We make sliding bevels here at Crucible Tool, and we love them. But you don’t need them for making chairs.
Once when I couldn’t find my sliding bevel, I made some blocks of wood with fixed angles sawn on the ends. These guided my drill bit while making mortises. A few years later, I saw an improvement on the idea in a photo of someone’s shop (I cannot remember where). These doo-dads (shown above) were in the background – I don’t think they were even discussed in the article. But they are brilliant.
It’s basically a piece of wood (3/4” x 1-1/2” x 5” or so) with a groove plowed down the middle. The groove is the same width as the thickness of hardboard (usually 1/8” thick). Then you cut the desired angles onto the ends of bits of hardboard and slide them into the grooves.
The wooden base keeps the tool stable. The removable hardboard means you can swap out angles for different chairs. The two stationary bevels shown in the photo above do all the leg angles for the staked armchair in “The Anarchist’s Design Book” plus about half the chairs in “The Stick Chair Book.”
The nice thing about these stationary bevels is they don’t lose their setting when you drop them off the bench.
I haven’t built a four-stick chair for a long time. Not because I don’t like the form, but because I have been focused on chairs from “The Stick Chair Book.”
But as I sorted through the load of beautiful bog oak I got from fellow woodworker Andy Brownell, I realized something. I could squeeze two chairs out of the material. But barely. So thanks to some creative cutting I wound up with parts for both a six-stick chair and (squeakily) a four-stick chair.
Because I was unsure about the material (its stability, strength, color), I decided to begin by building a chair form I could make while sleeping.
This four-stick chair is made from bog oak that is between 2,000 and 4,000 years old that was excavated in Poland. The seat is 16-3/4” off the floor. The back sticks lean 15° off the seat. And the seat is pitched back two fingers off level. So this chair is very nice for both dining and relaxing – a tough wire to walk.
All the wood is cut from one log, but the color and texture varies throughout all the parts. As a result, the surface finish was a huge challenge. No matter how much effort I threw at getting perfect surfaces, some areas just refused to cooperate (such as the front tenon on the left hand). So there are small areas of this chair that are imperfect, though the form as a whole is completely sound.
The wood is stunning – almost impossible to capture in photographs. It varies from a dusty charcoal to an English brown oak to areas that have a faint olive cast to them. I’ve spent about an hour just taking in the colors on the chair’s surfaces.
All the joints are assembled with hide glue, which is easily repairable by future generations. The finish is a beeswax and linseed oil blend, which is free of toxic solvents and is also easily repairable.
I’m selling this chair via a silent auction. To bid, send an email to email@example.com before 3 p.m. (Eastern) on Wednesday, March 9. In the email, please include your name, your shipping address, your phone number (this is used for a trucking quote only) and your bid. There is no minimum bid, and the highest bid wins. The winner will be contacted on Wednesday after the auction closes.
On shipping: You can pick up the chair at our storefront, or I will deliver it for free within 100 miles of Cincinnati. Otherwise, I can ship it via common carrier to addresses in the continental U.S. This usually costs between $200 and $300, depending on where you live.
There is one topic in woodworking where I have changed my mind completely – 180° – from when I began woodworking. And that is with finishing.
My first woodworking job was finishing doors in a factory where we used industrial (read: nasty) coatings. And when I signed on at Popular Woodworking in 1996, we used a Binks 2000 system to spray lacquer and all other sorts of solvent-based finishes.
And I loved it.
These finishes produced outstanding results in minutes instead of days. I could finish an entire bedroom suite in a few hours with a spray gun and fast-drying lacquer. Yes, I wore a face mask. And we had a fantastic spray booth. But that’s not enough. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are prevalent in many woodworking finishes. And though the home woodworker is probably OK if he or she uses them every couple months in a well-ventilated area, I have turned my back on finishes with unhealthy solvents.
Why? Perhaps it was one too many headaches after spraying lacquer, or cleaning something with acetone or xylene. Now, I try to use finishes where the solvent is water or something nearly as harmless.
When I did this, I was afraid I was doomed to use some difficult finishing processes. It turns out, however, that safe finishes can also be fast and easy. When it comes to paint, a good place to start is milk paint. The following is excerpted from the “back matter” – this is one of the appendices – of “The Anarchist’s Design Book: Expanded Edition,” by Christopher Schwarz.
— Christopher Schwarz
About Milk Paint
First thing, milk paint is essentially a myth… I have never seen anything called ‘milk paint’ advertised in period publications (of the nineteenth century), it doesn’t show up on probate inventories or other historical records and is apparently entirely a made up 20th century idea. — Stephen A. Shepherd, “Shellac, Linseed Oil, & Paint” (Full Chisel Press, 2011)
The milk paint used for in-door work dries in about an hour, and the oil which is employed in preparing it entirely loses its smell in the state to which it is reduced by its union with the lime. One coating will be sufficient for places that are already covered with any colour…. — Henry Carey Baird, “The painter, gilder, and varnisher’s manual …” (M. Taylor – London, 1836)
Milk-based paint has been around a long time – I’ve found dozens of sources that describe how to make it from the 1800s and earlier.
It was inexpensive, didn’t smell, dried fast and could be made with commonly available materials – milk and lime. Some recipes added linseed oil, pigment, egg yolks (to give the paint more sheen) or white pitch (to make it weather-resistant).
I’ve used it for almost 20 years now on furniture and can attest that milk paint looks good, wears well and is not going to expose you to nasty solvents. You can make your own – there are lots of recipes online – or you can buy a commercial powder that you mix with water. If you live in the United Kingdom, casein-based paints are available from stores that cater to the restoration trade.
Most beginners will opt to buy the commercial powder because it’s foolproof and comes in lots of nice colors.
If you go this route, here are my instructions for mixing the stuff:
Throw away the manufacturer’s instructions.
Mix the paint 2:1 – warm water to powder.
Mix your proto-paint for 10 minutes to ensure all the lumps get dissolved.
Let the paint sit for 30 minutes. It might thicken a bit.
Strain the paint through cheesecloth and into your paint tray or bucket.
After that, it’s just like using a very thin paint. It’s not like latex or oil paints that have a lot of body or oiliness. It’s like applying colored water.
It dries quickly, so I apply the paint with a small foam roller then use a natural-bristle brush to push the color into the details and corners. Then I “tip off” any flat surfaces.
After one coat, you will have a translucent colored surface. If you applied the paint with any skill, you can stop painting here if you like the look (I do).
If you want things more opaque, then sand the first coat with a #320-grit sanding sponge, dust off the project and apply the second coat.
This coat should obscure most of the wood grain, but not all. Repeat the sanding and painting if you want a third coat.
Once the color is laid on, you have a choice: Do you add a topcoat of some other finish to it or not? The raw painted surface will be dead flat. If you like this (I do), you can smooth the painted surface with a folded brown paper bag and call it done. If you want some sheen or a deeper color, smooth the paint with the paper bag and add a coat of boiled linseed oil, wax or varnish. This will make the finish look less chalky.
As always, make a sample board if you are unsure of the look you want or if you are unfamiliar with a finishing product. I know you won’t do this, but I am obligated to beat my head against this particular wall.
When you examine the furniture record in person, you find almost endless examples of pieces of furniture that disobey the rules of wood movement – and yet have survived just fine.
I’m not here to tell you that wood movement does not exist – it does. But I think it’s important to know that you can get away with many minor sins without your furniture tearing itself apart. And the more furniture you study, the bigger the sins you can commit.
This week I got to study a table in Holland that definitely needs some time in the confessional booth. This chopping bench – used for cutting food to size in a kitchen – violates the cardinal rule of cross-grain construction. Yet it is still completely sound and ready for another 100 years of dismemberments.
What’s the sin? If it’s not obvious from the photos, the legs’ tenons pass through dovetailed battens and the benchtop. The benchtop and battens are oriented 90° to each other, and the top is about 22”-24” wide. The top should have split a little (or a lot). But the top is fine – just a little warped.
I have no idea how old the bench is. It has some fairly consistent machine marks on it that suggest it was made in the early 20th century. But this form is old. The earliest illustrated example I know of is from the 11th-century “Tacuinum Sanitatis.” And it can look quite modern – the form was the foundation for the staked worktable in “The Anarchist’s Design Book.”
The cross-grain construction used in this table is also found on thousands (millions?) of Brettstuhl, which are still made today. During the last week I’ve seen at least 100 of these suckers, and none have split.
This particular chopping bench is so charming that I hope to build one just like it for our newish kitchen. I have wanted to build a table for the center of the room, but a typical dining table would be too big. A chopping bench is just the right size for dumping our grocery bags, serving meals to family members and <insert joke about dismembering cats then retract it>.
And thanks to this particular table in Holland, I am ready for some serious sinning.
Every year, your spouse and friends ask us which books they should buy for you during the holidays. And if they aren’t sure which book you want, they ask us: “Well, which books are your best-sellers?”
Until today, I had only a gut feeling about it, but I’d never really looked at the statistics. After some ciphering, I came up with a list that had a few surprises.
10. Doormaking and Window Making by Anonymous. This was a shock. This small book is a reprint of two historical texts brought to our attention by joiner Richard Arnold. It found an audience among people who restore old buildings.
9. Campaign Furniture by Christopher Schwarz. This book is one of the few in print on this style of furniture, which my grandparents collected for many years. I’ve been told by readers that it is a nice text on classical casework.
8. Kitchen Think by Nancy Hiller. I was a little surprised by this one because it was released in the summer of 2020. It’s a fantastic book, as is everything Nancy writes. If you are interested in how to design (and build) a kitchen that is in context for your house, this is the book.
7. By Hand & Eye by Jim Tolpin and George Walker. This one is no surprise. Ever since this book was released, it has continually found new audiences who are interested in designing good-looking furniture using whole-number ratios.
6. The Anarchist’s Workbench by Christopher Schwarz. On the one hand, I am not surprised to see this book on the list. It is, after all, about workbenches (the birdhouses of the intermediate woodworker clan). But on the other hand, the book is free as a pdf. Free.
5. The Woodworker’s Pocket Book edited by Charles Hayward. I love this little book. I knew it would be a home run among woodworkers, and I was (for once) correct.
4. With the Grain by Christian Becksvoort. This book is immensely popular because it is incredibly practical and avoids the heavy science stuff, but it still tells you exactly what you need to know to use solid wood in furniture effectively.
3. The Essential Woodworker by Robert Wearing. This book is a classic and should be on the shelves of every woodworker who is curious about hand-tool woodworking. We fought hard to bring it back into print, and readers have been thrilled as well.
2. The Anarchist’s Design Book by Christopher Schwarz. I am so happy to see this book on this list. This book took so many years to write and get just right. I feel like it’s the right combination of practical construction advice and a screed about poorly made and overly ornate furniture.
1. The Anarchist’s Tool Chest by Christopher Schwarz. This book helped us get this company on its feet and the capital to publish the works of other authors. Even after 10 years, this book still sells and sells – thanks to word of mouth.
On a last note, please remember that we are a small publisher (we recently graduated to “small publisher,” up from “microscopic publisher”). So none of these books would make a blip on the screens of a corporate publisher. And our annual revenue could easily be found between the couch cushions of the CEO of Penguin/Random House.
Maybe someday we’ll hit the Medium Time – with a book on birdhouses.