A Simple Tool

Make a Windsor chair, and you’ll find yourself mounting a lot of 2″ stock on the lathe. Mount a lot of stock on the lathe, and you’ll probably find yourself wishing for a fast and accurate method of marking the centers.

I’ve used several different methods for marking centers, and never found one that I considered satisfactory. If you have squared-up stock, you can mark an “X” across the diagonals to approximate the center. It’s quick, but more often than not you’ll find that your stock is somewhat less-than-square, in which case, it’s inaccurate. If you’re using riven stock, it’s not an option at all.

Another method that I have used is taking a small compass and guesstimating the center, moving the central leg about until I find the proper center point. This is more accurate, and it works even for riven stock, but it’s also slow – and you end up with multiple center points (though I always try to mark the “correct” point more deeply) which can be confusing. A better solution is in order.

I came up with this simple tool:

Center Gauge

To use, just center the tool on your stock with your fingertips, and give it a good whack with a hammer. You’re left with a perfect dimple, right in the center, that makes alignment of your blank on the lathe a snap.

Center Gauge in Use

Center Gauge Mark

I assume the tool is pretty intuitive, should you wish to make your own. Just pop a blank on the lathe and turn it to a cylinder of the appropriate diameter (2″, in my case). Make sure the bottom is perfectly flat or slightly concave, so it will be easy to center on your spindle blanks. Then drive a nail into the center (the tailstock conveniently makes a dead-center dimple) and clip it off about 1/8″ proud.

Center Gauge Nail

I made mine pretty with some fancy turned decorations and a coat of oil, but a simple cylinder would suffice. I figure a pretty tool will be less likely to get confused with a scrap and tossed into the kindling bucket when it’s inevitably dropped in the shavings.

This is the quickest and most accurate center-marking method I’ve ever used. It works just as well with riven stock as it does with sawn, and it will tolerate maybe 3/8″ of variation in the thickness without much loss in accuracy. They’re so quick and easy to make, it’s not a problem to make another center marker, for say, 1-1/2″ stock or any other thickness that you commonly use.

Tapered Mortise-and-Tenon Joinery for a Snug Fit

I’m ready to carve the seat for my chair – one of the parts of the build that I’ve been looking forward to the most – but first, I need to get the legs fitted up. I start by reaming the holes to a 6° taper, using the tapered reamer that I built a few weeks ago. The tapered mortise make a stronger joint than a cylindrical mortise, plus it makes the chair easier to to assemble, so it’s the perfect joint for the leg-to-seat connection. I clamped the seat to my shavehorse so I could work on it at a comfortable height and give room for the reamer to poke through.

Reaming (2)

I set my bevel gauge to the desired angle, minus 3°. Since the angle of the reamer is 6°, cutting that number in half and sighting with the bevel gauge will result in the appropriate angle. Sight the angle every few turns. Once I have it nailed, I can keep reaming until the hole is tapered all the way through.

When the mortises are reamed, I can set my sight on the matching tenons:

Tapering (2)
I use a pair of calipers and a parting tool to get the tip down to 5/8″.
Tapering (3)
Starting off, the tenon is too big and not tapered.
Tapering (4)
I turn it down to the correct taper, but it’s still too big.
Tapering (5)
Now it’s getting close. Time for a test-fit.
On the first try, it looks good from above. But not poking through all the way below. Back to the lathe. On the second try, the fit is just right. Three more to go.
Reaming (12)
And there it is. Four legs fitting snugly into their mortises. Now the carving can begin!

A Post on Posts.

After getting my feet wet with the baluster leg turnings, I proceeded on to the most difficult turning on the whole chair – the posts. In case you need a refresher on the chair parts:

Terry Kelly
Photo credit: Terry Kelly

The posts are the two turnings that frame the spindles above the seat. They are 22″ long and 1/2″ in diameter at their slightest dimension. If you’ve never turned wood before, then let be just say that your tools must be razor-freaking-sharp and your concentration must rival that of a Buddhist monk lest the spindles start vibrating like a coin-operated motel bed. This was the most challenging turning that I’ve ever attempted. Made the legs feel like I was turning rolling pins.

Straight-grained wood is a prerequisite for these parts. Riven wood would be ideal, but I have air-dried wood that was sawn. The grain isn’t perfect, so I’ll have to make it perfect. I start by knocking off some of the ugly with a hand plane so I can see the grain lines better.

Then I strike a line parallel to the face grain and lay out all of the cuts.


Then some quick work with a Skil saw, and I have a stack of turning blanks.

posts 007

Now I can examine the edge grain. Most of the blanks have very straight grain, but a couple of them have some defects that will need to be addressed.

The blank on the left has a small pin knot. I’ll make sure to locate the knot in a wide section of the turning. If it were located in a narrow part, like a cove, it could weaken the turning too much. The blank on the right does not have straight edge grain. It curves midway through and runs out to the right. I won’t be able to get a 22″ post out of it, but I can cut off the end and get a 16″ stretcher, making sure to located the lathe centers such that the grain runs straight.

I select the best blanks for the posts. These are turned down to 1/2″ in their narrowest dimension, so if the grain isn’t perfectly straight and free of defects, they simply won’t be strong enough to stand up to the rigorous life of a chair.

The stretchers seemed like child’s play after completing the posts. I turned them out in short order from the remaining blanks. I also turned one additional leg to replace the one that I messed up.

Stretchers (1)

The turnings are now complete, and the underside of my lathe is ready to be cleaned out!

Stretchers (2)

Stretchers (3)


Four Pale, Shapely Legs

Two weekends ago, I turned some legs from green live oak for my Windsor chair. They turned out nicely, but the only problem is that I’ll have to wait at least a month – maybe two – before they’re dry enough to use. I’m the impatient type, so I began considering what my other options might be, and I decided to turn a set of baluster legs from some dry red maple that I can use in the meantime. Though it’s not the preferred wood for baluster legs, I’m convinced that the red maple will be plenty strong. The live oak legs can wait for my second chair.

I started with some 2″-thick maple planks and sawed out a set of 2″ x 2″ x 24″ legs blanks, being careful to follow the grain as I marked them out, rather than the edge of the boards. I popped the square blanks on the lathe and quickly roughed them to round.

legs 004
Four roughed-out leg blanks.

The maple was absolutely delightful to work with after turning the live oak. Long, creamy ribbons of wood spilled from my gouge like strands of spaghetti. I didn’t think dry wood was supposed to turn this well! I never turned much maple since it’s so bland compared to more colorful woods. I didn’t know what I was missing! Compare the maple shavings on the left to the stiff, brittle shavings from the live oak:

The baluster legs required much more skill and attention than the simple bamboo turnings that I did previously. The first one took well over an hour from start to finish, and I still screwed a few things up. I’ll probably need to make a replacement. Nevertheless, it still turned out pretty nice. The second one went much more smoothly, and by the third, I was really in a groove.

I decided to time myself on the fourth leg, but by that time it was well past midnight and apparently my body was letting me know it was time for bed. I had trouble concentrating, had a few “Oops” moments, and the leg didn’t turn out quite as well as my second and third. I think it will still be fine to use, though. My time from start to finish was 25 minutes on the final leg. Elia Bizzarri says he’s able to turn a baluster leg in 10 minutes, so apparently I still need plenty of practice. I hear it gets easier after the first thousand or so.

Can you pick out which leg I’m planning to replace? The error is subtle…

Edited to add: Kylie picked out the goofed-up blank. It’s actually not the mineral streaks that I dislike, though – the chair will be painted, so those won’t show. I turned the bead too narrow and the fillet above it too wide. I’m probably the only one who would ever notice, but the cat’s out of the bag, now. Here’s a closeup:


The Windsor Chair continues, but not without diversions.

The lathe work is complete. The three stretchers were easy – only 16″ long, and 5/8″ minimum dimensions. I left the tenons over-sized so I can turn them to their final dimensions once they’re completely dry.

The two posts, on the other hand…whew. 26″ long, and an almost comically-small 7/16″ at the tip. They were whipping around like a disco dancer as I was trying to pare the finished surface with the skew chisel.

Chair Parts
Here’s a handy reference, just so everyone can visualize the parts that I’m talking about. Photo credit: Curtis Buchanan. (No, my turnings are not as nice as his; you don’t have to point that out)

To keep the vibration to a minimum, I kept my left index finger on the back of the spindles as I was turning, opposite the cutting edge. It helped a lot, but there were still some spots where a little chatter was unavoidable. I’ve done this before when turning dry wood, and I had to use a light touch to avoid burning my fingers. I was actually happy to see that on the green live oak, I got a burnished buildup of gunk on my finger that seemed to reduce the heat and friction.

spoon 018
Burnished finger-gunk: One of the many benefits of green spindle-turning.

In any case, after a couple of hours, I had three stretchers and two posts completed. The lathe work is now complete, and the turning are set aside to dry. Next up: the seat.

spoon 020
Completed turnings

My ugly live oak log yielded a lot of waste, and I couldn’t help but try to make something useful out of the rivings that were too scant for spindles. Live oak is a tough wood to carve, but the results were delightful:

Live Oak Spoon

Oaky Legs and Smoky Butts

Saturday was my birthday. Which means I need to update my “About” page, since I’m no longer “nearly” 32 years old. When my wife asked what I wanted to do for my birthday, I had an easy answer. I wanted to spend the day smoking a pork butt.

I don’t know if there’s a better way to spend a Saturday. Get up early (but not too early), grab a bucket-full of shavings from the workshop, and light up a fire.

birthday 003

Slather a pork butt in salt and spice and sugar, and throw it on the smoker (my personal favorite cut is a picnic shoulder, but a Boston butt works too).

birthday 004

Now, kick back for the next 10 hours, enjoy a few ice-cold brews, and every hour or so shovel another heap of coals into the smoker and add another slab of oak to the glowing bed of embers.

birthday 024

Utter bliss. There’s plenty of time between tending to the meat and the fire to get a few things done around the house, but no time to leave. It’s self-imposed subjugation at its finest.

There were two things I wanted to get done: finish the shavehorse, and get started on the Windsor chair. I had been monkeying around with some wood property data and wanted to test the suitability of live oak for chair legs. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a lot to choose from, but I disappeared into the woods for a while and came back with this homely little specimen.

Legs (2)
That’s the pith I’m pointing at. For those of you keeping score at home, it’s supposed to be in the center of the tree. Yuck.

It’s ugly, but it’s the best I could muster. I cut two sort-of-straight 24″ sections out of it.Legs (3)

And set about riving it into useable billets. The devilish wood required two hatchets, two steel wedges, two dogwood gluts, and an obscene amount of pounding before it even thought about splitting.Splitting Live OakThis little tree had a dirty secret, a crooked past that it was trying to hide under a straight-laced veneer. I caught the first whiff of the evidence when I saw the off-center pith, but the truth was laid bare for all to see when it finally opened up.Crooked PastDevious little scoundrel. Oh well, once the first split is made, the hardest part is over. There wasn’t much left to do but continue splitting. Once I had the pieces riven down into quarters, I knocked off the crooked juvenile wood with a hatchet.

Juvenile Hatchet

The last split was the easiest. With the crookedest wood removed, I was able to split the billets into eighths pretty easily, and soon I had a whole stack of the grisly little things. Legs (12)

Nothing to do now but to pop them on the lathe and see how they turn. Turning these things round was a pretty nasty surprise as well. The long fibers left from the riving hang on with the tenacity of a tick, and when you turn the lathe on, they jump out and swat your knuckles like a bullwhip. It reminded me a lot of turning hickory.

Legs (13)

After a few minutes, I was able to beat the oak into submission once more, and I had a nice, consistent cylinder. A couple hours later, I had processed all of the rough blanks into 1 5/8″ cylinders.

Legs (14)Only one problem: I misread the plans. For the shapely baluster legs that I had envisioned, I needed a stack of 2″ blanks, not 1 5/8″.

Terry Kelly
These are the “baluster” legs that I wanted to use. Photo credit: Terry Kelly
Caleb James
But somehow I ended up with the dimensions for these “bamboo” legs. Photo credit: Curtis Buchanan

Damn. Well, there is one bright side: My wife actually prefers the simpler style of the bamboo legs. So, since she doesn’t actually read what I write, I get to pretend that I changed the design to suit her tastes. Score! Anyway, I hope for this to be the first of many Windsors, so I’ll just have to do the baluster legs next time.

Legs (16)

Honestly, I think it became apparent to me that live oak (at least, green live oak) is more suited to the reserved curves of the bamboo turnings anyway. I found it to be hard and splintery and really not very fun to turn. I also got a gunky buildup on my tools that I haven’t noticed as much when turning other green woods, which required re-sharpening even if my tools weren’t actually dull. I fear that live oak might chip out around the crisp details of the baluster legs, or that the gunky buildup on my tools would make those details more difficult to achieve. I suspect it would work a lot better if I roughed out the blanks and then waited for them to dry before attempting any baluster turnings with live oak.

I will say that I have no complaints about the results. I was able to achieve a very nice polish straight from the tools. This is important to me, because I consider avoiding wood dust (and the lung cancer that goes with it) high on my list of priorities. I would have no patience for this wood if I had to sand it as well.

Legs (17)

A few hours before this picture was taken, these legs were part of a living tree in the woods behind my house. Green woodworking never ceases to enthrall me – the connection between the raw material and the finished products is visceral and unforgettable. Three stretchers to go, and all of the parts for the undercarriage will complete. All they require is time to dry. The Windsor chair is underway!Legs (18)