The Wood Owls are about $3.50 each, and the Star M bits are about $9. Both work fine. But here are their important differences.
With the Wood Owls, I manage to build about two chairs before they are too dull ($1.25 per chair). I can easily sharpen the spade bits two more times, so I can squeeze six chairs total out of the bit before it goes to the recycler. So 58 cents per chair.
With the Star Ms, I get five chairs out of one bit ($1.80 per chair) before I recycle it. I haven’t found a good way to resharpen them. The bit’s cutting geometry is above my pay grade.
The Star Ms have some advantages compared to the spades, however. The Star Ms cut much faster, which is nice. Also, they leave clean exit holes, so I don’t have to use a backing board when drilling through an arm or a seat. That feature is worth a lot to me because it easily cuts my drilling time in half.
So which bit do I prefer? Whichever one I can find. Both bits in the 5/8”/16mm size are tricky to find in stock. (As I type this, I can’t find either brand in stock.)
I’m sure y’all have a lot of “but what about this other bit?” questions, but I don’t have many answers. Apologies in advance.
My Grandma West spent a large part of her life observing my grandfather, Joe, and my uncle, Tom, at work – either on a house or in the shop. Both were skilled woodworkers, among other things, but each had a different way of looking at the craft.
“Joe could look at a staircase or some other project and knew exactly how everything should go together,” she told me once. “Tom could look at the same project and knew exactly how everything could go wrong.”
When the two worked together, it was a struggle at times.
Though my DNA doesn’t indicate it, I inherited exactly equal parts of Grandad and Uncle Tom. The Grandad chain of DNA is the “hell yes we can build this just let me get my toolbelt” polymer that puts my feet on the floor every morning at 6:30 a.m. The Uncle Tom part of the double helix is what makes me draw out every angled joint in full size to see how everything intersects before I’ll pick up a tool heavier than a pencil.
Most times, it’s a good combination of traits. Grandad offers the “go fever,” while Uncle Tom keeps me out of trouble.
But other days, I’m immobilized. I can see everything that might go wrong with an operation. But then I wonder: Can I really see *everything*? Could I be missing something obvious? And then I go back over all my drawings and the cutlist. Twice. Thanks, Uncle Tom.
Meanwhile, Grandad is tapping his foot. He would be done and onto the next task.
This week, both men are working in my shop. I had an oak seat to saddle, and it was a riddle. The seat is made up of two boards. On one of the boards, the grain is mild. On the other board, the grain has a wild grain reversal right at the seat’s pommel.
Is this a good thing? A bad thing? I draw it out and try to figure out how the scorp should move. But I don’t know what’s going on inside the glue joint between the two boards. So I set the seat aside to think about it some more. Perhaps I should cut the seat apart? Get a look at the grain inside? And then glue the boards back together?
Grandad rolls his eyes, and scrounges for a Pepperidge Farm Bordeaux cookie in the kitchen.
That’s when I know I need to listen to another deceased woodworker, Joseph Moxon.
“Therefore you muſt examine the Temper of your Stuff, by eaſy Trials, how the Plane will work upon it, and ſet your Iron accordingly,” Moxon wrote in his chapter on fore planes.
This is one of the most important sentences in Moxon. And I think about it every day: “Easy Trials.”
I step up to the chair’s seat with a scorp and take the lightest cuts possible across the grain of the seat at various angles. I remove about 1/64” of material with each pass, but I can clearly see a difference in how the wood cuts as I adjust the tool’s angle.
It doesn’t look like I am accomplishing anything. But I am finding out everything that can go wrong. I adjust the tool and take off a 1/32” of material. Then I bear down harder and take 1/16”.
I find the rhythm that allows me to take heavier and heavier cuts. And I have a good roadmap of the work ahead thanks to my earlier “easy trials.”
After Jennie Alexander died in 2018, she left a house full of tools, chairs and bits and pieces from her long life of woodworking, research and writing. For several months, her friends and family sorted through the possessions and distributed them so they would do the most good.
Shortly thereafter, we traveled to Jennie’s Baltimore home for one last time: to shoot step photos for the third and final edition of “Make a Chair From a Tree.” As we were leaving her home on Light Street, Jennie’s daughter Harper implored us to take some of the objects that no one else would.
Otherwise they were going to charity or the resale shop.
Among the few things I took was this hacking knife. Clearly blacksmith-made, it’s a heavy sucker at 1 lb. 4 oz. It’s made from 3/8”-thick steel. Overall the knife is 9-1/2″ long. The blade is 4-1/2″ long and 2-7/16″ tall. The handle is 5” long and 3/4” tall.
“I may have made that one,” Tom replied. “I think I also made one with a more shapely handle. The first one I made (which looks much like that) J. Alexander rejected because it wasn’t heavy enough to split pegs by knocking the cleaver and pegwood against the chopping block once the cleaver was stuck in the wood. The lightness hasn’t been a problem for me since I never made the super long pegs that J. did. I just strike it a couple times with the mallet, and the wood pops apart.”
I’ve been using the knife for a few years now and think it’s perfect. I use it to split pegs, of course, but also to make short sticks. It also has a very Jennie-esque quality to it as it is so outwardly plain. In fact, it didn’t even really look like a tool when I first saw it among the clutter in her workshop.
But now I wouldn’t be without it.
I get occasional questions about the knife after I showed it in use in “The Stick Chair Book.” Plus we get asked: When will Crucible make them for sale? I think the answer is never. This is a tool that is best made by your local blacksmith. So take the dimensions listed above to their shop and see about getting your own Jennie Alexander Hacking Knife. You’ll be glad you did.
Editor’s note: Here’s another essay I wrote in support of my new “Build a Stick Chair” video. My plan was to record these essays and set them to music with some images. I tried it, and it looked like the most boring slideshow with a narrator on quaaludes. So I present my script here, which you can read in your most excited voice (in your head).
When I worked for a woodworking magazine, we had a formula for the sorts of projects we printed in its pages. We always had a certain number of Shaker pieces, a slightly smaller number of Arts & Crafts pieces, some “Country” pieces (whatever “country” is). Plus a handful of 18th-century pieces, mid-century modern pieces, workshop pieces, jigs and fixtures.
The formula was safe. It was based on the thousands of subscriber surveys we sent out year after year. And it worked.
But it was also boring.
Every inspiring Shaker piece has been published to death by every woodworking magazine on the continent. Ditto with Arts & Crafts. Yes, there is a lot of amazing material you could mine from the 18th-century. But a magazine can publish only so many 18th-century pieces before readers revolt (most of those pieces are challenging to build; magazine readers tend to be beginners).
I love these classic furniture styles. If you like the decorative arts, I am sure you do as well. But there’s not much left to explore.* And I have little interest in walking the same path that has been trodden for the last 50 years.
So – and I know you’re shocked to hear me say it – this is one of the great things about stick chairs, and vernacular furniture in general.
It is a field that is largely unexplored. There is no book on stools – one of the most common pieces of furniture on the planet. There are only a handful of books on vernacular chairs, chests, beds, tables and shelving. It’s like there’s a whole planet filled with furniture that has been almost completely ignored.
For the last 18 years, I have specialized in researching and building stick chairs, and I still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of what’s out there. You can do it, too. How? Look at lots of old paintings. When I look at old paintings – a great source of information on early rural life – I ignore the people and focus on the furniture.
When you do this, you will wonder why there has never been a book on settles. Gate-leg tables. Pig benches. Plus all the convertible furniture that was necessary for regular people to live in a small space – benches that converted into beds. Chests of drawers that also held chickens. Dry sinks that stored all manner of kitchen necessities.
The reason there are few books on this vernacular stuff is, of course, money.
Rich people don’t care about this stuff. That’s because your rich friends aren’t going to be impressed that you have a beat-up bacon settle in your boudoir. All the money for research, coffee-table books and museums goes to the high-style stuff because it was the stuff owned by the rich people in the past.
Rich people loved it and desired it. So it must be important.
I’m not rich. And I’m guessing you aren’t either. So why don’t we explore *our* furniture past? The stuff that was made by the person who needed it. The stuff that wasn’t designed to impress the neighbors. The stuff that looks better the more it gets used.
It might be our furniture past. But with a little work it also might be our furniture present and our furniture future.
— Christopher Schwarz
* There is some new ground to be explored. But alas, we have to twist Megan’s arm to make it happen.
The following is excerpted from “The Stick Chair Book,” by Christopher Schwarz. (His “make pretty” process applies to all of his projects, not just chairs.)
“The Stick Chair Book” explores the craft of “hedge carpenters” or dabblers who built chairs for the everyday home. The chairs they made weren’t designed to impress the neighbors – they were designed to be comfortable, stout and (if you have a good eye) nice to look at.
After 18 years of building vernacular stick chairs and studying historical examples in the U.K., Europe and North America, Schwarz has figured out how anyone can design and build these chairs without a lot of gear.
Here are the things you don’t need to build a stick chair: a shavehorse, drawknife, steambox, green wood, axe or even a passing knowledge of geometry.
Instead, most of the work is done with saws (a band saw speeds things up), a drill or brace, a jack plane and maybe a couple specialty tools if you want to saddle the chair’s seat. You can use any kind of wood, even stuff from the home center.
At some point during my life as a woodworker I decided to add one more step to the construction process of every piece of furniture I build. Instead of stampeding from assembly into finishing, I added one day of work that I call: Make Pretty.
On this day I do nothing but try to bring every surface of a piece up a notch. I look over every inch – slowly – to find small defects that can be remedied, or details that can be made crisper. I look at bevels and mouldings to see if I can tweak their corners so they flow more smoothly. I look for tiny bits of glue or splinters (even on secondary surfaces) that I can pare away. I check curves and overhangs to see if they can be subtly altered to be more harmonious with the rest of the piece.
Make Pretty might sound like a drag. But I find it to be the most satisfying part of making a piece of furniture. For one whole day I get to look at a thing I’ve made before it heads off to a customer. So many times, I’ve looked at photos of my pieces that are now 1,000 miles away, and I can barely remember working on them.
Make Pretty is the conjugal visit before the great separation.
I have a set of tools that I use for every session of Make Pretty. Here’s the list: • A moving blanket/furniture pad. • A freshly sharpened cabinet scraper. • A handful of flat sticks that are covered with #100-, #180- and #220-grit sandpaper (basically shop-made emery boards). The wood backing makes crisper lines than hand-held sandpaper. • A sharp 1/2″ chisel. • A cork sanding block and #220-grit abrasive. • A small UV flashlight (which highlights smears of hide glue). • Hot water and a toothbrush (for removing the smears of hide glue). • My shop’s two logo stamps.
For me, Make Pretty begins with the smallest details. I put the chair on a moving blanket and look at every joint in the piece. I ask: Can I do anything to make this better? In a case piece, this might mean a little bit of glue and sanding dust to conceal a hairline gap. In a chair, it might require a sliver of a wedge to fill a void where a wedge shifted during assembly.
I look for stray splinters where tenons were driven hard into mortises. I look for tiny beads of glue that evaded my eye after assembly.
After looking at joinery, I look at individual components. I examine each stretcher to see if there are odd flats where the double-tapers meet. Is there any tear-out I can remove? Do the stretchers transition evenly into the tenons? Can they be evened up?
The same goes with the chair’s sticks. Mostly I look to see if there are small irregularities I can correct. Many times a stick’s tenon is slightly offset from the center of the stick. A little scraping on the heavy side of the stick can easily conceal this.
On legs I look for dents that occurred while moving the chair about. Can they be steamed or scraped away? On the arms and the shoe I look for tear-out, corners that aren’t crisp and bevels that don’t meet evenly.
This process continues over every single component.
After that, I look at broad surfaces. Can I improve the line between the spindle deck and the saddle? Can I make the pommel crisper? Is the curve on the comb perfect, or can I eliminate small bumps or hollows with some sanding? Are the arms perfect to the touch? (Because they will be touched.)
I spend extra time looking at any end grain that shows in the piece. Because end grain is more difficult to work than face grain, it’s fairly common for the end grain to need some extra attention to remove scratches so it matches the finish level of the face grain.
Getting Ready for Finishing When I have corrected every error I can find, I turn to making the arrises of the piece ready for finishing. In most commercial work, all edges get “broken” by a quick rub with fine sandpaper. Breaking the edges makes the piece pleasant to touch – and can prevent sharp arrises from cutting flesh.
But I like to go one step further. On the most visible surfaces – the crest, the hands and the seat – I’ll sand a small bevel using my sticks that are coated with adhesive-backed sandpaper. This bevel is about 1/32″ across. And it takes time to do it right. When the bevels meet at corners they need to be the same size.
Has a customer ever noticed this and brought it to my attention? No. But I do it anyway. I love to see the consistent little bevel as it catches the light on the corner of the crest or the hands.
Even if you aren’t as crazy as I am, make sure you break all the edges of the piece before you add any finish.
Once I complete the Make Pretty, I have to decide how I will mark the chair with my shop symbol – a pair of dividers. I have two shop marks. One large and one small. I first mark the underside of the seat with the large dividers. Then I add one mark with the small dividers for every error in the piece that nags at me. It might be one or two marks. But it is a reminder that I’m human and I acknowledge my mistakes. (And perhaps some day I’ll make a piece that doesn’t have any small marks.) I’ve never told my customers this, so keep your trap shut, OK?
Lastly, I write the month and the year below my shop mark in permanent marker. I don’t try to imitate old work, but I’d hate for some idiot to represent it to some moron as an antique.