Every month we get queries from people who want to write a book for us. And every month I send each of them a nice rejection letter. We simply don’t choose authors that way.
Every Lost Art Press book begins as a long conversation between the writer, John and me about things that may or may not become a book. Most of these conversations are dead ends, but they are interesting dead ends.
During the conversations, we’re also sizing up the author as a person and asking ourselves the questions: Do we want to be in business with this person? Do we like them? Do we share the same ethics about the craft and business?
If all the stars align, we start working on a book together. And if the stars align again, it gets published.
Starting Monday we’re going to introduce you to each of our authors through lengthy profiles written by Kara Gebhart Uhl and published here. The first one will be on Peter Galbert, author of “Chairmaker’s Notebook.”
This book started out as a three-way conversation between Peter, Curtis Buchanan and me in Berea, Ky. The project took several crazy turns until it finally was birthed as the massive “Chairmaker’s Notebook.”
I’ve already read Kara’s profile of Peter, and I learned a lot about Peter, even though I’ve known him for years.
I hope you enjoy these periodic profiles. After Peter, Kara will be writing about Robert Wearing and Matt Bickford.
Most of the changes made for the second printing are technical in nature – we adjusted the histogram of several of Peter’s hand-drawn images to darken them.
But there is one significant correction to the content of the book, so I would like to post that here for everyone to download for free.
In Chapter 3, Peter presents two pages of plans for the two chairs he built for the book. Because of a scanning error on my part (not Peter’s), the enlargement percentage shown on the pages of the first printing is incorrect. It should be 545 percent (not 540 percent).
Additionally, the drawings for the underside of the seat and the bending form for the balloon-back were slightly off the correct scale.
I spent the morning trying to figure out how I made this error. My conclusion: I screwed up something while scanning the original drawings.
You can download a pdf of the corrected version of those two pages here:
When I set out to make my first chair, there were parts of the process that I did not even know existed. But there was one part that I knew I wanted to do: carve the seat.
I got into woodworking for this kind of fun. Watching the shavings fly as the seat shape comes into focus is hypnotic and thrilling. Making a chair should begin with the various green wood parts so that they will be dry when the seat carving is done, but I suspect that most folks head right to the seat carving and build the rest of the chair around it. And when I started out, I was no exception. I couldn’t even wait to build an actual chair, so I glued up a bunch of 2x4s and used a gouge and a bent piece of steel to hog out a crude seat.
Beyond referring to a seat as oval-, D- or shield- shaped, it actually is an “un-nameable” shape. While it has hollows and humps that follow a distinct logic, there is no simple way to describe it. I think of it as a landscape, full of hills and valleys. To arrive at this complex shape in a consistent and timely way requires a set of steps, each one paving the way for the next. No single step is ambiguous; in the end, the overall shape, while tough to describe, is consistent and clear.
Carving the seat affects just about every surface of the workpiece, so being able to hold the seat in a number of positions is critical. I always leave the extra material adjoining the back of the seat in place until the last step of carving the underside at the back. This way, I can always clamp the waste area without dinging the soft pine, and when I clamp it to the corner of my bench, I can easily move around the seat to come in from the desired direction.
Before I carve under the front edge of the seat, I can clamp the seat between the vise’s dog and a bench dog because the material being compressed gets carved away later. For the initial adze work, I clamp the seat to my shavehorse, which puts the blank at a comfortable height to use the small hand adze that I prefer.
I’ve also had great success using a podium-type support that sits on my bench. This is great when using the small hand adze because you can flip the seat in various orientations without having to move clamps, plus the force of the blows is countered by the lip at the bottom of the holding platform.
When Steel Meets Wood –Tips for Clean Cuts
Once you’ve begun to envision the wood as a bundle of fibers and understand how a tool is configured to cut them, it’s time to put these two bits of knowledge together to get proper results. Regardless of which type of tool you are using, it’s important to know there is always a technique that can deliver clean, controlled cuts.
Clean results when carving are usually achieved by moving or pointing the tool in a specific direction. Cutting in the wrong direction usually leads to rough and uncontrollable results as the tool slips between the fibers and causes the wood to split in advance of the cutter.
In the chapter Shaving & Shaping Parts, I introduced shaving, which is like controlled splitting, but for now, let’s focus on achieving clean cuts when cutting across the fibers.
Looking back to the structure of the wood, it’s important to note that any time you see a surface pattern other than long strips running perfectly from one end of the board to the other, you are looking at exposed end grain. This is the common “cathedral” patterning seen on the surface of most sawn boards. Because the surface has exposed end grain, a specific direction of cut will yield good results.
Most folks encounter this concept when deciding which direction to plane a board. I think of planing a board as a form of carving because the same rules of grain direction apply – you are simply “carving” a flat shape.
When planing a board, the direction that the fibers ascend from the lower face determines the best direction to plane the surface. This is usually referred to as cutting “downhill.”
When pushed “uphill,” the cutting edge slides between the fibers, follows them and causes a splitting action to occur ahead of the cutter. The damage is limited by the depth of cut, the sole and the chipbreaker, but the increased effort and diminished surface quality are not desirable.
A favorite comparison when contemplating planing is to think of petting a cat or dog. If you stroke the fur from head to tail, it lies down smoothly and your hand never slips down to the skin. If you pet from tail to head, your hand slides under the fur, causing the fibers to stand up and the animal to get annoyed. I’m pretty sure we’ve all had a cat and board glare back at us after such a transgression.
While you can determine the direction of cut based on the orientation of the growth rings and the pattern on the faces and edges of the board, this can lead to confusion because boards from twisted or bowed logs can have multiple direction changes on each surface. In such cases a few light cuts are best to help determine the best cutting direction for each area.
This week I’m assembling two Welsh stick chairs that are based on examples from several sources, including John Brown and Don Weber. I’ve made this sort of chair about a dozen times, and every time I build it I stray a little further from the originals.
About five years ago I started using a different arrangements of back sticks and a different crest rail. Now I’m changing the seat and undercarriage. First I made a new seat template. It’s still a D-shaped seat, but I started fresh with trammels and a compass to make it slightly larger.
I increased the rake of the rear legs to make the chair more lively. And I also changed the front legs to make them look appropriate with the new rear legs (wire models like those shown in “The Anarchist’s Design Book” guided these changes).
But the biggest change is to the stretcher turnings. I’ve been using 1-3/8”-diameter turnings with a bulbous center, much like what I first learned from Don Weber about 13 years ago.
After looking at a lot of English Windsors and Welsh stick chairs, I decided to simplify my turnings and thin them down to 1-1/8” in diameter. After getting both undercarriages together this afternoon, I was pleased with the result.
Tomorrow I start steam-bending the arm bows and am considering one more design change for this generation of chairs.
— Christopher Schwarz
P.S. Peter Galbert’s book “Chairmaker’s Notebook” is invaluable for making all sorts of stick chairs, including Windsors and Welsh stick.
The association between lathe turning and Windsors runs deep. When describing a Windsor chair to someone, the “ornately turned legs” often pinpoints the style in their mind. Turning is an ancient method for shaping wood that has seen little improvement (the motor is one) in centuries. It is the fastest way to transform rough wood into finished parts with perfectly sized joinery. Entire books have been written about the various techniques of creating the shapes so often associated with the Windsor style. For our purposes, though, there is some specialized knowledge that comes with turning chair legs from split wood that is worth highlighting. At the end of this chapter are options for making legs and parts with limited or no use of a lathe.
Turning Design The origin of a chair can often be traced county by county based on the style of its turnings. Whether bold and voluptuous or sleek and reserved, the turnings create a distinct attitude. The earliest American Windsors had baluster turnings in what would most likely be labeled as “high style” for the Windsor. When presented with a Windsor chair that doesn’t have baluster turnings, many viewers will question whether it’s a Windsor at all, which shows how deep the association between the balusters and Windsors runs. There is a basic order of the elements found in most balusters, but the size of the parts and variation between thick and thin areas give a lot of opportunity for personal expression.
After the early 19th century, the influence of Asian art can be seen in the simpler forms and “bamboo” style. While the baluster might be “high style,” I think that sleek double-bobbin and bamboo-style turnings fit well with a wider range of decor, which may have added to the breadth of interest and longevity of the form.
This chapter will guide you from preparing stock to turning parts and joinery. For more information on turning tools and technique, look to the chapters Turning Tools as well as Turning Practice.
Stock Preparation Making successful turnings has as much to do with preparing material as with using sharp tools and good technique. While starting with a straight tree is the first step for all of the parts, there are many different paths to processing the wood for turning. You can split or saw it, you can turn parts green, or dry them before turning. It depends mostly on issues surrounding storage, time restraints and personal preference.
Regardless of path you choose, the end product should achieve three important results:
• For strength, the parts should be made up of straight fibers that run from one end of the piece to the other.
• During assembly, the portion of a turning that will have a mortise should have a higher moisture content than the tenon that will join it.
• The tenon portion should be kiln-dried when it is sized, shaped and assembled.
There are many routes to meeting these requirements, and none is wrong as long as you find the process convenient and the joints are formed and assembled when the wood is at the correct moisture content. But don’t get overwrought about moisture content; you don’t need thick pamphlets or confusing charts to get the job done right.
When drying the small tenon ends of roughed parts, it takes only a few days to dry green wood enough to go into the kiln and then just a few more until it stops shrinking. I measure the shrinkage across the tangential plane periodically until it stabilizes, which is accurate enough to know when to stop the process. I rarely shape the final turnings from green wood due to storage and movement issues, but my process always begins with green wood, so I will start the explanation of the sequence of turning and drying from the log. There is more information on wood selection in the Woods for chairmaking chapter and splitting technique in the splitting Parts from the Log chapter.
Wood can be stored indefinitely once air-dried and suit all chairmaking needs, so if processing the parts is ever confusing, just remember that air-drying a part, or a lot of parts, is always a safe bet.
If you have never turned green wood, then I highly recommend you try it. There is no way to describe the fun of making shavings peel like a ribbon and pile at your feet as you glide along. Like bending wood, it’s a rare moment where the interaction with the wood transcends all expectation and sets a new awareness for this amazing material and process.
When starting from a log, I either split out the parts or have the log sawn into planks of varying thickness. If I am having boards sawn, I sticker and stack them to dry and use them whenever I need them. If I am splitting billets from the log, I consider the season and, if necessary to avoid spoilage, process the entire log into rounds for later use. There is more information in the splitting Parts from the Log chapter.
I split billets about 3 ∕8″ to 1 ∕ 2″ oversized, then I cut them to an appropriate length and turn them round. If I am going to let them air-dry before completing the final shaping, I will round them down to about 1 ∕ 4″ oversized, which should allow me plenty of room to turn them to round after they shrink to oval while drying. because all of my turnings have ends with reduced diameters, I turn my blanks with tapered ends, which allows the end grain to be exposed down the length of the piece. This helps the parts dry fast and evenly, especially at the ends where they are sized for joints.
If I am going to turn a part to its final shape while the wood is still green, I oversize all the dimensions on the design pattern of the details at least 1 ∕ 16″ to allow for shrinkage. The parts with a larger diameter will shrink more, so you might consider stepping them up a bit more. For the cylindrical tenons on the ends of the stretchers that will end up 5 ∕ 8″ diameter (.625″), oversizing them to .680″ (about 11 ∕ 16″) is a safe amount.