In the tool chest I have a collection of antique tools which is comprehensive enough for me to be able to take squared off, straight pieces of wood, make them into chair components and then make them into a chair. I will discuss the contents of the chest in a couple of chapters, but the problem at the moment is how to produce the straight pieces of wood! We take this for granted – just visit the timber yard or run a piece over the planer and it’s done. In this project, where I have left modern conveniences behind, this is the most difficult bit. I’ve reduced the tree to manageable pieces and taken them back to the shed on a wheelbarrow. What next?
I have to start drying this wood now as it is still full of sap and must be given time to lose its moisture, shrink and move. How long does this take? It depends how thick it is and where it is kept while drying. There is a rule of thumb, which says to allow one year for every inch of thickness.
Some of these ‘billets’ are very thick, around 120mm or more at their thickest. I can’t wait for ever – I want to be sitting on this chair well before the end of the year – and there is something else to take into account at this stage: Timber is easier to cut and shape when it is still ‘green’.
First I intend to slice, split and saw out these components, slightly large to allow for shrinkage and movement, and air dry them for a few months. I’ll check them for moisture content. Then, stack them in the house somewhere for a month or so to prepare them for central heating and domesticity.
One thing that is well worth doing while cut timber is drying in the yard is to paint the ends. There is a liquid wax preparation which we use for this job but you can just as well slap on a coat of oil-based paint. This is to prevent end splits, which can develop while the wood dries out. By concentrating on using quarter sawn components, I am using wood that is stable, that is, it shouldn’t distort in drying. The first job was to place a pair of the “manageable pieces” side by side on the ground, forming a notch for holding the other pieces while splitting and working on them. The subdivision was another job for the wedges, something that was turning out to be relatively easy.
I particularly want to get the back legs roughed out at this stage as they are the longest components.
I select pieces that are reasonably straight grained, because they will be easier to work, but take pieces from a bend in the tree because they correspond with the shape of the template – less work when it comes to sawing them. I wonder if the shape of the back legs; typical of this chair design, developed from similar thinking long ago. Look at my photos and you’ll see what I mean. This is a very strong chair anyway but if the back legs are shaped to follow the grain of the tree they will be stronger still, as well as making the job easier. By the way, I don’t think this design goes back a mere couple of hundred years, I think it is a synthesis of many chairs involving many unknown makers.
My respect for the ancients was about to increase as I began to tackle the adze.
I wanted to flatten one surface of each piece and I sharpened up the adze. I knew by now that heroic feats of sawing were on the agenda if I was going to get components to regular thicknesses, but using a flattened surface as datum was essential in order to judge where to saw.
I had never used an adze before and if I’d been asked what would be the most appropriate verb for ‘adzing’, I would have guessed swing – surely you ‘swing’ an adze?
Now I would say ‘chip’ and I would also say that ‘adzemen’ (what else would they be called?) have a special kind of strength. Try chipping away for half an hour and you’ll see what I mean. I intend to try more of it – especially the short handled adze for bowl making etc – but not until these components are sawn.
I thought I would try a conventional rip saw for ripping this down. There’s a rip saw in the tool chest and I have one in my own toolbox but I haven’t done much serious ripping until now. Both of these saws had been sent away for sharpening, but neither was much use for this kind of ‘extreme’ sawing; one was determined to cut squint and the other had a hidden ‘stop’ in the middle of it’s blade beyond which it would not cut.
I decided there and then to do my own sharpening in future – Mr Wake, the original tool chest owner, had done his own sharpening; the setting tools and files were in the box.
So I tried a bow saw. Mr Wake must have had a bow saw as there is a blade for a small bow saw in the tool chest. I found that the bow saw was inclined to leave the straight and narrow as well…
Wedges are essential for keeping the kerf from closing. As usual with hand tools the main problem is with holding the stock while cutting it. I had to chisel out notches for the clamps to give them a good purchase. I found that clamping it to the side of an old gate; two clamps, one at the top and one at ground level worked better than I had expected;
It was the “Great American” Disston which saved the day. I sharpened and waxed it and away we went. This is a cross-cut saw, but cross-cut saws can be used for ripping when the reverse is not the case.
One thing that is worth saying in defence of the conventional rip saws is that they cut most efficiently when the teeth are at 45 degrees to the surface of the material, so the stock should be lying horizontally for the correct sawing angle. I found it most convenient to have the stock standing vertically and this fitted in fine with the Disston.
I prepared far more wood for components than necessary in order to allow for wastage and experimentation later on. I piled the materials up on battens under a makeshift roof to protect them from rain and sun for a few months. The roof was made mainly from old pallets – driftwood, of course.
-- Allan Fyfe, Lethenty Mill Furniture, http://www.lethenty-mill.com