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.

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.

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.