The Dominy Lathe is Done (almost)

A few days ago I picked up the spikes for my new lathe from blacksmith Peter Ross. He seemed to enjoy making them: “People don’t want work this rough very often, but I was trained to make reproductions like this.” Peter thinks the hardware was make by the Dominys – it’s too funky for commercial work. Peter copied them to a tee.

The tail center is fixed in place with an integral spike.

I drilled a stepped hole, then drove it together.

Oops! I forgot the spike was also a very powerful (i.e. low-angle) wedge. Read more ›

Posted in Built for Speed Book Project, Sprinpole Lathe

Building a Dominy Springpole Lathe

Last fall I had the joy of spending a couple hours in the Dominy shop at Winturtur to measure their Springpole Lathe. I’ve finally started building a copy of it, for use in the book on early 19th Century chairmaking that I’m writing. A local sawmill gave me a pine beam that was in their firewood pile and I’m off to the races:

The Dominys clearly had some issues with their bed design, which is contrary to most published designs of the era, and which has cracked. I’m going to copy their design anyways.

Read more ›

Posted in Built for Speed Book Project, Sprinpole Lathe

Quaker John

This is a story for John and his family. It’s also for Scott, who’s Comb Back Arm Chair and Windsor Table were delivered last month. I wrote the story in the middle of January, when it happened:

John Braxton died a couple weeks ago. A Quaker gunsmith, he machined thousands of travisher blades and a variety of specialized gizmos for me over the years. I don’t know if we were friends, but maybe we were; we enjoyed talking about local history, the Industrial Revolution, eating habits and phase converters.

As I was boring holes in the crest of a comb back arm chair this morning, the phone rang. I walked over, turned down the Stanley Brothers and answered it.

“Hello, this is Judy Braxton. I have your travisher blades done.”

“Y-Y-You do?” I stammered. I had sent John tool steel for travisher blades back in August, but when I heard of John’s death I assumed he hadn’t worked on my order yet, much less finished it.

“You heard about John?” Judy asked. “John was getting weak back before Christmas, but he wanted to get your blades done. He must have known something was really wrong. Everyday he’d go to the shop and work an hour, but that’s all he could do.

“Then he was in the hospital and knew he wouldn’t finish the blades, but he wanted them done for you. He sat in the hospital and explained every step to our son Christopher. John drew it out on napkins, showing Christopher how to do each step. Christopher got them done today.”

What could I say?

You are a good man, John. May you rest in peace.


Posted in Chair Stories

Growing a Loop Back Arm Chair

As most of you know, I’m at Curtis Buchanan’s designing a Loop Back Arm chair.

On the second day we had a visitor from NC, Reid Gamble who has been apprenticing with laddarback chairmaker Lyle Wheeler.

First we bored for the bent stretcher.

Curtis had to climb upstairs to find dry wood for the two short turned stretchers….

….. which Eric cut to length so we could figure out where they would look best entering the curved stretcher.

We bored the holes in the curved stretcher and then we assembled the undercarriage.

Curtis told a story.

The we stared playing with arm designs from sawn pine scraps (the arms will eventually be bent oak).

I got several e-mails wondering where to get the big yellow protractors seen in my previous post. They are called chalk board protractors and the above photo holds all the info we know about them; they were given to Curtis by a student a number of years ago. I avoid needing one by setting a big t-bevel to the angle and then finding the angle on a normal protractor or Bevel Boss.

The arms started looking pretty good!

Posted in Chair Stories, Classes

Curtis, Eric and I

I am spending the next few days visiting with Curtis and Marilyn Buchanan. Eric Cannizzaro is here too. During the day we’re working an a new loop back arm chair design for which Curtis hopes to publish a set of plans. At night, we are eating Marilyn’s good food and listen to Curtis’s stories (Marilyn may have heard a few of them before). I first came here to work with Curtis 20 years ago this April. Amazing.

We all had our parts made before we came, so we started with assembly.

This is the chair we’re working from, in Santore’s book.

Read more ›

Posted in Chair Stories, Classes

Steam Boxes, Part 3: Heat Sources

The size of steam-generator you need is related to the size of your steam box, how well insulated it is and the temperature of the air around the box.  It is probably cheaper and easier to insulate your box thoroughly rather than increase the size of your steam generator.

Curtis’s wallpaper steamer

Wall paper steamer:  Curtis Buchanan uses two of these to heat a 4x4x70“  I.D steam box.  They are handy one-piece units that are readily available from a hardware store.

My old propane burner, pot, with plywood lid and radiator hose feeding an uninstalled enormous box. This rig struggled to get enough heat, but a smaller, insulated box would have helped greatly.

Propane/electric burner and a pot:  Propane burners can work well, just make sure you don’t have too much heat loss between the pot and the steam box. Portable electric burners are too small for this job, but larger electric units can work. Read more ›

Posted in Steam Box

How many Hours to Build a Chair?

A page from Samuel Wing’s account book (courtesy of Old Sturbridge Village)

This is one of the most popular questions I get asked.  I never know how to answer it.  Usually I say, “About 30 hours for a Continuous Arm chair, including 8 coats of finish.”  But the truth is I haven’t a clue.  I have no interest in tracking my time, so I never have.  It’s as simple as that.

A key question for my book project is, “how long did it take Samuel Wing to build a chair?” When I first wrote on this blog about the book, I hadn’t read Samuel Wing’s account books yet, so I based my time estimate on Nancy Goyne Evans calculations in her excellent book Windsor Chair Making in America. But I know more now.

Reading Samuel Wing’s account books, I was able to find a entry in 1802 where he charges 7 shilling 6 pence for a day and a half of his labor, which works out to be 5 shilling per day.  Later that year, he charges 8 shilling 6 pence per chair for a set of 6 “green chairs”  (probably some kind of side chair).  If he worked 10 hours per day, that’s conservatively 10-15 hours per chair, which is a whole lot slower than the 4-5 hours per chair that Nancy Goyne Evans figured for square back chairs a decade or two later.  Which is good news for me – I don’t have to work as fast!

Why the disparity in time estimates?  In hindsight, I have a number of ideas:  Besides chairs, Samuel Wing made boats, tables, beds, chests, farmed and sold lumber and watches and shoes.  And did many other things. So he probably never got as fast as a specialist chairmaker would have been.  Plus, square back windsor chairs often had simpler seats, turnings, bends and assembly techniques than Wing’s loop backs, speeding production.

Once I get a mess of chair orders out the door, I’ll start building a reproduction of the Dominy spring-pole lathe and then I’m off to the races.

Posted in Built for Speed Book Project

I Spoke Too Soon

In the months after I last posted about my book project,  I read what remains of Samuel Wing’s account books and spent some time comparing measurements.

I compared my tracings and measurements of the red loop back labeled “WING” at Independence Hall with my measurements of the loop back parts that came from Samuel Wing’s shop  (now in the collection of Old Sturbridge Village), I couldn’t find many similarities.  Beside the seats being different sizes and shapes, the bows were bent differently:

The bow on the chair at Independence Hall had dents from a bending form.

Dozens of Wing’s bows at Sturbridge all had nail holes from braces, but not a single bending form dent.

The turnings weren’t very similar either:

The legs on the Wing chair at Indy Hall are pretty big in diameter and are classic double-bobbin shape.

The legs on the Samuel Wing chairs at Sturbridge were this very rare amalgam of a baluster turning at the top and a bobbin turning at the bottom. There were also bamboo turnings with three nodes, but no bobbin turnings to be found. All the turnings were significantly smaller in diameter than the ones on the Indy Hall chair.


All the spindles at Sturbridge were very simple tapers, yet the spindles on the Indy hall chair were bamboo patterned, etc. etc.  None of these things means that the Independence Hall chair could never have been made by Samuel Wing, but I was starting to get cold feet since the only thing linking the chair to him is a “WING” stamp on the chair bottom and Wing is a very common New England name. 

Last week I returned home from a second trip to Sturbridge, where I took detailed measurements of a Sack Back chair that was fairly certainly made by Samuel Wing, plus all of his unfinished loop back parts I could find.  For my book, I will make a reproduction of the Sack back, plus a set of Loop Backs that are my best guess of what Wing’s loop backs looked like.  Onwards and upwards, here I go!

Posted in Built for Speed Book Project

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