Thursday, May 29, 2008

Force vs. Sensitivity

One of the constant themes that I think about and teach is the direct ratio between the amount of force exerted and the actual control and sensitivity one experiences using handtools. It is a common reaction when unsure of a tool or situation to apply the deathgrip, hold your breath and plow headlong into the task. Generally, the user, the tool and the wood suffer.
The problem is that most often, excessive force comes at the expense of the fluid motion and the vital feedback from the vibrations of the tool.

While working with Stacy Forte, it has been fun observing the ways in which good technique can easily overcome brute force. I have often observed that women woodworkers do well because they don't initially rely on force to get them through unknown situations.
In her hands, I more often see the tool come to a dead stop, as opposed to taking a chunk out of the wood. Then she reassesses and proceed to change up the technique, perhaps skewing the blade, slicing or cutting across the fibers to get the results.

It is a great lesson as both a teacher and woodworker to focus on technique overcoming strength. As I get older, and the realization that my body is a not an endless resource becomes more apparent, I am as interested as much in how something is achieved as what is achieved. A graceful process or technique is as appealing as a graceful chair.

Speaking of graceful, my springtime obsession is my trees. Besides my woods, I have been actively working to populate the hayfield that I live in with new trees. I plant out 3 or 4 fruit trees a year and a couple of shade trees. Here is a sugar maple in its third year since planting. I may not live long enough to make syrup from it, but as I drive in our rural area and see all the sugar maples planted along the roads, I am reminded that it's my contribution to the next generation. Something about this makes being finite less stressful.

This year, I have been using these tree protectors to surround some of the volunteer maples that show up in my field before the deer can munch them. It is the easiest form of tree planting I do. Find a tiny sprout, drive a stake, and cover it. The shield is both protection and a micro climate that extends the growing season. Pretty good for 2 bucks a piece. I get them through my local forestry association.

Here is a little sprout. As much as the chairs I make, I hope this little plant will be my legacy to the future. If ever there was a graceful process...

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A New Class

Here is another of the chairs that I found while hunting around Cape Cod. I don't spend much time being terribly critical of the design, I figure that it's longevity speaks for it. I was quite taken with the exagerrated hands, they really jump out at you.

Below is my friend Stacy Forte. She has graciously agreed to be my guinea pig as I work out the kinks in the piece that I'll be teaching at Peter's Valley in a couple of weeks. Stacy has been kicking up a storm with her chopsaw all winter and wondering what else you can do with simple tools. My kind of student!

We both have all of our parts and should see them standing soon. I have taken it as an opportunity to try some ideas in leg shaping that I have been batting around for a while. I've learned to be patient with myself when it comes to developing ideas. Even when I know the direction that interests me and the basic goals that I wish to reach, it can take quite a while to pass through the stages necessary to fully realize them.
Now if anyone has a few extra hours in the day that I might borrow, I might just get there.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Seafood Retreat

Here is a photo of Chair Notes covergirl Sue Scott on our recent trip to Cape Cod. Thanks to the generosity of Russ Mclean (you may remember him as a student last summer) we enjoyed sunny days at his lovely cottage near the beach in Eastham. After 15 years of trying, Sue has convinced me that the occasional excursion away from the shop is a healthy, even productive thing. It does seem to clear the mental cobwebs. Of course, you can take the chairmaker out of the shop, but....

So I managed to do some fun new design work, that will be months before I can even think of making, and of course, stopped in shops to look for old chairs. I enjoy finding chairs of all types, I think that different styles and technologies can really get the creative juices flowing, but coming across classic Windsors is, of course, always a treat. It's as though the craftsman himself is standing in front of me.

I'll be posting more photos of my finds, but here are a couple of c-arms that I came across at Pleasant Bay Antiques ( Not only did the proprietor have the nicest examples that I found on the Cape this trip, but he was kind enough to grant me permission to photograph them at my leisure. A great combination!

When facing an antique Windsor, I am almost always struck by the quirky nature that they exhibit. In days before formica and perfect looking pressboard, it seems that the notion of creating shapes marched to a different drummer. There is a liveliness to the shapes that encourages movement and air to flow around the piece. It's as though everything around the chair must interact with its individuality. I pity the flat table top that comes near it!

The delicacy of the pieces also stand out. Besides being smaller in general, the thin arms and spindles of these chairs are a testament to the technology employed in their making. I don't subscribe to the notion that all continuous arms must have auxiliary bracing to survive, and am happy to see that these two examples bear me out. Of course the thin arms are a vulnerable spot, but shaving with the fibers and using white oak leaves me comfortable enough to offer my guarantee.

Perhaps the greatest insight that these chairs have to offer, is that there are no hard rules to designing. There are so many variations between them, that the message is clear. Make the chair you want to make, and maybe someday, long after your gone, someone will gaze upon your creation and catch a glimpse of you in it.
And now, I get back to work...

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Curved Stretchers

One of the more interesting challenges of the recent settee was the curved undercarraige. I thought that it might be good to detail the process a bit.

As you can see in the photo above, I made two forms, based on the centerline of the curve and then cut them to accomodate the shape of the already turned stretchers. I developed the curve by setting a string from one outer stretcher (already assembled) to the other and noting the distance to the middle of the center stretcher, which fell a few inches behind the string due to the curve of the seat.

With this information, I had the 3 critical points needed and proceed to draw what I felt was a pleasing curve. I was careful after steaming the stretchers to clamp so that the clamps wouldn't compress the softened fibers, remembering that there isn't the usual extra material to shave away.

The fact that I nailed it on my first try tells me that the process must be somewhat forgiving, which is good, because I didn't have time for a second shot before the photos were due.

This process is a great example of why I enjoy making chairs this way. If you can imagine it, the means of getting the job done are usually quick and direct. If freedom and immediacy are the goals, Windsor and green wood technology have a lifetime of options to offer.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Studio Shots

Here are the studio photos that I had taken of the Rodback Settee. It is such a transformation to see it in the studio lighting!

Hopefully it's obvious why black was the wrong color for this piece. I am especially happy with the results of the curved stretchers. A little full scale drawing and a couple of forms and it wasn't as difficult as I had expected. A small design note, the curved stretchers enter the middle stretcher at about 2 degrees, just enough to keep the curve flowing.

It's interesting that the most comments that I've received in a while come on the heels of a milk paint posting. It just goes to show that the finish is not just a final step, but a make or break moment with some distinct perils due to the touchy nature of milk paint.

In answer to some of the questions. I stripped the settee to bare wood on all the parts except for those that I had previously scraped, which I simply rescraped (namely the tops of the arms and the seat). By repeatedly wiping hot water on the pieces, one section at a time, being very careful not to flood the joints, I was able to loosen the paint. Then I carefully washed the area down with a wet gray scotchbrite pad and then dried it thoroughly.

I am very concerned with the appearance of the pine seat, so I carefully scraped it to bare wood. It is important not to reduce the paint to a wet mess and then expect it to reharden into any solid finish, that is why I brought it all to bare wood (although with a slightly pinking tone from the red). I also wanted to avoid having any remnants showing through the translucent light green.

To mix my paint, I simply shook it up in a jar and added the anti foaming agent. From this jar, I poured a smaller amount into a cup and painted the settee. At the end of the day, I poured what was left in the cup back into the jar. The next day, I shook it up again, without stirring up the muck at the bottom, and once again poured it off into a small cup. It was nice that the muck stayed in the larger jar and the anti foaming agent took care of the bubbles. According to the Real Milk Co. web site, the anti foaming agent does help the particles dissipate into the paint, and from my small experience, this seems reasonably accurate.

Thanks for the questions, remember, when it comes to milk paint, we're all in this together!

Monday, May 12, 2008

What a Week

Anyone who checks in often has probably noticed a hush that has fallen on Chair Notes for the last week. I have been consumed with finishing my curved rodback settee. I had a deadline to meet, partly imposed but mostly my own and the finish took a great deal more time than I expected (I shouldn't be surprised). The whole gruesome tale is that I painted the piece black on red only to find that I had changed a light active curvaceous settee into a dank still corpse! I stood back, looked at it, and realized that it bore no resemblance to the image that I have had in my head for years. I suppose that I let the deadlines scare me into a conservative choice and found the piece deserved better.

So what do I do. I wash down the entire piece, careful not to soak the joints, scraped down the seat and begin the process of achieving a finish that will add to the piece. For this I turned back to the first chair that I made, the little green birdcage. I followed the process of painting the settee yellow with about 4 thin coats of light green over top. After much wrestling, the paint came out beautifully. Slightly mottled, translucent and rich. Whew! Lesson learned.

I will get some studio shots done tomorrow but he is a preview of the results.

One of the great developments to come out of this detour is the addition of the anti-foaming agent sold by the Real Milk Paint Company. I ordered some to try out and used it (even though this piece uses the Old Fashioned Product which is more translucent). It changed the whole game. By putting a drop, yes a drop, in the jar, the bubbly water mess became a super smooth, easy to apply, less drippy paint. I even skipped the filtering step! I am still new to it and plan to play some more, but I encourage folks to give it a shot, it definitely seems to tame the beast.

I do plan to speak more on the milk paint issue and brand differences when my exploration yields more decisive and definable results. They are different and seem to be suitable for different intended results. But regardless, this anti-foaming agent is along for the ride.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

A New Look

Having made countless chairs with stylized bamboo legs, I felt like it was time for a change. The double bobbin (commonly called bamboo turnings) can look very formal and bear only the slightest resemblance to the plant. A chair destined for the kitchen, as opposed to the dining room, calls for less formal treatment. So the bar chair that I made recently for my own kitchen seemed like a great candidate to try some more playful color and techniques.

As I have been watching spring happen all around me, I've become aware of the pleasing effect that all the green has on my psyche. The green in the mix is a much more blue green as opposed to yellow green. The goal was to create a naturalistic looking bamboo, no more allusion, just straight up imitation. I am reminded of the demonstration that I saw a few years ago at Williamsburg of the actual lead paint used on early Windsors. It was the most intense day-glo green you can imagine!

I learned a lot painting the chair and hope that by having such a striking color around, it opens the door to other new adventures in painting.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

More on Spindle Tenons

I've covered the process that I use to shave spindles in an earlier post. I find that following the fiber line closely and taking the spindles through a set sequence helps a lot with both speed and consistency. Sometimes, nearing assembly, I find that the small ends of the spindles are too heavy. This is normally the result of cutting them shorter, which moves the tenon down the taper, making it larger. If I have already moved into the round phase of shaping and see that there is a lot of material to remove, I will reshave the end square and follow the sequence shown in the photo below to quickly bring it to size. The tenon marked 15 is the oversized one and the sequence proceeds to the right.

It is much easier to adjust the four facets of a square tenon than the multiple facets of a round one. While making the curved settee, I found myself with 21 fat tenons, and plenty of opportunity to appreciate the value of the technique.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Stringing Up

Back in Manhattan, I shared a tiny shop with the luthier (guitar maker) Justin Gunn on fifth street. He was an important influence on my choice to use hand tools and make chairs. I used to watch him doing the equivalent of magic with wood and a few basic tools and realized that I must seek out an object and skill that could transform the raw material as dramatically. I was reminded of him today as I fit the spindles one by one into the back of the settee. He never bothered to string up a guitar until the last coat of finish was dry, because the sound wouldn't be the same. It was a bit of delayed gratification that I couldn't believe.

Today, as the spindles found their homes, I got to see more of the finished piece and even sit in it to assess the comfort. Strangely enough, a chair is always more comfortable to me after the finish is complete. Perhaps the reduced friction allows me to slide into the chair more naturally. Even so, I was quite happy with the comfort and am trying to channel some of Justin's patience in waiting to truly string it up.