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.
Next week Tools and Jigs