Gragg

Building Gragg’s “Elastic Chair” — Harvesting Wood 4

After struggling with my previous attempt to harvest oak from my own mountain, disappointed by the fact that even those large trees, or at least sections of their trunks, yielded so little usable material, I had for the moment hope for two long, straight sections that I had not yet processed.  The tree from whence these bolts came had grown tall and straight in a very dense cluster of trees.  Those facts led me to my optimism.  So recently I headed up the hill with my implements of destruction in-hand.

Cutting up the long straight trunk produced the first two segments to be split.

I studied the first of them to decide where to place the first wedge.  I drove it in and immediately my heart sank when the split wandered off toward California.

With a deep breath and some impolite utterings under my breath I tried to salvage the situation by putting the second wedge in a place to continue or re-establish the split line I wanted in the first place.

It worked.

 

Carefully working down that line with more wedges, a nice split was established.

My only concern at this point was the interlocking that emerged but since it was restricted almost completely to only the pith it was no cause for hysteria.    A few whacks with the roofer’s hatchet, my “go to” tool for this task, and the problem was resolved as I hoped.  It was only a little loss to a region of the trunk I didn’t want in the first place.

Soon enough I had two halves of a trunk, then four quarters, and in the end, eight wedges.

I was pleased with the minimal amount of overall interlocking and wind.

My friends, there be some chairs.

Building Gragg’s “Elastic” Chairs — Harvesting the Wood 3

In concert with both ongoing firewood harvesting and shooting a video Building A Gragg Chair I replicated some of the work undertaken at my neighbor Bob’s house five years earlier, this time with oaks felled up the mountain from the barn.  There were three large trunks that had nice lower sections and and one smaller but straighter one about fifty yards away, set-aside for the harvesting efforts.  Interestingly the larger trees, grown in a dense forest setting, were quite problematic with lots of wind and interlocked grain.  My yield from them was about a quarter of what I got from Bob’s “urban” trees.  I have no explanation for this phenomenon.

The largest of these trunks was also the largest disappointment.  While seemingly sound and straight, the first split caused me to go, “Hmmm.”

As the splitting proceeded the disaster was readily apparent as the entire trunk segmented into an interlocked mass of uselessness, and ate all of my wedges and guts to just get torn apart.  The pieces were cut into short bolts for the firewood splitter.

The two smaller of these three trunk sections were better, but still not great.  The wood was straighter and more sound, but with more interlocked grain than I expected.

The smaller, straighter trunk was, I hoped, a somewhat different story.  It had grown in very tight setting, much, much more crowded than the larger trees and the grain showed it.  I was hoping it was more promising than the first trunks, which mostly wound up as firewood.  More about that later.

Building Gragg’s “Elastic” Chairs — Harvesting the Wood 2

With the trunks on the ground, sectioned and ready for me, I came after supper and lit into them.  They were heavy enough that even with logging tools they were impossible to handle so I first split them along a horizontal plane, then halved the top half of that, then halved that again.

With some help from the appropriate tools I was able to extract the long wedges, which were processed further with splitting in half repeatedly.

Eventually I wound up using a froe for some riving on some of the pieces, and yielded a great many pieces.  Much to my astonishment I discovered zero nails, bolts, or fencing.  Quite a surprise for an old tree in a domestic setting.

In the end I wound up with four truckloads of splits, and piled them cross-wise a layer at a time, up off the ground.  The final pile was six feet by six feet by four feet high.  After a year in the open I sorted them and moved the best of them inside to the first floor of the barn where they remain until I need them.  The rest were also useful, they kept me warm.

Building Gragg’s “Elastic” Chairs — Harvesting the Wood 1

Much like the recently concluded account of replicating the early 19th Century legislator’s writing desk, over the next few months I will run a series of posts recounting the c.1810 Gragg “Elastic” chairs I am currently replicating in the shop.  Though I have posted on Gragg chairs several times over the life of this blog I am hoping this series will renew your interest in them.

The story for these chairs (I am building two commissioned by clients and another for myself) goes back to a couple years after the completion of the original replica I finished in 2011.  I published the proceedings of the project in that year’s American Period Furniture, the flagship publication from the Society of American Period Furniture Makers, you can read that article here.  I am still pleased with that article but en toto these posts should be dramatically more complete in both my descriptions of work, with the continued refinement of technique and process,  and my reflections on the challenges of making these chairs.

While reverse-engineering Gragg’s methods I learned a lot about not only how he worked, a combination of sinuous elegance and brute force, but also the kind of wood that would be best suited for making these iconic chairs.  Like Gragg I confirmed the material that suited the project best was something like air dried red oak from very large trees (he used red oak, white oak, ash, and IIRC hickory).  I remain so fascinated by the form that I continue exploring other routes to the same end point and will comment on those paths as appropriate.

A bit over a year after finishing my first full-blown Gragg my neighbor Bob told me he was having several  over-mature oak trees removed from his yard.  Though still mostly-healthy their decline was underway and it was only a matter of time before they became an imminent threat to his house.   When the lumberjacks arrived I asked if the boles could be sectioned into five or six foot pieces and left intact on the ground for me to harvest.   I had to be elsewhere for much of the day so I did not get to watch them bring these behemoths down.

When I returned home later that day I inspected the bolts with anticipation, and spoke with Bob (and his teen-aged grandchildren who were lounging around) that I would be arriving after dinner to begin the harvesting.  I’m not suggesting the yutes did not believe me when I showed up with a sledge and a bag of steel wedges and wooden gloats and told them I would be turning these 5,000 pound hunks into manageable pieces from which I would eventually make chairs, but truth be told the looks on their faces indicated they did not believe me.  Over the next couple of days their eyes bugged wide more than once.

Finally A Set of Mortise Chisels I Like — All I Had To Do Was Make Them

I have always found making mortise-and-tenon constructs to be more irksome than dovetails.  After decades of struggling and countless m&ts I came to realize that much of my animus was due to mortising chisels themselves — they simply were not amenable to the work I was undertaking most of the time.  Traditional “pigsticker” mortising chisels seemed akin to sticking a piece of steel into a rolling pin and using that to make a rectangular hole.  That approach works for some things, things I do only rarely, but in the diminutive work such as fitting the steam bent slats of Gragg chairs into their crest rails working with oversized pigstickers was not conducive, for me, to good controllable work.  Truthfully I got so frustrated that earlier this year I gave my complete set of vintage pigstickers to Steve Voigt.

Instead I made myself a new set of mortising chisels more in keeping with the work that I do.  And it all started with a derelict bunch of plow plane irons I’ve been assembling in recent years.  Such irons are usually available for little money, especially if the ends are completely boogered up.  Taking the pile that I had, I marked them all at the same length and noted their width.  It was pretty clear I could have a wonderful set of precisely graduated sizes perfectly suited for the work I do, at least 99% of it.  For the other 1% I have a couple more “standard” sized chisels, but who knows now if I will ever use them for anything but large scale timber framing.

After marking them all to the same length with tape I cut them with an abrasive disk in my micro-rotary (yes, that is my new Emmert Universal Vise; it is real and it is spectacular).  It took three disks and fifteen minutes before I had the raw stock to make the set of chisels.

Up next — wood handles from the scrap box.  Tulipwood?  Bocote?  Brazilian Rosewood?

A Valuable New Layout Tool For About One Cent

When assembling Gragg chairs I sometimes need to transfer lines from the pattern/assembly jig to the chair pieces.  Try as I might all my other squares and such would not work in the restricted spaces of the assembly jig, so I took a piece of scrap 2-inch aluminum angle stock and in about three minutes had a new tool that will become increasingly prominent in the tool kit.

I cut about an inch off the end of the scrap piece after squaring it on the table saw, then cleaned up the edges and put it to work.

You can see a trace of a previous faulty attempt to lay out the line I needed to mark.

Not much makes me happier than to come up with an elegantly simple and almost cost-free solution to a problem.

Battles With Bears

Some days you eat the bear…

 

And some days the bear eats you.

As I dive ever deeper into producing Gragg chairs, currently two on commission and another for myself with hopes of including this item in The Barn Store in the coming months/years (and even entertaining thoughts about offering a Make A Gragg Chair workshop as soon as the summer/autumn of 2020; first, I have to make one from start to finish in a week myself), I realize all the more how close Gragg was coming to the limits of what can be accomplished with wood as the raw material.  Given the extremity of the bends involved, including the main serpentine element with two 90-degree four-inch-radius bends within a foot of each other and a180-degree four-inch-radius bend for the arms, working out the routine is a critical process.

I recall the first time I tried this almost a decade ago on the original Gragg repro prototype, in front of my Smithsonian colleagues no less, I broke every single piece of the ash I took from our prized lumber inventory in the conservation studio.  Every.  Single.  Piece.  Not to mention breaking several of the bending form elements which had been woefully under-built.  It was not my proudest moment of professional accomplishment but drove me on to get it right.

Even now I test the boundaries, trying riven and sawn kiln-dried oak (at the bottom of the pile in the truck), trying ancient/recycled but possibly air dried oak salvaged from a derelict weaving loom,

trying oak I harvested several years ago but have kept from seasoning fully, first cross-stacked outside and now residing in the basement/first floor of the barn,

and finally using oak I harvested this year.  Through it all my batting average kept improving.

I’ve heard my friend Bruce Hoadley tell the story of a small manufacturer who was plagued with broken elements resulting from very tight bends after steaming.  The punch line was that after going to watch the definitive practitioner for making the identical items, the manufacturer said with a smile something to the effect of, “He breaks most of them too!”

I encountered the same thing with the Gragg chair elements.  Some stock bends like taffy, some breaks like crystal.  I am moving more toward the former than the latter, but it is exasperating all the same.  At least the failures make good kindling.

Yesterday afternoon my success rate was 92% with only a single stick making it into the failure pile.  By observing the character of the pieces being bent, the stresses of the bending itself combined with the addition of bending straps, this is an outcome I can live with.

Still, the pile of kindling grows, just not as fast as in the past.

I am definitely gaining ground on the bears.

Gragg Chair Video Session 4 – Fitting and Assembling I

Our latest day of video recording dealt with the beginnings of assembling the pieces into a whole chair, including fitting the individual pieces together to fit the master template based on the many Gragg chairs I have examined over the years.

Once we moved on to fabricating the cross pieces things got fussy.

Chris wrapped up the day by taking some detailed footage of my shaving beam, my primary stock preparation tool for the project.

Gragg Video Shoot Session 3 – Dance Me A Jig

Our recent day of video recording for the Making A Gragg Chair was pretty much all about bending forms/jigs for the components of the chair.  I showed how I make the forms and why I make them the way I do, including a discussion of “spring back” and how that affects my design and layout of the forms.  Somehow that one topic managed to consume the entire day of work in the studio.

These three pictures were ones I took when I was prepping for the video shoot, but I replicated the process upstairs in the studio with the camera running.  In them I am making some form stock, the 1-inch thick double laminated sheet I make from two pieces of 1/2″ baltic birch plywood.  The finished product is what I use to cut the actual bending forms themselves.  I begin with two pieces of 24′ x 48″ x 1/2″ plywood and slather PVA on one of them, then screw them together with decking screws and fender washers.

Here is that panel after finishing along with another double laminated panel made from two pieces of 3/4″ baltic birch type plywood that serves as the ground for the bending forms.  Once they are dry overnight I remove the screws and washers and they are ready to go.  I got all of this material from the closest big box home center.

Here are some images from the session in the studio.

Gragg Video Day 2

We recently had our second day of video work on the Make A Gragg Chair video.

We spent some time on the Special Feature portion of the production and the remainder fashioning the riven wood into thin slats for bending.

Then I steam bent some pieces.

The only dark cloud to the day, and it was a considerable one, was that the barn power system failed just as I was nearing the end of a long and complex steam bending process, causing us to lose an afternoon’s work.  That system failure has turned into a headache of the first order as the solar system quit working for as yet undetermined causes despite many, many hours of trouble shooting.  Then, two days ago the hydro turbine developed the familiar grumble of bearing failure requiring its shipment back to the manufacturer for repair as I do not own the requisite tools.   If my hair had not already turned white…

Black swans, my friends, black swans.  But more about that later.  Sigh.

The next video session will actually be precedent in the final edited video as I walk through the process of creating the bending forms from the patterns I made.  I have not yet decided whether to make the patterns available with the video, although it does sorta make sense to do so.  I am also trying to keep my sense of the time required to build a chair in hope that I can create a week-long workshop for that project.