I just finished off my first windsor chair course, a sack-back class.
This wasn't Dunbar's class, but rather a local up here in Canada who
has been through most (if not all) of Mike's classes, and now teaches
chairmaking here and in the U.S.

My overall impression: this isn't woodworking, it's sorcery.

Yup, black magic.  And this from a galoot who doesn't follow plans or
'measured drawings'.  I usually just have a rough sketch on a scrap of
paper for reference, and simply cut each piece to fit with the rest.
There are dimensions for each part of the chair, and those who rely on
such fixed numbers can follow the measurments with a micrometer, but in
the end, when the chair is assembled, nothing needs to fit perfectly.

Look at my chair, for instance.  When the undercarriage went together
badly (or so I thought, upon seeing that the last tenon missed its
socket by an inch and a quarter) John said "Perfect.  Grab yer hammer and
the glue bottle".  So we jammed everything together and bashed the legs
into the seat and it was done.  And it looks fine.

I had to whittle an extra spindle due to a minor disagreement between my
drawknife and a small grain reversal, and I made one more spare spindle
as a 'reference' for the next chair (I'll likely be making the shaved parts
on vacation so I wanted a sample to take with me).  Most of my spindles
are crooked, mis-shapen monstrosities, but once they've been lined up in
the chair they actually look good.

Boring 40-odd holes at precise angles with spoon bits was also quite
challenging.  Dang spoon bits don't always go where you would expect,
and until you get used to how they react on curved surfaces or when you
inadvertantly start boring with your brace canted a few degrees to one
side (all too easy for me, apparently) your holes will be placed some-
what randomly.  Despite this, everything still fits together.

After watching John bore his holes and shape his chair parts I began
to realize that the stuff I've read about experienced chairmakers may
be wrong.  I had been given to understand that the reason the experts
don't need to measure sizes and angles is because they've done it so
many times that they automatically know what the correct measurment is.
Not true.  They don't measure because they know there is such a great
tolerance for error in a windsor chair.  Close counts.  In some cases
'anything even remotely like close' counts.

The scariest tool was the adze.  It just looks way too fast and seems
way too easy to slip and completely mangle your seat blank.  But we
did fine with the adze.  It's a great tool for wasting the stock down
to size.  The drawknife and spokeshave were familiar, but their cousins
the scorp & travisher required some practice before I could use them
well enough to actually shape the seat with any degree of confidence or
accuracy.  The compass plane I built worked very nicely.  My thanks to
you Galoots who provided me with dimensions and suggestions for my plane.

Of all the tools we used, the reamer was the most difficult to master.
Looks easy doesn't it?  How difficult could it be?  It just goes round
and round and makes a conical hole.  In theory.  In practice, the
reamer makes oval holes, that your tenons will not fit.  The most
aggravating situation is when you've done your initial reaming and
you check your work only to find that your angle is spot-on.  And
now you have to stick the reamer back into the hole to ream it out
'just a bit more' so the end of the tenon will come through the other
side.  Without altering the angle you've got, or making the hole into
an oval.

Making windsor chairs seems to be some kind of black magic.
I bored most of my holes a degree or two off the mark.  Most of my spindles
aren't shaped correctly, and several had undersized tenons.  Bent parts too
straight, straight parts too crooked, etc.  Despite a myriad of little
errors my chair looks good.  And, despite my familiarity with planing,
boring, and shaving, I learned a lot about using my tools.  I watched
someone take what amounts to a piece of oak kindling, and convert it into
a chair spindle in about 60 seconds using a drawknife and spokeshave.
I am gonna get in a lot more practice with my drawknife this summer.
Maybe I won't be spittin out chair parts as fast as that but I want
to raise my skill level with this tool.

A week or so before I started the class I finally got my new
Veritas spokeshave.  I honed it, and then complained to Lee valley
about that d*mn micro bevel they put on the cutter.  Took me an
hour to get rid of their sharpening job.  I put that shave through
a fairly tough test during my class, which included a fast trip
from my hands to the concrete floor.  The steel in the cutter does
hold an edge quite well, and it's still sharp after a couple of
days work on green oak.  The only problem I found was that the
iron was too short (in width) and too deep (front to back).  A wider
iron (like my Hock Guntershave kit) allows you to make slicing cuts
on endgrain of thick stock.  The very deep Veritas iron restricts
the size of inside curve you can get into, even with the shoe flipped
over for concave work.  All in all the new Veritas shave works
quite well, and when I'm doing shave work, it'll be right there
next to my Hock.  One other shave note: when all else failed my
trusty Stanley #64 (small common cheap iron shave Jeff) saved the
day.  Tearout in the curly basswood sapwood on the seat?  #64.
Some nasty grain reversals in a spindle? #64. I have heard lots
of Galoots casting asparagus on metal shaves (poor tactile feedback,
wide mouth, poor blade bedding, &cetera) but those little ones will
work wonders sometimes.  The most I've spent on a #64 is $8 CAD, and
only because it had 100% japanning, factory grind on the iron, and
the yellow Stanley label on the handle.

Kathy didn't want windsor chairs in the house (would not go well
with our decor; nothing against the windsor style) so this chair
was going to be relegated to the porch.  Turns out that the sack
back looks great in the front hall, looks great in the living room,
looks great in the kitchen and would be nice at the head of the
dining room table (but only if I also make a set of side chairs
to go with...).  And I still have to make chairs for the porch too.

chairmaking... yet another slippery slope

Darrell LaRue
Oakville ON
FOYBIPO, Wood Hoarder, Blade Sharpener, and Occasional Tool User