I think that writing a good song or designing a nice chair is a skill you can learn.
The problem is that learning to write or design is not like memorizing the capitals of the 50 states. For me, that sort of rote learning is like gathering up a good collection of bottle caps and stashing them in a drawer.
Learning to design and write, on the other hand, is more like building a bottling machine when you’ve never even seen one before. You have to assemble lots of unfamiliar parts and get them working in concert.
One common piece of advice is to visit lots of other bottling plants to see how their machines work. In other words, listen to a lot of really good music to learn to write a song. Look at a lot of really beautiful pieces of furniture to learn to design your own pieces.
I give that piece of advice all the time. But it leaves out an important first step. You first need to learn to see and to listen. And learning to see or listen is damn hard.
That’s because when we look at a piece of furniture or listen to the radio, our brain simplifies the stimulus into a single object or sound, when it really is a combination of a bunch of complex shapes and sounds.
How do you force yourself to see? Here’s how I do it.
It came by accident when I was working on “Campaign Furniture.” Many of the drawings in that book are tracings that I made of photos I’d taken in years prior. As I traced each piece, I was forced to examine the shape of every turning, moulding and component. I had to draw both the major forms and all the minor details. In other words, it forced my brain to stop seeing the whole piece and focus on all the small elements.
As I traced more than 100 pieces, I began to see obvious patterns. The handles of campaign chests were spaced above the centerline of each drawer. The stacking chests had drawers that refused to graduate (Fibonacci is a fibber). Sometimes the pieces got away with awkward drawer arrangements that looked dang good.
I also noticed so many little details. The best chests used drawer blades that were hidden – a detail I missed until I started drawing them. And I got a great feel for the beads and tapered cylinders that made up the feet of the chests.
So when I decided to stop copying old stick chairs and strike out on my own, my first step was to buy a pad of tracing paper at the grocery store. I then opened the enormous folder on my laptop of chairs that I love, picked the 50 best and printed them out. Then I began tracing them.
To be honest, once I started tracing chairs, it was difficult to stop. My pencil forced me to see so many things I had glossed over before. Chair shapes that I thought were complex were reduced to the squares, circles, rectangles and arcs I learned at Robin Wood Elementary.
I saw – for the first time – how certain elements were grouped together. Many beginners think that a design element should be carried throughout the entire piece. Matchy-matchy – like Garanimals. That’s how we got the California Roundover style, the nadir of furniture during my lifetime.
Instead, I learned how circles and rectangles worked together with the occasional irregular curve to make something that looks right.
I know, this is a boring and arduous way to learn design. There’s no Zen koan. Instead, it is a gradual revealing of the structure behind our world – one pencil stroke at a time.
— Christopher Schwarz
P.S. And if you want to learn to write a good song (and to learn to listen), try this.
I have one of these stools, and use it every year at my neighborhood’s storied Fourth of July Parade and other community events. And it’s seen almost weekly use at outdoor gatherings during the last 18 months or so – the addition of a carrying strap made it particularly comfortable and convenient to sling over my shoulder as I walked to various neighbor’s houses for socially distanced gatherings; the strap left my hands free for carrying bourbon.)
Three-legged folding stools appear in many Western cultures, including the French, English and American. They have been popular with soldiers, sportsmen, campers and artists for at least two centuries.
This stool is a great introductory project to campaign furniture, especially if you are new to turning or working with leather. There are only three pieces of wood, four pieces of leather and some metal hardware. You can easily build one in a day.
Choosing Materials I have seen some of these camp stools built using dowels, and they are strong enough to hold most people. However, I like to build them from mahogany, teak or ash that has dead-straight grain. I’ve had nightmares about getting a stick stuck in my backside from a stool disaster.
If you can build the stool with riven stock (oak or ash are good choices), it will be quite strong. Many original stools used 1″-diameter legs. However, my recommendation is to use stouter stock. I have built reproductions with 1″-diameter legs, and they felt too springy under my 185-pound frame.
You don’t need to make the legs baseball bats, but try for something between 1-1/8″ diameter to 1-1/4″ diameter. The leather can be almost anything 7 ounces (just shy of 1/8″ thick) or heavier. Vegetable-tanned leather that you dye yourself is a particularly strong choice.
You also will need rivets to join the leather pieces – unless you are skilled at hand-stitching. While hollow rivets (sometimes called rapid rivets) are inexpensive, easy to find and strong enough, I prefer the look and unerring permanence of solid copper rivets. I used No. 9 rivets with posts that are 1/2″ long.
To attach the leather to the wooden legs, you’ll need three No. 10 x 1-1/2″-long brass screws plus matching finishing washers.
Finally, you’ll need the hardware that allows the legs to open and shut. Traditionally, this was a three-headed bolt that once was easy to find. Now, that hardware is rare in North America. If you are a blacksmith or have access to a good welder, making a three-way bolt is straightforward. I have seen a couple of these bolts for sale in England, but the price with shipping to the United States was more than the cost of the bolt itself.
So I looked for a different way. Luckily, the Internet is good for something other than photos of cats playing keyboards. One maker of custom stools uses some off-the rack hardware to make an effective three-way bolt and shares that information freely on his web site.
Here’s what you need for legs that are up to 1-1/4″ in diameter:
• A hex-headed bolt with a 5/16″ shank that is long enough to pass through two of the legs and protrude out the other side by 1/2″. A 3″-long hex-head bolt will work with 1-3/16″-diameter legs. • An eyebolt with a 1/4″ or 5/16″ shank that is long enough to pass through one of the legs and protrude out the other side by 1/4″. (Note: You can hacksaw any of this threaded hardware to length. An eyebolt that has a total length of 2-1/2″ should be sufficient.) • Two acorn-headed nuts. • Three washers. • 15 No. 9 copper rivets.
Parts • 2 Legs, 1-1/4″ dia. x 23-3/4″ l • 1 Seat, 7 oz., 13-1/2″ w x 13-1/2″ l • 3 Lips, 7 oz., 3″ w x 8″ l
Turn the Legs The three legs are easy to turn, even if your favorite turning tool is #80-grit sandpaper. Turn the legs to round using a roughing gouge or carbide-tipped roughing tool. Create a smooth, clean cylinder of about 1-1/4″ in diameter with a skew or other finishing tool.
The feet shown are 1-3/16″ in diameter and 5/8″ tall. Make the feet by turning down the foot. Then turn the ankle to 7/8″ in diameter. Round the foot, then taper the rest of the leg down to the ankle. The taper should begin 6″ from the bottom of the leg.
I added four small grooves where the hardware holes will go – two above the hardware and two below. Little details such as these grooves and beads make the legs look like something fancier than three store-bought dowels.
Sand the legs to remove any rough tool marks. I finished the legs on the lathe. First I burnished the surface with a “polissoir” (a French polishing tool made from tightly bound broom corn). Then I applied beeswax to the legs with the workpiece spinning. I used the polissoir to drive the beeswax into the pores of the wood (again, while the lathe was spinning). Then I used a rough cotton cloth (I’d like to be fancy and say it was muslin, but it was an old bag that held corn grits) to buff the wax. Then I applied another coat of wax and buffed that.
If you want to add a little age to the wood, apply a coat of black wax and push it into the grooves and pores. Let the wax set up then buff it.
Wax is not a permanent finish, but it is easily renewed or repaired if your stool is for the drawing room instead of the campsite.
Bore Three Holes All three holes are located in the same spot on each of the three legs and should be the same diameter – just big enough to allow the hardware to pass through. The holes are located 11-5/8″ down from the top of the legs.
The best way to bore these holes is with a drill press or hand-powered post drill. You want the hole to be dead straight and pass through the middle of the leg. If you are a whiz with a hand drill or cordless drill then go for it.
Install the Hardware Strip the hardware of its zinc if you like – I use a citric acid solution for this. Here’s how the hardware goes together:
• Put a washer on the bolt. Push the bolt through one leg. • Place the eyebolt on the post of the bolt. Put the other leg on the bolt. • Add a washer to the end of the bolt, then drive on the acorn nut. • Push the post of the eyebolt through the third leg. Add a washer and acorn nut.
Drill pilot holes that are deep enough to receive the No. 10 screws into the top ends of the legs.
Leather Seat The seat is four pieces of material: a triangular seat and three pockets that look a bit like lips when you cut them out. When I cut out leather, I make patterns for my pieces from thin MDF or hardboard – usually 1/4″-thick material.
Put the patterns on the leather and cut out the seat and three lips using a sharp utility knife.
You can hand-stitch the lips to the seat. If you aren’t up for stitching, rivets work well and give the project a military flair.
Secure each lip to the seat first with one rivet at one of the tips of the seat. Punch a snug hole for the rivet through both pieces of leather, drive on the washer or “burr,” snip off the excess and peen the post over the burr.
Now bend one end of the lip up and rivet the end to the seat about 1/4″ from the end of the lip. Repeat for the other end of the lip. Finally, add two more rivets between the three existing rivets. Repeat the whole process for the other two corners.
One quick note on neatness: Be sure to put the burr so it faces the floor for all these joints.
After the pockets are riveted, use a sharp utility knife to trim any little bits of the pocket that aren’t flush to the seat.
If you purchased undyed leather, finish the leather with a dye, oil and wax. Burnish the edges with a piece of wood and a little spit (water will do nicely as well).
Attach the seat to the legs. Punch a clearance hole through each lip that will allow a No. 10 screw to pass. Screw the leather to the legs with a finishing washer under the head of each screw.
That’s all there is to it. You can make the tool easy to transport by making a belt that will go around the girth of the closed stool and screwing that belt to one leg. Or you could make a canvas bag embroidered with your football team’s logo. After all, when going into battle, it’s always best to fly your colors.
One of the bright parts of this year has been working with Aspen Golann and The Chairmaker’s Toolbox to lend a hand to budding toolmakers who are underrepresented in our craft (female, NBG and BIPOC).
My role was tiny: I consulted with Eleanor Rose on developing a fantastic chair devil and a reproduction of the H.O. Studley mallet. Eleanor didn’t need much help from me, but I am happy to shine a light on her work, and I hope we get to work on another project that might become a production tool.
As someone who has handled/fondled/might-have-licked the Studley mallet during photography for “Virtuoso,” I know exactly how the mallet should feel and look, even close up. Eleanor’s version takes a small liberty with the handle material (to save the rosewoods), and she improved an interior structure. I think Studley would be pleased with the result. (I bought two of hers.)
Her chair devil immediately became one of my favorite chairmaking tools. Yes, you can easily make your own, but it won’t look this nice, or have the same nimbleness. Last I heard, Eleanor is still tooling up to make a run of these. You might want to send her a message to let her know you want one. I bought the first sample she sent me.
Most modern Windsor chairmakers, myself included, can make a side chair in about 30 hours. Two hundred years ago, chairmakers worked at five times that speed. Their shops were smaller than ours, their tools were simpler, they had fewer jigs and no electricity. How did they do it?
I spent the last month traveling to museums to study old chairs, chairmaking tools, and chair parts that never made it into a chair. Samuel Wing’s half-finished chair seats at Old Sturbridge Village, Mass., reveal the exact order of the sawing, planing, drawknifing and hollowing steps he used to carve a seat in 1810. A loop back chair at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, stamped “WING”, shows subtle marks in its bow from a bending form or drying rack, suggesting how it was bent.
I intend to make two-dozen copies of the Independence Hall chair. I will use the same tools and techniques that the original chairmaker used, as best I can discern them. I will try to make all two-dozen chairs in 140 hours. I have no idea if I can do that, but I will try. And I will write a book about my process, about how the chair is built, how the tools work. There will be lots of photos too. It should be fun.
But first, you must understand something important: I am not embarking on a race. If you watch old chairmaking videos from the ‘30s, the workers aren’t moving particularly fast. In fact, they look half bored. The cameraman holds more of their attention than their work does, yet the work gets done in a trice.
Good speed comes from knowledge. It comes from knowing where you are going and the most efficient way of getting there. From knowing how to use your body and how far to push each tool. From freeing your mind from useless details. Most of all, it comes from repetition. From doing the same thing repeatedly, endlessly, till your brain turns off and your body keeps doing the work – and the work is better for it. This is how I want to work.
I’m excited to say that Lost Art Press is publishing the book. For now we’re calling it “Built For Speed: An Exploration of 19th-century Chairmaking.” I’ll soon be building a few prototype chairs to memorize the process, but first I need to make a better spring pole lathe (maybe based on the Dominy lathe), learn how octagonal leg tenons can be driven into a pine seat, and get Bill Anderson to make me a moulding plane. You can follow my progress on my blog. Happy chairmaking!
Though I am done writing books on workbenches (scout’s honor), I am always on the lookout for interesting historical examples and clever features that I can use in the future.
This week I spotted one that was particularly interesting. I’m calling it the “Baby Deadman,” which is the most horrible name I have ever given anything in this world (including the time I tried to name a cat “Kilgore Trout”).
The bench shown above is featured in “The Cabinetmaker’s Art in Ontario: Circa 1850-1900” by Lilly A. Koltun, published in 1979 by the National Museums of Canada. Researcher Suzanne Ellison recently dug it up using her superpowers. Download the pdf here.
The paper is a biography and shop inventory of Francis Jones of Middlesex County, who made furniture (and dealt in farm implements and undertaking) during the second half of the 19th century.
The section on the workbench notes that its top is 21-1/2” x 78” and the bench is 34-1/2” high. Unusually, the bench has a tail vise, but it doesn’t appear to have a series of dog holes on the top. It does have a metal planing stop (barely visible) which is mentioned in the inventory. And a nice holdfast.
I was struck by the two sliding board jacks (sometimes called a “deadman”). The large one is typical. But the small one on top is unusual and ingenious. Here’s why: I built my first board jack in about 2001, and it’s great for holding large panels and residential doors on edge. But most of my work doesn’t need the full capacity of the jack. Mostly, I just want a movable peg that will help support boards as I edge-joint them.
This bench gives you both.
In fact, I might consider adding only the smaller Baby Board Jack (now THAT’s a better name) to one of our existing benches to fool around with it.