The Chair Making Begins


Monday, last week, was the first day of my return to Inside Passage School of Fine Cabinetmaking for this chair making journey. I jumped right in and began copying a set of templates for laying out the chair parts. The set I'm copying was made by my teacher, Robert Van Norman. He made them directly from the original chairs that Vidar Malmsten made for James Krenov. I very carefully traced Robert's templates onto 1/4" thick poplar.


At the same time, it was important to begin looking at the wood I'll be using for the chair. I was hoping to use white oak, since that was the material used in the original, but as I began to cut into the planks, a great deal of honeycomb checking appeared. It was disappointing, but wood is a living thing, is it not?


I carefully shaped the new poplar templates with my spokeshave until they matched the originals. There are quite a few templates needed for this chair. Some of the parts, like the crest rail, require two templates to define their complex shapes.


Using the templates and several large sheets of paper, I then made a full size layout of the chair that will allow me to determine angles, as well as study the joinery, especially where the seat rails join the four legs. It was interesting to discover that, even in the original chair, that a simple dowel was used in conjuction with the sawn tenon, to control rotation of the front and rear seat rails. I'll be replicating even this detail in order to keep with the intent of the original as much as possible.

One of the great things about making this particular chair is that it includes examples of joinery at several levels of complexity. In fact, the process for making the chair allows me to work on the more simple joinery first and the increasingly complex joinery in later stages as I learn more and more about chair making.


Having experienced disappointment with the white oak that was on hand, I turned to some ash that was available here at the school. The planks I found are very nice, with good color and grain. This seems to be a good substitute for the white oak, and while they are very different woods, the ash is a very strong and resilient wood for this type of furniture. I can't wait to dig in!

I found a great section of grain in the plank that helps to complement the curve of the back legs.


Here is one of the most difficult parts to make; the crest rail, which begins as a large rectangular block. I'll be using this shape to my advantage as you will see in this and future posts.


Obtaining the crest rail out of thin wood stock is part of the exercise in grain graphics that I'm doing. It begins by selecting a section of plank that has flat sawn grain. I then apply some blocks of poplar to create a more massive piece to work with.


The goal is to get rift grain, in other words, end grain lines that are as close to 45° as possible. Since that isn't all that easy to get, especially since one needs 3" thick stock, this exercise provides a method for making that happen. First I lay out a 3" x 3" square on each end.


Then, I cut out the square profile that includes both the ash and the poplar. Later, when I cut the crest rail profile out of the square block, you'll see the effect of orienting the grain in this way.


Not every plan works perfectly, and since wood is a living thing, I've discovered some bowing in one of the back legs that will require special handling in order to maximize the accuracy of the leg profile in this chair reproduction.


Here you can see me marking a line around the entire perimeter of the leg. I later used a hand plane to flatten that side of the leg in preparation for cutting the mortises.


Final shaping of the back legs involved hand planing the straight and convex sides,


and spokeshaving the concave sides.


Now with the legs shaped to their basic profiles it's time to layout the mortise locations in pencil.


I'm anxious to get started with the joinery, but it's time for a night of rest in preparation for the work ahead.

Hej då, and happy shavings!



Craig Johnson is a fiscal year 2012 recipient of an Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. This activity is made possible in part by a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, through an appropriation by the Minnesota State Legislature and by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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