Monday, March 31, 2008

Roughing Out

A quick announcement. I have been invited to speak and demonstrate at a woodturning club meeting at the Peter's Valley Woodshop this Wednesday at 7 pm. It is a new club combining members from New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Roughing out a turning is obviously a vital stage in the process. It is easy to look to the fancy skew work or cutting graceful coves as the stars in the show, but it is really the lowly parting tool and roughing gouge that set the stage for a successful turning. If the different elements are not correctly spaced and sized, nothing will save the piece.

My turnings always progress the same way. Establishing a pattern is vital to gaining consistent skills. Think of it as an obstacle course. You'll quickly recognize which elements give you trouble, practice them, and move beyond. By roughing out the whole piece until I can easily visualize the final shapes, I avoid getting confused or misaligning the elements.

I also try to employ an economy of movement, cutting as much as I can with the tool in my hand. This saves time, creates clarity and builds dexterity with the tool.
I highly recommend practicing making the various shapes involved, but if you are at all like me, of course you are going to try to turn the whole thing first! I recall it as a lesson in humility.

Here is a narrated video of me roughing out a leg. I will turn it to completion in subsequent videos.

As I mentioned in the video, I begin each sizing cut by taking a light cut with the parting tool to establish a groove and a clean vibration free cut. Once the tool is riding in the groove, I proceed to cut to the desired diameter. You'll also notice that I "choke up" on the parting tool and hold it just behind the tool rest. I find that this increases my sensitivity and coordination by reducing the leverage. It is vital to feel the tool in proper relation to the cut, but I'll go more into that later.

New Ventures

I am pleased to announce that the Galbert Caliper is now available. After years of development and trial, I have a tool that I am proud to offer. The caliper is simple. It does for round things what a tape measure does for linear. Instead of setting a old style caliper, the user simply presses the Galbert Caliper against the back of the spinning work piece and reads the actual size, and then proceeds to cut, and stops when the desired size is achieved. You can make one cut or one hundred with resetting any tools!

The price of the tool is $79.50. My decision to market the tool myself is an attempt to keep production of the tool in the United States and make sure that the cost of the tool is a reflection of it's value, and not how many times it's traded hands before reaching the buyer.

I have used this tool, in cruder versions, in my own shop for years. It was born of the frustration of setting and resetting multiple tools, occasionally grabbing the wrong one and getting less than ideal results because of the flexibility of the old style calipers. I used to loathe the first few minutes of my turning sessions because they were all about the calipers. Thanks to the insistance of my students, who have cornered the market on the first ones produced, I decided to develop the tool into a product.

Here is the position of the tool in use. It is held against the back of the spinning piece. The scale is on the portion of the tool that faces the user (see below). The tool is designed to measure rounds from 2 1/2 inches down to 1/2 inch. I found this to be a good range for measurements in decorative spindle turning.

The new web site for the Galbert Caliper will be ready in a few days and will be a fully functioning commerce site. The new site (and this blog) will all be reachable at my web site

This is of course a new type of venture for me. I'd like to thank all of the friends, professional turners and students who've helped me along the way. My biggest thanks is of course to my wife whose belief in my ideas has always enabled me to pursue them. I look forward to hearing feedback on the Galbert Caliper, and I hope it is as useful to the buyers as it is to me.

I will be creating some videos and instructions for use this week. To keep things interesting for the reader, they will be a part of a larger focus on turning that I have planned to coincide with the introduction of the tool.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Splitting Maple

Looks like winter is having its last gasp around here! One or two quick blasts and it should be over.

I recently purchased a beautiful hard maple from my sawyer. It looks like a cartoon drawing of a perfect tree. The heart is about the size of a quarter and the rest is clear straight wood.
I have resorted to sawing maple on my previous log which did not like to split, which taught me a few things. There seemed to be a higher yield by sawing and the blanks were easier to handle and chuck up than splits. This may be true, but my instinct is still to reach for the sledge and wedges rather than the chainsaw mill.

Above is a photo of the layout that I have commonly used to split maple. Really, it is the layout that works best with ring porous hardwoods, and I've used it out of habit. There are some problems with the layout such as the circular lines, the odd shaped trapezoid pieces and the fact that no line runs all the way from the bark to the heart.

Below is the layout that I now try to use with my maple. It more closely mimics sawing the wood, which gives square blanks and a clean grid that always goes straight from one side to the other.

There are only a couple of difficulties with this layout. To start the split, I score a line 1/4 inch deep along the entire length by striking a wedge or hatchet. This helps to direct the fracture. It is usually necessary on large pieces to simultaneously drive wedges along the length of the line to prevent weak areas from cracking. The other difficulty is the patience required. Oak and hickory etc... have weak layers between strong fibers, and the splits love to stay on the fiber line. With maple and other more homogenous woods, the splits tend to be more influenced by the mass of the splits. When the mass of the two parts being split is uneven, the line will run out toward the weaker side. By tapping the wedges gently, the fibers have more of a chance to separate, rather than shear under the uneven influence. I know that the impulse to swing a sledge hammer like you're driving railroad spikes is tempting, but in this case, it's all about finesse. It takes some practice, but I have found the higher yields and simpler approach worth it.
Good luck.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Well Done

Here is Bill Jenkins putting the finishing touches on his chair this week. I must admit to always taking pride in my students work. As far as I am concerned, it is still a chair made in my shop and a reflection of both of us. Bill and I worked together very closely to get this difficult chair made (although he did the actual work).

Teaching is always the last step in understanding and this chair is no exception. I have made many of them, but teaching it forced me to refine the process greatly, and for that I am thankful. Now I have simple and elegant steps to achieve the piece. Thanks Bill.

Here is the final piece. It's interesting to see that little differences that a different craftsman will make without even knowing it.

In response to questions about unpainted work. I have not made a chair out of a singe wood, not that I am opposed, I simply haven't. The part that concerns me is the spindles, but I am currently working towards making an all white oak chair, except for the butternut seat, that I hope to fume in ammonia to get that rich color.
As much as too harsh a contrast or too many variant woods may distract from the overall design, I think that using only one wood may seem bland, but good design should make up for that!

On the syrup front, I have made close to 5 gallons and am planning only another burn or two. Now I proceed into the final joy of making syrup, delivering it to my friends!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Unpainted Furniture

This week Bill Jenkins is making a cherry armchair, which sparked a comment about unpainted chairs. There are a number of considerations to take into account with "natural" chairs. Of course the species is first. The various woods usually used in a windsor chair serve different purposes. This is still the case when working unpainted. Obviously, pine spindles would create as many problems as an oak seat. Most of the time, a reasonably hard wood such as cherry or walnut can be used in place of maple as a turning material. For spindles, I believe in sticking with the ring porous hardwoods such as hickory, ash and oak, unless you plan on sawing very carefully and increasing the dimensions for added strength. The contrast between woods can be used to good effect, but I often find it distracting from the overall design.

Which brings up the second important factor, which is the difference between a piece with a single unified (painted) surface and one alive with the image of the grain. I try to simplify the shapes in unpainted work, realizing that the action of the grain is going to draw a great deal of attention. Some of the shapes that usually look lovely painted, can look distractingly busy with the grain showing. I think of unpainted work like having a photo wrapped around the shapes, it really is a whole other element to consider.

Another consideration is tool marks. Often, under paint, the tool marks left by cutting tools can accentuate the form and add a great deal of visual interest. However, in unpainted work, toolmarks may muddy the flow of the grain. These are all decisions to be made based on the situation and the goal that the maker has in mind.

One of the toughest choices for unpainted work is the seat material. I find pine too intense, poplar and basswood too bland. I dream of a time past when chestnut was widely available! My closest choice to chestnust is butternut, but I'd also consider cherry, walnut or any other wood that is available in the widths and reasonably stable and soft to carve.

Now with all the warnings and difficulties out of the way, it should be said that learning to use the visible grain to accentuate the form is a great deal of fun and can be supremely rewarding. I do enjoy cutting into a seat blank and revealling layer upon layer of color and pattern, and I know that my clients like it too. Working with unpainted wood can be a great way of breaking the mindset that all the great forms have already been settled. It is a challenge, but in the spirit of advancing the craft, I think it is very worthwile.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


This is a chair that I've owned since before I ever made a Windsor chair, or even had a real interest in them. The chair was simply left behind by someone vacating a New York city apartment. I liked the painting and kept it.

After having and using the chair for a couple of years, I went to lift it by the posts and the entire top came apart. I was astounded that there was no glue in the top but it was still solid. This was enough to push me further towards exploring chairmaking.
I don't know how old the chair is, it is obviously a factory product, but there are some nice hand shaved tenons on the top of the spindles and of course the painting is very handmade looking.

There is a freshness to this painting that I really enjoy. The years of patina, age and abuse can't cover the immediacy of the painter. It's as though they were just here. This is an achievement in painting be it on a canvas or a piece of furniture.
I suppose that you could call the painting naive or folk art. I have seen many chairs that look exactly like this one, but never with this painting. Perhaps it was the addition of the purchaser.

My training in "fine art" painting left me with a few observations. The most important is that all the virtuosity in the world cannot help you if you've got nothing to say. I recall struggling to relate to a blank canvas, and never quite being inspired. But I never have that problem when I walk in the room and see this little chair.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Lots of Teaching

This is Chris Virden putting the finishing touches on his continuous armchair a couple of weeks back. Chris lives on a mountain in the National Park in Tennessee where he runs a lodge that folks hike in five miles to visit. His lack of electricity on the mountain made chairmaking seem like a good fit. Between him and Mark from Jericho Settlers farm in Vermont (he was here a ways back), I have found a theme in my generation. Talk to a guy around 40 and the conversation will soon turn to the things that they have learned to do for themselves, be it raising grass fed livestock, growing food, harnessing solar power or of course, making sugar. Chris dove headlong into the process as he used tools that he'd never even held before. One thing that I always admire in my students is the willingness to risk trying something new.

This week brings Bill Jenkins (Of Locust Farm Windsors)back to the shop. Bill has been here a couple of times before, his arrival seems to herald the beginning of the spring. Bills chairs can be seen in the HBO series about John Adams. He is making a cherry and butternut armchair, his first completely unpainted chair.

I went up to Parksville to a serious maple syrup producer and equipment dealer. They have 600 taps out and 500 more coming. I hope to go back up when they do a burn, I'd love to see a 12 foot by 4 foot pan boiling away! The folks who run it were revelling in the good year we are having. There is something about connecting ones life directly to the seasons and the weather that seems to breed joy (especially when the weather cooperates!). The longer that I live in the country, the more I covet and seek this connection.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Decorative Edge

Painting chairs has always been challenging to me. Not because of the covering of the wood grain, I like the unified silhouette of a painted chair. I see painted chairs as belonging to two different concepts. One, normally a layered black on red, seeks to give the impression of a patina or stain, which gives the impression of age and a stately "wood" appearance. The other is a distinct color choice, such as green, red or blue that shouts, "I've been painted".

Coming from a fine arts painting background, the latter choice has always been more difficult for me. Perhaps I know all too well the potential for drawing attention to a poor choice!

Recently, I have been continuing to develop my line of rod back chairs, and this little side chair seemed a perfect candidate for some risk taking in the paint department.

First, I used a few undercoats of the Real Milk Paint company's goldenrod and then a mix of reddish brown. I then finished it with the peacock mixed with a little of the conifer green. If you haven't tried the paint from this company, I recommend that you do. It is a very different paint. At first I was turned off by the more matte finish, but the wonderful colors, bullet proof results and ease of use drew me back. I've been promising myself that one day I'd work to find a way to use this paint for it's strengths, and here I am.

After achieving the color and finish that I wanted, something seemed to be missing. I have toyed with the idea of using decorative detailing on a chair ever since Curtis Buchanan's birdcage chair inspired me to become a chairmaker.

My resistance has been twofold, not knowing what to paint, and not being adept at decorative painting. But fools rush in right?! So I did some practice painting on some scrap with the goldenrod and found my confidence growing. I am pleased with the results, it really pulls the chair together and my wife said that it is her new favorite. Talk about a review that counts!

Here are some more details. Much like the surface shaping in my chairs that reveal the handwork as you look closer, I wanted the details to break down into simple almost crude strokes up close. However, from a few feet away they fall right in line.

I will go into more detail about the Real Milk Paint company product soon, it's a worthy topic.

On the syrup front, below is a photo of three jars. The middle one is the syrup that I made today, a little under a gallon in about 8 hours, not bad for a homemade rig. The two used pans that I picked up sped the process but more importantly, increased the quality of the syrup beyond my wildest expectations.

Syrup is graded by color. The lighter the syrup the higher the quality. On the right in the photo is store bought grade A amber. This is the best stuff you can get in the grocery store and is about $16 a quart. You'll notice that the bottles are always thin and wide, which makes the syrup look lighter. On the left in the photo is the syrup that I made in my previous deep pans. I think that the depth of the pans caused the heat to dissipate too slowly and the syrup to degrade slightly to a darker tone. I'll use this as cooking syrup. The success of the new pans seems to be due to their shallow depth (I kept about an inch or two maximum boiling) which allows the bubbles to reach the surface quickly and give off their steam without scorching the syrup.

It is hard to describe the difference in taste. Some folks prefer the heavier taste of the darker syrups, but the lighter, more delicate flavor of the higher grades has almost a buttery flavor. I am excited for the next batch, although, the quality of the syrup tends to degrade as the trees get closer to budding, but then of course, it is truly spring and you won't find me complaining.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A Lumbermill Tragedy

No, nobody was hurt, thank goodness. However, I find myself looking and a poorly sawn white pine log in my yard that is 34 inches at its widest!

I have started a relationship with a new sawyer in Pennsylvania in an attempt to get more white pine for my seats. He is a nice guy and has taken the time to listen to my needs and help find the right log and saw it. As this is the first time that he's sawn for me, we had a few conversations about how he might do it, looking at the log, I wish we'd had one more.
The way the the log was sawn and the low price (I buy the entire log figuring that the waste will still be absorbed in the savings) still make it a bargain compared to the premiums that seat blanks can fetch these days. But because of the sawing issue, I lost about 18 to 20 beautiful seats!

Here is a picture of the misaligned saw blade that cut half of the board too thin. There are about 4 of 13 planks with this mistake.

Here is one of two clear planks cut too near to the outside of the tree, one face is a lovely 19 inches wide and the other is 13!
It breaks my heart!

I normally give detailed instructions that include sawing to 8/4" and including the heart in a single board (so that it doesn't spoil two). Now I know a couple of other things to mention. Generally, the best and clearest wood is going to start a couple of planks from the center. This is because the young tree has branches that fall off and the later rings towards the outer part of the tree become more uniform.

After paying for the lumber and inspecting it, I spoke with someone at the mill about the problems. I made sure that they understood that I am still happy to have found someone willing to meet my requirements, but for future sake, we will need to communicate better.

The day was rescued when I went to my local sawyer and he had some gorgeous hard maple. The other day while driving down main street Jeffersonville, I saw Matt and shouted out the window about my need for some maple, he said he'd set aside a good one for me. We've been working together for 8 years now and he knows just what I need.
I hope that my new pine guy will become that same easy sort of connection.

For anyone still interested, I boiled down another gallon of syrup yesterday and the results of my new supercharged rig are fantastic. I shaved three hours of boiling time off, never lost my boil and used less wood. Victory. Now I am heading to a restaurant supply house that used to service the Catskill hotels to rummage through their barn of stainless pans to up the ante!

Here is a photo of the sap from the three different pans that I use. As you can see, it goes from looking like water to gaining that lovely amber hue. Soon I hope to use a flow through pan, but first I have some digging to do!

Monday, March 10, 2008

Burning Up

Obviously I enjoy making lasting objects in wood. There are no other materials that draw me so strongly. Maybe it's being able to walk through the woods, standing in the shadows of the trees or the logic of the growth that allows for splitting, bending and carving, whatever it is I am hooked.

But there is another way that I use wood in my life, and that's to burn. I heat my house and shop with catalytic woodstoves. Every shaving and chunk of wood that won't make it into a chair goes towards keeping my home comfortable. Somewhere along the way, I came across an explanation of burning wood that connected the heat released during burning to the years of exposure to the sun. The tree takes the energy of the rays and transform it into energy for growth, and when burnt, gives back that same energy.
So whenever I look into a fire, I feel like I am seeing all the sunny days that the tree lived, a pleasant thought in the dead of winter.

My favorite fire is definitely the one in my syrup boiler. There is something close to perfection in the cycle of tree sap transforming into syrup by the heat of burning wood. As my wife can tell you, once the snow on the ground turns to the pebbly "corn snow", I spend way too much time out in the yard trying to improve my boiling rig. I take it as a challenge to create and channel as much heat, from as little wood as possible, to boil off as much water, in as short an amount of time, to get the most syrup, with the least energy expended.

This is my boiling rig. It consists of a 55 gallon drum with a hole cut in the top that houses three stainless chafing pans (like the ones in steamer tables). A hole in the end allows me to feed the fire inside and the sand at the rear helps to force the heat up to the pan in the rear on its way to the chimney. The sides of the drum are lined with corrugated roofing and backfilled with sand for insulation.
The pride that I take in my rig seems to be directly proportional to how ridiculous and half baked it looks.

This year I have also added a pipe and blower to help combust the wood fully and keep the fire high when adding fresh chunks. The key to a boiler is to keep the heat constantly high, no smoldering low fires. The chimney usually shows no sign of smoking, just waves of heat. This is vital when the goal is to turn 5 gallons of water into steam every hour.

Here is the forge blower that my friend Neil loaned me, a perfect addition. You can see the cooler in the back. It is one of about 6 that I use to store the sap as I collect it. This one has a tube that automatically feeds fresh sap into the one of the boiling pans. Below is a short video of the pans at a full boil. I cycle the sap through the pans so that the first pan gets the fresh sap and the last one has near finished syrup.

When I became interested in making syrup, I read a book called "Backyard Sugaring" by Rink Mann. It has been a great resource. Don't get the impression that a complex rig is necessary. All you need to do is boil water, period. When the sap reaches 7 degrees above the boiling temperature of water at your elevation, you have syrup. Filter it through a piece of felt and enjoy. But be forewarned, I started with 6 taps and a single pan over a fire pit, the challenge of increasing efficiency proved to much to resist!

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Tapping Time

Well, after resolving my computer glitch (it began with a cup of coffee and a high tech modem!) I found myself swamped with chairs, students and the joys of spring. Of course, for me, the joys start early because of maple syrup making season. While everyone else is having cabin fever and griping about mud season, I am in my element, emptying buckets and improving my boiling rig. Below is a photo of my rig going full blast at about 6 am the other day.

Few things make me happier than sitting outside watching the sunrise like this. And a mere 10 hours later, I had a lovely gallon of high quality maple syrup sitting glowing like the heart of the tree.

I know, the payoff sounds like a few dollars an hour for my labor, but money has nothing to do with it. The simple self sufficiency of making our sugar for the year, as well as for friends while getting a full share of fresh air makes it priceless.

Thanks to those who inquired about the status of the blog. Things have settled down a bit and I am looking forward to posting more often.