Monday, May 12, 2014

'You Only Think You're Close' No Longer Applies -- Looking back on the last few weeks

So much has happened in the last few weeks around the shop and with my projects. It's hard to know where to start, since there was just no time to write about any of it as it was happening.

So I think I'll just touch on a few of the highlights and share some pictures since people seem to like that.

In a recent post I wrote about the challenge of joining the chair arms to the back legs, which come up to form the back of the chair. That was tricky, and I thought of it as what we would call the ‘crux’ in climbing – essentially the hardest part of the route.

Turns out I was wrong. After the arms were landed, it was time to move on to the backsplats a crest rail. I’ll post a pic to show what that looks like, but essentially there are six joints that all have to land at once. And they’re tricky joints, with angles and curves. And when you adjust one with a file or plane or chisel, it inevitably throws the others out of whack – even if they were perfect a moment ago.

That, it turns out, was the crux. But I got through it. I laughed a couple times, thinking back to two months ago when I was gluing up major components and feeling pretty proud of myself and David, one of our instructors, walked by. He must have detected a bit of a swagger as I stood back eyeballing my chairs. He said: “You only think you’re close.” And he was right, of course.

Anyhow. I landed the backsplats and the crest rails, and I moved on to the seemingly endless list of next steps. Finishing the shaping, steaming out dings and dents, applying finish.

And finally, when that was all done, and I could stand back and be satisfied, it was time to move onto something new – weaving the seats!

After debating back and forth for a while, I decided to stick with the tried and true standard, Danish cord. I figured out the weave pattern I wanted, researched the technique, and even mocked up a practice seat to work on before I started with the real thing.

Once I figured it out, it was a meditative, mellow process. And they tied the chairs together, Literally, haha. Really though, the before and after was amazing.

Since then it’s been a whirlwind of preparing for the open house, having half the town attend the event, then preparing for the Highlight Gallery show, launching that show with a formal reception on Saturday, and finally seeing all our work in one place being enjoyed by many. So cool.

There was one cool moment for me at the Highlight show, when Tina and Britta Krenov (James Krenov's widow), got excited when they saw my chairs, which as I've mentioned before were designed by Vidar Malmsten, a close friend of JK's. They've had a set in their house for years, and still do, just as strong and pretty as when they were build 40 or 50 years ago.

Ok, more later, but here are some pictures of all the stuff I just talked about!
Gluing up the backsplats, which lock into the lumbar rail and crest rail, which is dowelled into the top of the legs. Lots of things need to line up just right for this to work. But when you get it... so sweet.

I made a mock-up seat to practice weaving the Danish cord. Here it is.

One of the biggest challenges with the Danish cord was just figuring out how to start. Where to place the L-shaped nails, etc. I figured it out eventually but it took a while.

The real thing. These are the front-to-back 'warp' strands. Next, the side-to-side, over under, 'weavers' are installed. One thing I learned: Don't draw ever strand completely tight. Leave slack. It will tighten on it's own as you move along. Otherwise the tension builds and builds and the chair can actually implode. It's been known to happen.

Boom! Finished. And I think they look pretty darn good. I've been told the arm chair looks like an 'old man chair.' Does anyone else think that? I think it's crazy talk, personally.

At the Highlight Gallery, next to Jess Osserman's caned chair.

Hey! Vidar next to Al Martini's distinguished looking desk. Nice combination.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Why You Should Never Wear Loose Clothes Around a Big Jointer: A Cautionary Tale

A CR alumnus came by the shop the other day. He's now a professional woodworker who lives in the area.

He was carrying a paper bag. He rang the bell in the centre of the benchroom (that's what we do when we need to get everyone's attention for an announcement) and said he wanted to tell us a story about what can happen when you aren't careful in the shop.

He had been working, wearing a baggy "crappy $1 t-shirt from the second-hand store," running planks over the jointer.

He said he thought about putting on his shop apron, but didn't want to stop and just kept working, contrary to his instincts.

The next thing he knew, he was being pulled into the exposed jointer blade (a vortex of spinning razor sharp blades made to chew through wood) and it was all he could do to do a push-up on the machine's table to stay away from the danger.

The entire shirt was ripped from his body, save for the cuff of one sleeve.

"And....I will admit I was listening to music," he told us a little sheepishly. As a result he couldn't hear his machine when it first grabbed the fabric.

In the end, he was fine. The shirt wasn't. As pictured below, it was a shredded mess. Scary to think what could have happened if he was wearing a more durable T-shirt.

Lesson learned.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Just a Quick Update on Vidar's Progress

Things have been coming along with my chairs and I'm on schedule to finish by my May 5 deadline.

You might remember that one chair has arms, the other does not. I wanted to mix it up a little.

I had been warned that the arms are one of the most difficult aspects of the chair, and I found that to be true last week and this week. Shaping the arms wasn't hard. Mortising the arms wasn't hard. Doweling the arms wasn't hard.

Fitting the arms to the back of the chair, however, was somewhat nightmarish.

Ok it wasn't that bad, but it was a challenge. The back legs of the chair, which come up to form the back rest, are pillowed on the front -- right where the arms connect. That means the arms themselves have to be concave, and curved, and angled, and tapered, to perfectly fit the mating surface.

Achieving this fit requires a round bottom rasp, gouges, double stick tape and sandpaper, and a lot of trial and error. But I finally nailed it and glued up today.

It was one of those glue ups where you walk away with a completely clear conscience knowing you didn't have to cheat at all to get the joint to close up just right. No crazy clamp pressure, no twisting or filling gaps with glue. It just worked. Beautiful.

Here are some pictures:
Here is the chair dry-fit and ready to go.
Close of up the nightmarish joint.
And here is the chair all clamped up!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

'Shiny Shit Sells' and Other Pearls of Wisdom From The Workshop

Josh Smith presents a bench to classmates at the College of the Redwoods Fine Woodworking program
You hear these little nuggets around the shop from time to time, whether in a lecture, a ‘walk-around’ or just in conversation.
And some of them are just begging to be written down and shared.
I guess the journalist in me is still alive and well because I always have to record them. 
And now I think I’ll share them with you all.

“I have a friend who is a contractor. He makes money. I have a friend who is a cabinetmaker. He makes money. I am an artisan.” – Ejler Hjorth-Westh
“I used to make money, then I came to this school.” – Ejler
“When you walk into a room that is full of loudness, it is the quiet piece that gives you refuge. A loud piece essentially says ‘stay away.’” – Ejler
“Learn to love the 1%. People are lovable everywhere.” – Ejler
“I see the beauty of the wood, but I still want it to be what I want it to be.” – Ejler during a lecture on applying finishes
‘Seek the inner beauty of the wood, and be wary of overly vulgar glassiness, which is a real temptation.” – Ejler
“Shiny shit sells.” - Ejler
“It’s easy to measure a gap. You can’t put a measurement on taking a risk and a successful project,” – David Welter quoting Krenov
“The entire time the thought of carving out that seat scared me the most. So that’s where I started.” – Welter
“Krenov used to always say there’s no ego in this work. But there was never a more willful man that walked this Earth. That always puzzled me.” – Welter
“The piece reflects the attitude in which it was created.” – Welter
“As JK said: Hand tools give us the fingerprint on the work. Machines give us the accuracy, the precision.” – Yeung Chan
“Overcoming what you already believe – I think that is part of the learning process.” – Tim, while presenting his table to classmates
“A curve should be like a blade of grass in the wind. Where it is thin it bends a little more and there is motion and movement.” – Welter describing Krenov’s view on curved lines in a cabinet.
“There’s a tendency to confuse sharpness with exactness.” – Welter
‘Death alone can prevent you from making mistakes.” – Krenov
“It’s fun. It’s those little touches that takes this work a cut above the others.” – Jim Budlong on why we make handmade catches and latches
“It became more important for the cabinet to be beautiful. And in the end people will put into it what goes into it.” – JK on a student debating whether to make a cabinet 5’ deep or 7’
“When does something rich, ample and voluminous become just fat?” – Krenov
“You can’t have too much wood. It’s impossible. Unless you don’t plan on living long.” – Krenov
“He saw it, and it wasn’t. He saw it again, and it was.” – Krenov describing an incident where Malmsten told a student something wasn’t quite right, then came back after lunch and thought it was perfect (though nothing had changed).
“A chair is a negative imprint of the body. When it is empty, there you were a little while ago. It’s a lovely thing.” – Ejler
“Sometimes it is the absence of a person in the chair that actually makes the chair. And we must recognize that a chair sits empty most of its life.” – Ejler
“Your chair won’t last forever but it needs to last forever enough.” – Ejler
“It’s good to work cheap, once in a while, for the right reasons.” - Ejler
“Sometimes almost perfect is perfect enough.” – Laura Mays
“Let’s keep this school going. It’s the last thing in the world that means anything. It’s all going to shit.” Brian Newell

Sunday, March 16, 2014

How Ripping Something Apart Then Putting it Back Together Can Make it Stronger

We’ve learned a number of different techniques for bending wood, each method with its own strengths and weaknesses and contexts and purposes.
There’s coopering, which can be done one of two ways. You can either plane a curve into a solid piece of wood, or you can cut a solid piece into staves, bevel an angle on the edge of each one, then rejoin the staves together to create a faceted curve which can then be planed smooth.
Then there is steam bending, which is often used in chair making.
Another method involves the veneering of thin sheets, or plys, of wood on top of one another in alternating grain directions, over a form to create a bent core, which is then laminated with a shop-sawn veneer to create a beautiful outer surface.
You can also simply saw a curve out of solid wood when thick enough stock is available.
But recently I’ve been experimenting with bent laminating – a technique used often in chair making.
I had no pictures of my bent lam, so here is one courtesy of showing a rocking-chair rocker glue-up.
Here’s how it works: You saw a piece of solid wood into thin strips (we call this 're-sawing'), then run them across a jointer or through a planer to remove the saw marks.
Then, using a form you created that mimics the curve you want to achieve, you re-assemble those layers in their original order, apply glue to the joining surfaces, bend the whole unit around the form and clamp up like crazy!
Because the wood is sawn into such thin strips, it is able to form curves that the solid piece probably never would. 
A few hours after the glue up you remove the clamps and presto, you have a piece bent to the curve you need, ready to be shaped into a chair or table leg, arm or crest rail without the waste that would have occurred if you’d sawn it from solid wood.
To steam bend it, you would have to subject the wood to heat, water and steam, running the risk of over stressing the wood and causing breakage.
But with bent lamination there is very little waste, incredible bends can be achieved, and the wood, once re-assembled, often shows little or no evidence that is has been cut into slices and glued back together again.
I used the technique to create the lumbar rails on my chairs and the process has gotten me thinking about parallels in my own life.
I resonate with the concept of something that is whole, complete, strong and integral, being dismantled into smaller, weaker pieces. That happened to me as it happens to many of us -- the result of circumstances, life, mistake and brokenness. It was life.
But the point is that though the dismantling, the cutting up, was painful and unexpected and resulted in weakness, strength was able to come out of it.
The individual pieces were shaped, smoothed, and prepared through that process for future work.
And once they were put back together again, some imperfections were removed, strength and integrity were added and the end result, I hope, is a piece that is stronger than it was before that process began.
And the process didn’t just add strength it also provided new traits. Like the re-sawn wood, I can now bend in new directions that pride and ego and stubbornness simply wouldn’t allow before.
In high school I worked out in the weight room almost every day, desperately trying to not be the skinny, gangly 10th grader I was. A teacher who worked out with us and helped with our routines and described weight-lifting as the process of tearing, breaking and damaging your muscles a little bit every time you lifted a dumbbell. You were forcing those muscle fibres to grow back stronger, to knit together more closely. Strength and muscle were the result of that process.
I think what I’m describing here is the same process but it’s not the muscles that are growing back stronger, it’s the heart. With wood, the dismantling, re-shaping and re-assembly results in a stronger piece in a brand new shape.
I think, I hope, that somehow that same process has taken place in my heart.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Hickory bark vs. Danish cord -- what do you think looks better?

As you might recall, I'm building two chairs this semester (scroll down a couple of blogs to see a pic or click here and go to the bottom.)

The process is coming along and I'm now working on connecting the glued-up fronts and backs of the chairs, with seat rails and stretchers. This is what they currently look like:
I'm starting to think about the type of seat material I want to use, and I'm looking at two main options: Danish cord and hickory bark, and I need your input.

Danish cord is a paper based product used in many Danish or Scandinavian chair designs. It's durable and sustainable and has a low-key, subtle look that draws attention to the furniture, not the seat.

Hickory bark (also called 'splint') is also sustainable, subtle, and arguably could better compliment the wood of the chair frame, since it is also made from wood. It is typically used on 'country chairs' in the Shaker, or Windsor style but also occasionally in Danish-type designs - though not commonly.

I like them both. Ben, a second-year student who built the Vidar chairs last year, used Danish cord and it looks great. I'm considering hickory because it's a small way to put my fingerprint on the design and make it my own.

One other thing to consider: Ben's chairs are oak, which is quite brown, and he used white Danish cord. My chairs are ash, which is much lighter than oak, and the splint would be brown, which would mean the colour scheme from Ben's chairs would be reversed on mine. Which could be kind of cool.

Enough talk, here are the options. Would love your feedback!

Here is Danish cord on a chair by Caleb James (
Here is a stool with hickory splint seat by Brian Boggs (

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Video: How to make the Vidar's Chair crest-rail (with a surprise ending)

I've been working away on my Vidar's chairs and making good progress. Yesterday was a good day, as I glued up the backs of both chairs -- the first glue-up in this build. Pretty exciting! Next I need to make the crest rails and the back splats. The crest rail construction process is pretty complicated and difficult to explain, so I put together this little video after successfully cutting one out yesterday.
Check it out!