One of the most eye-popping kitchens in the recently published book “Kitchen Think” is in the home of 20th-century American sculptor Wharton Esherick. As with the rest of his home and studio, located just west of Philadelphia, the kitchen is a product of exuberant creativity unfettered by concern for convention – think natural materials, organic forms and *color*.
Whether or not you’ve visited the place in person, there’s an opportunity to visit virtually on Sept. 13 from 4 to 6 p.m. (Eastern), when the Esherick Museum holds its annual fund-raising party. Enjoy the company of some fun and thought-provoking folks familiar with food, kitchens and more; enter the drawing for a three-legged stool made by Rob Spiece of Lohr Woodworking; ask questions about pizza, pantries or pot racks during the interactive portion of the party via Zoom. More information and sign-up here.
I’ve made a few lowback chairs, but I haven’t been happy with any of them.
Part of the problem is aesthetic. Lowback Windsors – sometimes called “captain’s chairs” or “firehouse Windsors” – are in every sketchy seafood restaurant in the United States. They feature lifeless turnings, a dark and shiny finish and questionable comfort. (The sooner you finish chewing the chum, the sooner the next party can be seated.)
The form doesn’t sell particularly well. Even John Brown had difficulty getting rid of his lowbacks, which he called a “smoker’s bow.”
And yet, I think they are worth studying. I have been keen to design one that is both comfortable and doesn’t look at home on a carpet stained by malt vinegar and tartar sauce. And I want to include its details in “The Stick Chair Book.”
So for the last few weekends, I’ve been sketching chairs and thinking – a lot – about angles and radii.
One of the recent shocks to my chairmaking brain has been the Irish Gibson chair. Its back sticks look radically sloped, and when I first saw a photo of one I wondered if it was used by Irish dentists to examine patients.
After building several Gibsons and living with them, my brain has a different take on angles. The 25° slope of the Gibson’s back sticks does not make the chair feel at all like a recliner. In Ireland they are sometimes called “kitchen chairs,” and I get that. They are a comfortable place to sit after a day’s work and engage with the household around you.
But the Gibson isn’t a lowback chair. I guess I’d call it an Irish comb back (or a Gibson chair).
One of the other compact chairs I admire is, of course, the Jennie Alexander chair. It’s not a lowback. It’s not even a stick Windsor. But it has some essential geometry that is almost identical to a Gibson. The top splat of the examples I’ve studied is about 25° to 28° off the seat, and it hits the human spine the same place that a Gibson does. Oh, and the curvature of the backs of the two chairs is pretty close, too.
With this target in mind I’ve been designing lowbacks with this 25°-28° tilt in mind. And using a similar curvature as well. It feels a little weird grafting these dimensions onto a stick chair. But after doing some drawings – both in pencil and with mouse – it doesn’t look weird at all.
I struggled with how to bend an arm that was pitched at 28°, curved with an 11″ radius and with a bottom edge that was parallel to the floor. I built jigs in my head. I visited some geometry websites that made me question my journalism degree.
After a few long walks, however, the scales fell from my eyes. I was making it too difficult. As always. After I finish up these two Scottish comb-back chairs, I’ll build a prototype lowback using parts from my boneyard of extra chair parts (population: 756 and growing).
— Christopher Schwarz
Read other posts from the “Making Book” series here.
While I assembled a Scottish-inspired stick chair this week, I struck one of the wedges at a bad angle. This caused half of the tenon to snap off. Worse, the damage occurred about 1/16” below the surface of the chair’s armbow. It left a giant crater that couldn’t be planed away.
The funny thing: I smiled after it happened.
After 17 years of building these stick chairs, I enjoy making an occasional repair. It’s an opportunity to think, mess around a little and maybe even make the problem worse. Here’s how I dealt with this torn tenon.
When this has happened in the past, I have drilled out the entire top of the tenon with a Forstner bit, then filled the hole with one of the pieces of waste left from sawing the tenon flush. This works great if you can find the center of the tenon.
In this case, however, I decided to excavate only the torn section of the tenon with a chisel and a gouge. Then patch the half-circle with waste left over from sawing the tenon flush.
The first step was to chop out the torn section of the tenon. I did most of the work with a 1/8” chisel and a gouge with a tight sweep. The goal was to get the bottom of the hole as flat as possible and to leave just a sliver of the original tenon on the walls. I also deepened the hole from 1/16” to 1/8” to give the patch some more wood to grab onto.
Then I took the broken waste tenon and sawed off the broken section. I clamped the waste in a handscrew and used a flush-cut saw to remove the torn section. This created a plug with a flat surface that would meet the flat bottom of the hole.
I put some hide glue in the hole and tapped the plug into the hole. It took about five good taps, but the plug seated flat and squeezed out a good bit of glue. The whole repair took about 30 minutes.
I suppose it was inevitable that bookcases would eventually be the subject of my attention as a woodworker. I’ve always been a voracious reader and my book buying habit was only reinforced by studying history at undergraduate and graduate level, habits which were amplified by my wife’s profession (she is a lecturer in history at the University of Northampton) and appetite for reading. When Dr Moss and I moved in together, one of our first acts was to buy seven Billy bookcases to house our combined literature and history library. At that time, I was setting up my first workshop having studied lutherie at the Totnes School of Guitarmaking, and furniture building seemed like a different world to building guitars. So, a trip to IKEA and carrying seven flatpack bookcases up the torturous steps to our house it was. Six of those Billies survived two house moves and eight years of constant overloading, but their days are numbered and I now make more furniture than I do guitars. It is time to replace the Billies and to liberate the several boxes of books that have languished for years on my study floor.
Why should any of this matter? Well, because for as long as I can remember, I’ve viewed bookcases as a storage solution for the question of “where do I put all these books?” But I’ve not stopped to think about the bookcases themselves all that much. That’s how most folk think about bookcases; even the librarians in charge of historic collections tend to look at the contents of the shelves instead of the casework. Book storage is largely ignored until you don’t have enough of it.
But when you look beyond the books, and start to tease of the “why” and the “how” of book storage, things get interesting. Chris first talked to me about his idea for “The Book Book” in the autumn of 2017, and I was hooked. Not only was this a chance to replace those Billies, but also to piece together why bookcases developed into the form we now recognise. That is a path we’ve been on in earnest for a year now, and it is a fascinating opportunity to jump down many rabbit holes and to ask questions that might seem obvious, but for which no easy answers are available.
One of the few books on this subject is “The Book on the Bookcase” by Henry Petroski – a fine book, but which focuses more on the “how” than the “why.” And the “why” is where the real action is. Book technology is a recognised field of historic research, but one that is concerned more with the making and use of books rather than how book storage developed, but it can tell inadvertently tell us plenty about the factors that shaped bookcase development. Bookcases have developed to house books, so understanding why books are the sizes and shapes they are, the customs of book usage, and value and importance placed on books, all tell us something about why bookcases developed how they did.
“Oh, that’s easy” you might think. The development of the Gutenberg press encouraged standardised paper sizes which then determined shelf spacing. Well, possibly, but why those sizes and height-to-width ratios? Book storage pre-dates the printing press by hundreds of years – as soon as the first book was created, storage space was needed. And so, “The Book Book” becomes a wonderful opportunity to challenge preconceptions about book usage and production. It is a winding path from a monk fraudulently putting his name to a book in the 8th century, through court rolls, the medieval practices of producing books by scribes (both professional and amateur), the development of the printing press and early modern book production, the unchaining of libraries in the 16th century, 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys, campaign furniture, Thomas Jefferson, William Morris, to Danish minimalism and beyond. And breathe. Do you want to know what the earliest documented instance of adjustable shelving in bookcases occurred? So do we.
When woodworkers ask me what sort of book “The Book Book” will be, the closest example I can think of is “Ingenious Mechanicks.” Like that book, we will present a rigorously researched history (in this case of the development of the bookcase) alongside practical woodwork. As well as combing through texts on book technology, and scouring art history for examples of bookcases (the earliest example I can find dates from the 8th century), I’ve been researching the furniture record. In particular, historic bookcases still in use at Oxford University, some of which are over 500 years old, and the Pepys Library at Cambridge University. Historic bookcases give us key information on three key questions – what book storage was needed at the time of construction, how the bookcases were constructed, and then how they have been altered while in use due to changing needs.
We will also be building notable historic bookcases, and covering techniques and practical considerations for designing and building bookcases. All you need to know to build your own book storage; the information I wished I’d had when I stood at that IKEA checkout with my mountain of Billy bookcases eight years ago.
I’ll be blogging about the research process and the breadcrumbs we have discovered, both here and on overthewireless.com – I hope you will join us on this path.
After writing a few books, I figured how best to keep track of the hundreds of small details necessary to write a single chapter of a woodworking book.
This lesson came from failure. As all good lessons do.
When writing my first workbench book, I built all the projects, did all the research, then wrote the whole book in one go. The problem with that approach was that I had forgotten many details about the construction process because it the construction process had occurred two years earlier. So I had to basically rebuild the projects in SketchUp with the help of my step photos to prod my 2005 brain into answering questions posed by my 2007 brain.
For a later book, I wrote the chapters in real time as I built the projects. Every evening I wrote the text that described that day’s activities. This created scintillating, technical-manual-like reading – tab A into slot B. It was boring because I had no perspective on the project. My point of view was that of a diarist – not someone who was trying to explain what’s important to the reader. I didn’t yet fully know what was important. When you are in the moment, everything is important. And so my chapters were about three times too long.
With both approaches I had to rewrite vast swaths of text. I don’t mind doing that. But I’d get a book done faster if I could skip a rewrite.
I now use a third approach, and it works. I have a clipboard filled with all the construction drawings for each project in the book. Plus about 10 pages of blank paper. As I build, I write notes to myself.
“Legs ended up 2° off from the plan but look nice.”
“Saddle begins as 5/8″ deep after scorping and ended up at 3/4″ after the travisher.”
“Don’t forget to mention the trick about the medullary rays and the sticks.”
So when I write the chapter for that project, I have the plan I was supposed to follow in hand, plus my thought process for each day. Writing chapters with both kinds of information is a breeze.
Well, “breeze” is an optimistic word. More like “less of a fart.”
— Christopher Schwarz
Read other posts from the “Making Book” series here.