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.
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.
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.
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.
— Christopher Schwarz