Posts Tagged ‘Chair-making’

A lifelong ambition fulfilled

I have been meaning to update this blog for weeks but apart from one wet day (the first day of the most recent course) the sun has been shining from dawn til dusk and I’ve been outside making the most of it. However, this morning I woke at 2.30am and couldn’t go back to sleep such was my excitement from yesterday’s activities.

More good courses

We’ve had two more successful courses, the first one with a lovely bunch of people, all making spindle-backs and coming up with several more clever tricks to help make chairs (I’ll write these up in the winter). They also explored further into the realms of seat-weaving.

July offerings

Some impressive seats on the course in July

The next course was filled with ex-students from previous courses, so 3 of them made the more time-consuming lath-backs to add to their collections at home.

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A course for experienced chair-makers in August

Settin chairs

I have spent the few days since then assembling four chairs for an exhibition at Twenty-Twenty Gallery starting on 20th August. This will be the first time I have had my chairs in an exhibition since I was based in Devon over 20 years ago. Prompted by people on courses over the last few years, I have now added the ‘settin chair’ to the range of chairs produced in my workshop. This is an interpretation of a low chair described an the excellent book entitled Craftsman of the Cumberlands mixed with elements of the ‘wee-wor’ chair that we have been making for years.

Wonderful wood

In previous years on my chair-making courses in the woods, any leftover wood has been merrily burned to keep the kettle boiling, to fire the steamer and to dry chair-parts. Now my courses are based at home with solar panels powering the electric kettle, the wallpaper stripper and the drying unit, so every bit of ‘waste’ wood has been piled into my firewood sheds: longer pieces sawn to length for firewood, little pieces all ready to go into my workshop wood-burner and vast amounts of shavings to supply our friends with kindling.

A week or so ago I sawed up the remains of the stash of logs I had acquired over the last year – very sad to see it go for firewood rather than chairs but I’m sure we’ll appreciate the warmth this winter.

Logs ready for firewood

The last of the ash logs that I brought back from Brookhouse Wood when I left last year

More wood

Back in March I had received a call from our friend Toby Allen of Say it with Wood who said that they had felled a section of sweet chestnut coppice amongst which, were a few tonnes of ash logs – would I be interested? This was a good excuse for a walk, so we had a look and decided that we’d accept the offer.

Part of the cycle of woodland management

Mostly sweet chestnut logs, felled for use mainly in the production of fencing products

Good-looking ash logs

A stray ash tree amidst the sea of sweet chestnut

 

So yesterday Toby arrived with his fabulous, self-steering forwarder to restock my little wood-yard at Greenwood Cottage. Because he had once attended a chair-making course, Toby new which logs to put to one side and which to drop onto the pile for firewood. After a chat over a cup of tea, I wrote Toby a cheque worth about twice the normal firewood value, with which we were both very happy. This worked out at about the equivalent of a place on a course or the retail value of a finished chair. How could I not be happy  with such a deal?

Pricing wood for chair-making

I have been long advocating a pricing system for buying logs for chair-making but it has always been hard to justify the cost and time involved in calculating the small volumes involved, combined with the cost of transporting the stuff (see my blog last autumn). Now I am no longer based in a woodland, I have to buy in all my materials for chair-making and for firewood. Obtaining a mixed load like this is undoubtedly a win-win situation for both myself as the user, and for Toby as the supplier. I have already had colleagues saying they would love to have some logs like this, and I have suggested that if they can’t find such logs locally, they buy some of this supply to make space for me to purchase another similar load.

30 years ago, the Green Wood Trust was established through the mutual advantages of creative wood-users getting together with conservationists who were coppicing woodlands in the Severn Valley. I like to think that my dealings with Say it with Wood are taking this kind of symbiotic relationship forward as an example that could be repeated throughout the country.

Spring with no woodland

 

Hannah's wedding

Cutting the Black Forest gateau

 

The clock change at the end of March has, for the last 30 years, always heralded the first of my ‘Development Weeks’ during which my woodland workshop has been brought back to life after a winter of hibernation. This year (nicely timed to make up for the absence of a woodland workshop) it heralded the wedding of my eldest daughter, Hannah, who married Johannes in a beautiful chapel near Freiburg, followed by a sumptuous reception in a picturesque farmhouse on the edge of the Black Forest.

 

 

Black Forest Wood

‘bales’ of firewood drying

On the plane I had been reading more of my copy of the best-selling book Norwegian Wood, where on page 87 there is a photo of an interesting modern method of storing firewood. By using a cleaving machine, metre long sections of log are strapped in bundles, capable of being easily moved around by tractors in the same way as the large bales of straw we see all over the countryside. I was delighted to see such a system put into action by the Black Forest farmer who’s wife was hosting the reception.

Starting on the shelter

stripping poles beneath the washing

So it was not until April 5th that I started working on my new shelter. The sun shone and after hanging out the washing (Tamsin being frantically busy fulfilling orders from her recent media appearances in Country Living Magazine and Countryfile) I started stripping poles (note the oak swill wash basket made by Owen Jones about 18 years ago and still in use most days).

 

Waiting for Spring

Chestnut poles stacked next to a pile of equipment wrapped up for the winter

 

In January I had bought 20 chestnut poles from  Say it with Wood which had been stacked next to a tarpaulin covering a load of equipment I had brought back from the woods.

 

 

 

For 30 years my ‘Development Weeks’ have been manic occasions during which I have attempted to harness the enthusiasm and energy of around a dozen volunteers, felling trees, splitting logs, building cabins and a host of other woody projects. They have nearly all camped in the woods and spent the evenings cooking, eating, drinking and singing together – a superbly creative combination of the energy from people, food and wood.

 

 

Stripping chestnut pole

working out in the spring sunshine

 

This year, with no facilities for camping, I have been plodding away mainly on my own.  I unwrapped a shaving horse and a bench (fitted with a vice) and placed them near the trampoline to hold the poles while removing the bark plus some of the sapwood. Obviously the work takes longer and it would have saved a lot of time to have a few others to help strip the poles. On the other hand it has been a more meditative process – Zen and the art of stripping poles! We had a few warm sunny days, I thought summer had arrived, so off came the shirt and out came the shorts. It made a refreshing change from the 7-minute workout accompanying my son, Dougal each day. This outdoor workout also had the added incentive of ending up with something useful when it was completed.

 

 

 

 

 

In fact, as well as 20 stripped poles, I ended up with 4 builders bags full of lovely dry shavings, which I dried in the sunshine on the trampoline and are now in the wood-shed, waiting for evening use on the fire-dish (made by blacksmith friend, Andrew Findlay).

As I was working away, I recalled the construction of the previous ten or so workshops I had built over my thirty year career. I knew chestnut poles were best to resist rot when buried in the ground but realised that straighter, lighter softwood poles would serve better for the horizonal components that would be clear of ground level. When recently collecting some chair-making ash, I had noticed some straight, slender poles at Moreton Wood, so I ordered a dozen of these from Paul, which I collected and stripped.

With a couple of days off to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary, it took until the last week of April before I was ready to start assembling the new shelter.

Pastures new

Leaving Brookhouse Wood has proved to be a mixed blessing. No longer can I take my chainsaw and fell my own selection of chair-making logs. There have been years when I have been offered good logs from other sources, such as Toby & Aly at ‘Say it with Wood’ but now I have to be more proactive and make contact with other possible sources within the neighbourhood.

So yesterday I drove the 15 minutes to Moreton Wood, where Paul Morton (coincidence or what!) has just been felling a clump of ash, mainly natural regeneration within a section of conifers planted about 40 years ago. They’ve had to struggle upwards for the light without developing spreading branches. As near perfect for chair-making as one could wish for.

Paul found me a few convenient trees and Jo pulled them to the track with her horse (Guinness?). We selected which bits I wanted, Paul cut them to length and we loaded them into the van.

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They look better when selected and loaded. There are lots more on another slope, which have to be dragged by horse to the track at the bottom, then driven out with the 4×4 and trailer, where they can be loaded into road vehicles like my lovely red van.

We had a cuppa, where I was able to look around their magnificent workshop, all made out of timber from the site, along the lines of Ben Law’s Woodland House.

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For the last 12 years since buying the woodland, they have lived in a small caravan. Now they are going for residential planning permission, which looks to progressing  relatively smoothly – so far.

We had an interesting chat about all sorts of woody things, including Jo’s ‘Woodland Creative Project’ and how it might relate to the Woodland Trust’s proposed ‘Charter for Trees, Woodlands and People’. We talked about a new generation of woodland dwellers – people who want to live and work on the land, not in a romantic escapism but as a serious alternative to the rat-race faced by so many young adults in the 21st century. And of course we also had to discuss methods of pricing ash logs for chair-making (as I discussed in Living Woods Mag, issues 32 & 33).

I wish Jo & Paul every success and look forward to using more of their logs on this summer’s courses.

Here’s a link to their website: http://www.moretonwood.co.uk/

 

 

 

 

Bending chair legs

A week ago I spent an hour or so with Richard Mackley, who had contacted me about bending a new back leg so that he could repair an old, broken Clissett chair. When I saw the distorted grain in the broken leg as well as the very straight seat-rails, I really doubted that this was a cleft-wood chair, even if the legs had a distinctly oval cross section. (I’m really sorry I didn’t take more detailed photos – maybe another time). Anyway, I sold him a few lengths of nice straight ash so that he could turn some new legs and we arranged another session to do the bending.

Interested to find out more about this apparent ‘fake’ Clissett, Richard and I exchanged e-mails with Terry Rowell, a relation by marriage to a Clissett descendant, who has compiled a remarkable website all about the old fellow and his chair-making: http://www.philipclissett.co.uk/. Much to our delight, Terry agreed to join us on our bending session to look at Richard’s chair and to bounce about ideas on bending the back legs.

Terry, Richard and a collection of chairs

(with a fortuitous selfie of me in the mirror)

It took little time for Terry to confirm my doubts about Richard’s chair not being made by PC. But neither did it seem to be a Gardiner or Neal version either. Undaunted, Richard bent 2 pairs of nicely turned legs with a bit of help from myself with a wallpaper stripper generating clouds of steam.

Sadly, Richard had to leave us in order to take one of his woodworking classes at Herefordshire College. Then Terry and I got down to our issue about how PC bent his back legs. Having examined as much historical evidence as possible, Terry’s hypothesis (he trained as a scientist) is that PC bent his legs without the use of either steam, or boiling water, as used by Lawrence Neal: http://www.lawrencenealchairs.co.uk/video.html. I was introduced to the work of PC by my old mentor Jack Hill. (I’ve just found the website he seems to have started, the year before he died in 2009: http://www.southirishhorse.com/hill/). Jack used steam for all his bending, as one needs a great deal less boiling water than if you immerse the legs in a big tub of boiling water. This is what I have always done myself.

I had spent the previous afternoon cleaving and shaving 3 pairs of legs from the lovely straight ash logs that I had collected in November. I found it helpful to have a range of froes, from the huge Ray Iles froe down to a little broken Bristol Design one.

Now was the time for Terry to convince me, against all my scepticism, about his theory of cold bending. Before he started he asked me to shave the leg down a little from the 38mm diameter to nearer the 32/33mm of his delicate PC chair. Allowing for shrinkage we settled for about 34mm. We decided to use my cleaving brake as a bending former…….and to my great surprise, the leg bent quite easily with no sign of kinking or snapping or tearing. I love the expression on Terry’s face, clearly saying ‘told you so!!’

Told you so!

 

Not for the first time in my life, I had to open my mind to rethink my long-held beliefs. It obviously sprung back somewhat but it is documented that PC put his back legs, held in a bending jig in a cooling baker’s oven for 20-30 minutes to harden, then a few days in the warm to dry. We then had another go with a 38mm leg, with little extra effort required.

Terry with a gently curved leg

As Terry said ‘If they can be bent cold, why would Clissett have messed about with boiling water or steam’. When compared with the examples of chairs by Clissett and Gardiner, it appears that the cold bending produces the gentle curve as seen on the Clissett chair as opposed to the comparatively kinked leg produced in Gardiner and Neal chairs.

Hopefully Terry will join me at the forthcoming Bodgers Ball in May near Bristol, for a discussion on various ways of bending not only chair legs but scythe snaiths.

Back in the saddle

Nearly 5 months since I ran my last course at Brookhouse Wood, today I kicked off the 2016 programme with the start of a 5-day chair-making course for Rhys and Mandy from The Ruskin Mill Organisation.

Rhys & Mandy with their green ash

The start of two chairs

To give them the experience of different kinds of ash wood, we started with two very different logs. On the left is a log from nearby Netherwood, planted by The Woodland Trust to commemorate the turn of the millennium.

On the right is a section from the tree from a Herefordshire estate that I used for making a set of chairs in December. (Also in the top photo are some leftovers from making a handle for a maul).

We started by cleaving the spindles from the Netherwood log and then cleft and shaped the crest and cross-rail to complete the components for the back panel for the chair. (You can see the top of Josh’s chair at the bottom of the pic, which we are using as the model)

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Mandy displaying the components for the back panel.

Just before lunch we started on the other log (slower grown but beautifully straight) to cleave two pairs of back legs, which they then shaved, sitting astride their shaving-horses in the glorious spring sunshine.

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Back leg production underway.

By mid-afternoon the legs, the crest and the cross-rail went into the steam box, while Mandy & Rhys started shaping some rungs. After an hours steaming we carried out the bending then stacked the fruits of the day’s work into the new drying cabinet. (Also some crumpled sheets of newspaper drying out having been used to clean the workshop windows yesterday)

The drying cabinet in action

With a day’s non-stop sunshine on the solar panels generating over 12 kwh of electricity, I reckoned that would just about source the power for an hour’s wallpaper stripper (for the steam) plus 10 hours of the fan-heater running at moderate heat – thus saving quite a lot of firewood and fire stoking. This is still very experimental but it reached about 36 degrees with a relative humidity of 20% and a brisk circulation of air. We’ll see tomorrow how it has worked.

The new drying cabinet

From wood-power to sun-power

Last summer (2015), when I knew I would be leaving my woodland workshop, I realised that I would have to do something about a means of drying chair components without using the wood-fired dryer that we had used for the last ten years. Over the winter, when making a few chairs myself or when providing some personal tuition, I have always been able to dry bits of wood, either in our wood-fired cooker in the kitchen, or in a rack above the living-room wood-burner. If I’m going to have four people at a time during the summer then I am going to need some other method. Having recently had 11 solar panels fitted to the roof of my workshop, it now made sense to use electricity to power the drying system during the summer.

Good news and bad news

A couple of years ago I inherited an elegant wooden cupboard with sliding shelves about 50cm deep, much the same depth as the woodland drying unit.

I sat it on my workshop bench, surrounded it with foam insulation and placed a fan-heater inside. With some freshly made chair rungs inside the cabinet, I left the fan heater running all night. By morning, the wood was nice and dry but……………. the fan-heater had burned out. Neither finances, nor environmental considerations nor indeed fire safety, would allow me to continue like this.

Specialist knowledge

I have spent my 30-year career working on the principle that if I can do it, so can anybody else. I have purchased specialist tools but I have always tried to cobble together all the other equipment myself without any specialist input, other than equally unqualified volunteers. However, I had recently met John Lane, a heating engineer who had fitted  a system for Ben Orford and he reckoned he could work out a system for my workshop. He was keen to attend one of my courses so we arranged a skills exchange. If we somehow placed a fan-heater outside the drying unit, it should be able to run for a long time without overheating. I contemplated making a special plywood box but the antique cupboard was so well made and nobody else in my family wanted it. Rather than throw it the tip or burn it, I felt happy to adapt it for a drying cabinet.

Warm air circulation

John duly took a load of measurements and returned several weeks later with all the components made up and ready to fit. He sawed a couple of square holes in the cupboard and fitted an adjustable metal manifold to the hole in the top and a shorter piece in the hole in the bottom.

With the cabinet upside-down, he fitted some more tubing which had been fitted to both ends of an electric fan-heater.

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The idea is that the heater blows warm air into the bottom of the cabinet and after circulating around the inside it passes out of the top corner and down the manifold, back to the fan-heater to start again. With lots of foam slabs held in place on the outside of the whole affair by some sticky foil tape, we lifted it back onto the space, where my bench had been.

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This will work best with just one shelf inside, which allows the air to circulate through twenty or so large holes drilled through the base of the shelf. I have placed a metal grid a couple of inches above the shelf onto which the drying components can be placed. The steam bent legs will sit in the lower half, still clamped onto the bending jigs. (The clamps should fit quite happily). We ran the heater for an hour or so reaching about 50 degrees centigrade. With the woodland dryer we aimed for about 80 degrees but I’m hoping with the air circulation it can operate at a lower temperature but still dry things out within a day.

Watch this space!

During the recent dry, almost spring-like weather, I have been catching up with jobs in the garden preparing for the erection of the new shelter (the tarpaulin arrived yesterday). The acid test for the dryer will come next week, when I have two staff from the Ruskin Mill organisation coming to make a couple of spindle-back chairs between Monday and Friday.  As always, we shall be using ash wood, some from the 64-year old ash tree that I used in December and some from a freshly felled tree, kindly given to me from a local Woodland Trust Millenium wood, only 16 years old. I shall do my best to report the progress on this blog.

 

Chairs completed and collected

Christmas holiday in the Abbott household always seems to run until our son, Dougal’s birthday on 13th January, so now we are slowly returning to our normal routine.

Making chairs for a living

Over the 30 years of my career, the central part of my business has been devoted to running green wood courses through the summer based in a workshop in the woods. During the winters, if I haven’t been distracted by writing books or by moving home, I would occasionally make some chairs to order. Over the first 12-15 years I must have made about  three dozen double-bow Windsor chairs but I am now unable to find any detailed records of who purchased them all. Here’s a pair from a batch of three that I made last year, having not made any for about fifteen years. I was reluctantly persuaded to make one for an old customer, so I decided to produce a set of three, making use of a beautiful old elm plank that had been lying at the back of my workshop for the last ten years or so. During this process, I realised why I had stopped making Windsor’s in favour of the simpler (and to my mind, more comfortable) lath-backs.

Double bows

Chair 11

Documenting each new chair

Last winter, thinking that I was soon to give up running courses, I embarked on making a series of lath-back chairs – a design that has steadily evolved over the last ten years at Brookhouse Wood. To assist with my records, I decided to give each new chair a number as well as the ‘M ABBOTT’ name stamp and to document each one in a special ‘Chair book’. Last year’s chairs are 1-4 and the elephant’s eye, settin chair that I made in November is number 5 . The 6 chairs that I was busy with throughout December are numbers 6 to 11 but for some reason, I completed number 11 first and that was collected before Christmas.

 

 

The deadline for the set of five was not till into January, so I waited to seat them until my daughter, Nettie came home on holiday from university to lend an extra pair of hands. She is studying Maths & Philosophy, which I reckon makes her well qualified to work on interesting chair-seating patterns.

Apart from a few minor details, (hopefully the subject of another blog for the chair-making nerds amongst you) I am now pretty happy with the chair structure but the seat pattern is still developing, so after each one was finished, we’d work out a variation for the next one.

These chairs had been commissioned by Ian, who had come from Australia to attend a course last May. Being unable to take the chair home with him, he gave it to his sister-in-law Hazel, who then said she’d like a full set. In early January, Hazel arrived with her sister and with Phil, who had a big car to carry the chairs.

Collecting chairs 6-10

I’ll now print off the pictures of my first dozen or so lath-back chairs and paste them into my new chair book. I also intend to copy this information into a ‘Chair’ page on my new website – but all in good time!

I’m still waiting for Peter, my assistant from last summer to confirm an order for about 40 chairs for a theraputic centre in Denmark, which we plan to work on along with a colleague called Ben. In the meantime I have agreed to place some chairs in an exhibition in September (2016) at Twenty Twenty Gallery in Much Wenclock in Shropshire. So it looks as if I shall at last become a chair-maker to keep me busy when not running courses in the garden at home.