It’s round!

I’ve been getting ready for the wheelbarrow class in a couple weeks, including building some test wheels. Here’s a finished wheel:

Oops! Wrong photo!  Here’s a finished wheel:

Well, at least the wooden parts are done – now it’s off to Peter Ross’s to shrink the tire on. Making wheels is really fun! I’ve learned a lot (I’ve only made a handful of wheels in my life). One of the best ways to learn is by watching people who know what they are doing, and the people who know the most are people working in a centuries-long craft tradition. There may not be wheelwrights like that in the states, I don’t know. Some other cultures tend to hold onto their traditions much longer than highly-industrialized America, so I’ve been video hunting on YouTube. This one made me realize that workbenches are mostly for people who can’t squat – the ground is a better bench than anything we can make:

Pretty amazing work, without many measurements. In fact, there’s so much skill in this video that there’s not much to see; just a guy squatting on the ground, chopping. The way they put the tire on is plenty of show for the whole video, however.

This video was highly enlightening:

The best part is at the 11-minute mark: after chopping the hub mortises and cutting the tapering spoke tenons (complete with locking notches), they boil the hubs in a vat, then drive the spokes into the softened hub. The hub must mold itself to the shape of the spokes, locking the spokes in place. Amazing! Makes me wonder if some of the locking joints that have puzzled me for so long on 18th Century ladderback chairs were boiled in a similar way. I must try it.

I love learning!

18th Century Loop Back Chairmaking Class

Boy, I’ve been busy!  I taught a wonderful class with Eric Cannizzaro at Penland, NC in July, building Jennie Alexander ladderback chairs.  Then my wife Morgan and I toured around for ten days, visiting family, friends and Lost Art Press in Cincinnati.  Now I’m at home making reamers for Handworks where Seth is setting up a booth to show our tools (come visit him!).  I’m also building wheelbarrow prototypes for my class with Peter Ross in October and finishing three or four chairs I have on order.  And figuring out how Samuel Wing’s early 19th century chair seats were designed with a ruler, compass and a few ratios derived from classical architecture (I think).

Samuel Wing has been my pandemic project:  In January 2020 Seth and I gave a talk at Colonial Williamsburg about early 19th century chairmaking, then in December I signed a contract with Lost Art Press to write a book about early 19th century chairmaking. I have spent the last three years learning how to build chairs like Samuel Wing did on Cape Cod in 1802. Now finally, I’m ready to share what I’ve learned:

Immerse yourself in the tools, techniques and mindset of 18th Century chairmakers. Working from period designs (including one by Cape Cod’s Samuel Wing) we’ll build a loop back entirely with handtools. In the process we’ll become immersed in a pre-industrial mindset emphasizing strength and speed over precision.  We’ll use a method of assembling chairs unknown in living memory, a method so shockingly simple that is requires almost no measuring. (Note: if you love building chairs that are measured in thousandths, you may want to look at my modern chairmaking classes where modern precision remains supreme.)

Unlike most of my chairmaking classes, we’ll do some turning: the center stretchers will be split from an oak log and turned it on a foot-powered pole lathe. Bows will be split from a log, profiled with planes and steam bent. Seats will be carved from a single piece of white pine.  Tenons will be turned on the pole lathe and mortises bored with spoon bits (or a bit brace). Due to time and drying limitations, most of the turned parts (legs, side stretchers, spindles) will be provided.

January 22nd to 27th, 2024 – $1800 

Register on my website. 



Make a Wheelbarrow with me and Peter Ross

My wife Morgan and I got back from our honeymoon in Italy a couple weeks ago.  We focused on eating and walking, but I did see a 15th century riven-oak square thing (wardrobe?)  in a museum, so I know they did have respectable trees once upon a time.  Now I’m back into writing my book (it’s coming along great), making a settee and a couple bar stools, and thinking about teaching again.  Stay tuned for a chairmaking class (probably in December), but first, wheelbarrows.

This is a class that I’ve wanted to run for years, mainly because I want to teach with my friend Peter Ross, the blacksmith.  He’s someone you can’t help learning from every time you see him (and I see him a lot) – he has thought more deeply about his craft, and craft as a whole, than anyone I know.  We make a good team and I think this class will be a great leaning experience about far more than simply how to make a wheelbarrow.   Here’s the details:

Learn traditional woodworking and blacksmithing techniques as you build a handsome wheelbarrow. Elia will help you split a log, shave the parts, split tenons with a chisel, then use dry draw-bored pins to lock the green joints together (some dry lumber may also be used).  As time permits, you’ll bandsaw and chisel a wheel from dry oak boards and attach it’s metal rim (alternately, finished wheels will be available for purchase during the class). As you forge brackets and braces for your wheelbarrow, you’ll learn basic blacksmithing techniques from one of the best blacksmiths in the country.

TRADITIONAL WHEELBARROW, October 2nd-7th, 2023
Visit the Wheelbarrow Class page for more info.

About Peter Ross:  Peter is a nationally recognized artisan blacksmith. After 23 years as master of the blacksmith shop at Colonial Williamsburg, he moved to rural North Carolina and now operates his own shop. Peter specializes in museum-quality reproductions of hardware and furnishings for historic houses, working mainly with the hand-tool methods used in pre-industrial England and America.

Chairmaking class info can be found on my teaching page.

We’ll be making a wheel similar to this one.

For Sale: Continuous Arm Settee – Some Assembly Required

I’ve been rooting around in my shop’s attic and I found this partially finished chair, abandoned by a student in one of my classes long ago. I can’t remember what happened – maybe he got sick or something. I’ve been tripping over it long enough, so I’m selling it for the cost of the parts. I don’t know much about the state it’s in, so buyer beware. It lacks stretchers and spindles, but everything else is there. It was built to Curtis Buchanan’s plans.

The seat is perfection as far as I can tell – a beautiful piece of pine.

The bow has a wiggle in it…

…and a thin spot…

…and some worm holes (plus the ubiquitous splinter at the elbow that needs to be shaved off).  The bow should work, though it may never be totally straight.

Apparently there’s something wrong with the reaming job on this leg.

$350 plus shipping (or best offer).

40 Chairs and a Barrel

I have just returned from a road trip to Michigan with my friend Bill Anderson.  The trip had a dual focus: deliver 40 chairs and learn to make a barrel.

This by far the largest chair order I’ve ever gotten. What fun! I’d take another job like this tomorrow – it’s so much easier building forty identical chairs than bouncing from job to job, trying to keep track of styles and finishes.

Forty chairs and a Ford.

We were excited to travel: Bill and I used to teach together at the John C. Campbell Folk School fifteen years ago, but haven’t traveled together since. Bill has a great sense of humor. read more…

Spinning Wheels

One of my readers sent me this video.  It’s from 1964 Sweden, of an old fellow making a spinning wheel.  The film is beautifully shot and silent, so you can can choose your own soundtrack.  There’s a lot of great parts, but my favorite is the boring and reaming jigs. One of Nancy Goyne Evans’s books references 18th Century American Windsor advertisements that mention a machine for letting legs into seats, but I could never picture what that machine might have looked like until I saw this video:

The tenon cutter at the 3:00 minute mark is like nothing I have ever seen.  It’s adjustable, it’s setting held in place with wooden blocks.   I had no idea that a handheld tool could take a shaving that wide.  I’ve started to make one for cutting leg tenons.  I used an old, thick plane iron, but it’s not stiff enough and jerks into the work with a noise fit to raise the dead.   I’ll try again when things slow down. 

The marking stick that follows the tenon cutter uses sharpened nails to mark the work.  Chair turners used sticks like this, which produced the score marks in the vases of baluster turnings. Most modern makers produce these marks with a pencil, followed by the tip of a skew. The old way works just as well and you don’t spend so much time hunting for your pencil (which you probably shoveled out the window after it fell in the shavings). read more…

Samuel Wing Chair Class

Last week I had four friends over for a trial run of a class set in the year 1803, building a copy of Samuel Wing’s loop back chair. It was a great week. We all learned a lot, none more than me. Thanks to Damon O’Gan for the black-and-white photos below:

We split, hewed, shaved stretcher blanks, then turned them on the pole lathe. This was everyone’s favorite part of the class, to everyone’s great surprise. The pole lathe is such a gentle, meditative machine; I think we could happily have spent days on them.

We splitbows from the log and sawed others from a board, then planed them all just like Samuel Wing did. To nobody’s great surprise, the riven bows bent better and the sawn bows pulled splinters just like Samuel Wing’s did.

We sawed the seats with bowsaws and shaved them in the usual fashion (with gouges instead of inshaves for the hollowing cuts).

We reamed with open-faced reamers…

…and bored with spoon bits, all with very little measuring.

Then we glued them up with the usual banging and grimacing, followed by sticky fingers…..

….and smiling faces.

I hope to offer this class at some point, but I still don’t know when that will be – I’m still busy writing this book and building chairs.  What a great life I’ve got.

My First Chair Class in Three Years

The Penland wood shop is massive.

For the first time in three years, I am teaching a chair class. Or really a chair-and-table class.  I’m co-teaching with my friend Eric Cannizzaro for two weeks at Penland in the NC mountains. Come spend your days building chairs and your evenings watching the glass-blowers, forgers, paper makers, potters and bookbinders.  The food is good, the people are nice and I’m looking forward to teaching with Eric – he’s a really good fellow and a highly skilled craftsman. 

We’ll be building a Jennie Alexander ladderback (note: Penland currently has the wrong photo up of a Boggs ladderback).  I haven’t build one for 20 years, so I’ll have fun.  Eric builds them all the time; he’ll keep me straight:

For folks that have spare time, we’ll also design and build a Windsor table (you’re much more likely to have time to build a table if you’re not on a work-study schedule, scrubbing dished for an hour or two after each meal):

Windsor Table

Registration is now open. Hope to see you there!


Continuous Arm Rocker for Sale – Cheap

About eight years ago I taught a class at The Woodwright’s School.  That wasn’t anything new – I’ve been teaching there twice a year for over a decade now.  One of my students in that class built this chair – entirely with hand tools, of course.  That’s the only way it’s done there.  He split the spindles from the log at Roy Underhill’s home shop and steamed the bow using Roy’s wood-fired boiler.  Back in town, he sawed the seat with one of Roy’s antique bowsaws and bored it’s mortises with his antique drills.

A few months ago my student died.  Jerome Bias, a well-known local woodworker, is helping his widow sell his things.  Anyone want a nice rocker?  I don’t know much about it, other than that it is unfinished and that it can be shipped.

$700  OBO – contact Jerome for more info (or 919-215-2170).

A Fancy Chair

I got some photos back from my photographer of a reproduction chair I made for a collector in Kentucky, who owns the original of this chair. It is the only signed Windsor chair from KY known to exist, made near Lexington KY between about 1810 and 1830. The old chair has faded to dark brown, so he wanted a copy that looks new.

Pretty bright! The base color was vermilion made from mercury; I used a modern version of the color which closely approximates it.

Windsor chairs were painted in oil paints, showing brush strokes and uneven pigment grinding (there is little or no evidence that milk paint was painted on anything in pre-industrial America, chairs or otherwise).

This chair got a high-end paint job, complete with gold leaf.

The striping was done in chrome yellow, a bright new pigment in the early 19th century.

I roughed the parts with a hatchet then turned them on a pole lathe. Tool marks like this hatchet mark are common on old chairs – the original of this chair has an enormous drawknife-torn gully down the front of one of the posts. Such large “mistakes” are incredibly hard for us moderns to duplicate; having spent the last 20 years learning how to avoid these tool marks, it’s really hard to force my mind to embrace them.

This was a really fun job, an opportunity to learn more about period paints and chairmaking techniques.

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