This week I’ve thrown myself into production for Crucible Tool along with help from Megan Fitzpatrick and Brendan Gaffney. Today, Megan and I finished up 600 card scrapers and sent them to the warehouse. They should be for sale by the end of the week – so take this as fair warning.
We have a new jig for machining the scrapers in a CNC mill. This speeds the process and eliminates the abrasive polishing of the edges. That’s a win for everyone’s lungs (and fire suppression equipment). Abrading metal blows. And burns.
Speaking of abrasives, during the last month, we’ve redesigned the way we make hammer heads to reduce – and almost eliminate – the abrasive grinding processes to make the heads for our lump hammers.
I know that some of you simply want your hammers and don’t care about how they’re made. If that’s you, know that we should have a batch of hammers for sale next week. You can now go back to your cat videos.
For those interested in how your tools are made, here’s what we’ve been up to. When we started making the hammers we machined the heads and then had five abrasive processes to finish them. We used three grits on the flat faces and two on the striking faces.
With the magic of changing the tool paths, we’re down to one abrasive process. We’re hoping to eliminate that one as well and just have a little power buffing.
The heads won’t look different to the naked eye. All the facets are the same. The striking faces are the same dome shape. But the surfaces look a wee bit different under a loupe. I think they look better.
Note: After five minutes of hard use, all our hammers look about the same.
All these changes will make the heads easier to make. And it’s safer for the machine operators. So thanks for your patience (like you had a choice).
— Christopher Schwarz
P.S. Before you email John and Megan Bates: No, we’re not working on dividers. That tool has been suspended until it can be redesigned.
When I was 7 my father called me out to the patio to help him as he was building a bookcase. He told me to hold a string to the end of a board, hold it tight and don’t let go. He snapped the string, there was a mini-explosion of dust and a blue line appeared on the board. My reaction was something like this:
So, you might not be surprised I have a collection of line snaps.
What I find appealing about snapping a line (besides the magic blue line) is it is an ancient method used by carpenters, masons and artists. It is not complicated and it works. Ancient Egyptians used red and yellow ochres and black inks for their lines. We can still see traces of the lines used on wall paintings to divide panels and keep figures in alignment.
One of the folktales about Lu Ban, legendary carpenter of China (born around 500 B.C.), is about how he taught stone masons the use of the ink line marker. It is said the ink marker was one of the tools he always carried with him.
Isaiah 44:13: The carpenter stretcheth out his rule; he marketh it out with a line…
Although we can’t see what kind of marking tool is used, the carpenters in the third row down on the left are about to snap a line.
This is captioned as “Solomon observing the measuring of the timber.” We know the carpenter is going to snap a line.
In this Ark scene it appears a line will be cut at an angle across the board rather than the board’s length. The ink pot is near the foot of the carpenter in blue.
It probably isn’t too far off the mark to state most of the line snapping in the New Testament is to be found in scenes of Jesus helping his Joseph. Here again, only the line can be seen.
The scenes on the left and top right are from various sections of the “Lu ban jing” written around 1600. On the left a line is about to be snapped; at the top right the carpenter’s modou is on the ground (look for the wheel). On the bottom left is a Korean carpenter with his line marker positioned with his other tools. The artist is Kim Jun-geun, who documented many tradesmen in a vernacular style (late 19th to early 20th century).
In the foreground the older carpenter holds the sumitsubo and is about to snap the line as the apprentice holds the end.
This scroll was made using paint and ink on silk. It shows consecutive tasks: marking a log to be split, snapping a line on a board to be cut or split, carpenters sitting on a board and splitting it in two.
In the middle of the scene the inked line has been stretched and the square ink box is nearby on the ground.
Both of these images are 16th century German. On the left the line has been pulled from the ink box, on the right the reel with wound-up line is on the ground with a round ink pot(?) to the right.
Tools: Rotating Spindles to Chalk-O-Matic
The mason’s line has a rotating spindle and bears a strong resemblance to the spindle held by the Indian carpenter (top left in the painting).
The majority of the spools and reels shown were types used in Europe and the Americas. The one outlier is the Korean line marker (bottom right) from Kangkei (now known as Kanggye). Note: Henry Mercer wrote “twanged.”
The Japanese sumitsubo is still used today (as are more modern line markers). The 20th century Stanley chalk line with the very American name “Chalk-O-Matic” is still found in many a tool box.
As the handle on the sumitsubo is turned, string unwinds from the wheel and is pulled over ink-soaked cotton wool in the bowl and exits through the hole on the end. Chalk is enclosed in the Chalk-O-Matic and as the string is pulled out it gets a nice coating of blue chalk and basically works the same as the sumistubo.
My favorites: on the left a beautifully scaled fish sumitsubo; top right is a Chinese shipwright’s mondou (from the book “China at Work” by Hommel), bottom right is another boat-shaped sumitsubo (Skinner Auctions).
The Japanese sumitsubo and try square are often pictured together in woodblock prints. And there’s a reason for that.
Taking another look at a detail in the Takashina Takakane scroll you can see both carpenters in the foreground are using a sumitsubo and a square as a plumb-line.
Another illustration of how the two tools are used together as a plumb-line.
Back to Antiquity
Ancient Greek carpenters also used snap lines (of course they did). They used red and black lines. Although I don’t have an image there is a passage from “The Greek Anthology” by W.R. Paton in 1916 that you might like to read (a translation of the Anthologia Palatina). Numbers 204 and 205 are by Leonides of Tarentum, a poet from the 3rd century B.C. Click on the image to make it easier to read in either Greek or English.
I try not to call my chairs “Welsh stick chairs” for several reasons. I don’t live in Wales. I don’t have access to the craggy timbers used for the seats. And I don’t have hedgerows where I can harvest sticks, armbows and crest rails.
You might also be thinking: “Yeah, and you’re not Welsh – Herr Schwarz.”
My opinion: I don’t consider blood to be the sole requirement to become a member of a community. People can be accepted into – or rejected from – a community despite their DNA. I’ve got a fair amount of English, Welsh and Irish blood (47 percent), but that gives me no claim to the Welsh stick chair – or any other.
I’m an American. I’ve lived here my entire life. And my design aesthetic, wood choices, tool selection and goals are typically American (for better or worse).
And so I’ve decided to describe my chairs as “American Welsh Stick Chairs.” To my mind, this fits in with the long American tradition of taking furniture forms from the U.K., Europe and elsewhere and adapting them to our tastes and our timbers.
We took U.K. styles such as Jacobean (1603–1625), William and Mary (1690–1730), Queen Anne (1702–1760), Georgian (1714–1830) and Neo-Classical (1750–1830) and taught them an American accent. This continued into the later 19th century with both the English Victorian and Arts & Crafts styles.
When all those styles landed here, we altered them to suit us. (Note: This is not a uniquely American practice. Locals have always played with imported styles.) In many cases (but not all) Americans tended to simplify the styles. We removed ornamentation. We used local woods (or exotics).
In my heart, I think that’s what I’ve done with my beloved antique Welsh stick chairs. I use New World woods, because this is what is available. Getting timbers with swirled grain for the seat is a struggle for me (so far), and so I use what I have – street trees, mostly. But they don’t compare visually to the Welsh ones.
Because I have access to dang-straight wood, I make my sticks, legs and stretchers so they follow the straight grain. A old Welsh chairmaker might have used a branch for strength in these cases, and the branch might have had some wiggle to it.
I’ve also tried to lighten the older forms, which I consider both an American trait (historically) and a modern one (in general).
And so for me, the term “American Welsh Stick Chair” fits. “American” because it was made in the Americas. “Welsh” because that’s the tradition it was derived from. “Stick” because sticks. And “Chair” because I don’t make love spoons.
Welsh stick chairs turn up in some of the strangest places, including the Hudson Valley of New York.
Today on my drive home from Fine Woodworking LIVE (the event was wonderful), I was invited to stop by the shop of John Porritt, a woodworker who trained in the U.K., has made many traditional chairs and now lives and works in a small town in Upstate New York.
While a lot of Porritt’s work is in the restoration of old chairs and tools, he also builds new English and Welsh chairs using traditional methods. In fact, John Brown praised one of Porritt’s Welsh chairs in one of his Good Woodworking columns in 1995 (which is about as good as it gets for chair praise).
Porritt’s shop is scenically located behind his 1700s-era house and tucked next to a swift-running stream. It’s an old barn with a big front door, one window and plenty of space for Porritt’s band saw, workbench and all the old wood he brought over from the U.K. when he and his American wife moved to New York in 2008.
In addition to being stocked with impressive stacks of old wood (some of it 300 years old), Porritt’s shop is full of chairs he has built and collected over the years. I could write a blog entry about each of these chairs – Porritt has fantastic taste in vernacular chairs – but I didn’t have time to take notes as he described each one.
So you’ll have to settle for some shallow descriptions that I hope are accurate.
One of the first chairs he showed me was this vernacular American Windsor. We see few to none of these sorts of chairs in the Midwest, so it was a delight to look it over. The wide sweep of the chair’s crest made it quite comfortable. The saddling of the seat was unusual. It’s wasn’t uncomfortable, but it was nothing my buttocks had felt before – the seat’s pommel was longer than is typical.
Also fascinating is this chair. It is remarkably similar to some of the earliest known English Windsors that were advertised for sale in 1725. The seat and the way it is saddled is astonishing. It has been heavily sculpted above and below to create a seat that looks like it is thin and has been bent like a modern Eames chair. But it’s a solid piece of fairly thick wood.
Inside Porritt’s house is his favorite chair, a Welsh stick chair that presses all of my buttons. The legs are slightly curved outward. The armbow is made from a branch that was resawn and then scarfed together with a long diagonal joint. The seat reflects the shape of the armbow. And the undercarriage is similar to some chairs I’ve seen at St Fagans.
But it’s the overall effect of the chair that is what’s lovely. Porritt says it’s the last thing he sees every night before he goes to bed and it makes him happy.
Back in the workshop, this little Welsh chair is also a looker. The rake of the spindles, the shape of the arm and the details of the crest are some of the highlights of the chair. (You’re going hear a lot more about this chair in the future as I purchased it from Porritt.)
Here you can see two of Porritt’s chairs on either side of his wood-burning stove in his shop. His chairs sit very well and harness a lot of the details of Welsh chairs that I love. His chairs reminded me a lot of Gareth Irwin’s chair that I saw in my visit to Wales last year.
Here’s another Welsh chair that is on the small side. I immediately assumed the chair had once been a comb-back and had suffered a comb-ectomy. Porritt said he was 90 percent certain that was not the case. He’d found bits of the original red paint lodged in the top of the chair’s sticks. The patination on this chair was quite lovely.
Finally, this Windsor chair that Porritt thinks was made by someone who also made ladderbacks. Porritt says many of the chair’s details, including the shaved components and the way the spindles were made, suggested a ladderback chairmaker had produced this chair.
I took a lot more photos, but I need to get to sleep. I’m sure you’ll be hearing a lot more about Porritt in the coming months – he gives talks to organizations and schools on his craft – and we might even be able to lure him to Covington to teach a class next year.