creative history

I’m currently working my way through Thomas Andrew Denenberg’s book Wallace Nutting and the Invention of Old America. I’ve been dismissive on reading through Nutting’s history, for fear of boredom and factory furniture. But Denenberg’s volumn is nothing of the sort (alright, there is stiff furniture in it, but it’s given me a greater appreciation for Nutting – he shared the Arts and Crafts ethos within his furniture business. It wasn’t pure capitalism and the race to the bottom, quality wise).

I plan to share a little more in the future about Nutting and the connection to Berea, KY in an upcoming post. Just a little here for now. Nutting was a Harvard-educated minister turned photographer, antiquarian, furniture maker and entrepreneur and a New Englander through and through. I’ve always had some understanding of the man, but only a vague, hazy sense of his connection to craft and art. He turned himself into a cottage industry around the turn of the 20th century, creating and promoting the idealized version of an early American life.

Two quick passages from Denenberg’s book, to give a sense of things. The first makes be smile because I’ve been a member of New England churches, and I can hear this lame joke coming from the pulpit (if the pastor had hard opinions about furniture styling).

Writing of this hybrid furniture, Nutting oscillated between avuncular storytelling and biting, almost profane criticism. “It is like a bug put together from six bugs and brought to the professor with the bland inquiry by the student, ‘Please tell us what this bug is?’ The professor fixes on it for a moment a sardonic look, and says ‘Yes, gentlemen, it’s a humbug.’

p. 131

Again, the pastoral instincts come appear in later writings. Various styles and traditions invoke virtue (both in design and craftspersonship), though I’ve never heard anyone use a “think of the children” argument when criticizing furniture for lack of integrity.

Surface finish referred to issues of honesty and quality in Nutting’s thinking in the same way that construction details bespoke of Arts and Crafts morality. He wrote with disdain of the “cheap furniture [that] floods the American market….Far more attention is given to the finish than to the form or the substance. For instance, I see before me as I write a table of oak, on which is stamped by machinery a design intended to make the buyer suppose that the table is quartered oak. The old scheme of imitating the grain of wood with paint was bad enough, and this is still worse. It is a falsity and is intended to deceive. It isn’t an honest thing for children to see.”

p. 149

Wallace Nutting and the Invention of Old America goes for about $35 on the used book market.

Pine Croft, Berea College and Woodworking

Maker and author Nancy Hiller posted a nuanced look at Berea College’s history and woodworking efforts. She’s taught in Berea before, at the first incarnation of the school – The Kelly Mehler School of Woodworking. She was aware of the College and it’s “tuition free” education. The article explores the connections between Berea’s mission (and how the mission drives the decision making process), the craft work happening here, and the College’s recent purchase of the Mehler school and property.

I play a part in this part of the story. I typically share my after hours woodworking on the blog. Most of my work is with the Berea College though – running Woodcraft (training and operating the shop) and with Pine Croft. It should be highlighted here more.

It’s strong work, as Nancy is just as skilled in writing as she is in making and design. I encourage you to take a couple of moments to read it – it’s about much more than woodworking.

Find Nancy’s piece on the Lost Art Press website: click here

Header Photo: Pine Croft. Photographer: Justin Skeens

not worth the effort

A red maple tree, about 10″ in diameter at the base, came down during all the hickory bark work. I went back to collect chair material for posts and front legs, maybe the slats as well if things went well. It didn’t go well.

The bark showed a slight spiral – I should have take that as a warning. But it was already down and ready for use. Opening it showed the true challenge – the truck twisted over 90 degrees in a 40″ length. I fought with the wood for a little while before coming to my senses and walking away. This tree would make great spoons and exellect cordage, but for chair work it looked miserable. So I collected all my tools and went back to the black oak log, used for a few earlier chairs this year. It stinks like limburger cheese and is boringly straight and clear – perfect for the next set of ladder backs.

bolts of red oak, 42″ in length, sitting upon a quartered white oak

My hope was to make a chair in a similar style to the one shown below – turned maple posts with hickory rungs. Here in Kentucky, red maple and hickory were a common combination for split bottom chairs, as both woods are plentiful in the eastern mountains. Though not clarified (either by location or materials) in Eaton’s book, my guess is the chair below is maple posts with hickory rungs and slats. It shows characterists of KY and TN chairs – simple, unadorned turnings, thick posts and legs, and a woven hickory seat. (I’d to see more of the chair in the foreground as well).

Settin’ Chair, From Allen Eaton’s book “Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands” (Dover Press)

A recent thought while researching all these wonderful mountain chairs: the maple posts were commonly turned, while the ring porous woods (oaks, hickories, ash) were most likely shaved. Makes sense, the maple can hold a nice detail at the lathe and the oaks work beautifully at the shaving horse. Maple’s not as tough as the other woods – maybe that explains the massiveness of the posts and legs.

back to the woods

Back into the woods – this time to find the materials to bottom the Dave Sawyer – style ladder backs and to start collecting parts for the next set of chairs. This was my first time harvesting hickory bark from the forest. I had been warned about how physically demanding the work could be with the tree on the forest floor and needing to work on top of it for hours. It definitely lived up to that reputation of hard work. After working two trees the first day (mistake – one tree is plenty), I came home completely exhausted, yet pretty happy to have bundles of bark.

thick bark, herringbone pattern (3 over, 3 under) with linseed oil

The head forester at Berea dropped the hickory trees for me over a two-week span. Our season here is between late May and July 4th. The sap is up and the bark is slipping and it’s much easier to get it during this window than at any other time of the year. It’s best to peel the bark as soon as the tree falls, but I needed to wait a day before getting to the first couple of them. No trouble, they peeled well. I needed to wait a couple more days before working the 3rd tree – it still peeled, but took a little more effort to get it off the trunk. The last tree was peeled as soon as it was dropped and it was notably easier. This all happened in late May. Four trees is plenty of bark – a wild guess is that each of the 20′, 8″ diameter trees (the average of the four trees worked) yielded 5-6 seats each. That’s plenty of bark for my chair output, and enough to share some.

The bark came from a pignut variety of hickory. There’s not too much to harvesting it, though my ignorance shined through at a couple of points. The outer bark needs shaved away – that takes hard work, but it’s straightforward and relatively forgiving. The drawknife peeled that outer bark away quickly. It was recommended that the inner bark should be shaved thin – maybe an 1/8″ or a little less – but I left it as thick as possible. Mostly because it was tough to get a good, close, consistent shave while working on the ground, and because fatigue set in. It’ll need split each coil before it’s used for a chair seat.

Peter Follansbee’s writings were my foundation and research before heading into the woods. https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/2017/06/19/hickory-bark/   That, along with Brian Boggs/Lie Nielsen DVD, Drew Langsner books and a few conversations with Steve Farmer (who’s collected and sold bark for years here in Berea).

Side note: I put thick into the ladder back. It cracked while drying on the diamond-patterned mineral deposit areas around the tight bends. Too thick. Splitting the thickness of the bark into an outer and inner (then using the inner for the seat) removes the dimond pattern and results in a more uniform seat that can be pulled much tighter. The outer bark isn’t waste – it can be used for other projects, though I wouldn’t put it in a chair. Lesson learned – work the bark thin for best results.

minor splitting in the mineral areas of the thick bark

When harvesting bark, most slice the bark off the tree at a consistent width. Around 1″ or whatever is intended for the chair. I attempted that, but my knife wandered and I wasn’t happy with the results (it’s probably fine, minor changes in width disappear when woven into a seat). So I took some with the utility knife at 1″ and collected the remainder at a wider width – maybe 3″ or 4″ wide. I’m using a leather strap cutter in the shop to uniformly slice the bark to width. Soak the coil of bark for a few hous, cut it to width, then split the thickness. It’s more work after getting it out of the woods, but I am able to do a better job in the shop than while working out in the woods.

Leather strap cutter, fixed to the bench. First run all cut at 3/4″

Thought on tree diameter. I’ve always heard that 6-8″ diameter saplings are best. After doing this, I figure that’s true for a couple of reasons. First off, it’s much easier to handle a smaller tree than something considerably larger. That was definitely my experience, as the 10″ sapling was much tougher to move around than the 6″. The other reason has to do with the thickness of the bark. The smaller tree had much thinner bark in relation to the 10″ sapling, possibly to the point that it will not need split again before using. That’s a big advantage – shave off the outer bark and some of the mineral striations and it’s ready for a chair. Obviously the larger diameter yielded a fair bit more bark, but there’s more work involved in collecting it.

After collecting the bark (and resting), I went back for chair rungs from the saplings. The next three chairs worth of rungs are now drying in the kiln, waiting for the upcoming “settin’ chairs.”

gratitude for craft

The past ten weeks have, at the very least, been unsettling. I find myself worried about our health, or concerned for our community and nation. There are additional reasons for the anxiety, but this isn’t meant as a post about it.

Ruby’s recently completed shop brush

Instead, I want to express my gratitude towards wood craft. During this anxiety, entering the shop and focusing on my craft has brought a renewed calm. I’m thankful the opportunity and drive to create. I’m a woodworker, though I imagine it’s the same for potters, bakers, makers and artists of all stripes – for those who can get into their shops and kitchens and studios.

I’m drawn to green wood and hand tools. As I’ve clunkily explained before, working the wood from the log provides an immediate connection to the wood and our community. It’s also quiet and physical, two aspects I appreciate in my craft woodwork projects. There’s a rhythm to working the wood wet – a natural movement of the body that synchronizes when the work is done correctly. Yes, it’s physical and taxing, but the body is not meant to fight against the wood. It’s to work with it. There’s a harmony here that I’ve chased during these past weeks. It’s a part of the process, a part-of-yet-separate-from actually making the piece, that I completely enjoy.

The other piece of this is that our kids have followed me into the shop. I’d need to chase them away I worked primarily on machines. Noise and safety and dust and all that. Now we all make together in the same shop at the same time. There’s been a burst of creativity through this period as well. We head down to the shop three or four times a week. Spontaneous creativity follows, with the time and head space to chase the new ideas. Sometimes our kids don’t make anything, they simply enjoy the process of making shavings with a spokeshave or driving nails into scrap wood. I can rough out a part or two for the most recent green wood project, or not, depending on the intensity and number of inquiries coming from them.

crossbow/sword – a little sawing, nailing and carving

The images are of a couple recent projects still in the shop. The lead image of of a doll house chair Francis made for his sister. It appears to be a little stick chair. I don’t want to step on it in the night, so it must remain in the shop. The other build is either a crossbow or a sword, or possibly a multi-weapon of some sort. Sadly, it is not permitted in the house either. He’s currently making a collection of wooden axes for the purpose of chopping at the brush that surrounds our apartment.

Of course, I need to have a quiet shop when doing a glue up, intense figuring or planning work, so I find time to work alone as well. This isn’t a uptopia.

But I’ve found myself grateful for our ability to wander down to the shop, make some shavings, and engage with the craft in a renewed way.

lessons from ladderbacks

I always enjoy projects with risk. That’s probably why I’m getting into chairs to a greater degree. It’s the risk that keeps me sharp. And the design is hard. I enjoy working quickly, not haphazardly but with a forward momentum that requires my full of attention or focus. Lack of attention will doom a handmade chair – there’s little forgiveness in the design or construction.

Chairs can fail for a mountain of reasons. Even if the construction goes well, the chair can fail due to a poor design. That’s less likely when doing casework. Generally, if tables and boxes look good on paper then they’ll work in reality. That’s not the case with chairs. It needs to look good from 360 degrees and hold up to use.

I’m in the middle to two ladderbacks. Working through a handsome Dave Sawyer-designed chair. It’s out of white oak and will have hickory bark seats (once I gather the bark). I’m in the parts making part of the build. In fact, all the parts are made and I was doing the final shaping and fussing before assembly. But now I need to pause. I’ve made mistakes and need to correct them.

  • Mistake #1: Poor material selection for one post. The tree had an internal split – I believe this log had fallen in the forest before being harvested – and I tried to get a post out of an area beside that split. Funky post didn’t take the bend, plus had a couple small checks/cracks. No good. Won’t cut it for a chair, so it’s time to make and bend another post. It’s only a few hours of work, but I’ll need to bend it again and let it set for a week or so. bummer.
  • Mistake #2: first time using a bending rack. This method seems to be the way of ladder back makers. It’s economical, quick, and straightforward. No clamps or bending forms needed. Except to make the slats bend gracefully with the rack they must be a consistent thickness all the way across their width and thickness. I didn’t tightly adhere to this rule – I’ll know better for next time. So the slats twisted slightly and bent in a kinked manor. The thinner parts bent and took a fair curve nicely. The thicker areas are slightly kinked at the bend point. I’m not remaking these. It’s something I’ll do differently next time – probably by using a bending form instead of the rack. The form doesn’t care about varied thicknesses – all parts take the same bend. (Update: I bent them in a form while the new post set – they are all uniform curves now).

Lesson: do good work, especially when it means doing the work over again.

journal entry

A greenwood style chair – this one will live with us. It’ll be tested daily as we are unforgiving with our furniture.

The chair doesn’t completely fit neatly into any one category, the base is of a windsor chair variety, the upper more a ladderback variety. What makes it interesting and challenging is the connection of the back posts to the seat. That’s where it will succeed or (hopefully not) fail. There’s a sliding dovetail in that joint for strength, reinforced by two screws on each lower post. I’m not afraid of screws for this – seemed to be the best approach to the challenge. Even so, the back will take plenth of force, so we’ll see how this chair lives.

I’d like to share a couple of thoughts on this design, mostly as reflection, that some of you might find interesting as well. I try to do this with every project I build but I keep from publicly sharing those thoughts most of the time.

On to the critique. This is a concept that I’m interested in playing out. It’s the second chair of this variety. In a previous post I wrote of Ruby’s chair. This one evolved from that one. Again, the deepest influence came from the Jan Hendzel Studio. The post-to-seat attachment got me thinking about how to make a chair with a similar detail. I’m into the faceted look on the chair components. The round seat came for two reasons: 1) easy to make and 2) a thick seat is appropriate with the round, and is needed to house the post dovetails. A shapely seat may want to be thinner, but that would weaken that connection. As is, the seat is a little over 3.5″ thick.

Alright, none of this is a critique just yet. Here we go:

Pros:

  • I like the overall form. The upper posts are shapely and interesting. It’s a simple silhouette and the shapes of each elemet work well together.
  • It’s comfortable. The slats wrap the sitter’s back nicely. I’ll need to sit in it for a few hours before deciding on the seat comfort.
  • The facetted legs, stretchers and posts all hit my target. The details show that the chair is clearly handmade. No one would confuse my work for that of robots.
  • The finish hit the target. Black milk paint over brown stain. Then oil, garnet shellac and black wax. It has a depth to it. I didn’t execute it perfectly, but the effect is there.
  • It isn’t too showy or attention grabbing. You have to look it over to take it in – it doesn’t yell at you from across the room.
  • The thick seat. It could be thicker, though it feels right with this chair
  • Materials: pine seat, all else red oak from the log. Inexpensive and readily available materials here in Berea.

Cons:

  • How will that post/seat joint hold up? This isn’t a time tested design. I’m going for a user, not an art chair.
  • Specific to this chair: The legs are too thick. They could lose around .25″ at the thickest diameter and probably feel right. I’d move the stretchers up a little as well, just to give it a little more lightness of stance. And then give the leg form a little more movement.
  • I’d like to add a little red or brown to the black, just to change it slightly, if I were to do it again. Or possibly put on a thinner coat of black, so that the depth of the brown stain can show through more.
  • An viwing angle or two feel off. The round seat causes it. From diagonal or the back, it looks rather good. The front view is the challenge. The roundness of the seat seems at odd with the shapeliness and movement of the other parts. A more graceful seat would work (possibly shovel shaped), though it needs the thickness for strength. That’s the crux.
  • It’s a heavy chair. The seat and leg mass add to the weight, both visually and in heft. I was going for a heavy chair, though there are places to take some material off those legs.

I’m happy with it. Next up is a pair of David Sawyer-inspired ladderback chairs. I hope to build trusted and iconic designs along with a few chairs ideas that I have rattling around in my mind. Thanks for reading along.

note: quality images by Justin Skeens

new technique (for me)

I use the drawknife and a spokeshave when working green wood at the shave horse. The drawknife to remove wood quickly and to create the shape before turning to the spokeshave for the final shaping. This always works and still does. It’s the process I turn to. My current chair project has legs with long, slightly convex surfaces to a swell in the that transitions into a concave profile above the foot. The convex section gave me trouble as I went about creating the tapered octagon. I shaped ugly, lopsided legs with wandering lines.

graceful tapers

Out of frustration, I turned to the block plane to correct the wandering lines and re-balance each leg. The work was quick and easy at the shave horse. My Lie Nielsen low angle block plane was the answer. Just turned the plane towards myself, pulled the plane through the cut, and in short time the legs were in much better shape. After getting the upper section shaped, I spun the leg and worker the lower, concave section and blended the the transition area at the thickest point. Of course I didn’t come up with this technique. I’m cannot remember, but I imagine the idea came from Chris Schwarz and his writings on making the legs for his stick chairs using a standard kit of cabinetmaking tools.

This technique will stay with me now as I make windsor and ladder back chairs. It gets results. And once the chair is made, no one cares if it was a block plane or spokeshave that shaped the legs. Only that the legs show good work.

Ruby's Chair

It didn’t start out Ruby’s chair. It just started out as a chair, very loosely inspired by stick chairs, ladder backs and the chunker chairs by Jan Hendzel Studio. The finished chair does not remotely resemble chairs on the aforementioned list, and those chairs may not want a close association with this one. Too bad – that’s where the idea started and it still has a way travel until the thought is complete. This was the first of a concept and it has a ways to go. It turned into Ruby’s chair once she saw it, loved it and claimed it. She doesn’t hold her thoughts to herself, or withhold criticism if she dislikes something I’ve made. She has an art critic’s heart without a filter or empathy. She’s also honest and direct, and I appreciate that. The fact that she immediately staked claim to it was an encouragement.

A little about this chair: traditional undercarriage – with turned and shaved red oak legs ending with straight cylindrical tenons into the 2″ thick pine seat. Octagonal stretchers. The upper is all red oak: two bent posts mortised to accept two bent slats. The posts slide into a dovetail in the back of the pine seat. Then long screws were added to reinforce each posts. The seat was dry pine and everything else was green oak, dried as appropriate. I put it together, sanded it, then Ruby and I painted it a purple over white – Black Dog Salvage paint from Woodcraft that she selected.

My thoughts: this is a concept and I want to push it forward. I have a couple chair ideas that I want to pursue this year. This is the first of those ideas. I am studying and researching ladder back chairs, so that form is fresh in my mind. I love windsor chairs. Windsors influenced the base. The seat and back post connection idea came from the Hendzel chairs. My challenge: could I combine different designs into an attractive chair (still TBD)? Can I fashion and fit a back joint that holds to the rigors of chair stresses? That’s the key spot, functionally, where the chair will succeed or fail. Keeping it around our family will give it a good workout, as our kids stress test everything.

What worked: in general, the entire chair worked. It’s strong, solid and has a happy owner. It went together as planned. I used green wood, which was shaved and shaped, then dried out and put into the chair. Part of my aim was to design a chair that I could build in 10 hours or less, with minimal tools and machinery and noise. The basic concept worked – I’m in the middle of the second chair now

What I learned: This is what I really enjoyed in making this chair. I learned a ton, but it wasn’t until I made design decision and made the chair did those lessons appear. I’ll go through a few here. They’re listed as flaws and probably shouldn’t be:

  • the stretchers are too high
  • the front legs kick forward too much and outwards too little
  • it ended up short, with the seat about 16″ off the floor.
  • once the seat is kicked back, the leg angles on the front appears to match the back legs
  • the posts and bends are not correct
  • seat – not thick enough
  • the balance and proportions are off – posts a little heavy, legs could use more mass
  • the back post do not bend in the most comfortable of spots – not horrible, but could be better
  • the green wood – drying the dovetail on thick material lead to internal checking on the lower part of the post

There’s more to add to the list but that’s essentially all aspects of the chair that can be improved. And I still like it, so I’ll see where the next one leads me. Some are easy changes (like leg angles and adjusting proportions), others will be trickier (achieving the right upper form and comfort). I’m glad to have a challenge to dive into right now with all the uncertainty outside the shop walls. Hoping the same for all of you.