Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Building A Mt. Lebanon Side Chair: Finished and Woven

I've been dragging my feet on this project, and too much woodshedding and good times with distant friends has kept me from the shop (No complaints on either front, by the way!)  Thanks for the comments as well.  To answer James's question, all stock was kiln dried -- I'm sure that air dried stock would bend more easily.

All that remains to be done is to glue up, level the chair, apply finish, and weave the seat.  The glue up was a doddle.  I apply a bit of glue to the mortise and then I squirt some glue on a damp sponge brush to paint it on the tenons.  Insert, clamp, rest.

In a perfect world the chair would sit level right out of the clamps.  But because of a slight problem with my Side Rung Mortising Jig (the back slats were brushing against a support piece and altering the angle -- corrected by adding some height to the sliding arm.) there was a wobble of about 1/8".  Nothing to panic about.  I level the chair by placing it on a large, dead-flat surface (my tablesaw top) and identifying one of the offending legs.  It will always seem like two, and they will always be on a diagonal.  By measuring these two legs I can determine whether the issue is length (then trim the long one!) or twist.  With twist I dangle one of the "long" legs over the edge of the table -- with the others flat -- and mark the difference.  If it is slight (less than 1/16") I just trim it from that leg.  If it is more, I take about half off that leg, repeat the marking process on the diagonal leg, and remove the rest.  I think that this maintains some order in the universe.

The finish for this chair is boiled linseed oil (blo) followed by paste wax.  I like both the look and feel of a nice thin coat of wax and I'm not looking to alter the color.  As expected, it does nothing for the posts, but it really makes the figure in the curly slats pop.  I let 48 hours pass between the blo and the wax application, and let the wax sit for about three hours before I buff it out.  As long as you don't really slather on the wax you won't get into much trouble.

I defer, completely, to Kerry Pierce on the seat weaving portion of this project.  In his book, Chairmaking Simplified, he outlines a very straightforward and cost-effective way to weave the seat with rattan splint.  I purchased my splints from The Country Seat for about $10.00.  Pierce's instructions are pretty foolproof and explains everything but the tedium.  Soaking the splints helps to make them more pliable, but as they are so rough, you will be wondering at about the halfway point "Where is that blood coming from?"  Spoiler alert: it is coming from your fingers.  Oddly enough, I found this part to be the most satisfying (Not the blood part, but the weaving.)

So satisfying that I bought some extra thicknesses of basket reed with my order and fooled around making a basket.  (I know nothing about basket making, but like Manuel from Fawlty Towers, "I learned it from a book.")  I really like the strength and form you can get from weaving, and I'm wondering how I might use this in future pieces/designs.

Well, what do I think about this project?

I guess I could just say that I hated it, but that would be unfair.  Even with the back post bending omitted, it was very time consuming.  Coupling that with the fact that these chairs have a low-ish perceived value, I'd be hard-pressed to put these into the mix.  In fact, I just say an original go under the hammer for less than $300 not far from here -- one with provenance, made at the Mt. Lebanon Community!  However, now that I have the jigs, I may make more -- either as a batch of side chairs or as a single rocker.  I will say this.  Now that it is done, it is quite comfy!

Thanks for reading.  Up next is upholstery for the contemporary chairs, a prairie chair, an oak bookcase, and maybe a peek at a Butterscotch Blonde Tele I'm working on.  Thanks for reading.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Building A Mt. Lebanon Side Chair: A Web of Intrigue

While upholstery decisions are being made on the Contemporary Chairs, I have some time to complete construction on the Mt. Lebanon Side Chair.  Up to this point it has been primarily an exercise in turning spindles and making jigs -- oh, and some steam bending.  I let the back slats and back legs cook in their forms for about two weeks and released them into the wild.  As I suspected, there was significant spring back on the legs (for the record, they stayed in the steam box for 2+ hours at a constant 200 degrees F.  They just didn't seem to want to absorb any of the water.)  A bit of research tells me that hard maple is a real bear to bend, and that there is a high failure rate.

The remaining steps were to install the back slats, glue up the front and back "ladders", make the side rungs, drill the side rung mortices, and construct the chair.

Installing the Back Slats 

Although it may be difficult to see, the front of each slat lines up with the center line of the back leg, but because they are bent they, emerge at a different angle than the rungs.  This angle will vary, and you will need to eyeball it.  Kerry Pierce, in his book Authentic Shaker Furniture, outlines a method for hand-morticing these back slats that is quite workable. 

However, as I rained blows upon it,  I thought "There must be a better way."  So I made yet another jig.  This set-up allows me to suspend a router at an approximately 30 degree angle over the leg and rout for the slat . . . and I'll write about it in more detail on Sunday.  And while the 30 degree angle is fairly arbitrary, there is plenty of flexibility in the slats and the exact angle is not critical.  Once these are complete I glued up the back ladder.

Making the Side Rungs

I spent a pleasant hour at the lathe, listening to Billy Bragg and turning the six identical side rungs.  I've really become comfortable with the wrench-as-measuring-tool approach to tenons.  I just use a 3/8 parting tool and stop removing material when the 5/8" open wrench slides over the tenon.  Because the wrench is just a hair over-sized, I take one more little shaving before I remove it from the lathe.  Once the tenons are in place I shape the subtle swell-and-taper in the rung itself.

This little stack goes to be cut-off at the new Stanley Miter box, and then I get the absolute, precise OD by driving them through my dowel plate and trimming the waste with a chisel.

Drilling the Side Rung Mortices

Using the Side Rung Mortice Jig (as described in Pierce's book, Quick and Easy Jigs and Fixtures) I went about drilling the mortices.

The whole point of this contraption is to drill the holes in such a way that you create a seat that is wider in the front than it is in the back.  The geometry is simple as you drill the same angle in both the front and back ladders -- it is just that you turn the jig 180 degrees between the two to drill obtuse angles in the back and acute angles in the front.  The master angle in this case is 10 degrees (giving you angles of 80 and 100 degrees.)  And that is the angle of the wedge you cut to position the jig.

That angle, by the way, is determined by the width of the front legs.  If you were designing your own you could cut an angle that suited your eye, install the side rungs, and then cut the front rungs to create a front ladder that fit.  In this case, Pierce has already worked this out and you just work to his specs.

After drilling holes in the back ladder you turn the jig around and drill the holes on the front ladder.  The jig adjusts to accommodate the wider front.

Assembling the Chair

The moment of truth has arrived.  All the pieces are in place and it is time to see if your patience has been rewarded. 

I start by placing the rungs in the front ladder and then slowly working this unit on to the back assembly.  In this case, it goes together fairly easily.  And I know why.

According to some builders (Kerry Pierce) perfection is not your objective, and in fact he would argue that you want there to be some deliberate misalignment.  As long as it is consistent it will add tension to the chair --like a spider's web -- and make for better construction.  I liken it to the forces within a basket that give it strength and shape.  I know that I had a couple of errors in my drilling, but this really seemed to add to, not take away from, the stability of the chair.

Now on the other side, I've read a compelling argument from Peter Galbert on his excellent blog, Chair Notes, countering this error-as-strategy approach.  If you've ever seen his outstanding work, you would be hard-pressed to oppose anything he has to say about the designing or building of chairs -- so you decide for yourself.

Next, I'll apply the finish, weave the seat and have some final words about what I really think of this project.

Thanks for reading!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

A Pair of Contemporary Chairs: Working the Angles, Coming Together

It's a real leap of faith to conjure up an image in your mind and then begin creating it in wood.  It is also can be a sign of extreme hubris.  So, as the pair of contemporary chairs move from being stock, to pieces, to furniture, I approach the shop with equal parts impatience and terror.  The two skills -- designing and building -- are not necessarily linked and both are crucial if you want to be happy in your work.

That being said, things have gone well with these chairs and I am even ahead of schedule as I start the dry fit.  I was wondering why this has seemed fairly stress-free, and I really believe that it has been because I've tried to employ some discipline on the design/build process.  I'm sure that you've developed your own set of check points, but these tend to work for me.

1.  Begin with the form, but let the technical stuff follow right on its heels.  There are a thousand primers on how to build chairs, and each one is different.  When I noodled through the steam bend, lamination, cut-out decision for the curves, I was pretty confident that my chosen method would work.  Once I committed to drawing and cutting the curves, I never looked back.

2.  Don't make hand or power tools a religion.  There has been far too much power tool action in this project for my liking -- and, for the most part, I think it was the right way to go.  The problem is that I'm not good at keeping two ideas in my head at once.  While routing the mortices I got into machining mode and grabbed a random orbit sander (because this oak was proving to be a bit stringy.) In ten minutes my shop, clothes, and lungs were filled with dust.  After spending an hour cleaning, I switched my 4 1/2 smoother to the high angle frog (55 degrees) and had no problems with the oak.  I had just turned off my brain and turned this into a factory job.

3.  Making good jigs is the best possible use of your time.  Whether it is a template to rout curves, stops on your morticing jig, or wedges under your router, well-made jigs reduce frustration and make your shop safer.  It is so hard to stop from just digging into the project, but with all of these angles it was crucial that I  let something else carry the burden of the geometry and the mathematics.  Below, you will see that I even made a jig to make a jig.  This contraption allowed me to put precise 5/8" mortices in my back leg routing template that would, in turn, allow me to use a collar with my 1/2" spiral bit and mortice the upper and lower back rails.

4.  Remember that hand tools can make a good project great.  Hand planed surfaces cannot be reproduced by a sander and just look at how the first pass with a smoother exposes all the little ridges from your surface planer (thicknesser).  Beyond that, I've found it impossible to get the tolerances required in good furniture by any other means than by the micro-adjustments available with a plane or chisel.  Here is an example of how you can dial in a very small reveal by test fitting, and checking, planing and re-checking the fit.

5.  Leave a trail of bread crumbs.  Last year I was fooling around on the guitar and came up with a killer version of Petula Clark's "Downtown" with a funky rhythm and jazz chords.  Did I capo at the 5th or 7th?  I think I used a D form, but did I start right out with a Maj7 or did I go to it in the chorus? Or were they 6ths?  "Surely I won't forget, so why write it down?"  Now I have no clue.  The same goes with "composing" a piece of furniture.  I'm sure that I can make these chairs again in half the time if I just write down my process.  So why haven't I yet?

6.  Know when to quit. And I don't mean sensible rules like no power tools after 9 pm.  There are several points in a project where you need to look at it with fresh eyes.  Before glue up, I like to start the day with a final look over every detail, with all tools sharp, and with no end of the day rush to get done.  I'm much more likely to hold myself to the proper standard at 7:30 am than 6:00 pm.  The same goes for finishing or re-sawing.

7.  Treat yourself like a King (or Queen) in your shop.  For me, that means complete self indulgence with the tunes and the caffeine.  Most of the time I pipe in BBC Radio Three while I work.  I consider Sean Rafferty and Sara Mohr-Pietsch as my friends.  But today I listened to "Darkness on the Edge of Town" five straight times -- and I may listen to it again!  I find that my shop atmosphere plays a big role in how creative/professional/happy/patient I am.  I'm even finding that cleaning the place once in a while helps me to get more done.

I'm afraid that this shaggy dog story hasn't included much of the specifics about making the chairs.  I will say that as a loose tenon project, many questions are answered for you.  As I'm using a 1/2" bit, all mortices are 1/2" thick.  All pieces of stack are cut to their final length and mortices are centered in their thickness.  I generally cut one mortice, fine tune the slip tenon width to fit, and then mark the matching piece from this tenon.

I first glue up the rails with their tenons and do a dry fit.  In several cases I need to "relieve" the non-visible edge by 1/64" to allow the front (visible) edge to line up exactly.  I suspect that this translates to an error of less than 1/2 of a degree from the "Master Angle" of approx 4 1/2 degrees.

As you can see, I've let the front seat rails until last.  Theoretically, these should be 20" wide and meet the front legs at a 90 degree angle.  Once everything else is dry fit and clamped, I'll measure this and cut it to the real dimension -- it should be fairly close.

Next week I'll wrap up the details (such as squaring up the top rail "wind" -- at least that's what it is called on side rails), contemplate finishes, and prepare the chairs for the upholsterer.  I'll also free the Mt. Lebanon Side Chair pieces from their forms and assess the damage.

Thanks for reading.