A Journey to Wales, Part 5, Enter the Hexagon

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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.

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Here Gareth makes the first split across the pith of the log, splitting the log in half and then into fourths and eighths.

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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.

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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.

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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

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About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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15 Responses to A Journey to Wales, Part 5, Enter the Hexagon

  1. southernwill says:

    When will Crucible Tools offer a mallet like that Gareth is shown using in the first two photos?

  2. I like that shaving horse, I gotta make me one of those. The use of the natural Y ‘s is vey clever. Although I’m not sure why he didn’t cut the back branch off flush to the seat. It looks like a potential pain in he butt. -Aaron

    • Gareth Irwin says:

      Hi Aaron
      The pommel at the back where the rear leg comes through the seat has a purpose. To finish off the inside of a pole lathe turned bowl, I sit astride the horse facing backwards and jam the lip of the bowl up to the pommel, then use a hook knife to clean up the scar.
      Gareth

      • Very nice, thanks for the clarification. I love it when you can make a tool to be multipurpose. There seems to be a lot of interest not only the hexagon shaped legs, but in your shaving horse too. Do you have a build video or series of pictures showing the construction? I could probably figure it out, but some more detailed pictures would be very helpful as well. Thanks again for your response! -Aaron

  3. Jim Crammond says:

    Thanks for that, Chris, it’s one of those forehead slapping moments. I’m so used to starting with square, making a hexagon seemed like a lot of extra work. It’s pretty really simple, just use the natural shape of the riven piece.

    Jim

  4. craig regan says:

    Hexagons are are one of natures favorite shapes. They show up in beehives, snowflakes, turtle shells, crystal gems, etc, etc. So, “it’s only natural” a six sided leg would looks better.
    Octogons make a nice screwdriver handle.

  5. kerry doyle says:

    Very illustrative and inspiring. Thanks.

  6. I spy a Bern Billsberry in that last photo!

  7. Gary Heinz says:

    That shaving horse!

  8. Ron Michaelsen says:

    I’d love to see more details of the shave horse!

  9. Steven Wrigley says:

    I’d like to pretend not to be a pedant but I’m itching to point out that I don’t think the log in the picture is field maple (acer campestre) but rather acer speudoplatanus. I’ve never seen a field maple with bark that smooth. It’s normally fissured even in young trees.

    • craig regan says:

      Sycamore?

      • mike says:

        Yes and no.

        This is where things get confusing. Here is the short answer.

        UK usage: Acer Pseudoplatanus = Sycamore Maple or simply sycamore.

        US usage: Psuedoplatanus = Sycamore Maple

        UK usage: Platanus genus trees = Plane Tree

        US usage: Platanus genus trees = sycamore (especially for the native variety or native/exotic hybrids)

        In general, if a person in the UK says “sycamore”, they are referring to a type of maple. If a person in the US says “sycamore”, they are referring to the completely unrelated plane tree/American sycamore/platanus genus.

  10. KEVIN HEDIN says:

    I’ve got another design question that may be easy to answer:

    It seems like with a lot of these chair designs racking would be most likely to cause a structural failure of the chair. Diagonal braces seem to be the most straightforward way to prevent racking. So, why aren’t there more braces in these designs?

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