Monthly Archives: June 2010

A Good Time was had by All

            Saturday was one of those “A good time was had by all,” days at The Institute. We hosted the New England chapter of the Society of American Period Furniture Makers and the period furniture group from the New Hampshire Guild.  It was a crowd of about 40 people. They had come to learn about steam bending.  They had a good time because they got to learn something new and do some hand-on steam bending.  We had a good time, because we always do when we have a group of woodworkers  together.  So, a good time was had by all.


            Don Harper and Donny Chesser helped out.  Don teaches with me at the Institute, and Donny has taken classes here. He also works at the Portsmouth Woodcraft Supply store. I began the activities with an involved presentation on bending; touching on its history in general  and eventually sharpening the focus onto our work. I began at the very begining — the tree growing in the woods. I talked about the need to know a log’s history and how we accomplish that. If you read about our splitting parties, you do too. I spent quite a bit of time describing log selection; how to read a log and how to make an educated guess as to what the wood looks like inside. Then, I described how we determine where to cut when bucking the logs into bolts. I explained that we need two, three, four and six foot bolts, as those lengths yield everything we use in our Windsor chair classes.


            I described good bending days vs. bad bending days and noted how they are counter intuitive. I talked at length about techniques for plasticizing wood and the wood’s properties. I explained what happens internally when wood bends — why compression is easy, but tension is a problem.  Because I had all morning to make my presentation, I could get into the real nitty-gritty details; whereas a chair class’

schedule constraints do not afford me the time to talk about the subject in this depth.  I dispelled the erroneous notions that result from the term green woodworking. I explained how the misconception that wood needs to be wet results in lots of people losing all their hard work to decay.


            Next, we went outside to examine the pile of splits we have stickered beside the shop.  I explained why we use our method of stacking as it allows air to circulate between them. The stacked splits are left over from our last splitting party and will be slowly turned into bending stock as we have time. While we were not able to demonstrate splitting, we were able to show the blue stain where wedges were placed in the rpocess of opening a six-footer by hand. We flipped some of the splits so the bark was facing up. This allowed me to better illustrate what to look for when selecting a log. We discussed winter vs. summer cut logs and the advantages of storing logs, bolts, and splits  during a New England winter – they freeze solid. We also touched on the problems of summer cut logs. The sap is up in them, and in the heat of summer, decay sets in quickly. During this time there was a lot of Q&A and interaction.


            Our next stop was the machine room where we spent some time talking about our Hitachi resaw. Most people were amazed to see a three-inch, stellite tipped blade. It does look aggressive.  Last Monday we had purposefully left the large stack of freshly cut bending blanks  propped up against a bench. This way, our guests could touch and feel and examine the wood at the stage when it begins to become a chair. I also left the door open into the catalog building so they could walk in and examine a big pile of spindle blanks on a bench. They also saw our huge chest freezer, that simulates a New England winter for us. by keeping our stock frozen 


            Finally, we went to the bending area. Don and Donny had set up some bending forms and had been tending one of our steam boxes for about an hour. So, we were ready to go. I talked about our steam box design and why we call it the Ultimate Steam Box. Besides being very efficient, it solves most problems woodworkers have with steam boxes. Then, I identified much of  the rampant misinformation about steam bending that has been printed in the magazines; such as why you don’t over bend to allow for spring back. I took lots of predictable questions –such as how long to steam and how long to dry?


            Next, I illustrated what I had said several times during the morning – bending is an art, not a science. Failure is very much an option. We keep a selection of dramatic failures to illustrate what can (and does) happen. We maintain our  failure pile because it does a good job of tempering our students’ enthusiasm and helps them remember the most important point – speed is your enemy. After seeing what can happen, students bend a lot more slowly and deliberately. Fear is a great teacher.


            On Friday, I had made up some chair parts that represented several different types of bends – sack back arms and bows, c-arms, and a crest.  Don, Donny, and I demonstrated bending each type. Then, we turned the bending over to anyone who wanted to try it. It took some coaxing before two guys got up the courage to volunteer. After seeing their success, lots of the others wanted to bend. In spite of it being a so-so bending day nothing broke. The parts were all added to our catalog inventory of pre-bent parts.  They will be sold to chairmakers all over the country and will end up in chairs we will most likely never see.


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We created a new sack back class that begins October 18. I stilkl have space in it. When it is full, there will be no more sack back classes until next spring.

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This Week’s Splitting Party

            We had a splitting party yesterday. Those of you who are just joining this blog may not know what that is. I assure you, it is not as the name suggests — a good time. Several times a year, I go to the log concentration yard and select a bunch of veneer grade red oak logs.  We have a truck deliver the logs. (The May 17 class got to see this happen.) Next, Fred, Don, Kevin, and I get together and turn those logs into material for chair backs. Splitting parties are back breaking. I know the other four go home as exhausted as I do. It is a job for young guys, but two us are in our 60s and the other two are in their 50s.

            In spite of our age, less than two hours after we begin, the logs have been turned into piles of two, three, four, and six foot splits, ready for the next step. Those lengths provide us with the lengths we need for all our parts. The process reminds me of when my parents would put down a steer or a pig. In two hours we had only large parts of the carcass, but nothing that looked like the original animal. Even though the heavy work was done, there was still a lot of work ahead cutting the steaks, roasts, and making the hamburger. Two hours after we begin a splitting party, there is nothing left that looks like a log, but there is still lots of work remaining to get the material we need.

            The day got off to a worrisome start. The first log we opened was ugly. This is the risk you run making chair material. A log may look good outside, but have lots of unpleasant surprises inside. We split that wood into pieces anyway. There was some good areas and at some point we will pick through the splits for whatever they will yield.

            While Kevin and Don were splitting the next bolt using Kevin’s tractor and a four foot log splitter, and Fred was bucking the other logs with a chain saw, I started splitting a six footer.  We need six foot splits for c-arms, bow backs, settees, etc. However, these bolts will not fit on the splitter and have to be opened the old fashioned way; the Abe Lincoln way.

            This was one miserable log. I buried two wedges in the end without making much progress. This is usually an ominous sign, signaling something inside is holding the log together. I worked some wedges along the short spilt in the side of the bolt. As I leap frogged the wedges the split grew longer, but only by inches. Finally, I had a split the length of the bolt and we could look down in. A few strips of wood held the two halves together. I snipped these with a hatchet and the bolt fell apart. The wood was beautiful. Why it gave me such a hard time, I do not know. But in the process I thought about a line I use in classes. You work with wood. It has its own nature, and each piece has its own quirks. You have to work with them.

            By 11:00 Fred and Kevin had begun resawing the splits on our Hitachi resaw. This process reduces the oak down to the size we use in chairmaking. It is a noisy, nasty, boring, and repetitive job. It will take several days to work through as much wood as we split yesterday, but we will pick away at it. The splits they did not get done by 4:30 is neatly piled out of the sun.

            During lunch, a truck arrived with a load of pine for seats. (This is not coincidental. We plan things this way.) Don and I laid out the seat blanks and bucked the pine. We then sorted the pieces according to width, grade, and quality. That way, we do not glue up two clear pieces into one exquisite blank and two pieces with knots into another more challenging blank. I began jointing the pile while Don started the glue up. We have enough clamps to glue 15 blanks at a time (three clamps per blank, three glue ups per day.) So, this job too requires several days to complete and we will pick away at it.

            We knocked off around 4:00. Our work creates so much of a mess it takes all four of to clean. We haul barrels of saw dust into the high grass behind the shop where we compost it.  Kevin came back with three ticks on his legs from the first trip and two the second.

            The final step is to go into the air conditioned shop and have a cold beer. I can see why Chris Schwarz likes beer. It does taste good at the end of a hard day. However, I would have preferred a martini, or a shot of single malt scotch.


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            By the way, our October 4 sack back class is full.  I can’t make people wait until next April to get into a sack back class. So, we have scheduled another that will begin Monday, October 18. The two October sack backs bracket peak fall foliage, which typically happens around Columbus Day.  So, if you want to see the foliage in its splendor, arrive before the new October 18 class, and come make a chair after touring the New Hampshire mountains. I grew up in New England, but fall foliage never grows old. It is always spectacular.


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            Today is my son’s first day at work as a congressional page.  We have C-span on hoping we will catch of glimpse of him.


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