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.

Strategy For Conserving My Gragg Chair, Step 1

The first pair of considerations when designing a conservation treatment plan for an artifact, in this case my own Gragg Chair, is to weigh the nature and needs of the artifact versus the nature and needs needs of the user.  Without comprehending the location of the artifact on the entropy time-line and achieving user buy-in no process can derive a balanced response to the damage being addressed.  As a property rights absolutist I am fine with that; if you own a priceless treasure and choose to incinerate it in the front yard, so be it.  Short of that, there is a wide range of locations for the fulcrum of this competing pair.

The process of understanding the nature and needs of the object can be fairly straightforward.  What is it?  What is its intended purpose?  From what and how was it made?  What is its condition?  What action is needed for it to maintain its existence or function?  All these questions are fairly straightforward as the artifact is, in essence, a static (or not so static) entity at a particular point on its entropy curve, or as my late friend and colleague Mel Wachowiak, Jr., used to say, “On it way back to dirt.”

In the case of this chair the continued existence of it in its current form and condition was not really in doubt, only one or two of its functions.  The chair could be left completely unattended and remain “as is” for decades or centuries as a thing, but one of the primary functions of this particular chair form and presentation, namely that it is a comfortable and beautiful thing, was compromised due to the breaks and attendant distortions of the arms.  That damage, and its disruption of the chair’s “beauty” is a real and meaningful void in its current “function” and regaining that beauty is not a whimsical undertaking.

As for the nature and needs of the user there is far more variability in both theoretical and practical perspectives.  In the case of a chair, the user may need for it to actually be functional as a structure that can support a grown adult for the chair’s intended purpose: to be a chair.  Or, the user (owner) may prefer for it to be an antetype, prototype or example of the generic or specific chair form, or that it simply represent the form and historical attributes of this particular type of chair.  If, for example, one of the legs were missing altogether but the user’s desire was to preserve the remaining fabric as-is, the fabrication of a plexiglass support in place of the missing leg would be entirely defensible.

This is not some bar stool, this is an aesthetically sophisticated and technically refined form, one that is both artistically notable and historically significant.  Its current damage reveals — at the very least — a failure of its maker to anticipate the stresses that might be paced on it in “normal” use and his failure to accommodate those stresses in its structural design or manufacturing execution.  (True enough, I did not anticipate the unauthorized use of the chair by a morbidly obese person and the damage that would result from his frenzied effort to extricate himself before I returned to the booth)  From this context the user may choose to leave the static damage exactly as it is as a painful reminder of that failure.

In this object vs. user consideration, more than with the coming two pairs of contending concepts, balancing the needs of the chair with the preferences of the user results not at a single point of agreement or strategic objective (or one and only one “exact” way to proceed) but a continuum of options that can respond to both competing needs to some degree.

Gragg Chair Video Day 1

Recently we had our first day of production for the “Making A Gragg Chair” video.  We had been waiting for several weeks to get a beautiful day to film outside while I harvested the wood for making the chairs that will be documented in the video.  Full disclosure — I will actually be making three chairs more or less simultaneously so that we can use subsequent production days most efficiently, getting several consecutive steps recorded on the same day by having three chairs at different points of the construction.

So this beautiful day was spent splitting wood up the mountain with wedges and sledges, then on to a mallet and froe in the riving brake next to the barn.  The setup for the latter was new to me so it was a bit awkward getting into the swing of things, but due to the magic of video editing it might actually look like I know what I am doing.

We also shot the introduction to a Special Feature we will be including on the video, and probably on the web as well, as we record the entire process of me conserving my own damaged chair.

One of the things I am trying to keep track of is the amount of time it will take me to build one chair from start to finish.  I would love to teach a workshop on building Gragg chairs but I need to get the time down to seven days max, six days preferably.  I suppose once these chairs get down I will build one from scratch as fast as I can to see if it is a reasonable project for a workshop.

Practicing Log Splitting and Building A Riving Brake

With the commencement of production for the video “Making A Gragg Chair” steaming down the rails I thought it would be good to get back in practice splitting logs I had culled from last year’s harvest up on the mountain.  As soon as the mud dried out I drove up there and started wailing away at one in particular.  As I already recounted the initial results were not heartening.  The last time I split some giant logs was a couple years ago and that went perfectly.  Had I forgotten how to split a log?

A second log went much better but I had left my camera in the barn so you’ll have to take my word for it.

I also had long desired to build a riving brake, a tool I had never before possessed.  Now was the time to spend part of an afternoon doing so.

When my brother and I rebuilt the lean-to on the lower log barn lat year I was left with a half-dozen ancient chestnut poles.  They seemed to be perfect candidates for the project.

Using precision woodworking processes I trimmed the ends of the logs to allow for whisper-fit angled joinery.

That joinery was accomplished with a low-speed high-torque drill and a length of 1/2″ threaded rod and nuts.  With some judicious use of leveraging I got the tripod up on its feet.

I added the cross bracing and it was ready to put to work.

I’ll see if it is as easy to use as Follansbee makes it look.