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mountain chair

Chair images from my visit with eastern Kentucky chair-maker Terry Ratliff.

mainly ash, with oak slats and ash, white oak & hickory rungs – and a hickory bark seat

A note about the appearance before jumping into other details. During the two-day visit with Terry, we made a number of decisions for convenience and ease. In doing so, the chair was conceived of processes that fit our time frame rather than a design target. That meant the posts, knots included, were worked until it was time to move along – more refinement was possible. We just kept moving. The front legs came out of a bucket of blanks Terry had sitting outside his shop door. They went straight into the chair. We determined it’s height of 38″ because there was a troublesome knot at 40″. It has two slats because that was less work than more. Powder post beetles got to the slats – whatever. The rungs were leftovers from other chairs. And so on.

I added a few details and finished the chair in early morning hours over the past few weeks. Ash dries quickly. I was out with Terry just over a month ago. We cut the back posts out of the fallen tree during the visit and within a week or so they were so dry that making cuts on the upper finials felt like cutting into seasoned firewood. I added linseed oil to the seat about 10 days ago and it’s finally finished drying. I used it before it was completely dry and my daughter thought I smelled like a grilled cheese sandwich.

I love the overall look of the chair. But it was Terry’s approach that made the visit memorable. He wants his chair to look handmade and that’s only achieved with hand tools and hand work. Any minor asymmetries along the way add to the appearance of the chair. We used that ethos as we constructed this chair.

Terry uses the octagonal posts and legs in much of his work. Chester Cornett influenced that design aspect. He pins the slats – at least the top one – both as decoration and to hold the upper part together. No glue is used in Terry’s chair (method – wet posts and dry rungs). It holds on it’s construction merit. Terry thinks glue fails after 10 years anyway. This chair is so funky that I didn’t scrape and intensively sand it, as Terry does with all his chairs before oiling and wet-sanding between coats. This is the first chair I wet-sanded and it’s an technique I’ll continue using. There’s a softness to the touch that my previous projects didn’t achieve.

There is a mountain of skill that goes into Terry’s way of building chairs. Bushcraft skills along with decades of hand tool work shape his chair-making instincts. One example of Terry’s approach: we drilled the holes for the lower rungs based on feel and intuition rather than trying to fiture out the proper angle. Being slightly off with the angle added a small amount of tension to the chair, something that Terry believes helps keep it together.

Buidling chairs this way is equal parts simple and complex. Just get some wood, make the parts, and put it together. That’s straightforward. But a good handmade chair takes an abundance of skill, experience and desire.

Pine Croft

The reopening of The Kelly Mehler School of Woodworking.

Early in 2019, Berea College purchased the Mehler property – 10 acres, the cottages, barn and woodworking school & shop – that’s tucked into the forest just under the West Pinnacle in Berea, KY. Berea Collge now owns and operates both the cottage and the woodworking school.

the lane leading into Pine Croft

Anna Ernburg, the Director of Fireside Weavers at Berea College from 1911-140, built the log cabin and lived at the property during her life in Berea. A deep search through the archives found that Ernbrug referred to her homestead as “Pine Croft.” Boone Tavern rents out the main house – now named Pine Croft Cottage.

Because of this, The Woodworking School at Pine Croft was both “created new” and “reopened” in summer 2019. We quickly put together plans for a couple of classes. Kelly Mehler taught the first one and I taught the second, and last, of the season. Kelly’s help has been instrumental in getting the school going again and he’s on the schedule to teach again in April 2020.

I will help lead the efforts at Pine Croft. Our plans are to run it in much the same manor as Kelly did – with the emphasis on high quality instruction (and instructors) and a welcoming heart. We have 15 classes scheduled for early 2020, and five free “commmunity maker-talks.” I will teach a handful. Seven guest instructors will come to Berea to hold classes on their specialities. The classes run April through July. Kelly ran it seasonally and we anticipate a continuation of that approach.

upstairs benchroom

There’s not a plan for wild growth. My hope is that the school finds it’s footing – with a woodworking community happy to back it (Kelly’s school had immense support). The school will grow if the demand is there, otherwise it’ll stay a similar size. Growth isn’t the goal – quality and community are.

The timber-framed space will stay the same. The building faces south and collects light throughout the day. There’s a well-stocked machine room on the first floor and an open benchroom, with 12 benches, on the upper level. Lunch happens in the library or out on the deck overlooking the creek. The forested setting, budding flowers and chirping birds are distracting, but I’m able block all that out if I really focus.

spring at Pine Croft

I was wrong about that

The last post was about hickory bark, peeling it, and the ease of weaving. I know more now, though I’m not exactly sure what I know. We wove 15 seat bottoms at Woodcraft within Berea College over the past couple of weeks. Plenty of time to try different approaches and techniques. The first few were woven with the thick, dark bark just as we received it. Just put it in the seat. It required too much wrestling to get into place and yields a dark brown bottom, but it stayed in place, looks good and is plenty durable.

We started peeling the thick bark into an outer and inner bark. It gave a more consistent light brown look. It was MUCH easier to weave and splice. We ended up with shorts, run-outs and poor areas in the bark that cannot be used – but this was a minor issue.

The more significant issue is that larger gaps appear as the thinner bark dries. It significantly shinks across it’s width. I do not believe that I kept it in the hot water for too long. I placed the bundles in hot water for 30 minutes or so before weaving. It was still partially stiff, yet plenty flexible to weave, pull taught, and press the rows (and weaves) closely together. Even so, larger gaps appear as the seat dries. This is a fairly typical apprearance with hickory bottoms and it looks good on the stools (and chair – more on that in the next post). The image above shows some of the varience within the stool bottoms.

The thicker bark didn’t seem shrink as drastically as the thin stuff. Why? Maybe it’s something I did during prep. Maybe it’s the species of hickory we’re using. It’s possible that the bark was harvested during an extremely wet period of this past spring.

My current working theory is that the inner bark, closest to the cambium layer, shrinks at the highest rate. The thicker bark, and the outer bark, doesn’t move as much as it dries. So thicker bark keeps closer to the wet, woven shape, while the thinner material shrinks mightily. Of course this is just a thought. But it’s the best one I’ve got right now.

more on bark

This has been a process of learning. And I hope it stays that way. We’ve been weaving hickory bottoms into stools at Berea College Woodcraft. The semester is winding down and we’re trying to finish up a run of stools. Nine of the fifteen in the run are now bottomed. The bark we got from Steve Farmer is good and thick and looks great in the seat, only it’s a real wrestling match to get it into place. It’s just so thick.

So we’ve found we have a couple of options with it:

  • leave it thick and weave it tight. It’s just too tough to do it this way, though the finished result looks good. But we’re finding the last half of the weave to be so tight and tough that it’s nearly impossible to thread the thick bark through the tight warp.
  • another option is to leave larger gaps between the warp and weft. It makes for easier weaving but the gaps are too large, especially as the bark shrinks as it dries. Not the best option for us.
  • use the thick bark and leave the warp baggy or loose, though the rows are tight together – then weave the weft as tight as possible. We’re having good luck with this approach.
  • Today we tried peeling the thick bark into two lengths. First time I’ve ever tried it – it’s kind of like riving wood, only using the pressure and support of your hands to control the split. I found that the outer bark needed to be a little thicker than the inner during the split (and not 50/50, though it’s a challenge to control the split that well). At times the inner bark would pull a swirl of grain or furrow with it, leaving a hole in the out bark split. Keeping the outer bark run a little thicker than the inner seemed to remedy this issue.

The thicker bark is finishing up nicely. We occasionally find a small tear around the seat bend on the thick stuff and shave that tear away – though that hasn’t happened much. Thinning/splitting works well, except around any knots or funky areas. Then it runs out and makes a mess of things. It seems like the inner bark has yielded the better run, and any run out or thinning issues happen to the outer bark. There’s no harm in it, since the thinner is much easier to weave and, at worst, we need to splice a few more areas together due to a few run outs.

“it’s not math, it’s art”

That’s quote is from Sam Beam, discussing the approach to a recent album collaboration with Joey Burns & Calexico. There are no “right answers” so they made the decisions that seemed right in the moment to make the music, trusting their instincts and the skills of others.

That line from Sam sat in the front of my mind during my visit with chair maker Terrry Ratliff of Floyd County, KY. He was kind enough to spend two days with me, showing his approach to making chairs and working wood. By the end of the second day we had built a two-slat ladderback together. While it’s nice to have the chair, currently sitting beside me at the computer as a reminder to put the finishing touches to it, the chair was a happy byproduct of the days together. At times the chair efforts happened inbetween conversations and at others the chair process was a prompt to springboard Terry’s thoughts towards another story.

Looking back towards the shop

This was my first trip to Floyd County in eastern Kentucky. I was already a little anxious – I’m new to this part of the country – and my brother-in-law told me immediately upon moving to Berea that I shouldn’t visit the mountains alone. That outlaw reputation has been shared on more then one occasion over the past few years. The fact that Terry joked that he’d “feed me to the pigs” if the visit wasn’t going well during a recent call didn’t help settle my nerves. In fact, a few cowardly thoughts of entered my mind as I pulled up his steep mountain drive and was greeted by a couple of his dogs.

That feeling quickly passed as Terry showed me around. Tucked in high on the east side of a mountain, we took a pass around his wooded property and made a plan for our days. We’d work a downed ash tree to get the back posts – taking them from around the bend where the first branch split from the trunk.

Much of the work over the two days was completed with time in mind – no time to boil and bend postees, so we took them from a crooked trunk. The chair sits at 38″ tall. Why that height? Because there was a knot at 40″ and we didn’t want to fuss with it. The rungs are of ash, white oak, and hickory – all left overs from other projects. The two slats were pre-bent and sitting in Terry’s shop since they weren’t of quality for his other chairs (the powder post beatle got to them). The front legs have ash bore beatle tracks running down a face. I left the marks and kept the legs rather massive. They’re all perfect for this project, which was much less about the finished chair than the process of getting there. In that way, the flow matched Terry’s approach while the final chair looks rather different than his .

Terry shared stories of his 30+ years of chair making while we worked and during our frequent breaks. How he changed his finish over the years. How he now adds a signature bent rung or two into all of his chairs. He wants the user to know a person made the chair right out of the forest – not a factory with uniformity and rigid precision. He shared stories about his influences – eastern KY chair makers Chester Cornett and Sherman Wooton. Terry frequently uses octagonal posts and rungs and he credits Chester with that design. His chairs flow, from the bottleneck foot detail up to the flaired ears upon the top of the posts. He has six of his own around his kitchen table – each a different design and each exactly “right.” An upright chair from his first commissioned set is at table while his most recent commission, a flaired two-slat chair was across the room awaiting delivery. Along with the organic, natural elements that Terry emphasizes in his chairs, there’s also a tension that’s been built into the design. The front posts flair out slightly from the front. They don’t seem perfectly upright from the side view – though that may be my eye and not the design. There’s flair and movement on the back posts, along with shapely, wandering rungs. Terry pins the slats, at least the top one. That’s another hat tip to Chester.

Driving the couple hours back home in the dark Friday night, I kept glancing back at the chair and reflecting on the past days. We worked much closer to the earth than I’m accustomed to. Decisions were made along the way, not predetermined from the start – which is the way I frequently work.

Another thought kept coming to mind – are there others out there who have made a life from chairs? Who make them the old way? Is there a new generation? Terry could think of one, maybe two makers out there. They seem well hiden as well.

quick trip through New England

Time quickly got away from me, but I figure to add a piece about our trip north before the memories completely slip away. Maine seems to beckon us back every so often and we made a visit in early October. It was the natural beauty that originally pulled us up to Maine to live and we were able to experience that again during peak autumn colors. We chased crabs and searched for sea glass, flipping every rock possible along the way to find what might be living underneath.

Woodworking wise, I’ve developed a few favorite places up that way and had the good fortune to visit while on the trip. The first was the Hulls Cove Tool Barn, on Mount Desert Island near Bar Harbor, ME. One of three used-tool locations operated by Skip Brack (the most famous probably being Liberty Tools), the Hulls Cove spot is filled with hammers, chisels, wooden planes, and other user tools – most of the woodworking variety. This time through I came upon an axe and steel wedges. I always leave with something, usually not the tool I was looking for when entering the building. Part of the thrill is in the hunt. It’s not only tools at Hulls Cove, Skip’s also curates a sculpture garden across the way from his property.

We hoped to visit Bill Coperthwaite’s property in Down East, ME, but things didn’t line up for that piece of the trip. Maybe next time. Bill was an inspiration and a beacon for many in the woodworking community. I didn’t know Bill. I know of him through his writings and through the stories shared by others. And I think of him anytime I come upon a tapered-wall yurt. Lately I’ve been thinking on Bill’s use of folk craft to draw communities together. With much of industrial woodworking being a individual pursuit, can hand work, or sloyd, be used to build up craft communities? I apprecitate how Bill examined all aspects of life and lived in accordance to his values. I’m just starting down this thought rabbit-hole.

The trip back south towards Berea provided the opportunity to visit the Lie Neilsen facility, the Center for Furniture Craftsmaship’s Messler Gallery (and the Contemporary Green Wood show) and North Bennet Street School – my alma mater. Though it’s now in the new (and better) building, the furniture program at NBSS still has the same life and spirit to it that I recognized from the old place. Dan, Steve and Lance are still sharing knowledge to eager and engaged benchmates. I took a couple pictures while at NBSS, though nothing from any of the student benches, partially out of awkwardness, as I was an unknown and odd visitor to these students – wandering the shop floor that was once familiar to me. The work is always top-knotch, and this visit was no exception. Lots of good jazz happening in that place.

Next adventure: a short trip into Eastern Kentucky (near Martin, specifically) to spend a couple of days with a ladder back chairmaker. I’m both excited and slightly terrified (the chairmaker made a joke about feeding me to pigs – please be a joke). Old-time chair making, with someone who’s spent their life at it, in the mountains of eastern KY. Can’t wait to get into it.

Spot in Upcoming Class

I’ll be teaching a greenwood stool class at the Lost Art Press storefront on November 2 & 3. A space has become available and open to anyone interested in the two-day class. This is a fun and fast introduction to green woodworking and the properties and approaches to the work. No previous chairmaking or green woodworking experience necessary.

Classes at the LAP storefront are good fun. Six students max, plenty of instruction, a wonderful benchroom and plenty of great restraunts in the area. Megan Fitzpatrick will be around during the class to offer help and backhanded compliments throughout the weekend.

If you are interested in taking the class, please reach out to Megan at fitz[at]lostartpress.com

finishing the hickory seat

completed hickory seat

Last post on bark for now. I went about finishing the seat for use after putting in the seat and letting it dry for a couple of days. During the time after weaving in the seat, during the days that it’s drying, I adjusted the spacing of the weave once or twice. The drying bark will shrink, leaving negative space, and I tried to adjust the spacing while it’s still slightly pliable – it gets a little tougher to adjust after completely drying.

scrubbed bark – frayed edges
after removing frayed edges, before oiling

How I went about finishing this seat:

*completed the weave, adjust bark accordingly

*scrubbed the bark with a stiff bristle brush, to raise all the frayed edges and strands

*removed the frayed strands

*sanded the bark in places to smooth minor issues and edges

*coated with thinned linseed oil

oiled seat

This stool design isn’t overly refined. It has tool marks and other indicators that it was made by hand. I laid out the detailing on the rungs by eye, so each one is a slightly different than the next, just by my human imperfection. I think the small differences make the stool look right. The preciseness gained by machines or rigid uniformity in layout would sterilize the stool, making it look mass produced and kill any charm it might obtain. With that in mind, a few gaps or less than perfect hickory bark does not bother me when bottoming the stool. While my intention is not a truely rustic piece of furniture, the bottom (imperfections and all) emphasize that a person made the stool.*

*Side note: The hickory bark can be dressed up much more than I’ve described, and the approach – while being similar to what I just described – would include more steps to improve the quality and consistency of both the bark and the weave. The seats added by contemporary chairmakes can be tight, uniform, and blemish free. My stool is not those things. Then again, it wasn’t my target.

hickory bark resources

Here’s where I turn for hickory bark knowledge. I’m sure I’m missing good sources and reliable info, this is just a simple list of where I start.

And two sources for purchasing bark:

more about hickory bark

I recently visited Covington, KY for a Lie Nielsen handtool event held at Lost Art Press. For some unexplainable reason, I figured it’d be fun to demonstrate seat weaving on a small stool for a group of tool event attendees. Not that weaving is upleasant or unworthy of demonstrating, it’s simply that it can take a while to get a good weave (at least for me) – especially if the bark has knots or other issues that need addressed. I wasn’t as confident in completely weaving a seat in a short period of time with an audience. The last seat took two hours to weave (the weave from the previous post). I was fearful that boredom might set in at that rate.

The freshly woven bottom from the tool event.

A quick breakdown of how I went at the bottoming at the event:

  • tacked the starting edge of the bark roll twice against the side rail
  • began wrapping the warp (front to back) around the front and back rails – with the smooth, tree side of the bark to the inside
  • notched and joined pieces on the underside when the bark had knots or voids
  • pulled the warp tight at every opportunity to keep weave tight
  • at the end of the warp, on the underside, tuck bark around leg and begin the weft (see image)
  • herringbone pattern – a simple, repeating pattern after four rows. Essentially under two, then over two, with the leading edge changing each time
  • same pattern on the underside
  • kept each weft row tight to the previous row – to keep the gaps to a minimum upon drying
  • finished by weaving the lead edge into the seat on the underside – no tying required

Forty-five minutes. That’s what it took. And no blood – that’s atypical for me but nice when working in front of a crowd.