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.