Monthly Archives: June 2008

June 23 c-arm

The June 23 c-arm class is in session this week.  I have written before about making my favorite chair.  I recommend those posts to anyone who wants to know more about the C-arm, the most refined and complex of all  Windsor chairs.


The class is noticeablely different from other C-arms.  Out of 19 people in a class required for Knighthood, there were no knightings.  On the other hand, there were twelve in the raising.  The two numbers are related.  Raising twelve students to master chairmaker, means almost two thirds of the class was making their first advanced chair.  All these people are just beginning their chairmaking studies. They are new blood keeping the craft alive and vital.  I expect that over the next two years a lot of them will become knights.


Among this group are Mary and Charles Shevlin, husband and wife; and Phil and Phil Bensing, father and son. Young Phil will begin his senior year in high school this fall. Joe Paterson and Steve Denvir are here from Ontario, and Peter Young flew in from Australia. Peter has been writing about Windsors for an Australian woodworking magazine.  Joe, Steve, and Peter are in the vanguard of accomplishing The Institute’s stated purpose “For hand made Windsor chairs to take over the world.”


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Fred, Don, and I have already decided to forward a nomination from this class to the Board of Directors of the Chairmaker Hall of Fame.  I will the present Travis Butler’s innovation at the Board’s July meeting.  Travis is also scheduled to become a Knight of Windsor during the November 17 NYC bow back side chair class.  If the Board of Trustees approves his nomination for field trials, and then inducts him, Travis could become a Knight of Windsor and an Immortal the same year.  I think Travis will also be the youngest Immortal.


The Hall of Fame bylaws grant me the privilege of naming an innovation once it has resulted in membership.  I am kicking around two:  “Bultler’s Bridge” or “Bridge to Terabutlia.”  If you don’t get the second one, you don’t have any kids in middle school.


At the July meeting the Board of Trustees will be voting on another nomination that just wrapped up its field trials.  I will report favorably on an innovation suggested by Sir Ken Hall.  I don’t have a name yet.  I am interested in suggestions from you who have used his innovation while in trials.


Assuming affirmative votes for both Sir Ken and Travis, by the end of the year, the number of members of the Royal Orders also counted among the Immortals will increase from three to five. Currently, only the late Sir Richard Nichols, Sir Croxton Gordon and His Grace Gordon Keller, have been inducted into the Hall of Fame.


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During the week I read and approved the galleys for an article that will be published by Popular Woodworking in the October issue.  Last week we shot the photos for another article that will appear in the following issue.  If you like the articles I write, you should subscribe to that magazine. That’s the only place I publish anymore.


Having said that, I did contribute several paragraphs to an article being written by an editor at Early American Life magazine.  The piece is about writing arm Windsors.  It will appear in their October issue.  We will teach our writing arm class November 3.  The week we are teaching any particular style of chair I often write about the problems that chair entails.  It is a natural time, as the chair is on my mind.  I may include my contribution in that week’s posting.


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You may have seen newscasts about the flooding in Clarksville, MO. Many of you know that this quaint tourist town is home to H. G. Ralph Quick and his wife Caron.  They run a very successful Windsor chairmaking shop there.  People who have been in classes with Ralph and Caron have emailed to ask if I knew how they were doing.


I heard from Ralph this week.  He emailed me the news and some photos of Clarksville. The town is a mess, but so far Ralph and Caron have been spared. Several more days of rain are predicted starting this weekend, and they are nervous.

Caron did leave a brief message on our answering machine.  In the midst of all these troubles, she did have exciting news.  She and Ralph and their chairs are going to be in an IMAX movie.  We are waiting for more details, and I will report them here.


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After that news, you need a good laugh. To tickle your ribs, here’s another offering from our humor archive called “A Duck Walks into a Chair Shop…”


The Windsor Institute was wrestling with lots of problems caused by Shaker chairmakers making Windsors and selling them on the internet. (See last week’s post.)  All that took a back seat to the recent pigeon problem.  Swarms of pigeons invaded the campus.  They perched on the peak of every roof.  They landed on cars.  They took over the bending area.  Their droppings covered every surface.  Anyone leaving the buildings was instantly targeted by numerous birds swooping and pooping at once.


The staff was desperate. They tried all sorts of pest control experts and exterminators, but the birds were determined to stay. At last, a stranger showed up dressed in a costume made up of many different colored patches.  The stranger spoke first to Fred and Don and told them he could get rid of the pigeons.  The desperate Windsor chairmakers escorted the fellow to the office, where Mike was hiding under his desk.


“This guy says he can get rid of the pigeons,” said Don.  Mike crawled out and eyed the guy with suspicion.  Wearing that funny outfit, he didn’t look like he could be trusted.


“My name is Mr. Piper,” the stranger told Mike. He handed Mike his business card which read “P. Piper, Pest Control.”

 “I can get rid of your pigeon problem,” claimed Mr. Piper.  “To top it off, I’ll do it for free.”


Free?  That got Mike’s attention.  “There is just one catch,” Piper added.  “You must ask me no questions.  If you ask me a question it will cost you two grand.”


Fred, Don, and Mike huddled. “What the heck.  If it doesn’t work, it won’t cost us anything.  And if it does work, we’re golden.”  The three told Mr. Piper to do his best.


“Fine,” the man in the multicolored costume responded.  “But remember, any questions and you owe me $2K.”


The next day Mr. Piper showed up at The Institute.  He was carrying something under a cloth cover. He walked to the middle of the lawn and pulled off the cover.  Under it was a cage containing a blue pigeon.  He opened the cage door and off flew the blue pigeon.  Immediately, the huge flock of pigeons who had taken up residence at The Institute took to the air.  In a huge cloud, they flew off after the blue pigeon.  Meanwhile, like the pigeons Mr. Piper disappeared.


Several days later Piper showed up at The Institute. “I just dropped by to make sure you were satisfied with my work,” he told Mike.


“Yeah. Yeah.  We’re delighted,” Mike answered.  “Can you come up the office?”


Fred, Don, and Mike were again alone with the man in the many colored outfit.  “I have to ask you a question,” Mike said.

Piper held up his hand to stop Mike.  “Remember, no questions. If you do ask me one it will cost you two large.”  Mike reached into his pocket and took out his wallet.  He counted out 20 Ulysses S. Grants and gave them to Mr. Piper.


He asked, “You got a blue Shaker chairmaker?”


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Odds ‘n Ends

            Anyone who has taken sack back with us is aware of our imaginary rivalry with Shaker chairmakers. Those of you wishing to become Windsor chairmakers attend your school The Windsor Institute.  Those wishing to become Shaker chairmakers attend our rival school, Shakermaker U. We refer to them as the “vile and treacherous Shaker Chairmakers from Shakermaker  U.”  It is part of the fun we have while making chairs. 


            Then, I describe how the Royal Orders gets together regularly for evening celebrations. “Due to copious consumption of a certain amber colored beverage,” these celebrations usually turn a bit rowdy.  When that happens, the knights often think up pranks to play on Shaker chairmakers – pranks that usually cause problems for me. After all, Yankee magazine dubbed me “the Dean of Windsor Chairmakers.”  By that reasoning, Mother Ann Lee is the Dean of Shaker Chairmakers.  When the Royal Orders gets into one of their Animal House modes, she files her complaints with me. Her notes arrive by carrier pigeon, as the Shakers don’t have telephones.


            My story continues.  At a recent get together the Royal Orders got the hare brained idea of dressing up one of their members as a Shaker chairmaker and sneaking him into Shakermaker U. They sent him in with one of those little spy cameras and he managed to take pictures of the dining hall at Shakermaker U.


            I show the class the picture our Royal Orders member took of the dining hall.  Around the long tables, the Shakers have Windsor chairs, not those uncomfortable, back breaking things they make and sell. There is also a close up of one of their Windsors. (The picture is really from the dining room at Hancock  Shaker  Village in  Pittsfield, MA, but it makes the point.) Next, I explain how our Knight was more resourceful than I would have preferred. He managed to sneak into Mother Ann Lee’s office and take a picture of her personal chair. I hold up a picture of her sack back rocker in the collection of the Fruitland Museaum in Harvard, MA.


            In class I explain that the “Greatest public relations coup in the history of humanity was the Shakers convincing the rest of the world that they made good chairs.” I go on to say  that now, we have proof positive that the Shakers do not sit in the chairs they make.  They sell those chairs to the rest of the world and laugh all the way to the bank.


            Finally, at every graduation, dressed in the robes of a Doctor of Windsology, I deliver the Dean’s Speech.  In it, I charge the graduating chairmakers to “go out into the world and accomplish The Institute’s stated purpose – for hand made Windsors to take over the world, and to bring about the downfall of Shaker chairmakers every where.”

            All along both you and I thought it was all a joke.  Well, thanks to Chuck Pezeshki, we can prove those Shakermakers are truly vile and treacherous.  We can prove that they are our sworn enemies and will stop at nothing to defeat Windsor chairmakers. In fact, as Chuck noted in his email, “Those devious chairmakers at Shakermaker U have established a beachhead.”

            He’s right. The invasion has begun. Their heel is on our shore.  Every Windsor chairmaker must step into the breech. Visit this web site:
Need I say any more? To the barricades!


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            The July issue of “Country Living” magazine has a page on Windsors.    While the article includes a brief  history of Windsors, it is hardly in depth.   The purpose is to show readers what a Windsor is.     The most interesting thing on the page is the chairs shown at the bottom.   They are there so reader’s can compare prices of Windsors available today.   You can purchase a factory made Ethan Allen c-arm for $329.    Or, you can buy the budget Windsor at Target.   They sell a pair of bow back side chairs for $70.   I’m sure these are made in Asia like the chairs sold at J. C. Penny.    (See the September 12, 2007 post.)   Finally, you can buy a cast-aluminum contemporary Windsor from Oly Studio for $1,325.   From my point of view, a hand made Windsor for $700 is a pretty good bargain.


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      Many of you will remember my November 20, 2007 post about planemaker Leon Robbins.  Many of you emailed wishing you had bought a Leon plane while he was alive.  This will interest you.  Leon’s daughter contacted me recently.  She was cleaning out and came across a group of planes made by Leon. She had no way to sell them and asked me if I would help.  I told her I would be happy to display the tools here and anyone buying one could mail her a check.

      Last week, I received a box of 16 planes.  Fourteen were made by Leon.  The other two are antiques – a fillister and a large OG molding plane.  There are some molding planes made by Leon, but most are smooth planes or small scraper planes.

      Leon called his business Crown Plane and marked all his planes with a stamp of a crown and with his initials, LR.  I was interested to discover that he had an earlier stamp. It is a shield with a flying bird.  He then stamped LR in the shield.  I know it was done in two operations, because on one plane he stamped his initials upside down.      

     When I knew Leon, his work was very distinctive.  He used curly maple that he dyed a reddish brown.  These earlier planes are different, and he used a variety of other techniques. Some are banded with exotic woods.  Others are inlaid with ivory stars. My guess is that most of these planes are early work.     

     The planes are on display in The Institute’s kitchen.  His daughter put a price tag on each one. If you are in an upcoming class, or are in the area, drop by (during a class) and see the planes.  Remember, I am doing this as a favor and have my own business to run. So, I can’t get into emailing pictures, giving descriptions, shipping, etc. The planes will go to the walk in traffic. Once they are gone, I’m afraid Leon’s work will only pop up on Ebay.  You’ll find one when you find one and prices will be set by the high bidder.  

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            The 2009 schedule was included in my June 15 eNewsletter.  It will soon be on the web site.  If you want to see it sooner, drop me an email.  By the way, the members of the Royal Orders have already seen the new chair in 2009.  They always get first shot at a new class.  Royalty has privileges other than flogging peasants.

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Steam Bending, Part IV

This the fourth part of a very long explanation and description of steam bending.  I cannot run the whole part at once, and too much goes on around here to run it over consecutive weeks.  Therefore, I am posting it as I can.  If you are only starting to read my blog, you may want to search for Parts I, II, and III and start there.   Mike Dunbar. 

If the steam box did not have some relief, the test caps on either end would be blown off as  pressure developed in the tube.   We make a 1/2 inch relief hole in the bottom of each end of the tube.  The steam enters the tube in the middle and travels in both directions, escaping out the vent holes.  This ensures an even distribution in the box.   When our boxes are running at full steam, a plume of water vapor blows down from the ends of the tubes  to the ground.  We can look out the classroom window and tell how things are going in the bending area.  

Because heat rises, the parts do not sit on the bottom of the box.  There, they would also be bathed in cooler condensed water.  Instead, they  rest on a rack made of stainless steel bolts that pierce the tube.  Regular steel bolts would leave dark purple stains on the parts.   

As little as 15 minutes is all that is  required to plasticize  red oak chair parts.  This time can vary somewhat according to the circumstances.  The  wood we use is freshly cut before each class.  That means our  bendings  already  have 25% moisture content and that all we need to do is heat them.  If your wood has been stored for a while and allowed to air dry, it may be around 14%.  You should steam a bit longer, perhaps 20-25 minutes.     

Chairmakers who live in the Rocky Mountain states or at other high elevations,  have another problem.   Water boils at a lower temperature the  higher you are.  I ran into this problem in 1980 and 1981 when I taught  chairmaking classes at BYU in Provo, Utah.   We managed to bend successfully by steaming our parts even longer than usual.  We left them in the box 40- 45 minutes.  Because the wood was  noticeably cooler than at lower elevations, we worked even more quickly.   

Adding fabric softener to the water in the boiler has been suggested in some  woodworking magazines as a way to soften the wood’s fibers and make it bend more easily.  I have tried that trick and have not found that it makes any difference. 

Before removing a piece of wood from the steam box, be sure that  every thing else is prepared and ready.  You only have about 45 seconds to complete the bends before the wood becomes too cool, and you do not want to waste any of that time fumbling.  Always check the form to make sure it is securely clamped to the bench.  Be sure   that the bending strap is easily accessible.  Check that  you have the required number of wedges and pins,  as well as a hammer.  I always go through this mental checklist. For beginners, I recommend  refreshing the bending process in their minds  by first pantomiming it.   

Remove the wood from the box with a pair of tongs.  We use the ones sold in a super market for picking ears of corn out of boiling water.   Before you open the steam box remember what  you learned in  your high school physics class.  Released steam will rise.    To avoid a burn, always open the box  and approach it with the tongs from below.  

Remove the part from the box and moving quickly,  place it in the bending strap and secure it to the bending form.   While you want to move quickly when setting up the bend, remember that as you bend,  speed is your enemy.   You must give the wood time to compress.  If you move too quickly, you shift the outside edge of the bend from compression into tension.  While wood compresses very well, it has a very limited ability to stretch.  Tension will cause failures.  Avoid it by bending slowly and deliberately.  

“Do you wear gloves?” is a common question asked by students.  I advise against them.  As you gain experience bending you will discover that you can sometimes feel problems in time to correct them.   We will sometimes feel a piece beginning to weaken and turning the part around, bend  it successfully in the other direction.  Roll up too, can be felt by a pair of experienced hands.  You will never develop this “feel” for the wood if you wear gloves.   

While steamed wood is quite hot, you can juggle it back and forth while carrying it to the form,  and can switch hands while bending.  The wood needs to be this hot and if it is not, you will experience more failures. I always tell students, “If you’re not swearing,  it’s not hot enough.”  

You  cannot tell if the wood has been sufficiently heated when wearing gloves.   Furthermore,  bending requires  dexterity.  Gloves make your hands too clumsy.   While we have few bending failures at The Institute, they do occur.  Failures are a fact of life that a chairmaker has to accept, as bending wood  is an art, not a science.  Four types of failure can occur when bending. They are:  delamination, tension shear, compression failure, and roll up.  

Delamination is by far the most common failure.  In this case, a layer of wood peels off the outside edge of the bending.   A  tension shear occurs when the wood fibers rupture, tearing like cloth across their width.  In a compression failure, the wood on the inside of the bend fails to compress evenly, and kinks up like ribbon candy.   Roll up occurs most commonly in pieces with a rectangular section, such as the sack back arm rail.  In this case, the part  does not remain in a plane as it is bent.  Instead, the rear edge rolls upward.   

A failure is not necessarily catastrophic and can frequently be fixed.  The difference between it  going into the scrap pile or into a chair is usually a matter of degree.  If it is not too large,  a delamination can be tacked back into place with glue.  It is best to wait a day or two for the wood to dry a bit. 

A small  tension shear can be consolidated with cyanoacrylate glue, which with a sufficient number of applications will actually fill the void.  We saturate small compression failures with cyanoacrylate and when it is dry,  smooth the crinkled, ribbon candy effect  with a plane or spoke shave.  We remove roll up by clamping the bending flat between two boards and setting it aside to dry.  

The first three failures can frequently be prevented by bending in a slow, steady motion.  As I said above, speed is the enemy.   Roll up results from one of two causes.  If the part’s edge against the bending block was not made at a right angle to the upper and lower surfaces, the part’s section  is a parallelogram rather than a rectangle. In this case, the rear edge will lift as the front edge is pulled tight.

If you would like to receive periodic updates, tips, tool reviews, and new sources, that are outside the scope of this blog, join our mailing list by emailing me at  Help us spread the word about this blog. Tell others.