I am always looking for a faster way to make the 26”-long sticks that make up the backrests of my chairs. Making the 12-1/2”-long short sticks is easy. I can bang one out in a minute or two with a block plane.
But the long sticks have a complicated shape. They have a 5/8” tenon at the bottom. Then the stick swells to 3/4” and goes back down to 5/8” along the next 8”. I have to get the swelling exactly right because the stick wedges in a 5/8” mortise in the arm and supports the arm from below. Finally the stick tapers to 1/2” at its tip.
I first learned to make long sticks with a drawknife and shavehorse. Then I was taught to use “trapping planes” on a lathe. Finally, I settled on using a jack plane and block plane. These were tools I already had an intimate relationship with. And I don’t need a shavehorse.
The process to make long sticks that’s outlined in “The Stick Chair Book” is one I have used for many years and is pretty fast. But during the last few months I have been experimenting with different combinations of strokes to see if I can speed the plow. The following process cuts my stick-making time in half. That cuts almost an hour off the time I need to make a chair.
Note that when I make sticks using planes, I skew the planes significantly (about 30°) to speed their cutting action.
As mentioned above, I use a jack plane and block plane to make my long sticks. I place a little stop block in a vise so it is 1/2” above the jaws of the vise. Or I use a planing block (shown in the photos) that is 1/2″ tall. I press the tip of the stick against the stop with one hand and push the plane with the other. The weight of the jack plane keeps it in the cut.
My long sticks begin as 3/4” x 3/4” x 26” octagons of straight hardwood. The work is divided into three stages.
I hold the tenon with one hand and the jack plane with the other. I make two tapering strokes with the jack plane. The first begins about 13” from the tip of the stick. The second begins back at my left hand. I make this pair of strokes three times without rotating the stick. This creates a significant flat on the stick. And by the third set of strokes, the jack is a little difficult to push.
Then I rotate the stick until an arris (aka a corner) is facing up. Then I repeat the above strokes – making the arris into a wide flat. Then I rotate the stick again. I keep stroking and rotating until the stick’s tip is about 5/8” in diameter – or about 1/8” above the 1/2”-tall stop in my vise.
Then I enter Stage 2
Stage 2 is simple. It is just full-length strokes on the stick – from my hand (still holding the tenon) to the tip. I start on an arris and take three strokes, again making a flat. Then I rotate the stick until an arris faces up. Then three more strokes to flatten it. Rotate. Repeat.
I keep this pattern up until the tip of the stick is 1/2” in diameter and does not stick up above the stop in the vise.
That’s when I enter Stage 3.
I turn the stick around and press the tenon against the stop in the vise. Then I use a block plane to taper the bottom of the long stick down to the tenon. I do this by making quick, short cuts and rotating the stick. This work is quick.
Then I turn the stick around again, pushing its tip against the stop in the vise, and I clean up the top part of the stick, making sure it is round and the facets are nice and even.
I check my work by dropping the long stick into a mortise in my armbow. The stick should get wedged with about 8” of the stick (plus the 1-1/4” tenon) showing. If I need to remove more material, I remove the stick from the arm and shave it more with the block plane. Look for arrises and smooth them out.
This might not be the fastest way to make sticks, but it’s the fastest way I know of today.
— Christopher Schwarz
P.S. Why don’t I turn my sticks on a lathe? I don’t have a steady-rest or any other equipment that could make this work. I prefer to work with bench tools when making chairs in order to keep my tool kit as small as possible. Plus, I’m a fairly lame turner.