The Whi-hi-ttling Is the Hardest Part.

My wife and I are quite a pair. If you hang around us long enough, you’ll notice that pretty much every conversation eventually devolves into song lyrics. I can’t help it. If you say “Who are you going to call?” you can bet your last dime that one of us with reply “Ghost Busters.” And if you tell me to “Stop”,  I will assuredly follow that up with a falsetto rendition of The Supremes’ 1965 classic or possibly even MC Hammer’s 1990 smash hit. It’s practically a Pavlovian response at this point.

It was only appropriate that I had a song running through my head on repeat while I was was carving my my spindles and crest rail on Friday night – Tom Petty’s  “The Waiting”. (Just scratch “waiting” and replace it with “whittling”. Good enough for me.)

It’s funny. If you just sit down and look at a Windsor chair, it would never cross your mind that making the spindles would be the hardest part of building it. Last week, I had my copy of Chairmaker’s Notebook sitting on my desk, and my boss came into my office and asked me if I was planning to build a chair. Yes, I told him, I’m halfway through a chair build as we speak. He was admiring the chairs in the book while commenting on how difficult the leg turnings would be. Then he pointed to the spindles and said, “But those would be easy to turn.”

Ha. Definitely the words of someone who has never actually turned anything, but I think that’s a pretty common misconception. The spindles are 1/2″ diameter at the base and 3/8″ at the tip, 20″ long. They are about as flexible as a cane pole and would chatter like a mockingbird if you tried to spin them on the lathe. No, the spindles are a job for the shavehorse and drawknife.

Terry Kelly

A difficult job at that. Getting long, smooth, consistent tapers is more of a challenge than it would first appear. I went ahead and worked up all of my white oak into spindles, which gave me enough spindles for two chairs, plus a couple extras. After all the throwaway pieces, though, I’ll be lucky to end up with enough to build just one. Part of the problem is the level of consistency required. The legs are far enough apart – and far enough from the eye – that small discrepancies won’t be noticed. The spindles stand side-by-side like seven skinny pawns, so the eye is immediately drawn to any defects.

A little layout goes a long way to ensuring consistency, but it’s still up to you and your drawknife to cut to the lines.

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I started with 1″-square blanks
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I used a 5/8″ Forstner bit to give me a guide for my bottom tenon and a 7/16″ bit for the top tenon.
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After a few hours’ work, I had 18 roughly-shaped spindles, plus two crest rails. Good to have a spare in case something goes awry with the steam-bending.

The crest rail is a much more complex shape than the spindles, but I didn’t find it nearly as onerous to shape as the spindles. I supposed it helped that I didn’t make 18 of them. The work is not so repetitive, so it invites more presence of mind to the task, which was a welcome change to the spindle carving.

The crest rail blanks were severely twisted – probably 1/2″ of twist over 26″. Shouldn’t make a difference. Steam-bending can remove a twist just as easily as it can impart a bend. I just shaved right along with the grain and made sure I had the proper thickness all the way down.

You can see why planing these parts wouldn’t make sense. The plane would want to cut across the grain and remove the twist, but I want to preserve the integrity of the grain, and therefore, the twist.

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These blanks were split from the same piece. Pretty cool how the twist matches up perfectly. The pieces sit neatly against one another even after shaving with the drawknife.
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Used a template to lay out the curves.
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Sawed a kerf down to the lowest point.
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The drawknife does the rest. Loved the curly shavings on this piece.
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Ready for bending.



5 thoughts on “The Whi-hi-ttling Is the Hardest Part.

    1. Thanks Dave. I appreciate it when other bloggers take good photos so I try to do a good job myself. There’s always a bit of give-and-take with the photos of work in progress – I don’t like to slow my pace down too much but I don’t want to take bad photos either. Yours are consistently good, and I’ve really enjoyed keeping up with your blog.


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