My Whiny Little Friend

The past few years I have been using a little battery powered pencil sharpener. There, I came clean; the skeleton is out of the closet.

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I have been grilled by a few students about why someone who teaches hand tool woodworking uses an electric pencil sharpener. When I am teaching at The Woodwright’s School, it drives poor Roy nuts.

So why do I torture Roy and aggravate the purists with this thing? The sharpener puts a perfect point on a pencil in about half a second. I can also keep it in the tool tray of the workbench within arms reach. Being so close and quick I can keep a perfect, sharp pencil at all times with almost no effort. This makes my layouts faster and more accurate.

— Will Myers

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Why These Books? In What Order?

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Sometimes a customer asks us to recommend a good place to begin when buying our books.

It’s a question we take seriously. Our books are not cheap, they take time to read and each represents years (sometimes decades) of work to get to press. So recommending one of our 33 books is a bit like matchmaking.

Mentally, I arrange our books into a few “tracks” or “traditions.” Today, I’d like to discuss the United Kingdom tradition.

Joseph Moxon’s ‘The Art of Joinery’
AOJ_stack_IMG_8093“Mechanick Exercises” by Joseph Moxon was the first English-language book on woodworking. We reprinted his section on joinery, called “The Art of Joinery,” and it was Lost Art Press’ first title in 2007.

Moxon’s 17th-century language is a little stilted for modern ears, so I offer commentary on the text and try to explain some of the areas that are confusing. What I love about Moxon is that not much has changed in hand-tool woodworking in more than three centuries. The tools and processes are similar to what I do at the bench every day.

And so the details covered in Moxon are as relevant to me today as when Moxon printed them. Of course, you can get this sort of information from other sources, but understanding the primary source is the best way to separate good technique from Internet self-fondling.

While this was our first book, it’s not necessarily the first Lost Art Press book I’d buy from the U.K. tradition. That book would be Robert Wearing’s “The Essential Woodworker.”

Robert Wearing’s ‘The Essential Woodworker’
EW_blue_IMG_4051We had to fight like hell to get “The Essential Woodworker” back in print. Though the author was supportive, his previous publishing company was as pleasant as a bag of hemorrhoids. The company destroyed the original files and photos (or said they had been destroyed) and pretty much resisted us at every turn – even though the company had let the book lapse years before.

So we rebuilt the book from scratch. We typed in every damn word and made revisions from Wearing. We rescanned the line drawings. We took new photos. The result is my favorite book for the beginning hand-tool woodworker.

The Essential Woodworker” isn’t really about disconnected skills (sharpening, planing, mortising, dovetailing). Instead it connects all these disparate skills into a way that you can see how they are used together to design and build furniture. For many woodworkers, Wearing’s book puts all the puzzle pieces in order and makes it all “click.”

It did for me.

‘The Joiner & Cabinet Maker’
BK-JACM01-2This almost-forgotten book from the early 1800s tells the story of Thomas, a young apprentice in a rural workshop. It is similar to “The Essential Woodworker” in that it provides a framework for learning the craft through three projects: a packing box, a school box and a chest of drawers. But what is different is that all this happens through a historical lens.

We took the original short book and printed in its entirety, but we also loaded it with historical context from Joel Moskowitz and a modern interpretation (from me). For me “The Joiner & Cabinet Maker” is for woodworkers who also love the History Channel. It will make you look at your shavings, your folding rule and your name stamp in a different and deeper way.

It will make you appreciate that you cannot spell “woodworking” without “working” and help you grasp why historical technique is sometimes different than what we do today.

And you will loathe Sam, the villain of the book.

Charles H. Hayward ‘The Woodworker, Vols. I to IV’
hayward_cover4_img_2253For me, our series of four books from Charles H. Hayward represent the most exhaustive look at the art of joinery in the United Kingdom’s tradition. Hayward, the editor of The Woodworker magazine for more than 30 years, wrote, built and illustrated almost every word of the monthly magazine during his tenure.

He was uniquely talented, thoughtful and skilled as a writer, editor, builder, illustrator and publisher.

We sorted through every issue of The Woodworker published during his editorship and, with the assistance of too many people to mention, we culled it all into these four volumes that cover tools, techniques, joinery, workshops and furniture design.

These books are a joy to read casually and are a reference for almost every hand-tool process I know of. These books are for beginners. They are for hard-bitten professionals. They are (and I rarely say this) something that I wish every woodworker would read.

Unlike some practitioners, Hayward wasn’t myopic. He was fascinated by alternative methods from other woodworkers and other cultures. You can even see his own opinion shift on several key items as he listened to his readers.

For a taste of some of Hayward’s genius, check out the table of contents and the free excerpts available here.

And Some Other Titles….
There are other books we have published that are part of the U.K. tradition that focus on narrower topics. “Doormaking & Window-making” explains just that – using the tools and processes common to the U.K. (and North America). “Campaign Furniture” explores an important form of British furniture that doesn’t get much attention. “Welsh Stick Chairs” is one of the most important books on chairmaking (it’s from Wales). And “Cut & Dried” spends a good deal of its pages explaining the woods common to the U.K. and how they are cut, dried and used.

Next – the French tradition.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Armchair for ‘The Anarchist’s Design Book’

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According to my notes, this is my fourth attempt at building an armchair for the expansion of “The Anarchist’s Design Book.” And to be honest, I don’t know how many sketches I made of this design – probably 80 to 100.

Some of my designs failed for technical reasons. Others were too complex to ask of a first-time chairmaker. This design, however, presses all the right buttons. It is built with off-the-rack lumber using a toolkit that doesn’t require many specialty tools.

The wood is kiln-dried. You don’t need a shavehorse, lathe, steambox or even a drawknife. It’s built using standard timber sizes you can find at any lumberyard. The crest rail, for example, is sawn out of workaday 8/4 red oak – nothing special or expensive.

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After gluing up the chair this afternoon, I made a set of detailed wooden patterns so I can replicate the design. These patterns will help me do two things: write the chapter on the chair and teach three classes in 2019 on building it.

Indeed, after a few years off, I’ve decided to teach a few classes in 2019 – one at our storefront, one in Indiana and one in the United Kingdom. I’ll post details on the classes and registration when they become available this fall.

I’m eager to share the design for this chair. Even if you don’t want to take a class with me (there are only so many squirrel jokes a person can take), I’ll be publishing the complete plans for this chair. They will be available for a free download for anyone who has purchased “The Anarchist’s Design Book” from us or any of our retailers.

Those plans probably won’t be available for another year – at least. I still have to build four or five more projects for the expansion. But this chair was the most difficult design, and I’m glad it’s behind me. Well, almost behind me. I still need to paint it.

— Christopher Schwarz

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You Are the Problem

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When we released “Make a Joint Stool from a Tree” in 2012, I was still teaching a lot, traveling to tool shows and talking at places such as Woodworking in America. So I heard a lot of comments from readers about Jennie’s transition from being John Alexander to Jennie Alexander.

Most of the comments were something like: “What’s the deal with that? Isn’t that creepy? Why’d he do that?”

I would bite my tongue to prevent it from blurting “$%#& you.” And so I searched for a way to respond without getting angry. Anger is not my thing.

One day during a class, several students buttonholed me on the issue of Jennie’s transition. I stammered and looked helpless until one of the school’s employees interrupted me.

I won’t name the employee because it might embarrass him. But I am forever grateful for what he said.

“Look,” he said. “If someone does something, and it doesn’t harm anyone, then what’s the problem? If you are bothered by it, then you are the problem.”

I now say those exact words every time people ask me about Jennie. Hell, I practiced it in the mirror a few times to make sure I could look people in the eye when I did it (I’m not very good at locking eyeballs).

Please note that I feel this way about a wide variety of issues that are on the left and the right. Don’t try to transform this human statement into a political one.

— Christopher Schwarz

P.S. Don’t bother typing a hateful comment. No one will see it.

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Jennie Alexander (1930-2018)

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Editor’s note; This morning we received word from Peter Follansbee that Jennie Alexander has died. Her health has been in decline for some time, but her enthusiasm and spirit was intact. Just last week she called to give me a rash of crap about something I had written. Classic Jennie.

It’s impossible to overstate Jennie’s influence on the craft (and woodworking publishing). Her book “Make a Chair From a Tree” launched the book-publishing program at The Taunton Press and influenced and inspired thousands of woodworkers to pick up the tools and become chairmakers or green woodworkers.

I encourage you to read this profile of Jennie that Kara Gebhart published that covers the entire scope of Jennie’s life, from jazz musician to attorney to green woodworker. There is, of course, way more to the story of Jennie’s life, but this is as good as it gets.

Below I’ve reprinted an article I wrote on Jennie several years ago with photos from my first visit to her shop in Baltimore.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Built in Baltimore. While many people associate Jennie Alexander’s chairs with country woodcraft, she lives in urban Baltimore, where she developed the design for her chair.

 

Make a Revolution from a Tree

A curious attorney helped kick-start ‘green woodworking’ with a single chair & a book.

Of all the unusual twists and turns in the life of Jennie (formerly John) Alexander, surely the most incredible has been to be pronounced dead in the media while being very much alive.

When her second woodworking book was released, some reviewers said she was deceased; others assumed “Jennie” was John’s widow.

So let’s set that fact aside – John is now Jennie – because it has nothing to do with Alexander’s incredible woodworking career, the iconic chair she designed or her profound influence on woodworking during the last 36 years.

Alexander’s first book, “Make a Chair from a Tree” (Taunton Press and later Astragal Press), was the 1978 lightning bolt that ignited the woodworking passions of thousands of woodworkers and brought “green woodworking” out of the forest and into the modern workshop. Even after the book went out of print, the chair continued to inspire through a DVD of the same name published by ALP Productions.

The chair that is featured in the book and DVD is both old and new. While it is based on traditional ladderbacks and deep-lignin science, Alexander’s chair is not tied to a particular period or style. Its parts are shaved instead of turned. It looks at home in a log cabin or an urban loft. It weighs almost nothing but is as strong as a suspension bridge. And it is definitely the most comfortable chair I have ever sat in.

There is something about the back that is simply incredible. The two slats hit you in the right place, and the back legs are curved in a way that pleases your eye and your muscular system.

As soon as I sat in one of her chairs, I knew I had to make one.

I’m not alone. Thousands of chairmakers have been smitten with the design. And many of them, such as chairmaker Brian Boggs, went on to become professionals. So if you are one of the tens of thousands of people who now build chairs from green wood or carve spoons or bowls, you are almost certainly part of the lineage that began – in part – with a Baltimore boy who was handy around the house.

Obey Snowball
Born in December 1930, Alexander was the son of a mother who was a secretary to the president of an insurance company. She would leave a to-do list for Alexander to tackle after he came back at night. She arranged for Boulevard Hardware to provide tools from the store’s extensive stock of Stanley tools. Jerry and Miss Irma at Boulevard filled the bill.

The owner also gave Alexander handouts on tool use that were printed by Stanley Tools, which Alexander kept in a three-ring binder, including a guide to sharpening and using hand tools.

“That,” she says, “was my bible.”

Another important part of the home picture was that Alexander’s mother, a former Sloyd student in Massachusetts, had collected some old furniture, including a post-and-rung chair with a fiber seat. “It had always been there,” Alexander says about the chair. “I liked that chair. It was comfortable, low and stocky but had an elevated air to it.”

Alexander attended Baltimore City Polytechnic Institute, a four-year high school that specialized in engineering – graduating there would give her a year’s head start at university. In high school she studied engineering with extensive shop work, from combustion to electricity to woodworking – things that stuck in her scientific mind and would come in handy later on when bending chair parts with heat and moisture.

After graduating, Alexander enrolled at Johns Hopkins University as a sophomore to study engineering. But she was shocked to learn the school was teaching the same material from high school, but to to four decimal points of precision instead of two.

“I was bored,” she says. “I was interested in music,” she says.

And she founded a repertory jazz trio and played around Baltimore, playing piano in bars instead of studying. She left Johns Hopkins and went to night school to study mathematics. Then she quit that, got a job as a draughtsman and then at the War Plant – all while singing and playing jazz piano with the Southland Trio.

But one morning, Alexander was lying in bed unable to sleep and heard a voice from her childhood speaking to her. It was the voice of Snowball, a voice on the radio show “Uncle Bill and Snowball,” which featured a blind banjo player who would sing in the high falsetto voice of Snowball.

“Go to law school,” Snowball says. Alexander takes the disembodied advice and by 3:15 that afternoon is enrolled in law school at the University of Maryland at Baltimore.

Alexander graduates law school in four years instead of three because she decides to attend night classes to prevent her from playing jazz on weeknights. After coming in first on the bar exam, Alexander married “a wonderful girl” named Joyce, now deceased, and starts a traditional law career. Which might have been the end of the story if it weren’t for meeting Charles Hummel at Winterthur Museum.

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Broken chairs. Alexander’s research has been informed by many bits of research, including looking at bits of chairs that have broken to learn why they failed.

Shaker Chairs
Like many young people, Alexander and his wife fixed up an old house and Alexander  starts reading English books on traditional trade, including chairmaking. She fixes up a fishing boat (which later became a pond for storing wet wood for chairmaking), starts making stools and decides to make some chairs.

“I called a firewood man and said I want a hickory log so long and so straight,” Alexander says. Later on, “I hear a great sound at the back. He’s dropping off hickory logs. Don’t ask me how I broke those down to get them on the lathe. But it’s time to make a chair. I got those legs up on the lathe, and the lathe was jumping across the room.

“When the rough, split spindle finally turned round, 6’-long sopping-wet strands of hickory traveled up the gouge and hung themselves up on my right ear. I said, ‘I will never go to the lumberyard again.’ ”

And she never has.

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Almost homemade. Alexander enjoys making effective tools from inexpensive raw materials. Here she made an useful side hatchet from a standard double-bevel hatchet.

Alexander and Joyce are fascinated by the Shakers. They make several trips to the Sabbathday Lake Shaker community, where Sister Mildred there becomes Joyce’s “spiritual guide.” Alexander decides to make a Shaker chair with a one-slat back.

“So I made some very clunky Shaker chairs with one slat and we used fake twisted paper (instead of rush or tape for the woven seat),” she says.

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Boring the joints. Alexander demonstrates boring the mortises in a leg using a benchtop fixture that simplifies the process.

 

In the meantime, Alexander joins the Early American Industries Association and meets Charles Hummel, the author of the book “With Hammer in Hand” (University Press of Virginia) and a curator at Winterthur.

With Hummel’s guidance, Alexander becomes an expert on antique chairs made by the Dominy family on Long Island, including one interesting chair in the study collection that could be disassembled when the humidity is low (she was permitted by the museum to disassemble the chair, by the way).

All of this leads Alexander to experiment with wet wood. To test theory after theory on joinery, moisture content and how wood behaves. Some of the chairs work fine. Some do not. At some point Alexander decides to write a book about her chairs and travels to New England in 1977 at the suggestion of fellow craftsman Richard Starr. Alexander says she and Starr visited John Kelsey, the editor of Fine Woodworking magazine, at his home with a draft of the manuscript for “Make a Chair from a Tree” (Alexander says she “just happened to have the draft in hand”). Kelsey stayed up the night to read the draft.

“Kelsey read the draft overnight and hired me in the morning,” Alexander says. “Kelsey also hired Bruce Hoadley to read the text. Hoadley advised Kelsey, and I listened to every word.”

Make a Chair From a Tree
“Make a Chair from a Tree” was the first woodworking book published by Taunton Press, Alexander says. At the time, the new magazine was just getting started working on books with Tage Frid and Bruce Hoadley, but Alexander was ready to go, says Kelsey, the then-editor.

“I remember thinking it was a perfect topic for the then-new Fine Woodworking audience, the concept was so elemental and fundamental, and so unlike anything then in print; it cut to the very core of what we were trying to do,” Kelsey says. “At the same time, the publisher, Paul Roman, had a more conventional view of our woody audience and judged it a risky proposition, perhaps a very hard sell. But we didn’t know, and it wasn’t going to be a huge investment of time or money, so we agreed to jump and find out.”

Kelsey and Starr traveled to Baltimore to work on the book with Alexander. Roman, the magazine’s publisher, shot the photos, Alexander says. The team worked to shape up the manuscript for its 1978 release. (Upon reflecting on the process, Alexander says she was “eternally grateful” for Starr’s help in particular.)

Meanwhile, Alexander continued to investigate on the chair technology and offered huge changes right up until the moment the book went to press – an unconventional way to make a book (or a chair for that matter).

One of the biggest last-minute changes was in how the parts were shaped. Alexander had been using a lathe to turn the components. But right before an Early American Industries meeting, Alexander was told she couldn’t use a lathe because it was too dangerous to the audience if something flew loose.

“I was down in the shop kicking stuff. I didn’t know what to do,” Alexander says. “Joyce gives me a cup of tea. She says, ‘You shave stuff eight-sided to put it on the lathe don’t you? Well keep going.’ ” Alexander went to the meeting and returned with a shaved chair.

Alexander switched to shaving the chairs instead of turning them. Kelsey then had to re-write the book, Alexander says.

“But we wanted a great little gem of a book and we didn’t want to be issuing revised editions within a year or two, so we rode the pony right to the ground,” Kelsey says.

“Make a Chair from a Tree” hit the market in 1978 with multiple advertisements in the magazine that were supported by articles from Drew Langsner and Alexander on green-wood techniques and technology. Kelsey says the book  – 128 pages in an unusual 9” x 9” format – was a hard sell with most readers. But it was aimed right between the eyes of Peter Follansbee in Massachusetts.

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Chair in use. While Peter Follansbee was the joiner at Plimoth he would use this chair made by Alexander to explain some aspects of joinery and chair technology.

 

“I was in my shop with a table saw and a drill press,” Follansbee says. “I think I was trying to make a bookcase. With those two articles I was just captured.”

Follansbee bought the book, started making chairs and in 1980 saw that Alexander was teaching a class at Country Workshops in North Carolina. Though Follansbee didn’t drive a car, he found a way to the school via an airplane, two buses and 25 miles of hitchhiking and walking. In time he became a regular at the school, and he and Alexander became friends through a love for green woodworking and a twisted sense of humor.

At the time, Alexander was exploring theories of how case pieces had been made using 17th-century green-woodworking techniques such as riving stock, and joinery techniques including drawboring that Benno Foreman, Robert Trent and Hummel at Winterthur were also researching. They helped open the door for Alexander’s research in giving her access to old pieces.

“He (Alexander) was looking for someone to test his theories,” Follansbee says. “He was practicing law and didn’t have time to build a complex piece. So I ended up saying, ‘I’ll go fart around with some of this.’ I had given up all my power tools. I had found a good-sized log. He (drew out) the joint on the junk mail on his table. I rose to the bait.”

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In the country. Jennie, Peter and Theodore during their early days at Country Workshops.

 

That moment launched a long correspondence between Alexander and Follansbee, who would swap letters and photographs from their homes in Baltimore and Massachusetts. And eventually the letters led to the book “Make a Joint Stool from a Tree” (Lost Art Press), which explored 17th-century joinery and stock preparation.

This dunking into the world of green woodworking led Follansbee to become the joiner at Plimoth Plantation for more than 20 years, where he continued to explore 17th-century furniture.

“All in all, (Alexander) has been a huge part of my life,” Follansbee says.

Country Workshops
Follansbee was similar to many woodworkers who discovered green woodworking through “Make a Chair from a Tree.” They started with the book and ended up studying it deeply under the direct tutelage of Alexander at Country Workshops in rural North Carolina.

Drew and Louise Langsner founded Country Workshops in 1978 shortly after the couple had written a book titled “Handmade,” and Drew had just finished a book called “Country Woodcraft.”

“Almost as soon as that book comes out I get a letter from John who was very excited about the book,” Drew says. The two resolve to meet when Drew traveled to New England to speak at the Woodcraft Supply store.

During the visit, Drew invited Alexander to Country Workshops to teach a class on building a simple stool. That class soon evolved into a class on building a simple chair with one slat and finally the chair that appeared on the cover of “Make a Chair from a Tree.”

And Country Workshops became the flash point for woodworkers who wanted to explore traditional woodworking in a deep way that was rooted both in tradition and science.

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Sitting pretty. Alexander’s chair (background) with a simple antique ladderback in front. You can see both the similarities in form but the vast differences in style.

Even today, people come from all over the world to study chairmaking at Country Workshops, many of them inspired by Alexander’s incredibly lightweight chair.

“In fact, some students (from Australia) were here last week were sent here by Jennie,” Louise says. “She is always encouraging people. I think that is a special thing about her – generosity.

“Woodworking is such a special part of her life and she wants to share.”

So what is it about Alexander’s chair that still continues to inspire people to build it? Drew says it’s interesting to him because Alexander’s chair is essentially a historical ladderback design that appears over and over.

But Alexander was not content to just build a reproduction and call it done. Alexander, a jazz singer, likes to explore variations on a theme.

“The Appalachian chairs were a little clunky,” Drew says. “John’s are really slender and elegant. How he came up with that look I don’t know. But the look changed everything. He refined the chair just perfectly.”

In fact, Drew says he’s about to start making a set of them for their house and daughter. And they were going to be exactly the same chair shown on the cover of “Make a Chair from a Tree.”

“It’s like Alexander took an old piece of music,” Drew says. “She’s following all the 300-year-old notes and making it new again.”

— Christopher Schwarz

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Finishing Your Chair

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The surface patterns of the raw wood can overwhelm the subtleties of the forms.

This is an excerpt from “Chairmaker’s Notebook” written and illustrated by Peter Galbert. 

Paint has come a long way from the toxic lead paints of the original Windsors to the stringy enamels of the 20th century. I paint my chairs with milk paint, and while it was not the traditional finish for Windsors, it does a great job of coloring the wood without obscuring the texture. One problem with milk paint is that its manufacturers tend to describe mixing and using it in a way that creates a crude “country” finish. I don’t want this for my chairs, so I mix the paint thinner than recommended and follow a multi-coat process to get the refined look I want.

When done properly, the grain and texture of the wood are clearly visible, and the desirable tool marks and edges are sharp and crisp. Not only is the warmth and depth of the wood present, but it is deepened. Over time, normal use will wear the paint, exposing the edges of the chair and highlighting the shaping. The overall effect is far more striking than one dominated solely by the surfaces and colors of the wood.

Before launching into surface and paint preparation, I feel compelled to talk about samples. Committing making sample boards might just be the toughest lesson in all of woodworking. But until you have a sample – and I mean a completed sample – that you are pleased with, it is more than likely that you will be disappointed in the results on the actual piece.

When working with a new finish, I make samples on the various woods and surface preparations of my piece. I observe all the normal drying times, steps and layers. Lots of notes will help you remember the steps and measurements. Once I love the results, it’s time to work on the actual piece.

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Wetting scraped and sanded areas raises the compressed fibers.

Surface Preparation
Surface preparation is vital to getting good results. Any surface that was shaved with a sharp blade, such as a drawknife or spokeshave, is ready for finishing without any further preparation – save making sure that it is free from dirt or grime. This is because the cutting action shears the fibers cleanly without compressing the grain. Even parts that have been put through the steamer will show no raised grain where they were shaved with a sharp tool.

Areas that have been scraped and sanded will have some degree of grain compression that will show up as raised rough fibers on the surface once they contact either water, water-based stain or water-based milk paint. For these areas, I sand to #220-grit, then wet them to raise the grain. This is often easier to do before assembling the chair.

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Most surfaces on the oak can be finished with spokeshaves, leaving an inviting faceted surface, ready to finish.

It’s important to let the surface dry and harden; letting it sit overnight is best. Then I lightly sand with #220-grit paper, being careful not to apply too much pressure. Instead, I let the sandpaper cut the fibers with multiple light passes. These areas will most likely show raised grain again, but I sand them after the first coat of paint has soaked into them and hardened the fibers. One sanding after the first coat of paint is usually enough, but I inspect those areas carefully to ensure that I am happy with the surface after paint is reapplied.

 My turnings in the undercarriage are finished with a skew, but because any burnishing that takes place may resist the paint sticking, I sand lightly with #320-grit while the piece is on the lathe. Be sure to remove the tool rest and any loose clothing before sanding. I also wear a respirator because the fine dust is dangerous. There should be no surface preparation required after that.

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Rinsing the seat with naptha cleans the surface and can reveal surface quality.

The seat is perhaps the most critical place for surface preparation. Pine tends to compress when scraped, and it might also contain considerable sap or pitch. It is difficult for paint to adhere to sap, so I heat the surface of the seat with a heat gun until I can see the pores with sap in them liquify. Then I rinse the seat with naptha or grain alcohol. Always wear gloves when handling solvents. I repeat this if the seat seems quite pitchy. Some manufacturers suggest sealing the seat with a coat of shellac or using an acrylic additive to the milk paint to encourage solid adhesion. I have done both, but have found that the brand of milk paint that I use, from the Real Milk Paint Company, doesn’t require help sticking to the surface. If I do use an additive, I only use it on the first coat on the seat and nowhere else on the chair.

If your chair has been sitting around for a while unpainted, oxidation and dust will have contaminated the surface and you might consider wiping the whole chair with solvent such as grain alcohol or naptha before painting.

Meghan Bates 

Posted in Chairmaker's Notebook | 2 Comments

Chairfaker

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Sometimes I get asked if I use dowels for the spindles in my chairs. And sometimes I answer: “Sometimes.”

Dowels can be a crappy way to make a chair, just like lumberyard wood can be a crappy way to make a seat. Or cow tongue can be a crappy way to make a nice goulash.

For me, it all comes down to how the material is cut and dried. I cannot always get rivable material for my chairs, and so I will cut it out on the band saw, making sure the grain is arrow straight through the thickness and length. This wastes a little wood, but once you get good at picking stock at the lumberyard (hint, look at the edges), you can find dang straight stuff.

And if I can find dowels (home center dowels even! For shame!) where the grain is arrow straight, then what’s the harm? I will dry them, compress the ends and shape them with a gunstock scraper to taper them – just like its rived cousin.

I know this ain’t pure, and the Greenwood Gods are frowning or whittling out a spear to chuck my direction. But I think this is a pragmatic and valid path to build a folk chair. If you select your stock with care – in the forest or at the home center – and your understand the material, you can build a chair.

Don’t let your limitations stop you from making a chair. Work with what you have. If you can get a log, get a log. If you can’t get a log, get straight stuff.

Today I went to Home Depot to check out their selection of 5/8” oak dowels. I pulled out all 30 and rolled them on the floor, looking for defects and poker-straight grain. (Yes, you will get Evil Eye for this.) I found eight dowels that were either completely straight or had long straight sections. I need only six to build a chair.

I bought them. This saved me about three hours of shaving.

— Christopher Schwarz

Posted in The Anarchist's Design Book, Uncategorized | 14 Comments