Saturday, August 24, 2013

Ladderback Chairs: Refined Results from a Minimal Toolkit

From this:

"It's log, it's log, it's big, it's heavy, it's wood!"

To this:

 in 6 days. [Part One of Two]

Partly this is about “What I Did over Summer Vacation”; partly it's about another version of minimalist woodworking. As I work, think, and write about the Thousand Dollar Shop, 3 different minimal shops are gradually coming into focus. One of them, for people who want to work on cabinets and home improvement projects, can start with the circular saw and router. Another, for those focused on making fine furniture in solid wood, is centered around a stout workbench and good hand tools. But at Country Workshops, we spent 6 long days using the most minimal toolkit I've worked with, for making chairs, and centered on the shaving horse, drawknife, and spokeshave. I found it powerful, flexible, stimulating, affirming, and satisfying. The week I spent with Drew Langsner, his intern Nathan, and 7 other students is going to influence my woodworking for a long, long time to come.

Even if you're not interested in post and rung chairs, the green woodworking shop has a lot to offer the woodworker on a shoestring budget. Do you like the look of quartersawn oak? Does the concept of using local trees appeal to you? How about “free lumber”? Check this sequence out:

Advanced students will note the windshake. Degrades value at the sawmill; rivers like us can work around it.

You can do this with any freshly sawn log that splits well. Split a log in half. Split the halves in half. Split the quarters in half. Split the eighths in half. You have just converted a log into slats that, if you plane them with two parallel faces, are quartersawn. Though they aren't sawn, but riven.

At this point you can stack your riven wood in a semi-protected place for air drying, or if you know what you're making, you can do rough shaping of parts, leaving them a bit oversized to allow for shrinkage and final shaping. Here is a stack of roughly 1” x 1” billets that, after drying, will become 5/8” diameter rungs for chairs:

That's the procedure we went through, several times during the week. Drew Langsner says if the class were music, it would be structured as a theme and variations. Cut a 20” section off the log, split it into 1x1 blanks, drawknife roughly square
drawknife and spokeshave into octagons, you've got rungs. Cut a 22” section of the log, split it into 2x2 blanks, drawknife square, drawknife and spokeshave into octagons,
you've got front legs. Cut a 40” section off the log, split it into 2x2 blanks, drawknife square, drawknife and spokeshave into octagons, you've got back legs. The variations are the differing sizes of the parts, and the tapers given to the legs. Next comes an interlude, a complex polyphonic section featuring cutting a relief, drying rungs, steam bending legs,
We tried to fool Drew into thinking we were making a fatal mistake, he could tell what we were up to and just walked on by. "Don't think that hasn't happened before," he said about another mistake. Like Annie Lenox sang, there's no such thing as an original sin.
in an accelerating process with more to take account of at each step, when abruptly the music comes to a stop, and you're standing in front of an almost complete chair frame.
After a quick breath, the coda: split out the back slat blanks, drawknife them flat and thin, refine their shapes, limber them in boiling water, insert the back slats to dry, ta-dah!

The audience begins to applaud, but wait - - the conductor directs us in weaving a seat with cotton Shaker tape,
padded by a muslin bag stuffed with oak shavings from making the rungs. Now we're really done, and we get to take a bow:

We worked hard for 6 days, and made 9 chairs out of a log a bit less than 12 feet long, just under 2 feet in diameter. We also made friends, ate 3 phenomenal al fresco meals a day, and enjoyed scenery that made our hearts glad. 

One of my classmates has taught woodworking in secondary schools, and I've taught at Highland Woodworking well over a decade, and we both greatly admired Drew's teaching. If you ever get the chance to be in a class with him, seize it. He is a true maestro.

Next entry: the toolkit.

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