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.



Shavehorse Complete…ish

Well, it took all of a week, but I’ve finally completed the shavehorse. More or less. One of Peter Galbert’s bits of advice from The Chairmaker’s Notebook is this:

Don’t build your first shavehorse out of prized wood you’ve been saving. More likely than not, you will want to change or customize your horse, and an ugly one is much easier to alter or put out on the porch.

This isn’t my first shavehorse, but I took him at his word and used a knotty cypress board for most of the horse. It’s 100% functional as it is, but as Galbert astutely predicted, I’ve already come up with a few changes that I’d like to make. I’ll have to put some hours on this horse before I go mucking with it any more, though.

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Shavehorse, complete.

The ratcheting head works quite nicely, but I’m not yet convinced it was worth the hours that it consumed. For any would-be chairmakers out there, I would strongly recommend building a regular ol’ dumbhead to start off with. After you get comfortable with it, you can always retro-fit it with the ratcheting head if you want – and you’ll probably do a better job of it later on. I wish someone had given me that advice a week ago…

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The “smarthead”.

The seat was a treat to carve. I had no desire to cut up my prized 24″-wide, 2″-thick poplar slabs for a Windsor chair seat without first getting a good feel for the process on a lesser subject. This seat came from a 2″ x 13″ poplar board – not quite as dear. Perfect size for a shavehorse seat, though.

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I started off by flattening it with a couple of hand planes, then cutting out the profile with a jigsaw (use a sharp, thick blade, unless you want it to wander all over in the thick poplar…I was wishing I had room for my bandsaw in my shop as my jigsaw groaned). I sketched the profile I wanted on the edge of the slab and started hacking away with my adze. I just held it on the floor with my foot (clean shoes are a must, unless you want to dull your adze in a hurry). I need a better way to hold my seat blanks, but it worked fine for a quick job.

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Notice that I added a hose clamp to the adze. I noticed that the artificial sinew was starting to fray a bit and I wanted to nip it in the bud. Apparently I need some more robust cord for tying the head – but more than likely the hose clamp will simply remain. I’m not opposed to ugly tools that work.

There was no joy in adzing the poplar, I’m afraid. It was quite a bit more difficult to carve than the sassafras I tested it out in. I was wishing for some thick sassafras or white pine, but poplar will have to do, since it’s all I’ve got.

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Mercifully, the poplar seems to carve quite nicely with the inshave.

I was once again pleased with the performance of the inshave. I was able to refine the rough work of the adze with a surprising degree of control, and it left a nice surface to work with. I did notice, however, that my sharpening job needs improvement: I found out quickly which sections of the inshave were sharp and which were not, and I found myself favored the sections that were sharp.

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I followed up the inshave with the drawknife and spokeshave to round over the perimeter. I could have left the seat just like this, and it would have been quite comfortable. However, since I considered this task a practice run for Windsor(s) that I will build, I couldn’t help but follow up with the scraper.

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Look at those pathetic shavings. My scraper needs sharpening.

It was more difficult going straight from inshave to scraper than I would have imagined. The curves of the seat looked pretty uniform after the inshave, but the scraper proved that sentiment wrong. I found myself wishing for a travisher. Still too rich for my blood, I’m afraid, but eventually I’ll have to get one, I know.

Since I decided to proceed with the scraping, I pretty much had no choice but to finish up with sanding. Not my favorite task, so I sped it along with the random orbit sander and some 120-grit.

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I love it when oil meets wood.

I didn’t aim for a perfect surface, but it still turned out nice when I finally slathered some walnut oil on the seat. I do love the contrast between the creamy sapwood and the yellow-green heartwood. I wish the planks were 100% heartwood, though, because it seems to be so much more workable than the sapwood.

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Whatever the seat lacks in appearance, it makes up for in comfort. I definitely haven’t had a seat this comfortable in my shop before.

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Well, onward and upward! I did manage to sneak in a bit of work on the Windsor itself over the weekend…