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

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14 Responses to Chairfaker

  1. Erik says:

    I sometimes shave down spindles cannibalized from an unsalvagable chair to use in repairs. Our ancestors would have done the same.


  2. Matthew Holbrook says:

    Way to go Chris ! I did the same thing at Home Depot here in Hollywood, FL. I emptied the rack of 1/2-in pine dowels and rolled each one on the,floor. No one tried to kick me out or give me strange looks. The pine dowels made their way into a four-panel (6 ft high) laundry rack I made for my apt.


  3. johncashman73 says:

    I like the price tag — “5/8 x 5/8”. Do they do that to distinguish between their oval dowels?


  4. T-bone hags says:

    Amen brotha


  5. jayedcoins says:

    Nothing is quite as satisfying as riving and then shaving the green pieces… and spindles dry so fast. That said, I used this exact approach with the 1×1 red oak squares they sell at Home Depot to make octagonal legs for a stool and it worked great, and saved the time of needing to dress the stock. It was easy to find several pieces with long grain running almost end-to-end. Sometimes when I’m there for something else around the house, I take a look at their red oak, maple, and walnut, even when I have no intention to buy, just curious to see if there are quality boards of any size on the shelf.


    • tsstahl says:

      Like you, I always make it a point to see what they have in the stacks, especially the 4X4 and 2X12 lumber. Sometimes the good stuff is thrown in just to complete the order.

      Another great source of cheap wood are the tomato stake bundles. I very often find straight grained white oak, and fairly often walnut, in those bundles. Most of the time the stock is not kiln dried, to boot. As a PPS, these bundles are _the_ best source for practice pen blanks.


  6. Bob Glenn says:

    I recently completed a fan back chair, similar to the one pictured at the head of today’s Galbert finishing article above. Lacking oak stock large enough for the two posts of the back, I found two perfectly straight oak staircase balusters at the home center. I still had to do some turning to make them look right and then taper the tenons to fit the seat, but they worked beautifully. Think outside the log!


  7. drragsdale says:

    “Folk art encompasses art produced from an indigenous culture or by peasants or other laboring tradespeople. In contrast to fine art, folk art is primarily utilitarian and decorative rather than purely aesthetic.” Wikipedia.
    If that’s the case, chairs made by the common man from what he can find at the home center is indeed modern American folk art.


  8. Barry MacDonald says:

    The board footage price on home center oak is nuts. They usually sell it per ln ft. A quick calculation can tell you the real price in woodworker terms. P.S. you paid $13.95 a board foot for the oak in those dowels rods.


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