“From colonial times and into the 19th century, every town and hamlet in Rhode Island supported woodworking shops along main streets and wharves and in farmstead backyards. The artisans developed regional styles; every few miles, different floral and striped patterns became popular designs for mahogany, walnut and pine furniture.”
That is the opening line of an article from the July 29th New York Times. It is a short article packed with information about regional furniture studies and work on databases, including Rhode Island, the Antebellum South and Boston. The article opens with a description of a new exhibit, “Art and Industry in Early America: Rhode Island Furniture, 1650-1830,” opening in August at the Yale University Art Gallery. You can read the article here.
The Joint Stool or Table (description here) is from the Rhode Island Furniture Archive. Although details and current locations for each piece are not always known, where available, you can get dimensions, inscriptions, provenance, construction and a bibliography.
This armchair in the vernacular style still has traces of red paint. It is currently in the collection of Historic New England. The previous owner, Cherry Fletcher Bamberg received it through “descent in the family of Thomas Taylor.”
The Pembroke table description includes, “The gadrooned molding applied to the lower edge of the stretchers is held with screws.”
The main page of the Archive is here. Go explore. I’m going to look up “gadrooned.”
When working in Australia, the weirdest thing about the experience wasn’t the accents, the plastic money or the fact that you can order a burger loaded with kangaroo and wallaby meat.
It was the birdsong.
Every day I walked a mile or two from my hotel to the shop and was unnerved by the birds singing in the morning because it was so alien. It’s akin to visiting a retirement home where the background music is death metal.
This week I’m back in Arkansas near where I grew up. It’s my first visit back in many years, and the first thing I did this morning was to walk off into the mountain forest around our cabin. While I love the hardwood forests of Kentucky, I miss the shortleaf pines (Pinus echinata) we had in every corner of our farm.
The bark always looks like a pile of tectonic plates crashing into one another. And I always loved walking on the brown carpet of needles that formed in a large stand of pines.
After getting my pine fix I spotted some blackjack oak (Quercus marilandica), with its odd-shaped leaves and shagbark hickory, which I see sometimes in our neck of the woods as well. It was all oddly comforting, even though I haven’t lived here for almost 30 years.
But I really knew I was back in Arkansas when the first roadkill I saw was an armadillo.
The association between lathe turning and Windsors runs deep. When describing a Windsor chair to someone, the “ornately turned legs” often pinpoints the style in their mind. Turning is an ancient method for shaping wood that has seen little improvement (the motor is one) in centuries. It is the fastest way to transform rough wood into finished parts with perfectly sized joinery. Entire books have been written about the various techniques of creating the shapes so often associated with the Windsor style. For our purposes, though, there is some specialized knowledge that comes with turning chair legs from split wood that is worth highlighting. At the end of this chapter are options for making legs and parts with limited or no use of a lathe.
Turning Design The origin of a chair can often be traced county by county based on the style of its turnings. Whether bold and voluptuous or sleek and reserved, the turnings create a distinct attitude. The earliest American Windsors had baluster turnings in what would most likely be labeled as “high style” for the Windsor. When presented with a Windsor chair that doesn’t have baluster turnings, many viewers will question whether it’s a Windsor at all, which shows how deep the association between the balusters and Windsors runs. There is a basic order of the elements found in most balusters, but the size of the parts and variation between thick and thin areas give a lot of opportunity for personal expression.
After the early 19th century, the influence of Asian art can be seen in the simpler forms and “bamboo” style. While the baluster might be “high style,” I think that sleek double-bobbin and bamboo-style turnings fit well with a wider range of decor, which may have added to the breadth of interest and longevity of the form.
This chapter will guide you from preparing stock to turning parts and joinery. For more information on turning tools and technique, look to the chapters Turning Tools as well as Turning Practice.
Stock Preparation Making successful turnings has as much to do with preparing material as with using sharp tools and good technique. While starting with a straight tree is the first step for all of the parts, there are many different paths to processing the wood for turning. You can split or saw it, you can turn parts green, or dry them before turning. It depends mostly on issues surrounding storage, time restraints and personal preference.
Regardless of path you choose, the end product should achieve three important results:
• For strength, the parts should be made up of straight fibers that run from one end of the piece to the other.
• During assembly, the portion of a turning that will have a mortise should have a higher moisture content than the tenon that will join it.
• The tenon portion should be kiln-dried when it is sized, shaped and assembled.
There are many routes to meeting these requirements, and none is wrong as long as you find the process convenient and the joints are formed and assembled when the wood is at the correct moisture content. But don’t get overwrought about moisture content; you don’t need thick pamphlets or confusing charts to get the job done right.
When drying the small tenon ends of roughed parts, it takes only a few days to dry green wood enough to go into the kiln and then just a few more until it stops shrinking. I measure the shrinkage across the tangential plane periodically until it stabilizes, which is accurate enough to know when to stop the process. I rarely shape the final turnings from green wood due to storage and movement issues, but my process always begins with green wood, so I will start the explanation of the sequence of turning and drying from the log. There is more information on wood selection in the Woods for chairmaking chapter and splitting technique in the splitting Parts from the Log chapter.
Wood can be stored indefinitely once air-dried and suit all chairmaking needs, so if processing the parts is ever confusing, just remember that air-drying a part, or a lot of parts, is always a safe bet.
If you have never turned green wood, then I highly recommend you try it. There is no way to describe the fun of making shavings peel like a ribbon and pile at your feet as you glide along. Like bending wood, it’s a rare moment where the interaction with the wood transcends all expectation and sets a new awareness for this amazing material and process.
When starting from a log, I either split out the parts or have the log sawn into planks of varying thickness. If I am having boards sawn, I sticker and stack them to dry and use them whenever I need them. If I am splitting billets from the log, I consider the season and, if necessary to avoid spoilage, process the entire log into rounds for later use. There is more information in the splitting Parts from the Log chapter.
I split billets about 3 ∕8″ to 1 ∕ 2″ oversized, then I cut them to an appropriate length and turn them round. If I am going to let them air-dry before completing the final shaping, I will round them down to about 1 ∕ 4″ oversized, which should allow me plenty of room to turn them to round after they shrink to oval while drying. because all of my turnings have ends with reduced diameters, I turn my blanks with tapered ends, which allows the end grain to be exposed down the length of the piece. This helps the parts dry fast and evenly, especially at the ends where they are sized for joints.
If I am going to turn a part to its final shape while the wood is still green, I oversize all the dimensions on the design pattern of the details at least 1 ∕ 16″ to allow for shrinkage. The parts with a larger diameter will shrink more, so you might consider stepping them up a bit more. For the cylindrical tenons on the ends of the stretchers that will end up 5 ∕ 8″ diameter (.625″), oversizing them to .680″ (about 11 ∕ 16″) is a safe amount.
Today I turned the first four legs for the low Roman workbench but I left my lathe set up because I might need to turn four more tomorrow.
While most images I’ve come across of Roman workbenches show them made with four legs and with staked construction, there is one image from Herculaneum that looks a lot like there are eight legs. The image below is actually an 18th-century drawing of a painting from that doomed city that has deteriorated – all we have left is this image (plus a host of wrongly interpreted images).
Suzanne Ellison and I are fairly convinced this image is accurate for a variety of reasons that I’ll discuss in the forthcoming book. But even if the 18th-century image is accurate, a few experts have suggested that the Roman image it is based on is inaccurate.
It’s a bit of a hall of mirrors to discuss. But the bottom line is that some people think that the Herculaneum image actually depicts a work surface on top of two four-legged sawhorses. I tend to disagree. But there is no way to settle the issue.
So what I’m planning on doing is making the bench with four legs, like this image from Pompeii.
Then I’m going to work with the bench and see if I think it needs four more legs to be robust enough for operations such as hand mortising.
So stay tuned.
These four legs feature 4”-long tenons that are 1-3/4” in diameter. I roughed them out on the lathe and then shaved and scraped them to the finished shape. I like the process and the finished texture.
I’m more or less following the script of The Naked Woodworker for my workbench, making adjustments as necessary to accommodate the differences in sizes and shapes of lumber that are available to me here in Ecuador. I used the two-bucket sawbench illustrated in my prior post to build a “real” Mike Siemsen-style sawbench, and then used that one to build a second, twin (fraternal) sawbench.
I’ve been amassing the materials for the workbench over the past few days, most recently with a trip to a different lumber vendor, Maderas La Morita.
I ran into a bit of a language difficulty while there, not understanding the difference between tabla and tablon (roughly the difference between “board” and “plank” in English). I would have thought that the two words were fairly interchangeable, but apparently not so. Anyway, I got confused, which made the person trying to sell me the wood confused, which made me even more confused. But it all worked out in the end.
I was looking for some 3/4″ pine, which they did not have. “Not a problem! We’ll just make some.” (Loose translation.)
And so they did. They took a thick pine slab and resawed it for me on the spot:
The pine lumber that I have is surface planed and jointed on one edge, but rough on the other. The leg assemblies of the Naked workbench require the two sides of the leg plank to be (or be made to be) reasonably parallel, which would be easy to do if I had a workbench, which I don’t. So I screwed two pieces of scrap to a 2×6, so that I could wedge a board into the tapered gap between the scraps:
The improvised vise holds the board surprisingly securely, and I only crashed my plane into the wall once.
The Kywi that I’ve been buying most of my tools and hardware from has a decent selection of screws for wood and sheet metal, but hardly any bolts at all, so I wasn’t able to get the necessary carriage bolts there. But have no fear, because just down the road from our house in Tumbaco is La Casa del Perno (House of Bolts), and they had just what I needed.
Elsewhere on the tools and hardware front, I previously mentioned that I might buy another saw and make it a dedicated rip saw. I did just that, and now you can see why I was hesitant to buy it earlier:
I’m clearly going to have to spend a bunch of quality time with the saw to get the teeth into reasonable shape, but so it goes. I did discover something that I had somehow missed on previous trips:
Knowing that a saw set is available to me makes me less reluctant to fiddle with the set of the saws that I have.