Editor’s note:With the first Stick Chair Journal shipping out very soon, we wanted to highlight the woodcut on the cover. >>Stay tuned for a shipping date!<<
Making a Woodcut
When making a woodcut you need to make sure to remember two things:
The printed image will be a mirror of the image you see on the block you are carving.
You have to remove the areas in the woodblock that will not be printed.
In short, this means that the black lines you see on the finished image are the places you didn’t cut any wood away on the block. To make a woodcut, you have to think in the negative and in mirror.
Stick Chair Journal No. 1
I started this woodcut using a photograph of the beautiful chair featured in the Stick Chair Journal No. 1, made by Christopher Schwarz.
I made some sketches to see how the print would look. For sketching, I recently started using black paper and white pens. In essence, this is exactly the process used in making a woodcut.
I initially wanted to create a ‘grey’ background behind the chair, similar to my wood engraving of a Welsh Highback Chair but the diagonal lines proved to be too distracting for the cover.
So we decided on a blank background instead, to really make the chair stand out. This woodcut also became the design of the Stick Chair Merit Badge.
A woodcut is a play between white and black lines (or, in the case of this cover, green ink and Kraft paper). Though I like seeing a silhouette of a chair, for my woodcuts I like to add some lines to it to mimic light.
I added white lines to the parts of the chair that would be illuminated from a light source coming from the right. Every stick therefore has a white line running from top to bottom.
With the design complete, I traced the outlines of the image onto the wood using carbon paper and a fine pencil. I used a piece of cherry wood that was more or less the correct dimensions for the cover.
As you can see, I didn’t mirror the design before carving it. So much for Rule #1.
Next was removing all the “white” in the image – all the parts that won’t receive ink. This is the most enjoyable part of making a woodcut. After all the planning has been completed, carving the design into the wood is a very pleasurable experience.
A first quick printing reveals any areas that were not completely cut away.
When there is a large white area present, ink sometimes ends up on the high spots that need to be cut away deeper.
I removed the high spots so they wouldn’t receive ink and cleaned up the rest of the chair. With the woodcut printed to my liking, I scanned it in so it could be used for the cover of The Stick Chair Journal.
The Journal will ship this week and I am very happy and proud that my woodcut adorns the cover.
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.
Templates are the foundation of my design process. While I occasionally make a full-size mock-up of a new design using cheap wood, it’s my templates that guide the process.
And when I teach a class, I encourage students to trace whatever templates they like onto the huge sheets of butcher paper we keep here. My first chair teacher – Dave Fleming – offered me the same courtesy in 2003, and I still have those templates today (stored in my basement).
Other teachers were not as forthcoming. They either said “no” or insisted on selling the information. Woodworking is a tough business, so I can’t blame them. But I’d rather lose a few dollars and see more people make their own chairs.
If you are just getting started, I encourage you to make a set of templates. If you’d like to experiment with one of my sets (drawn by Josh Cook), download the file below and print it out at your local office supply store. The plans are drawn at full-size – 100 percent.
I like to make my templates using 1/8” hardboard. It is inexpensive, doesn’t warp as much as plywood does and its edges stay crisper than those of MDF. I affix the paper drawings to the hardboard with spray adhesive (available anywhere). Then I cut out the templates on the band saw and refine the shapes with hand tools.
Hardboard is simply wood pulp and linseed oil, so it cuts cleanly and doesn’t wreck your tools’ edges unnecessarily.
I write a lot of information on my finished templates – resultant angles, notes from previous builds and details on angles and joints.
But the most important thing I write on the template is the date that I made it. That helps me figure out if I am moving forward or backward in time with my designs (either direction is OK).
The templates above are from my latest video “Build a Stick Chair,” which is available in our store.
Publisher’s note: For the release our new video “Build a Stick Chair,” I’ve written this short essay that explains one of the many reasons these chairs are first in my heart. I apologize if it sounds like I’m on a soapbox. Or, worse, that I am trying to sell you a time-share condo in Monkey’s Eyebrow, Ky. For me, encountering these chairs in the 1990s changed the way I interpret furniture. And how I choose to sell my work and make a living. I can’t promise you that these chairs will change your life, but they will keep your butt dry.
For me, the history of seating furniture reads like a history of oppressors and the people they held down.
For most of human civilization, chairs have been a symbol of authority or dominance. I can go back further in time, but let’s start with the curule – the sella curulis – which was a folding chair that literally represented the seat of power in ancient Rome. Only certain powerful people were entitled to sit on a curule. This idea – that a perch represented power – spread quickly across Europe and all the way to China by the 2nd century CE.
Even our language is embedded with the idea that chairs represent authority: chairman, seat of power, first chair/second chair, to get a seat at the table, to take a back seat to someone, the driver’s seat, and the catbird seat – to name a few.
Chairs weren’t just a symbol for the throne room and the royal rear ends. Before mass manufacturing made chairs cheap and plentiful, the head of the household in even the humblest home would sit in a chair, while the other members of the family sat on stools, rocks, stumps or dirt.
But we’re past that now, aren’t we?
Nope. If you have spent any time in the corporate world, you can tell exactly where someone sits in an organization by the chair in their office (cloth, leatherette or carbon fiber?).
So yes, in some ways, chairs have been democratized. Mass-manufacturing has made them available to almost everyone. But market forces have ensured that they still represent hierarchy. You might own a chair, but it’s not an Aeron 8Z Pellicle with elastomeric suspension.
That’s why I like stick chairs. These vernacular chairs aren’t found in catalogs or department stores. Your purchasing department cannot order a gross of them for the office in Dubuque. You might think, “Ha! I am rich and can buy one.” But it will be that – just one chair.
Sticks chairs were usually built by the owner of the chair. Perhaps they were made for someone in the chairmaker’s family. Or for someone in the village. To obtain a new one, you had to know the chairmaker. And the chairmaker had to agree to the transaction because – and this is important – the chairmaker didn’t have a boss. That’s because stick chairmakers weren’t typically professional woodworkers working in a chair shop. Chairmaking was a side business or done out of necessity.
This (and sorry for the economics lesson) isn’t capitalism. This is the same arrangement that has been in place since at least Medieval times.
“Hello, you make something I need. And I have something to exchange for it. If you are willing.”
Aside from the way you obtain a stick chair, there are other odd aspects to them, such as the raw materials used to make them.
What are they made of? Whatever was on hand from the hedge, the forest or the firewood pile.
This tied the chair to the land. To the species of trees that were easily available to the chairmaker. Or to the bits of wood that could be swiped from the local kingswood.
There wasn’t a choice of maple, walnut, wenge or snakewood. The chair was made from the best wood available (even if that was dodgy). If the chair looked weird because of all the different species used to build it, you were welcome to paint it. Or cover it in sheepskin. Or let it sit by the fire for a few years until the soot made it look a deep brown-black.
What about their overall design? Couldn’t you order a six-stick comb-back and get one that looked just like the chair the Davies family had?
Sorry, but no. Each chair comes out a little different because of the sticks on hand and the fact that these things are made one at a time. There are no duplicating machines or mechanical patterns for the chairmaker to follow.
This is not a romantic notion. It’s just how it is.
I’ve made stick chairs for sale – off and on – for 18 years. But I’ve probably made only 150 or so chairs. And no two have been alike. Each was made with the materials I had – sometimes wood left over from another job; sometimes home center lumber; occasionally green wood from a tree service. And each one reflected my interests at the moment and the tools I owned. Perhaps I was looking at a lot of Irish chairs or Scottish chairs. Or experimenting with spoon bits or rounding planes.
Sometimes I feel guilty that I sell my chairs. I suspect many makers of stick chairs feel this way. Some of my chairs go to wealthy people and occupy expensive homes. I don’t accept this fact lightly. But I atone for this by teaching anyone and everyone how to build these chairs.
And so I remind myself: It’s a chair you can’t buy at a store for any price. A chair that will outlast all the plastic crap, or the chairs joined with cheap metallic fasteners. It is a chair that will look better and better the more you sit on it. The more you rub its arms. The more dents and abuse it suffers. And it’s likely the chair will be desirable long after you’re gone.
Few people in this world can ever afford to buy a chair with these properties. But you can make one. Ask, and I will gladly teach anyone the following: Join the sticks to the best of your ability. Carve your name on the underside of the seat. Rest your bones in it every night and think about music, religion, life, destiny and the trees that tie it all together.
Remember those lessons because that ability – the skill to make a chair – is the true seat of power. And if they take your chair away? Laugh, and build another one. You cannot be dethroned.
Editor’s note: Surprise! (we are also surprised). Our video “Build a Stick Chair” was completed early and is now available for purchase. The introductory price is $50 and includes a lot of extras (patterns, notes etc. – see below). After Aug. 31, the price will increase to $75.
Learn to build a stick chair using common woodworking tools and machines, plus kiln-dried wood from the lumberyard. This video, which clocks in at more than four hours long, has 18 chapters that cover all aspects of stick chair construction, from selecting the lumber to applying the finish.
Purchasers will also receive a digital file with full-size patterns for the chair shown in the video, which can be printed out at any reprographics firm or office supply store. Plus, notes on the sizes of the chair parts and sources for tools used in the video.
The videos can be streamed on any digital device connected to the internet. Alternately, you can download the video for offline viewing. The video is completely free of DRM (digital rights management) software and protections. That means it is portable among all your devices – laptop, tablet, phone etc.
Stick chairs are an ideal chair form for beginning chairmakers. Unlike with Windsor chairs, ladderbacks and other advanced forms, you don’t need green wood, a steambox, a shavehorse, a drawknife, a froe, a hatchet, a lathe or even a spokeshave. You can build stick chairs with kiln-dried lumber, a regular woodworking bench and mostly a drill, handplanes and a band saw. There are a few specialty tools (mostly inexpensive) that make the job easier, which are covered in the video.
We consider the “Build a Stick Chair” video as a companion to “The Stick Chair Book.” Not a substitute. The book took years of work to write and edit, and it goes into details that are impossible for a talking head to explain on a screen (plus it includes plans for five chairs). But the video shows bodily motion in a way that print never can. Some things about chairmaking are so simple if you can just see the process unfold before your eyes.
We’re not saying you should get both the book and the video. Instead, start with the one that appeals to you most. If you are a visual learner, the video is probably the correct choice. If you are first a reader, the book is what we would recommend.
Make a Stick Chair Video
1. Select Wood for Chairs
2. Break Down the Stock
3. Make Octagons
4. Taper & Tenon the Legs
5. Glue the Seat & Drill the Mortises
6. Make the Stretchers
7. Make the Arms
8. Mortises in the Arm & Seat
10. Saddle the Seat
11. Make Wedges
12. Prepare to Assemble the Undercarriage
13. Assemble the Undercarriage
14. Prepare the Arm & Sticks for Assembly
15. Assemble the Uppercarriage
16. Shape & Install the Comb
17. Level & Cut the Legs
18. Finishing Up
What’s Included with Your Purchase
• Streaming and full download access to all 18 chapters with no DRM (digital rights access)
• Download of the full-size patterns for the seat, arms, shoe and comb of the chair that can be printed out at any copy shop.
• Measured drawings of the two jigs shown in the video: the band saw jig for making octagons and the drilling jig for boring mortises in the arms and seat.
• A parts list, links for the tools shown in the video plus the recipe for the soft wax finished used on the chair.