Well. Have I got a treat for you. I just spent a week at chair camp. What a fitting name for the class I recently finished in Jefferson, Ohio, at the lovely home (and shop) of Joe Graham, Chairmaker Extraordinaire.
I can barely contain my excitement for what I’ve learned while camped out, almost sequestered, in a fantastically laid-out chairmaking shop/classroom. First, let me start by gushing praise on Joe and his lovely wife Barbara. Joe is a soft-spoken, thoughtful, and patient teacher. Barbara is a great cook, a sunny disposition, and intelligent conversation all rolled into one. Together, they run a nice little chairmaking school in parallel with the chairmaking business.
If you’ve never seen Joe’s chairs, you must check them out here. They are a keenly refined version of a Windsor-style chair. A design truly his own, it is graceful and dramatic, demanding to be the center of attention in any room it occupies.
As for the class, it was a great study on traditional chairmaking combined with some modern methods that help rookies get their chairs done on time. Very well-planned, organized and methodical, the class moves along while allowing enough time to complete each stage satisfactorily enough to keep up with the schedule. While meant for relatively experienced woodworkers, we had a couple newbies that struggled a bit with some of the more esoteric techniques, but were able to keep up and complete some really nice chairs.
The class itself was intense. Six days of working from 8:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. with breaks for breakfast, lunch, and supper, all prepared and served by Barbara in their dining room or on the porch. No one ever hurried through a meal, and we often spent an hour talking at the table. But when we got back to work, work we did. The class was paced so that we were always busy, and there was always work to be done. Thursday we worked until after 10:00 p.m., and Friday until midnight. More than once I could be heard saying ” nine o’clock already?”.
Joe’s site states that ” the hours are long and the work is strenuous”, and he wasn’t kidding. I spent much of the time stretching my fingers to loosen up my forearms. My elbows, hands, and forearms spent much of the time stiff and sore. What a great time.
It’s surprising how small of a bench you can use to build a chair. Two simple vices, only one of which I used, and a smallish work area were plenty of space for the work I had to do. Combined, of course, with the inimitable shavehorse (my new favorite tool), I had all I needed to work green wood. It’s hard to overstate the importance of this tool. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute I spent on it, which was as many minutes as I could. Incidentally, Joe did most of his work from a vice instead of a shavehorse. Maybe he didn’t have an extra; I don’t know, but I’ll be building one shortly.
Joe bandsawed to rough shape most of the parts we needed, and also did the preliminary lathe work. This was necessary to save time, and he explained the process so we didn’t miss anything. In the pic above, from the left side of the bench, the arm stumps, stretcher pieces, and legs. All taken from rough to finish with the drawknife and spokeshave. Sanding was optional, and yes, I did.
I need to mention the importance of the drawknife and spokeshave. Some have said this is a primitive and laborious way to finish pieces for a chair. It’s actually the fastest and most efficient, once you learn how to use them. I’ve used these tools before, but never to this extent. Hours on end at the shavehorse is the only way to learn to use these tools effectively, and I now am wielding them with confidence.
However, the need to keep them razor-sharp cannot be overstated. White oak is a fickle mistress, and tears out often when tools are dull.
I didn’t buy the tools from the suggested tools list on Joe’s site. I’m way too cheap for that. But a couple guys did, and they liked them. I stuck with an old Witherby drawknife and a Stanly 151 adjustable spokeshave. When really sharp, they are both great tools.
I’ll be posting more on the chair build later; I like to keep my posts short. Until then, enjoy some pics.