Indispensable Gragg Chair Tool — Rasps


The Gragg chair is more like a sculptural assemblage of curvy parts in space and at several points in shaping the chair components there is only one tool type to suffice for the task, namely the rasp.  Or in my case, a few rasps and similar tools like floats.

I generally include four tools in this category; an Ariou cabinetmaker’s 10″ rasp (or its analog a Nicholson #50 patternmaker’s rasp),

a Shinto rasp, and a pair of fine Iwasaki floats, both flat and half-round.  In procedural order the processes requiring them are as follows.  Sorry about there being no picture but I could not find one in my compewder.  They’re there, I just cannot find them.

First is the touch up of the diminutive tenons for the rungs when the side units are assembled.  This is necessary only when the tenons are cut too full and need to be nibbled down to fit the mortises.  Generally I accomplish this task with either the Shinto rasp, if there a a fair bit to remove, or the flat Iwasaki float or small Ariou rasp if just a little.

Once the assembly of the cross elements begins I tend to concentrate on the front seat rail, letting the rear seat rail and the crest rail dimensions be established with tacking strips.  For the front seat rail the rasp is critical for two distinct steps.  First the curved surface of the end lap joints must be shaped to fit the underside of the serpentine leg element.  Though most of this step is accomplished with a saw and  chisel, the final fitting is fastest with the Shinto rasp.

Then, once the stock is fitted and affixed in place I remove the most of the square shoulders of the excess with a block plane but the configuration of space and the element means that the heavy lifting for roughing the shape (and the embedded half-blind dovetailed seat slats) falls to the rasp.

Fitting the crest rail to the tops of the serpentine pieces is a mix of saw and Shinto rasp, but the actual sculpting of the crest rail shape is accomplished through a combination of spokeshaves and the Ariou rasp, followed up with the pair of Iawsakis to get a surface ready to paint.

The final place for rasp work is both a “mere detail” and an elegant hallmark of a Gragg chair, the rounded glue block underneath the front of the curved arm and the meta-volute at the bottom terminus of the arm.  With the Ariou rasp I can usually cut these shapes into the square-ish stock in about 5-10 minutes.

New Infill Mallet Shell Castings – Initial Surface Work


One of the challenges to replicating Henry O. Studley’s incomparable mallet is obtaining the surface texture when it is all done and finished.  As someone who comes out of the foundry trade myself I can only shake my had in amazement at the shell he used in his mallet.  There is no hint of who produced the brass casting, all I know is that is was provided by a virtuoso.  Hmm, that sounds like a good title for a book about Studley.  When I originally saw the mallet in person I thought that it was like many of the “finished” casting for the foundry where I worked; the pieces were cut off the sprue tree, ground and filed, then tossed into some sort of bead blaster to achieve a final surface.

However, once I got really up-close-and-personal I realized that was an unlikely proposition as the shadow of the parting line from the casting was still evident, about 1/3 up from the bottom.  Abrasion blasting would have almost certainly removed that evidence.  Thus I am left with the possibility that the shell casting used by Studley was essentially straight from the sand mold, at least in regards to the surface texture.

As nice as the new castings from Bill Martley are, they are not of the same quality as Studley’s (to be fair to Bill I have never seen contemporary sand castings of the quality evident in Studley’s menagerie) and the surfaces need to be worked extensively by hand to eventually get to a similar place, at least aesthetically.

I already referred to establishing the cove profile with a 1/4″ chain saw file, and then cutting the flat edges of the same elements with barrette files I bought from Slav the File Pusher at Handworks last time.

I then proceeded to work on the top and bottom of the mallet shell around the square collar, an always challenging proposition when trying to achieve uniformity on a surface that is not uninterrupted.  The first goal is to get everything flat, working parallel to the sides of the rectilinear collar.  I did this mostly with a small-ish mill file on which I had removed the teeth on one edge to as not to continue cutting where I did not want to cut.

Once I got to flat I began to work with sandpaper sticks to begin reducing the tool marks left by the file.  I literally used them flat, “rounding the corners” on the shell surface, working my way from 120 grit up to eventually arrive in the neighborhood of 600.  The ultimate goal is to achieve a surface that has as little character as possible.

At that point the workpiece is ready for some additional contouring before the final surface treatment.  The real design/detail genius of the Studley Mallet is that the primary corners are sharp at the faces of the mallet but quite rounded at the center point of the arc where two planes meet.  I’m thinking that might be a seat of the pants exercise.  I also began to work on the openings for the infill and handle.

Next time – working the surfaces of metals to “done.”

Indispensable Gragg Chair Tools – Detail Saws

While not necessarily unique to making Gragg chairs a variety of detail saws are certainly part of several processes in the making of one.

Probably the most peculiar of these is cutting the curved dadoes in the rear seat rail to accept the bentwood seat/back slat elements.  While I know that making the curved bottom configuration of the dado can be achieved in multiple ways perhaps my favorite is to use a Japanese veneer saw, which with its deeply curved cutting edge is very well suited for the task.  One problem I have encountered recently is that I cannot seem to find  source for the saw, so I will probably attempt to make some myself.

One option I have tried is to employ a Japanese mortising saw, with some success.  The problem with this saw is the exceedingly long neck which causes some flopping around of the head.  I’ll probably order another saw and move the handle up next to the head.

Without having the saw in the tool kit it is possible to cut the margins of the dado with a small Japanese detail saw and then excavate the curved bottom of the groove with a bevel-down bench chisel.  Actually I find myself reaching for the Irwin and Shark saws far more often than I first expected.  Clearly, this Irwin has had a tough life in my carpentry kit, I need to re-cut teeth on it.


Elsewhere on the chair there is the need to cut the shoulders of the half blind dovetails on both the front and rear seat rails,

and the tenons on the ends of the back slats to insert their tops into the underside of the crest rail, and to cut the tenons on the ends of the rungs.  For these tasks pretty much any fine back saw will work, I go back and forth between my custom specced Bad Axe (now in their inventory), my treasured old Sears backsaw I bought new in about 1970, and my Japanese dovetail saw.  My habit is to cut the half blind dovetails with the Japanese dovetail saw and all the teeny tenons with the Bad Axe.

Next time – rasps.

Competition For Roubo Bench Slabs?

Now that they have begun to acquire the timbers to rebuild Notre Dame, I’m guessing the market for vintage oak slabs for Roubo benches is going to tighten up.


Firewood Ladle Finished

I could not push the envelope too far when shaping the bowl of the ladle due to the squirrel-y-ness of the wood, but the end result was fairly pleasing.  Once all the shaping was complete I worked the entire surface with graduating levels of sandpaper, starting at 150 and ending with 400.

Then I mixed up some absolutely positively food-safe paste wax of 2/3 walnut oil and 1/3 beeswax, and burnished that into the surface with a fine abrasive pad until the surface just glowed.  It was a pleasure to the senses at that point, with the smooth surface and the nice lines and the soft beeswax scent.

This is a food-safe item, with the epoxy impregnant fully reacted it should tolerate moderate temperatures and liquids with no problem.  Were it to be left in a steaming tureen of stew for a long stretch, of that I am not so certain of the outcome.  Not of any toxicity problems, the epoxy being fully reacted would be inert, but it would be a touch thermoplastic and soften just a bit.  And the walnut oil/beeswax polish would just melt into the pot with virtually no notice, and could be re-polished after washing.

The finished implement is now displayed on the serving table in the dining room, though at the moment it is surrounded by all the seeds and shoots Mrs. Barn is planting in the garden when weather permits.

For a first-time spoon carving project, I am not displeased.

Controlled Carnage

The view from a couple years ago.

With the first hints that Winter may be drawing to a close and Spring will soon be upon us a young girl’s fancy turns to… gardening!  With that in mind last week I hired my pal Bob to come and fell a bunch of trees surrounding the old log barn.  The barn did not care, but the trees had become so dense and tall that they were shading a small garden plot Mrs. Barn has been cultivating for a few years, including some small pear trees, right next to the garden shed behind the stone wall.  The trees have not flourished as she had hoped primarily because the the limited direct sunlight in that spot.

So, the trees had to suffer mortal wounds.  Only three or four of the trees were very large as these things go, perhaps a foot or so at the base, but even that tree weighs a couple tons and could really ruin a day.   Plus a number of the smaller trees, 6-8 inches at the base, were sorta leaning the wrong way for me to drop them easily and in the right direction.  that’s where Bob comes in, having been a woodsman much of his life he really knows how to “read’ a tree and get it to go where he wants it to go.   even then we had to “push over” several of the trees once he could to a critical point in the cutting.  On tree immediately behind the barn was too large and leaning too much for us to get this time, I’ll have to hook up a winch to pull it in the right direction when we cut it in the future.

But for now we have a whole lot of new sunshine coming through, and nearly a full winter of firewood on the ground.

Another Good Day

It is fascinating how the metrics of life change over time, and in relation to the context of the moment.

Evidence of another good and productive day at the workbench.  Who knew that some day I would smile at assessing a day based on how much I needed to sweep the floor in the morning?

On top of that we are in the midst of several days of warming temps and brilliant sunshine.

Firewood Ladle – Shaping and Thinning the Bowl

The process for excavating the inside of the ladle continued as previously described — saturated with dilute epoxy followed by hollowing with curved gouges until soft wood is hit, followed by more epoxy impregnation followed by more sculpting… — until I arrived at the shape I wanted.  Unfortunately I failed to take any photos of these subsequent dozen or more sessions.

Interspersed with those sessions were exercises in refining the outer shape of both the handle  and the bowl, mostly using rasps since the wood was so squirrelly.  Once the shapes were close to finished I needed to thin the bowl so that it would be a somewhat elegant piece.

To protect the inner bowl and support the bowl wall while working towards the wall thinness I wanted I needed to devise some way for an almost form fitting support.  To accomplish this I looked throughout the barn for things that were the right size and shape, and the closest thing I found was this doming hardie from my collection of metalworking tools.  By draping the dome with several layers of drawer liner I got the fit pretty near perfect, the finished bowl shape slipped right into place and stayed put while I was working it with fine rasps and floats.

As with shaping the inside of the bowl, the protocol for working outside the bowl was epoxy >>>toolwork>>>epoxy>>>toolwork, etc.  With a gentle touch I slowly worked towards the final wall thickness of about a shy 1/8″.

Vintage Veneer Saw @MJD

If I did not already own one I would be interested in bidding on this 4-foot (!) veneer saw at the upcoming May tool auction at Live Free or Die Tools.  If you have  case of the Roubos coming on, this might be the medication.

Live Free or Die Auction Preview (

Lot SC21-411

Workbench Wednesday – SAD


One of my quirks is that I usually like to lay a piece of sacrificial sheeting on top of my workbench most of the time, and today was my day to swap out the old one for a new one on the FORP Roubo bench.  As I was making the swap I noted that it was also time to address one of the two main manifestations of Seasonal Affected Disorder that afflicts (?) wood in the natural course of events, sometimes called hysteresis, sometimes called rheological cycling, but generally known to us folks at the workbench as “wood expands, wood contracts.”  One of the consequences is that when there are pieces of wood assembled with different grain orientations eventually they get out of sync dimensionally.  In a Roubo workbench this become manifest as the tops of the leg tenons eventually protruding past the top of the slab.

As I was fitting new pieces of luan plywood to lay on the bench top I noticed that the tenons were quite proud of the slab, perhaps 1/16″.  I only assembled the bench a couple years go and did not notice the issue when I laid the initial sacrificial covering at the time, but it was there now.

You might have thought that since the bench was initially fabricated eight years ago it should be fully settled into its new environment.  Maybe, maybe not.  If the old adage that wood seasons at the rate of “one year for every inch of thickness” is true then the answer would be “yes.”  Since I moved to the hinterlands and talked to some of the local wood guys I have come to appreciate their view of seasoning woods, especially dense hardwoods.  To them “one year per inch” does not hold true; instead they use a formula of “one year for the first inch, two additional years for the second inch, three additional years for the third inch,” and so on.  By that metric my five-inch-thick bench top will pretty active for 1 year + 2 years + 3 years +4 years + 5 years, for a total of 15 years.

I dealt with the tenon ends directly in about an hour this morning, and will address the slight crown of the overall bench perhaps at the end of summer.

It might be worth reiterating that once I get a slab bench top flat I prefer to hit it with a toothing plane to give it a little texture.  I lose none of the planarity but gain a lot of grip on the workpiece.