The Best Design Teacher: The Tree

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You don’t have to specialize in green woodworking to get some lessons in design from our good friends/mortal-est enemies – the trees.

Today I broke down some ash slabs for the upcoming class I’m teaching on stick chairs, and I was pleasantly reminded of some things I learned back in 2003 when I took my first chair class.

Curved Arms
Welsh chairmaker Christopher Williams first pointed out to me how chair arms can be efficiently harvested from curved branches or branches that had been “trained” by the woodworkers using some rope and a couple years of patience.

That idea was a revelation to me. I have yet to “train a tree,” but it’s on my list of things to do this summer in the forest behind our town’s cemetery.

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Instead, I was taught to look for curved components at the butt end of the tree – the part where the tree widens its stance as it plunges below the earth. The curves here can be dramatic, and it’s a great place to find curved arms or curved crest rails. And that’s exactly where I found most of the arms for the chairs for the class.

All of the slabs I bought had the butt of the tree in place. The butt looks like junk (sounds like a bad song). It’s usually split to pieces as it dries. But there are segments of grain that are perfect for arms. Just avoid the punky places.

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Why Bevel Your Seat?
Almost all chairs that are of staked, stick or Windsor construction have seats that are beveled on the underside. This wide bevel makes the seat appear lighter. And the bevel reduces the physical weight of the chairs, too.

It’s a great idea, but it’s probably the tree’s idea.

If you cut your seats out and try like heck to be efficient, you end up cutting the seats close to the exterior bark and the round shape of the tree’s trunk. And as your seats stack up, you might notice that the circumference of the tree has already started that bevel on the underside of the seat for you.

It’s not beveled all the way around the seat. But it’s a good start. You just need to finish the bevel to make it consistent.

Thanks trees!

— Christopher Schwarz

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Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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9 Responses to The Best Design Teacher: The Tree

  1. Paul Londo says:

    Their is a part on wooden sailing ships called a hanging knee that is used where the deck timbers meet the ribs. This is cut from the stump of a tree into the roots so the grain of the wood naturally bends to form a kind of a right angle, maybe this would be a source for your arm bows. All you would need is to dig up the stump and a big chain saw (: ! I found one of these knees on the Lake Michigan beach and donated it to the Wisconsin Maritime Museum.

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  2. Sam says:

    Thank you

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  3. Dave says:

    A small animal looks like it’s going to come to grief on the grill of your fire pit. Thought we agreed to put away the cultic sacrifices before blogging, hmm?

    Okay I’ll sit my punky butt back down.,,

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  4. chucknickerson says:

    These two lessons strike me as similar to the “Why six-sided legs?” lesson you picked up in England/Wales. There is just so much of this type of information waiting to be recognized and communicated.

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  5. “The butt looks like junk…”

    *snort*

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  6. Kyle Barton says:

    “I have yet to “train a tree,” but it’s on my list of things to do this summer in the forest behind our town’s cemetery.”, and thus began the opening line in forth coming Steven King/Dean Koontz novel 🙂

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  7. Klaus N. Skrudland says:

    My dad, who was a fisherman in the northern parts of Norway, once told me about the process of making wooden fishing boats. The boatbuilders started by scouting the forests for trees that had the right curve from the root and upwards and this was used for the stem of the boat. They would spot young trees that had that right curve and sometimes “train” them with a rope to exaggerate or hold the shape and then wait up to 7 years until it had grown large enough so that they could fell it and use it for a boat. To me this also shows how craftsmen let nature dictate their work. It shows a great humility before nature that I think is inspiring to me as a woodworker.

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    • Klaus N. Skrudland says:

      By the way, I forgot to say that this was a while ago. They don’t build boats like this today, that I am aware of. My grandfather’s last boat that was built with this technique, was built a around 1950.

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