Thursday, December 13, 2012


No this is not about shavehorses, that's too silly to even argue.
I had Ken St. Onge from Fine Woodworking in the shop the other day shooting photos for the second installment of turning articles that we are doing. I'm happy to say that they've added a third.

Some of you may have noticed that I am decidedly left handed, which for most activities isn't so difficult to translate for instruction, but Ken was convinced that for the publication, we should shoot me turning right handed.

Now I've heard it said that if you are first learning to turn that you should practice with both hands, and it sounds great, after all, you are awkward no matter what you do, so that would be the time to become ambi capable.
I didn't.

Granted, for lots of the turning, such as the first ten beads, I simply knocked em out lefty, but for the photos, I had to turn right handed, in slow motion, stopping about four times per detail for pictures.

A while back, I read an interesting experiment that focused on "The Curse of Knowledge". This is when you forget, or can't imagine that someone can't understand or perform something that you know. In the experiment, one person tapped a tabletop with the rhythm of a song that was in their head and the other person had to guess the song. Almost no one guessed the song, to the amazement of the tapper, who assumed it was obvious.

When teaching, I always try to keep this in mind, hoping that I can both empathize with the student not knowing and going through the stress of learning and also to help come up with the best way to bring them along in understanding and doing. While turning right handed, I was thrown from a place of comfortable knowledge, back into white knuckle terror.

As I rolled a bead with the skew, stopping for photos, I tried to take my own advice and apply the motion that I've described to students so many times. To my amazement, it worked. Not the prettiest beads, but there were no major catastrophes.

So, when you see the photos, or watch the videos that Ken shot (at the end of the day!) take a closer look, and know that I've had a refresher course in what it is to learn to turn. Maybe they can photoshop some blood back into my fingers.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Oh Snap!

My pal Ray Duffy sent me this link to a blog posting.

For some reason he thinks it has something to do with me!?

 In case you missed it, I am on the back and inside cover of Fine Woodworkings Shops and Tools issues. Jon Binzen also made this video slideshow of my work that my mother simply adores!

Here is the link to the video.

 Thanks Jon, sorry to have led you so terribly astray with the shavehorse!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Operator Error

Sometime you just have to keep up with the times, so I'd like to introduce my new robotic travisher maker, The Armitron.

Actually, this is what happens when I leave the shop for a few hours and a 25 year old toolmaker finds a 30 year old toy. The funny part of pulling this thing from the attic is that every male from 30 to 45 who see it shouts, ARMITRON!!

Here is a photo of Ken St. Onge, Armitron devotee and editor from Fine Woodworking. He and I have been working on a two part turning article and he took it to heart when I suggested a day at my lathe might benefit us both as we head into producing part two. Perhaps no tool requires resilience when learning such as the lathe and teaching it gives a view into the ways that each person deals with failure, largely because there is no way to learn to turn without lots of it. 

Of course, there are plenty of other activities in chairmaking that require a healthy does of composure in the face of adversity.
I think that perhaps I’ve reached a tipping point where I’ve had my efforts go awry enough times to take it in stride, or at the very least, not be shocked and utterly demoralized when it happens.

One part of our woodworking literature that is sadly missing is dealing with the failure inherent in the learning process. Most of us are on our own, learning from books or trial and error. The glossy images of wisened woodworkers who’ve mastered the craft only go to rub in the fact that we are not likely to get anything right the first time.

Here are a few quotes that I always have kicking around in my head when run full speed into my limitations.

"An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a given field."
Niels Bohr

"The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas."
Linus Pauling

"I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work."
Thomas Edison

Everyone screws up sometimes. It’s a humbling process, but if you embrace your mistakes and sometimes even learn to repeat them, not only will you master the technique, but you'll forge a process and perspective for learning that will spread into the rest of the workshop, maybe even beyond. 
And of course, I'm referring to mastering the Armitron.

Friday, November 16, 2012


For years now I've thought and taught that glue should be a back up for already solid joints. It's a belt and suspenders approach. But there has always been a nagging curiosity as to how a chair would hold up without the glue.
So as I went about finishing up a chair that I started during my demonstrations in Rochester, I figured, why not give it a go. And even without knowing the long term results, I have already realized some benefits of the attempt.

In making the joints, I use air dried mortises and kiln dried tenons so that the joint benefits from the swelling of the tenons as the moisture contents equalize.
When I started to put this chair together without the glue, I found my focus on the fit of the joints slightly elevated. Not profoundly, but I suppose that driving the joints all the way home without the glue made for a different experience. The ring that wood on wood joints make when seated is very gratifying.
There is also that little space that generally has to be allotted for the thickness of the glue film, but in this case, I went for the absolute tightest joint that I could manage without blowing out the mortise.

As I turn my attention to the top of the chair, I am thinking a great deal about the joints where the short spindles pass through the thin continuous arm. Without the glue, I am definitely going to make each one a sort of "hammer eye" joint by having a subtle shoulder on the spindle so the arm can't shift down and flaring the top of the mortise so that the wedge will spread the spindle enough so that arm cannot move up.
It may seem like a silly esoteric exercise, but I am thoroughly intrigued as I think and rethink each of the joints and what it takes to count on them without glue. Of course, time will tell which joints loosen, and it will be fun to live with it, watch and learn. I think I'll paint it blue.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Lie-Nielsen Event

I recently attended a Lie-Nielsen at the Connecticut Valley School of Woodworking. It was great to see some old friends like Tico Vogt and Will Neptune. It also gave me the chance to finally meet Peter Follansbee in the flesh. We have so many mutual friends and have emailed over the years, plus, I am a huge fan of his work, so it was a pleasure to finally hang out and see him in action.
Here is Will Neptune displaying some of his prodigious skill.
photo by Jeff Burks
You can see photos of the event at or at
Thanks to Steve Branam and Jeff Burks for sharing their images and to Bob van Dyke and Lie-Nielsen for hosting us.

Here is another photo that I just couldn't pass up. It was taken by furniture maker Duncan Gowdy of his new son Carter.

Congratulations Duncan and Elizabeth!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Among the Trees

Every time that I step outside I seem to be fighting the trees. When they talk about the amazing colors of fall in New England, no one seems to mention that the clean up is worse than at Woodstock. I've been blowing leaves with abandon and clearing paths to the firewood that I split last spring.

After two eye blistering days at the computer and drawing board, I took to the woods to take down a couple of trees for next year. I know that winter is bearing down on me and I am woefully short on firewood for this year, but I still reverted to my favorite posture in the woods, playing.

I got a new hatchet at a garage sale recently and it holds an amazing edge. It's one of those blades that rings out when you tap it. So I took a few minutes and hewed one side of this ash log.

It isn't exactly a hewing axe, which would be flat on one side, but I sharpened it so that it was close to one and for a lefty too.
I got it reasonably flat. The blade held the edge and took great shavings but it would have been better with the correct geometry. It was all that I could do to keep from building a fort.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Deep Breaths

Fall is here, the leaves are everywhere and the smell of the first fires fills the air. I am loving the transition. I've been plotting and planning to wrap up my responsibilities so that I can spend my time working on my book. Hopefully about this time next year, I am going to be publishing my first book with Lost Art Press. I am writing and illustrating the book which will be a foundation book on chairmaking. This project began years ago, in collaboration with Curtis Buchanan, and has stalled and revved multiple times. Finally, Curtis and I decided to pursue separate projects (you have seen his videos, right!?) and with our different approaches to chair making and communication, I think that we both stand a better chance of seeing the projects through to completion.

So, with lots of text left to write and drawings to produce, I've got my plate full. The only tough part is of course the pull of the workshop at the other end of the house. I've been satisfying my shop needs by finishing the walnut chair that I posted about. With each coat, I see new possibilities for future work.

I am enjoying the gouge marks more than I had expected.

 And this stile to crest joint has me thinking about a dining chair that I've had in mind.

I had to shake it out of my skull and into wood so that I could get back to the computer.

Later today, Jon Binzen, from Fine Woodworking, is coming by to finish up some details for the back cover that they are doing about my shop for the Tools and Shops issue that is coming out in a few weeks. I am very excited to be featured. Jon is a pleasure to work with and always makes me feel like I am far more interesting than I deserve, talk about skill!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A New Site!

Last Spring, while building my maple syrup evaporator, I had an epiphany. While there were parts that I was happy to fabricate myself, when it came to the stainless steel pan, I knew that I was out of my depth and with my limited free time, I could easily justify buying one from a quality maker.

Then I realized that some folks might feel the same about the tools that I make and have featured on Chairnotes. With increasingly busy lives, perhaps grinding drill bits or making travishers isn't as captivating as getting a chair together. I get it, and when I offered some tools to my students at a recent class, the notion was confirmed.

This also dovetails with my desire to focus on writing projects for the upcoming year. I am still building for clients and designing new work, but small scale projects like toolmaking fit the bill for keeping my hands happy and my head free.

As you may know, my travishers are already available (I am almost caught  up on the backlog) and as the year proceeds, I am hoping to add some other tools to the list, such as reamers with a blade adjuster (and that don't clog!), long spur drill bits and drawknifes (tuned, refurbished and ready to go) and perhaps even an adze. 
I call the site Chairnotes Tools, and my plan is to use it as a list site where I will feature the tools as they come available. Keeping tabs on new stuff will be easy by subscribing.

I've chosen to create Chairnotes Tools as a separate site so that you can still come to Chairnotes knowing what to expect, a solid dose of my workshop ramblings with the occasional goat photo.

Perhaps it's naive of me to treat this with such delicacy, most folks are probably comfortable with the realities of commerce, but I take the trust of the visitors to Chairnotes seriously, and I'd much rather err in this direction. 

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Fine Line

I haven't been getting enough time lately to horse around with my chair designs, so for the last week or so, I finished up a walnut occasional chair that I started a while back. I wanted to bring it along to the meeting of the Rochester Woodworkers Society that I am speaking at this weekend.

I've learned a lot about walnut lately. It can hold a crisp visual edge just about anywhere, and I have a nasty reaction to it (sinus infection). So I donned my full face respirator and plugged in the air filter and had some fun. I can't count the number of times that I've intended to create a seat like this, but for some reason, I just couldn't let it go this time.

The walnut has all the right properties for this kind of fine detail.

It requires near perfect shaping of the facets as they flow around the seat and interact. It was tough at first until I focused on making one facet geometry fluid and then "cut" the other one up to it. The key is not to fuss about with scrapers too much, but to get the fine edge with handtools and get out fast!

The detail at the top of the back posts also seamed ripe for change, so I played around until this detail emerged, with a heavy nod to Mr. Maloof.

Here you can see that the facet on the corner is a bit concave, and full of gouge marks.

I think that the line on the seat interacts nicely with the arms, plus it lets you know where your rear is supposed to go, very inviting.

And the obligatory rear view.

I had quite a full shop recently. There is Dan working on a walnut chair for himself and in the back is Tim working on turning a reamer body and Claire making a travisher. After years of working in a solitary shop, I love the hustle and bustle of having so much going on, even though space is a bit tight.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Cool Cases

I have obviously been thinking a lot about tools lately. When I was teaching at Marc Adams School a few weeks ago, the students brought perhaps the best array of drawknives that I'd ever seen. But all to often, I saw these lovely knives knocking around in a bag or milk crate.
Of course, with Chris Schwarz teaching in the next room, I started thinking about solutions. Chris already posted about my students tool chest, based on his book. I won't go into detail (I'll leave that to the mean experts), but between watching his class unfold and having a wicked case of tool chest envy, I started seeing tool case options in my dreams.

Here is Rich's tool chest. Not practical for my airplane travels, but I could spend all day sliding those tills around.

For the first time in years, I felt inspired to work with flat wood, of course, by the time that I can get around to it, the feeling will have passed, but it was exciting to have it.

On the more realistic note, this little drawknife case might just actually get reproduced.

I though this was a cool way to honor a favorite drawknife, while protecting the edge.

 The lid slides in a tapered sliding dovetail. 

I have a few drawknives, alright, more than a few, but last weekend I displayed my wares at the Connecticut Valley School of Woodworking, where I'll be teaching next year, and I bought one of the sweetest Barton drawknives that I've come across. While I'm still basking in the glow of this acquisition, I might just make one of these.
Have you got an interesting drawknife storage solution? I'd love to see it.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Cool Links

Here are a couple of cool links that you might enjoy.
First, a video showing the results of tests concerning the effects of chipbreakers on planing. This is the kind of nerdy stuff that I love, not only is the information fascinating, but the visuals are hypnotic. If you are stuck in front of your computer, it will definitely give you a woodworking fix. Thanks to Pat Tipton for sending me this link!

Next, you might like to check out the blog that Caleb James is writing. He was a student of mine and during our time together, I was inspired by his talent and attitude. He is definitely one to watch.
His blog is

I have loads happening around here, especially getting prepared to teach next week at Marc Adams School in Indiana, I hope Greg remembers the Scotch this time.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Travishers Part 3, Sharpening

One of the most rewarding parts of making travishers is taking them out for a test run and seeing what they can do. Here is a shaving off of some angled endgrain.

It's especially rewarding, having processed the steel from a soft, malleable blank to a razor sharp edge. Here is a video that shows the process that I use to get that edge. I hope that it helps. If there is any part of it that needs more info, please let me know.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Travisher Part 2

There is plenty about the travisher that is counter intuitive. In this video, I show some of the techniques that I've found helpful in getting the most from my travisher.

I am starting to look forward to fall, especially now that I have a new slate floor and woodstove in the shop.

It was strange not having wood heat in the shop last winter, but now I'm all set, except for the firewood of course.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Travishers in the works

Here is the propane powered fueled forge that I am using to heat treat the steel for the travishers. It took some figuring, but I finally settled on this method, using a pipe as a sort of double boiler, to keep the steel isolated from the gas and oxygen. Too much oxygen causes the steel to lose carbon on the surface as the oxygen bonds with carbon and steal it away, plus it can cause scaling. This process, suggested to me by a knife maker, only darkens the surface of the steel a bit, which buffs right off.
Once the pipe gets cherry hot, it only takes a minute or two to get the steel to temp and then it's ready to quench.

I'm very pleased with the results that I'm getting, ok, I'm being coy, I LOVE this thing. After tempering, the O-1 steel takes a razor edge very quickly.
I've enlisted my friend Claire Minihan to help me produce these tools (Andy is busy getting married!). She graduated from the North Bennet Street School and can build furniture that I could only dream of attempting. Here she is grinding the brass sole to shape.

And trimming the throat opening. Having such skilled folks working on my projects is a point of great pride for me.

We are making these tools one at a time, the way that I like to make everything. It keeps the focus on quality and makes a pleasant arc to the day. 
Here is a run ready to go out. If you have your name on the list and haven't heard from me, I should be contacting you soon. We have a solid process for making these and I am looking forward to catching up with all the orders.

Here is the first in a series of videos on the travisher. While I will be specifically addressing some of the attributes of my tools, I will also be talking about the travisher in general. Hopefully it will be of use to you regardless of whose tool you are using

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Summer Jam Up!

 Posting on the blog usually takes a dive in the summer as the rest of my activities heat up, and this is no exception. But I have tons going on and lots that I want to share, so here is the valve wide open to clear some out!!
Here is my favorite mallet. I made it 12 years ago when I first moved from NYC to the country. I vividly remember trekking through 2 foot deep snow into the back of our rented 50 acres, where I found a fallen soft maple tree. It just seemed impossible that wood just lay on the forest floor after only seeing it on racks at Rosenzweig Lumber in the Bronx for so many years. So I grabbed a chunk, not caring if it was the best mallet wood, and I headed home to turn a mallet.

In time, I came to favor this mallet, not for its hardness, but its lightness. I have other denser mallets, but I feel they lack sensitivity, plus, I'm willing to beat this little piece of wood up if necessary.

But the other day, this mallet saved the day. I was watching my goats run about in their paddock (we've arranged them so we can watch them from the couch) when I notice a black mass running about, seemingly outside of their fence line. I thought it was Silky, but how could she get through the electric fencing?! As I walked to the window, it was obvious, that wasn't Silky, but the biggest bear that I've seen since leaving the safety of Manhattan.
As I ran across the kitchen and through my shop, I did what any self respecting woodworker would do, I grabbed my favorite mallet.
By the time I got out there, the goats were huddled in the paddock opposite of where the bear was and when I got close enough, I chucked the mallet.
It whizzed just past the head of the bear and made a thud in the flowers behind it, just enough to let her know that this was no easy meal, and she took off.
The next day, I retrieved my mallet from the flower bed, what? you didn't think that I was going to look for it then did you? there's bears out there!
So now this little chunk of wood has rest even higher in my esteem,
I think I'll name it Thor.

In between fighting off the local wildlife, I have been finishing up a settee order and decided to try out a product that my pal Jack McCallister suggested. I don't know about you, but I hate steel wool. I've done my best to eliminate rubbing out the whole piece with steel wool alone by using gray scotchbrite pads. But they only take the sheen so far and tend to be a bit aggressive, at least until they've worn down a bit. Jack suggested this stuff called Mirka Mirlon that you can find online.
I got the grey ultra fine and am very pleased with what it can do. It took too long to rub with just the ultra fine Mirlon, so I still start with the scotchbrite, except for the seat which scratches easily. And it also doesn't come up to the sheen that I like, so I finished with a quick touch with 0000 steel wool.

So if I'm still using scotchbrite and steel wool, what's the point? Well, the Mirlon does some things that the others can't. When rubbing down parts with sharp edges, like the turnings, it doesn't burn through the paint much at all, plus, you can easily form it into a "flossing" type action to buff out the turnings.

I love the way that the turnings rubbed out and I barely used any steel wool at all.

The photo above is before oiling, and the one below is after.

Like I said, there is more coming, so stay tuned!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Good Stuff

I recently came across this fellow working in Japan, making some great stuff and taking the time to share it on his blog. 
His name is Dennis Young, he's an American, trained in England and living in Japan, if you like it here, I think you might find his site worth a visit. He blends Japanese and Western tools to get some fine results.
This post about his "master" is absolutely fantastic.

And speaking of things Japanese, I was asked a few times about my oil jar that was featured in a post recently. It's a Japanese design that holds oil in a reservoir and wicks it through a felt to the top. It's available at Highland Woodworking and I'm sure other retailers as well. I use camellia oil in mine.

Here is a pic of the latest chairs made by Steve and Jerry in my shop. Nice work guys!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Finishing the Shavehorse!

Here is the final video of building the adjustable shavehorse. I will be posting the plans for it next week. All in all, the project went smoothly. As I built it, I was reminded of the importance of accurate drilling and tight tolerances between the parts within the adjustable arm, as well as between the arm and the shavehorse body. If I've left any details out, or glossed over them, feel free to ask me to clarify, it might help someone else out as well!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Soup to Nuts

Before I show the next installment for the "Smarthead" shavehorse process, I want to mention that I will be teaching a two week intensive chairmaking class at the North Bennet Street school in Boston starting July 9th. This class does it all. The students will turn their own legs and split and shave their way to a Comb back rocking chair, one of my favorites. There are openings, so tell come on down and tell your friends, it promises to be a great time.

Here is the video on cutting the toothy parts of the arm. Hopefully you'll see that it's rather simple.

Thursday, May 17, 2012


I've been working on a continuous arm settee and as I've been reaching for tools, I've been using my "sanding flap" wheel on the backs to help hollow them out for sharpening.  Today, I was finishing the cutout on the side of the seat, shown above, and figured it was a good time to take one of my favorite knives off the wall and give it a once over.

This cut is tricky on a regular seat, and even more so on a settee because the cove is all endgrain. Nothing but the sharpest knife will do.

So I got out my angle grinder (you have bought one, right!?) and went to work on the back of the drawknife. The knife that I use for this is very special. It doesn't have much steel left on it and I don't grind a bevel on it. Instead, I round the front (which rides in the cut) and flatten the back. Of course, a rounded front is very hard to sharpen because of the difficulty honing it. So the back is where the action is.

By flattening the back and honing it until a burr turns to the front, I get a great edge. I run through all of the stones on the back and only touch the front to the final stone and strop it lightly. I don't strop the back because I want it perfectly flat. With the hollowing help of the grinder, I got the thing sharper than I've ever had it and the cove on the seat was a breeze!
Click on the image for a closer look

Since I've been reforming my tools, I've picked up a new habit that I'm ashamed to say I didn't years ago. I've started oiling all of my edge tools with camelia oil before stowing them. It may seem like a little thing, but rust never sleeps and a sharp edge is a tiny place, easily affected.

Now I take the tool off the rack and give it a quick rub with a paper towel and let it sing.

Here is the settee, all legged up.

Since spring has sprung, I have been enjoying all the work that the previous owners of our house put into their gardens. Here is a rhododendron outside my shop window.

Great stuff, but poison to goats, so watch out.