All Steamed Up

The anecdotal account of man versus wood.

SHOP OWNER: Darrell LaRue
LOCATION: Oakville, Ontario, Canada

    This is a true tale, fraught with strife, fear, and loathing, and the merciless physical properties of our ancient enemy, Wood. This story first appeared in serial form on the Canadian Woodworking Forum. Here now, for your somewhat dubious entertainment, is the complete story, bound in a single volume...

Jan. 3, 2005 - All Steamed Up

    I had a really exciting day today. I sat around this afternoon and watched water boil. Yee Haaa!
    Actually, Kathy noticed that it was quite warm for January and I suddenly realized that I needed to bend some parts for a Windsor chair. Yes, that walnut chair, parts of which have been hanging around the shop for um, a year I guess, or maybe more. I'm afraid to actually look up how long it's been; that's how long it's been!
    Anyways, I scurried about this afternoon and hauled out the steam-bending rig from the dim cobwebby recess of the garage where it lives. I set everything up, and decided that if I was gonna do one, I might as well do two. Just in case I screw up, eh? So, I quickly roughed out another arm and bow blank from some of that air dried walnut we picked up last year from Ken White's sawmill.
    Whilst I was digging out the small workbench from behind the trailer, I looked up and spotted another pair of bow blanks in the wood rack, these being an ash back and an oak arm. I had better add them to the pot as well. I set up the bending form on the bench, and fired up the steamer. I loaded the six pieces into the box and sat back to read for half an hour. I was reading FWW On Bending Wood (of course).
    I hollered for Kathy when the wood was cooked and we started the second most stressful woodworking procedure known to man (next to glue ups). There was lots of cursing, bashing, yelling, and flailing around. I managed to bust the ash back completely, and now I have TWO extra arms as I had a leftover from my previous chair project. The rest of the parts went much better, and I think I can actually rescue enough pieces for a couple of chairs.
Totally Bent Outta Shape

Jan. 3, 2005 - Totally Bent Outta Shape

    Here’s the result of our efforts. The clamps are holding the splits down so they don't run out and bust the bows completely. Nuthin' a half a bottle of crazy glue won't fix, eh?
    This here's what you get when you're inexperienced, and when you use dried instead of green wood, and when you use sawn instead of riven lumber. Nevertheless, seein' as that's all I had to work with, I used it.
Back In The Saddle

Jan. 4, 2005 - Back In The Saddle

    Today I saddled the seat blank for that walnut chair I'm making. Normally, I make the seats from basswood and the rest of the parts from ash, beech, birch, or maple. However, this chair isn't going to be painted, and the Design Consultant has decreed that it all has to be walnut.
    Carving basswood is a treat since it’s very forgiving stuff. Walnut isn't “bad” but it sure ain't as easy as basswood. I never bothered buying an adze for roughing out chair seats. I just use a couple of big gouges. Works fine in basswood just pushing the chisels, but for the walnut, I was driving them with a big oak mallet.
    Saddling a seat usually takes me about 45 minutes, but the walnut took almost twice that long. Much of that time I spent fiddling around with the pommel trying to get the sweep just right.
    Here's a picture I took after 45 minutes of effort with the mallet, chisel, scorp, travisher, and compass plane. Not bad, but I think I went a bit too deep in the middle. I was aiming for 5/8 but got almost 7/8 deep. See, those gouges work plenty fast enough!
Without a Leg to Stand On

Jan. 5, 2005 - Without a Leg to Stand On

    Tonight I started working on the undercarriage. I got as far as boring and reaming the leg holes. Two of the holes are misplaced, one by ¼-inch and the other by ½-inch. Danged spoon bits wander when you start them, and I haven't used 'em in a while, so I keep misjudging where they are gonna go. Anyways, this screwed up my stretcher sizes unless I wanted to shift the legs a bit whilst reaming. I shifted the rake a bit on one of the back legs to bring the stretchers in line. This makes the chair look nasty from the side but it still looks OK from the front.
    Almost didn't get anything done today. I had to change the drive belt on my lathe, and could not get the spindle off. I needed the machine up and running so I could size the tenons on my chair legs. So, I made a quick run to LV after dinner and bought some link belt. Lathe runs smooth and quiet now! Oops, a bit of off topic chatter there... So far so good. Here's a shot of the new chair and the model.
Gimme a Leg Up, Will Ya?

Jan. 6, 2005 - Gimme a Leg Up, Will Ya?

    Tonight I finished the leg-up on my walnut Windsor chair. This is one of those really tense moments in woodworking, when the glue meets the wood.
    The stretchers are actually larger than they should be to fit between the legs. I was taught to add ¼-inch to each stretcher to 'pre-load' the undercarriage. This means that the stretchers are holding the legs apart instead of together, so the chair shouldn't come apart even if the glue fails.
    This also means that it's tricky to get everything together at the end because the legs won't easily fit into the holes once the stretchers are in place. So, you HAMMER the legs in with a big steel hammer; no dead blow or wooden mallets here. There were bits of wood flying off the ends of the legs as I bashed them down. No worries though, because the legs are a couple inches longer than necessary.
    On this chair, I went with a simpler leg turning, kind of a bamboo thing, rather than the fancier baluster legs. I get real frustrated trying to get those fancy legs to come out nice on the lathe, but the simple legs are a breeze.
Stumped Again

Jan. 7, 2005 - Stumped Again

    I went down to the shop after supper. The kids were watching Harry Potter III (again) and I felt like doing something more constructive than TV.
    I turned and fitted the arm stumps on my Windsor chair. These are the last of the turned parts, the spindles being whittled from riven stock. I had turned a bamboo style set of stumps but I thought they were heartlessly plain, so I quickly (well, an hour for two small spindles isn't “quickly” but...) turned this new baluster style set. You can see why I don't make baluster legs anymore, eh?
    Then I had to ream the holes in the seat to match the tapered tenons on the stumps. Tricky bit here is that you want them in wind (i.e. in the same plane) and splayed outwards (107 degrees along the sightline) and the tips need to be 21 ½-inches apart. I finally got close enough to my targets to stop and say, "done", but not until I had very nearly ran out of tenon!
Yet Another in a Seemingly Endless Series of Posts

Jan. 8, 2005 - Yet Another in a Seemingly Endless Series of Posts

    Today I spent some time working on the upper portion of my chair. I had to glue on hand blocks for the arm, and taper the ends of the back bow. After lunch, I cut out the hands and cleaned up the arm. I bored the spindle holes in the seat and then some more dicey work, boring and reaming the holes in the arm and fitting the spindles.
    I think I was pointing at the wrong sightline when I bored one of the spindle holes, as that spindle is way out of line with the others. It looks OK in the picture, but that's because the silly thing is under a lot of stress, being forced into place. In addition, I think the arm is too far back, which doesn't make sense given how good the stumps came out. Ah well, "it'll hunt", as John would say.
    Several times, I found myself reading my references and looking at the pictures I took during my chairmaking class, at a loss for the next step. So far so good, it's actually starting to look like a chair.
    I was expecting to glue up this much tonight but I'm tired, and I don't want to screw it up. Tomorrow I will glue the spindles and arm. Then I can start working on the back bow. Some of the holes in that part are really challenging.
The Sound of Ultimate Suffering

Jan. 9, 2005 - The Sound of Ultimate Suffering

    "The man in black makes it now..."

    It was a brutal finish to what was a fun and challenging project. I tripped and fell flat on my face right at the finish line.
    Well, the glue-up for the arm and spindles went OK. My daughter, Michelle, was in the shop with me after lunch handing me wedges and tools, as I needed them. A reasonably sedate glue-up as these things go, no surprises, no crises.
    After the kids were in bed, I went back downstairs to see about installing the back bow. I dry fitted the bow and balanced it, there's some leeway built into the parts so you can shift them back and forth a bit to get the best symmetry. Once I had decided where everything was supposed to go, I started boring the holes in the bow. The middle five are not too difficult, but those last two on the outside are wicked. You have to bore a 3/8-inch hole in a bent, round, 7/8-inch thick piece, at a very oblique angle. I did that OK, a wee bit off center, but acceptable.
    Then I glubricated everything and started trying to get the bow onto all those spindles, and into the holes in the arm. After five minutes of wrestling (good thing the glue has a 15 minute open time, eh!) I finally got the bow on. However, it isn't where I wanted it symmetry-wise. So, I started tapping it down to try and get the port side a bit lower. I spread the blows of the hammer like I'm supposed to (not all in one place).
    I got halfway to where I wanted the bow when I heard a most discouraging sound. One of the spindles broke just above the arm... C R A C K!!!!!! and I made an appropriate amount of noise, giving vent to my horror, frustration, indignation, fear, and loathing. OK, now what? Leave it. Leave it? Yes, get on with the rest of the job. So, I proceeded to wedge and trim all the joints. That part went off without a hitch.
    Then I slathered glue into the broken part and started jamming clamps on it. I got it to close up enough I think. It won't have that nice smooth curve to it but it will be there. It’s good enough for now I guess. We shall see once the clamps come off.
Looks Good From a Distance, Eh?

Jan. 9, 2005 - Looks Good From a Distance, Eh?

    I'll still have to trim, wedge, and clean up that last spindle end, but as it stands (or sits) now, the chair is done.
Pull Up a Chair And Sit a Spell

Jan. 10, 2005 - Pull Up a Chair And Sit a Spell.

    Well, the chair is finally in the finishing stage. I did some quick rehab on the busted spindle, and while it has a sharp kink in it instead of a sensual curve, it doesn't detract from the comfort of the chair, just the looks.
    Tonight I did a last round of scraping and sanding to get rid of the remaining bits of glue, pencil marks, and other blemishes. Then I slapped a coat of tung oil on the chair. Wow, that stuff really lights up the walnut. A couple more coats of oil, some drying time, some paste wax, and this one will be sitting in the living room.

. . . Darrell LaRue



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