recent settin’ chairs

Slow moving over the past few months. At least it feels that way. Making during the early mornings and weekends feels slow as it is, add in a few mistakes and detours and a project has the appearance of a truck stuck in the mud and the wheels spinning, not going anywhere.

I swapped out the slats on these chairs. That’s what slowed them down. I bent the first sets, had them dry in a rack for a couple of weeks before shaping and putting them it. They were too ugly to keep around. I am harsh on my work, so I like to live with things for a week or so before doing anything drastic. So I waited. Put the chairs out of sight then came back to them. I disliked the slats even more when I returned. The world doesn’t need ugly chairs, so I cut them out.

Adding slats as the last step isn’t a problem…..it’s the approach taken by a group of makers within the chairmaking community. So there’s little issue with quality or approach, it only cost some time to work back to the finished point. The lesson from bending last is that the slats should be as thin as possible. It’s only the chair frame holding the bend in place and thin slats bend easier than thick.

Both have hickory seats. One ebonized with iron and tannins. The other finished with a natural walnut hull stain. I love that one…the walnut stain and garnet shellac gives the oak a nice mellow look.

I needed patience with these two – sometimes it works that way. It’ll never be confused with the works of the Mace family of North Carolina, but the walnut-stained chair took a few design characteristics from their distinctive sitten’ chairs. The front facets on the slats, for example, along with the three slats and the upper bent post. Those Mace chairs are the real deal. They feel right in every way.

The proportions are another change with these two. The posts were bulked up to 1 5/8″ and the rung tenons to 3/4″. The chairs feel much more substantial previous builds with 5/8″ tenons. I know Alexander pushed everything as thin as possible, along with the best practices for the joinery, but sometimes thicker materials just makes for a stouter chair. Then again Alexander used white oak for everything…maybe there’s a substantial difference between the black oak I’m using and her material.

Onward. Next build is a contemporary chair. Part benchwork and part green wood with this one. Crest rails are already in the bending forms. I’ve had a design in my head for a while now and I want to get too it before it fades. I’m excited….it always excites me when ‘monstrosity’ is one potential outcome.

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.