In Favour of a Bigger Hammer

My recent production of Windsor chairs prompted a reader – himself, a Windsor chair-maker – to contact me concerning the moisture content of various chair parts.

We exchanged several emails, the content of which I have précised and edited together with a couple of similar emails from other chair-makers into the following dialogue.

Chairbler: I made a small kiln with a light globe in it. I put the ends of my turned legs and stretchers in there overnight to really bring the moisture down before I turn my tenons. What method do you use to dry your tenons?

JP: I don’t go to such lengths to dry them: In the damper months, I may leave partially-turned legs and stretchers in the shop for a while before completing the tenons.

Chairbler: It’s essential to have dry tenons to avoid your joints working loose. I dry all my tenons and haven’t had a single failure. Do you use kiln dried lumber for your chairs?

JP: Obviously sound joints are a prerequisite of any furniture. I use air-dried wood for the chairs I make and bring it into the shop as and when required. I haven’t experienced any chairs falling apart either.

Out of interest, does it require much effort to assemble one of your chairs?

Chairbler: After I have dried my legs and stretchers I accurately turn my tenons so they are a snug fit. This makes the chairs easy to assemble and when the tenons get back to equilibrium they swell and tighten.

JP: With only a “snug fit” during assembly, are you concerned at all about any effects that might arise from the mortises becoming ovoid as they dry out? Do you artificially dry seats and crest rails too prior to boring the mortises in them?

Chairbler: I don’t think it’s necessary and I haven’t tried it. I am amazed you get good joints using air dried lumber.

JP: All my learning is based on observation of traditional methods. The majority of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Windsor chairs were made from – at best – air-dried wood and many were made using green wood (or something between green and air-dried). I too turn tenons fairly precisely however, I turn them to be a pretty tight fit which require a big hammer to assemble (as does all the other joinery and dovetailing I produce – I’m not fond of “snug”).

Fig. 1. A big hammer being employed to knock stretchers into legs.

Fig. 2. Thumping an undercarriage into a seat.

During examination of period Windsor chair joints, this method is evident where the rough-turned tenons have dragged the fibres in the mortise sides in the direction of entry and which are locked for perpetuity by the glue.

The survival of many thousands of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Windsor chairs endorses the efficacy of this simple technology.

Jack Plane

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A Trio of Lath-Back Windsor Chairs – Part Two

I think one reader was a little upset with me for attaching the legs before bottoming the seats of the two forest chairs, so these lath-back Windsors were done vice versa. Natheless, the weather impelled me to bore all the holes in the seats, cut all the mortises and test fit the backs before bottoming them (figs. 1 & 2).

Fig. 1. The day started out at -6°C (21°F) …

Fig.2. … but then the sun appeared and the frost retreated.

When finished with the angry grinder, I scraped the seats and gave them a final sanding before gluing the chairs together (fig. 3).

Fig. 3. The lath-backs in-the-white.

Fig. 4. As tradition would have it, the laths are pegged top and bottom.

Jack Plane

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A Trio of Lath-Back Windsor Chairs – Part One

These braced lath-back chairs are of a popular form made in the Thames Valley during the latter half of the eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century. They regularly turn up singly and in sets of twelve or more, usually varying only by the number of back sticks, minor differences in splat profiles and occasional cabriole legs (figs. 1 – 6).

Fig. 1. One of a set of twelve lath-back Windsor chairs. (Moxhams Antiques)

Fig. 2. (Robert Young)

Fig. 3. (Robert Young)

Fig. 4. (Christie’s)

Fig. 5. Archetypal late eighteenth-century braced lath-back Windsor chair. (Yew Tree House)

In the late nineteen-eighties I made two copies of a chair virtually identical to that in figure 5 to extend a customer’s set of four chairs to six. In the intervening years, I have made literally dozens of lath-back Windsors to the same design, including a few slightly larger versions with arms, as in figure 6.

Fig. 6. Lath-back side chairs along with a taller and broader arm chair variant.

I had intended to make a few more forest chairs of one design or another (I may still do), but whilst sifting through my Windsor chair patterns I came across the ones for this old favourite.

Before the tatty paper patterns completely disintegrated, I transferred them onto MDF and then cut out the crest rails, seats and splats (fig. 7).

Fig. 7. Seat boards and splats.

Jack Plane

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Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites

If you happen to be in the vicinity of Edinburgh between now and the second week of November, you might consider dropping in to see the Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland.

Jack Plane

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Picture This CX – Redux

To a comment in Picture This CX, I replied that warped Windsor seats were not uncommon.

A few minutes flicking through the archives returned the following additional examples of warpiness. (That is a word. Now.)

Fig. 1.

Fig. 2.

Fig. 3.

Fig. 4.

Fig. 5.

Fig. 6.

Fig. 7.

Fig. 8.

Fig. 9.

Fig. 10.

As a great number of these chairs were intended for use outdoors, it’s not inconceivable that some were left out in the rain on occasion, the effect of which could well be a warped seat.

Jack Plane

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Picture This CX

Whether by the hand of its maker, a natural defect or the passage of time having its effect on highly contorted wood, antique furniture can be the more beautiful and desirable for its often-perceived shortcomings and faults.

Like a face-pulling child whose grimace froze for all time when the clock struck the hour, this recusant Windsor chair has adopted an absurd organic form.

Fig. 1. Lath-back Windsor elbow chair, circa 1890. (The Home Bothy)

Fig. 2. Wryly smiling. (The Home Bothy)

Jack Plane

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Waxing Lyrical

Winters in Australia aren’t nearly as severe as those back in Ireland and England, but the recent daytime highs of 12° to 16° (54°F to 61°F) provide near optimal conditions for waxing furniture.

Of course, waxing can be undertaken at any time of the year, but even the quick flash-off wax polish I make doesn’t completely harden in the warmer months, making it more awkward to obtain a good lustre during summer.

At this time of year I can use a much slower (and heavier) wax polish which, though more difficult to apply can, with a degree of effort, be pulled and manipulated to give a very convincing aged appearance. The wax hardens fairly rapidly in the cool temperatures enabling it to be buffed to the type of glorious lustre that fine British antiques are renowned for.
It can be quite the workout doing this heavy waxing; a benefit of which is, it keeps one warm in a cold shop.

Unlike varnishes, wax polish is not a one-time apply-and-forget finish: Wax needs to be replenished at least annually and, in its various forms, can make a significant contribution to the patina on an antique or the aged appearance of a reproduction. The proverb “you can’t make a silk purse of a sow’s ear” holds just as true for waxing furniture: A beautiful waxy finish is only as good as the surface it’s applied over.

As part of the regular upkeep of my furniture, I have been waxing several items and just finished giving the recently completed walnut serpentine chest its second waxing. The results are subtle, but gratifying.

Jack Plane

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Picture This CIX

I spotted this chest of drawers for sale which was described thusly:

[…] chest of drawers, circa 1720. […] later inlaid with same period inlay which has been let in to create this stunning piece.

Fig. 1. Decorated oak chest of drawers. (Debenham Antiques)

Fig. 2. (Debenham Antiques)

Fig. 3. (Debenham Antiques)

Fig. 4. (Debenham Antiques)

Fig. 5. (Debenham Antiques)

Thoughts? Click the images for larger views.

Jack Plane

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A Pair of Forest Chairs – Part Four

I mixed some thin paint in, what was a popular mid-Georgian shade of green and gave both chairs a couple of coats.

Each coat of paint was rubbed back and then a brown-ish glaze was applied to the chairs to accentuate the grain (still discernible through the thin paint) and to add some semblance of age (figs. 1 to 7).

Fig. 1.

Fig. 2.

Fig. 3.

Fig. 4.

Fig. 5.

Fig. 6.

Fig. 7.

Jack Plane

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A Pair of Forest Chairs – Part Three

I bent the two arms from lengths of ash that were sawn from the straightest-grained board I could find. The back- and arm sticks were shaved from ash – as are the arm blades. The splats are of cherry and the crest rails are of elm (fig. 1).

Fig. 1. The remaining mixed-wood components for one of the chairs.

Having cut the mortises for the blades and splats, and bored the holes for the sticks, I prepared some slow glue and stuck the chairs together.

When all was done, I wiped the two chairs down with hot water in readiness for painting (fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Assembled chairs in-the-white.

Jack Plane

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