Book updates

Updates to my book, Going with the Grain

I wrote Going with the Grain over the winter of 2010/11 to capitalise on my ’10 minutes of fame’ as the judge at the end of the BBC 2 programme, Mastercrafts, hosted by Monty Don. (I have to say this is a brilliant piece of TV, especially the final 10 minutes!) Two years later we published the 2nd edition including many updates based on the experience of using it as the textbook for the courses, which I was then running at Brookhouse Wood. Seven years have now passed and I have moved my courses back to a shelter in my cottage garden, where I have continued to run courses, scaled down for just four people at a time.


I’m sure we will all remember 2020 as The Year of Covid 19. During the first lock-down, I spent several sessions with a friend filming my current methods for making a spindle-back chair, which we hope to have edited by spring 2021. During the second lock-down in November, it seemed like a good opportunity to record the many changes to my chair-making techniques, as recorded in Going with the Grain, that have happened since the second edition was published in 2013. So here they are, chapter by chapter below. Where I refer to page numbers, these refer to the second edition.

Chapter 1 – Introduction

Chapter 2 -Why make cleft wood chairs?

Both these chapters still hold pretty much true.

Chapter 3 – Wood for chair-making

Ash die-back

Since its appearance as I was writing the second edition in 2013, ash die-back has spread profusely throughout most of the UK. I have been fortunate to still be able to source good quality healthy logs locally but how long this will continue, who knows?

Die-back on young ash trees

Storing green logs

If and when you do obtain your green logs, I suggest you store them off the ground (e.g on pallets) shaded from the sun, protected from the rain then wrapped up well to avoid the wind blowing through.

Ash quarters laid onto a pallet

More ash logs being stored

Here’s a link to my blog, all about selecting and storing ash logs.

Chapter 4 – Cleaving

A Golden section gauge

The section about using the Golden ratio when cleaving tangentially still applies but I have discovered that one can purchase a wonderful little gadget, or better still make your own, which makes it dead easy to mark it onto your piece of wood. Having used this for a couple of years, I now find it quite indispensable.

Golden section gauge

Chapter 5 – Shaping the components

The ‘push-knife’

I still advocate the process I call ‘sheaving’ where the tool is used to rip away fairly large chunks of wood rather than slicing away neat little shavings. When using this process for removing the shoulders on a rung or spindle, I now prefer to use a single-bevelled, Flexicut ‘push-knife’, rather than the Mora knife as pictured on page 31 (although I do now use the double bevelled Mora knife for delicate cleaving).

Flexicut ‘push-knife

Chapter 6 – Chair joints

Ensuring the wood is green before use

I still get great delight from using the natural shrinkage of unseasoned wood to create the slightly oval joint illustrated on page 33. I usually obtain my wood in late winter or early spring, so despite storing it under cover in the shade, it will inevitably have started drying out by late summer. For the last few years I have placed the wood in a bath full of water for the logs to soak for at least 3 days before starting to work with it. If it has been cleft but not used, then it goes back into the bath until needed. If this wood is able to drink its fill of bath-water, its cells will swell to their original green condition, then any round tenons you produce will really shrink to a distinct oval when dried. If nothing else, it makes it so much easier to shave off the bark!

Cleft sections of ash soaking in the bath

Drying the shaped components

When I had my woodland workshop, I made use of a wonderful wood-fired arrangement of cooker and two drying boxes, while at home I made a set of racks in the inglenook above the wood-burning stove (see pages 34 & 35). When I started running courses at home, my friend John kindly built a drying kiln in my workshop, making use of an inherited cupboard, which was the ideal shape and size. He sawed out an inlet and outlet and fitted a 2kw fan-heater beneath the bench connected by the requisite ducting. I suppose sooner or later the heater will need replacing but it has functioned perfectly now for five years keeping a fairly constant 45 degrees (when in use), enabling us to dry rungs and rails within 24 hours, although an extra 12 hours or so is preferable.

The heater and ducting sitting on the upside-down kiln

Rungs and seat-rails drying in the electric kiln

The drying cabinet, just the right size for 4 chairs worth of bent components

If you would like to see more details of this project, click here to go to my blog on the subject.

Drilling the mortices

On pages 38 & 39 I gave a fairly detailed account of all my explorations with a range of drills. Several years ago I settled on what might seem to be a fairly tedious approach but on the courses I have found it to be the most satisfactory approach.

Having marked the position of the mortice, I start by drilling a pilot hole with a 3 or 4mm lip-and-spur bit in a cordless drill, going about 10mm into the wood – no need for any kind of depth marker for this hole.

Drilling a pilot hole

Once the pilot holes have been drilled, I then follow with an auger bit held in a hand brace. I found that marking the depth with paint didn’t last as long as using a strip of tape, especially if it is placed a few millimetres further back than the depth of the hole. Just to make sure, I also count the number of turns, so with this particular 14mm bit, I stop after about 16 turns from when the cutter first bites. (OK, so this is not perfectly vertical but the flexibility in the components allows for a little inaccuracy!)

Using a brace-and-bit

So as to avoid the likelihood of the tip of the auger bit popping right through the leg, I now drill the final few millimetres of each mortice with a Forstner bit held in a cordless drill used at full speed. It can be a bit fiddly fitting it into the hole but don’t start drilling until it is well in the hole and don’t push on it until it is at full revs.

A Forstner bit with a wooden depth stop and a ‘washer’.

There is no way you could count the revs, so I have fitted a length of wood (with a hole drilled through it) to stop the drill going too deep. Sometimes this wooden depth stop would rub on the leg that I was drilling into, which could cause a burn mark, so by using a metal nut as a washer, this could be prevented.

When I am making chairs in my indoor workshop, I sometimes use the Forstner bit held in a mains-powered drill to do the whole operation but this is a bit scary for the beginner. I am working on making all the drilling vertical, which might enable anybody so inclined, to create some jigs so that the hand drill could be replaced by a fixed drill press. To my mind this would be more trouble than it is worth!

Chapter 7 – Some more useful tools

Strangely enough, I can’t think of any relevant manufactured tools that have come my way since 2013 apart from the Flexicut ‘push-knife’ mentioned above.

Chapter 8 – Making a shaving horse

The skew sections of the seat, that occurred to me while writing the book, shown in photos 6 & 7, page 53 (although the photos revert to the older version thereafter!) are immensely useful when cleaving smaller components like rungs, seat-rails and spindles. It is a good idea to countersink the heads of the turbo coach screws but otherwise nothing has changed on this project. Even if you have my book in front of you, this excellent video by Johnny Walshe will be well worth watching.

Chapter 9 – Making a club and a pin

The club pictured on page 57 has a slightly awkward lump, so here’s a photo of a very similar club, which I made this summer with a similar lump, which I chopped off with a sharp axe. Otherwise nothing new in this chapter.

Club 2020

Chapter 10 – Making a chair-maker’s bench

As I describe on page 63 I have spent most of my career developing various designs to achieve the ideal chair-maker’s bench, a process which has continued right up to now (November 2020). The bench described in detail on pages 64 to 71 still sits at the heart of my outdoor workshop with with a number of ‘tweaks’ described below.

A larger clamp

The sash clamp pictured in this chapter was widely available for about £25 and is suitable for all the projects in this book.  On page 64 I described a hypothetical chair-makers clamp, mentioning Leo’s prototype pictured on page 12. Sadly this clamp, based around a car jack, only worked for a couple of years before the jack mechanism collapsed under heavy use. Since then I have reverted to the old Rededa sash clamp that I bought for £25 in 1985 and is still going strong! You can see that I have fixed it nearer to the end of the bench but I can’t remember why.

The faithful old Rededa sash clamp

Gripping blocks

In the book on page 71, I used some tape to fix a couple of softwood blocks to the jaws of the clamp. In the picture of the Rededa clamp, you should be able to discerne a couple of odd-looking wooden blocks attached to the jaws. These are pieces of softwood formed by cutting down one of the ‘bridges’ pictured on page 72 of the book, as pictured in more detail here.

A pair of ‘squeezing blocks’

In the centre of each block is the shape formed by a 40mm drill but the ‘jaws’ have been shaved right back, so they don’t interfere too much during the squeezing process. The yellow tape holding the simple softwood blocks (as pictured in the book on page 71, step 9) was replaced by using velcro pads glued to the blocks and the jaws of the sash-clamps. It seemed a good idea at first but the adhesive tended to slip when under duress, so my friend John (of drying cabinet fame) came up with the brilliant idea of gluing an 8mm rare-earth magnet into the back of the block. This grips the block very firmly to the jaws, while enabling the block to be re-positioned or removed all together. 

Extra weight

When using the bench as the base for bending the back legs of a chair (pictured on pages 101, 103 & 119) there can be a tendency for the end of the bench to tilt up in the air, so if an assistant was around, they could lean onto the end of the bench to keep it on the ground. I remembered that I had been collecting some sledge-hammer heads, so I fitted them into a wooden box, which I then screwed onto the leg of the bench, and that hold the whole thing nice and solid now. Of course you could use any similar heavy object(s).

the weights before being fixed to the bench

A boxful of weights fixed to the bench

The elliptical holes

The two elliptical holes in the bench on pages 65 & 66 are a fun little geometric project but over time, I have found that they can be a bit of a nuisance. On one bench I have filled one of the holes by fixing the cut-out section back in place with a couple of battens screwed to the underside of the bench. On another of these benches, I have fixed these battens but left the off-cut loose, so it can be lifted in and out as required.

The assembly bench

The chair-maker’s bench described in the book along with the minor tweaks described above, has served very well for steam-bending and for squeezing the chair together. For the last couple of years, I have added a couple of smaller benches (about 100cm x 60cm) used specifically when drilling holes before assembling the chairs, making it much easier to reach the whole surface of the bench. For this purpose it really helps if the bench is as horizontal as possible, so on my slightly sloping floor (to avoid flooding during a deluge!) I had to insert blocks and wedges to get them level. I then realised that this defeated to object of having only 3 legs (so it didn’t wobble on the uneven floor) so I rebuilt them with four legs, which reduced the chance of them tipping up while drilling. I used some coloured spray to make sure that once they had been levelled, they would stay put.

A smaller assembly bench

The drilling platform

Over the summer and autumn of 2020, I reverted to the approach used by most chair-makers and as described on pages 138 to 142 of my first book Green Woodwork, which was published way back in 1989. 


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