Archive for the ‘Chairmaking’ Category

‘I wonder if you could repair my garden table?’  That’s how the conversation started, and I agreed to take a look at the table. As you can see, it’s seen better days. Under normal circumstances this table is barely firewood mainly compost.

Sometimes you get attached to a particular piece, a bit like a fire it helps to instill a sense of place. I guessed this table was like that so I agreed to build a new frame for the owner and see what if anything could be salvaged.

The first job was to make the posts and rungs, coppiced Sweet Chestnut in this case which stands a chance of lasting longer than the original hazel. Convenient size all round, 18 inch rungs, 14 inch posts, top rung (table top) at 12 inches and rung spacing of 3 inches and 6 inches between top and bottom rungs all around. Mortices cut with an augur bit and tenons turned on the polelathe (just in case I need to make another one).

New frame, original table top. Even managed to salvage a few of the original brass screws.

a coat of Linseed Oil (only the best local fresh pressed on the farm linseed oil!) and it’s a new bench. I have the feeling that this bench might become a bit like my favourite beetle (a large wooden mallet) which has only had 4 new heads and 3 new handles!


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My visits to the bodgery last week were squeezed in between bookings for demonstrating and teaching polelathe turning at the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum (of which more later) but I am very grateful to Derrick for getting full steam up and pushing me to make the missing part, namely the comb,  for my comb-back windsor side chair.

The steam chambers are simple plastic drainpipes heavily lagged by old carpet and braced with battens. The steam source is a wallpaper stripper or kettle heating element in a plastic water reservoir.

Having steamed the beech comb for just over an hour we placed it in the jig and applied the pressure using a simple pipe bending vice.

Once bent the comb stays in the jig until it’s cooled right down.

Now I have the comb and the back sticks all I need is the time to finish the assembly!

My chair was only one of many on the production line during the week and I counted parts of at least a dozen chairs and stools in progress and perhaps equally enjoyable was the sheer diversity of style and design.

Derrick and Veronica are working with Este on her Elm seat base. My side chair is unconventional in that the comb and seat base are made from beech rather than elm. My choice, and entirely because I have access to beech that I planked up a couple of years ago from fallen trees on the commons. Elm rarely comes my way, let alone in chair seat diameters.

Derrick is something of an Big Elm connoisseur. For example the new workbench in the workshop is one huge slab of elm.

Somewhere in a store not far away there is a stash of monster Elm planks, but as this is valuable stuff I shan’t reveal it’s exact location nor it’s owner. At least not until I’ve had a chance to save up and raid my piggy bank!

Thanks to Derek, Veronica, Sue and all at the Stratfield Saye Bodgery for the help and encouragement!

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The last week of August is Full Steam ahead – literally – at the Bodgery. Where Derrick kindly allows a group of chair makers of varying talent and experience to invade his workshop.  This lovely set of spindles  is destined for a child sized chair – unfortunately not my work, but it does inspire me, and is one of the reasons I enjoy taking part in this week at the bodgery. Unfortunately demonstrating and courses on the weekend before and the coming bank holiday weekend have limited my ability to join in this year – and I’m keen not to make the same mistake next year!

Derrick has had something of a clear up and change around in the workshop and it enabled 9 of us to work on various parts of stools and chairs at the same time. As always the floor is liberally carpeted in shavings – we keep telling him that there is gold in them there shavings !

I’m making some sticks, spindles and the comb for the back of a Windsor chair.

For making the straight sticks a shaved blank is turned down using a rounding plane. Derricks Ashem crafts rounding planes were getting plenty of use making sticks for a range of chairs.

At this point Derrick and I noticed that our Ashem crafts planes are very different. It looks as if one is an earlier design – but which one?  I think it’s Derrick’s and he thinks it’s mine (on the left). A Quick google reveals that Derrick is right and mine appears to be an earlier design.  Does this make it a collectors piece? And why did the design change?

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I recently had the opportunity to drop in on David Saltmarsh’s smallholding on the Devon/Dorset border, Fivepenny Farm. I was impressed (pun entirely intended) and inspired by the work he and his family have been doing there.  The 25acre smallholding is a traditional mixed farm with vegetables, fruit and livestock, something of which I thoroughly approve. Inside the cruck framed, thatched barn that they have built is this cider press, rescued from another Dorset barn. I could write an entire post just on the barn and more on the farm but ….let’s start with the Cider Press.  It’s big and very tidy, but I couldn’t help thinking I was missing something.


And I was because the top beam of the press is actually on the top floor of the barn! I have never seen such a large top beam on a press before. This lump of elm, is hewn from a single butt and was some hundreds of years old when the cider press was made – by now it’s a few hundred years old at least.


The Iron screwthread is big, but not original and it’s dwarfed by the size of the original wooden thread which you can steel see and feel, at least several inches in width, though I failed to measure it at the time.


I got a bit distracted by the cider press, but it’s not a museum exhibit it’s very much a part of a working small holding. At the moment most of the apples used to make the bottled Cider and Apple Juice are bought in but just behind the barn is the first of the orchards planted on the farm and by the look of it, it won’t be long before more of the fruit being pressed is home grown!


The reason for dropping in was to discuss polelathe and greenwood things (The bodgers ball in 2012 to be more precise) and next to the cider press were a few of the superb (award winning) chairs that David is renowned for making. You might remember some of these chairs from the Mastercrafts chairmaking programme and you can read more about his chairs at his Fivepenny chairs website .


His polelathe is built into a really tight corner of a shed cum workshop. I was surprised that he can’t see the view from it, but then I realised that’s not necessarily helpful – I might be a bit too distracted by the view and no doubt the polelathing hours and normally in darkness anyway.


Here is a sneak preview of a chair that David is finishing at the moment, he reckons about 100 hours have gone into this one and it was inspired by the curved shape in the side pieces of the back which are natural and not steamed.


The workload on a small holding is enormous, it is indeed a way of life and not a job – but if its the way of life that you want then I expect that it’s about as good as it gets. The lambing season is just about 24hours a day.  I was inspired, not just by the small holding that David, Joti and their family are running but by the sustainability that underpins all of it.


There is no sign that they will run out of ideas anytime soon. I spotted these iron cogs and wheels hiding in a corner of the barn. An old apple mill (scratter) waiting to be restored. If you live around West Dorset look out for fivepenny farm produce, preserves and juice in your local markets!



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No I’m not just about to feed this chair to the fire leg by leg. Nor is it an Ikea version of a Windsor chair – I know that because there is nowhere to fit the Allen Key. There is a continuous trickle of chair repairs coming my way. It’s not something that I’m overly keen to do – I’m still struggling to find time to finish my own first chair, but I approve of repairing chairs rather than disposing of them so I’ll help where I can by making new parts and/or stripping and repairing the chair.

Alison has been using this chair for a few years and it’s always been a bit shaky. But apart from a few loose leg joints and stretchers I was pleased to find nothing much wrong with it. After a quick clean up and some persuading with a wooden mallet (and a touch of glue of course) it seems as good as new.  It’s a very standard Windsor chair and many won’t like it because it follows the basic pattern but I like it’s simplicity and the standard of craftmanship is very high.

Taking a closer look at the legs you can see the bark of the tree still on the small flat which is a good indicator that these spindles were turned green from cleft logs rather than manufactured from sawn billets and most likely turned on a pole or treadle lathe.

Here’s another one I’ve been asked to repair. As I’m really, really tidying up the workshop (yes really, look at all that floor thats appeared from under the shavings) at the moment I need to get it done and back to it’s owner. It’s interesting just how different this chair is.  It’s been more of a pain to repair partly because it’s been repaired at least once before.

It’s one of a set and it’s probably suffered from being in a warm and dry environment in recent years which has loosened things up a bit.  Has anyone seen chairs of this style before? Any idea who might have made it?  It’s certainly very individual in design with its swept back, circular seat and double stretcher and no doubt this makes it more attractive – but is it a better chair? Not necessarily to me – it’s not, it’s as much about what its like to sit on as what it looks like.

The problem with the swept back angle ( typical in Welsh style chairs and this set might have come from Wales ) is that it increases the stress on the tenon joint in the seat base and thats where most of the trouble is in this chair, compounded as it is by the choice of circular seat base and the overly large mortice and tenon. Very much styling over practicality and although it seems chunky and strong I think it’s actually causing a weakness.

It is comfortable and I’d like it for reading in front of the fire, but then I’d probably prefer a larger seatbase and maybe arms (oh and ok, make it a rocker whilst you’re at it). I feel that this chair is a compromise which is not so supportive for sitting working at desk or table. I prefer the straight Windsor chair pattern for sitting at a desk and our Ercol kitchen chairs for the kitchen table, but then that’s why I drive old Landrovers I suppose, I do tend to favour a design that looks right!

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For my first time at the APF show I drove up to the Cannock Chase show site overnight and arrived at around 7:30 am, if not bright then at least early. The show site is massive, being miles from one end to the other. I joined the queue of bright shiny 4WD’s and immense forestry equipment entering the site. There were plenty of marshals available and for some reason they all seemed to know where I needed to go before I even asked. Was it the 50year old Landrover or the little spray of leaves still on the tip of the fresh birch poles I took up for spares that said ‘Woodland Crafts area’ ?

The cold, tiredness and a hectic schedule of demonstrating and racing meant that I didn’t have a lot of time for taking photos – but I’ll do the best I can with those I did manage to take.

Arriving on the woodland crafts patch I found it still deserted except for a ton or two of ash ready for the turning races – freshly felled for us by Larry and Granville who were also demonstrating in the crafts area.

It didn’t stay deserted and before long I was joined by a dozen turning and greenwood companions on the APT&GW stand.

To one side of my pitch was Dave Jackson, a coppice worker and polelathe turner from Malvern and one of the fastest turners in the West! Here Dave is replenishing his stock of Gypsy flowers.

On my other side was Barn (Barnaby Carder) who had hitched to Leamington before getting a lift to the site as he is still pedling (as a pedlar not a cyclist)  his way around the country making and selling his spoons. He thinks he’s made over 600 on his journey so far and I can believe it.

Barn is not only a talented greenwood worker but he’s also good at working the crowds and he was able to hold an audience – not a bad skill to have when selling a spoon makes a difference between eating or going without.

I finally got to meet fellow blogger Richard Law of Flying Shavings in the flesh and it was well worth the wait. Richard is immensely capable, has a number of strings to his bow and is quite possibly the nicest Yorkshire man I know (and yes Richard I do know some others!). At the show he was demonstrating carving greenwood bowls. Quick off the mark Richard has already written on the show on his blog and its well worth a read.

Throughout the 3 days of the show the APT&GW puts on log-to-leg races.  In the morning a team race and in the afternoon the individual races. For team event a team of 3 race to make 2 chair legs from an ash log by cleaving, shaving and then turning the billets and 2 of the turners must do some of the turning on the legs. We picked the team members from a hat which was a great way of running the event – I ended up with both Barn and Richard for the second team race and here Barn is holding the first leg for Richard to copy rhe beads onto the second leg. The races are quite frantic and there is plenty of scope for working up a sweat as the teams were turning in times of 12 minutes and under to make 2 legs.

Having finished the race and had the legs judged for quality (which attracts time penalties) we had the traditional ‘peg leg’ photo taken.

The individual races are quite a commitment and despite telling myself it’s just a race I found myself becoming seriously nervous in advance. It didn’t go according to plan and on the first race I managed to get the froe stuck as the billet failed to cleave neatly in half.  Then once on the lathe the cord snapped – I think I managed to cut it with the chisel. Because disasters always strike in threes the disaster was compounded by the support for my pole collapsing. Somehow I still managed to complete 2 legs and hand them in before the 20 minute deadline.

The afternoon race on the third day of the show is billed as the ‘World Championship’ all of which further helps to build the tension. Despite the nerves I managed to produce 2 legs quite fast, I think it was just under 12 minutes before penalty points – which considering my lack of experience at racing seems a creditable effort. And did I mention I am now ranked a mere 8th in the World? Thanks to my crowd for all of the support, and to Colin Hampton and the Chestnut coppice crew who turned out to shout plenty of abuse and keep me going,

Sadly the weather was less than glorious and downright bitter on occasion. Dave Jackson shared my little fire bucket and kelly kettle and even sacrificed some old gypsy flowers as kindling when the storm made lighting the fire more of a challenge.

I was delighted to have quite a few friends as visitors on my pitch over the three days. Here Andy Coleman from Somerset and a fellow Scyther as well as a greenwoodworker has a go on my recently built pole-bole-lathe.

As well as racing during the day each of the demonstrators on APT&GW stand put on a demonstration of a green woodworking skill or helped to run a ‘have-a-go’ lathe. I demonstrated making hay-rakes and here Jim Steele puts on an excellent demonstration on assembling a Windsor Chair.

Sean Hellman and I managed to get in a short impromptu cross-cut saw demonstration with the help of Barn to stabilise the log whilst we ran through it. It was well worthwhile and a good experience for me to try the 2 man saw with someone who can actually use it well. We’re hoping to do a proper demo at the next ball, and who knows perhaps a race?

What with the demonstrations, races, visitors and so many excellent fellow demonstrators the time flashed by and I really don’t know quite where it went. I didn’t get to see much of the show or spend as long as I would have liked with others on the stand but we certainly made a few chair legs though. There is a gallery with more photos from the show here.

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My original grand design for the birch perch was to strip some birch bark to seat it. I’d still like to try birch bark but it’s a bit ambitiuos for my first attempt and so after a year with a temporary top of a couple of slats I finally gave in and decided it was worth gaining experience with seagrass after all.

One reason for choosing to do the seating now was the opportunity to learn from experience and I learnt a lot from having both Veronica and Sue to help me with this one.

It all looked good at this stage – nice and square, though appearances can be deceptive as we discovered when we got right into the middle. The seagrass that I bought online was so thin that we decided to double up on each  turn which seemed to work very well.

The finished seat looks good and it very tight – partly because the seagrass was dampened before we used it, so it does pull tighter as it dries and this counteracts the slackness which I have heard as a criticism of this material for seating. Time for the birch perch #2 so I can practice my newfound skills I think, and I need a bodkin or so it appears.

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Omubazi Mike

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