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Ed’s Question

Question:

I like turning and have wanted to make spindle chairs, but I’ve come upon so many that are falling apart that I’ve held back out of concern that the form is intrinsically weak, at least if not built right. People say they are strong, but then there’s my pile of degenerate chairs. I can see the handplane marks under the seats of some, so those at least weren’t mass made.

Here is my question which I’ve asked many people and none have been willing to answer: Is green wood mandatory? Those who seem to give the most details about construction rive green wood, then do various drying incantations, and orient radial and tangential grain just so. Can reliable chairs be made by sawing billets instead of riving and made from seasoned wood rather than green? And, when all that is said, can someone make a lifetime chair by teaching oneself, or are there critical tricks, like the drying you mentioned, that one just won’t know to do?

I’m sure I can make a spindle chair that will stand for a few years. I have no confidence that I can make a spindle chair to put my name on, sell, and back with my reputation. I’d do that with mortise and tenon, but there’s the stack of failed spindle chairs I’ve seen….

I’m not trying to argue or contradict you, but I’ve tried to find this info for several years now. Is there a reliable resource that describes spindle chair building, preferably a book older than 50 years so that it’s more likely to be solid?

Answer

Para 1:

Actually the plane marks you see in the surface may well have been mass-made even or especially from the pre-machine era. The early planing machines developed by different entities, and that includes the Shakers in the USA, worked on a rotary cut, and even, in the case of the Shaker’s, a horizontal slicing cut and horizontal rotary cut depending on the inventor. Though such contraptions simplified surfacing wood to a great degree, the results still needed refinement and that’s because of the use of wooden or early Babbitt bearings that were unlike anything we might use today as they were composed of tin, antimony and copper and not the hardened alloys available over the counter today. Remember we do not have abrasive belt sanding in our sights yet, and even today many if not most surface planers except the most sophisticated and well maintained types still need their efforts refining to give a suitable surface for finishing.

Para 4:

I would be surprised if early books are of much use because the authors were indeed more authors than say chairmakers. I would say that 80% of real and relational knowledge by chairmakers died with the last ones relying on handed down knowledge. The chairs I have been shown from so-called green woodworkers are often as you say failed examples in that the course they went on had not used wood that was sufficiently dried down and often the makers will tell you that the posts are used green so that they shrink onto the rails and so remain tight. Whereas there is some truth to that, often the tolerance levels are too high and also many woods just too soft. Now I had better get my flack jacket and tin hat on for the fallout. There generally was an era when artisans simply passed their knowledge on by mouth and living action and in some measure the www has become the new era surpassing the blank years between the 1950s and the 1980s when the knowledge was indeed all but dying with the men that held the information in the doing of it. Magazines too carried some of that load but now of course there are those of us who have indeed lived the ‘trade‘ and we are using it to replace the former days of old; those days of man and boy, craftsman and apprentice.

Para 3:

No, you don’t need green wood and nor does the wood have to be riven either. Most modern manufacturers make perfectly good and strong chairs relying on well seasoned wood and nothing green at all, by the millions.

This coffee chain ordered dozens of thousands and they have been in their cafes giving years of comfort and service. they show no signs of racking and they are well abused in many ways.

Mostly the issues surround our modern lifestyle of central heating or air conditioning where the MC (moisture content) tends to be fairly constant. The average moisture in the atmosphere of very home will be different because each home might by occupied differently to its neighbours. A family with 4 adults and home cooking will give out more humidity than say an elderly couple might. Customising your wood becomes imperative. Ideally you want the posts to be reduced either wholly or partially. By that I mean if the posts are entering bored holes into a seat then they should be reduced in MC as low as possible but the lower area of the posts receiving cross rails and such should be kept a few percent higher. When the post goes into the seat the seat will shrink onto the post and the posts should shrink onto the rails as the rails also have had their moisture content reduced as much as possible too.

To reduce the MC can be done in a variety of ways but one way is to use heated sand over a burner or stove and left over night with the ends needing shrinking or drying left in the surface area of the sand. You can also use electric heaters, heat lamps but you must always take caution with extremes of heat of course. The final turning on the lathe comes after this overnight drying. Rechuck and turn to final diameter, insert and leave alone, allowing expansion or shrinkage to take place. Yes, it is a challenge but as with many things the more you do it the more you understand that area of your woodworking.

8 Comments

  1. David R on 30 September 2019 at 6:34 pm

    I can warmly recommend Curtis Buchanan and his extensive videos on chairmaking on youtube as well as his plans which are for sale or even free. Currently he offers a “democratic chair” course on youtube with pay-what-you-can plans to download which is a great way to get into that. I know he had some of his knowhow handed down from former craftsmen and what I saw and read and even made by myself allows to reach quite a high standard. There are other makers around as well, but their approach may vary.

    Regarding the riving: split wood has a better grain orientation (stronger since the fibers run along the full part), but you can get around that by sawing along the grain as best as you can and also keep the parts on the thicker side.

    Regarding moisture content: wood doesn’t have to be green, it will be dried anyway, it’s just much easier to work with during the rough dimensioning and shaping portion. The important bit as I understand it is the difference between tenon dryness (as dry as possible) and mortise dryness (normally dried). Curtis “advertises” the democratic chair as being possible to be built without glue with a few wedges and relying on the shrinkage. You can still use glue, e.g. hide glue.

    Don’t give up, it’s a very rewarding work and enjoyable, too.

    – David

  2. Tom Angle on 30 September 2019 at 8:21 pm

    There is a man in eastern Tennessee that builds Windsor chairs. He has a few videos on how he does it. I included his website and youtube channel. He does make his living off making chairs and teaching classes.

    https://www.curtisbuchananchairmaker.com/
    https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC2QCOxzGYG6gAqtF-1S7orw

  3. Tom Bittner on 30 September 2019 at 8:37 pm

    My wife and I bought a “ butcher block” kitchen table and “windsor style” chairs 40 years ago.
    I’m pretty sure the spindles weren’t riven and the wood was kiln dried. Living in New England with all the humidity swings, using coal,wood, oil heat both hot air and baseboard heat we have had humidity swings from 17% to 80% RH in the house. The chairs have held up remarkably well. I raised two boys who were not kind to the chairs, I’ve had er ….overweight “adults” who would rock back on the two rear legs and while some rungs have come loose they were easily repaired with blind wedges, and sometimes epoxy where I just glued and clamped them back together.
    Perhaps it’s not traditional, to look at the chairs you can’t tell I repaired them. They are sturdy and solid as the day I bought them.

  4. richg on 30 September 2019 at 10:52 pm

    I must admit I have never disagreed with Paul till now. There are several very good books out by folks who build chairs for a living. One is a very well know chair builder “Welsh Stick Chairs” by John Brown another is “Chairmaker’s Notebook” by Peter Galbert also if you are interested Jenny Alexander who has passed now had a book Make a chair from a Tree. “An Introduction to Working Green Wood” The site you want to check out as well Lost Art Press, Chris Schwarz he is really digging into chair building at the moment and has posted a lot of great information on his site. lostartpress.com. I hope this helps.

    • Paul Sellers on 1 October 2019 at 2:01 pm

      It’s your right to not always agree with me. And I am sure you are right too.

  5. Keith W on 1 October 2019 at 1:46 pm

    If I remember correctly, john Brown split his billets using a large band saw driven by an old fordson tractor. remember reading an article, a long time ago, about him driving the tractor when he moved home. He cut along the grain to reduce waste.
    there is a good book by Michael Dunbar about windsor chair making.

  6. Ed on 2 October 2019 at 2:48 pm

    Thanks so much for writing about this. Very helpful. A couple detailed questions:

    -After the final turning of the dried tenon, are you aiming for a very tight fit, something you must drive home?

    -Are tapered tenons essential?

    -You mentioned something in your first article about how things are self tightening. Does that mean that certain geometries (leg angles) are better? Should some be avoided?

    Just for sick amusement: I stayed in an inn last weekend that was built in the 1730s and had been restored and filled with various antiques and reproductions. Truly beautiful work, even for simple things like batten doors with clinched nails and lambs tongues in the front porch rafters that made an overhung porch. Actually, I think the extensions of the first floor joists over the porch were ornamented, too, rather than just the rafters. Nevertheless, add two to the count of failing spindle chairs for the two chairs in my room. These were probably modern jobs, but not new, and showed signs of amateur repairs. The legs were tight, but the combs were loose. My personal chairs are the other way around; tight backs and loose legs.

  7. Mike O'Connor on 4 October 2019 at 4:04 pm

    A particular Curtis Buchanan YouTube video on drying the parts is “More Thoughts on Inexpensive Ways to Dry Chair Parts.” His advice sounds a lot like Paul’s and he shows a simple, easy-to-make kiln that allows for drying the spindle ends more than the rest.

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