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.

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