I was hoping this would be the final blog post on the Apprentice’s Stick Chair build, save for some progress photos of painting it. For reasons that will become clear, the chair is not quite finished yet, although there have been some valuable learning experiences.
But that’s for the end of the blog post – first let’s rewind a bit. Once the glue had cured on the bending forms I broke them out of the clamps and cleaned up the curves with a 2″ flush trim bit in the router – while I find it very hard to get excited about router bits, this bit from LMII is wonderful for taking a final pass and cleaning up the edges of electric guitar bodies (the main reason I bought it).
I then cleaned up the comb blank with a Lie-Nielsen No62 plane, which I’ve been testing for an article in Furniture & Cabinetmaking. With the comb clean and square on all sides, and the centre line marked on the reference edge and face, it was game time. I’ve not built a steam box yet, although it is very much on the to do list as I get deeper into steam bending. So to steam the comb for this chair I took instructions from The Anarchist’s Design Book and poached the comb in a pan of hot water in the oven. It turns out that our oven isn’t quite wide enough to take a 17 1/2″ long comb, so I had to wedge the comb in at an angle, with one end out of the water. Several layers of tin foil later to seal in the steam, and I left it to poach at 230 degrees for an hour and a half.
Once the steaming session had finished, I sprinted (with a very hot piece of oak in my hands, and the BBQ smell of toasting oak in the kitchen) to the ‘shop, and clamped up the comb in the bending form, being sure to align the centre lines on both halves of the form with the centre line on the top edge of the comb. Nothing exploded in a hail of oak shrapnel, and the comb appeared to be well steamed across its length, so I was hopeful that this initial foray had been successful. With everything clamped up firmly and the comb conforming to the shape of the form, I left it for six days to return to equilibrium moisture content and settle into the new shape.
Which brings us nearly up to date. Yesterday afternoon I removed the comb from the form and was pleased to find an even bend. Yes one end was a little charred, but that would disappear under a couple of coats of milk paint. I gave the surfaces a final clean up, and drilled the mortises for the sticks. The comb slipped onto the sticks nicely for a dry fit, and the Apprentice came to join me in the shop to sit on her chair for the first time, which she thoroughly enjoyed. By this point the comb had been out of the bending form for maybe 40 minutes. And it was then that I noticed – it was startening to straighten out. By the time I had cleaned up and put my tools away, the comb had lost probably 1/4″ of the curve. This would not do.
Now, having returned to Peter Galbert’s Chairmaker’s Notebook (my go-to resource when it comes to chairmaking) and spoken to people who build chairs far more regularly than I, there seems to be a couple of possible reasons for this:
- The oak was kiln-dried, which can make steaming less successful;
- Having one end of the comb out of the water meant that the effect of the steam was inconsistent; or
- I offended the steam-bending gods somehow.
Although I would have liked the Apprentice to use her new chair sooner, I’m not feeling too disheartened by this. It seems a right of passage for every aspiring chairmaker to have an unsuccessful steam bending experience (often many), and I want this chair to be right. I’m going to build a proper steam box, and find some air dried oak for a second go at steaming the comb. If that fails, then I will go “full Welsh” and cut a curved comb from solid material, no steaming necessary. So this is a good learning opportunity.