furniture making

Indispensable Gragg Chair Tool #3

One of the more challenging aspects of building a Gragg chair is the need to chop 17 half-blind dovetails for the ends of the seat slats, eleven on the front seat rail and six on the rear seat rail.  Unlike cutting half-blind dovetails in drawers or casework, the workpiece cannot be oriented to be most easy for the workman; these dovetails have to be cut after the chair frame is already assembled due to the fact as I have state before, making a Gragg chair is more akin to composing a sculpture in three dimensions than any other furniture-making exercise I have encountered.  Because of this there is no opportunity to adjust the orientation of the workpiece to the tool and the maker, requiring some contorted tool work.

In my development of techniques for replicating Gragg’s work, reverse engineering as he left no account of his own processes, I found the need for a task-specific dovetailing chisel is requisite.  I’ve tried working with fishtailed gouges, skew chisels, and probably a host of other tools lost in the fog of memory, but have settled on making my own tool which has now been in use for the past several chairs with excellent results.  The key is to make the business end of the tool match precisely the pocket being excavated.

In general there are two primary approaches to the problem, one much more expensive that the other.  The expensiver option is to take a 1/2″ curved fishtail gouge and regrind the tip configuration to match the angles of the pocket being excavated.  This yields an excellent tool for the task.  (Unfortunately, I think this tool fell into a crevice behind the workbench in the video studio and cannot be reclaimed unless I remove the siding on the exterior barn wall, an option I am loathe to even contemplate).

In my case, and probably in yours too, the problem was solved inexpensively by recycling a no-account cheep bench chisel from my scrap tool box.  Yes, alas (?), I keep an inventory of scrap tools along with scrap metal along with scrap ivory along with scrap tortoiseshell along with scrap wood…  Sometimes I think all our shops should just be call “the scrap yard.”  Part of me understands my late father-in-law’s mindset (and my late father’s as well) that it is difficult to dispose of materials that do indeed have utility.  Anyway, I took this old cheap Stanley bench chisel, probably available for a quarter at any tool swap or flea market, and ground away all the material I did not need for the final configuration.  This was an exquisitely efficient expenditure of time as this one tool reduced my time for cutting the half-blind dovetails in, well, half.

Door Days

One of the foci for shop projects for this winter will be a series of projects addressing the “door” needs around the place.

This will begin with the completion of fashioning the doors for Mrs. Barn’s small clothes cabinet I built a couple years ago.  I’ve had the vintage chestnut lumber picked out ever since the cabinet was made, but somehow that task never percolated to the top of the pile.

I’ve also got another eight doors to make for the book cases in the balcony library.  Again, I’ve had all the stock prepared awaiting assembly, and now is the time for that to happen.  I’ve not observed any mouse damage to the books yet, but given enough time it would occur.

Finally, I need to replace the double-plastic-sheet doors to the workshop.  They do a surprisingly good job but the time has come for real doors with real insulated glass.

Once all of these jobs get done I will turn my attention to the door(s) into the machine shop/foundry.  These doors were damaged long ago during a fierce wind and will be replaced by  a configuration still to be determined.  At the moment I am leaning toward a single door with a removable glazed wall alongside it.

Stay tuned.

More Woodpile Treasure

A while back a local friend brought me a pile of wood from his firewood pile.  Not until he cut and split it did he realize that it was a load of quilted cherry.  Quick as a bunny he brought it over, and I have been waiting for the best time to saw it up into usable boards.  Unfortunately that time has not yet come, but my eyes glance over to the pile every time I go down to the first floor of the barn to feed the stove.

Even when viewing it along the cleavage line from splitting it is clear there is something pretty special inside.  A few minutes with a scrub plane and fore plane, followed by a dousing of shellac, confirms the initial optimism.  Given the firewood-size of the pieces, this one was about eight inches wide, I’m thinking of some particularly figured panels or small-ish boxes.

Spectacular, and I am betting that if you have a firewood pile there is plenty of woodworking and woodturning treasure in there too.

Workbench Wednesday – Hoisting 1, Building 2

In addition to bending all the necessary parts for next August’s Build A Gragg Chair workshop John and I spent some time setting up the attic for the event as it is the only space in the barn large enough for the activity.  I already had two eight-foot workbenches up there, but in order for all the participants to have their own bench we needed three more.

One of them was a simple problem to solve, at least conceptually.  Just take one of the benches from the classroom space on the second floor and host it up with my vintage compound block-and-tackle.  We did accomplish that but we are definitely not as young and probably not as strong as we once were.  Plus John probably weighs about a buck fifty if you put bricks in his pockets.   Even with a compound hoist, a 350-pound bench weighs 350 pounds.

But hoist it up there we did.

For the other two I made two more Nicholson benches after carrying the individual boards up the stairs one at a time, definitely an easier path to glory.  At the moment they are sans vises and holdfast holes but that will be rectified soon enough.

Now my total workbench inventory for the barn is 19, an entirely appropriate number in my opinion.  This is probably the end of the run for new Nicholsons or laminated Roubos as the recent prices for lumber have definitely scared me off.  For example, I recently needed two ordinary (untreated) twelve-foot 2x8s, they were $23 apiece.  The 24-foot 2x12s I’ve been buying for workbenches used to be $54, now they are $97.  Fortunately I had just enough of my old inventory to build these two benches.

Parts Is Parts

During our recent days of work preparing for next August’s “Build A Gragg Chair” workshop my  friend John and I prepped a lot of wood sticks, and bent them to the forms required to become Gragg chair parts.

We got the steam box set up, the forms set out, and set to work.

John hand planed dozens of chair pieces to get them ready for the thermodynamic adventure.

 

Once he had five or six pieces ready to go, he used the template board I created for this purpose and affixed the bending straps to all the pieces.  When you have to execute two 90-degree bends only twelve inches apart in a dozen seconds, bending straps are pretty much mandated.  We used flanged sheet metal screws and plumbing straps and attached them BEFORE they went into the steam box because the brief time to get the bending done after steaming does not allow for the straps to be put in place afterwards.  And since the chairs get completely painted, any staining or screw holes can be dealt with.

I placed them into the already heating box and waited for them to reach maximum temperature, which in my set-up is about 200 degrees.

Using a state-of-the-art steam box seal we set the timer and waited the requisite time, 25 minutes for the arm and serpentine pieces, 45 minutes for the bent seat/backs.

On the first day we had good success especially with the thin pieces, only one failure out of eight or ten attempts, but on the second day we had a string of failures approaching 50% when bending the continuous seat/back slats.

At that moment we could discern no reason for the degree of failure  We needed to re-think our process.

Prepping (for Gragg Workshop)

I could probably maintain a steady stream of posts exhorting you to prepare for the ongoing (and upcoming) societal chaos, but since this is a mostly woodworking blog I’ll just keep it there.  My commentary on the global status quo mostly remains reserved for private correspondence.

Since deciding to host and teach a “Make A Gragg Chair” workshop next August I have been focusing in on preparing the fourth floor space and the necessary chair-making elements for that enterprise.  This week my dear friend John has come to work with me in both aspects, which include the mundane (tidying and reorganizing the space) and the sublime (steam bending all the elements needed for five chairs — I will be making one right alongside the students so they can witness the way I do things, not simply receive my instructions on that).

I described myself to some visitors last week as “someone who is congenial with well-developed social skills but is entirely comfortable being alone for weeks and months at a time with just Mrs. Barn for company,” I find the circle of friends whose company I seek out is pretty small.  John is one of those men.  Our week will be one of productivity, in-depth discussions of forbidden topics, and maybe even some way-out-of-bounds activities reflecting the fact that I live in a just-barely-free jurisdiction and he does not (some/many/most? “public officials” have clearly mistaken 1984 as an instruction manual rather than a cautionary tale.).

So together John and I will take a pile of sticks and turn them into chair parts.

Stay tuned.

Final Gragg Video Session

It seems like it was almost three years ago that videographer Chris Swecker and I met over lunch to brainstorm about producing videos in the Attic Studios of The Barn On White Run documenting the entire process of building the premier version of a Samuel Gragg Elastic Chair.  Oh wait, it was almost three years ago.

Last week we actually concluded the video capture portion of the project in our 18th (!) recording session, resulting in almost 34 hours (!!) worth of electrons in the can.  Or, 68 hours if you calculate the close-up work that was simultaneous to the wide screen shots.  Now comes the tedium of my reviewing every second of video to create Cut Sheets which are the road map for Chris to execute the editing and final assembly.

This final session was a bit of a grab-bag as you might expect, completing the project but also juggling in several other elements to be captured in a non-linear schedule for the day.  In a conceptually linear recitation of the content, we began with the primed chair, then mixing the fill putty and inserted it into all the spaces that needed a bit of filling.

 

That was followed by a through sanding of the entire surface in preparation of the final cream-color base coat.

We wrapped up that portion with a discussion of the variety of striping brushes in my kit, followed by a short demo of pinstriping.  The entire pinstriping process is too lengthy to record live so we will instead rely on a gallery of step by step still shots for instructional purposes.  If you will recall the recorded the painting of the peacock feather by my dear friend Daniela last year.

We wrapped up the content with a final session of our bonus video on the restoration of my first full-to-the-brim Gragg chair from a decade ago that had its arms crushed.

It has certainly come a long way.

I now have to construct the entire contents into chapters, the subjects of which are likely to be:

  1. Harvesting The Wood

2. Preparing The Stock

3. Creating the Patterns

4. Building The Forms

5. Steam Bending The Elements

6. Assembling the Side Structures

7. Fitting the Seat and Crest Rails and Rungs

8. Fitting and Installing the Continuous Slats

9. Fitting and Installing the Seat Slats

10. Sculpting the Chair

11. Painting

12. Pinstriping

13. The Peacock Feather

14. Bonus – Conserving the Damaged Gragg Chair

My goal is to have each of these sections 45-60 minutes long, perhaps with more detail than a casual viewer would like but more akin to what a maker would want.

I am diligently reviewing the raw videos for an hour or two each day and will forward the Cut Sheets to Chris as they emerge from the process so he can begin the editing and assembling right away.

 

Generational Gallery

Currently in the studio there are three generations of my Gragg chairs, beginning with the very first one completed in 2011 (nearest the camera), a second one that was one of two begun three years ago and whose construction has been filmed (on the work bench), and a third one from the ongoing  Gragg Chair Challenge to be also include in the video project that will have its final in-studio session on Friday.  Given the “special feature” of restoring the original chair so badly damaged at a woodworking show all three chairs are integral to the video project.

Though they are fairly close in the timeline, they each mark an important development in my work of making them.  This in turn is reflected in the amount of time required for me to make them.  The first one took me almost 250 hours as I was working out many of the construction and decorative details.  The second one was about half that time and the third one even faster by the time it is finished.  Still the greatest expenditure of time on the whole project is the pinstriping, which takes me about four days to complete.

My revisions of the construction process in particular continue to progress, even this week I implemented an approach to the construction that will shave several hours off the construction.  Given that all of the construction is reverse-engineered based on examining the painted originals with their hidden and obscured internal details and deducing the assembly regimen, I have broad latitude in recreating Gragg’s work.

Gragg Chair Challenge Overtime

After completing the assembly of the chair structure I moved on to the sculpting of its elements with a variety of gouges, rasps, knives, spokeshaves, spoonshaves, and more, until it was elegant and comfortable  (It is.  Very.).  In another eight hours or so I had it ready to begin painting with a shellac-based primer.  This allowed me to see any lines that did not flow as I wanted, and to re-address them with my edge tools.   Further, it identified any areas where fills were required.

I make my own fill putty similar to Gragg’s beginning with an oil-based primer and thickening approximately 1:1 with pulverized limestone from the garden center (he used lead white as the filler).  Applying that into holes or joints as needed, I actually do not sand the fills, nor the shellac primer for that matter, until after I apply the subsequent heavy oil primer layer.  This gives me plenty of body to cut into with sandpaper.  My goal at that point is to yield a smooth-yet-faceted surface revealing the tool work that goes into making the chair.

Soon I hope this chair will be ready for me to deliver to my friend and colleague Daniela to paint the peacock feather.  Then for me it will be on to new adventures in the World of Gragg.

Stay tuned.

If you are interested in participating in the August 2021 six-day workshop to fabricate a Gragg chair, drop me a line via the “Contact” or “Comments” sections of the web site.  At this moment there is one spot remaining.  If it is successful I will undoubtedly schedule another for August 2022, 2023, 2024, to infinity and beyond.

 

Gragg Chair Challenge At The Deadline

I reached the 40-hour mark of the Gragg Chair Challenge with the construction phase of the chair more than 99% completed.  The only construction yet to address is the fabrication of the glue blocks at either end of the arms.  These will take another 90 minutes or so as they are tightly fitted into the irregular curved shapes to fit the spaces where the top of the arm fits against the serpentine back-seat-leg element at the top, and underneath where the arm swoops around and is attached to the serpentine element at the seat rail.

So, I am going to call this experiment a success.  Indeed there were steps I could have been a little more fussy about (read: slower) but there is the unmistakable structure in place.

This is not to say that the chair is a finished work of art, no where close.  There are still the 10-15 hours of sculpting and shaping all the elements into their final elegant form.  And the 10-15 hours of laying down the paint foundation for the decorative scheme that is one of Gragg’s hallmarks.  After that comes the days of decorating, I would estimate the peacock feather and pinstriping will take about four days.  Taking all that into consideration it is fair to say that the finished chair is a little more than 1/3 done.  Nevertheless I was heartened to get to this particular finish line with “victory” in sight.

With that, I will confirm and announce a “Construct a Gragg Chair” workshop for late August of 2021.  By then the heat of summer should be in the rearview mirror (there are no 80-degree days in the forecast even now, with the warmest day upcoming being today’s 78 degrees), so this six-day class should be one of cool mornings and warm afternoons.  I can accommodate four students and together we  will work alongside each other, each of us constructing a chair.

Now I just have to figure out how to get four workbenches up into the attic workshop.

And put together the tool list.

And combine all the time lapse segments into one whole video to post on youtube.

And figure out how to even post videos on youtube.

And, and, and…