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.)


  1. This looks to be a great project and a fantastic way of getting it done. I'm looking forward to seeing what results from the collaboration.

    Good luck.


  2. I can't believe that the time is finally approaching. As far as I remember, the first talks about a joint build was back in 2012.
    I am curious about the sound level. Apart from the band saw, the adzing will probably be the loudest, but time will tell.

    1. I bet you are right. At first we were thinking of doing a cooperative blogging build in our own shops.

  3. Hi Brian, may I ask where in Munich you buy your lumber? Do they, or any other place in the area that you know of, sell pre-milled boards?


    1. Hi Wolfgang! My favorite place for lumber is at Goetz, out near the airport. But you should check with Peter at Dictum, he always seems to know the best places.

      For pre-milled boards, when I need them, I try to make due with Leimholz from the Baumaerkte, but it has to be the certain kind of project that allows that type of wood.

      Good luck!

  4. Hey Brian, thank you. I had seen Goetz before (online), but somehow thought they looked too big to sell single boards to normal people. I'll definitely try them out.
    Leimholz is exactly what I'm trying to leave behind, at least the keilgezinkte variety. I found a few manufacturers doing Leimholz with durchgehende Lamellen in oak, maple, beech, pine, etc., but absolutely no place seems to stock that stuff. Although, I just discovered that Hornbach offers Kiefer Leimholz mit durchgehenden Lamellen for order (2-3 weeks). I think I'll give it a try as it's quite cheap.

    Thanks again.

    1. Hey Wolfgang. Good to know about the laminated boards with the long boards in them. I hadn't heard of them before. I'll check it out.

      I wrote a blogpost about Goetz a while back, perhaps it is of some help:

  5. You're right Brian, time does fly. Looking forward to linking up with you and Jonas for a dedicated woodworking sabbatical.

    1. I can't wait.

      BTW, The two others besides you will only start on Saturday, also. Jonas and I will rough out everyones parts on Thursday, hopefully get started in order to free up some tools for you guys, and perhaps test some steam bending so we can do some steam bending on Saturday.

      See you in a few days!