Sunday, January 27, 2008

Painting In Action

When asked what I find to be the hardest part of chairmaking, my reply is quick, the painting. It seems simple and the instructions and few articles on it confirm that it should be, but getting a finish deserving of the time invested in a chair can be a trying experience.

My goal in painting a chair is to unify the design and enhance the look and feel of the wood. This means that the finish should be thin, yet cover. Most instruction on using milk paint is like a road map, easy to follow, as long as all goes well. I have found there to be a few unmentioned potholes along the way.

I have posted earlier on how I mix, filter and apply milk paint. I build up multiple thin coats over a well prepared surface. I have made a minute long video of painting a coat of black over red. First the chair is painted fully barn red, as though it will be a red chair. After a full nights drying time, I paint on the black. As you see in the video, the black paint is just thick enough to barely cover, there is plenty of reddishness peeking through.

The point of the video is to show the importance of working systematically back into the painted area, keeping a wet "live" edge. The milk paint has two characteristics that can cause trouble. First, the paint dries very quickly and working back into a semidry area will build up an excess of paint and even shift the color leaving harsh lap marks. Second, the wet paint can dissolve the previous coats if allowed to soak in and then brushed over again, making a mushy mess and possibly creating adhesion issue.

I know that watching someone paint sounds like a joke, but anyone who's struggled to control milk paint will understand the video, and I hope find some tips. You'll notice how I always add paint to the unpainted area and then blend it quickly with the wet edge, I paint the whole chair this way, part by part. It is vital to spread the paint thinly and to keep moving and avoiding working back into the drier areas. Milk paint is a one way street, you gotta just keep moving on.

To complete the finish, I follow this coat with another just like it before burnishing and oiling the chair.

I will be taking a short break from the shop and look forward to returning next week.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Wrapping an Adze

Here is an adze that I made and served as my main seat carving tool for years. The wood is from a tree trunk and branch. I've found that the branch (handle) should be about 60 degrees off the flat of the blade. As you can see, I had to insert a wood stop block after the integral block broke off (after about 100 chairs).

In response to a recent question, I've made a video of attaching the blade to the handle. I use artificial sinew or waxed cord. The process begins with placing a loop of sinew on top of the blade and then wrapping it around the head and blade until only the end of the loop is exposed. Then you feed the end of the string through the loop and pull it under the wrapping. It has always amazed me how tight this method holds the blade, and for years. Thanks to my intrepid apprentice and cameraman Josh King.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

A Different Drill

Below is a photo of a piece of maple that I used for a bead turning drill. I took this tree down a couple of months ago (I love that maple doesn't rot in winter!) and wanted to see how it turned. I have always relied on hard maple for my turnings, but with the increasing difficulty of getting a decent sized log of that slow growing species, I've decided to work with soft maple, which I have acres of, for parts where strength isn't such an issue and the diameters are larger.

This repetitive drilling has its advantages over turning an entire leg. I always learn more about making a specific shape by making even poor attempts over and over than making one perfect one. The quest for the perfect shape in a spot on an actual leg can obscure the simple lessons and mistakes that become obvious during repetition.

It reminds me of my two very different experiences taking language courses. In 7th grade I had a teacher who drilled us in Latin. We would chant out verb conjugations over and over (granted, Latin is hardly conversational these days). When I went to college and took Portugeuese, the times had changed in favor of semi immersion techniques. The grad student teaching the class was dead set against repetition. I know that years of development have advanced language instruction, but I must say, I can still conjugate a verb in Latin yet can barely say "hello" in Portuguese!

It's important when doing a drill to pick a process and stick to it. Don't get hung up on one shape. Try it, fail or succeed, and then move on to the next one. You'll see your problems more clearly as you repeat them and try different solutions. The other benefit is that once you get the hang of it, your confidence will grow and the movement will become more natural.

Another way to improve is to always keep a piece chucked in your lathe for practice work, and periodically return to it in between other tasks and turn a few shapes. This prevents what I call "lathe blindness" which is that hypnotized "I've been staring at something spinning for too long" look. Plus, often upon a fresh approach, you might just find something that works!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Split Level

Here is an instance where I really should create a more elegant solution, but this old plywood box has served me so well for so many years! The photo below shows a "low bench" that is attached to the side of my regular bench. For a chairmaker, it is a huge help.

I don't bother to do any scraping on the seat surface until after I've legged it up. All of the work to finish off the seat is comfortably done at this height. I can even reach it with my light to get a good raking light across the surface as I work. It sure beats my old method of wrestling the chair across the floor. The clamping block is just a piece of old wooden clothes rod wrapped in pipe insulation. Hey, it works, and besides, this silly piece of foam gets used more than all of my handmade planes!

On a techie note, my web site entry page was acting up for a while (who knows how long!). I have fixed it and the site can now be entered by clicking on the photo. Thanks

Monday, January 21, 2008

Holding Tight

The basic job of the workbench is to provide a solid surface and ability to hold the workpiece in a useful position for the task at hand. The vise that gets the most use on my bench is made by Record and fitted with a leather lined wooden block. By using the wide block on the jaw, it is easier to exert enough holding pressure without crushing the workpiece.

But besides having a good vise setup, I find that having a rational game plan for sequencing cuts can eliminate difficulty holding while carving a seat, which is one of the major uses for a workbench in chairmaking.

I've never understood the thinking behind cutting out the seat shape first. All the best ways to hold the seat end up in the scrap bin! I prefer to cut out only the front of the seat, after drilling the holes. Then reaming, carving and banging the seat around can be done without damage to the tender surfaces of the finished seat.
Next I carve the bottom of the front of the seat and then clean up the bottom with a few plane strokes as shown below. In this photo, the bench dog and vise are doing the holding.

Finally, I cut off the extra material at the back of the seat and shave it to shape. This way, the seat is ready to be legged up immediately and I don't have to back track to clean up clamp marks and errant dings. I also don't waste any time trying to figure ways to hold a piece by the finished areas.

I was asked about the height of my workbench, and I promise to measure it, but really the number is irrelevant. The bench should fit you and the type of work that you plan to do. Most store bought modern benches are tall, figuring that routers etc... will be used the most. A bench for hand work such as planing should be low enough that the user can comfortably lean over it and get some real leverage on the tool. Obviously, this will be different for everyone. As much as the gorgeous benches in the books call to me, I prefer to let my workbench, and shop for that matter, evolve with my needs. I'd hate to make a workbench that looks great but can't keep up with me.

So, as usual, my take is to cobble something together and work with it for a while (like a decade) and to spend enough time creating a process that works with the simplest set up.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Rest of the Chair

As I was walking out of my shop recently, I saw this drawing pinned to the wall. I must have made it a couple of months ago when I started really thinking about bending the stiles and designing flat arms.

After finishing my latest chair, I think you can see why the drawing caught my eye!

I guess that there really is such a thing as "the minds eye". I have been chasing the gesture of this chair for quite a while and every time that I sat down to sketch it, the same drawing came out. I feel like I finally got it out of my system.

Here are a few other views.

The paint job is pretty simple. First I painted the chair mustard, thin enough to be quite translucent. Followed by 2 thin coats of Marigold Yellow mixed 3:1 with Tavern Green.

As you can see in the detail below, I painted all of the "incised" parts with straight Marigold.

One of the nicest aspects of this finish is that you can still see the grain beneath the paint, not just the texture but the surface. The warmth of the undercoat and the wood is very inviting.

I'll be showing more about my workbench soon.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Workbench

If woodworking can be a religious experience, as some might say, than the workbench is the sacred altar. There have been many beautiful books and histories of this ancient tool. It's evolution mirrors the development of our innovations right up to the point of its relative obsolescence in industry. But, as you can see if you visit any woodworking forum, the quest for the perfect workbench is one of the first rights of passage of new craftsmen.

I made my first workbench in the kitchen of my Manhattan apartment. I used jorgensen type screws to create a vise and an old butcherblock coffee table that I bought on the street for the top. The base offered the opportunity to try some fancy through tenons and shaping influenced by my Sam Maloof book. It was small, but a huge improvement.

My mistake was using it to build my second project, a kitchen table. So much for my workshop!

Here is a photo of my current workbench. I made it about 10 years ago while working in a cabinet shop in Brooklyn. The top is an old industrial sewing table (notice the holes where the belts used to pass) that I found on the street and walked about 20 blocks home on top of my bicycle. When I was using it for cabinetry, it had an extension on the end.

This time, there was no time for fancy through tenons, it was 4X4's and lag bolts. I fantasized (and on a rare occasion still do) about a bank of drawers that would fit underneath. But at this point, I relish cabinet work about as much as going to the dentist. You can see that I have a couple of standard vises on it, as well as a metal vise on the end.

Each woodworking vise has a row of holes in front of it for my Veritas bench puppies. I use them all the time for holding seat planks. There are a few features that I find useful, but I think that the most important virtue of my bench is that it isn't so sacred that I can't alter or sometimes even abuse it a bit, in the name of getting the job done. It is there to serve and a little spilled paint or ding doesn't faze either of us.

Here is a good example of a simple alteration (definitely a chairmakers bench) that comes in handy quite a bit. These little semicircular notches help me get solid joints, here's how

It begins with an imperfect tapered (or not) tenon. I know, this never happens to you, but in my shop, either I don't turn it perfectly or a piece may dry further after turning the tenon and things go awry. So to bring things back in order, I start by scribbling some graphite inside the hole (or a separate test hole) and then rubbing the tenon in the mortise. The graphite will reveal the high spots. It is important to note that the end of the tenon is smaller than the original hole to get a proper reading.

Then as you can see in the video below, I place the end of the tenon in the semicircular notch, which helps me to rotate the workpiece while filing away the darkened high spots. Rotating the work piece opposite the travel of the file helps keep the tenon truly round.

Next I'll post some of the other ways that my bench specifically serves chairmaking.
In the way of inquiries, I have tried to find a definitive way to describe the gouges that I use to carve my knuckles and have found that every manufacturer uses their own system. If anyone has a suggestion as to a more universal way to describe the sweeps, please let me know, thanks.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Moving Pictures

Here is a Chair Notes first. Video.
I finally got a high speed connection and thought I'd give the video setting on my camera a try. Hopefully this will open some doors to subjects that are easier to show than to write about.
This is a very short video showing my house, shop and pond. I have to admit adding the wintry wind from the Apple sound effects, it was too good to pass up.

Please let me know if you have any trouble viewing the footage and if the download time is unusually long. I'm looking forward to the new possibilities.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Arm Evolution

Here are some of the pieces that I made on the way to creating the arms for my new chair. I kept having to work on two fronts. Not only honing in on a specific look and feel but also creating a distinct process to achieve it. I guess this pretty well describes the design process.

Luckily, the multiple attempts and trials payed off. There are photos of the arm below.

I am a big fan of what is often referred to as "degenerate" or "late" windsors. The terms reflect the simplified forms that became prevalent as the windsor headed towards factory production. I've read that the "bamboo" style could actually be seen as an advance, because the undercarraige and the top are unified stylistically. With this in mind, I set out to create an arm that would work with the rest of the turnings and also echo the carving in the seat.

It was a lot of fun playing with off center turning and creating patterns to make the final form. Making windsor chairs has given me an appreciation and understanding of the way that shapes and surfaces can come together with a logic all their own. I am especially interested in the way that the cove at the back of the arm echoes the cove cut in the side of the seat. The photo below shows this nicely.

I am looking forward to getting some paint on the chair. Paint tends to change everything, as the surface is unified and the forms come to light. I'll post more photos when it's done.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Little Difference, Big Difference

While doing a dry run on the assembly of my latest prototype the other day, I noticed that the spindles looked heavy where they enter the crest. On most of my chairs, the smallest diameter of the spindles is 3/8ths of an inch. But in this case, it seemed too much. So I shaved the spindles down to fit through an 11/32nd inch hole. Below is a photo of a 3/8 inch drill bit on the left and a 11/32 inch drill bit on the right.
Although the difference in bits seems nearly undetectable, I found it made a wonderful difference in the look and feel of the chair.

Here is a comparison of some 3/8 inch spindles and some 11/32nd inchers. The difference may be exagerrated a bit because the 3/8 inch spindles will receive one more cleanup shaving before going in the chair, but I was still surprised by the impact that 1/32nd can make visually and in the amount of flex.

When designing with split and shaved wood, I am constantly challenged to retain the flexibility inherent in the wood. Sometimes getting the size of the pieces right can take some trial and error. I've gotten used to making multiple parts.

So going forward, I plan to apply this size to some other chairs and see the difference. I'd appreciate feedback from anyone who might give it a try.


Often in the process of learning handtools, it's easy to get mesmerized by the shavings. After all, they are the reflection of the actual work being done. Looking at the shavings can tell a lot about the quality and control of a cut. I sometimes have to remind myself that it is the wood left behind that I am "making"!

The holy grail of shaving making is most often the thin shaving. There are many folks out there with dial calipers and microscopes inspecting the shavings. I don't go this far but I do believe that a thin shaving is the result of a well tuned tool and a controlled cut. Both positive things, in the service of making something.

When I've done demonstrations at craft shows, the shavings are often the star. I invariably get more questions and suggestions about the shavings than any other part of the enterprise. The truth is, I find the chairs more profitable even after hundreds of suggestions for shaving based products!

To me, shavings are something to get off the floor and into my woodstove or garden. So here is how I deal with packing up shavings.

I found that burlap sacks work great for cleaning up the shavings and allowing them to dry before starting my stoves with them. Plus the bag full of shavings makes an endearing gift to any fellow woodburner during heating season! To pack the bags, I simply cut a trashcan into a collapsing funnel, put the bag on one end and fill.

Here is the filled bag. I am careful not to overstuff it, it can make the shavings tougher to get out.

In my conversations with Jeff Lefkowitz last week he pointed out my disheveled pile of drawings and patterns. He told me that his impression from the blog was that I am very organized (this is when all former students reading laugh!). Well in the name of full disclosure, here is my mess. As much as I may try, (yes Sue, I try) I have a serious paper problem. I'm afraid that the way that I deal with paper is an accurate reflection of the way my brain works. Hey, at least the floor is clean.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Inshaves Revisited

I had a recent inquiry about the oxhead inshave that I used. The question was in regards to the handles which seemed to get in the users way. I don't think that the company has changed the angles of the handles, so my assumption is that a change in technique may be enough to correct the issue.
I have mentioned in previous posts that I prefer the flatter profile (and cheaper price) of the oxhead inshave. Inshaves fall into the catagory of "most misused tools". It presents itself with two symetrical handles that just scream to be pulled evenly towards the user. Combine this with the mistaken notion that one should cut "with" the grain and you have a recipe for hacking, chattering, digging and sweating your way to a seat.
The photo below (thanks to Jeff Lefkowitz for the hand modelling) shows the inshave held in the best cutting position. Note the arrow showing the direction the tool is travelling.

As you can see, one hand is leading the tool in a skew across the grain of the seat. By skewing the tool and working cross grain, the handles never pose a problem and the cut is clean and easy. When the tool starts creating tearout, simply switch to the other hand leading and you'll see clean shearing cuts again.
Using the inshave this way sounds simple, but don't underestimate the innate desire to pull both handle towards yourself, it is irresistable in those new to the technique.

Below is Jeff with his chair in the home stretch of assembly. Jeff came to me as an experienced chairmaker, so we spent most of the week talking fine points and comparing technique. Next, Jeff is going to take a two week course with Brian Boggs at Kelly Mehler's School in Berea. Best of luck Jeff.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Waxing Up

No, this is not an entry about the Boggs spokeshave pictured in the photo above. It's about the lump of wax next to it.
I am downright radical in my support for using wax on handtools. In instances where there is no worry of fouling the surface for finishing, I use a scribble of wax on the soles of handplanes, travishers, spokeshaves, saws, lathe tool rests, bandsaws and many others.

Those who haven't bothers to use wax, probably wonder whether it makes a signifigant difference. Imagine a car, all the effort that goes into designing a driving machine to be exemplary, now take the air out of the tires and hit the road!

This is the common experience of handtool users. The effort of pushing the tool without lubrication dampens the vibrations from the blade. You might as well be pushing a brick for the lack of feedback. Not to mention the extra effort that can often make using a handtool seem impractical.

I buy blocks of wax (used in canning) at the grocery store. One box gives enough to scatter pieces all over the shop so that they are always within reach. A quick scribble is all that you need, but how often you apply becomes the critical variable. Once you feel the difference, you'll be more inspired to make waxing an active effort.

One critical place for waxing is the lathe tool rest. I scribble it with wax and then buff off the excess with a scotchbrite pad inbetween every leg I turn. It dramatically affects the ability of my tools to move fluidly and therefore my turnings look better and are easier to create.

Another great place for wax is the grinder tool rest. The grit from the wheel often fouls the rest and makes "feeling" the edge difficult. Wax the toolrest and no only will the blade slide easier, but the pressure on the edge may become more apparent, reducing the risk of burning.

So dig deep and get ahold of a 2 dollar box of wax, and put some air in those tires!

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Tenons, Cutters and Holes

Here is a photo of some octagonal spindles that have been dried in my kiln. Along with the spindles are a tenon cutter and a block of wood with holes in it that correspond to the size holes that I drill for the spindles.
Normally I am not interested in working with jigs where basic skill can be employed. The skill that I practice often opens doors to new and exciting abilities that I'd hate to sacrifice for the certainty of a jig. However, this is one instance where I have found a simple way to speed my process and improve my results.

The way that I have always formed the tenons on my spindles is by shaving them until they fit snugly in a hole in the block. It works fine and is wonderfully cheap. The problem came when I called on my students to do the same and found it to be a stumbling block. Often I saw beautifully made spindles lost in the last act. So I started using the tenon cutters, not to form the whole tenon (this wouldn't work anyway because they don't follow the fibers), but to put a circular reference directly on the end of the tenon. With this reference, all of the excess wood is made entirely visible and can be removed quickly with a drawknife. By leaving the spindle in the octagonal shape, the efforts is further reduced.
As you can see, the tenon that I form with the cutter (in a Jacobs chuck in my lathe) is only about 1/8 of an inch long. It is important that the end of the spindle is cut square, otherwise the tenon may form off to one side a bit.

After shaving the octagon a hair larger than the tenon, I round down the tenon and go back to my trusty block of wood to finish it off. The image below shows the tenon in the hole. I always hold the piece up to the light so that I can see where the light shines through. This reveals the high spots for me to shave.

After a good amount of use, the hole in the block becomes oversized and I use it for my initial sizing and drill a fresh hole for the final shaving. It is important to note that drill bits can drill different sized holes in different species of wood. I always test my first tenon in the actual seat as well as the block to understand the relationship between the holes. I must admit that at first I told myself that this was a good solution for students but not for me, perhaps a bit of misplaced ego! Now I use this on almost every chair and enjoy the simplified action of getting beautifully tight tenons,

Thursday, January 3, 2008

A New Jig

Holding pieces for drilling and carving can be key to ease and accuracy. The problem of course is that after turning a baluster leg etc... there aren't any discernable flats to hold onto.
This is an update of a jig that I've used for years to hold my legs while routing (yes, routing with a router!) the slots for my rockers. It enables me to hold any shaped leg in my vise, in a wide range of positions. Today, as I was looking at my older version of the jig, a light bulb went off sending me to the scrap pile and then to the lathe. This is my favorite type of innovation, quick, cheap and funky looking.

Here is how it holds the leg. I added leather to the jaws after taking the photo and had no marring on the cherry legs that I was working on.

Here it is in the vise. It gives a suitable amount of movement to work on the ends while holding solidly.
While I like to use my router, the holding jig works fine with a hand saw too!

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Getting Straight

It's official, the holidays are over. Like most folks, by the end of the season, I am ready to return to normal life, normal eating and yes, normal work. The reentry into full production can feel awkward, with many fits and starts. I felt lucky today to be able to sit down for a while and just shave some spindles. It was just the kind of quiet time that I needed to feel back in the swing.
The set of spindles, for a comb back rocker, turned out to have quite a life of their own once they went in the kiln. As you can see, they dried in a variety of bends and curls. I thought it would be fun to show what a little time with the heat gun can do.

Here is the result of carefully and slowly heating the spindles while applying pressure to straighten them.

The best way to learn this technique is through trial and error (scorching or breaking!). The idea is to heat the area slowly, imagine trying to heat the piece all the way through, not just getting the surface hot. Then hold with the proper amount of pressure until the piece cools a bit. I always try to err on the side of too little heat and make up the difference with pressure. Remember that the heat can weaken the wood if applied radically.

Often I will put pressure on the piece first and then apply the heat. I can actually feel the resistance to the bend relax as the heat penetrates. Luckily, most spindles don't distort so much in the drying process, but when they do, I must admit taking more than a little pleasure seeing them fall in line.