Since the publication of “The Stick Chair Book,” I’ve received many complaints that some of the tools I use in the book are expensive or there is a wait list to receive them. Most notably, the Veritas Tapered Tenon Cutters, Veritas Tapered Reamers (Large) and Veritas Power Tenon Cutters. Also, people gripe about the expense of scorps and travishers.
My goal with “The Stick Chair Book” was to keep the tool kit as small as possible, without asking readers to make the whole chair using only a pocketknife.
So the criticism stung a bit because I thought my tool list was quite reasonable.
During the last six months, I have tried out a lot of new tools and methods to see if I could make the tool list even cheaper and more accessible. Many of these experiments were expensive failures. (Don’t buy the Lumberjack tenon cutters. Just don’t. Anyone want to buy a set of Lumberjack tenon cutters?)
But I have had a few “a-ha” moments, which I am going to share here. Here is the first of several ways to reduce your tool bill.
Aside from the legs, almost all of the rest of the joints in a stick chair can be 5/8” in diameter. I’ve used the Veritas Power Tenon Cutter (the 5/8” is $99.90) for many years and love it. There can be a wait to buy these, and some people consider them expensive.
As an alternative, I decided to investigate plug cutters, which are used to make wooden plugs and sometimes tenons using a drill press. Most plug cutters warn you to use the tool only in a drill press. But I thought there was a way to make them work in a brace or handheld electric drill.
I was right. All you have to do is taper the end of your stock so it fits inside the mouth of the plug cutter. Then you can easily shave the tenon with a plug cutter that’s powered by a drill or brace.
To get the tenons perfect, you need your stock to be held level in a vise. And you need the tool to also be level. Plug cutters don’t come with levels installed on them. But you can epoxy an inexpensive bubble level (they are less than $1 each) to your drill (or the chuck of your hand-powered brace) to do the job.
A premium 5/8” plug cutter is $26. You can get utility ones for a few dollars. If you want to make it easy to taper the end of the stock consistently before cutting the tenons, also buy a chamfer/deburring cutter ($10). These are normally used to chamfer the ends of steel bolts, so they do a fine job on wood.
— Christopher Schwarz
P.S. Yes, I know you can make the 5/8” tenons with a block plane alone. I consider it a tedious technique when I have 16 sticks that have to be tenoned perfectly on both ends.
63 thoughts on “Chairmaking on the Cheap(er), Part 1”
Great tips, thank you Chris. On the sting of criticism, I always say that no good deed shall go unpunished.
I am still waiting for my Veritas tapered tenon cutter to get here, but I had no issue paying $50+ dollars for it. If taken care of, it should last a lifetime. I bought the tapered pro reamer as well, and it is a joy to use.
The tools suggested in the stick chair book may not be the cheapest initially, but they are a lifetime investment if you don’t go cheap. I don’t think you should be criticized over that.
Saving up and waiting for a quality tool is better than buying a cheap disposable tool now, in my opinion
Even a minimal set of good tools for chairmaking really is expensive… if you are only making one chair. For people who aren’t sure they want to become chairmakers, I can understand the hesitancy. Seems like the best answer on the market today is to take a chair making class. Maybe another answer is to have a set of good tools available as rental. I wonder if the economics would work to have a nice set of chairmaking tools rented out at $50 to $100/month (plus damages).
I agree. And just to be clear, I think this option for making tenons does not compromise on quality. The plug cutter from Lee Valley is outstanding and reduces the cost to one-third of the powered tenon cutter. All you sacrifice is some convenience and a little speed.
So since I’m having to wait for items to arrive in stock before they can even be shipped to me; I’ve read, reread and re-reread chapters planning my attack of this first chair. So far but not having tools in hand I believe I’ve saved myself a couple trips to the lumber yard to get new seat blanks. I look at it as the universe saying “slow down there hotshot.”
I had the chance to take a stool making class with Chris (be kind) The wood work was really straight forward but I really learned how important it is to follow his instructions on marking the parts. I’d suggest you read (and maybe re-read) how Chris, labels or marks everything and has someone check what’s going where, as well as grain direction and angles being drilled. Leg tenons were numbered and laid next to their (also numbered) mortices. Maybe its because all the parts look so similar its super easy to get turned around. The actual building is not too difficult and enjoyable. But really easy to get turned around if you don’t pay attention. If you’re still in the tool buying mode you might want to order a few sharpies….. Pretty handy!
Mr.Mitchell, would different color sharpies do?? Sat just a dot no numbers. stay safe Ralph
The best plug/tenon cutters I’ve used, by far, are from CMT. They are available widely, and are a bargain. For some reason I can’t copy and paste here, but they are a cinch to find online.
Yup. I have one and will be showing that in a future post….
They are fantastic for cutting tenons on small blocks of wood for those who turn their own knows and pulls. Perfectly sized tenons, and you don’t need to fuss with turning tenons.
The book mentions the adjustable antique tenon cutters… any chance you’d give a demonstration on the use of one of those? Buying one tool that can theoretically do multiple tenon sizes seems too good to be true.
So, I rarely comment on blog posts, but I’ve actually done this method on a JA stool I made. I used a method with a drill press that actually worked pretty well. I marked a point on my drill press table that was colinear with the axis of the drill press (used the laser on the drill press or a plumb bob would work if your drill press is level). Then I put a small nail, point side up, at that colinear point on the table. Then you just ream out a center point on the end of the stick that rests on the nail point like you would for the tailstock mounted end of a workpiece on a lathe. Hold the stick vertically and press it down so it is centered on the nail in the centered spot you punched. Then with the drill press off and the plug cutter chucked up you go ahead and lower it and put some medium pressure on the end of the stick you need a tenon on. (This end will need to be at relatively neatly tapered to a diameter slightly smaller than the tenon size so the plug cutter will self center when you turn the drill press on.) Using a tight grip with your free hand and maybe a grippy glove too, hold the stick in position and turn the drill press on using your tongue, nose, eyebrow, or whatever you can manage. Then advance the plug cutter and voila it cuts the tenon. Tip: hold on tight. Then when you pull it off, just blend the exposed surface of the stick with the tenon portion for a smooth transition if desired. I’ve had pretty good luck with this, though I would suggest making an extra stick or two as sometimes it doesn’t center itself super well. And last, of course, I do not vouch for the safety of this method, but I’m sure most of you wouldn’t bat an eye at giving it a shot. I think the plug cutters are from grizzly if you were wondering. I have done tenons up to 1” with this method, though it gets exponentially more difficult and less stable the larger you go.
Chris, one of these days I’m going to convince you to add a 3D printer to your toolkit. This is one instance where having access to a printer is a godsend for a woodworker. By just buying the blade from one of these manufacturers I can design my own tenon cutter for just a few dollars worth of filament. And I can make it whatever diameter/taper I want!
I’m waiting for the 4D model.
Those are classified and you don’t have the clearance.
I’m just going to skip ahead to the laser tenon cutter.
Josh: Tis a grand idea if you want to spend your time programing a computer. I got into woodworking–esp hand tools– to get away from the computer.
To each their own. I get as much of a kick designing tools to solve problems as I do working the wood.
The book is great Chris, and your writing delightful and humorous. But Yeah you really got me with the laser level. I bet those were handy back in the day. Most of the comments here were par for the course. Stuff is expensive and hard to get. Now let us think about those bodgers once upon a time. They worked with a very limited tool kit. No Lee Valley or Woodcraft, no snotty tool mongers with 200 dollar bevel gauges,tenon cutters etc. However in woodworking today if you want to play you got to play. As I tell my students, this is mostly a hobby and like all hobbies it is about selling you stuff. My woodworking store owner said to me one day: “Bob your job is to take all their money.”
I’d be willing to bet that, back in the day, woodworkers, cabinetmakers, etc. al. spent a higher percentage of their income than folks today.
Hey, now I’ll finally be able to sharpen that “Big Apple” pencil I bought at the gift shop in NY years ago! Thanks for the options!
How I wish I were in Bowling Green, KY as it is a lot closer than Amherst, MA. If you are ever anywhere near where I can come and say hi, I will. I was there for study in Industrial Arts at WKU years ago.
I think your comments are exactly in order about what it takes to get what you’re trying to make, well done and acceptable at every step. Most of the young woodworkers I see have not been introduced to woodworking, at any point, and are perhaps pen makers, or only looking to move forward from that. It follows that I was more or less coerced into woodworking at an early age (10) which was considered late by my family. I’m now 80 and still learning. Long ago I transferred my efforts to lutherie and use the skills from furniture making every day.
Beginners in woodworking are apt to blame many requirements of furniture making on their lack of tools and machines to do good work. I’ve encouraged my students (when I was a teacher) to do their best work with what they have and reach forward in their tools and personal abilities. In other words, don’t blame the tool, don’t blame the wood! They need to see what’s in the piece of wood, and its part in what they’re attempting to create. And, to reach forward and within, at the same time. Some will make the piece, and some will get better as they go. Some will abandon the craft. All natural in the trade.
Alton “Bear” Acker
With a scrap of hardwood, a cambered spoke shave or similar iron, a saw and a drill bit, you can fashion a witchet or rounder that will cut tenons & dowels to size.
Considering most of the tools you use are cabinet making tools, I thought your list was reasonable. Of course I’d need another three or four tools to build chairs. And of course they’ll be on back order right now — I’ve looked outside and seen the state of the world.
As for the price, most woodworking books just assume you have a full machine shop, ie expecting us to spend considerably more than you ask.
And especially if we buy tools that will last, it’s a one time thing.
So overall, pretty happy with your book’s choice of recommendations. Keep ‘em coming.
Thanks for this post. It was more the availability rather than the price of the Veritas tenon tools that put me off of them. Even signing up for their alerts, they’d be gone before I got the chance. Luckily I have a router to do most of the work and the Anarchist’s Design Book to guide me the rest of the way.
I’ll have to try these when I can.
years back I made my Reamer and my Taper tenon cutter. watched Roy make them, looked easy to make so I did it myself. I have made 4 chairs so far with no power tools. just make your own reamer and taper tenon cutter.
Thanks for these tips; I just ordered these tools. I am wondering what you think of homemade tapered reamers & tapered tenon cutters.
They’re great. I’ve used both.
It’s great that we get to decide our place on the spectrum of “make your own tools” vs. “buy your own tools.” When I was getting started in chairmaking it was all “make your own tools” by necessity. And it felt like another barrier to my entry of the craft. So when the tools became available and they were reasonably priced, I decided to adopt the ones that are effective and reasonably priced.
One option, if you have a 3d printer (or a geeky friend with one), you can print this 5/8 tapered tenon cutter and buy the replacement blade from Lee Valley to attach to it. https://www.thingiverse.com/thing:5026366
The wait time for the cutters is a lot longer than the complete tool.
Interesting. I had the opposite problem a couple months back, no tool available but in stock replacement blades.
Why do people think that quality, unique tools would not be expensive? They may be able to find something at Harbor Freight, but don’t plan on using it more than once, if you can even get through the project once.
Wouldn’t it be a better way to go to just try and do without the specialty tools to start with? I’m planning to start working on staked furniture with cylindrical tenons, and to saddle my seats with a jack plane like in ADB. I think a scorp should be my next investment when I have the money
For anyone who already has the Veritas 5/8″ tapered tenon cutter for use on their chair legs, there’s no reason why you can’t also use this to form a 5/8″ straight tenon on a back stick by letting the stick run through until enough straight tenon is poking from the end of the tool. After all, the Veritas dowel makers are essentially the same tool and intended to be used in this way. The added benefit is you get a tapered transition from tenon to the full thickness of the stick. Given these tools are cheaper and seem to be more available than the powered tenon cutter it might be a good workaround.
Is it possible to adjust the blade of the 1-1/4″ power tenon cutter far enough inwards so that it cuts a 1-1/8″ tenon which then fits into the 5/8″ tapered tenon cutter?
Talking about the Veritas tools here. Particularly the regular power tenon cutter with the curved shoulder, not the one with the tapered shoulder.
Thanks for this. As a public school teacher, I have to be pretty persuasive to get even a penny spent. Having a cheaper option means there is a much higher chance that my furniture making class gets off the ground.
Genius… thank you again for giving resourceful and useful tool recommendations. I’ve been waiting a loooooong time (>6 mos) for the Veritas large reamer. Any suggestions other than Harbor Freight?
If you get the tenon near to size, which can be done very quickly with a drawknife, you can finish with a dowel plate. That’s about as cheap (free if you have a bit of scrap steel, a drill, a file, and a torch) as a tool comes.
Hi, if there was a way to loan out these tools (tool co-op or library) it would make the projects, for the average person on a lower wage, even more accessible. We have tool libraries over here, but they’re more for power tools. Anarchist Tool Library? Could raise some eyebrows.
Great shout on the plug cutter. I actually tried this out with a brace and was impressed with the results. I found using a cordless drill to be a bit more hit and miss.
We don’t have the man- or woman-power to offer a service such as this. Also, I have seen the way students treat the tools at woodworking schools (kind of like the way most people treat rental cars). And, even worse, the way they treat machines.
There would be a lot of grinding and sharpening involved in such a service.
My biggest hold up has been a travisher. It seems like only about 3 people make them and they all have 6+ month wait lists. I did my first seat with just a scorp, scraper, and random orbit sander. It came out surprisingly well honestly.
Chris Williams used only a spokeshave with a curved sole for most of his career.
Have you tried:
I have excavated Windsor seats with a #3 1.5″ gouge, which I would suggest putting a hoop/schagring on if it doesn’t have one already, followed by a self made krenov style small lamiated compass plane. Slower than a scorp and travisher but gets it done for a one-to-few-off while you figure out if you will make enough to justify the more efficient tool. I would second the first one in a class with loaners which is why I am making a 1/3 scale chest of draws with Alan Breed this summer before a big casework project, but Chris hasn’t taught a bunch of teachers yet.
In general I think the complainers are trying to buy their way to competence, there are an amazing number of decent tools with creditable diy instructions on the web and not all of them require a supershop. Not at all the case for my first Windsor in1996.
Ray Iles also makes them and can be bought at various places, just google them. I got lucky and found a homemade one but I feel you
Chris, suggest to the complainers that they make their own tools!
A quick search on the Internet finds Chris’s article on how he did preliminary wood removal for shaping a seat by using a Forstner bit. I look forward to seeing if there is any improvement on this.
I think if a person considers this set of tools to be expensive, maybe they should start with something simpler rather than making chairs. I think if a person considers this set of tools to be expensive, maybe he should start not with making chairs, but with something simpler.
When I read the book, of course, I wanted to perform all operations with the specified tool, but not all the tools I had at hand, and this did not stop me from my first, successful attempt to make a chair.
I agree wholeheartedly with the above comment on making your own tools. Good or better tools are like allowance given to a teen-age child. Used up and no appreciation for the source.
Sign me, a grandfather and great-grandfather, toolmaker since the late 60’s.
I saw another comment suggest a library; but has anyone mentioned makerspaces yet?
Sorry if someone has. Most people seem surprised to find out this movement and resource exists, so it could be a good thing to mention to people in the future.
The one in my city was nice, and I think if someone joined and expressed interest in chairmaking tools but the space didn’t have one- maybe they would run into a like-minded dude who had one themselves or the ability to make one, or help raise funds for a tool for the space. Some makerspaces have tool budgets, iirc.
Course mileage may vary, they’re pretty decentralized, and quality can vary. Last I heard my city’s makerspace was still in an uncertain state due to the ongoing panini.
For what it’s worth, I’ve thought some hand tools mentioned across the woodworking net as pricey- but well, I just graduated college so I have that kinda mindset… I always thought if someone could afford a LAP book, they could afford the tools.
I’m making my first octagonal legs and I can’t figure out how to get them perfectly centered in the lathe so the tenons are centered. Do you use a chuck or a spur center? Do you have a blog post on the method you use to turn the tenons? I feel like I’m missing something obvious.
When the stock is square mark the centers, then you can turn it before or after tapering.
This is spindle turning, I use the spur center.
I am getting rather tired of the complaining public. You seem to test everything within an inch of it’s life, your books aren’t slapdash in the least. People, improvise, adapt, overcome. There is a wide internet out there, there is a thing called the Midwest tool collectors, antique stores, flea markets. Do Chris, et al. have to take you by the hand to the potty and wipe your tushie? Club together with friends interested in building chairs and split up the kit until you can afford all of the tools yourself. By all means, ask questions, offer ideas, but don’t complain until you think for yourself. Give Chris and his team a break.
BTW, a lot of the tool shortages has come due to COVID restrictions, you can’t blame LAP for that.
Clearly I haven’t seen the complaints myself. But I suspect they weren’t addressed to LAP or Mr Schwarz personally (and Mr S might be being a tad oversensitive), but rather at the price of specialised tools and the shortness of their supply. And I can understand that frustration. But there is too much, these days, of an “I want it and I want it now” attitude. If you can’t get the tools, wait until you can. If you can’t wait, find alternatives. If you can’t find alternatives, make them. And if you can’t make them, start a project that you can build instead.
I summarize with Make, make do, or do without.
I’ve got one (perhaps small) note: The tool you refer to as a “Veritas reamer” is not a Veritas tool. (I’ll leave you to look up the specifics of what that means.)
For what it’s worth, I am not as much of a fan of that tool as you are because it really only works decently when chucked into a drill or something with a three-jaw chuck. The shaft is far too soft for a typical hand brace; you’d need to use a square-taper adapter for it not to get munged up. I prefer the actual Veritas “Pro Taper Reamer” when using the brace.
I find it a bit confusing that people are complaining about the price of tools for chairmaking. Most hand tools are pricy but are still less than the cost of any machinery. The price of a scorp (eg. Barr Tools) and a powered tenon maker are less than the cost of a new Lie-Nielsen or Veritas hand plane and unless your tool kit consists of used hand tools and no machinery, they likely will be some of the cheapest tools in your shop.
The tapered reamer can be made and the travisher, although convenient, can be replaced with a card scraper and sanding.
Hi Chris, I have been waiting for the chance to purchase the Veritas kit you suggest and will pay for these quality tools when they become available. I recently built my first stick chair using a block plane, scraper and the soft jaw pliers for all the 5/8 tenons. Since finishing my first chair I have been able lucky enough to get my hands on the Veritas 5/8 tapered tenon cutter to try tapered leg mortises and a 1/2 straight tenon cutter for the comb tenons. While waiting for the 5/8 power tenon cutter to be in stock, I decided to try putting the curved blade from the straight cutter into the tapered tenon cutter and I am able to get very consistent 5/8 straight tenons this way. This is speeding up the block plane and plier method greatly as when things are getting close I don’t spend ages in the final back-and-forth of sizing. This wouldn’t be as fast as the power version but it eliminates a piece of kit that is proving a hurdle for those like me starting out at the moment. I hope this is useful to someone. Cheers.
The complaints are a bummer. The way I see it, all the tenon cutter and reamers are “bonus” tools, and with the exception of the travishers/scorps, you just need a jack, block, curved scraper and a set of spade bits. Radiusing your own spokeshave is also straightforward. You’ve done so much to make these builds accessible and I hope the appreciation drowns out the complaints
Lee Valley is now estimating they might have 5/8″ Tapered Tenon Cutters in stock on 3/26 to ship. This is a month after the last email stating they were backordered and will ship out 2/28. Time to be creative.
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