Gragg Chair Challenge Overtime

After completing the assembly of the chair structure I moved on to the sculpting of its elements with a variety of gouges, rasps, knives, spokeshaves, spoonshaves, and more, until it was elegant and comfortable  (It is.  Very.).  In another eight hours or so I had it ready to begin painting with a shellac-based primer.  This allowed me to see any lines that did not flow as I wanted, and to re-address them with my edge tools.   Further, it identified any areas where fills were required.

I make my own fill putty similar to Gragg’s beginning with an oil-based primer and thickening approximately 1:1 with pulverized limestone from the garden center (he used lead white as the filler).  Applying that into holes or joints as needed, I actually do not sand the fills, nor the shellac primer for that matter, until after I apply the subsequent heavy oil primer layer.  This gives me plenty of body to cut into with sandpaper.  My goal at that point is to yield a smooth-yet-faceted surface revealing the tool work that goes into making the chair.

Soon I hope this chair will be ready for me to deliver to my friend and colleague Daniela to paint the peacock feather.  Then for me it will be on to new adventures in the World of Gragg.

Stay tuned.

If you are interested in participating in the August 2021 six-day workshop to fabricate a Gragg chair, drop me a line via the “Contact” or “Comments” sections of the web site.  At this moment there is one spot remaining.  If it is successful I will undoubtedly schedule another for August 2022, 2023, 2024, to infinity and beyond.


Negoru Boxes

Today I wrapped up (mostly) three of the “rubbed through” boxes and have put two to work to hold some of my smaller Gragg sculpting tools.

This one is black-over-red.

This one is red-over-black.

I did both of these with pigmented shellac with lemon shellac as the film forming component.  I added Bone Black and Vermillion Red powders to taste, then three or four clear coats over the top after composing the pattern with wet sanding.  Since these will get jostled at least if not outright “beat up” I have no plans to bring them to a mirror surface.  I might rub them out with some Liberon steel wool and Mel’s Wax once the surfaces get really hard in a few weeks.

It is nice to have most of my smallest brass spokeshaves in the same box.  I bought four sets of the ones offered by many tool merchants 35(?) years ago and am delighted to have them on hand.  With duplicate sets I have total freedom to modify them as needed.  These tiny tools are amazingly productive but it takes strong finger tips and a good “feel” for using them.  Fortunately Mrs. Barn lets me massage her feet for a couple hours most evenings so my hands are up to the challenge.

Raggedy Old Chairs

These days I am looking for a good laugh wherever I can find one.

Then I found this story about some old chairs with no seat and no backs.  And yes indeed, I did laugh.

You are welcome.

Utilitarian Distraction

Very often in the midst of a lengthy undertaking I need a brief diversion to recharge my batteries.  Given my current work on building Gragg chairs and recording the process for video and the seemingly endless work on A Period Finishers Manual I’ve been finding myself sitting at the finishing bench for an hour here or there to continue my exploration of the Asian lacquerwork aesthetic by other means.  The particular projects are inspired by the Accidental Woodworker’s frequent exercises building small boxes for his tools, combined with my need to keep better track of the multiple small spokeshaves and spoon-shaves I use when sculpting a Gragg chair’s edges and shape.  I’ve also got my sandpaper box that has been primed for years and awaiting its final decorative surface.

I am particular taken by the lacquerwork aesthetic of the negoru finish, or “rubbed through” surfaces, almost always executed in red and black.  Rather than building boxes from scratch I used some of the paulownia or pine boxes from Michael’s that I have acquired over the years as teaching projects for japanning classes.  In this case I was working black-over-red, but also had some red-over-black boxes that were never finished.

For the sandpaper box I used oil paint, for the others I used shellac.  I have yet to complete a box with polyester but will soon.  Some day I’ll post a blog series on these decorative options.

Gragg Video Update

After almost a year’s interruption Chris and I were able to synchronize our calendars and schedule the final three sessions for getting the raw video shot for the Gragg Chair video.  It will probably come as no shock to some of you that the timing of my Gragg Chair Challenge was coincident with this development.  I was able to use some of the work during the Challenge for the live filming also.  When calculating the hours for the Challenge I had to take into consideration the pace of work on the video versus the pace of work when I am by myself.

In this pre-penultimate session I spent all the time fitting the short seat slats, by far the largest segment for the entire project.  It takes me about 90-minutes per slat, or 9-10 hours for the six,  I do think that time will drop a bit as I get more familiar with exploiting the fishtail chisel even more aggressively.  I’m also thinking about changing to birch for the seat rails; tulip poplar is a bit too weak for all that short grain in between the slat pockets and the necessary caution slows me down quite a bit.

Two more sessions and all that will be left is for me to review every minute of the almost 40 hours of video we will have in the compewder, and instruct Chris on the edits, chyrons, and segmentations.

The distribution plan is evolving but at this point my desire is to have the project divided into 15-20 episodes (the exact segmentation will depend on my review of the raw files), and they would be available to purchasers at a rate of two per week.  Still noodling all that stuff.

Stay tuned.


In my ongoing efforts to replicate Asian lacquerwork without the use of urushiol, the resinous sap from the poison sumac tree that is refined into the coating material, I have been trying a number of alternate options including epoxy, oil/resin varnish, shellac (of course!) and varieties of polyester coatings.  The air flow through my studio is controllable and just about perfect for any non-spray finishing from a clean environment perspective.  However, virtually all of the polyester products produce noxious fumes when the coating is reacting.  Not enough to be hazardous to my health, but plenty stinky enough.

To deal with the problem I have dusted off my old favorite respirator, the 3M EZ Air that fit my head and face perfectly and is comfortable enough that I can wear it for hours.  Naturally since it was such a satisfactory product it is no longer available on the market.  The organic vapor cannisters are available so this will remain my “go to tool” for respiratory comfort when working on the polyesters,

Though a satisfactory solution for ambient odors I also came up with another one for scrubbing the air inside a curing chamber.  When I can, I place the newly coated object in a box along with an air scrubber I made just for those occasions.  The unit starts as the jar containing activated charcoal flakes, normally used for aquarium filters.

I cut a hole in the lid and affixed a compewder fan and a screen, and drilled a series of small holes in the bottom of the PET jar.

I sifted the activated charcoal to remove any powdered charcoal dust, something I do not want blowing around inside the drying chamber with a wet coating in the immediate vicinity.

I placed the clean activated charcoal flakes back in the jar and closed up the whole system.  Now I can coat the object the the polyester, flip a large cardboard box over onto it to enclose it, and turn on the scrubber.  By sucking in the air gently and blowing it through the container of the activated charcoal (which adsorbs the organic molecules off-gassing from the polyester) it removes the odors and I cannot really even notice them while I am at work nearby.  When the coating is cured I remove the object and the smell is negligible.  I find that if I leave it all in over night there is barely any odor at all.

When the air scrubber or respirator are not in use I leave them in sealed containers to extend the working life of their filtering components, whether activated charcoal flakes or organic vapor scrubber cartridges.  The fan scrubber goes into a gallon-sixed freezer bag and the respirator into a little sealed box.

Gragg Chair Challenge At The Deadline

I reached the 40-hour mark of the Gragg Chair Challenge with the construction phase of the chair more than 99% completed.  The only construction yet to address is the fabrication of the glue blocks at either end of the arms.  These will take another 90 minutes or so as they are tightly fitted into the irregular curved shapes to fit the spaces where the top of the arm fits against the serpentine back-seat-leg element at the top, and underneath where the arm swoops around and is attached to the serpentine element at the seat rail.

So, I am going to call this experiment a success.  Indeed there were steps I could have been a little more fussy about (read: slower) but there is the unmistakable structure in place.

This is not to say that the chair is a finished work of art, no where close.  There are still the 10-15 hours of sculpting and shaping all the elements into their final elegant form.  And the 10-15 hours of laying down the paint foundation for the decorative scheme that is one of Gragg’s hallmarks.  After that comes the days of decorating, I would estimate the peacock feather and pinstriping will take about four days.  Taking all that into consideration it is fair to say that the finished chair is a little more than 1/3 done.  Nevertheless I was heartened to get to this particular finish line with “victory” in sight.

With that, I will confirm and announce a “Construct a Gragg Chair” workshop for late August of 2021.  By then the heat of summer should be in the rearview mirror (there are no 80-degree days in the forecast even now, with the warmest day upcoming being today’s 78 degrees), so this six-day class should be one of cool mornings and warm afternoons.  I can accommodate four students and together we  will work alongside each other, each of us constructing a chair.

Now I just have to figure out how to get four workbenches up into the attic workshop.

And put together the tool list.

And combine all the time lapse segments into one whole video to post on youtube.

And figure out how to even post videos on youtube.

And, and, and…

Gragg Chair Challenge Day 4 (@ 32 hours)

Things are progressing smoothly, at least in those moments when I am not distracted by and intriguing conversation via podcast.  At the 32-hour mark I’m up to my eyeballs in dropping in the short seat slats.  I should finish them in another few hours of work, and it is looking like the construction will wrap up around Hour 42.

From Disposable To Indispensable

I’m in the midst of a spate of Gragg postings, mostly because that’s what I’m doing a lot of and I don’t think posting a steady diet about working my way through a book manuscript is all that interesting.

In building a Gragg chair there are two steps that are immensely time consuming.  The first is  fitting the rear seat rail into the side units, which serves to unify and distribute all the weight stresses.  This takes about 4-8 hours for me to do this one element, it depends on how much magic is in my hands and how well my good eye is working that day.  The other is cutting 17 open dovetail pocket joints, two on each of the six short splats and the front rail fittings for the five continuous splats.  No way to put lipstick on that pig, they are nothing short of tedious.  It generally takes me up to two days to finish them.

Cutting the insides of a dovetailed open mortise is just a pain, or at least it’s a pain by the eighth or ninth one.  I’ve used a variety of tools and approaches — a saw, bench chisels, a skew chisel, utility knife, and especially a fish-tail flat gouge.  The last was especially helpful but store-bought versions were just not quite right.  The splay of the tool tip was too modest to really get into the sharp inside corners.  I made a custom one for this purpose a couple chairs ago but for the life of me cannot find it now.  Instead I decided to make another.

Looking through my box of derelict or disposable tools I found a 3/4″ Stanley “Handyman” chisel.  It was a cheap almost cheezy tool of unknown provenance that still had the factory bevel and back.  I recall modifying two of its siblings into 1) a dovetail chisel for small corner dovetails and 2) a small, short 3/16″ mortising chisel (this was before I fashioned my set of mini-mortise chisels out of plow plane irons).  The thickness of the 3/4″ chisel steel is laughably thin for typical woodworking, but the thickness was precisely what I was looking for.

With my stationary grinder I created an extreme splay on the fishtail end of the chisel.  Being careful and cutting in from the side I managed to avoid de-tempering the bevel.  After running it through my usual sharpening routine I gave it a try.

Absolutely splendid!

It is now an indispensable part of my Gragg tool kit, executing the task perfectly.  Even better it reduces the time for cutting one of the dovetailed pockets from an hour to 45 minutes or less.  Admittedly, since all of Gragg’s chairs are painted thus obscuring the exact nature of this joint I had to reverse-engineer something that I thought seemed right.

When you have to do 17 of them for each chair, ease and speed count for a lot.

Making this chisel was an extremely well-spent 90 minutes.

I Blame The Podcast

So there I was working away during my Gragg Chair Challenge, deep in the midst of the most tedious part of the entire project — fitting the seat slats into their dovetailed open mortises.  At that same moment I was completely engrossed in listening to an Econtalk podcast wherein host Russ Roberts was interviewing statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb on the latter’s observations about Covid-19 (Taleb’s observations cause me to stop and pay attention; I cannot tell sometimes whether he is a man of rare insight or a BS-spewing grifter.  As Mark Twain said, “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.”  Taleb himself vacillates between statistics-as-analysis and mathematical-esoterica-as-intimidation).

It must have been a particularly compelling exchange between Roberts and Taleb because I sawed the slat cleanly on the wrong layout line.  Try as I might, I cannot seem to stretch the piece longer to fit the space it is supposed to go.

It’ll go into the growing pile of kindling that is left after every Gragg chair.