Thursday, January 27, 2011

A Pair of Contemporary Chairs, A Mt. Lebanon Side Chair, and NDB (New Bird Day)

There's nothing like hoisting a big beautiful hunk of 8/4 oak onto the bandsaw to test the courage of your design convictions.  I love oak, the "monarch of timbers" -- it's tough, but responds to handtools, it's heavy, but its strength allows you to create graceful forms.  And it bends well -- unlike hard maple -- but I don't want to give away the end of this tale.

After laying out my final design for the contemporary chair on plywood, I cut the template, and using a flexible sanding stick, faired all the curves.  I then transferred this to my stock and cut to within 1/16" of the line.  Using a honking big piloted spiral router bit (that I bought during my brief foray into guitar building), I brought the shape to its near final form.  One mistake I made was not cutting the template a couple of inches over length on both ends to avoid grabbing end grain.  I did, however, cut the stock long and I was able to baby it through the process.

I thought about noodling through the joinery before I cut the components, but one thing I have learned about chairs is that the most accurate way to hit your mark is to start building and cut pieces to fit the developing form.  Using loose tenon joinery also helps with that approach.

The next step is to cut the mortices with my router and shop-made morticing jig -- a Frankenstein's monster if you ever saw one.  To get the angle from front to back of the seat, I used the bevel gauge to cut wedges and placed these under my plunge router.  Now, all I need to do is line up the legs in the jig, determine the distance of the mortice from either the outside or inside face of the stock (it doesn't matter which, as long as you are consistent), and take multiple passes with the router to a depth of 1 1/4".  If this sounds swift and easy, it was not.  I woke up several nights puzzling through the joinery and I was on my toes the whole time.

After cutting the side rail mortices I inserted little tenons to ensure that the angles were correct and look at the way things were progressing.  Right away, I noticed that my original dimensions seemed too massive and I adjusted accordingly.  My next step is to cut the side rails, scribe the actual angle that they meet the front and back legs, and compare that to my original "Master Angle".  I will then fit (what should be) the front and back rails at the correct 90 degree angles.  Ahhh. . . the joys of a prototype.

Now that the correct parts have arrived, it is time to give the new steambox its inaugural run.  The "Bayou Burner" did everything that it promised and really put out the BTU's.

The temperature stayed consistent at 200 degrees F and the steam just poured out the front and back.

My steam-bending experience is exclusively with oak, and I was up for a surprise bending this hard maple.  I gave the back slats 45 minutes, and secured them in their form.  Not bad, but I would have thought it would be more pliable.

The back legs cooked for two plus hours and were more of a challenge.  I expected that, like oak, the legs would come out of the hot-box just a-steaming -- but they were made of sterner stuff.  Jump in if you know the answer, but it seems that maple, much less porous than oak, really doesn't want to take in any of the water.  I wrenched them into their form with some difficulty.  I am expecting some serious spring back.

Strictly from an ecological point of view I really didn't like working maple in this fashion.  Using all that energy to force the material to do something it didn't want to do seems a waste of time and resources.  It gives me new insight into the wisdom behind stock selection with Windsor chairs.

As the above picture illustrates, we got a bit of snow last night -- fifteen inches to be precise, and it brought our house to a standstill.  But, it's an ill wind that blows no good, (as they say) and the upside is that it allowed me to add a new bird to my life list.  A pair of Ring-Necked Ducks, a smallish diving bird, took refuge on our pond.  They will probably split after the snow melts, but they were a most welcome surprise.

Next, I'll install the rails on the contemporary chairs and (hopefully) complete the Mt Lebanon Side Chair.

Stay warm!


  1. I know what you mean by forcing wood to do something it doesn't want to. I had that problem in spades with my last project. Everything looking good though. I guess you are using white oak. I've used it some and like it.

  2. The snow and the sun look very pretty, if a little cold. Good progress on the chair building.

  3. Thanks Guys, Pablo, do you have any experience bending hard maple? It was really a drag.

  4. We dont have maple in this country...unless I want to buy the imported stuff. I think most chairs in Australia would be built with mouintain ash or tasmanian oak. Jarrah is also popular and is a hard timber but I haven't seen anyone bend it.

  5. thanks for your post, your article very nice