Teaching chair making is a fairly involved business; most courses are five days or longer. I’ve been looking for a post and rung or ladder back project that I can teach over a weekend or three days. Windsor chair makers have the simple three legged stick stool that can be knocked together in a morning. Add a bit of seat saddling and it’s a day long course. Put some stretchers on it and maybe a fourth leg and it’s a weekend.
But I want students to get the chance to do some weaving and make the piece their own. I’ve made a number of square stools that are a lot of fun to build and have basic, right angle joinery that’s ideal for an introductory course. But there’s a lot of weaving there! Plenty of opportunities to go wrong and a workout for inexperienced hands.
So I drew this little stool with three goals in mind: you should be proud to take it home with you, you should enjoy a range of skills while building it and you should be able to do it in a weekend (perhaps a bank holiday weekend?). I think it’s quite pretty as a small stool but it would easily grow into a bar stool; longer legs with less angle and stretchers at different heights to accommodate different leg lengths would turn it into something really useful at a kitchen counter.
This is the first version. The next will have a narrower seat frame and a bigger seat. That will make it more comfortable but take a bit longer to weave. That won’t be a great hardship; it took less than an hour to weave this little seat. The tenons aren’t quite where I want them and the
Construction is fairly foolproof and uses a couple of simple jigs. More on those in a future post. I’m using socketed tenons for the leg to seat frame joints. Again, these deserve their own post but suffice to say I’m very happy with them.
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.
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.
On a chair leg’s journey from square to round (for the pedants: from cuboidal to cylindrical) there are several options for marking it out to get to octagonal. I’m a big fan of the spar gauge; they’re handy for any piece that tapers along its length. But for building the occasional chair a dedicated tool may be a bit much.
Here’s another way – one that I use a lot even though I have a couple of spar gauges in a draw.
Plane the future chair leg square to a hair shy of the final diameter.
On one the end of the workpiece mark the centre using the 45 degree fence on your combination square.
Draw a circle (or just a quarter of a circle) with a pair of compasses.
Mark a tangent using your combination square.
Set your marking gauge to the point where the tangent meets the edge.
Use this setting to mark the length of the workpiece.
Set the leg in joiner’s saddles and plane until the marks just disappear
Draw a line on all eight sides.
Plane a few strokes until your piece is an even 16 sides. No need to gauge anything here – trust your eye and the length of the ever decreasing pencil lines.
Last week was London Craft Week. I missed most of it. Passing a shop on Upper Street I saw the aftermath of a seat weaving demonstration from Danish Modern furniture makers Carl Hansen. The batten across the stretchers is tensioned by a bottle screw. It looks as though this setup is specific to one chair – the Hans Wegner CH23.
I don’t make runs of chairs so need more flexible methods. Rather than a bottle screw I use a Truckers’ Dolly. I feel a bit of a fraud holding forth on knots. My dad taught me all the knots I know (and teaches marlinespikery) and he still has a head full of them that I didn’t have the patience to learn. He uses the Truckers’ Dolly for securing loads to his trailers. This varies from tensioning a tarpaulin to holding down a boat. Last year we tied a large, wet, oak log to a trailer with this and it didn’t shift a millimetre for the fifty mile journey. When I was a kid we decided to test the power of it and added several purchases along a length of line. The extra purchase more than compensated for the increased friction and we pulled a small willow stump from the ground. However it’s not designed for dynamic loads; holding static loads securely is its strength.
Here I’m using a simplified version. Dad would have a few improvements, I’m sure. He’d want a directional figure of eight rather than that overhand knot on a bight and he’d get at least one more purchase on there.
Take the line over the stretcher or batten and put an overhand knot on the bight.
Take the line back round the holdfast and up to the bight.
Through the bight, pull down hard. The chair will move slightly if it isn’t perfectly aligned over the holdfast.
Pull down hard on the purchase and take the line around the whole mess with two half hitches. These will pull it all together tensioning it even more.
If you have space you can add more purchase to it with more bights until the friction becomes more of a hindrance than the purchase helps. Leather over the stretcher will help prevent slips and leather on the batten across two stretchers will add some padding.
Eight times as bad as antagonising? No. Turning square sections into octagonal sections. How many of us have to use it before it gets a place in the OED?
I’m reading The Anarchist’s Design Bookat the moment. I’ve read the first four chapters and skimmed the staked furniture projects. One of Chris Schwarz’s contributions to chair making is finding ways to build them without a box fullof specialist tools. Most of the time this is helpful and appreciated. Rather than creating anarchy it democratises the craft. But sometimes a specialist tool can really help and won’t cost the earth.
Take for instance the process of turning tapered, square section legs into octagons. He quotes Charles Hayward’s method using compasses and a straight edge (since he’s just published two tomes of Hayward’s work it must have been fresh in his mind). It’s a lovely technique and is fun to do. If you’re only going to make one chair it’s great. If you are planning a run of them try this:
Spar maker’s gauge
It’s called a spar maker’s gauge. When building masts, booms, gaffs, lugs, sprits, bowsprits, boomkins or any other pole a boatbuilder often starts with a square section piece of wood, tapers it at either end and then planes or saws the corners off to make it an octagon. It’s then a bit more planing with hollow planes and you’ve got a rounded spar.
Hayward’s compass trick wouldn’t work here. There are tapers at both ends and they aren’t uniform. Instead they use this gauge. Building it is a matter of a few minutes work. The gap between the dowels must be slightly larger than the largest diameter of the spar, or in this case, leg. The spacing is critical. It’s better explained here.
Last year, when I built a stool for my new workshop, I used it for the legs. Works a treat. You might prefer pencils rather than nails. If you plan to build more than one chair it will be worth it.