I’ve always used octagonal legs on my stick chairs because the geometry makes sense to my modern head. Cut the four-sided leg from a plank. Then plane down the four corners to create an octagon.
But when you study old chairs, hexagonal legs are far more common than octagons. I’ve given a lot of thought about how to create hexagonal legs at the bench, but it seemed more complicated than it should be. After talking it over with chairmaker Chris Williams in Wales, he arranged for a day in the workshop with Gareth Irwin, a Welsh chairmaker, turner and green woodworker. (His Instagram feed is definitely worth following.)
We met at Hugh B. Haley’s workshop, Phoenix Conservation, which is where Chris works when he isn’t building chairs in his garage. After Hugh made us some much-needed coffee, Gareth pulled his tools from his van. And in about 10 minutes, he made the process seem effortless and obvious.
The key to make it easy is to work with wood split from the tree – not sawn stock. Gareth brought along a section of fresh young field maple to demonstrate. The hexagon is derived from the natural pie-shaped sections from the log. Here’s a quick photo essay that shows the process.
Here Gareth makes the first split across the pith of the log, splitting the log in half and then into fourths and eighths.
He splits off the pith and some other heartwood that could be used for something else, leaving a section of the tree that, after a little hewing, is roughly hexagonal.
At the shaving horse, Gareth refines this shape. Thanks to the hewing, there is always a flat section of the leg that rests on the stage of the shaving horse.
Gareth tapers the hexagonal leg with a drawknife and then starts to make the tenon at the top of the leg. He stops when the tenon is oversized. Then the leg gets dried for three or four weeks inside before he forms the finished tenon.
The demonstration was brief, and so we all got to chat a lot about the craft (and drink more coffee). Gareth brought one of his chairs along. It sits and looks fantastic. In fact, a local stopped by and purchased the chair from Gareth under our very noses.
So a good day, all in all.
— Christopher Schwarz