Making Plans

“I love it when a plan comes together.”

On Monday, I drew up some plans for my next project: a rod back chair.

Some woodworkers look at windsor chairs, and think they’re hard to build. Building windsor chairs isn’t difficult, but it is different from other “normal” woodworking. Non-woodworkers don’t necessarily think Windsor chairs look hard or easy to build; they have nothing to compare it to. I think the different way of working which windsor chairmaking requires fits well with my longing to extract order from chaos, and my generally intuitive way of solving problems.

The way windsor chair plans are laid out and used is also different from joined furniture plans. The plans tend to be very compressed. A rule of thumb in Information Theory says that “information (as opposed to pure data) is any difference which makes a difference.” By that measure, windsor chair plans are nearly pure information: they record only the aspects of a chair which are important, and only those which differ from other chairs. Anything not included in the plans is either not a critical dimension, or it’s derived from a partially finished chair in the same way it’s done for similar chairs.

In most woodworking, the order of the day is “square corners and flat surfaces.” The first step in a project is producing boards with all surfaces perfectly flat, and all corners exactly 90 degrees. Throughout construction, these flat surfaces and right angles act as references for various measurements. If you’ve done your job, most of these reference surfaces are interchangeable. Many finished projects retain these square angles in the finished construction.

On the other hand, a windsor chair has only one flat surface: the bottom of the seat. You usually can’t even see it, which is probably why it’s left flat. Most of the parts are never transformed into a flat board: they’re split out of logs and turned directly into legs, stretchers, spindles, posts, rods, or bows.

Since the seat is the only flat board used in a chair, it is the only natural reference surface. Because of this, windsor chair plans are centered around the seat. A seat pattern defines the outline of the seat, and the location and angle of every stick which protrudes from it.

Usually, none of the drilling angles for the legs and stretchers are included in a plan, or they are included only as a sanity check. When building a chair, you derive the required drilling angles and stretcher lengths from the partially finished chair instead of using predetermined dimensions, so your chair will fit together even if the legs aren’t installed perfectly.

This is another difference between windsor chair building and “other woodworking.” In most woodworking projects, you (ideally) construct a number of identical interchangeable parts whose dimensions are all fully specified, and then you assemble them. If you mess up a part, make a new one. You almost never take measurements from a half-finished project and build a part which fits. That would be like hand carving the missing piece from a jigsaw puzzle after it’s almost finished.

So, how do you make a chair plan? I don’t know. I mean… I don’t know how other people do it, and no one ever taught me how, so I figured it out. I may have gotten it wrong.

I started with measured drawings, which I cut and pasted together to show the chair I wanted to make. I know what a finished plan should look like. Making the plan is just translating the drawings into a usable plan. The problem with measured drawings is that many of the measurements are irrelevant, and the rest are not measured in the way a chair maker uses them. To create a plan from a drawing, I had to convert the measurements on the drawing into the measurements used to build the chair.

The biggest conversion task is angles. Measured drawings generally show 3 views: top, front, and side. You can easily measure the rake and splay angles of the legs and spindles from the front and side views of the chair, but these are not the angles used when drilling holes for a chair. Instead, you use an incident angle, which is the angle at which the drill bit enters the seat, and a sight line which tells you which direction to point the drill (the bit is always perpendicular to the sight line).

Apparently Drew Langsner has charts in the back of one of his books, which convert rake and splay angles into incident angles and sight lines. Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of that book; it’s out of print and expensive. But I do have a bachelor’s degree in math/computer science, which was even more expensive. So, in lieu of a set of tables, I wrote a script.

Unfortunately, now that I’m “done” with my plan and I’m sitting down to write about it, I see that my script is not giving entirely consistent results. Doh! I’ll have to go revisit that before I post a link or build the chair.

I ran into another complication with the drawings I’m working from. This chair has its seat at a 3.5 degree angle in relation to the floor, but the drawings depict everything with the horizon set to the floor, and not to the seat. There was no way to measure the “front” angles properly with relation to the seat. So my script had to take that angle into account as well.

The result of these labors is the plan shown above. As you can see, it only depicts one half of the seat; the other half is a mirror image. I follow Brian Cunfer’s practice of using half-patterns, to avoid screwing up half of a pattern and building asymmetrical chairs.

With only a seat plan, there are clearly some undefined aspects of the chair, but only some of them are determined in advance. I’ll have to calculate the length of the legs to achieve the proper seat height, but the shape of the turnings isn’t very important from a structural standpoint as long as the leg is thick enough at the joints. The stretcher lengths and angles are measured from the position of the legs in the chair. The post lengths are chosen from a design perspective, and the spindles are made long enough to fit the bent rod. The rod itself needs to have the proper length and curve to meet the spindles and bows properly, but if I’ve calculated the spindle angles correctly they’ll match the measured bow from my drawings.

There’s a saying that “In carpentry, you work to the nearest 1/16th of an inch. In woodworking, you work to the nearest 1/64th of an inch. In boatmaking, you work to the nearest boat.” In other words, it’s more important to keep water out of the boat, than it is to get the measurements correct. Stated another way, this applies to windsor chairmaking as well: It’s more important for your parts to fit together properly, than for the measurements to be correct.

A Painted Perch

Last weekend, I finished the perch.

I painted it with one coat of Real Milk Paint’s new Butternut Squash color, followed by 3 coats of Mustard. I also used their anti-foam agent, and it made a big difference in reducing foam and generally making the paint easier to apply.

I think with milk paint, once it looks almost good enough, it’s time to stop: “better is the enemy of good.” Whenever I add “just one more thin coat in the spots that need it” I end up worse off, and have to smooth things out more than I’d prefer. Maybe it just doesn’t work to apply the paint when it’s too watered down.

After the paint, I applied 2 coats of Minwax wipe-on poly, as usual. In the picture above you can see what a big difference it makes to the color. I’m quite happy with the final color. The dark parts of the first image are more representative of the color than the washed out second image. I think the Squash undercoat made it darker overall, but luckily the yellow covered it enough, because they didn’t seem to go well together.

Marla’s initial reaction to the seating position wasn’t very favorable. It’s quite a bit higher than the other stools she has been sitting on, and it pitched her forward more than she’d prefer. I sat on it, and found myself sliding down the seat too much; maybe the poly wasn’t the best finish for this?

I trimmed the rear legs off by about an inch, but we’re not sure yet whether this will be the final position. Hopefully we’ll stop trimming before we reach the stretchers. I think to a certain extent, her desk ought to be raised up a bit, because we previously had it adjusted for a lower seating position. Luckily it is very adjustable, if we’re willing to clear it off.

This was a really fun stool to build. Everything went well, and I didn’t make any major mistakes, but it was also different from the other chairs and stools I’ve made.

Whole Lotta Wood

Last night I turned the large, excellent maple (I think?) log section I had into leg blanks. I wanted to get the leg blanks turned early so they can dry a bit and stabilize before I turn final legs out of them. I have 6 leg blanks and maybe 2-3 back posts, 24″ long with no knots or runout at all. It’s definitely the best log I’ve found so far for turning legs and stretchers.

So tonight, I went back and got some more: two and a half 5′ long sections of log (some split), about 10-12″ diameter. You can see those pieces in the rear left of this image. I should be able to get two more chairs worth of legs out of those, while avoiding the knots.

On the right in the rear there’s a standing cherry log which is unfortunately rotten, and a pile of split cherry in front of it. In front of that is a stack of ash and possibly elm, about 3′ long. The ash is very straight, but the elm is a bit wavy and has some knots.

I have enough wood. Maybe. Wood for shaving spindles and bows is scarce, but I’d expect that. If only I could find an oak log as straight and clear as that maple, but accessible enough to retrieve…

Now I need to assess the pile I have sitting in the basement, and determine which pieces would be better off burned than turned. I’m going to guess “most of them” is the best answer.

The bags in front are all full of shavings, and the boxes are larger scraps. Unfortunately I must’ve cut a log with some mold growing in it, because the wet green shavings in my barrel started to mold severely and quickly. I hope the shavings are at least useful to burn, if they aren’t useful for chicken bedding.

Now I have wood, so I’ll need a plan. This one won’t be as easy as the stools, but at least I have some good practice “legging up”. Unless I find or buy some good bow stock, I can’t build one of the chairs I’ve already built. I don’t want another sack back arm chair anyway, and the bow back side chair needs an even longer bow. It would require a piece of perfectly clear, perfectly straight oak (or similar) about 5′ long.

On the other hand, if I can’t get any spindles out of the logs I have, I’ll have to buy wood anyway, so I may as well buy a bow, too.

Leaving bows out of the equation, there are several chairs which would not require such demanding wood: a comb back, a fan back, or a rod back.

But why do I need yet another different side chair? Oh, I know! The kitchen! We could have two separate sets of matching chairs, right? Half finished sets that I might never complete!

Brilliant! Now I just need some plans for the chair itself.

The rod back is a later Windsor form, from around 1800 or so. It’s less formal, and the design is heavily influenced by asian furniture. It uses the “bamboo” style turnings that I prefer, and it’s a smaller chair than the bow back, so it would make a nice kitchen chair. Overall, I really like the look of these chairs.

The main downside is, seats in these later “degenerate” windsor forms typically aren’t saddled as deeply, which sacrifices most of the Windsor form’s famous comfort. I may decide to just saddle it more deeply anyway.

There is a measured drawing of a fairly nice looking rod back chair in John Kassay’s windsor chair book, which has enough detail that I think I can make a plan for it. I’m not very happy with the splay of the legs, but I’m not sure whether I really want to start experimenting with the plans for a chair I’ve never built.

Whether or not I build a chair with a long bow, I’ll need to start a few new processes and set up some more equipment. Mainly, I’ll need to build a steam box, get a propane cylinder, and build bending forms for whatever bent parts I need on the chair I’m building.

So my next step ought to be to determine what size spindle I’ll need for a rod back, and try shaving one out of the wood I have. If that’s a no-go, I’ll have to buy wood, so I may just get a bow as well and make another bow back.

In the end, we may never have any matching set of chairs. But if we do have enough chairs to sit in, and they’re all hand made by me, then I’ll still like them a lot better than the ones we use now, even if they don’t happen to match.

A Perch

A woodworking update: I’ve completed a Perch using the plans Peter Galbert posted on his blog. I haven’t painted it yet, because I’m not sure I want another red stool.

Two of the legs and both stretchers were turned from the first batch of logs I found in the park. They started out looking like the firewood sitting on the floor in this image, and ended up looking like the leg on the lathe.

I turned this leg too soon after bringing the log in from the 20F weather outside: the wood was still frozen. I couldn’t get any clean cuts on it, so for the other two legs I just turned them round and let them warm up and dry a bit before finishing them. Although I planned to clean up the first leg later, it ended up way too warped to even consider this.

The third leg, this one’s replacement, I turned from some Hackberry dad left down here at Christmas time. When I first turned all the legs, I thought this might also be a hackberry log, but now I think it’s more likely Elm. I know these are not ideal leg woods, but they’ll be strong enough, and the details on bobbin legs are minimal and not easy to screw up, even with wood that doesn’t hold detail well.

More news on the Free Wood front: near Martine’s school, 3 or 4 trees toppled down on top of each other in the woods. One of them split and splintered on its way down. Someone was almost hit by another one, when they fell. I waited until they cut them into smaller pieces, and today we went and collected some. I have some long, straight, clear sections of I think Maple which will make some nice legs. I may have to bring a wedge and mallet and go back for more, this is really nice wood. I also got another cherry log because it was there, and some more of this open-grained greenish yellow colored wood I’m having such a hard time identifying properly.

In this picture, you can see my increasing collection of spindles, under my bench. These are all from the logs I’ve collected, and hopefully they’ll eventually turn into legs, stretchers, or wooden boxes.

It’s quite fun to rough out spindles from the log, but it feels like a big waste to create so much waste wood in the form of chips. But then I remember the city’s wood crew trucks, which chip all of the logs as soon as they clean them up. Even if only a tiny fraction of the wood I collect ends up being used in a project, it’s still better than leaving it on the ground and letting it rot. The rest will go to my in-laws’ where they’ll use it for chicken bedding, or burning for maple syrup.

There are some really depressingly nice, huge, straight, 2′ diameter, 6′ long logs in the park that I just can’t think of any good way to retrieve. It pains me to see them sitting there, ready to start rotting at any moment. I could probably get back bows out of those logs, if I could get them out of the park.

Peter Galbert does a few things differently than I’ve done on previous chairs and stools, so I learned a bit on this Perch. First, he drills his holes from the top down. Since they’re angled, the hole enters and leaves the seat at a different place: you need to know whether to drill from the top down or bottom up, in order to get your legs in the right place.

When I drilled from the bottom up on previous stools, I didn’t have problems with tearout: I just carved it away when I carved the seat. But this time, I left unsightly scars on the bottom, unfortunately. Let this be a lesson to me! I need to use a backing board or a better bit (see below).

Peter also leaves more of his seat uncarved than I am used to, before assembly. This was a very fun seat to carve, but I didn’t really enjoy the new, improved clamping challenges posed by finishing the seat after assembly. The shape of this seat is quite nice, and the lines flow well and make sense, once you actually do it. Again, Peter’s videos helped a lot in remembering the carving steps, and they’ll help for my next shield-shaped seat as well, I’m sure.

One detail worth noting on this image is the blood on the front leg: I cut myself while fondling one of my tools. It wasn’t even the cutting edge. But it wasn’t as bad as my previous cut, from sharpening my drawkife. Drawknives look dangerous and imposing, but most of the time you aren’t near the cutting edge. Except when you’re sharpening them.

Speaking of better bits, I bought another 5/8″ spur point bit. What an amazing difference! My old bit took forever to cut, dulled itself cutting through even relatively soft wood, and burnished the holes. It was one of the highly rated bits from Highland Woodworking, and it sucked straight out of the box. I replaced it with a no-name bit I got locally at Rockler, and what a huge difference it made! I’ve only used it on the Perch’s undercarriage so far, but it’s already far better than the other bit ever was.

This time, I think I finally cut my wedges thin enough. I can never seem to sink them deeply enough into the legs.

In this picture you can see the bins of childrens’ clothes and other “stuff” that will be sold at the annual Pittsburgh Mothers’ Center Kids’ Stuff Sale. But it may be more interesting to note the angle of the seat: yes, it really does pitch you forward as much as it looks like it will; but this is a good thing.

The future is looking bright, with respect to me keeping enough momentum to complete an actual chair before slipping into a different hobby for a while. I guess I’ll have to start doing some drawing to figure out exactly what it is I want to make.

And now, finally, the image you’ve been waiting for: the finished perch. Marla’s initial sit upon it sounded promising, so we’ll see how that goes.

Seat carving is an area where I seem to be improving. I look at the chairs I made in classes, and they’re downright rough and lumpy compared to my more recent stools. This pine is a real pain with tearout, especially where the curves leave high and low spots on the grain. But this time, I managed to scrape the seat enough to move straight to 220 grit, so that’s good.

I used the superglue to stop some checks in the bottom of the seat: hopefully this will prevent them from getting much worse over time, but we’ll see. The grey chair in the background isn’t a “real” windsor, it’s a factory chair I got at a yard sale for $2.

That’s it for now, it’s late. Damn Daylight Stealing Time, I never can get used to the time change.

Beer Batch #24: Lager? I don’t even know her!

Brewing in our house in the winter is problematic. Ale yeast usually wants temperatures above 65F, and lager yeast wants to ferment at under 55F. Our limited climate control generally varies the house temperature between 65F in the day, and 60F at night, and even the basement gets above 55 regularly.

So, I found White Labs San Francisco Lager Yeast. This is a lager yeast that ferments best from 58F to 65F. My theory is, this is the Anchor Steam yeast; Anchor Steam beer is theoretically a lager brewed at Ale temperatures. I have no evidence for this, but Anchor is from San Francisco, and their Steam Beer is a well known and resepected brew.

“Lager?” is a fairly generic beer, and just happens to use this yeast so it would ferment well in my house. For this batch, I wasn’t trying to create a specific style, I basically just used ingredients I had on hand.

Lager? I dont even know her!

Brew Date: Feb 8, 2009

Ingredients for a 5 gallon batch:

  • 1lb Munton Crystal Malt, 60L
  • 1oz Millenium hops, pellets 15AA
  • 6lb LD Carlson Breiss DME, Pilsen Light
  • 1oz New Zealand organic Hallertau hops, 8.6AA
  • 1tsp Irish Moss (for clarity)
  • White Labs WLP810 San Francisco Lager Yeast

Process:

  1. Steep crystal malt in 2.5-3 gal H2O for 30 minutes, approximately 160F
  2. Add Malt Extract
  3. Boil for 60 minutes total
    • Millenium hops boil for 60 minutes
    • Hallertau hops boil for 15 minutes
    • Irish moss boil for 15 minutes
  4. Chill wort, aiming for to 65-75F final temperature for 5 gallons
  5. Pitch yeast starter

Original Gravity: 1.056
Notes:

  • I started the yeast on Feb 3rd, using more DME than I expected, G=1.090 in the starter!
  • The yeast worked really well, both in the starter and in the primary fermenter.
  • Pitched yeast with the wort at about 65F; lower than I had hoped.
  • Fermentation was obviously active by 2am that day
  • Once again, Marla had to replace the airlock with a blowoff tube while I was at work, to avoid a huge mess.
  • February 15: rack to secondary fermenter; Gravity = 1.026
  • March 2: Gravity = 1.020
  • March 5: Keg it. Gravity = 1.019

So far, this beer basically tastes fine; it’s not extraordinary or different than much of anything, but it’s pleasantly drinkable. And, it fits with my general tastes: not too hoppy, with a bit of sweetness. My apparent attenuation (percent of sugar which was fermented; different yeasts act differently in this regard) is slightly less than expected for this yeast, so it might ferment a bit more in the keg and change over time. The bitterness is a bit odd, I’ve never used Millenium before.

Overall, I’m happy with this beer.

A note about the name: Marla introduced me to the “I don’t even know her!” line of jokes. Daniel’s variation seems to be “I just met her!” I was more familiar with the “yermom” line of dubious humor in college. “Lager? Yermom doesn’t even know her!”

Walnut Stool: Finished

The walnut stool is finished! I’m very happy with how it turned out.

Using naturally finished woods is in Windsor chairs generally not done, for a few reasons: strength, and aesthetics. I think on a simple stool with fairly plain turnings and without spindles, the grain doesn’t make the piece too busy. This stool is entirely walnut, except for the seat wedges, which I made from Cherry for a bit of contrast. There was quite a bit of variety in color in the different pieces of walnut, so I tried to arrange them with similar pieces nearer to each other. Even the seat isn’t a large expanse of “just brown.” It has stripes of color ranging from orange and pink, to grey.

Again, I used Minwax wipe-on poly finish. For the legs and stretchers, I applied the finish on the lathe, which protects the legs from damage a bit during construction. In areas where the wood is rubbed, it’ll stay polished even if the finish wears off. Everywhere else, the wipe-on finish is just shiny enough.

I’m happy to say that my “catalog of mistakes” helped a lot. I didn’t break any parts, or have to remake anything, and did everything in a better order. I built a test joint to make sure I made the stretcher tenons the proper size for the holes. Now my future challenge will be improving my ability to cut the tenons the correct size, and smoothly.

I’ll include a few pictures I took of the process, but most of the time I don’t feel like stopping to take pictures. Unfortunately Marla is usually asleep when I work, so I can’t enlist her help much either. Most of this stool was constructed between 11pm and 1am on any particular weekday.

Here’s the setup used for reaming leg holes. The tapered reamer is in a leghole, and I’m checking the angles with a bevel and a square. My reamer doesn’t have a very long body section parallel to the axis of rotation, so I adjust my bevel angle by half the taper angle, and line up with the tapered part of the tool instead. To use the square, you move your head sideways so the square and sight line are in line. Then you check the top of the the reamer in relation to the square/sight line, and adjust it accordingly.

This kind of reamer cuts slowly, but allows for a surprising amount of adjustment (I found out, on the previous stool). That means it also allows for a surprising amount of screw-up if you do it wrong, so it’s good that it cuts slowly.

By the way, I am really happy with these squeeze-activated clamps. They hold well, don’t mar surfaces, and are much easier to use than pipe clamps. They also have slightly more reach than pipe clamps, which comes in handy.

Here, I have glued up the undercarriage and glued it into the seat. This part of the process is a bit of a race against glue drying, so it’s hard to stop and take pictures. The standard construction order is to construct the H shaped stretchers first, aligned in one plane. Then add one leg, and make sure the stretchers are aligned properly. Add a second leg, and test with the seat. Then, add the last two legs, always making sure they’re aligned correctly. Finally, apply glue to the leg tapers and mortises, hammer them into the seat, and apply wedges (also glued). I happened to let the undercarriage dry between those steps.

If you think my bench looks messy in this picture, you should see it when I’m not in the middle of a project. It turns out that for building chairs, you really don’t need much actual working space on the bench. But having convenient tool storage would be a much better solution than just shoving stuff down the bench until things fall off the other end.

Here’s a closeup of the seat. You can see some of the interesting coloration here, but it’s better in person of course. I cut the walnut seat out of one thick piece, in a “book matched” arrangement. Unfortunately, the grain doesn’t match anymore since the seat is carved out, and book matching makes is a bit more difficult to carve the seat where the two planks meet. This was harder to carve than a pine seat; I don’t think I’ll be doing another hardwood seat.

I managed to mangle only one small section when trimming the legs, where I dug out too much wood near one leg. I’m also very happy with how well the scraper cuts across the end grain of the legs. With all the wood the same hardness, it doesn’t just cut the seat and skip across the leg. After scraping, I lightly sanded with 400 grit paper, and it was ready for finish. I probably didn’t need to go down to 400, but it did smooth out a bit of the raised grain after scraping. The seat still has a slightly wavy texture across the surface from the compass plane cuts, but it’s hard to notice.

I generally don’t sand the edges of the seat, I prefer to leave the facets from the spokeshave. Unfortunately, the end grain ends up slightly rough in some places. This isn’t too much of a problem under paint, but I did use some fine sandpaper to knock off the rough spots between coats of finish on this stool.

I’m very happy with how this stool turned out, and I might even still have enough momentum to build a perch. At that point I’ll be getting close to stool overload, though. If Marla loves the perch more than the stool, and I like it enough to work in front of a computer with it, I might make another one, but otherwise I’ll attempt to move on to another Actual Chair.

A Finished Stool

A somewhat belated update: I finished the stool.

I applied maybe 3 or 4 coats of the Salem Red milk paint, but as I usually find with with red paint, it still didn’t cover perfectly. I decided that if I wanted perfect coverage I should’ve just used a can of Rustoleum. Actually… although impatience did enter into the equation, I also decided this looked Good Enough. Since “better is the enemy of good,” I stopped.

After the paint, I applied 2 coats of Minwax wipe-on poly finish. This changed the color from a completely flat pinkish color, to the deeper red seen here. This is the first time I’ve used the wipe-on polyurethane instead of a Watco danish oil finish. I like the results: it has a bit of sheen, but not too much, even in the places which haven’t been worn smooth by sitting yet.

The color looks fine from a distance, and “interesting” close up. The paint is slightly transparent, and shows the brown stain underneath in places. As it wears, I expect this will become more apparent, but also more interesting.

Truthfully, this is a practice stool, and it will most likely end up in the basement, if the natural walnut stool turns out as well as I hope it will.

The next image is a family picture. Moving counterlockwise from the upper right, there’s the Sack Back chair I made in 1998 in a class I took with my dad at the Windsor Institute; the Bow Back chair I made in a class run by Brian Cunfer in Lancaster in 2007; and the stool I just finished by myself in my own shop.

I like them all for different reasons. I’m most interested in making chairs we’ll use, not just decorations. This is a “large” hobby, and we don’t have a lot of space for chairs we aren’t using; but I have no interest in selling them, either. That would be too much like a job, and I already have a job I like. So, I’ll have to either start making some more chairs of the same pattern, or live with the fact that I’ll never have a matching set.

My hobbies run in cycles (a topic for another blog post), but my hope is that my interest in chairmaking will last at least until I can complete the walnut stool, and hopefully long enough to build one of Peter Galbert’s perches.

In the slightly longer term, I anticipate building another actual chair. That would require tools and supplies I don’t have yet. Mainly, I would need very straight stock, preferrably oak, to split into spindles and bows for the back, and a steam box for bending the curved parts. Bending wood is quite fun, when it doesn’t break.

I’m considering starting with a rodback chair, because it has only one relatively small bent part in the back. This wouldn’t match any of my other chairs, of course. And, it would require a pattern, which I don’t have. However, I bought a very good book by John Kassay with measured drawings, which I think I could make a suitable pattern from.

But this is getting ahead of myself a bit. In the mean time, a few other small updates:

  • I found some more logs. I’m pretty sure these are Cherry. They’re quite wide, over a foot, but only 18-20″ long. I’m not yet sure what I’ll use them for.
  • I also found some very nice, but very large logs: perfectly straight, 2’+ diameter and 4’+ long. I have no way to lift them, let alone get them home. I’m considering how I might split them enough to carry eighths home, without anyone raising a fuss.
  • We’ve been having problems with our DSL download speeds, so I connected our modem directly to the NID in the basement with a short cord. This instantly doubled our download speeds: our “internal” wiring was the problem. Now I’ll have to wire some outlets into the basement ceiling and find a place to put a server.
  • I have a new batch of beer in the works; the recipe will come after it’s ready to drink.

Have fun!

Free Wood

Last week, we had a wind storm with wind bursts up to 90mph. Since then, I’ve been looking for downed trees that people have thoughtfully cut up into portable pieces. Yesterday, we found some logs.

This isn’t a useful way to get boards for building “flat and square” furniture, but most of the wooden boxes I turned in 2007 were made from found logs and Marla’s mom’s firewood pile.

Turning green wood is very fun even if you don’t end up making anything, and it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than buying turning blanks. In the worst case scenario, I’ll make firewood and/or bags of shavings for Ross and Brigid’s chickens.

These logs were fairly long for “side of the road, but still portable:” almost 3′. They looked like they had some knots, but also some straight sections. The first order of business after finding logs is to split them, before they split themselves as they dry out. These already had checking (the start of a split) in the ends, and they were cut less than a week ago.

Unfortunately, sometimes 90mph winds aren’t the only reason a tree falls down. In this case, the largest log looked perfectly fine from the outside, but encased an old insect home of some sort. A big pile of black dirt fell out, but no live bugs or even carcasses were there. This log was big enough that there may be some useful wood for spindles around the rotten interior.

After a bit more splitting, I found a place which looked like it had a perfectly round hole drilled into it, either by a person or an insect. Appartently, the insects got in here, but eventually the tree grew wood over the hole, including bark on the inside of the hole, and blocked it off.

I’m not sure what kind of tree this is. It’s a fairly fast growing open-grained wood, with very light sapwood and yellowish heart wood. It doesn’t have any prominent rays. The bark is fairly thin and smooth.

Nothing is straight enough to make spindles: that would be almost impossible to find on the side of the road. I might be able to find a few places straight enough for legs and stretchers, but it’s a lot better to make those from a harder closed-grain wood like maple.

For now I’ll let these dry outside, while we find time to make room in the basement for them.

Ready for Finish

My first stool is complete, and ready for finish. I didn’t even have to add any more mistakes to my list.

Windsor chairs are traditionally painted furniture: most often, green paint. When they were first built in the 1700’s and 1800’s, they were never stained or simply varnished over wood. The chairs were designed around the fact that they would be painted, and they were always painted. At that time, they used lead paint. These days, chairmakers generally use milk paint, which ends up looking similar to lead paint.

I found an interesting article about the traditional green color used on these chairs. For a long time, it was thought the chairs were painted dark green originally, and then repainted in the 1800’s or so, using black or dark grey. Recent paint analysis has found that actually the chairs were bright green, but the pigments used in the paint darken over time. When they were repainted, the color was chosen to match what the original bright green had become: dark, dank, nearly black/grey green.

My stool will be red, to match the other chairs in our house, primarily because I already have red milk paint and I don’t want to buy any more quite yet. Applying a milk paint finish requires a bit of a leap of faith: it looks horrible, before it starts looking good.

Brian Cunfer starts by dying his chairs brown, to provide a dark base under the paint. Then when the paint chips or wears through, which it does, it will have a uniform color under the paint everywhere on the chair, and won’t provide as much contrast with the darker paint on top. So, the first step in finishing is to dye the chair Horrifyingly Bad Brown. Other manufacturers call this color Middle School Woodshop Brown or Antique Mall Refinishing Brown. It’s especially hideous on woods such as pine.

Next, I’ll be applying probably 2 coats of red milk paint. The first coat will look splotchy, completely flat, and basically horrible. The second coat will look dead flat and mostly bad. After rubbing it down with a scotchbrite pad, I’ll apply some wipe-on poly finish, and it will begin to stop sucking. I’m not sure why I describe this now: probably to reassure myself that I didn’t just ruin the stool. But most likely, I’ll post more pictures of the process as I go.

Well built Windsors use different woods for different parts of the chair, depending on their function, and paint covers the differences in the wood. Hard, strong wood such as Maple is used for the legs and stretchers. Soft wood like Pine or Poplar is used for the seat, so it’s easy to carve and holds onto the legs well. The top parts of chairs are made of wood that is easy to shave and bend, such as Oak.

My next stool, made entirely from walnut, will technically speaking not be a well-built Windsor. I also won’t be painting it. I really don’t care, despite what some people might say about it: they aren’t allowed to sit in it anyway. I think it’ll look quite good as long as I don’t need to patch any mistakes.

A Catalog of Mistakes

When this first stool is finished, I expect it will look basically fine, and will not betray the troubles which presented themselves during the construction process. Mistakes are easier to hide under a painted surface. Some mistakes required me to build new parts, so you’d have to look in my scrap bin for the evidence. Nonetheless, I’d rather not repeat these errors.

I’m going to write a list of all of the problems I would have rather avoided. I’m also going to try to describe why they happened, and find ways to avoid repeating them. I don’t necessarily think the results of this exercise will be useful to anyone but me, but maybe the example of the process I used will be. I intend to update this list as I go along until the stool is finished.

In both chair classes I took, I made relatively few mistakes. In retrospect, although I avoided mistakes at the time, I’m not sure I remember how I avoided them; and because I avoided mistakes, I didn’t learn how to fix them. As I expected, I wouldn’t really know how to make a chair (or even a stool, the easy half of a chair) until I did it by myself.

I’m sure this will bore you, unless you want to make fun of me. But I’ll probably refer to it again in the future, and “future me” is as much of a part of my target audience as you are.

Problem: Seat holes were drilled at the wrong angle. This required major adjustment during reaming, and left gaps around the legs in the seat top (which were luckily filled when I wedged them).
Cause: Although I used a bevel gauge to site the leg angle, I didn’t also use a square to make sure I was square to the sight line.
Solution: Use a square.

Problem: 2 side stretchers were cut too short and I needed to turn replacements.
Cause: I didn’t know how long my folding rule segment was.
Solution: Remember the rule is 7″ long.

Problem: While drilling a leg hole, the leg rotated in the V-blocks, ruining the hole and requiring a new leg.
Cause: Insufficient clamping strenth.
Solution: Use better clamps.

Problem: All 5/8″ holes took too long to drill and/or were burnished; bit required constant sharpening.
Cause: Dull drill bit. It seems to really suck.
Solution: Get a new bit, or try a new grind on the old bit.

Problem: A leg split during stretcher assembly, requiring building a new leg. Two side stretchers had minor cracks during stretcher assembly.
Cause: Tenons were cut too large, or with a taper; inappropriate wood used to turn the leg.
Solution: Learn the proper size to cut the tenons, and how to achieve consistent results. Don’t use open-grained wood for legs, it splits too easily.

Problem: A stretcher tenon was too small. I fixed it by gluing cloth around it to increase the diameter where it was inserted into the leg.
Cause: Tenon cut too small.
Solution: Learn the proper size to cut the tenons, and how to achieve consistent results.

Problem: Tapered leg tenons have a shoulder where the depth reference mark is, making it hard to seat them properly.
Cause: The tapered tenon cutter’s major diameter is smaller than the depth reference diameter on the stool’s plan.
Solution: Use a smaller depth reference diameter, or stop using the taper cutter (use the lathe instead).

Problem: Leg wedges didn’t drive very far into the seat.
Cause: Wedge angle too great.
Solution: Cut thinner wedges at a lower angle.

Problem: Leg wedges were hard to start in the tops of the legs.
Cause: Leg slot was squeezed shut by the seat.
Solution: File a v-notch in the wedge slot before inserting legs into the seat.

Problem: When wedging the legs, the cookies leftover from turning the legs broke off the bottom, and chipped the bottom of the legs.
Cause: I didn’t trim the cookies off after turning the legs.
Solution: Trim the cookies.

Problem: Stool wasn’t levelled properly: it rocks slightly on some surfaces.
Cause: My bench isn’t perfectly flat.
Solution: Move my bench around on the floor until it’s flat, or wedge one of the legs.

Things which were harder than they should have been, or took longer than they should have, even if they weren’t necessarily mistkaes :

  • Cutting wedges for the legs
  • Drilling 5/8″ holes
  • Trying to trim oversized stretcher tenons to the perfect size, off the lathe

Creative solutions to problems I’d prefer to avoid (Yes, I know you likely have no clue what I’m talking about, but I have to take notes somewhere and it might as well be here):

  • Glue one or more layers of cloth to a round tenon to increase the size of tenons if you trim the tenons too small or ream the leg holes too large. I learned this in Brian Cunfer’s class.
  • When I split a leg, but already had the undercarriage partially assembled, it was impossible to insert the leg in the undercarriage enough to measure a drilling angle for it. Instead, I mounted my broken leg in the v-blocks to set its reference line parallel to the table, and then replaced it with the good leg before drilling using my reference angle. Since the legs are both straight, and differing leg diameters only move it horizontally, the angle came out correct.

There’s certainly no danger of perfection in my craft. But my willingness to screw up, and to say “good enough” when it’s good enough helps me get something done, and allows me to enjoy myself overall, even if the process isn’t going as perfectly as I might prefer. I can’t get better without doing it, but in order to do it at all I need to make some mistakes.