When you drill a hole with a 5/8” bit, then use a 5/8” tenon cutter to make the tenon, you should be golden…right?
Nope – unless you get lucky.
If you dare enter the fascinating world of boring you will quickly realize this truth: It is up to you to get your drill bits and tenon cutters to work together. You cannot trust the measurements stamped on the tool.
A quick example: a 5/8” WoodOwl spade bit and a 5/8” plug/tenon cutter from Lee Valley are not compatible. The tenon will drop into the mortise like throwing a hot dog down a hallway. It’s not a good joint.
There is no way I can cover all the bits and tenon cutters out there. But here is the methodology I use to get my mortises and tenons nice and tight.
Suggestion No. 1: Ignore the Official Measurements & Make Samples
A WoodOwl 5/8” spade bit and a WoodOwl 5/8” OverDrive bit make different-size holes. Because of its cutting geometry, the 5/8” spade bit cuts a hole that is .010” oversized. And that difference is enough to ruin a joint.
So when I get a new bit, I drill holes in oak, cherry and whatever species I have sitting around. Then I measure the holes and test them against the tenons I am making.
Suggestion No. 2: Ensure One Tool of the Pair is Adjustable
I can pair my Veritas 5/8” Power Tenon cutter with almost any 5/8” or 16mm bit because it’s adjustable. So usually I lean on that tool to make fine adjustments to the bits I have in my shop. I can pair it with my WoodOwl 5/8” spade by retracting the cutter of the tenon cutter. Or I can match it with my 5/8” OverDrive bit by advancing the tool’s cutter.
And that’s when you should definitely turn to spade bits. You can easily grind spade bits to match your tenon cutter. It takes seconds to do it, and you can sneak up on the right fit.
Suggestion No. 3: Go for a Snug Fit – at First
I am obsessive about the fit of my joints. Perhaps overly so. If you are like me, here’s how to go overboard. I adjust my tooling so that the tenon is a bit oversized and will not enter the mortise with hand pressure (usually .005” oversized or a little more). Then I use soft-jaw pliers to compress the tenons so they slip in to the mortise easily with almost no pressure.
This process makes assembly easier – the tenons slide right in. And the joinery is sound. The wet glue expands the tenons and locks the joint.
Suggestion No. 4: Use Tape
Once I have matched a tenon cutter and a drill bit, I wrap them each with a piece of brightly colored tape. This prevents me from making a terrible mistake.
“I do not get your weird chairs,” exclaim about a dozen messages or comments every year.
I understand your bewilderment.
I remember being a prospective student at Northwestern University in 1985 where I had been paired up with freshmen journalism students. We were supposed to sleep in their dorm rooms and see what university life was like.
My two hosts sat me down on a bed and thrust a Budweiser in my hands.
“Drink it,” they said. “And you’re drinking 10 more. You are getting drunk. Maybe we’ll drag you outside naked.”
Up until that point in my life I had taken one sip of beer. It had been my dad’s Coors Light, which had been poured over ice at the beach during a vacation. It was memorably disgusting.
I took a sip of the Budweiser, and I can still remember the metallic and bitter liquid spreading through my mouth and snaking down my gullet.
Beer is objectively nasty stuff. It’s basically watery bread. Fermented starch. And flavored with a bitter plant (hops) or worse.
I did not “get” this weird drink, and I took about four sips of it that night, each one warmer and worse than the previous. I did not end up naked and drunk in the quad.
Now 37 years after that fall evening, I have changed my mind about beer. I am endlessly curious about the different forms of the drink and enjoy learning about its role in our culture and history. After listening to a podcast about beer in Biblical times, I was struck by the parallels between the history of the beverage and of the vernacular stick chairs I have been studying and building for many years.
I suppose these parallels shouldn’t have been a surprise. The stories of many good things in our world have a similar arc. And the turning point in the story’s third act is always the Industrial Revolution.
But it’s a good story, and it helps explain my love for both hops and these funky chairs that are “a smidgen off being ugly,” according to chairmaker Chris Williams.
For most of human history, beer was something you made at home. Everyone was a brewer. Beer was a source of nutrition and hydration. But ancient beer was unlikely to taste like the stuff you buy today. For a long time the role of yeast wasn’t understood. And hops – the most common added flavor today – weren’t always used. Honey and other spices were common.
Commercial production of beer might have been an innovation of the Ancient Egyptians (you can read a history of beer and business here, which is where much of the following business data comes from). But up until the mid-19th century, most brewers were local businesses. There were no national or international brands of beer.
The rapid industrialization of the West allowed beer to be produced on a large scale and homogenized. Prohibition wiped out most of the local and regional brewers. And by the 1970s, 75 percent of all the beer in the United States was produced by only four monster corporations.
The product also kind of sucked. Coors Light over ice?
And while those macro brewers still exist (and are still growing through acquisition and consolidation), there has been a remarkable renaissance in small- and mid-sized brewers. In 1980, there were only 92 breweries in the U.S. As of 2021, there were 9,247 breweries. A hundredfold increase.
Plus beer as a beverage is far more interesting and diverse these days.
The history of stick chairs is not as long as the history of brewing (as far as we know). But it also has some wild twists and turns.
The first image of a stick chair that I know of is from a Welsh book of laws from the 12th or 13th century called “Laws of Hywel Dda.” There are two images of stick chairs shown in this particular Latin translation. My favorite one shows a judge in the stick chair, and he’s pointing with one hand. His other hand holds what is likely a book (but which I prefer to think of as a cup of beer for the purposes of this story).
Stick chairs have been around for hundreds of years before mass manufacturing. We suspect that most were made by farmers in the off-season, so it was a household enterprise, much like making beer. Judging from the surviving examples, they were made by crafty individuals who likely made the chairs for their nuclear or extended family. Or for people in their village.
Because each stick chair is unique – I’ve never seen two that are identical – we can conclude that they were likely made one-by-one. Or in small sets at most. There are variations in the chairs that can place them in certain time periods or in certain regions. But there’s little to no evidence that these chairs were even a highly organized commercial endeavor. (Irish Gibson chairs might be the exception.)
These vernacular chairs show up in many countries throughout Scandinavia and the UK. And stick chairs could be the ancient ancestor of Forest chairs (aka Windsor chairs).
Regardless of the shape or strength of that family tree, Windsor chairs appeared in the early 18th century and rapidly became a commercial enterprise that employed hundreds and then thousands of people. The city of High Wycombe became Britain’s primary chairmaking region. But the chairs were manufactured all over the UK and were a major export for the country.
The Windsor chair became so successful that today it is widely regarded as the most common form of chair.
“It’s been said that half of all wooden chairs on the planet are either Windsors or are directly descended from the style,” according to the Magazine Antiques.
While there are exceptions, most mass-produced Windsor chairs are unremarkable firewood and share little or nothing with their ancient ancestors – except for a name.
Evidence: All of the broken chairs that have been dragged across my doorstep have been factory-made Windsors. (I decline all chair-repair requests from customers – not because I am a jerk, but because chair repair could easily consume all of my waking hours.)
These factory-made Windsors are the Coors Light of the woodworking world.
Just like with the world of beer, however, things began to improve for the world of handmade chairs in the 1970s and 80s. Mike Dunbar and Dave Sawyer began exploring Windsor forms, and both began teaching others, planting the seeds for thousands of other chairmakers. John Brown self-published his “Welsh Stick Chairs” book, which began to sketch in the early history of chairs from his part of the world.
And now we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to chairmaking instruction and tools. Well-made Windsor chairs and stick chairs are much easier to find. And the chairs are available at a variety of price points.
Plus there are now a lot of talented chairmakers out there that I have never heard of – and I try to keep up.
I get the same feeling when I visit my local beer store. The shelves are brimming with interesting beers from all over the country. I’ve heard of maybe 10 percent of them. There is so much good stuff out there to try.
It’s quite amazing, really. Well, that is until I look across the aisle of the store and see the mountains and mountains of Coors Light there, too.
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.