After making the first prototype of a boxy Irish armchair, I sat in it for a long time. I circled it like a shark and took pages of notes. The goal with my second prototype (shown here) was to make the chair sit and look better without adding any complexity.
The biggest change was to tilt the back to 20° (the original was at 10°). I’ve found that 20°-25° is ideal for a stick chair for lounging. (The Gibson chair in my office is tilted at 31°, so there is a lot of ground to explore there.)
I raised the seat to 16”, which is still low but not as shockingly low as my first prototype (14-1/2”). All my other changes to the chair are cosmetic. The legs are octagons. The shaved sticks were made a little differently at the bench, and this really improved their entasis. Instead of rounding over the chair’s corners, I beveled them throughout the piece. The backrest, however, is rounded over for comfort.
Like the first prototype, this one was made with kiln-dried oak scraps. The legs and sticks were split out. The other parts were sawn. I might have $40 of oak in this chair (there is a lot of waste when splitting).
The paint is General Finishes (Fake) Milk Paint in Basil.
This design will be in my next book. I can’t think of any way to improve how it sits without adding complexity. However, I wanted to make a third version that represented how I would build this chair for myself. So I went to C.R. Muterspaw and picked through the piles of unsteamed walnut.
When I set out to design a new chair, I begin with historical examples. Photos are helpful, of course. But I prefer to lean on chairs I’ve studied in person.
When Lucy and I visited Ireland in 2019, our itinerary was built around museums, people and places that had collections of old Irish chairs. Luckily, all of Ireland is beautiful, so there were always lots of other things to see once I got my Recommended Daily Allowance of old furniture.
After we returned to the States, I spent 2020 building a few more Irish Gibson chairs after studying about 10 examples on the island. During the trip I became enamored with the boxy Irish armchairs. Photos don’t do them justice. This year I decided to explore the boxy armchair form to figure out if it was an appropriate chair for beginners.
The chair shown here is not a copy, but is what I call a “plausible” piece. It’s not designed to fool anyone that it’s an antique. But it would look OK on the movie set of “The Commitments 2: Eurovision Leprechauns.”
The seat is made from a gnarly piece of scrap soft maple, which is similar to European sycamore. The rest of the parts were split out from oak I had sitting around the shop. All the parts were shaved with spokeshaves and planes. No sanding. Heavy toolmarks and tear-out were left as-is.
The finish is what I jokingly call the Far East Wales finish (read about it here). It is not designed to fool anyone that it is an antique finish, but it allows this new chair to fit into a room filled with antiques.
About 10 minutes after finishing the chair, I knew what had to change for the next generation.
This chair’s backrest tilts 10°, which is pretty typical on old chairs. It’s fairly comfortable with a pillow, but I prefer a tilt of 20° (or more) for the backs of my stick chairs. The entasis of the sticks didn’t thrill me. I tapered them too dramatically to fit into the arms. Also, I decided I wanted to see what the chair looked like with octagonal legs.
I started building the next chair before the black wax was completely dry on this chair.
Writing a book isn’t hard. Anyone can write a book. The real trick is this: Once you start, can you stop writing a book?
That’s exactly where I am. I’ve already built four additional chairs than I had originally planned to make for my next book, and today I eyed the walnut chair coming together on my workbench and wondered about making one more chair. In cherry.
I’m old enough and have built enough things to know the source of my problem. John Economaki, the founder of Bridge City Tools, put my misgivings into words years ago when we were driving somewhere together.
“When I teach a class on design I ask the students this question: Would you rather build a project that is beautifully proportioned with a few gappy joints, or a technically flawless piece with a design that is just OK?
“The students unanimously answer: technically flawless.”
This walnut chair is a good design. It sits beautifully. It looks good from all angles. But there are a number of technical flaws that make me want to grab the Sawzall and dismember it. Three of the through-tenons have cosmetic flaws. I have small bits of tearing around the mortises for the back sticks. The saddling is good overall, but my straight lines have some tiny variations I cannot improve. When I assembled the arms, I was so happy that I didn’t crack the delicate hands when I wedged them that I forgot to check if the arms were in the same plane. They are 1/4” off at the back of the chair.
Oh, and some small (cosmetic) honeycombing opened up in one area of the seat.
I should just look past these problems and move on. I should stop building and dive into the writing full-time. But I can’t.
Several years ago I changed the way I sign my pieces. I have a big stamp and a little stamp. I mark the underside of the seat with my big stamp. Then, with the little stamp I make an additional impression for every defect that the piece has. Most pieces get one or two “little stamps.” A few get three. I don’t know if I’ve ever made a perfect piece with zero little stamps.
But as you can see from the image at the top of this blog entry, this walnut chair isn’t going out into the world. Time to fetch the cherry.
This is a post about the cover of the forthcoming book, “Guerrilla Chairmaking.” Though there is no release date for the book yet, the cover is done. Rudy Everts has written a blog entry on how he made a relief carving for the cover of the book. And no, it’s not a gorilla hammering in a chair leg “à la John Brown” with a cigarette hanging from his mouth.
When Chris asked me if I could make a relief carving for the cover of his upcoming book, “Guerrilla Chairmaking,” I was extremely excited and a bit nervous. Having one of my carvings photographed and printed on a book cover is something I never dreamed of, and I am very honored.
After I got the measurements of the book from Chris, I ordered some linden roughly that size. I wanted to carve the relief as close as possible to its final printed size. If you enlarge a small picture of a relief carving it becomes a blurry mess. Better to carve it a little oversized and shrink it for the print to makes the details crisp.
Planning the Carving
We started by deciding what chair to use. We considered the painted version of Chris’ Darvel chairs as well as the ones with a natural oil finish.
The orientation of the chair was an important point to consider. The beautiful head-on chair print by Molly Brown that adorns the cover of Good Work was still fresh in my memory, and I figured a relief carving would be the most striking in three-quarter orientation. We eventually agreed to use the three-quarter Darvel in natural finish.
Carving the Chair
Relief carving a chair with an undercarriage was something I had previously avoided. The middle stretchers are carved in end grain and I was afraid they would be too fragile. Not wanting to start off with an impossible task, I decided to carve a quick sketch of the undercarriage on a piece of scrap linden scrap.
This little sketch came in handy during the carving process. I could see exactly how deep I had to remove the wood and what leg should go in front of which stretcher. I discovered that the end grain of the stretchers is not that fragile, as it is fully supported by the background.
In retrospect I wish I had made a sketch for the seat, sticks and arm too because that was actually where the most difficult part of the carving ended up being. It’s funny how you can be intimidated by the wrong thing sometimes.
Saddling the Seat
The saddling of the seat, making the spindle deck and the edges of the seat were the hardest part of the carving to get right.
The deepest part of the carving is only about 5mm (3/16” deep) so there is not a lot of playroom for errors.
I carved the sticks with a V-tool initially, but I was unhappy with them. I then used a wide chisel for the short sticks and a 60mm (2-3/8″) wide plane blade to make them perfectly straight.
I used horizontal raking light in a pitch-black room to catch any errors. Note how shallow the carving is.
Once the seat was saddled and the sticks were nice and straight, the crest was a breeze to carve.
The Back of the Carving
I usually like it when something is present on the back of a carving. Too many times I have turned over a carving only to find nothing there. Or worse, a generic stamp, indicating it was mass-produced. I had gotten a lot of practice relief carving the chair, so why not relief carve something small on the back as well?
The Lost Art Press dividers were a beautiful thing to relief-carve. And in my opinion they really finish the carving.
For the tool nerds among us (that includes me) I will list the knives and gouges I used for this carving: The #5/12mm was used for all the background removal. Two Cherries straight carving knife 3363 for all the stop cuts. A #9/11mm for hollowing out the seat. Bench chisels, 22mm and 32mm, and a 60mm plane blade for making the sticks straight. A #3/06mm and #3/10mm for smoothing the background (used upside down to make the sticks round). A #2/2mm, #2/10mm and #2/4mm were essential in clearing the tiny cavities between the sticks, together with the #1/3mm and #1/5mm. Besides these main tools, I also used specialty tools in hard-to-reach areas, like a long bent straight-edge 1.5mm chisel. I used a small glass scraper to smooth the sticks.
I don’t do many fake finishes. I prefer to let a piece age naturally rather than beat it, burn it, and make it write bad checks. But some pieces look wrong with a perfect coat of paint or shellac. The following finish is not designed to fool anyone. It is designed to nudge a vernacular piece in the right direction.
If you read “Chair Chat” (doesn’t everyone?), then you know we have a joke about faked chairs and finishes. We say they are from “Far East Wales.” We are told there is a robust trade in importing fake antiques from the Far East.
I learned to execute this finish from Troy Sexton in 2007. I have modified it to make the finish look grimier (and make the finish easier to do). This blog entry offers the basics. I’ll have a full writeup in “Guerrilla Chairmaking.”
This finish works with latex and acrylic paints (regular house paint). I haven’t tried it with milk paint, oil paints or artist paints, so I don’t have anything more to add here. Here’s how it works:
Paint your base coat on. I use two coats. Sand between finishes, just like you would normally.
When dry, coat the project in lacquer – brush it or spray it. Use a fairly heavy coat. Light coats of lacquer won’t do much. (Note: in “Guerrilla Chairmaking” I’ll detail other film finishes that will work besides lacquer – I’m not done experimenting yet.)
As soon as the lacquer is dry to the touch (15 minutes or so) add the topcoat color.
As soon as the topcoat of paint is dry to the touch (but not fully cured), use a heat gun (mine goes to 1,000° (F)) to blister the topcoat. Hold the gun about 1” from the surface and use one of the attachments that consolidates the blast of heat. (I have tried using propane torches instead of a heat gun and am not wild about them.)
Scrape off the blisters. Then smooth all surfaces with a woven pad (like a 3M grey or green pad). Steel wool works, too.
Rub on a coat of black wax. Buff it when it flashes.
That’s all there is to it. You can add as many layers of color as you like, burning between each layer of paint and lacquer. If you do this, always apply the wax only on the last coat.
If you are eager to try this, I suggest doing a test board with leftover paint to get comfortable with the process. This also will answer a lot of your questions about how fast to move the heat gun, how to get big blisters, etc.
As always, wear breathing and hand protection when working with solvents and VOCs. And take care with the heat gun. I do all the burning outdoors.