steam bending

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.

Readying for Gragg Workshop 2

I cannot deny that our spirits were vexed at the end of the second day when we had a nearly 100% failure rate bending the seat/back slats.  We re-thought our process and examined the broken elements.  It was then that I noticed ex poste all the failed bends were in kiln dried stock that I had planned for a different used and they accidentally went into the “bend” barrel.  D’oh!  We enacted a couple of minor ex ante revisions and combining these with the proper selection of wood we had perfect results and reveled in a couple days of almost 100-percent success (I think we had one failure and that might very well have been my impatience, bending the piece faster than it could stand).

I’ve had good and bad streaks of steam bending, but these were the most stark examples of the challenges inherent in taking wood to the brink of what it can be forced into doing.  We rejoiced as the inventory of chair parts grew into that which was needed for next August.

For now the chair parts are just hanging off the beam, seasoning until used by the workshop students.  I have some more Gragg projects of my own to work on so there will undoubtedly be more experience interacting with wood, steam, and forms.

Parts Is Parts

During our recent days of work preparing for next August’s “Build A Gragg Chair” workshop my  friend John and I prepped a lot of wood sticks, and bent them to the forms required to become Gragg chair parts.

We got the steam box set up, the forms set out, and set to work.

John hand planed dozens of chair pieces to get them ready for the thermodynamic adventure.


Once he had five or six pieces ready to go, he used the template board I created for this purpose and affixed the bending straps to all the pieces.  When you have to execute two 90-degree bends only twelve inches apart in a dozen seconds, bending straps are pretty much mandated.  We used flanged sheet metal screws and plumbing straps and attached them BEFORE they went into the steam box because the brief time to get the bending done after steaming does not allow for the straps to be put in place afterwards.  And since the chairs get completely painted, any staining or screw holes can be dealt with.

I placed them into the already heating box and waited for them to reach maximum temperature, which in my set-up is about 200 degrees.

Using a state-of-the-art steam box seal we set the timer and waited the requisite time, 25 minutes for the arm and serpentine pieces, 45 minutes for the bent seat/backs.

On the first day we had good success especially with the thin pieces, only one failure out of eight or ten attempts, but on the second day we had a string of failures approaching 50% when bending the continuous seat/back slats.

At that moment we could discern no reason for the degree of failure  We needed to re-think our process.