Highland Woodworker Episode 16


Charles Brock of the video series Highland Woodworker visited me a few months ago to film at The Barn, and the episode came out today.  They did a nice job of making me seem sensible.  It was an ordinary day in the shop, I didn’t get all dressed up or anything.

New compewder tomorrow.  They were able to save the files on the hard disk, so it looks like all is well.


Steam Bending Demo

About a month ago, a mere three weeks before I was set to leave for Woodworking in America, I received a note from Jay Christian, Program Chair for the Washington Woodworker’s Guild, reminding me of my presentation to them on the evening of October 15.  Immediately I checked my calendar and smacked my forehead.  I enjoy presenting to the Guild and have done so close to a dozen times over the decades, but this one presented some scheduling problems.

The evening for my scheduled presentation coincided with my plans for packing so that I could depart for Cincinnati the next morning.  Given the late date of the reminder, I felt there was no way I could ask the Guild to reschedule and so I simply proceeded with the presentation as scheduled.


My topic for the evening was the steam bending of parts for the construction of the Gragg elastic chair, one of the favorite research projects from my nearly three decade long career at the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute.  I’d shown the chair at a previous meeting’s “Show and Tell”, and they invited me back to show exactly how I was doing it.  I will be blogging extensively about the two Gragg chairs I am building over the winter.

Much to my delight my protégé Daniela was able to arrange for her husband to watch little Pedro so she could attend.  That was exceedingly helpful as she and I had worked out a choreography for the necessarily rapid forming of these complex parts.


A demo of this type requires a large inventory of materiel, tools, and devices, including my petite bodger’s shaving horse built from a recycled half log that used to be a door header from a log barn and a variety of scraps from the wood pile.


Another favorite fixture is my shaving beam that can be clamped to a work surface.  The beam has a mondo cam clamp at one end and a tiny wood screw at the other, so I have a lot of flexibility to either pull or push a tool against the work piece.  It is a genuine favorite accessory, and is used extensively when preparing the stock for steam bending.


I covered a wide range of topics including harvesting, and demonstrating splitting, and riving, shaving, and planing the oak stock.



The tight serpentine form of the major side element for the chair — it begins at the crest rail of the back and ends as the front foot — requires bending straps to help everything bend without breaking.


Once the piece has cooked properly, in this case for about 20 minutes once the steam chamber gets to proper temperature (about 180 degrees or a bit more) out it comes.  It is as hot as you would expect, and often I use welding gloves.


To make things move more quickly I marked out the locations for the straps on either side of the element, and we quickly clamp them in place with Vice Grips.  We only have about 60 seconds to get everything done.  We almost hear the clock ticking in our brains as we get going.


At thirty seconds I’d better be wrapping up the first curve, setting up for the opposing second curve.  Haste is not helpful if it is jerky.  I have to work steadily but quickly.


By the 45 second mark I need to be working on the second of the serpentine bends.


The last step is to tighten the wood screws that inflict the return sweep onto the bottom of the front leg at the 60 second mark.

Done!  This bend went perfectly.

While I had hoped for a 9PM conclusion, between my longwindedness and the audience’s enthusiasm it was more like 10.30 before we got all wrapped up and on the road, and 2.30 Wednesday morning before pulling up at the cabin.  The next morning we unloaded, reloaded, and spent nine hours driving through the rain to Cincinnati.


Photos courtesy of Barry Ingram and Joel Jacobson

When Life Hand Your Neighbor Several Tons of Lemons…

… of course, you get ready to make 100 Gragg chairs!


Departing home the other morning for a manly breakfast with my woodworking friend TomS I encountered the roar of a chain saw and the necessary surrounding activities at my neighbor Bob’s house.  As a dead-tree sorta guy, I was compelled to stop and check it out.  It seems that Bob was removing some mature trees that had become a risk to his home.  As someone who just last month replaced a chunk of roof as the result of tree damage, I am entirely sympathetic to the sentiment.

As I got close I saw the last vestiges of a red oak, standing stark against the sky.  All I could think was, “There’s at least 100 Gragg chairs on the hoof!”  I asked Bob if I could have it, and when he said, “Yes,” I asked the tree-trimmer to leave it in 5’ long logs for me on the ground.


When I returned from breakfast, there the 6′  logs were neatly on the ground awaiting my ministrations.  And how magnificent they were!  The bottom section was well over 36” diameter, and the successive ones an inch or so smaller.  The upper two did have some branch stumps, but it looked like there was plenty of meat left to salvage.

Thus began my unexpected nearly two-week adventure (thus far; fitting it in amongst a full slate of home improvement projects in preparation for moving was, shall we say, domestically challenging) in reclaiming some spectacular wood from a suburban neighborhood, using only sledge and wedge.  Fortunately TomS has tutored me well and the harvesting proceeded well.  Not easily, but well.


With Bob’s grandchildren watching along with him and another neighbor, I began by identifying the natural fault lines of the log, and drove in the first wedge.  Then another.  And another.  Within a couple minutes the cr-a-a-a-a-ck of sundered wood filled the air. BTW, Bob’s granddaughter C graciously agreed to take some pictures.  I had hoped she could portray me as young, slender, handsome, rich, and suave.  She mostly failed at that, although my loss of 85 pounds over the last 12 years is evident.


The kids and adults alike watched in wonder as over the next half hour or so I split a nearly 3,000 pound log in half.


I had the pleasure of stopping periodically to explain what was happening to Bob and his grandkids. They thought what I was doing was almost magic.



Following the “Rule of Halves” that TomS taught me – always split a piece of wood in half to keep it balanced and splitting evenly – I then split the half into quarters, then the quarters into eighths, all on the radial plane.


In an hour or so I had those four sections free and ready for further work, all while using the lower half of the log as my “work platform.”  I don’t do this sort of work regularly so I am pretty slow.


Moving the “eighths” to the ground I split them one more time into “sixteenths.”


They were still exceedingly heavy, too heavy to load into my truck (which was the ultimate goal for the exercise – they needed to be moved out of the way ASAP.)


So, each “sixteenth” was split but on the tangential plane, and each of those two 32nds were slated for a second tangential split.


The firewood pile of pith was sizable and grew quickly.

The inner section was easily split with the pith being discarded into the firewood pile, but the sapwood was simply too squishy to split.  I will return to them for that step perhaps in a month or so once it has dried a bit and will split more easily.

Sharp eyes will note that the splits have a bit of wind to them, perhaps 10 degrees give or take.  While that might bring on the vapors to someone building 17th century board furniture, for me that is no problem.  Virtually all of the elements I employ in constructing Gragg chairs have been reduced to approximately 5/8” x 1-1/4” cross sections, and once these are steamed they pretty much submit to my demands for them to conform to their bending forms.


This was the harvest from the first QUARTER of the first of three logs! After I get done with this, it might be decades before I need to do it again.

It took me two pretty full days to harvest just the first (bottom) log.  My arms hurt all the way to my knees, or perhaps it was my knees that hurt all the way to my shoulders.  The yield, even with the inner quarter missing when I split off the pith, was probably close to 2,200 pounds.  All I know was that my little truck was groaning as I loaded the pile and moved it to my place two houses down.  Since wet oak is about 45% water that weight will diminish naturally over the coming months, and will be helped by a fairly rapid loss of about 1/3 as I split off the sap wood.

A complete full-arm/continuous-leg Gragg Chair requires about as much steam bent oak of the size of a standard 8-foot 2×4.  At this point I think my inventory of raw materials is approaching 150 chairs.  I only have two chairs commissioned thus far, but when I get more orders and have streamlined my process enough to host a workshop on building them, I’ll be ready.

But for now, I’m only 2/3 of the way towards getting these beauties out of Bob’s yard, to be followed by a lot more work getting ready for use and even more in making the chairs.

Stay tuned.

The Bones of Samuel Gragg (or at least his chairs)

cDSC01206cOne of the dreadful things about moving after three decades of living in the same place is the oppressive mass of tonnage that has accumulated, sometimes simply tucked away in a “special place” so it would not get lost.  This is simultaneously distressing – it means just that more clutter to sort, dispose of or pack and move – and invigorating because every session is a new day of discovery.  In cleaning out my basement shop, which even the few close friends who ever saw it tell me is claustrophobic, I have rediscovered several stashes of special wood I had set aside for unique projects yet to be built.

This blog entry is not really about all of that. (I may be violating some fundamental tenet of DSC01448cthe blogosphere, yeah, I am sure to lose sleep over that)  Instead it’s about several treasured bundles of recently harvested oak splits I had stashed out in the shed and will be on their way to The Barn this weekend.  These will become Gragg elastic chairs over the next several months.  I found replicating the Gragg chair to be the most challenging construction project I have undertaken, while being both aesthetic and seating delights.  The chair design accommodates the human form in a broad range of configurations; I am comfortable in a Gragg chair, as is my pal Tom at 6’ 6” and my protégé Daniela at about 5’ 3” (Daniela is the artistic magician who adds the exquisite peacock feather on the center splat of the all-painted chair)  Making Gragg chairs is so satisfying I intend to keep making them, and perhaps teaching the making of them, until I get tired of doing so.

DSC00017cI now have two new Gragg chair commissions and last spring I worked with my pal Tom S. to harvest DSC00759csome oak logs from Tom’s place and my neighbor’s yard.  As I described in my article for American Period Furniture, the journal of the Society of American Period Furniture Makers, I achieved success in replicating the technology and form of Gragg only after I harvested the raw materials from the tree with my own hands.  Or with Tom’s own hands.

Sawing to length, splitting with wedges, re-splitting, re-splitting again and again, and again, and finally riving them to manageable sizes for shaving and planing later on.  Follansbee would be so proud.  As long as I work them within a year or so I have found no problem with manipulating them.  Since they are air dried, I could probably wait even longer if I re-moisten them but I will play with that one purposefully in the future.   (By the way, if you have a source for flawless oak boles, about 24”+ in diameter by 5’ long, drop me a line)


Anyhow, these oak splits will become Gragg chairs the next winter, and their tale will be chronicled here.  I hope to cut down the time required to fabricate a chair such that I can offer a course in Gragg chair-making at The Barn (I will first need beta-testing volunteers to run through it with me), and perhaps offer in The Barn Store a detailed construction and decoration manual along with full-sized drawings to establish the bending forms required to created the mostly steam-bent chair.

As soon as Tom and his family get back from a summer of frolic at their Alaska place we will get back DSC00888cinto the woods, to build up an inventory so I can keep cranking out this elegant and challenging piece of furniture.

Stay tuned.


PS  If you are interested and nearby, or even if you are not, I will be demonstrating the steps of making the Gragg chair at the October meeting of the Washington Woodworking Guild.