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.”

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.

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.