Because I have written books on workbenches and chairs, I am regularly asked what sort of workbench is best for making chairs.
Here’s my answer: the same bench you use to make cabinets, boxes and snake toys.
Unless you are a professional chairmaker who makes chairs and only chairs in a tiny space, there is no need to make a dedicated bench for chairs. I build my chairs on whatever workbench is handy, and I’ve never felt constrained by them. Nor have I ever wished for a bench dedicated to my chairmaking.
Instead, this blog post is an effort to remove one of the artificial barriers we all erect in our minds when it comes to tackling new kinds of projects.
“I can’t build a chair until I own a steambox, shaving horse, drawknife, froe, chiarmaker’s workbench….”
Use what you have on hand, and you’ll find a way to make it work. Then, after you’ve built 20 chairs and decide it’s your life’s work, you can think about what specific equipment you will need for your journey.
A few of you who have followed my work might say: “Ah yes, but what about your Roman workbench? Isn’t that dedicated to chairmaking?”
No, it’s not. That workbench gets used for everything, including as an occasional buffet table when we buy lunch for students.
OK, last question from an imaginary voice: “But if you did build a bench for chairmaking, what would it look like?”
I’ve given that a lot of thought. Here’s the answer. (You can download the plans for free.)
There are many options for the box that traps the steam and holds the parts to be bent. Schedule 80 PVC pipe works fine, but I think it’s expensive overkill. I’ve seen schedule 40 pipe melt when hooked up to a powerful steamer.
I prefer a CDX plywood box that is barely large enough for the bend at hand. I’ve found that a box with an interior of 4″ x 3″ x 62″ is large enough for almost all of my needs. Don’t bother to paint or seal the wood; you’ll simply be trapping the moisture and inviting mold growth. To function, the box shouldn’t be NASA airtight; as a matter of fact, you should see steam leaking out, which lets fresh hot steam circulate to all regions of the box. If the steam can’t circulate, then you are relying on conduction, which doesn’t transfer heat as well as convection. I keep a thermometer in the top of my box and with this sort of box, the temperature climbs to 210°F. Standard woodworking glues won’t hold up to the heat and moisture so I rely on polyurethane glue, tongue-and-groove construction and screws to hold my box together.
To allow the cooled condensed vapor to drain, the whole box should be at an angle and have a drain hole at its lower end. I usually put the port for the steam hose in the center of the box near the most extreme part of the bend. To prevent steam burns, the door of the steamer should hinge on the side so that your hand is never above the open door. Steam burns come on fast and can do plenty of damage. I usually put the end of the steamer with the drain port on a lid from a plastic tub to collect the liquid that drains out.
While the softness and flexibility of the green wood is obvious, you might wonder what the advantage is of split wood. Working from split wood can be a tough concept to grasp, even for the experienced furniture maker.
Trees don’t have any flat or square parts, and wood is not a homogeneous material that’s indifferent to the way it is cut. Trees are a bundle of fibers, and once the tools and techniques to split and shave these fibers come into play, hand-tool jobs that would be difficult or tedious with sawn planks become simple and fast.
One way to compare sawn wood to split wood is that a saw blade ignores the fibers and cuts across them. Splits follow the fibers, which yields strong parts that display amazing flexibility without a loss of strength.
But there is more to this story.
Whenever sawn wood is shaped, shaved or cut with hand tools, the direction of cut is of primary concern. A smooth surface can be created by cutting or shaving the fibers in the direction that they ascend from the sawn board. Cutting in the opposite direction, where the fibers descend into the board, will cause the cutter to grab the exposed end grain and lever out small chips. This “tear-out” leaves a rough, undesirable surface and takes more effort to cut.
On sawn boards, the direction can change from one area to another, especially if the tree didn’t grow straight. The showy grain patterns so prized in cabinetwork are the result of milling across the fibers, whereas split and shaved pieces will have uniform – perhaps even boring – figure.
But showy grain can force you to constantly change your cutting direction to avoid tear-out, which slows the process. Plus, when shaving round parts from sawn wood, you will usually have to change direction as you shave around the surface. On the lathe, changing direction is impossible.
But when parts are split and shaved to follow the fibers, the direction of cut is simplified. You always head from the thick area to the thin. On round parts, this allows you to work around the entire piece without changing direction.
This enables you to rely on the shape of the piece to dictate the tool’s cutting direction instead of constantly interpreting the surface for clues.
Split wood can be worked in either direction when shaved parallel to the fibers. Once the fibers are carved across, the direction of cut is always toward the thinner area.
This simplifies and speeds the shaping process. Trying to shave a sawn spindle that has fibers that are not parallel to the axis of the spindle requires a constant changing of the cutting direction, which renders the process impractical.
The next job is to smooth the carved portion of the seat until there are no distinct bumps or transitions, leaving a surface ready for scraping. For this, I reach for a travisher.
Some users prefer a compass plane, and when I started I made and used one. In my experience, the travisher is a more versatile tool, so my compass plane sits rarely used. The compass plane does excel, however, at getting even curves at the back of long settees.
The travisher can be tough to get used to because folks often roll the tool back while pushing it to find the cutting edge; this makes the tool take a heavy cut and jams the throat with shavings. Using a travisher or spokeshave requires a movement that is counter-intuitive and must be practiced.
Unlike when using a carving tool, where lowering the handle actually raises the edge out of a cut (like a spoon in ice cream), these tools take a deeper cut when the handles are dropped back. To come out of the cut with control and not have the thick end of the shaving clog the throat, the tool must be rolled forward at the end of each stroke. This is a strange action and no one should expect it to feel normal at first. Practice this “stroke” without engaging the blade, just riding on the surface and exaggerating the rolling forward at the end of the stroke, jutting your wrists forward. I know it feels wrong, but it’s right. To see the illustration of this motion, refer to the section on pitch-adjusted tools in Hand Tools: Sharpening & Use.
Like the inshave, I use the travisher across the fibers while skewing it in the direction that the end grain descends. This allows me to traverse the transition areas without getting hung up in the end grain of the opposing side. A subtle crisscross pattern will help create an even surface.
The shape of the travisher is also helpful in creating a consistent curve at the back of the seat. Cut in front of the gutter until the shape of the seat matches the shape of the travisher. If you want to make it deeper, skew the travisher. If the tool won’t cut in the center of the curve any longer, check to make sure that there isn’t material holding it up in the surrounding areas.
The travisher is one of my favorite tools. I use the various portions of the blade to refine the curves of the seat with a speed that allows me to “see” the seat take shape and make subtle adjustments as needed. Rubbing your hand with its palm flat across the seat’s surface can help to detect any bumps or dips. At this point, the initial depth holes should be barely visible, if at all.
I love going to the Lie-Nielsen Toolworks Open House (almost) every summer for a number of reasons, but one of the best is getting to hang out with chairmaker extraordinaire Pete Galbert for a few days. He’s been there at every event I’ve had the pleasure of attending.
Pete is one of those people who always puts a smile on my face, because there’s always one on his. He’s just so darn nice and fun to be around. And he’s an extraordinary teacher – I was blown away by his presentations at Woodworking in America (back in my former life).
Hopefully I’ll get to see him in person next summer (if not sooner). But for now, I’ll have to make do with seeing him on his spindle turning and milk paint videos. And, of course, reading from his book (for which he also did all the gorgeous drawings).
Obviously there is a long history to the Windsor chair. And along the way, I’m sure that just about every imaginable technology has been used to build them and all sorts of design innovations have been tried. I am neither a historian nor a wood technologist; luckily, there are a number of good books on both subjects. In setting out to write this book, I wanted to make chairmaking accessible and open a door into a gratifying kind of woodworking.
Looking back, I recognize that my own transition into working with green wood took place in stages. I remember simply wanting to see what a drawknife could do, and I didn’t care if it was on a split piece of oak destined for a chair or a 2×4. I encourage you to act on your impulse to explore and play. These are vital steps in the learning process.
Even though I could simply lay out a single path to success for making a chair, I recognize that each of us comes from a different background, workshop and skill set, so I’ve tried to stress the principles that you’ll encounter, knowing that you will apply the information that best suits your ability and interests.
I’ve structured the information so that the basic concepts are illustrated, and if you want to go deeper into the topic, you can delve further into the text. Illustrating the book myself was an obvious choice for me because not only do I enjoy drawing, but I also hope to impart as much visual information as possible. Plus, the chairs, with their thin lines and crisp silhouettes, translate beautifully when drawn.
The project portion of this book details the process of building the two chairs shown below. While the process for building a chair is simple, there are many opportunities to learn more about the materials, tools and techniques.
The project chairs were chosen both for their similarities and differences. Besides some aesthetic elements, the chairs are structurally identical from the seat down. That way, making one chair will give you experience that will serve you in the other. From the seat up, the difference is both aesthetic and technological. If you have access to green wood, you will find the balloon-back attainable. If you are limited to sawn (hopefully air-dried) lumber, you can make your way through the fan-back, which lacks the extreme bend, yet it has slightly more complex joinery in the crest.
Another reason that I chose these chairs is that they point the way toward two different families of design within the Windsor tradition. The balloon-back is a great introduction to the classic forms, such as the continuous-arm, sack-back and comb-back.
If your interest runs more toward more modern options, the fan-back leads to other designs with clean Asian-influenced lines, such as the birdcage and the step-down-crest styles. My unpainted contemporary designs are mostly rooted in the technology that begins with the fan-back form.
I also cover options for building these chairs using the lathe in a limited way, or without using a lathe at all. While turning is the most efficient way to make the legs and joinery, not having experience with or access to a lathe should not stop you from making a fine chair.
In this book, I’ve tried to address the questions that riddled me as I ventured into chairmaking and share some of the lessons and discoveries I’ve found helpful along the way. I spent most of my earlier years as a woodworker poring over books to squeeze out the information that I needed. One thing that struck me was that I got something new each time I returned to my favorite texts. My goal here is to not only demonstrate ways to achieve the tasks, but to show some of the common problems you might encounter and how to address them. Because of this, some of the descriptions might make more sense to you once you’ve worked with the process and found a problem for yourself. If the depth of the information here ever seems daunting, take a deep breath and rest assured you can make a chair that will exceed your expectations with only the basic concepts in hand. Once you’ve grown comfortable with them, the rest of the information might be more inviting.
Even for experienced furniture makers, each process will likely introduce new challenges. From splitting wood to turning, steam bending to carving, it’s a different way of looking at making a piece of furniture. While there are many steps involved in making a successful chair, and mastering the process can be a lifetime pursuit, a little effort and resilience will pay off at each turn.
My hope is that the information here encourages you to build your first chair, or perhaps just your latest.