Saturday, February 28, 2009

One for the Books

This one is nearly unbelievable. I received a phone call from my client in Hawaii with this tale. The two chairs that I shipped arrived just fine. But as he drove them from his office to his house, proceeding at 35 mph with his flashers on , he looked back to see not one, but both of them blown out the back of the truck!! The crates were large and the tie down barely reached around them, not to mention the extremely high winds. I shudder to think what must have been going through his mind. I recall a sheet of plywood slipping out of my truck once and being horrified.

After pulling over, he had to rush out to the roadway to pull the crates out of the way of oncoming traffic. Unbelievably, the crates suffered some damage, but they did their job and chairs were untouched! I am so relieved that the chairs were alright, but it doesn't stop the shiver from crawling up my spine every time I think of them airborne on the roadway.

I will never be able to crate a chair again without thinking about this story, and probably wrapping the tape just one more time, for good luck.


For those who haven't noticed, my blogging time is currently being taken up by cataloging all of the archived posts by labels that you can access in the side bar. It has certainly given me a view into the life of my librarian wife! Cross referencing and creating categories is a challenge. If anyone has suggestions for topics that I may have missed, please let me know. I think this will be an ongoing job!
Of course, you can still access the old posts via the archives by date, and search by keywords at the top of the page.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Tapered Reamer

This post coincides with an article the I've written for the Spring 09 issue of American Woodturner Magazine about tapered mortise and tenons.

Making a tapered reamer to suit your needs is a relatively simple and rewarding project. This reamer works with a scraping action.

The two edges of the blade, which is easily made from an old compass saw, are ground to the desired angle, then the edges are ground at 45 degrees and honed. Next a small burr is turned opposite the grind to create the cutting edge. Take care not to "roll" the burr too far, you're really just trying to point it in the right direction.

Once the blade is made, turn a long cylinder with a diameter the same size as the largest width of the blade. It’s important to use a dry hardwood for a stable and long wearing tool.
Then turn a taper to match the blade. Once this is done, it's time to cut a kerf down the middle of the taper for the blade.

I mark the kerf by clamping the body of the reamer to my bench top, check to make sure that the centers at both ends are the same height off the table. Then cutting a block of wood that raises a pencil to the height of the center of the turning. Finally, I run the pencil and block down both sides of the taper to mark the line. Cutting the kerf is one of the trickier parts, so take your time!

If you find that the kerf is not wide enough to let the blade slide in easily, use sandpaper around a thinner card scraper to even and widen it. Then carve out a couple of “gutters” for the shavings to fill and drill a 5/8ths inch hole for the handle.

Its important that the blade extend a hair beyond the wooden body of the reamer. It need not be too tight in the slot, so that it can self center in the body while reaming. If the blade is not protruding enough, simply slip a shaving in the bottom of the slot to expose more of the cutter.

This tool cuts relatively slowly, and requires that you remove the blade from the body often to clear jammed shavings, but I find that the control that it offers during reaming and the ease of making it are just right for my needs. More instructions on making this reamer can also be found on John Alexander’s, where I first encountered the design. Another option is to purchase a tapered reamer from Elia Bizzarri at He can also sell you a matching tenon cutter. It might just be the last great woodworking tool bargain!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Grand Garden

A couple of years back, I walked around my land with a forester to learn more about the state of the forest. He encouraged me to view the forest like a large garden, with mature plants, weeds, and young plants all struggling for the resources of nutrients, light and water. A couple of recent experiences really drove this point home.

On the hill above my house is a spring. When we dug the pond, we also developed the spring by having a large cement cistern dug into it with pipes that ran to the pond and to a hose spigot. The spigot provides water that I use for my garden powered by gravity, what could be better! The only problem was that the water stopped flowing every year in the late summer. Last year, at the suggestion of a friend, I cut down about 5 trees that lived right on the edge of the spring, and sure enough, the spigot continued to flow for the entire year. It really showed how much water those trees consumed.

The other day, I went to the woods to scavenge some turning material off of a hard maple that I cut down last fall. I love the winter for its preservation of downed trees! When I got back to the shop, I counted the rings to figure out the age of the tree, guessing that it would be about 35 years old. To my surprise, it was more like 58 years. In the photo above, you can see the reason for my missed estimate.

In the first years of its life, the tree grew about 3/8ths of an inch in diameter each year, but that was when the woods were young and resources aplenty. As the forest grew, and competition stiffened, the growth rate slowed and the last 15 years or so show little more that 1/64th of an inch gain per year. This may seem obvious, but it still astounds me and has strong repercussions for how I view my woods. This was a tree that lived too near to one of my mature hard maples to thrive. It was merely diluting the resources. Of course that leaves the choice of culling the smaller trees for the sake of the larger, or removing the larger to make room for the younger. This is one of the basic notions of forest management that the forester was trying to impart to me.

The cherry tree that I took down last fall, due to a disease and pending chair orders, was one of the larger trees and more importantly lived on the edge of the woods, where light and nutrients are far more available. That tree was growing at a rate of more than 1/2 inch per year!
I still have lots to learn, but luckily the trees are patient teachers.

On a technical note, you may notice that I've started cataloging the archive of posts by labels available in the side bar. It may take me a while to get them all cross referenced etc... but I hope it helps you get to the information you desire.

Friday, February 20, 2009


Here is one of the chairs that I shipped to Honolulu this week. I always feel separation anxiety when I have to ship chairs. I suppose that handing the piece to a guy in a truck doesn't give the same sense of completion as a smiling client.

Below are a couple of detail shots. I didn't get a chance to take these chairs to my photographer, partly because I wanted to be timely in shipping them and getting them there would have been difficult.

This is a butternut seat

Here you can see my packing crate. I make it with 1"X3" pine that I joint into L's for the corners. I make one panel at a time. First bisquiting in the top and bottom brace and then gluing and stapling the cardboard on. I use 275 lb test cardboard panels from Uline. They are two layers of corrugated cardboard that add up to 1/4 inch. Where the panels overlap with flaps, I use high strength spray adhesive and ring shank nails with washers (used to secure tar paper etc...) to seal them. Later cellophane tape covers all seams and wraps every direction.

This method makes a very strong box that most importantly can be made any size. As you can see in the photo, I wrap the extremities with padded paper and then bubble wrap. Then I use cardboard struts to both hold the chair floating in the middle of the box and to stiffen the sides. By combining using the stiffening effect at the parts most vulnerable to the sides, I can safely isolated the chair from side impacts... I hope!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Old School?

I have to be honest and say that when I say "Old School", I'm not talking about classic tools and hand cut dovetails, I'm referring to the remnants of my entry into woodworking, the chop saw, the bisquit joiner, the circular saw and the nail gun. All of these old stand by's made it out of the basement and into the chair shop this week to help me build a few crates. I must admit, they are old pals and it was just like old times, after all, what am I going to do, whittle a crate?

As I was plowing through the bisquit joints and sucking dust, I glanced over at the chair that I am crating and caught this view of the light bouncing off the back of the crest and catching the cherry just right.

Of course, protecting this "fine" work is the point of the crate, but the guilty pleasure of knocking something together has taken a life of it's own. I'll show a bit about the crates in the next posting. Later, I'll return to the "hanger principle" to show the jig that I'm designing to help me set the rear posts just so, but until I get these crates out of the shop, I don't have room to do much of anything!

By the way, if anyone has a good idea on a reliable and less expensive (than UPS) way to ship 2 chairs to Hawaii, please don't be shy!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Worth a Look

These days in the shop are long and a bit scattered. Pieces waiting to be finished, shipped, designed or cataloged seem to be everywhere. Beyond all the physical work going on, I am fascinated, as usual, by the geometry and physics involved in chairs and sitting. The more that I explore the possibilities for chair design, the more that I realize it is still an open question.

After spending time with Galen Cranz, I have had a nagging need to get more out of my chairs. She challenged my notions of comfort and the way that we use chairs. (thanks to her I'm sitting on a perch as I type this) To her, the notions of aesthetics, materials and durability take a back seat to the simple idea that chairs must fit a body in motion to be healthy, not just a body at rest. Much observations has shown me that any seated position must afford the sitter the ability to shift their weight and balance easily to be comfortable for any considerable length of time.

Recently I've been spending a lot of time at the web site of Peter Opsvik. Simpy put, it's amazing. You may know Opsvik as the designer of the kneeling chair. His web site has an astounding amount of works, ideas and information on it. Unlike me, who is largely driven by the materials and techniques that I enjoy working, Opsvik is a free floating thinker willing the employ whatever it takes to engage the human body in motion and rest.

While I am still bound by my joy in woodworking, Opsviks work challenges me to ask for more from my efforts, and lucky for me, his ideas are out there to help.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Hanger Principle

With hindsight, the last couple of years of my chair designing seems pretty linear. It's been a search for a geometry that would work for multiple designs. I've come to think of it like a coat hanger. A coat hanger relates to the human form, and once properly formed can support any fashion, from formal wear to my grubby shop flannels. The notion of universal truths in chairs is a tough one. Not only are there different body sizes and shapes, but the understanding of the body at rest is not an exact science and opinions differ wildly as to the best shapes or even desired results of a chair.

My explorations of curves in my latest designs have proven to be a challenge. When making classic windsors such as a continuous arm, where the spindles are straight and the curves of the chair are connected to the seat by straight lines (spindles), I've stuck to some pretty simple numbers. I find 12 degrees on the center spindle serves nicely for the average chair, or slightly more upright if the chair is specifically for dining. Once the center spindle angle is set, the arm is simply mounted on the armposts to intersect the spindle correctly. This process serves nearly all of the classic forms that I make.

When I started bending the posts, spindles and crest, the simplicity of the 12 degree chair fell away. I've spent countless hours experimenting with different spindle curves, as well as the relationship between the back to the seat and the seat to the floor. Early in the process, I realized that I needed a new set of reference points (and angles) that would ensure consistency and control over the final piece.

The photo above shows three chairs that are very close cousins. In putting them together, I followed the same basic reference points, curves and angles. I'll post soon on the exact points that I've been referencing.

Below is another photo of the birdcage rocker. I've always been drawn to the birdcage yet my attempts to make a rocker version over the years generally ended with disappointment. The past year of playing with curves finally brought the design into focus and I got the results I had always wanted.

If you've been following the blog for the past year or so, I'm sure that you'll also notice the evolution of the arms, spindle and seat shapes. My goal was to create similarities in these components to balance the the distinctive shapes in the turnings. The paint is black/green over brown. At first I set out to paint the chair a light color (like my curved settee), but soon realized that the silhouette would be better served by a darker color. The black/green has the look of iron, I like it a lot. I mixed 1:1 of the Old Fashioned Milk paint company's Black and Lexington Green. It reads as nearly black, until you see it next to a true black, and then the green comes out.