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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.

greenwood: an opinion

My woodworking efforts in recent years has towards the use of green wood, or wood straight from the log. We are using it more frequently within Berea College Student Craft and I’m making chairs and stools with it away from the college wood shop. While I felt comfortable with kiln dried boards, learning about wood from the log and the forest is a continuous learning experience. Using purchased and selected dry boards is convenient but left me disconnected from the process. Since using green wood, I’ve begun to read the bark of a tree for the what might be happening within the log. I can guess at what’s possible with a certain type of tree and within a specific log. It’s always a mystery until the log is opened, but “reading” a log is getting easier with experience.

So I thought I’d list the pro’s and con’s of green wood, as I’ve experienced it these past couple of years. I love working it and that surely colors my perspective. These thoughts are in regards to my personal work, where I’ve been focused on chairmaking and spoons recently (as opposed to my professional work – much of it requiring kiln dried lumber and plywood). Anyway – here are a few thoughts on green wood:

  • PRO – I’m connected to the local environment, economy and craft community, using common local woods to build something of value.
  • PRO – It’s plentiful and available where I live (central KY) and I have access to it. As a great perk, I get to work with the college forester and he provides straight-grain ash and oaks. He dropped off sycamore the other day for spoon carving.
  • CON – It can be difficult to obtain. That was the case when I lived in Boston. Finding green wood was a hassle, so I avoided it.
  • PRO – Inexpensive. I’ve grown cheaper with age and paying as little as possible for materials is now an objective. We have young kids who request priority over the woodworking budget. My days of building speck pieces of mahogany are behind me.
  • CON – Using green wood requires special tools. And not necessarily the common tools from a cabinetmaker’s tool chest. The froe. The drawknife. The shave horse. Potentially new tools are needed to get into green woodworking compared to benchwork.
  • PRO- Using the aforementioned tools are good fun. That’s part of why I enjoy making chairs so much. Shaving fresh oak with a sharp drawknife is unlike any experience at the bench with dry wood. The work is fast, the results are direct and the material falls away quickly.
  • PRO- The wood is “softer” to work and easy to work. Mortises are easier to cut. Carving requires less effort.
  • CON- Drying time involved, which means the parts may not be ready to work when I have the time and the desire to get at them. There is waiting involved. Waiting is not as enjoyable as woodworking. The work-around here is to have multiple projects going at the same time.
  • CON- Similar to the last point. The wood can dictate the move. Ash dries quickly, so a fresh log needs worked almost immediately before it dries out.
  • PRO- I’m as disconnected from power tools as I want to be. I’m not a hand tool puriest – I use the bandsaw, lathe and drill press at times during the building process. They can be helpful tools. Though my enjoyment of green woodworking comes from using sharp tools to shape the fresh wood. Green woodworking requires that I use a tool to cut with the grain instead of overpowering it with machines.

williamsburg, va

I’ve now been to Virginia. More accuratetly, the one-square mile of Virginia around the center of Colonial Williamsburg, where the Working Wood in the 18th Century conference happened January 16-19. Most of my time was spent in or near the American colonial village with “Working Wood” held in a conference center beside the working village.

The focus of this year’s conference was Backcountry Furniture with the historians and makers focused on pieces of furniture from outside of urban centers – furniture that was discovered and attributed to makers in places considered frontier country. A typical example was a maker moving westward, bring skills and design knowledge to the a new place. Early Kentucky furniture is a great example of this, with influences from the continental east and influences of New Orleans (coming up the Mississippi River) mixing to create a new and distinct region style. Bandy-legged, Federal style furnitre fits this new, distinct design catagory.

I am grateful for having attended. I infrequently consider the intersection of history, conservation and making. Dr. Daniel Ackermann, curator of collections at MESDA opened the conference with a discussion on early immigration and settlement patterns, and the material objects found in those early communities. Tara Chicirda, curator of furniture at Colonial Williamsburg, presented on a Rhode Island cabinetmaker who moved to Kentucky mid-career. A great group of makers presented – including Steve Latta on veneer work, Bill Pavlak and Brian Weldy on a Shenandoah Valley High Chest, and chairmaker Elia Bizzarri – who examined and built a fancy writing-desk chair orgininating from Lexington, KY and residing at the Colonial Williamsburg Muesum. These are just a few of the presenters and topics touched upon.

I gravitated towards anything chair-related. Elia’s presentations focused on fancy chairs and what goes into making them. Bright, bold, and colorful chairs were the style. There’s an impressive difference between the Elia’s freshly painted chair (paint work done by furniture conservator Chris Swan) and the dark and reserved original found at the Muesum. Chris Swan recreated the colors (minus the lead) to match the orinial finish. I’m guessing the difference is from fading, a little grime, and usage through the centuries.

There’s a small universe of people who enjoy looking and talking about chairs and it’s nice to gather in one place.

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.