We turned and turned and turned


Nine completed legs. Batched work has benefits from a learning and efficiency perspective.

The three sets of campaign stool legs are now turned and ready for finish, hardware, and leather. Repeating the same form in three different species provided some very useful lessons about turning, particularly how to achieve a clean surface on different stock, including tear-out prone timber (I’m looking at you, ash trees), working stock of differing hardness (that maple was tough stuff), and achieving consistency of form. All in all, I’m pleased with how these legs came out, and definitely looking forward to spending more time at the lathe.


Two different foot profiles

I really like the Roorkee inspired foot detail on the ash and sapele legs, but variety is the spice of life, and as I was feeling comfortable at the lathe by that point I thought it would be interesting to try something different for my third set of legs. So for the maple legs I went for a more rounded ball foot instead of the cylinder and cove profile. Although this is only a small detail, it has a significant impact on the overall appearance of the leg. Rounding the foot was good fun, although probably the most challenging element of turning all nine legs, as it requires an entirely different body position and movement with the tool. Again, this was a valuable part of the learning experience, and with more practice I’ll be up for trying more involved profiles – the aim ultimately is to work up to a set of Windsor chair legs (although that is likely a ways off). Maple takes a really crisp detail at the lathe, and it will be interesting to explore the possibilities presented by becoming more familiar with turning.


It is a simple detail, but one I really like

The tribolts are on order from Lee Valley, although unfortunately they appear to be out of stock until the end of the month. While I wait for the hardware to arrive, I’ll apply finish to the legs (Chris recommended in his book that you drill out the holes for the tribolts once the finish was applied), and then press on with the Apprentice’s Stick Chair. As far as finish goes, the maple legs will receive the same combination of blonde shellac and Osmo as I used for the staked work table. I need to do some sample boards for the ash and sapele legs, but currently I’m leaning towards blonde shellac for the ash, garnet shellac for the sapele, and black wax for both (my favourite top coat for porous timber).


Gorgeous leather seat from Texas Heritage

The burgandy leather has now arrived from Jason, and the quality of material and workmanship is excellent, as I have come to expect.  With three sets of legs up to the standard I was aiming for, I need to order two more sets of leather. The burgandy leather seat has been earmarked for the sapele legs by Dr Moss, so I am thinking of pairing a mid-brown seat with the ash legs, and black seat for the maple. Rising up the to do list is a set of Roorkee chairs to match the campaign stools – making stuff always leads to making more stuff. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.


Proof of handwork – I’m tempted to leave the layout lines on the sole of each foot

The campaign turns, and turns, and turns

We’re back from a much needed, and very relaxing, family holiday in Devon. After a week away, I was feeling recharged (which I’m sure will last until approximately 9:47 am on Monday morning) and looking forward to turning the legs for the campaign stools.


Easy Wood Rougher, Detailer, and Finisher (from back to front)

Prior to the campaign stools, the full extent of my time at the lathe was turning the tenons for the staked work table. The campaign stool legs are quite a simple design, which means that they are well suited as a beginner’s project. Because I had enough sapele for two sets of stools I decided to start with that species to get any initial mistakes ironed out – I only have enough ash and maple for one set of stools each, so an error on those species means that I wouldn’t have any spare material to make a replacement leg.


An octagonal leg blank in the lathe ready to go

With this project I had two key learning points in mind – getting more familiar with the lathe and basic turning operations, and achieving consistency of form across each set of three legs. Before I switched the lathe on, I re-watched a section of Chris’ video on turning spindles for Roorkee chairs which contained some useful pointers.

The first task was turning the leg down to a consistent cylinder. As I had octagonalised the legs previously this reduced the amount of material to be removed at the lathe, and also mitigated against the risk of catching a corner and ruining a blank. The tool rest on my Shopsmith lathe is roughly one third of the length of a stool leg, and so the process I adoped was to turn down a small section to final thickness at each end of the tool rest, and then connect those two sections by removing the material in the middle. I started at the left-hand end of each leg, and worked my way towards the right-hand end, moving the tool rest to the next section once that third of the leg was at final thickness. This bulk removal of material (and in fact, most of the work for the legs) was removed with the Easy Wood Rougher.


Laying out the details and transitions with the story stick

Once the leg was a consistent cylinder, I used my story stick to layout the details to be turned, always laying the foot out at the right-hand end of the leg – for batched work repeating the same process each time reduces confusion and helps ensure consistency. The first detail I turned for each leg was the decorative lines either side of where the tribolt will secure the legs, using the Easy Wood Detailer. These lines were the easiest error to make, and also the hardest to correct, so by turning this detail first I knew whether completing the rest of the leg would be worthwhile.


The danger zone successfully navigated

With the decoration safely turned, I then turned down the foot to dimension, followed by the ankle. Instead of turning down the ankle straight to final dimension, I removed most of the material and then started roughing in the taper. This meant that I could avoid having an unsightly flat where the ankle bottomed out at the end of the taper, and helps the taper resolve to more fluidly into the ankle. For my first two sets of legs I decided to go with a Roorkee inspired foot shape of a cylinder with cove at each corner. For the next set of legs I’m thinking of trying a ball foot instead (variety being the spice of life, apparently).


Turning the foot

Once the leg was looking ship-shape, I gave it a quick sand with 120 grit Abranet to remove any fur and tool marks, and then moved on to the next leg in the set. With subsequent legs, I compared progress against both the story stick and the legs in the same set, to make sure I was on the right track.


Ash is one of my favourite timber species to work with

The very first leg I turned was relegated to the burn pile, as I botched the spacing of the decorative lines. With that mistakes done and out of my system, I managed to get three usable and consistent sapele legs, followed by two good ash legs (with one ash blank left to turn). The benefit of batching tasks like this is that increased familiarity results in increased precision and speed. My first leg took nearly an hour an a half, which I reduced to 40 minutes per leg by the end of the day (and I’m sure with practice that time would come down furthe still). Most of the work involved is turning the octagon into a cylinder, with the details taking about a third of the time.


Five consistant, and completed, legs

The story stick and go-blocks definitely assisted in achieving consistency, and were well worth the effort. Next up will be turning the remaining ash leg and the set of maple legs, applying finish to all of the legs, and then drilling for the hardware. But that will be for next time.

(What’s the) Story Stick (Morning Glory)?

The biggest technical challenge in turning the legs for the campaign stools, for me at least, will be achieving a consistent form across each batch of three legs. The shape itself is very basic (which is one of the reasons that I’m using this project as an opportunity to notch up some more hours at the lathe) so getting one good looking leg should be achievable. But three legs which are not only good looking, but have a consistent shape? That’s where the challenge sets in. So I’m trying to make this as easy for myself as possible.


A piece of scrap the right size, sharp marking knife, and combination square are all that is needed to make a useful story stick

One of the areas of risk is laying out the proportions for each leg by measuring. Every time you reach for a ruler you run the risk of making an error. Across the twelve leg blanks I have waiting to be turned, that’s a lot of potential errors. So for this project I’m ditching my nice rulers and going for a pre-industrial method of capturing all of the information I need for the project – a story stick. For the uninitiated, a story stick is simply a piece of scrap which records all of the dimensions and transition points for the leg, so that I don’t have to do any measuring at the lathe.

My scraps bin yielded a nice 1 3/4″ wide, 3/8″ thick piece of oak which would do perfectly. After cutting the story stick to the length of the leg blanks, I then laid out each of the key points of the leg pattern on the stick with a 6″ combination square and sharp marking knife. The foot, where the leg taper starts, the position of the hole for the tribolt, the decorative elements (coves, grooves, etc), each of these were marked as knife lines across the full width of the story stick. A 0.3mm mechanical pencil then filled the knife lines in so that they are easily seen, and I also wrote the various diameters at each of the transition points.

Now, when I come to turn the legs, it is a simple matter holding the story stick against the leg blanks and checking off the details which I need to turn. No more measuring means a reduced risk of errors which would lead to inconsistent leg profiles.


Another dirt simple measuring device – go blocks sized for the three thicknesses of the stool legs

While I was at it, I prepared a go-block with each of the diameters to which I will be turning elements of the legs (full thickness, ankle, and foot diameters). This was simply a scrap of 3/4″ thick oak into which I cut holes matching the three thicknesses I need to turn to. So when it comes to turning the legs, the go-block will slide over the various sections when I am at the correct thickness. Again, no measuring with callipers, and the potential to make an error when reading off a scale. Dirt simple measuring which will help to keep the focus on turning a consistent profile (which will be a challenge enough). I’ll report back on whether these strategies helped when turning my first sets of stool legs!


The finished story stick, with all the key dimensions and details laid out.

A Welsh Stick Chair for the Apprentice

In the course of researching for The Life and Work of John Brown, I’ve had the privilege to examine a wide variety of Welsh stick chairs including examples by John Brown and Chris Williams, as well as a variety of historic chairs held in the collection of the St Fagans National Museum of History (including the chair used for the cover image of John’s Welsh Stick Chair book). The chairs I’ve looked at in person have then been supplemented by those photographed in Richard Bebb’s comprehensive survey of Welsh vernacular furniture. I’ve looked at a few Welsh stick chairs now.


The Apprentice sitting on the chair my grandfather made for me some 32 years ago.

Vernacular forms are rarely homogenous – regional tastes vary, together with the timber available to the makers, not to mention the skill levels of the makers themselves. There may even be technological changes which impact construction methods over time. And all of this goes double for a chair making tradition that spans hundreds of years. The historic examples Chris Williams and I have examined have demonstrated a range of techniques and styles, emphasising that the Welsh stick chair tradition was vibrant and constantly changing. Some of those early chairs have lodged themselves at the back of my mind for some time – an itch demanding to be scratched. Scratching that itch requires further research, both in terms of closer examination of some of the chairs (as well as other contemporaneous examples), and building them at my workbench. This is a long term project, and I’ll writing about the research and building the chairs as I dig deeper into it.


A 90 second sketch of the Apprentice’s stick chair. Hopefully the comb won’t be as wonky on the finished piece!

One of the chairs that caught my eye was a dainty child-sized stick chair from the late eighteenth century, held in the collection at St Fagans. This five-stick chair had an unusual trapezoid shaped seat and three tapered legs, topped by a very gently curved comb. I’ve spent months trying to shake this chair out of my head, and finally had to accept that the only way to do so would be to built it. A plan began to form. When I was three or four, my grandfather built me a desk and chair set. This set, which remains to this day at my parents’ house, was a constant feature of my childhood and I spent countless hours sitting at the desk drawing and playing. With the Apprentice’s birthday on the horizon later this summer, I got to talking to Dr Moss about the stick chair rattling around my head, and about my memories of the desk and chair I’d had as a child. We agreed that an excellent birthday present for the Apprentice would be her own stick chair to go in the reading corner of our lounge, next to my Chesterfield arm chair. The Apprentice adores books and reading, so this seemed like a natural gift. Hopefully in years to come it will mean as much to her as the chair and desk my grandfather built means to me.


This large oak board is left over from the Policeman’s Boot Bench, and will provide the seat, sicks and comb of the Apprentice’s stick chair

With the very kind help of one of the furniture conservators at St Fagans, I now have a detailed set of dimensions for this chair, in addition to the notes and photographs I took during my last field trip. This weekend I marked the conclusion of another trip round the sun, and the focus for the bank holiday is on family celebrations and a much needed get-away with Dr Moss. But no birthday would be complete without a brief moment of workshop time, and so last night I broke down the stock for the Apprentice’s stick chair. Rummaging through my scraps pile located a large piece of oak left over from the Policeman’s Boot Bench which will provide the seat, comb and sticks. Further digging found some oak thick enough for the three legs. A few minutes on the saw benches with my Disston D8 and Skelton Panel Saw was all it took to harvest the components, which I will leave to acclimatise for a week or so while I finish up the campaign stools. Once the campaign stools are wrapped up I will build the Apprentice her stick chair in time for her birthday. This should be a fun build!


This part of the process never gets old – my 1900 era Disston D8 and the staked saw benches.

The octagonalisation campaign continues


My inspiration

One of the furniture styles I first connected with when I started thinking about building furniture in addition to guitars was campaign furniture. I’d read Chris’ blog posts about campaign furniture and my interest was piqued sufficiently to pre-order his book in 2014. It arrived just before the Easter weekend, and I spent the bank holiday reading it cover to cover. Campaign furniture is still one of my favourite furniture forms, and there are several reasons why it speaks to me. The first is the combination of utility and style. I tend not to find flashy furniture pieces all that appealing, and the clean lines of campaign furniture accented with brass pulls and corner brackets fits well with my tastes. Then there is the emphasis on functionality – these are rugged pieces designed to be broken down into manageable packages and easily transported. If only I’d had a set of campaign furniture during my student and itinerant early career years.


Laying out octagons the easy way

There is also a much more emotive reason why I’m drawn to campaign furniture. My great-great-grandfather served in the British Army in the late nineteenth century. Listed as an ironmoulder and blacksmith in contempraneous records, at some point he enlisted (as many working class Scots did when work was sparse), and served on the North-West Frontier – what would now be the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. All three of my great-great-grandfather’s sons served in the military, with my great-grandfather enlisting in the Argyl & Sutherland Highlanders during the First World War. His son, my grandfather, then enlisted with the Royal Scots before taking a commission in the Indian Army during the Second World War. This commission took him to the same area of the North-West Frontier as my great-great-grandfather (his grandfather). I remember from my childhood a pair of photographs showing my great-great-grandfather and my grandfather at the same hill fort on the North-West Frontier, two generations apart. The fact that two separate generations of the same working class family from Falkirk served in the same area of the Indian subcontinent is something that never ceases to amaze me.


Sapele, maple, and ash shavings.

And so, furniture from the British Empire, and particularly that associated with military service, has a family resonance. Which is all very well and good, but what exactly does this have to with woodwork? Well, I shall explain. For the past two years we have throw a garden party for the Apprentice’s birthday. We don’t have much in the way of garden seating, and when I was re-organising my woodstore at the end of the saw cabinet build, I realised that I had enough stock for a couple of the folding campaign stools out of Chris’ Campaign Furniture book. This is a probject that has been on my to-do list ever since I read the book, and with the Apprentice’s next birthday only a couple of months away this seemed like the perfect opportunity. Reviewing the available stock I realised I had enough material for four sets of stool legs – one set in each of ash and maple, and two in sapele. This will give me plenty of practice at the lathe (another reason why this project appeals). Finally, a quick project can be a nice palate cleanser after a major build.


Octagonalisation is a campaign that will never end

After six-squaring the stock, I decided to octagonalise it before turning it to round. More experienced turners than me will no doubt be able to go from square to round without any intermediary steps, but while I’m still becoming familiar with the lathe I figure that anything which reduces the risk of a catch while turning is worth taking. I marked out the octagons using the same pre-industrial geometry I always do, before planing the corners away with my Clifton No.5. All told, octagonalising 12 legs took only a couple of hours (running at an average of 10 minutes per leg plus layout time). Next is to make a story stick for the leg pattern, and then turn the legs. I’m hoping for three usable stools – I’m realistic that turning 12 perfectly consistent legs might be a big ask for a baby-turner (but who knows, I might get lucky). I have one burgandy leather seat on order from Texas Heritage, and will order more seats (as well as tribolts from Lee Valley for the folding mechanism) once I know how many viable stools I have. In any event, this is going to be a super fun project which will hopefully increase my ability at the lathe, and result in some additional seating for the Apprentice’s guests in August.


Four sets of campaign stool legs ready for the lathe


New Additions to the Portfolio

When Gareth was in the ‘shop two weeks ago taking photos of the Saw Cabinet , we also managed to squeeze in a photoshoot of Laurie – the Blackguard Telecaster build which was the focus of the first 6 months of this blog (that feels like a long time ago now).

Those photos can now be found here on the Portfolio section of Over the Wireless. As always, Gareth’s photos are gorgeous, and he helped pull out new angles and a refreshing take on the details.


The Grand Reveal


Over the past couple of months I’ve been working on a project which I’ve refrained from writing about on OtW. That project is a wall hanging saw cabinet (daddy has a saw problem, remember?) which will be the subject of a project article for the October 2018 issue of Popular Woodworking. With the build now complete, and the copy, drawings, and process photographs, all submitted to the magazine, I have added the saw cabinet to the Portfolio section of OtW. Click through here to see a selection of the excellent beauty shots of the saw cabinet Gareth took two weeks ago. And if you want to know how to build this cabinet? Stay tuned for the October issue of PopWood!