As with tools I’m trying to keep jigs simple and few. But this is chair making so they’re unavoidable.
Jigs and forms are used for bending, aligning and holding pieces of timber. Given that chairs are fairly complex shapes with lots of curves the jigs chair makers use get pretty specialised and this can put off the novice.
Leg bends seem to attract the most complex jigs. Have a look at Jeff Lefkowitz’s jig-as-artwork for the double curves in Boggs chairs. Wonderful. But if we’re building country ladder backs or Arts and Crafts chairs we only need one simple bend and we can get that with a block and a few clamps. Not much of a barrier to entry.
The back slat forms are more involved. I have used the traditional ladder style for these but I don’t really like them. If you don’t prebend the pieces they produce more of a kink than a curve and are better employed as drying forms after the slats have been mostly set in a more supportive form.
This jig will do double duty to hold the slat when carving the shape into it and so is worth spending some time on. If you want to cut down on the work you can just build the convex side and clamp the pieces to it but I have found that the sandwich method is better all round.
If you really want to cut down on jig building you can clamp the ends of the slats to the bench over the block but it won’t give you much control of the curve and ties up bench space.
Drilling holes in legs also seems to attract a lot of complexity. There are all kinds of shop-made devices for marking a centre line and drilling a hole. Mirrors, spirit level jigs and lasers all come out to solve the problem: how do you drill at a correct and consistent angle?
This is the simplest method I can find. I put a leg on the two joiner’s saddles I used for planing and scraping earlier and clamp them down. Then I mark the centreline by the extremely complicated method of using a right angle block of wood with some pencil graphite on it. This leaves me with a neat line along the length of the leg. Given that my bench top is flat I can then use this as a reference surface to judge whether I’m drilling straight. A square on the bench takes care of the angle.
The second set of holes in each leg must be at a specific angle to the first. Loosen the clamps or holdfasts, insert a dowel or stretcher, slide up a parallel sided block with a bevel gauge on it, clamp it all back down. Mark the centreline and drill. Harder to explain than to do!
It’s not really a jig but the chair stick is worth mentioning. I build mine rather robustly from the same section stock as the legs. This means that when I lay a leg next to the stick flat on the bench I can put a square across both to mark all of the joinery.
Akin to the chair stick is the bevel board. I put all of the angles needed for each chair on it. Given that the geometry of chairs is fairly well established you might never need to make more than one.
Every chair making book I own shows the author sitting on a shaving horse contentedly pulling at a stick with a drawknife. On two of them it’s the cover photo. I’ve spent many happy hours doing the same myself, but a shaving horse takes up quite a bit of space in my little workshop and I rarely use it for anything but chairs. And it is the very definition of rabbit hole workshoppery: making the tool to make the thing. You can spend hours building a museum quality shaving horse before you start building chairs.
My drawknives see a little more action at the bench but they get harder to use the drier the timber so often I find a different tool if I’m not using green, ring-porous wood.
If you’re reading this you probably already have a jack plane and a workbench of some description which means you’ve already got the tools to start building chair parts.
While I was building this chair I tried to use common joiners’ tools before I picked up a specialist item. A couple have found their way into the kit when I felt the outlay was small and the time saving and precision were significant. So here’s the list:
Chisels: 25mm (1″), 6mm (1/4″)
Cross cut saw
Tape measure/folding rule
Bit extensions if your bits are short
Tenon rounder 5/8″
2x quick grip clamps
2x sash clamps or large F clamps
Cable staple gun
Wire cutters or heavy duty scissors
Wallpaper steamer (or other method of making steam)
Plastic bag or steam box
Optional but recommended
Heavily cambered iron for jack plane
Most of this is self explanatory but a few things are worth a note:
Modern, ‘premium’ spokeshaves have quite long soles. Their metal antecedents did not. My old £5 Record A151 is 19mm from toe to heel. My Veritas is a full 5mm longer. This makes the Veritas easier to use; all of the extra length is ahead of the iron so that it’s easier to register on the workpiece without rocking. It’s a clever design by the manufacturer that makes the learning curve much shorter. Unfortunately it makes all other curves much larger.
The shorter sole of the old Record (and its Stanley cousins) means that it can create smaller radius curves. This is very helpful when smoothing the concave curve of the back slats on this chair. You could buy a round bottomed spokeshave but it’s another tool to sharpen and store and they are a bit trickier to use. Old (and new) wooden spokeshaves are limited by the size of their irons. Many have longer soles than the 151 and the length is behind the edge.
One is essential. A second is not a luxury. If you don’t have one already my recommendation is the 10″ Stanley No. 18. It locks with a screw from the bottom that runs through the stock and so sits flat either way around. It also locks solidly. They come in different lengths. For the purposes of chair making get the longest you can find.
To get the posts and stretchers close to round without a lathe a dedicated scraper is an excellent tool. You can buy ‘chair devils’ but it seems like such an extravagance that I never have. For under a tenner you can get a pair of precisely sized spindle scrapers. It’s hard to argue with the price but if you do get them make sure that you grind the corners off or a moment’s inattention will leave you with deep scars in your work. If you have a grinder and a bit of old saw plate or a spare cabinet scraper you can roll your own and get a much more convenient tool. I put a 5/8″ curve on one side and 1 3/8″ on the other flaring out to take a wider piece.
I’ve used a steam iron, an electric kettle with the switch taped down and several combinations of camping stoves and pans to generate steam but the easiest and safest solution is a wallpaper steamer. At about £40 you might think this is a luxury and I wouldn’t argue but if you don’t already have the makings of a jury-rigged death trap and are planning to buy something this is your best bet. You can still do yourself an enormous amount of damage but you can do it continuously and reliably from a handy flexible hose.
To multiply the risk of scalding injuries you can forego the traditional steam box and heat your back posts and slats in a plastic bag. This is a technique used by boat builders to steam planks in place and scales down well for the occasional chair maker. Once you catch the chair making bug you’ll quickly decide to build a box but a thin steam-filled sack of seething heat will cut out one obstacle to bending timber.
Rather than add to the terror by pressing into service that moth-eaten pair of old leather gloves for handling the scorching hot sticks it is definitely worth investing in a pair of bakers’ steam-proof gloves. Don’t use them for anything else; you don’t want to wear a hole in them. When faced with the collapsing pile of red-hot cling wrap that your steam bag turns into the moment you touch it, these will give you a bit of confidence, if not dexterity.
Irwin Quick Grip clamps are that very rare thing in woodworking: excellent and cheap. They may not be the most robust clamps or exert the greatest force but they are incredibly useful. I keep three 600mm medium duty clamps on the bench during dry fit and glue up. I only use two but I’ve had the grips pull out on a couple which involves a couple of minutes with a screwdriver to reassemble them. It’s time you can’t afford when the glue is cooling so it’s worth having a spare on hand.
When Quick Grips aren’t strong enough to pull two pieces together you need the mechanical advantage of a screw clamp. I have a few 600mm F clamps that have a deeper reach than bar clamps and can pull even the most recalcitrant ladders into line. They’re particularly helpful on the back slat bending forms.
This is the one specialist tool I would not be without. Even though I have three lathes (I know, I know) and generally turn chair parts to completion on them I still use a tenon former because I’ve matched it with my favourite bit. You could shave all of the tenons to size. Jenny Alexander did it this way and it can work well. But it takes a long time. Still – it’s pleasant work seated at the shaving horse. I prefer to use this tool and then scrape the transition. Here’s the maths: this chair has 24 5/8″ tenons. At £40 for the tool it’s less than £1.70 per tenon for one chair. Build four chairs and it’s under £40p. Your decision.
At most you need three sizes of bit to build a ladder back armchair: 5/8” for the stretchers, 3/4” for the arm tenons into the back posts and 1” for the front posts into the arms. But you can cut out the 3/4” if you’re happy to have a slightly skinny tenon into the back posts, as I did here.
Now you have a choice of bits. Traditionalists might like an auger bit in a brace but you risk the long lead screw coming through the opposite side of the workpiece. My favourite chairmaking bit is the square shanked Forstner bit in a brace but I can’t recommend it because you might wait for years for a 5/8” to come to the market and then you’ll have to sell a kidney. So the choice is really down to modern bits designed for high speed drills.
In an electric drill modern bits guzzle wood as if the worker’s livelihood depended on the industrial production of hamster bedding. But if you’re planning to adapt them for a brace you will find saw toothed Forstner bits rather less impressive than their single cutter ancestors. They’ll work but you might be there a while.
If you’re buying a dedicated bit don’t get it until you’ve tried the tenon former. I find a 5/8″ hole a bit sloppy for my 5/8″ tenons and so use a 15.5mm Forstner bit which is perfect (and more than .3mm smaller than 5/8”!). You can adjust them a hair but they’re finicky. Whichever bit you decide to buy get the long version or buy an extension. More on this later…
I started this series of blog posts as an article for F&C magazine but by the time I was halfway through it two things had happened: it was more than double the word count for project articles and the editor had moved on! Rather than chop it down I’ve chosen to publish it here so that none of the detail is lost. I’ll be posting weekly as I write up each stage.
Chairmakers’ workshops are full of specialist tools: froes, shavehorses, drawknives and spindle lathes. They’re a lot of fun and worth learning to use if you want to build a lot of chairs. Finding straight, clear, green wood presents another hurdle (sorry) to the prospective bodger. But for the urban woodworker labouring in a cramped workshop without a ready supply of freshly cut ash and with just a few basic woodworking tools there are alternatives. Ladder back, or post and rung, chairs can be built at the joiner’s bench from material available at most decent timber yards. You don’t get to sit down as much and it may take a little longer but the results can be indistinguishable from traditionally made chairs or as different as your imagination allows.
Over the next few weeks I’m going to look at ways to build ladder back chairs using a small tool kit and as few jigs as possible. It’s not the way I learned to build chairs but it may make getting into my second favourite form of woodwork a bit easier (in answer to the obvious question: boats) .
I’m not suggesting that this is the right way, the easiest way, the quickest way or the most enjoyable way. But it is a way that you might be able to start tomorrow without a big outlay.
You’re going to need to bend wood if you’re building ladderback chairs and in the absence of green wood the next best thing for steaming is air-dried timber, though the chair made in this series was built entirely from kiln-dried stock. The traditional timbers, ash, oak and chestnut, all work well but more important than species are straight grain and lack of knots. Given that you’re not going to be splitting the timber your choice is wider than that of traditional chair makers. A straight, clear board of English cherry is an enticing prospect. You don’t see many cherry chairs on this side of the pond. Walnut, a diffuse porous timber not readily given to convenient splitting, also makes a striking chair.
Ladder backs are more tolerant of dry wood than some of their Windsor cousins. Gentle sweeps in the back posts rather than the tight curves of a sack back chair will make your bends easier, require less kit and be less prone to failure.
The project begins at the timber yard. Find one that will let you look through the boards available and choose the straightest, clearest piece of hardwood you can find. I have had a lot of success bending force dried timber and once managed to get a curved stem for a canoe out of a piece of kiln dried Western Red Cedar with nothing more than a towel and a steam iron, but not without a few breakages. Find a timber yard that processes its own boards from log to plank and ask to pick out a stick before it gets to the kiln.
When selecting a board don’t focus exclusively on how straight the grain is on the face but also look at the edge. If there’s more than an annular ring of runout per inch keep looking. There’s a decent board in there somewhere.
Keep it as long as you can for as long as you can. It’s tempting to cut down a long board to get it into the back of your car but if logistics allow don’t cross cut it until you’ve got it back to the ‘shop and can plan your posts, rungs and slats around the shakes and small knots in the board. It’s worth taking your chair stick with you if you’ve already made one. More on this later…
I’m using Chestnut for this chair. It looks a lot like oak but without the medullary rays or cats paws. There’s very little sap wood on a board, the grain is similar to oak and works a little easier. I prefer working it to dry ash but it’s quite a bit softer and it’s easy to put dents in. I spent some time steaming a few out. I got most of the chair out of one board 1800x400x42mm. You could do it from less; I was working around some knots. It wasn’t the most efficient way to work. Ideally I’d have bought one board at 42mm for the posts and another at 32 for the stretchers. If you can get a thick board and resaw it for the all of the slats it makes a lovely pattern. Here I settled for two and two.