The next installment in my episode by episode, wise cracking review of the greatest television show ever…
“This is the program that asks the question, can the twentieth century person make for themselves, from a tree, a rocking chair and sit in it? The answer you will soon see is yes.”
As a twenty-first century person, I am quite sure that I have the skills to accomplish all sorts of things. I can burp the alphabet, drink a cold one through a hole in the side of the can, even win the Super Bowl with a video game controller. But I’ve never made a rocking chair straight from the tree with an ax. After this episode, I feel like I could.
Episode six builds upon the lessons we’ve already learned, particularly from the hay rake project with its use of wood moisture content to its advantage. So, how do you take that knowledge and use it to design a chair? Roy makes it simple, you just “find a chair that you like, that is comfortable for you… and you set it down beside you and you copy it.” It took me a couple replays of the episode before I realized that he doesn’t actually kiss the chair at this point in the show. It’s simply an impression you get from the sound he makes at the moment the camera angle changes. So… no worries there.
Where do we start? We have to make the dry pieces first, of course. Every chair bodger knows that! So Roy grabs his froe and maul, and the nearest tree, and starts splitting. Nearly all of his projects seem to start this way. Nowadays most woodworkers begin with boards from a mill, or I dare say, a home improvement store. We may have to flatten them a bit, but how often do we walk out to the front yard, look at that big old oak tree and say “tear down the tire swing kids ‘cause daddy’s gonna make us a chair!” I’ll bet that’s happened a time or two at the Underhill homestead. It’s his favorite kind of woodworking, and it’s fast becoming my favorite kind to watch.
He’s using red oak but we can use whatever species of tree we have laying around the shop. Roy’s ”seen them out of red mulberry.” In New Mexico he made chairs out of Pinyon, a type of nut bearing pine, and from Roy’s inside joke kind of laugh I presume it’s an unconventional choice. But you could use it, he assures us, “you really could”. The point Roy’s making is that chairs are made from all sorts of materials, often several species in a single chair. “The thing to do is to see the kind of chairs that were made in your area… because the people that came before you had to make chairs too, and believe me, they found the right material to do it.”
At the shaving horse, which we made in episodes two and three, he shows us how shave the split billets down to size with a draw knife. “Which side of the drawknife do you use… the beveled side or the flat side?” It depends on the drawknife and the type of work you’re doing. He shows how the angles of the handles usually determine the orientation. “There’s no right and wrong… the only wrong thing is abusing the tools, that’s something we don’t do. You have to respect your craft.” What he’s making is the “airfoil” shaped parts that hold the seat. These have a unique winged shape that he skillfully forms with a dozen strokes of his drawknife. Green wood cuts nicely on the shaving horse, but you’ll have to let the roughly formed parts dry a while before you finish them off with a spokeshave.
“What’s next? We’ve got to make four of these posts.” It’s almost comical to watch him take a hefty piece of wood, perhaps five feet long and several inches in diameter, and drawknife it down to a bit more than an inch. It seems like a lot of wood ends up on the floor, but I suppose splitting one inch billets that long and straight would be very difficult, so the drawknife has to do the job. Still, it seems like whittling a toothpick from a 2X4.
Roy shows us a simple way to put a bend in our long back legs, tying the ends of the pair together with a thick chunk of wood between them. This forces the green pieces into a bow, and as they dry they retain much of that shape. He does the same thing with the back splats, weaving them through some poles so they dry with a comfortable, back fitting curve. Next time you look at this type of chair and think the builder steam bent the parts, smack yourself in the forehead because Roy just showed us an easier way.
He’s done a lot of splitting in the first several episodes, but now he really puts his skills to the test as he tries to rive some very thin boards from a wide log, shingle style. We wait on the edge of our seats, with baited breath, our hearts in our throats, as we watch the split go through the fibers and toward the side. Not to worry, Roy demonstrates how to redirect a split that seems to be heading too far to one side by simply putting more pressure with his knee on the thicker side of the piece. This guy can do anything.
Now on to the front leg posts, but he warns us not to begin these until our stretchers are dry because we want these legs to be green when we assemble the chair. “Make sure you get that right”. Chair making is a carefully choreographed process with some parts drying while others are worked, all timed to come together in the grand finale. You can’t rest easy until the fat lady sings, and the chair holds up under her big hocks.
For the first time in the series Roy uses a bench. Well, not exactly a bench, it’s the back end of his shaving horse, but he introduces us to the holdfast which is a proper bench tool, so close enough. He’s using it to hold the legs in place while he bores holes for the stretchers, and lacking a depth stop on his bit he counts the number of times he turns the brace and does the math in his head to determine the depth he’s gone. Sixteen turns, as long as he remembers to count, which is difficult while he’s talking to us, is just enough to provide optimal support for the mating tenon without tearing through the leg and into the bench.
Remember the oval tenon principal he taught us in an earlier episode? You’ll use it a lot in chair making. But Roy takes it a step further, undercutting around the tenon’s end so as the mortise dries and shrinks it will pinch around the “ball shaped” tenon end making a joint that will last until our grandkids get tired of looking at our chair and throw it out.
I believe this is also the first appearance of his trusty mortise chisel. He’s previously bored out his mortises and removed the waste, and a bit of his finger, with a hatchet. But his stout mortise chisel is something that he uses in almost every project for decades to come, and it inspired me long ago to track down some similar vintage chisels. I love them as much as Roy loves his, I think.
Roy has obviously made a few chairs in his time. He has a technique “using my instinctive knowledge of up and down” to eyeball the angles as he bores the holes that the stretchers fit into. “You may have had to work at this a little bit to be able to judge where up and down really is”. Chairmakers have for centuries used the same technique, utilizing an extra-long bit and often a pair of bevel gauges. A trained eye can keep the bit aligned on both axes as you bore the compound holes many chairs require. Mistakes do happen, though. You just “worry everything into position… and I don’t think I worried about (this) one enough”, but with some coaxing it comes together just fine as all Roy Underhill projects do. Fitting the back splats is simply a matter of some more eyeballing and trimming and a bit of wrestling them into their mortises. I would never challenge Roy to a wrestling match after watching him manhandle a few chairs over the years. He’s small but wiry!
As for the rockers, “the outside is very easy to cut” he says as he traces the pattern on a board and hacks to the line with an ax. Who needs a band saw! The inside curve takes at least one bow saw cut, but even this material is removed with an ax. “Make at least half inch thick rockers, you don’t want to make them like ice skates!”
You can tell by his shortness of breath that we’re out of time, but Roy has one last bit of sage advice for us: “When you go out to get wood to make a rocking chair… do not whistle. If you do then your chair will squeak!” Next time we make the seat.
I’m going through the entire 30+ year run of The Woodwright Shop to create the ultimate guide to the series. It’ll be as fun to read as his show is to watch, so don’t miss a single one! Check out the archive at Stumpynubs.com!
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