). Finally, connect the lowest mark on one side to the highest on the other. Proceed up and down the sides as shown. The lines will form tangents to the parabola and give a relatively smooth curve.

Here is the final rocker, in the chair. I found that by shifting the rockers forward or back, I could place the "brake" exactly where it is most comfortable. I'd be curious to know if anyone else has worked with parabolas this way, and if so, why didn't you tell me!

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.