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.

Sometimes Log Is Like A Box Of Chocolates

As a practice session for the impending commencement of the second video, “Making A Gragg Chair”, I trekked up the mountain to the pile of “good” logs I had culled from the firewood-harvesting sessions.  One in particular caught my fancy, a large red oak about 24″ in diameter, looking straight and true for its seven-foot length.  I decided to work it with “wedge and sledge” to both get my stamina up to speed but perhaps even yield enough material to make a pile of useful things.

Within ten minutes I knew all I had was a pretty spectacular pile of firewood, albeit unprocessed.  After I opened a nice split on the end grain and started working down the sides of the log the core of the log separated, essentially ruining it as a workpiece.

To make matters worse, the intertlaced grain inside the log caused it to start eating wedges.  It took me more time to extract the wedges than anything else.

Oh well, as the Gump of the Forest says, “Sometimes log is like a box of chocolates.”  And this one had something unpleasant inside.  At least I’ll get another thousand pounds of firewood from the experience.

A life of woodworking is a humbling one.

Strategy For Conserving (My Own) Gragg Chair – I

One of the projects that has been slowly percolating up the pile of “To Do” projects is the repair of my own Gragg chair, built several years ago and damaged while on display at a woodworking event when a corpulent fellow wedged himself in the chair (uninvited) and broke both of the curved arms when desperately extricating himself from it.

As I cogitate on the project of repairing the chair, even though it is my own piece and I can build another (actually I am beginning to build three more which will be recorded for a future video), I am approaching the problem as though it were a museum/historic piece and this is the execution of a conservation treatment from a formal/museum point of view.

In so doing I will be employing and implementing the decision-making model I devised almost thirty years ago, consisting of six separate questions, linked in opposing pairs.  This model has served me without fail during my career in the museum, and for clients outside the museum.  It has become such a part of my thinking that it almost does not register with me any more.  I am hoping that as I work through this series I manage to include all the connections, but if I do not please let me know.

The strategic path for any particular conservation treatment depends on the answers to these six questions, and on balance the six answers makes that path clearer.  In some cases the questions are not relevant and can be discarded, but they must be contemplated at least to the point of making that determination.

The first pair of questions is, What are the nature and needs of the object, and, What are the nature and needs of the user?  While this pair is essentially a conversation between me, the advocate for the artifact, and me, the user, I hope it does not devolve into slapstick.

The second pair is, What are the technical limitations you are facing (particularly regarding the materials), and, What is the perfect, or least most desired, outcome?

And finally, What are the ethical guidelines for intervening with the object, and, What are the resources available for the project?

While the context of every object and circumstance is unique, and thus the balance of the answers can vary widely, nevertheless I find the exercise to be a powerful tool for plotting a route from Point A (where or how the object is currently) to Point B (where the object needs to go/be).  In coming essays I will address each question (and answer) individually and in concert with its counterpoint question as I elucidate the chosen strategy for dealing with the project as a whole and individual procedures and choices within it.  We may find ourselves in pretty deep weeds from time to time, but at least you will know how I approached the problem.

I’ll close this essay with the reminiscence of the first time I presented this decision-making model at a national professional meeting, I think in the late 1980s.  In a somewhat unusual response from a “sophisticated” audience, I heard occasional hisses and boos during the presentation which directly challenged portions of the prevailing museum/conservation orthodoxy.  Over the following three decades there came to be a sporadic and gradual acceptance of the model, and by the time I bolted for the boondocks this graphic was seen on the walls of museum and private conservation labs from coast to coast.

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.