At holidays this year, Jeff was so generous to gift Rob, Eoin, and me a week with Joe Graham (the creator of the most beautiful windsor chairs the world has ever seen) learning how to make his unique and stunning Windsor chairs- a sort of woodworking continued education, if you will. The week fell in the middle of March and I think I am just now getting over the aches and pains my muscles felt from those 6 days. Although it was likely the most physically and mentally exhausting week I have ever experienced, every moment at chair camp was a learning opportunity and time spent with wonderful people - I am beyond thrilled to have had the chance to attend.
It all began with a white oak log. Well, actually for us, it all began with an 8 hour road trip from Schwenksville, PA to Jefferson, OH with a U-Haul trailer in tow that we hoped would be filled with successfully constructed chairs at the end of the week. After that, it all began with a log. Joe taught us how to use the rays in the end of a green log to start splitting it into usable chair parts. With some persuasion from sledge hammers, steel log-splitting wedges, axes, and wooden wedges the sucker split apart into 8 parts. Those 8 parts were then split along the tightest grain lengthwise and halved again to provide us with 8' lengths to start with for the continuous chair arm/back.
After laying out the shape and dimensions of the arm/back from a plywood template onto the lengths from the log, we took to the band saw. At the band saw, we ripped along our layout lines to establish a piece that was at least somewhat the size and shape it would finish at as well as remove the bark and sapwood. The still-rough shapes that came from the band sawing were then hand shaped more accurately (and I use the word "accurately" loosely here) with draw knives, spoke shaves, and hand planes.
A huge part of chair camp for me was setting aside my need to make things smooth and square. As it turns out, green lumber isn't going to be smooth or square; Especially when the end goal of the piece is curved, rounded, and shaped by eye. It was an adjustment and, as I said, every moment was a learning opportunity (and a complete 180º from the realm of woodworking that we practice around here).
[I just want to take a moment to recognize the level of physical exertion we have put forth already. At this point, it's something like 10am on day one. We just split logs, held 8' lengths of wet oak level as we pulled them through saws, and shaped with draw knives. Just sayin'. Chair making is no joke.]
Speaking of physical exertion- steam bending. Yep, that's a job that calls on all of your upper body muscles to be at attention.
We stuck our 8' long arm/back pieces into Joe's homemade steam box to cook for 45-60 minutes before we yanked them out and wrapped them around a shaping jig that Joe has perfected over the past couple of decades, I'm sure. Starting with the center of the top aligned with that of the jig, we pulled on the ends to form the top curve of the chair. When that was locked in, we twisted the arms inward and then curved them down toward the ground at an almost-90º angle. After the entire thing was locked into the jig with wedges, we wiped the sweat from our brow and let the damn things sit for 4 days to retain shape as they dried.
While the steam bent arm/backs sat quietly in the background, we tended to other things, like shaping. A lot of shaping. So much shaping. Back splats, spindles for under the arms, stretchers for between the legs, and the legs themselves all needed shaping. The blanks of each respective part were cut on the band saw to be just that, rough blanks. So, we broke out the spoke shaves and card scrapers and went to town for what seemed like weeks.
We were in and out of shaving horses and vices like it was second nature. I will say that this type of hand work is somewhat soothing and allows for a great atmosphere to chat with your fellow chair-makers while burying yourself in some impressive shavings piles. There is just something satisfying about watching your rough, square-ish piece of wood slowly become round and smooth and something you like looking at.
"What about the chair seat," you say? What about the seat, indeed. Have you ever heard of an adze? Because I hadn't. And, I'm still not sure that we're friends (me and the adze, that is). Swinging the scoop-shaped axe at just the right angle to chop into the cherry seat blank was nearly impossible for me to perfect. I understood the idea and the physics behind it as I watched Joe demonstrate the technique with ease, but it was a whole other ballgame when I picked it up myself. I'd take 3 swings and need a 5 minutes break.
One of the unique, and insanely comfortable, elements of Joe's chair designs is the hollowed and shaped seat. So, although grueling for those of us that don't do it every day, it was the fastest way to clear out a lot of material relatively quickly to achieve that awesome seat shape. The good news is that no one slammed their shins with an adze and, better yet, everyone found themselves with a lovely, hollowed seat that we then used angle grinders to more carefully shape. I will mention though that there is reason I have no photographs of any of the Lohr kids chopping seats with adze- we didn't want any documentation of the tears.
But then, things started to come together. Seats were shaped, legs had been shaped and attached, the curved stretchers were attached between the legs, back splats had been tenoned and shaped, and arm spindles had been fit and shaped. The splats and spindles were tenoned using a plug-cutting style drill bit to cut them to the proper size at the ends. I know I skipped a lot of process detail in here but, there is really only so much I can write about shaping by hand before people start closing this browser window. Also, let's be real, I took this class and learned a whole lot but am in no way qualified to teach anyone how to make one of these in grand detail.
With the center back splat in place for a height and alignment guide, the arm/back was put into place and was clamped and banded there while we drilled holes through the arms and down at the appropriate angle into the seat to accept the spindles and remaining back splats. This is the point in the week when the anxiety begins to lift and Joe starts to tell you that you're doing a good job. When it starts to look like a chair, the pride outweighs the sleep deprivation and muscle aches.
When all the holes were drilled, final sanding and shaping happened quickly and frantically as the big moment(s) approached. The glue up. The most stressful-yet-rewarding part of any woodworking project. ::deep sigh::
Spindles and splats were glued into the seat first but not long after, the continuous arm was carefully pounded onto the top. We'd step back 7-10 paces to eye up the symmetry of the curve and the height of the arms before we'd run back to the chair to take another wail on the area that needed a slight adjustment.
The last task was to chop a kerf into the top of each round tenon that popped through the top of the continuous arm and hammer some walnut wedges down into them to lock the suckers into place (whilst adding a nice touch of contrast). And eventually, we all had chairs. Real, glued, functioning, beautiful Graham-style Windsor chairs.
Some of us got fancy and decided to add some rockers. And those of us who didn't might now be a little bit jealous that they didn't jump on that opportunity. But the art of testing the placement of the curved rockers with reference to your center of gravity in the chair was a wonder to learn and watch.
And as soon as it started, it was over. I could write a book summarizing my gratitude to Joe and Barbara for everything they did for us while we invaded their lives, meals, and home for a week. Joe for teaching us everything he had spent his adult life perfecting while simultaneously dealing with all of our questions/complaints/pointless banter, Barbara for feeding us some of the most delicious food I have ever had, Jeff for sending us on this learning-and-growing adventure, and Ted for being a perfect fourth member to our 'class'. I guess I am also personally grateful to Rob and Eoin for being sort-of okay co-workers sometimes.
Thanks to everyone who had a hand in making chair camp happen for the Lohr Woodworking Studio fellas and me! We are better chair-makers, woodworkers, teachers, students, and overall people because of it.