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Indispensable Gragg Chair Tools – The Ordinaries

In addition to the peculiar tools critical to building a Gragg chair there is a selection of ordinary hand tools that come to play in the exercise.

When beginning the actual assembly of the upright chair one of the challenges is to get all these parts balanced with the same splay angles, so bevel squares are the quickest solution.  I keep a large one and a small one handy.

It seems that my mid-sized Japanese saw gets used all the time, for one thing or another.

While building a Gragg chair is not a precision undertaking there is still a fair bit of measuring and layout, so a 6-inch engineer’s scale is never far from reach.  I generally use mine for laying out the half-blind dovetails for joining the seat slats to the seat rails.  Concurrently a couple pair of dividers are just the tool needed for spacing those elements.

I keep a couple of 4-inch movable squares handy for general layout work, and they seem to get picked up quite a bit.

I use a block plane when finishing the front seat rail, in combination with the previously mentioned rasps and spokeshaves.

An eggbeater drill comes in mighty handy when pre-drilling holes for the screws that are used throughout the joinery, and when adding the steel pins in the mortise-and-tenon joints of the rungs.

When it comes time to countersink and finish off the joinery screws I use my brace and the requisite bits frequently during those stages of assembly.  I use old fashioned slotted flat head screws in the final assembly so I make sure to have those screwdriver bits for the brace.  Since there is a lot of assembly-and-disassembly in the early staged of the putting-together I find a battery powered drill the be irreplaceable for sinking and removing the deck screws I use for the task.

And, it’s always good to have a small hammer and a mallet, along with a handful of spring clamps.

An Exellent Series On Liquid Hide Glue

Salko Safic has been covering some important territory regarding liquid hide glue over on his always interesting shop blog, culminating the series with a brief but enlightening video.    If the topic interests you — and it should — go give it a look.


Last Spring while wandering around the woods above the barn I made a surprising discovery, the hook and tip from a logger’s cant hook, the tool used to turn and manipulate logs on the ground.  I have no idea of the vintage nor heritage of these tool components, they were muddy and rusty but still beefy enough to be sound and perhaps reused.  I’ve only been harvesting trees for less than a decade and these tool parts were certainly not mine; the previous log harvesting was four decades ago, long before I was on the scene.

I brought them back to the barn and stuck them in my “tool projects” box.

When I began setting-up to work firewood again a couple weeks ago in the aftermath of clearing the trees around the log barn, and not coincidentally opening the sky to provide copious sunshine for Mrs. Barn’s little orchard and garden adjacent to the stone wall, I recalled this earlier find.  There was no handle remaining for the cant hook parts so I checked with the hardware store.  They did not have anything suitable for use.  Instead of ordering one I checked my lumber stash and Surprise! found the perfect scrap of vintage white oak to make a new handle.  The rough stock was no account, having the live-edge running the full length of the narrow 10/4 board that I probably saved because I could not bring myself to throw away a piece of wood that “could be used for some project, some time.”  Happily that time had come.

Even though I already had two log-handling tools, one a standard cant hook to roll a log over, the other a timberjack to roll the log over and lift it up off the ground for easier chainsawing, I decided to make a new handle for the cant hook parts and thus have one in reserve.  Adding to the tool inventory is pretty much always an irresistible enticement.


I sawed out the blank for the handle and set to working on it, starting with the tapered end to match the metal fittings.  A drawknife, spokeshave and rasp accomplished this in short order.  Then I just started wailing away on the blank to make it rounded and swelled or tapered as needed for comfortable use.  The hours spent with hand tools, working hard and even working up a good sweat in so doing, goes in the WIN column in my book.  In a couple of hours, with my hands and arms tired from the exertion, the handle began to take shape.  Actually I was working the metal spokeshave so vigorously that I had to wear gloves to protect my hands from the heat of friction.  No kidding.  Even with a sharp blade and a waxed sole the tool got really hot.

As I was extracting the desired handle shape from the rough stock the pile of long, sinuous shavings grew repeatedly underfoot.  In their own way detritus like this (and from rendering Gragg chair parts) is treasured in our little Shangri-la as it provides perfect tinder for rejuvenating the wood stove every morning.  Being an early-riser Mrs. Barn relishes being able to deposit a handful of these shavings on the bed of coals from the overnight fire along with some kindling and gets the fire going in just a minute or two while she sits and reads with a cup of tea as the sun is coming up.

Put another check mark in the WIN column.

As I approached the final shape and size of the new handle I affixed the hook and serrated tip on it so I could actually hold it and mock-use it to get the size and shape just the way I wanted it.  A few more minutes of shaving a bit here, a smidge there, and it was ready to be put to work.  The only thing left was to paint the handle fluorescent orange like the rest of my woodlot tools (to find them much easier on the work site).

A vintage tool rehabilitated and added to the working inventory of the barn without having to reach for my wallet?  A big WIN.

So, an ordinary discovery deep in the woods yields a Win, Win, Win opportunity.

Winnowing and Strategerizing (sorta “Workbench Wednesday-ish”)

The events of the past several months, including Mrs. Barn and me losing our remaining parents and my becoming closer to 70 than 60, are leading me on a path of deliberate winnowing of my shop and barn contents.  Given that my sister is still going through my mom’s stuff — and she lived her last years in a one room “mother in law” apartment with my brother and sister-in-law — and the literal tons of belongings in my father-in-law’s four bedroom, two car garage house with a large back yard where he lived for 59 years, I am determined to reduce my material possession burden to my heirs as much as possible.  Since my mom died at 103 I may have some time to get it all resolved, which is a good thing when there are 7,000 square feet and 70+ acres in the discussion.

Other contributors to this long-term process are the realizations that barn-based workshops will not have the prominence that I once thought would be true, and given my current set-up on the fourth floor I really do not need a second floor classroom outfitted with a perimeter of workbenches (I do however still use that space mostly for development of the ripple molding cutter).  Also I recognize that at some point in time life in the mountains would just become too hard physically, and I would see the barn in my rearview mirror.  Not any time soon, but it is inevitable in 10, or 15, or 20 years.  One small step we are taking to delay that day as long as possible is to try to find someone who can execute most of the mowing and bush-hogging tasks around the homestead, but when you live in the least populous county east of the Mississippi River it can be a challenge to find someone to work for you.

One of my upcoming tasks will be winnowing the workbench inventory.  Do I really need eight workbenches in my own workspace?  Of course not.  So, I will begin reducing that particular footprint almost immediately and there are definite “Workbench Wednesday” implications.

The first of these will be to replace my first workbench built for the space, the timber planing beam, with a low bench of the Jonathan Fischer/Roman/Estonian variety.  Since completing my French Oak Roubo Project bench I have had no need for the planing beam so it will be resawn and joined to become the slab for that bench.  It will occupy roughly the same space but serve a more immediate need as my knees and hips are becoming more troublesome and working while sitting is ever more congenial.

This change will also allow me to construct a standing tool chest to hold a copious inventory of hand tools, to be placed at the end of the low bench where my saw rack and metal hand planes hang on the wall.  Since seeing Walter Wittmann’s cabinet a few years ago I have seen this as a solution to my tool storage problem and now is the time to act on it.  The Japanese tool box will reside where Walter’s large lower drawers are located.

Of the plans for the workshop changes these are two of the three at the top of the list.  The third is to restore my piano-maker’s workbench in order to make it a proper gift for my son-in-law, and move it out of my workspace.  I m still cogitating on the ultimate home for the Studley-ish bench I built for the exhibit.

On top of everything else I have stock for at least another half dozen workbenches still unbuilt, but that may be moved on to other folks with the time, energy, and need that I do not have.  Among these are the gigantic mahogany slab and vintage walnut 6×6 that would result in an eye-popping Roubo bench, a 14/4 curly maple slab already glued up, a stack of oak 10x15s, some 12-foot long 7×15 Douglas Fir timbers…

Stay tuned.

Indispensable Gragg Chair Tool – 1/8″ Mortising Chisel

Making a Gragg chair requires chopping 17 mortises for their respective tenon partners.  No big deal.  Except these mortises are only 1/8″ wide.  For that task you obviously have to possess a 1/8″ mortising chisel.  You could get by with something 5/32″, but probably not 3/16″  The stock is just not beefy enough to try that.

I have three chisels in my arsenal for this process.  The first is one that came for a box of tools I got at a flea market, it is a 1/8″ long chisel with a turned bulb handle.  A second is from a no account 1/4″ Stanley chisel that I ground down to 1/8″ wide, and the third an my “go to” chisel is one I made from a derelict plow plane iron.  All three are delightfully short in their overall length, a definite advantage when working inside the quirky confines of of the Gragg chair.

The mortises in question are for the rungs and fitting the seat slat tenons into the underside of the crest rail.

I’m not sure if the 1/8″ mortise chisel is THE most important tool in the project, but I do know that Gragg himself did not use the mortise-and-tenon method for attaching the rungs – he just drilled full-size holes and punched the rungs through – and every Gragg chair I have seen is broken at this point.  This is definitely one case where an acolyte can improve on the methods of the master.  I once asked some engineers to analyze my approach with Gragg’s, and they told me the 1/8″ M-n-T construction was ultimately 4x to 5x less likely to fracture than the original.


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.