Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Stick Chair Build - Materials, Tools and Timeline

It's weird how time flies.  only a week or so to go before our Great Welsh Stick Chair Extravaganza in Denmark!  I had intended to drag out a whole series of blogposts intended more than anything to help me organize my thoughts, but as I am not one who normally does so well with organizing and planning things, we'll just cram all those thoughts into this one blog post.
18th Century child's painted 5-legged stick chair made from oak and elm.
Photo courtesy Welsh Vernacular Furniture.


From what I can tell, stick chairs are made from whatever is available.  Most of the old ones have a seat from one plank, which means you need a pretty wide board.  I think this is the main reason so many different woods are used in these chairs.  

From a purely technical standpoint, elm is a perfect wood due to it's resistance to splitting.  Your chair won't break just because your cousin Tony comes and plops in it.

Looking around the antique furniture sites, it appears that just about any wood was used for these chair seats:  elm, oak, ash, even sycamore and yew.  American Windsor chair seats seem to have a preference for white pine.

My guess is the species of wood isn't so critical for normal modern use.

Modern chair makers seem to use woods that look cool with great effect like walnut.  Drew Langsner mentions in his book that an all cherry Windsor is a modern invention, but makes a spectacular chair.

Back to the seat for Welsh stick chairs, I personally think the wood used could be either kiln dried stuff, or mostly green wood.  The advantage with green-ish lumber is that as it dries over time and the wood shrinks, it will also shrink around the leg tenons and make those joints even tighter.  When was the last time you have seen a mass-produced chair tighten itself over time?  Another big advantage is that green wood can be easier to work on processes such as saddling the seat.

For our build, we are lucky enough to have a couple of really big elm logs that Jonas has milled into seat blanks.  Since he milled them only about six weeks previous to our build, it is doubtful they will be bone dry.  I am hoping this will make them a bit easier to saddle.  I have no worries about the wood being too wet, although Jonas expressed to me a concern that he hopes the seats don't check as they dry.

Time will tell.

We chose to use kiln-dried ash from the lumberyard for the legs.  Chair makers seem to stress that leg stock should have as straight of grain as possible.  Riven stock shaved down on a shavehorse when it is green and left to air dry over time is perfect. 

We don't have dry rivings to work with, though, so my thought processes wandered to regular, easy to get from the lumberyard kiln dried stuff.  When I went to look, I figured I'd check out what they had in oak, ash, walnut, or anything else that is ring pourous, or semi-ring pourous with straight grain.  Kiln dried lumber has to be cut on the saw, so the straighter the grain, the less problems with runout.

The first pile of lumber I found was some 8/4 white European ash (Fraxinus exelsior) that was perfectly arrow-straight and no knots.

I bought it and looked no further.  Beautiful stuff.

I cross cut it to leg-like lengths so it will fit in my VW Golf for the 12-15 hour drive to Denmark.  

There should be plenty of ash for about six chairs, using it for both legs and sticks.  If there's not quite enough, elm will work for the sticks, too.


My guess looking at these chairs, is that stick chairs were made using tools that were likely to already be owned by the person who made the chair.  Someone who likely was not a professional chair maker.

That being said, I think that having a few chair making tools might give us an opportunity to make some chairs with a little more refinement  (read: likely to be allowed in the house by SWMBO) than the chairs in my last post.  As much as I would love to see someone make a three-legged chair with an arm rail rived from a curved tree-branch, I know it won't be me.

So, I made a list of a few tools that most of us woodworkers might not have but would come in handy for chairs.  I fell off the anarchist's wagon and succumbed to the temptation of buying many of these tools.  That means I better make a few chairs at least to make  it all worth it.
  • Gutter adze - an adze with a curved blade is used for roughing out the hollow when saddling (shaping the seat blank to be comfortable) the seat.
  • Draw knife - a knife with the handle at each end that you pull to shave wood.
  • Spokeshave - basically a small plane with a handle on either side.  They have soles that are flat, rounded front to back, or side to side.
  • Scorp - mostly called an in-shave, I prefer the term 'scorp.'  It's shorter.  basically it is a rounded draw knife.  This tool is used after  the adze as an intermediate tool for saddling the seat.
  • Travisher - for lack of a better explanation, it is a spokeshave that is rounded front to back, as well as side to side.  Used after the scorp in seat saddling.
  • Tapered reamer - does exactly what it says - makes a round hole tapered.  Tapered holes are great for chairs.  Besides being strong, the angle of the hole can be adjusted a little bit right up to the last turn of the tool.
  • Bending form - more of an appliance than a tool - it is a block of something that is the shape you want your steamed wood to be.  You wrap the steamed wood around it and the form holds it in place until it is cool and dry.  We'll be using one to steam-bend arm rails.
  • Hammer - this really isn't specifically a chair maker's tool, I just wanted to see if you are still reading!
I'm sure there are plenty of other tools we'll need, these are just the ones I could think of off the top of my head that aren't really needed much in the woodworking I usually do.


Here is the part where some of you experienced chair making folks out there could provide some extra-valuable input to let me know if this is realistic or not.  I have given us four full days to build these chairs.  That is because that is the time I was able to take off of work.
  • Day 0:  Travel - it's a long ways for me.  If I can't do it all in one day, I'll stay overnight somewhere and finish the drive early in the morning on day 1.  
  • Day 1:  Make chair parts - as in roughly dimensioned wood.  We will all need a seat blank, leg blanks, stick blanks, arm rail blanks, and a comb (the top bit of wood that is nearest your head when sitting) blank if making a high-back version.  Bring your earplugs.  My plan is to make a laminated arm rail so I can hopefully complete a chair while in Denmark, but I want to steam bend a rail too, to take home and make another chair once the steam bending cures.
  • Day 2:  Shaping and bending - Steam arm rails and combs if you want a steam bent part.  Combs are traditionally carved out of a thick hunk of wood rather than steam bent, but hey, there are no rules to this!  Shaping of parts that we won't steam may include saddling of seats, turning or planing legs, turning or shaving sticks, sawing out and shaping laminated arms and combs.
  • Day 3:  Continue shaping, shaving, scraping, etc.  Also, today we will aim to drill holes for the legs and taper tenons on the legs.  After that it should start looking kind of chair-ish.
  • Day 4:  Get the upper carriage of the chair together.  Lots more drilling holes and fitting tenons, I expect.  Anyone who actually gets finish on their chair this day gets the prize of smelling it the whole way home!
  • Day 5:  More travel.  I'm sure Jonas' family will be ready for some peace and quiet.
There you have it!  No promises that we'll get to stick to the plans.  I think that there will be lots of time adjusting going on, as since this isn't a woodworking school there will not be a standard kit of tools for each of us to use.  I expect that tapering legs will be a good thing to do while I am waiting for the scorp.

If you haven't seen what this is all about, check out my last post to read all about it! (It's OK, really.  That post has more pictures.)

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Great Welsh Stick Chair Extravaganza in Denmark

Perhaps the title is a bit much.

Painted ash chair with sycamore seat, ca. 1800.
Courtesy Paul Dunn Antiques
Jonas, aka Mulesaw, and I have been talking about getting together to make Welsh stick chairs ever since I read John Brown's book a couple years ago.

A great read if you are interested in chairs or not.
Jonas' neighbor needed a couple old elm trees removed, and we're in business.  In about ten days I'll drive the 12-15 hour trek to a remote part of Denmark, and we will get started.  It looks like there should be around three more people there to do the build with us, perhaps even another blogger who is trying to figure out how to drive to this part of Denmark from England with his family.  

Good luck, Travis, you'll need it!

The great part of this build is that none of us has actually ever built any kind of Windsor chair before (unless you count my entry in the Shop Stool Build Off), so we'll all be figuring it out as we go.  The only real help we will have is our collective woodworking knowledge, John Brown's Book, and Drew Langsner's book.
Drew Langsner's book should be a big help.
So what the heck is a Welsh stick chair, you ask?  Some call it a rustic Windsor.  Basically, like a Windsor chair, it is a solid plank for a seat in which the legs and upper portion of the chair are attached. However, while the quintessential Windsor chair is a highly refined piece usually made by a chairmaker, an authentic antique Welsh stick chair is a piece of furniture of necessity, or vernacular furniture made by a craftsman not necessarily a professional chairmaker, or even a professional woodworker more than likely for his own personal use.

Looking at examples of antiques, it becomes clear that these chairs are made by people who need a chair using whatever materials and tools they happen to have on hand.
From the Museum of Welsh Life
19th century.
Sometimes they have four legs, sometimes only three.

A nice three-legged version of ash and sycamore, 18th century.
Courtesy Welsh Vernacular Furniture.
There really doesn't seem to be any rules with these chairs.  John Brown says the legs on Welsh stick chairs are inset further than on English chairs, and often sport a dramatic raking angle to splay the legs out.
Fantastic splay to the legs on this oak and sycamore chair from the early 18th century.
Courtesy Welsh Vernacular Furniture.
As far as the legs go, they can be either turned round or octagonal, often tapering from a larger diameter base to a thinner top.
An ash chair again from the early 1800s.  I love the tapered legs.
Courtesy Paul Dunn Antiques.
As you can see from the photos, some seats are flat, some are carved with a round seat, and some are fully saddled.  I think it probably depends on the tools and skills of the craftsman.

As far as the arms go, there seems to be mainly three methods for the curved arm rail:  laminated from two or three pieces, steam bent, or carved from a single block of wood, such as a bent tree branch.
Ash and elm chair from the late 1800s or early 1900.  You can clearly see the different pieces of wood making the curved arm rail on this chair.
Courtesy Welsh Vernacular Furniture.
Solid oak chair from the early 18th century.  It's hard to tell, but I think this arm is steam bent.
Courtesy Welsh Vernacular Furniture.
Ash chair with a cool one-piece carved arm ca. 1760.
Courtesy Richard Bebb of
Find Richard's book on antique Welsh furniture at
As far as materials go, we will use elm (Ulmus sp.) from the logs that Jonas got last year and started to mill on his mulesaw for the seat blanks.  This is extremely traditional.  Elm resists splitting and should make a very strong chair.  Legs will be from some kiln dried ash (Fraxinus excelsior) that I'll bring up from my Munich lumberyard.  The idea is that if the elm isn't quite dry, or if it is still fairly green, it will shrink around the bone-dry ash leg tenons and never let loose.  I chose ash rather than oak or something else because these particular ash boards that were in stock that day had really nice straight grain and were beautiful.  We may use either ash or elm for the sticks, and probably elm for the steam bending.

Already I feel like I am doing it wrong, as I have collected an array of chair makers' tools over the last weeks in preparation for this class.  On the other hand, not having made one before, I think it might not be a bad idea to work with tools that will give us all a reasonable chance for success.

I am totally stoked to do this build with a group of like-minded people.  It will be a great experience, even if my chair fails.  Keep an eye on this blog as well as Mulesaw, as I'm sure this project will be one for the history books.  OK, perhaps a bit more exaggeration, but it should at least be entertaining.

The Frau isn't too crazy about this form of chair, so I may try to modernize my design a bit to make something that she will be crazy about.  If that doesn't work, I could always use a new chair in my office at work!

Thanks to Paul Dunn, Jonathon Holder and Richard Bebb for being kind enough to allow me to use photos from their respective antique businesses for this post.  Please check out their websites for pics of some fantastic furniture.

For other examples of Welsh stick chairs (inluding some neat modern ones), check out this link on Pinterest.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Enzian Blue

Gentiana acaulis
The Frau and I thoroughly enjoy hiking in the German Alps.  Every once in a while, we are presented with a treat:  wild Gentian, or Enzian, as the locals call them.  Last year we hit the jackpot, and found so many on the hikes we did, I tired of taking photos of them.  Usually, they are a fairly rare sight.

Does this have anything to do with woodworking?  No.  Not really.

Lately I've been thinking a lot about an upcoming cooperative chair build (more on this later), and during my downtime in the shop, I became a bad anarchist, and started buying chair making tools like crazy.

Since I am travelling to make the chair, I need a travelling tool chest to keep them in.

I needed something lightweight, and quick to build.  The quick to build requirement reminded me of the chest that Richard McGuire from the English Woodworker.  He was in the same need when he designed his.  Since he went through the bother of designing it, that saves me a bit of time, too!

I happened to have some nice wide bits of laminated, wrapped in plastic paulownia (Paulownia tomentosa) boards.  This, I have determined, is the ultimate quick and dirty project wood.

Paulownia isn't the strongest of woods, but it is indeed wood, so automatically it is better than MDF in my book.  One huge advantage for this wood in a travelling tool chest is that it is only about half the weight of pine!

Enough blabber, here are some photos of my new chest:

Waiting for the paint to dry.
I think it turned out OK.

I have very little experience with clinched nails.  I found them fun!
My neighbors less so, I'm sure.
I just winged the dimensions.  This chest is about 24" wide, 15" deep, and about 12" tall.  No glue, only nails.  But, I suspect these clinched nails will hold up better than the paulownia.

This is a great project to do with a limited tool kit, such as my Beginner's Tool Kit.  If you'd like to see Richard's video on how to build this chest, go here.

If you are wondering, I painted the chest with some off the rack 2 in 1 paint from the local Borg.  2 in 1 paint is great, because it covers in one coat, and needs no primer.  I might try it on my ATC, which is still waiting for me to decide to paint it.

The color:  Enzian Blue.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Engineer's Square: Old vs. New

I swear Josh Clark is worse than a crack dealer.  It seems I can't help buying tools from him at

The latest tool I got in the mail from him is this beautiful 12" engineer's square by Lufkin.

Nice Lufkin 12" square with center finder.

I didn't really notice in the photo, so when it arrived I was surprised it wasn't black, but O.D. green.  I have no idea if this was common for Lufkin squares or not.  Perhaps it was made for the military, but I found no markings on it that would suggest it.  Besides, is O.D. green really going to blend in better than flat black when you need to measure something in the jungle?

Side by side with my 6" Starrett.
The 12" rule is marked exactly like my Starrett 6" rule, with gradiations of 1/8", 1/16", 1/32", and 1/64".  The markings on both rulers are engraved, dark, and easy to read.
Comparison of rules.
I have to say that the 6" Starrett I bought a couple of years ago has become a tool that I use often.  I like to make wooden squares, but for some reason I always have this one around when I am squaring up stock.  My only beef with it is the price.  Brand new they come at a price equivalent to the price of a new kidney.

I was eager to see how the old tool stood up.  I checked and it is square as I can measure in my shop.  Should be plenty good for woodworking.  Just for fun, I tried the center finder on my smaller Starrett, and it fit perfectly.  That might come in handy one day.

The fit and finish is just as good as the Starrett with only a couple of exceptions.  First, I really like the engraving on the rule.  The font of the numbers is really cool. 

Second, and most importantly, is the Lufkin feels so much nicer to hold in my hand.  The newer Starrett has a lot sharper of edges everywhere.  Somehow, those edges have all been softened on the old tool.  I suppose it is just a little extra attention to detail on the old stuff.

Over all, I have to say that the Starrett is an excellent tool.  It is always reliable.  I do not have to think about adjusting it or wondering if it is still accurate.  If you are in the market for one and have the money, don't hesitate. 

However, if you are a little short on funds, keep an eye out for a vintage model.  This Lufkin is just as accurate and stable, as far as I can tell.   I would say if you can look at it first, that is best.  Otherwise, use a reputable old tool pusher like Josh.

I look forward to seeing how this tool makes itself used in my shop.

Diamond Willow for another Roorkee

I got a package in the mail recently from my dad.  In it was some diamond willow (likely Salix bebbiana) for another Roorkee chair.  This could likely be some of the only diamond willow in Europe!

Wait until you see what I do with it.  Of course, after I get a couple planned projects done.

Diamond willow in Germany!

It's Good to be a Woodworker

A lame project, but nonetheless, I felt morally obligated to put my own stamp on it.

We got a new flat screen TV a while back, a small one.  It replaced an old CRT that we were using in our living room to watch over breakfast.

The idea was that it would be really cool if we could put it on a fully articulated arm, in order that in can be pushed back in it's cubby under the stairs easily when not in use.

When the mount arrived in the mail it was obvious that it wouldn't fit our little Sony.  For some reason TV mounts are made standard for nearly all TVs except Sony.  I don't know why, but Sony doesn't participate in VESA, which is a standard for mounting TVs.

The guy at the TV store said I had to get an adapter.

Why spend any more money, when I am a woodworker?

Here's what I came up with .  I just used regular old locally available pine, Pinus sylvestris, and painted it white.

My creation attached to the mount waiting for the TV.

TV in place, view from the back.

Put away under the stairs.
Now all I need to do is build a nice looking something or another to hide the cables!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Lignum quod sit eadem numero scientia.

The title makes me sound smart, doesn't it?

It is how Google translates the phrase, "Wood should be scientifically identified" into Latin.  Google translate can be a tricky thing, so I actually have no idea if the translation is in any way accurate. 

Perhaps Ben knows.

I have been doing a lot of thinking lately (often a quite dangerous thing!), and it dawned on me that I read blog posts by woodworking authors all over the world.  Also, according to my Blogger stats, this blog is read by people in many different countries and regions.

While we all may be able to follow different tools and techniques based on the photos and descriptions posted, sometimes really knowing what a woodworker is going through is difficult for the simple reason that the wood that is being used may only be identified by the author as "oak," or "maple."

Sometimes this is not so important to the story, but it can be.  Take, for instance, a friend who recently told me that birch is the perfect wood to learn spooncarving, because it is so soft.

Naturally I was surprised, because my only experience with birch was a board that was so heavy and hard, that I couldn't imagine it being great for beginning anything!

It turns out that my birch board was a hunk of flame, yellow birch, Betula alleghaniensis, from the US, and the birch my friend was thinking of was likely downy birch, Betula pubescens, common here in Europe.

Just looking at the Latin, it doesn't mean much.  However, it turns out that yellow birch, B. alleghaneinsis, is about 35% harder than downy birch, B. pubescens.

We woodworkers refer to  a whole lot of different trees by only the common name of the genus.  For example, there are some 125 species of maple worldwide, and some 600 species of oak.

Lots of different maples.  Photo courtesy LoveToKnow Garden.
The only way for someone living in Ohio to really know what wood I am talking about (assuming he or she cares) is to use the scientific name.

A brilliant resource for woodworkers is the website The Wood Database.  This website lists photos of lots of different woods we as woodworkers are likely to come across.  There are technical specifications for each kind of wood, and photos of these woods both finished and unfinished.  Plus, there are some fantastic articles about identifying wood.

From now on, I will try to remember to include the genus and species of the woods I discuss here on my blog.  If you want to do the same, those of us who are interested in the different species of wood will thank you.

Guidelines on proper usage of the genus and species are spelled out on National Geographic's website.  Essentially, genus and species are in italics, with the genus term capitalized and the species beginning with lowercase.  If you know the genus but not the species, you can substitute "spp." or "sp." to indicate it.  For example, if you know a sample of wood is oak, but knot which kind, you would list it as Quercus spp.

A final word is to echo Eric Meier of the wood database, and state that it may not be possible to always be correct in identifying wood to the species, but knowing a little about where it came from may help narrow the list of possibilities down.

I'll get myself a jeweler's loupe to make identifying the wood on my rack a bit more accurate.

I am lucky to be near a lumber yard that sells wood from all over the world, and it always has a large stockpile of North American woods.  Some of the woods I have discussed on this blog  (or will soon):