Gragg

Resuming Gragg

It’s been many moons since Chris and I were able to schedule some time together in the video studio as he has been overwhelmingly busy with a new full-time job, a new old house that needed a lot of work, and a new baby that was born last month in the back seat of the car while on the way to the birthing center.  Plus, we’ve all been under house arrest for over three months so there is that disruption.  At least my travel schedule has been light; eleven of my eleven teaching/lecturing commitments for the year were cancelled.

But we are back to planning some video next month, and in the mean time I am trying to wrap up chair #2 to get it delivered to a phenomenally patient client.  In order to capture the final piece of the video we need I will actually start another chair and get it to that point of the filming.  And, I have penciled in the week after next for my pedal-to-the-medal exercise in building a chair in five days to see if I can schedule a workshop on that project for next year.  If that works out and the pandemic has run its course I might offer a Gragg Chair and a ripple molding machine workshop for next summer.

Stay tuned.

MMXIX-I Completed and Delivered

With some degree of anti-climax the pinstriping was touched-up and the final coats of satin oil varnish applied, and all of a sudden after eighteen months of intermittent labor the replica Gragg Fully Elastic Chair number MMXIX-I was finished.

It went with me to Georgia as I traveled to FORP III, and on Wednesday delivered it to the new owner.  He graciously allowed me to display it during our evening open house, and everyone who wanted was able to sit in it.

The moment of my lodging hostess giving it a test sit was captured here, being watched by FORP student Andrew and his lovely wife Katie.

80 Yards of Pinstriping

One of  the true challenges for decorating the Gragg chair is that to be faithful to the original requires the commitment to execute almost 80 yards of pinstriping on curved surfaces often awkward to get to.  (Several areas of striping are multiple applications of adjacent lines).

 

Back in the day when I was doing commercial custom refinishing and such I was fairly good at striping since a lot of it was part of the equation when creating painted furniture finishes for beach front condos.  For years afterward I was seeing pink and yellow striped moldings in my sleep.  But that day was many, many moons ago.

I’m guessing that doing the pinstriping will take me three or four days.   Stay tuned.

Behold, The Peacock Feather Cometh!

After months of anticipation and labors the time had come for my friend and protégé Daniela to come and paint the peacock feather(s) on the chairs I was constructing for clients and for the documentary video we were shooting.   She had painted the peacock feathers for me previously and was able and willing to pitch in again.

We had only a very narrow window of time to work with as it was the weekend of the county fair, which is a VERY big deal in these parts; our county of 2100 people can see crowds twice that for the tractor and truck pulls.  Videographer Chris needed to be at the fair on duty for his day job by 1PM, so Daniela and I set up the night before and were on duty by 8AM on the day of the filming.  Actually she painted a full-scale feather on the back of the chair as a warm-up exercise during the set-up evening (I painted over it subsequently).

It was almost intoxicating watching her slowly build the design with the fine tools, confident eye  and sure hands of a trained decorative painter and conservator.

Fortunately the weather was wonderful so Daniela’s husband and children put in a full day of revelry at the fair while we were hard at work the following day with the cameras running.  Actually Daniela was hard at work, I was just watching her create magic.

And there you have the lovely chairs and the even more lovely lady who helped create them.  She is excited, as am I, to reconnect for the next round of chairs as I intend to include them in my agenda for the foreseeable future.  Daniela, being Daniela, refused my efforts to pay her for these labors but I did persuade her to take about $500 worth of 23k gold leaf home with her.

Daniela’s creative genius was all captured on camera and microphone (I was interviewing her almost the entire time she was working) and will be included in the completed video, which at this point is looking likely to be longer than Roots.

Painting the Gragg Chair

With the sanding putty smoothed I concocted the top coat of paint and applied three coats of it.  The base for this paint was 2 parts Zinsser oil-based primer and one part gloss Pratt and Lambert 38 varnish, tinted with yellow ochre powder pigments to match the color I wanted.  The remaining historic Gragg chairs have a range of base coloration somewhere in the same zip code, and it is pretty much the chromatic neighborhood where my chairs will reside as long as I make them.

The combination of flat primer and gloss varnish yielded a nice satin surface, smooth enough for further work but with just enough tooth to hold the pinstriping and peacock feather decoration yet to come.

Stay tuned.

Priming The Gragg Chair

Finally comes the time for priming the Gragg chairs, the foundation for the decoration to come.  In my earlier Gragg exercises I used a gesso base followed by pigmented shellac, but that was before the technical analysis of the original Gragg paint was conducted.  This analysis revealed his work to be almost entirely executed in oil paint.  I have revised my current procedures to reflect that newer knowledge.

My scheme for the early finishing schedule is roughly as follows:

Fill the most egregious voids with putty. I made my own putty my mixing some of the oil primer with additional whiting until I got a thick paste.

After sanding off any excess putty, prime the surface with a solid coat of Zinsser shellac-based white primer.

Once that primer coat is dry, apply two coats of Brushing Putty from Fine Paints of Europe.  I tinted this with a little yellow ochre.

Once these two coats are fully dried, sand the surface completely with 120 sandpaper.

Finally, apply two coats of flat white oil paint strongly tinted with dry yellow ochre pigment.  Somehow I failed to get a picture of this final prep, or it is on my other camera.

Unfortunately, due to the competition between my calendar and Chris’ calendar we did not get these steps on video camera.  We will have to film it on the next chair.

The Gragg Chair Challenge

Now that the construction of the first Gragg chair is finished and the second one close behind, I got to thinking again, “Could I offer a workshop in building one of these?”  Since I have never built one start-to-finish uninterrupted I simply do not know.  Up to this point when working on these chairs I was constrained by the realities of video recording as I had to make sure my work was presented to the camera and my running commentary was comprehensible to a viewer.  So, how quickly could I work without consideration of the camera nor pretending to be a friendly soliloquist?

Some time over the next couple months I am likely to find out as I undertake the making of one while “on the clock,”  talking only to myself with an endless stream of criticism.

I believe that the only way to get one built in six days would be for students to start with all the necessary parts and with  complete set of jigs.  That is where I shall begin on some upcoming Monday morning.  Then, with a time lapse camera running, I will see if I can get one constructed in five days.  If I can, I would think a student could do it in six.

The workshop could not begin with a tree, as I do with the chairs I’m building, and not even with the raw riven material.  Nor could it begin with steam bending all the parts, although that would be covered and demonstrated one-on-one with each student in a staggered schedule.  The raw stock takes too much time to prepare for this context and the bent pieces need too much time settling down ex poste for this to be a realistic starting point so I would by necessity have all the stock prep and bending done in advance.  However if it goes much faster than I am estimating I could enfold some of that by-passed content into a real syllabus.

I’m thinking my exercise will take place in late November or early December of this year.  Wish me luck.  If I do get the chair built in five days, working 9-6 with a lunch break, I will feel more confident in offering a six-day workshop in autumn 2020 for four students to come and build their own.

Wish me luck.  I will be providing a daily update on the progress as the challenge unfolds.

Gragg Chair Fabrication Completed

It might have been the hottest week of the summer, well over 100 degrees in the attic where I am doing all the Gragg chair project (admittedly only about 85 outside) but finally the construction is complete.  Now it was time to move on to sculpting all the edges and profiles of the elements.

Virtually every single component was ovalled, tapered, smoothed, and shaped to add the elegance that this chair deserved.  Even in its raw state immediately after final assembly it is a thing of beauty, after a the surfaces are sculpted it is sublime.  The primary weapon for much of this process is a spokeshave, or more properly, a whole selection of spokeshaves I’ve assembled over the past 45 years.  The main workhorse of the stable is the tiny patternmaker’s spokeshave I made In 1979, if I recall correctly.   It is the tool closest to the hammer head.  Another favorite is the “pig’s ear” spokeshave I probably got at a Martin Donnelly auction but I cannot remember precisely.

Systematically I went over every element, shaping them to be a harmonious whole.

Shaping the triangular glue blocks imparted tremendous elegance, and a few final touches made it ready for paint.

Improving/Making A Curved Fishtail Gouge

One of the challenges when building Gragg chairs is that the short seat slats are half-blind dovetailed into the front and rear seat rails (well, the front of the continuous slat are too, but it is mor difficult for these ones).  As a practical matter this can only occur after the chair has been mostly assembled, so the work is in tight and awkward quarters.  I generally cut the mortise shoulders of the dovetails as deeply as I can to make waste removal as easy as possible with a narrow dovetail chisel, but then I have to remove the remaining waste very carefully so as not to damage the joint fitting.


A tool that is extremely helpful in this undertaking is a custom-made curved flat fishtail gouge.  I tried store-bought curved flat fishtails and although the are fine tools but they do not flare enough to be particularly useful.  Instead I took a 1/2″ curved flat fishtail and ground away the shoulders to make their flare much more pronounced, and that works just fine.   It allows me to reach way into the interior corners of the dovetail mortise and get them clean.

Still, it does make for a mighty long work session.

I have enough trouble keeping the joint shoulders intact without creating additional hurdles to jump.  At this pint of the project that light at the end of the tunnel is getting brighter.

Stoopid Pencil Tricks

I’m certain I am not even the millionth person to transform a pencil into at tracing gauge, but it is a tool that I use whenever I am making the intermediate seat slats for the Gragg chair, transferring the shape from the steam bent unified bottom/back slats.

I prefer to start with a carpenter’s pencil, saw it in half length-wise, then shave off most of one side with a utility knife.

Then I plane it flat with a block plane to reveal fully the graphite core.

To keep the open graphite from smearing all over everything I simply place some transparent tape over it and burnish it to make it perfectly intimate with that surface, then trim the excess tape.  That way I can not only handle the new tool but place it directly on a surface to be traced without contaminating that surface.  I make the tip sharpened, leaving the graphite/tape side flat and beveling the other three facets and place the tape side against whatever contour I am trying to trace, transferring the shape onto the workpiece being made to fit that shape.

Yup, when fabricating the seat of a Gragg chair the most important tool was free and required almost five full minutes to modify.