A Welsh Stick Chair for the Apprentice – Part 5

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Trimming the leg tenons flush

The Apprentice’s Stick Chair is now looking quite chair-like, and there’s now only four sticks left to make along with the comb, before I’m ready to break open the milk paint.

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Paring the flush to the seat

 

Once the glue had cured on the legs, I cleaned up the surface of the seat and flushed up the tenons. Chris recently wrote a useful blog post about getting good results from a flush cut saw. I take a slightly different approach, although the gist of it is the same. First, I surround the tenon with a web of blue tape to protect the surface of the seat. I then hog off the bulk of the tenon with a flush cut saw. The tape means that there is a small amount of tenon left protruding from the seat, and I remove this with a sharp paring chisel (I use a 2″ Ashley Isles butt chisel which I keep honed to a shallow angle for paring tasks). Push the chisel with one hand, and with your off hand press down on the back of the chisel to keep it co-planar with the seat. This way the chisel won’t dive into the seat, and will also resist the temptation to ride over the tenon. If your chisel is sharp enough it is possible to remove a complete cross section of the tenon in one pass.

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A complete wafer thin tenon shaving!

Once the tenons were pared flush I turned my attention to the other small details on the seat. Those crisp corners and edges are helpful for laying out the legs, but won’t be comfortable for little people sitting on the chair. I rounded over each corner using a fine (13 grain) rasp, and a sharp block plane rounded over the aris on each side of the chair. I haven’t saddled the seat of this chair, but I did want to add a bit of extra comfort to the front edge of the seat. To this end, I rounded over the front edge with a block plane, but took progressively more strokes in the centre third of the front edge than I did at each end. The result is a gentle radius to the front edge, and a subtle dishing to part of that edge, which will stop the seat digging into the backs of the Apprentice’s legs.

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Rounding the corners with an Auriou 13 grain rasp

With the top of the seat now ship shape, I turned my attention to below the seat. On the original chair that this build is based on, the top edge of the seat is 11″ from the floor. To level the chair I set it on a sheet of 3/4″ ply which was dead level and flat. I then placed wedges under each foot of the chair until it was level side to side, and had a finger’s width of slope to the back of the seat. Then it was a case of hunting through the scrap bin until I found an offcut which was the right thickness to be 11″ from top edge of the seat. To the scrap I taped a Hock Tools marking knife – I keep this knife especially for scribing legs to length. It is sold without a handle, and has a single bevel to the blade. By keeping it un-handled I have a razor sharp knife that registers true on whatever scrap block I need to tape it to.

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Cutting the legs to length

After selecting the right offcut, it was a simple case of knifing in the correct position of the feet, and then cutting to lose lines with my Bad Axe 12″ carcase saw. Cutting legs to length is one of my favourite elements of a legged build – while the angles look screwy, if you follow the lines it always works out ok. I finished up by chamfering the bottom edge of each leg with the same 13 grain rasp.

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Dividers make for easy layout of the sticks

While I was working on the seat I decided to drill the mortises for the sticks. These are 1/2″ in diameter, and centered 3/4″ from the edge of the rear edge of the seat. I stepped the position of all five seats off wih dividers, and ater experimenting with bevel angles I settled on a back stick angle of 11.5 degrees – it looks close to my photos of the original chair, and more importantly, should provide plenty of back support and comfort.

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Doing my finest Chairman Brown impersonation

The thing about drilling mortises is that you need to hold the workpiece securely. Chairs don’t give you much to clamp, and so I decided to follow John Brown’s example from Welsh Stick Chairs, and put the chair on the floor, and drill the mortises while sitting on  a saw bench, holding the chair in place with my feet which gripped the legs. After gravity, your body is the best clamp you own. A 1/2″ diameter auger bit in my North Bros brace made quick work of the mortises – this is another task I real enjoy, as it doesn’t take long to dial your eye in to the angles, and drilling with a brace is a very relaxing affair. The mortises go all the way through the seat, so I clamped a scrap to the underside to avoid blowing out the exit side of the mortise.

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You can see the dished and roudned over edge of the seat

Once the mortises were drilled, I couldn’t resist test fitting the first stick to see what the completed chair would look like. So far, I’m quite pleased with how this one is turning out.

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Test fit! The chair is looking quite handsome.

A Welsh Stick Chair for the Apprentice – Part 4

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There is nothing quite so terrifying as drilling into a seat you have just completed. Getting the leg angles right is a one-shot deal with little opportunity to correct mistakes. And if you are not careful with the drill, it is possible to blowout chunks from the exit side of the mortise, leaving a ragged mortise on the show face of the workpiece. Still, a little mind numbing terror is good for the soul, right?

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Vesper small bevel and North Bros brace from 1923. The perfect combination.

 

Determining the leg angles (rake and splay) for this chair is something entirely new to me. After combing through my collection of photos for the original chair, and drawing multiple sketches, the angles on the original chair look very close to the leg angles Chris used in his three-legged backstool in the Anarchist’s Design Book. As I’ve got enough parts for a pair of chairs, I decided to make the first version using the sightlines and angles from the Anarchist’s Design Book, (adjusted slightly to fit the dimensions of this stool), assess the appearance of that chair against my photos and sketches, and make any necessary adjustments for the second chair.

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Rounding the leg blanks with a scrub plane

I drilled the mortises out with a 1 1/8″ Woodowl bit in my 1923-era North Bros brace, guided by a Vesper small bevel set to the resultant angle and taped firmly to the sightline on the underneath of the seat. The seat in turn was clamped to a sacrificial scrap of plywood to prevent the exit side blowing out – I won’t be saddling this seat and didn’t have too much thickness to work with if I have to do too much clean up around the mortises. The sacrificial board did its job and I was rewarded with three clean mortises which require very little dressing.

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Thanks to Chris Williams for this tip on how to round parts comfortably and swiftly

The legs taper from 1 1/8″ at the tenon down to 7/8″ at the foot, and I started out with oversized blanks measuring just over 1 1/2″ square. There are a number of ways to shape the tenons and legs, depending on the tools available to you and personal preference. For this chair I want the legs to have plenty of facets and texture. I started by turning both the tenon and very tip of the foot to final diameter on the lathe – this ensures a good tight fit between the tenon and mortise, and provides a helpful visual guide when rounding the leg by hand. I then hogged off the majority of the waste using the Lie-Nielsen Scrub Plane – I keep finding new uses for this plane and it is much more versatile than I was anticipating. For these legs the scrub is perfect – it is lightweight enough to balance on the short legs, and the 3″ radius on the blade means that as the leg becomes more rounded material is taken from a very localised point without flattening the face of the leg. I worked down each corner of the square leg blank in turn, starting at the aris and then across an increasing arc as the corner became more curved. Once the leg was very close to the curvature of the tenon and foot, I swapped the scrub for my No.3 smoothing plane and took finer cuts to remove any tearout and the most noticeable facets.

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Refining the shape of the legs with a wonderful plane made by Jim McConnell

Refining the final surface of the leg was done with a sharp block plane. Jim made me a Krenov-style block plane in Padauk last month, and I’ve been looking for an opportunity to press it into use. Being light weight, and small enough to hold comfortably in one hand, it was perfect for this operation. I also tried some of the tips I picked up from Chris Williams when we were shooting the “Make a Chair” section of the John Brown book earlier this year. The end of the leg was braced against a scrap held in the vise, and the other end of the leg supported in my off-hand. This allows for the leg to be rotated after every stroke of the plane, encouraging a pleasing rhythm which isn’t interrupted by constantly clamping and unclamping the workpiece. When refining the leg I wasn’t looking to remove the facets or texture, just to take off any sharp corners and remove any unsightly flats. The end goal was a leg that looks round, but has a pleasing texture and isn’t perfectly uniform. If you wanted a smoother texture then you could sand the facets out, but I like the way these legs feel straight off the plane.

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Three completed legs. A tight fit on the mortises, and plenty of texture for the Apprentice to enjoy

A Welsh Stick Chair for the Apprentice – Part 3

Once the glue had cured I flattened and shaped the seat blanks. Flattening did not take much time as I’d made sure that the glue joints were square to the face of the seat, and so some gentle traversing passes with the jointer plane cleaned up the glue seam and flattened the top.

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Scrubbing the underside of the seats flat and to thickness

The underside of the seats needed a little more work to bring the seats into a consistent thickness, and for this I used a scrub plane from Lie-Nielsen. This is a new addition to my tool chest, and the first time I’m used it on a project. Although more compact than a jack plane, the scrub has a much more pronounced (3″) radius to the iron which means that it can take a much deeper bite; perfect for rapidly removing material when processing stock. Taking traversing cuts with the scrub rapidly levelled the underside of the seats, and left a scalloped texture. For show faces I would remove this texture, but for the underside of chairseats or drawers it is a wonderful surprise for exploratory fingers, not to mention proof of the handwork process. So I left the seats as they were. My initial impressions of the scrub is that as a rapid stock removal tool it functions perfectly, and as a very simple tool (no depth adjustment mechanism or lateral adjuster) it may also be a great tool for children or beginners. My original reason for buying it was to assist in preparing the timber for the oak Roubo bench (coming later this year!) and I expect it will do well at that task.

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Cleaning up the bandsawn surface of the tapered sides

The seats topped out at 1″ thick, which for a chair aimed at 3-5 year olds should be plenty thick enough. Chris Williams tells me that John Brown’s childsized chair seats were in the region of 1 1/8″ thick, while the historic chair I’m following on this build had a hefty 1 5/8″ thick seat which was beveled down to 1 1/8″ at the edges. I didn’t have material in stock thick enough for a 1 5/8″ thick seat, although I may try that approach on my next child-sized chair. But as I say, the 1″ thick oak I’m using for this pair of chairs will be fine.

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A sawbench under the seat helped hold them steady in the vise

The seat is trapezoidal in shape – 17 1/2″ wide at the front and 15″ wide at the back giving a 1 1/4″ taper on each side, and 12″ deep. I jointed the front edge and then gauged the back edge off that. When orientating the seat, I placed the glue seam as deep into the seat as possible so that it lands away from the three leg mortises. With the front and back edges jointed and down to dimension, I then laid out the sides. There wasn’t much meat to remove from the sides, and on a workpiece of this side sawing off thin slivers at the saw bench is awkward work, so I cut down my layout lines on the bandsaw to remove the excess, before cleaning up the edges with a low angle block plane. The face vise on my Sjoberg bench has all the holding power of cottage cheese, and planing such a large amount of end grain with any meaningful pressure encouraged the seat to rotate in the vise. Setting a saw bench underneather the workbench to support the seat held everything secure while I worked the edges.

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A drawing bow helps layout consistent curves

The final element to the seat shape is the rear edge, which has a gentle convex curve. From my collection of photos of this chair, I judged the centre point of the curve to be 1/2″ higher than the corners of the seat, so that’s the curve I went with. A drawing bow tensioned to give the right curvature made easy work of laying out the curve, which I traced with a marking knife before cutting on the bandsaw (although a coping saw would have done the job just as well). To fair the curve I used a combination of spokeshave, 9 grain cabinet maker’s rasp, and a 13 grain modeller’s rasp.

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The versatile rasp

The seats are now ready for the mortises to be drilled. After that I will be able to round the front corners of the seat (whch are currently looking rather sharp). Laying out the mortises requires having definite corners at the front of the seat, which is why I didn’t round them at this stage of the build.

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Cleaning up the curved back with a spokeshave

A Welsh Stick Chair for the Apprentice – Part 2

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Sticks, legs (including one spare) and a seat gluing up in the background.

While I wait for the campaign stool tribolts to arive from Lee Valley, I’ve started work in earnest on the Apprentice’s Stick Chair. The seat is 12″ deep, and the oak I have did not quite yield a board big enough. That’s no problem – jointing two boards and gluing them up is a simple task, and always good practice. As I was about to start work on preparing the seat, I remembered a blog post in which Chris talked about the benefits of building two of a project instead of one. I checked my timber stock and figured I’d have enough oak to build a pair of these chairs. It didn’t take much longer to prepare a pair of boards for the seat of the second chair, and I jointed both sets with my No.8 before gluing them up with Old Brown Glue.

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Cleaning the face of each board, and then jointing with the No.8

With the seats clamped up and set aside, I turned my attention to preparing the sticks for the chair back. The historic chair I’m recreating had five 1/2″ diameter sticks, and I had a board of straight grained oak set aside for exactly this purpose. While I love my handsaws, for ripping thin strips off a wider board I much prefer the bandsaw, and after only a few minutes I had ten slightly oversized sticks which will rest for a week or so before being shaped. Unfortunately the oak I’d picked up for the legs did not fare so well – the leg blanks I cut out a couple of weeks ago are all fine,  but when I lifted the spare material down from my timber rack I found that it was riddled with shakes and deep splits, making it entirely unusable. That’s not a disaster (I’d rather material failed on me before I use it in a project!) as I had some nice maple left over from the Staked Work Table which will make for very nice legs. Although maple is not a traditional timber for Welsh stick chairs, that doesn’t bother me too much. These chairs will be painted, so the different species will not be noticeable. More importantly, stick chairs were traditionally made using whatever timber was to hand, including rescuing curved sticks from the firewood pile for combs and arm bows. So the spirit of using suitable timber of whatever species is readily available, is consistent with the ethos of stick chair making.

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This was my first experience of using Old Brown Glue (previously I’ve used Titebond Liquid Hide Glue) but so far I’m impressed.

The two seats are glued up, and next will be to clean them up before laying out the leg positions and drilling the motises. In the meantime, I’ve been spending more time going through photos of the original chair and teasing out the design details. The more I look at this chair, the more I find it utterly charming. The proportions are very eye catching, with the comb almost twice as high from the seat as the seat is from the floor. The rear leg has a bold rake compared to the more upright front legs, and the seat slopes back just a couple of degrees for comfort. Decoding this chair has become a wonderful study in proportions, angles, and construction techniques. One of my favourite details, and one which I will definitely be recreating on my chairs, is a decorative pair of shallow gutters along the top of the seat, either side of the sticks. These seem to be shallower than you’d find on a Windsor chair. While it is just a simple detail, it seems clear to me that the original maker wanted to add some understated decoration to their chair.

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Another 30 second sketch of the chair, from a different perspective. I just hope I can build it better than I draw it…

The one detail which I have been mulling over is the leg profile. The original chair had a tapered cylindrical leg, which looks very nice. But as a recovering octagonalisation addict, the siren call of facets has proved difficult to resist. This is where I get to take advantage of building two chairs simultaneously. The chair with oak legs will have the same tapered cylindrical profile as the original, while the maple legged chair will have a tapered octagonal leg to the same dimensions (maple holds crisp details wonderfully). This will be an interesting opportunity to see what impact changing the leg profile has on the overall form.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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