Gragg Is In The House

Last week I finally took delivery of my Gragg Windsor rocking chair I bought on-line a couple months ago.

It is sublime.  Featherweight, elegant, exquisitely made, extraordinarily comfortable.

I’ve never had the hankerin’ to make a Windsor chair, but…

Enticingly Nearer

The Samuel Gragg Windsor rocking chair I bought several weeks ago has begun its winding road to Shangri-la.  My friend JB, who clued me into the sale in the first place, was finally able to make the connection and pick up the chair this week.  The logistics of getting an on-line auction trophy from northern Fascichussetts to the hinterlands of Virginia has been a challenge, but the plan is coming to fruition.  I expect it to arrive as early as this coming week.

He assures me that the chair is very comfortable, not the least bit surprising because if Samuel Gragg knew anything it was how to make a comfortable chair.

I’m thinking it will live either on the front porch of the cabin or near my writing space in the barn.  But one thing is for sure — it is getting enticingly nearer, and its arrival is much anticipated.

It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane, It’s A… Gragg?

Certainly the undertaking to study, understand, and replicate the “Elastic Chairs” of c.1810 Boston chairmaker Samuel Gragg has and continues to consume much of my interest, time and energy.  There’s just something about them.  It seems as though I always have a couple in progress in the shop or on the finishing bench, and indulge in some far-afield explorations of the basic bentwood technology.

Recently my friend JustinB dropped me a note to inform me of an upcoming auction for a stamped “S.Gragg/Boston” chair of a different sort.  Thanks to the research of Michael Podmaniczky and Patricia Kane we presume that Gragg only made his Elastic Chairs for a few years before turning his attentions to other, more profitable chairmaking enterprises.  Having now made many Elastic Chairs I can appreciate Gragg’s transition from making indescribably elegant chairs that took a lot of time to make towards making slightly less elegant but definitely much less time-consuming chairs in the Windsor milieu or even simpler forms.  It is useful to remember that artisans of the past were not generally engaged in contemplative work, they were trying to just survive and often never more than several days or weeks away from hunger or even malnutrition.  Generating any kind of cash flow was at the top of the “to do” list.  Simpler chairs that could be made in a matter of hours rather than a matter of days fits that bill.

So I bid on the chair in this on-line auction, taking the risk in that I had not examined the chair in any way other than scouring the on-line images.  Much to my astonishment the final price was about 1/10th of what I expected, and I won the auction.  I still have not seen the chair and it is winding its way to The Fortress of Solitude.  When it arrives and I check it out, I’ll let you know even if it is phony baloney.  In that case I’ve spent a completely acceptable amount of money on an idiosyncratic rocking chair for the front porch.  If it’s a “real deal” I will own a piece of history I will treasure, but it still may wind up on the front porch.

Stay tuned.

PS  I apologize if the chair’s images are funky, they were in a format my primitive software would not process as I downloaded them directly from the auction page.  Good thing I have a new compewder I am bringing on-line.

Passive Solar

Recently I’ve been developing some new bending forms and was steam bending some Gragg chair parts.  Unfortunately(?) my steam bending set-up is on the fourth flour, an unheated space with great ventilation (read: wind blows through unimpeded).  I remember filming some videos up there one winter and two kerosene heaters barely made a difference even though I was practically on top of them.  I think in a couple of shots you could see my breath; not exactly the optimal conditions for working with hot hide glue.

Ditto steam bending thin parts, where in even the best of conditions I have a couple dozen seconds to get the parts bent around the forms and fixed in place until they cool and dehydrate into their set shape.  The first recent session was on a cold, grey day and was miserable.  I found that if I timed things just right, even on a cold day, if it was sunny and the air was still I could get the work done just fine.  The reason was my 2500 s.f. of corrugated asphalt roofing overhead.  Since the roof is completely uninsulated as the sun warms the roof it then radiates much of that heat downward into the attic space of the barn.  My curiosity led me to point my laser thermometer at the roof at the peak of the solar gain — the underside of the sheathing was almost 100 degrees F!  The result was a 20-25 degree gain in heat in the space.

I fully intend to exploit this in the furute with some fabricated passive solar units.  Stay tuned.

The Ghost of Samuel Gragg Comes A’Callin’



2023 is shaping up as a pretty Graggtastic year in the shop.  I am in the home stretch of the copious pinstriping for one chair to be delivered.  A second client’s chair is fabricated but I have not yet begun the painting, and a third chair is about half built.


Then last week I was contacted by someone who has a Gragg chair with a broken arm, and based on the images they sent it just *might* be ONLY THE THIRD ORIGINAL, COMPLETE  ELASTIC ARM CHAIR known to exist!

There is the completely overpainted chair at the SI that I kept in my conservation lab for almost two decades, trying unsuccessfully to persuade the curator to allow me to remove the overpaint.

Then there is the beauty at the Carnegie in Pittsburgh, and the heavily restored one in Baltimore.  Unfortunately at the moment I cannot find my overall photos of the BMA chair but I have a large folder of detail shots.  As I understand it the Baltimore chair was missing some elements that were newly fabricated and integrated to make a whole chair.

This newest chair has a tricky repair to be made to the arm, and the putative client inquired about me making a new chair to make a pair with the old one.

On top of all of this excitement there are several new Gragg-ish projects on the drawing board.  Without revealing all the cards, consider that 1) we have a new grandson, and 2) the front porch of our Shangri-la cabin is rocking-chair-tastic.

Finally, I’m at long last seeing the light at the end of the tunnel for the “Build A Gragg Chair” video set.  Whether that light is sunshine or an oncoming train I cannot yet be certain, but I remain hopeful.  At the moment I am estimating the series to be more than a dozen half-hour-ish episodes, and Webmeister Tim and I are noodling the mechanism for the on-line offering.  I’ve had one faithful donor sending me a small contribution every month (THANK YOU JimF!), but we need to come up with a system for processing the $1.99(?)/episode charge without viewers crawling up my back as the episodes are released.  One approach I will almost certainly NOT take is a subscription model.  I’ve spoken to some subscription-based content creators and they are unanimous in their regret.  No matter how much content they create, their subscribers want more, and more often.   I want no part of that.

Now the only thing left in the equation is the resolution to the question, “Why am I not as energetic and productive in my 68th year as I was in my 28th?”

‘Tis a mystery.  Who knows, if I can solve that problem, I may even want to offer another Gragg chair workshop if there is interest.

Winter Project – Gragg Chair Drawings

One of my many projects for this winter is creating of a set of full-scale construction drawings of the Gragg Chair to sell in the Barn Store (not cheap), and provide to last year’s workshop students.

I have a number of full-scale drawings and tracings from the Smithsonian chair, in my opinion the best condition of the extant chairs, but these are just working drawings for me to use.  I need to create a set that would inform the craftsman out in Topeka or Peoria or even, heaven forbid, California.

I’ve got the roll of drawing paper, I located a shop over the mountains to replicate them (in the old days these were known as “blueprint shops,” but like film photography this is an extinct technology; it’s all bitmap imaging/printing, now), and I’ve got a big flat space up in the barn attic on which to work.  At this point I’m just waiting on some warmer, sunny days to heat the space enough to work there for more than five minutes.  Were I less of a Luddite I would probably try to learn SketchUp for the task but at this point I am just trying not to forget the compewder stuff I already know.

An ancillary project that excites me is creating a half-scale version of the chair for my soon-to-arrive grandson to use once he becomes a toddler.  That will require a whole new set of drawings and bending forms.  I cannot wait to get that up to speed, by my calculation I’ve got about 24 months to get that done.

Winter Projects (and well beyond) – Pushing the Boundaries of Graggsylvania

Sorry, I accidentally posted this headline last week with no content.  Here is the content.

I find everything about the Gragg Chair to be compelling, from its aesthetic sinuous elegance and innovative form to the engineering brilliance and the craft challenge itself.  But, could the same form and concepts be taken to different places?  What else could be accomplished in the territory of Graggsylvania?

I intend to find out.

I am not the first person to ponder an exploration down this path, beginning with Samuel Gragg himself, who constructed this unsuccessful (to me eye, at least) settee. I fully intend to make a four-unit settee employing the fully steam bent structural integers rather that the partial one he employed.  Actually, that might be a post-winter project as I would have to do it on the unheated fourth floor which I promise you is not someplace to be desired as a workspace once the chills set in, although that might just work for steam bending the parts.  If I can clear space in my heated studio, however…

And how about a Gragg Rocker?  I’ve mocked one up and have bent the rockers for it, now it only takes time and energy.

What’s next, Gragg porch chairs?  Gragg footstools?  Gragg plant stands?  Gragg child’s chair (now that is really intriguing)?  The options boggle the mind and fuel the imagination.

Gragg Chair Workshop 6

Our final day of the workshop opened with our recognition that no one would be 100% completed with the chair construction, but everyone was close with the demonstrations of the last tasks to be completed.

This list included adding the front stretcher and rear rungs along with all the intermediate seat slats, insertion of four triangular glue blocks associated with the arms, followed by all the sculpting required after all the construction is finished and glued up.

I forgot to mention earlier that one of the fellows brought a nicely finished Studelyesque mallet, based on the castings by Bill Martley that I blogged about earlier.  The mallet came in handy a great many times.

It was a great week of fellowship, comradery and loads of creative work.   Throughout the six days we jointly noted a number of places in the syllabus where en toto a few hours could probably be shaved off the schedule.  So if there is interest I would be glad to offer the workshop again, but even better.

Gragg Chair Workshop 5

With the incorporation of the continuous seat/back slats the artifacts began to adopt the true character of a Gragg chair.

There’s not really a lot to say about the process; you thin the vertical sections to impart the requisite springiness (this is where clamping/vise weirdness is a feature, not a bug), mark, cut and excavate the dado troughs in the rear seat rail, and lay out the half-blind dovetails on the front set rail and the mortises in the crest rail.  It sounds so mundane to describe many hours of intense work thusly.

One “complication” is that the slats must be off-set front-to-back so that they are staggered in order to impart the “elastic” leaf spring function to the chair as a whole.  The is accomplished by using spacers between the slats just above the rear seat rail.  Only after this configuration is achieved can the half-blind dovetails in the front seat rail be layed out and cut.

The dovetails themselves are a piece of cake, literally a minute or two per joint.  The pocket mortises chopped into the rear edge of the front seat rail are a bit more involved but still not hysterically complex.

Once this is done the tops of the slats can be marked and the tenons cut.

Gragg Chair Workshop 4

Fitting and shaping the cross-chair elements is at the heart of turning this pile of parts into a structural construct capable of supporting a sitting body.  This takes a lot of time.

As the cross-chair structural elements were added and shaped it was time to move on to the work of shaping and thinning the continuous seat/back slats.  My experience has been that these must be bent full thickness over the whole length, then the section beginning with and above the rear seat rail must be thinned by hand, usually with spokeshaves or drawknives to the point where they are appropriately springy.   Concurrent with this step is cutting the dado troughs for the slats in the rear seat rail and there is a fair bit of back and forth getting them to fit properly and be properly springy so that it can all go together in the end.

Since one of the students had very limited experience with steam bending I loaded up the steam box with chair parts and went through the entire process with him so that he could get the “feel” of how each of the parts was cooked and formed.