If you have been interested in the low Roman workbenches I’ve been writing about, here’s your chance to follow along while two woodworkers build them. You can even join in and build your own with home-center materials and firewood (more on that in a minute).
Joshua Klein and Mike Updegraff of Mortise & Tenon magazine are each going to build Roman workbenches and blog about the experience starting on Feb. 20. You can read more details about their plans here.
When starting with rough materials, these workbenches take me about 10 hours to build (that includes the time to document the process with photos and notes). But I have an electric lathe. I think that balances out the equation – I think anyone can build this bench in about 10 hours.
If you don’t have a slab on hand, here’s what I would do: Buy a 12’-long 2×12. Crosscut it in half. Glue the two halves face to face. That’s the benchtop. For the legs, go buy some firewood from the grocery store if you don’t have a big firewood pile already. Split the legs out of firewood billets.
The low Roman workbench is a lot of fun to build. But it’s even more fun to use at the end. You get to sit while you work – nice!
It’s also funny how the low bench has become the community center for my workshop. When I have visitors, they naturally gravitate to the low bench and sit there (I’m the only one who sits on my Roubo bench).
If you’d like more details on why the Roman bench is a marvel of early technology and workholding, check out the article I wrote on it for Issue 2 of Mortise & Tenon magazine.
I’ll definitely be following Joshua and Mike’s progress that week. But I won’t be building along. I’ve already got one….
Yesterday Chris and I had a Q & A session about stick chairs, the Hall’s Croft chair, chair design and more. It was only towards the end of the evening portion of our chat, and after he had consumed two beers, that it was necessary to redact a line or two.
Suzanne: The last time we talked about chairs was in January 2015, your pre-condition was we had to be naked (although we were about 550 miles apart) and it was titled ‘Naked Necessity.’ What pre-condition do you have this time?
Chris: Let’s say hirsutus maximus.
Suzanne: Sorry, I’m rejecting your hairy pre-condition and going with a jolt of Tia Maria in my afternoon coffee. Let’s get started.
When you see a stick chair what do you find pleasing to your eye?
Chris: Well first it’s the angles. Peter Galbert, the bard of chairmakers, nailed it when he wrote this: “The angles of the legs, along with their design, help give the chair a ‘gesture.’ Whether the desired result is a visual lightness and sense of action or stability and weight, angles are important.”
I’m looking for a gesture that is somewhere in the neighborhood of “f-you world.” I like chairs that have an animalistic stance – like they would jump up and lick your face or tear you to shreds.
Most Windsor chairs have a stateliness that leaves me cold. In contrast, Welsh stick chairs are more like a crazy uncle.
Suzanne: For the woodworker in you what do you like about these chairs?
Chris: These chairs were not manufactured. And in many cases they were built by the same people who used them. So every chair is different and is connected to a person.
Plus, the makers didn’t follow the same rulebook as the Windsor makers of High Wycombe. They used angles that were more rakish and severe (and got away with it). They used construction methods that were simpler (and many of these chairs survived 200 or more years). And they used found materials. The armbow of many of these chairs is a curved branch they nicked from a coppice or from their own land.
You don’t have to be a professional chairmaker to make nice Welsh stick chairs. You just have to have some sticks, a plank for the seat and a few tools.
Suzanne: When you and Roy Underhill stumbled upon the Hall’s Croft chair what were your first impressions?
Chris: Roy and I had spent the entire day crawling around the floors of the dwellings of Stratford-on-Avon, photographing all the stuff that was fascinating (I filled a 32gb SD card). There was a short bed, for example. Why is it so short? Was it because people were shorter back then? Or was it because beliefs at the time were that you should not sleep flat – you should sleep upright – so evil spirits didn’t get in through your mouth.
When we saw the Halls Croft chair we both just stopped for a minute. Unlike a lot of the stuff we’d seen that day, this chair was out of the norm (by the way, I really doubt it was contemporary to the house; many of these chairs are much younger than dealers suspect or advertise).
The first thing we did was set up a perimeter. I poked my head into the dining room to make sure the docent was facing the cafe. Then Roy started putting objects on the chair that were an identifiable dimension – such as a touristy pamphlet – so we could scale the chair’s parts when we got back to the States. We took dozens of photos each whilst I kept a lookout for the very helpful employees of the house museum.
We did it without upsetting anyone and without anyone (me) having to say: I’ll create a diversion!
I think Roy liked the odd crest rail. I really liked the birdcage-like structure of the spindles.
Suzanne: You encourage woodworkers to explore many furniture forms to develop their knowledge of joinery and their own designs and suggest carrying a sketchbook, camera, etc. What else do you do to get a good record of a piece of furniture?
Chris: I always carry a camera with me. It’s a habit I picked up as a newspaper reporter and has served me well as a furniture designer. I also carry a credit card – not to pay anyone off but to put it in photos so I can scale the object in Photoshop. And I try to take photos that resemble construction drawings: a straight-on elevation, a profile and (if possible) a plan. Then I take a “beauty shot” to remind me of how all these pieces add up together, and I take photos of the important details.
I rarely make replicas. But knowing what a maker did – exactly – with a beautiful piece is solid gold information.
Suzanne: As for measuring the chair I’m surprised you didn’t use body parts as measuring devises. And no, not that body part (this isn’t ancient Rome after all). I mean the width of your palm, elbow to wrist, etc.
Chris: Using body parts works in a pinch. I usually have a 6” rule in my man-purse when I travel – that’s the easiest gnomon to deal with because you can pick out 1/16”s easily. I know all this sounds a bit wacko, but a good image inventory of pieces you’ve encountered is a huge help when designing. It’s like a sketchbook of other people’s work that you love.
Suzanne: Would you say your experience as a chairmaker plus the image library you have built provides you with a “muscle memory” of seat proportions, back splay, etc.?
Chris: That’s a good way to put it. Once you see thousands of designs you quickly see any design as a collection of angles, segments of circles, boxes and other assorted shapes. It’s a bit like seeing the code in “The Matrix” or the magic point where you think in a foreign language.
Suzanne: To use Peter Galbert’s term “gesture” of the chair the features that caught my eye, besides the crest rail, are the roundness of the arms and the gap in the back. The arms curve around to embrace the sitter plus the surface of the arms are rounded. The gap in the back adds a lightness overall. You posted a photo of a similar chair. In your study of these chairs have you seen this feature very often?
Chris: Sitting in the chair is very much like receiving a hug. There is an amazing compactness to it. It’s so close to you that it feels like an exoskeleton or a carapace.
While the compactness of the chair isn’t common, having the arms threaded by the back spindles is fairly common. As I have been told by our John Brown team, Welsh chairmakers didn’t do much steam bending, so this technique allows them to cut the arms from solid material (no bending) and yet create a pleasing horseshoe shape.
To be honest I was skeptical of this style of armbow until I sat in one. They are amazingly rigid thanks to the spindles below.
Suzanne: The original chair was made from elm. You chose sycamore. Why and what do you like and not like about sycamore for this chair?
Chris: Vernacular chairs were generally made from whatever materials were on hand. So that’s the philosophy I use when building chairs. Elm is difficult to get here – you have to find it and cut it yourself. And Dutch elm disease made finding elm a tricky business.
When you look at the materials available around the Midwest, sycamore is a logical choice. It’s a junk tree of no real commercial value. Its grain is interlocked (like that of elm), which makes it impossible to split. (That’s a good thing with seat material.) And it can be had if you ask around.
Like elm, sycamore is an enormous challenge to work. If your tools are not razor sharp, it will tear out horribly. Its density varies greatly depending on the color of the wood. But if you take the time to conquer it, the rewards are spectacular. The quartersawn figure is like a field of stars.
Suzanne: The Hall’s Croft chair has a unique crest rail which I have dubbed the Trinocular. You indicated the form might be an exercise in geometry. Explain, or do we need to bring in Jim Tolpin?
Chris: Well one of the themes underlying the geometry of woodworking tools is that if you set your dividers to the radius of any circle, then that distance can be stepped off exactly six times around that circle’s circumference. Hollows and rounds are one example of how this plays out in our tools. If you want to know what radii a certain plane cuts, you measure the cutter’s width. That width equals its radius. That makes layout predictable.
So the crest rail is three half circles. That means the length of the crest rail is exactly six times the radius of each circle. The radius also equaled the width of the area below the half-circles. So the maker laid out the entire crest rail with one setting of his or her dividers. I don’t know if they were lazy, in a hurry or winking at the person who stumbled on it 200 years later.
Suzanne: I just had a flashback to 8th grade Geometry class.
You made several different crest rails and finally put aside the Trinocular. You also made other design changes to the chair. Describe what you did and why. Did your changes include resizing the chair for the modern body?
Chris: I don’t make replicas unless a customer requests it specifically. I made replicas for many years to get inside the heads of early makers, but I’m at the point now where I sit in a chair and know exactly what needs to be changed to make it suit me and the modern frame.
For my first version of the chair I kept the seat dimensions and leg angles true to the original. I wanted to see how the chair sat because I didn’t get to sit in the original (promise!). But when it came to the crest rail, I had to make changes. The trinoc crest rail was too quirky, low and flat. I made a couple trinoc crests and just couldn’t fall in love. So I increased the length of the four back spindles and carved a curved crest out of solid beech.
I also made some minor changes to the seat profile and arms, but nothing major.
For the third version of the chair, which I’m building now, I’ve changed a whole host of things. The seat is slightly wider and deeper but retains the same overall feeling of getting a chair hug. The rake and splay of the leg angles are all new. I wanted to give it a slightly more aggressive stance and make it more stable in back.
I saddled the seat to add comfort (the original had a flat seat). And I’m working on a slightly different crest rail that will tuck under the sitter’s shoulder blades. Most people will see it as the same chair. But the third one is a different animal.
Suzanne: What did you learn from making this chair? Did making the Hall’s Croft chair help you with your design of the staked armchair that you didn’t get to include in the “The Anarchist’ Design Book”?
Chris: I really love the birdcage effect of this chair’s spindles and will use that a lot in my future work. This chair gave me some clues about how to deal with a staked armchair a la “The Anarchist’s Design Book,” but that chair is on hold right now. I pushed things a little too far with its design and ended up pinching the sitter’s side meat – not good. So I’m finishing up this other chair and am putzing around with the staked armchair. As of now, I’m detaching the arms from the back spindles and trying to see if the chair still feels durable.
Or it will go in the burn pile.
Suzanne: You are also planning a staked settle. Where are you in designing that piece? Have you made a settle before?
Chris: I have made a number of settles over the years. They’re kind of a weird form with their own sets of rules that aren’t exactly like chairs.
I’ve designed this staked settle a couple times, and I think I have it nailed. But I won’t know until I build it.
Suzanne: I am ever hopeful you will build one of those Welsh pub settles with the bacon compartment.
Chris: Anything with a bacon compartment is a good thing. One might call it the “meat pocket.”
Suzanne: What kind of finish did you use for the chair?
Chris: Organic linseed oil and beeswax.
Suzanne: I am slightly obsessed with the Trinocular crest rail. Do you see any other use for it? Door stop? Bookend? Trivet?
Chris: [Redacted – Heavily Redacted] OK, I’ve had two beers. Please excuse that.
I don’t know. They look like a pair of “wooden knuckles” to me. Maybe they could be used in a massage situation. The shape is utterly odd – like the face of a three-eyed frog. I like it, truth be told. But I can’t see it as a component in my furniture – yet.
Suzanne: Do you have any questions for me? I take that back. Chris, thank you! We will have to do this again in another two years.
Chris: Thanks for doing this little chat. It’s actually an interesting exercise to put some of this stuff into words that has been swimming around in my head.
Off to find beer No. 3.
Suzanne: While you enjoy your beer I’m going to update my woodworking dictionary with some meat-based terms: meat clamp, sitter’s side meat, meat bushing and meat pocket.
You can read our first chair Q & A, ‘Naked Necessity’ here.
You can read more about the Hall’s Croft chair here.
Chris did five posts on building a stick chair. Click on the titles listed below to go directly to the article.