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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…

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.

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!

A Cold Sunday Night

Yesterday, my father-in-law and I delivered a set of five chairs for Josh and his wife’s new house.  We met at a horse park and transferred the blanket-wrapped chairs into Josh’s car.  As I wrapped the chairs last week, I remembered this story:

It was a cold, dark Sunday night. I was tired. My ‘84 Isuzu pickup, smelling of homemade biodiesel, was tired too.  Dark trees passed slowly by my window as the truck labored up a long, steep hill. A continuous arm chair sat in the front seat next to me, wrapped in a blanket for protection. The cold wind whistled through a crack in the truck’s door gasket.  I turned up the heat. read more…

Chairs for Sale (At a Discount)

I’ve never offered chairs for sale at a discount, but I find myself drowning in chairs.  Many were built in classes, both online and in-person, while others I made by accident.  I am offering a discount on them for the month of November (except for the last chair, but I think you’ll understand why when you see it).  I can ship them anywhere in the US.  Details below:

Comb Back Arm Chair:  I made a mistake.  The customer told me he wanted tapered baluster legs on his chair and I made my normal comb back with Philadelphia baluster legs.  I found this out two days ago and have since made all the parts for a new one, this time with the right feet.  The chair currently has three coats of the red base coat that goes under a black-over-red finish, so it can be black-over-red or just barn red.  $2100 (usually $2600)  SOLD

 

I made this chair in a class a couple years ago and we’ve had it at our table since then.  I used the worst bow in the pile and it’s got a slight dip at the very center where you’d like it to go up.  You might not notice it, but I do.  $2500 (usually $3000) SOLD

I this Democratic Chair in the online class Curtis Buchanan and I did last year. The seat was carved at Roy Underhill’s shop because my internet went out.  The internet was still out the next week, so I assembled the undercarriage there too.  Something went terribly wrong (you can watch the video to find out – I don’t remember), so tried again at home between classes (you can watch that too).  It’s a perfectly sound chair, but it has some cosmetic issues –  a crack in the spindle deck being the most noticeable.  $1000 (usually $1400)  SOLD

 

I have two of these Velda’s Arm chairs. One is walnut, hickory and butternut like the one pictured. I don’t remember why I have it. It has hung in the shop for a few years, awaiting it’s shellac. The other is white oak with a butternut seat and I built it in the Velda’s online class series I did with Curtis Buchanan this spring.  $2700  each (usually $3000)  SOLD

I don’t have the right photo, so this one will have to do. I build a Velda’s rocker in the class with Curtis and painted one coat of red on everything except the seat during the last class, intending to paint it black-over-red, leaving the butternut seat showing through. It’s still in that stage, waiting for me to “get around to it”.  $2900 (usually $3300) SOLD

Comb back rocker

The week the pandemic started, I was teaching a comb back rocking chair class.  My friend Bill Anderson was in it – it was the first time we’d built chairs together since we co-taught at the John C. Campbell Folk School ten or 15 years ago.  I built one rocker in the class and started another – they are unpainted so you get to choose.  $2500 (usually $2800)  BOTH SOLD

This birdcage is the oldest chair I have for sale – I made it in 2013 with a student.  The back is a little more upright than most of my chairs, but I really like it.  $2300 (usually $2600)  SOLD

This was another mistake –  far the worst mistake with an order I’ve made in 20 years of chairmaking.    The fellow wanted a rocker and this is what I made him.  Luckily I happened to send him a photo of it before it went in the crate – he was very gracious and I’ve had it at our table for the last year.  I now send a photo before every chair I ship.  I rather like this chair, which is saying a lot since I tend towards the traditional.   $2000 (usually $2200)

 

Reproduction Writing Arm Fancy Chair

Reproduction of an early 19th Century writing arm chair in the Dewitt Wallace Museum at Colonial Williamsburg.

I’ve saved the best for last.  This is a copy of a chair in the Colonial Williamsburg collection, attributed to William Challen of Lexington, KY (he was in NY before that, where he has the first known ad for a fancy chair, a style of early 19th. chairs that became intensely popular).  Seth and I spent two days measuring the chair, we came home and spent a couple months learning how to build it, then we did a presentation on it at the Working Wood symposium in January 2020.  I turned everything on a pole lathe, bored all the holes with spoon bits, then Williamsburg’s conservator Chris Swan spent a couple weeks finishing it with period paints.  The black marks are called smoke graining – you hold the chair, painted in half-wet paint, up to a candle and the soot adheres to the paint in swirling clouds. I signed a contract that I would not make any more of these, so this chair is truly unique and will remain so.  $6500

Kind Roy

I still remember the excitement I felt. I was 16 years old, returning home from a week’s camping trip. My mother’s first words were, “Roy Underhill called!”

We couldn’t believe it. Weeks before, my mother had found his number on the internet and left a message seeking advice about a job I had bid $600 on: shingling a 1860’s log cabin with riven tulip poplar shingles. Tulip poplar was all I could get my hands on. I looked for oak but couldn’t find any.

I was over the moon. Having watched Roy’s TV show religiously for half my young life, he was more famous to me than Michael Jackson.

My mother had to call him back – I was too scared. He was very kind. Roy thought a poplar roof might possibly not be the very best idea he had ever heard. Maybe. Poplar doesn’t split very straight. Oh, and it rots faster than you can say ‘I want cedar shingles’ twenty times. But he admired my initiative. Maybe he could get me a volunteer position with the housewrights at Colonial Williamsburg….

Twenty years later, Roy is sitting in an unpainted Continuous Arm chair behind a camera in my shop. We have just finished filming my first live-stream class, “All about Drawknives”.

“That was really good,” says Roy, forever kind. “Who taught you all that?”

“I learned it all watching your show,” I replied.

Roy at ease, 2017.

Bending Dents – What do they Mean?

I’ve started getting my act together for my book project and I have a couple puzzles to figure out. As a reminder, I’m building two-dozen copies of this chair in Independence Hall’s collection, hopefully in about 140 hours:

Loop back, stamped “WING” at Independence Hall

 

The chair has four dents in the bow from the bending process. This one (and it’s mirror-image dent) is on the inside of the bow, at it’s widest part:

And this dent is on the outside of the bow down by the seat at the bow’s narrow waist:

What do they mean? I can think of three options: read more…

I’m Writing a Book

Loop Back stamped “WING” at Independence Hall

I just got back from a three week trip, equal parts vacation, research trip and photography experiment. Last winter I signed a book contract about early 19th. Century chairmaking with Lost Art Press. This trip was the first step on the book – I spent a week at Old Sturbridge Village photographing the Samuel Wing collection of tools and chair parts, Independence Hall in Philadelphia to measure a chair in their collection possibly made by Wing, and finally Meadowcroft Museum in far western PA to photograph a fascinating mid-19th C. collection of chairs, tools and un-assembled chair parts. Meadowcroft also happens to be the site of a rock overhang that has been sheltering humans for 19,000 years, the oldest known evidence of humans in North and South America, period. Amazing!

My goal for the book is to build two-dozen copies of the Indy Hall Loop Back chair using the tools and techniques with which it was built, all in the same two weeks that it took a period craftsmen to make two dozen simple side chairs. Since many people worked over 70 hours a week at the time, and I don’t want to, I may smear the work over more days, but work fewer hours a day. Can I work that fast? Stay tuned!

Chair Stories: A Tree Crew

This afternoon Edward picked up a set of four custom walnut and oak swivel bar stools that his wife Phyllis had helped design. Here’s a story about their chairs:

Note: Nobody was hurt in this story. Other than a plastic compost bin.

“I recommend this tree crew to all my clients,” said the homeowner, who was also a realtor by day. “Bob, the father, is teaching the trade to his two sons. The eldest son Joe works for Asplundh during the week, but he still learns from his dad on the weekends. They are the best.”

She introduced us, standing under a nice white oak tree they were getting ready to fell.

“Elia is a chairmaker and can use some of this tree. Could you load it for him?” read more…

Trugs and Hoops

Here’s a few more shorts from the British Pathe:

Bentwood trug baskets being made in 1929. They have some sort of a square steam box. What was this made out of? I assume there was no CDX plywood at this time, and my experience with solid wood steam boxes is that they warp dreadfully.


 Lots and lot of hoops in this shed with a half-dozen workmen.  I think I’d go crazy making one hoop after another for the rest of my life, but it would be fun to try for a morning. This video is quite apropos for me since I helped a friend make some 4′ diameter hoops for a puppet show a couple weeks ago.  We could have used one of these shaving breaks – a shaving horse doesn’t work well when the work is flexible and long enough to bend to the ground.

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