Thursday, 26 April 2012


The past few weeks have been an interesting time from a chair making perspective. Two separate tree species that I have been experimenting with as chair timbers have both rewarded me with exceptional results which I previously believed, or was led to believe we could not achieve with native species here in Southern Australia.

                                                                   Red Oak End Grain

 In the U.S. particularly with red and white oak, chair parts are easily riven to close tolerances with wedges and froe without issue. Similarly when shaving the same parts with the drawknife, the same qualities that ensure even and straight splitting, then clearly define runs of grain, both in the radial and tangental planes, that make dimensioning spindles and the like a breeze. Now while there is not an Australian timber that I know of that has the same ring porous qualities as American Oak, I figured that if I focused instead on the other factors that make timber split well, then surely I would give myself the best possible chance of success. To tick as many boxes as possible, so to speak. 

I had been focussing on a trip to East Gippsland where I know of a particularly good stand of straight, Narrow Leaf Peppermint ( Eucalyptus Radiata ) which I wanted to experiment with, when I received a phone call from a friend, Pete McCurly.

Pete is well known amongst Australia's musical instrument makers as a source for highly figured native timbers, namely our sought after desert species such as Ringed Gidgee and Coobah. You can reach Pete on 0438 082 984, if you are chasing that extra special flitch or slice of wood.  Above is a piece of his Ringed Gidgee ( Acacia family - there's lots of 'em.) I put into a mirror for a friend. It's pretty awesome stuff. Pete was in the process of working amongst a nice stand of Blackwood ( Acacia Melanoxylon ) and rang to tell me that there were some smaller trees among them that may be of interest. 

The following day I found myself standing in front of a Blackwood log in the middle of swamp out the back of Daylesford. The tree, which was really on it's last legs, had a central heart, first tick. It was not figured, which meant the grain ran straight, as opposed to say 'fiddleback/curly' grain, where the grain can go in all manner of directions, second tick. From a quick assessment of the bark, there was no visible twist to the trees trunk, or 'wind' that I could see, meaning that the wood should by all accounts want to split reasonably straight, third tick. The fourth? Well I've seen enough colonial chairs made of Blackwood over the years to know that there was some reason as to why those clever old chair and furniture makers used it for chairs. Strength and workability being the first things that come to mind. I had actually started making Windsors here with some Blackwood parts, but the Blackwood that was sourced for me for the job was wrong from the outset and it never lived up to it's potential.

The other factors that would assist me would be following accepted principals of splitting timber evenly. So with the log docked to just over 1600mm ( over 5' ) I grabbed the wedges and sledge hammer and had at it. First split in half was promising. There was a slight wavering half way down, but I split it again in half to see if it worked it's way out. It did and so with that I took the long piece and put it into the 'break' to see if I could split it with the froe, evenly again and closer to the 30+mm thickness I needed for a Continuous Arm blank. 

One minute later I had the two pieces in front of me, the wave or shake had disappeared and I was left with two fine blanks, ready for the shave horse. I showed Pete, who I think was equally as impressed. I've been splitting off spindles and crests now for over a week, pretty much when ever I walk past, as I just can't help myself. 

The spindles shave beautifully as they are a perfect run of straight grain, one end to the other. And the large wedge left on the side was perfectly split on the quarter, so that will be a fan back crest for a chair that I have on order. 

The first crest I shaped in the horse, steam bent about as easily as I have experienced. Here it is out of the kiln today, nicely set and ready for a little cleaning up before being put into another Blackwood chair I'm making.

I've been teaching and making Windsors for a few years now, but it always felt like I was 'cheating' to a degree, by bandsawing chair parts. Leg stock is one thing, as there is not the same strength issues as with a finely shaved spindle, so sawing is not really an issue. But there is nothing like watching the parts split off with the froe, especially in the radial plane where with the Blackwood, they literally 'pop' apart. It's almost a sense of coming full circle with my connectivity to my chosen trade, like the missing piece has been found and put squarely into place. That can only be a good thing.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

A different view.

It's not a baluster leg or a steam bent crest but I couldn't resist taking a few photos of our future home's garden. These little guys are about as sweet a tomato as I've ever tasted.


In amongst renovating the cottage we had been going through the motions with our local council about building a new shop and residence here in Piper Street. The amazing plans which my Uncle Geoff had drawn had been shown to a few builders too and the resounding responses were estimates and timelines that would choke a chook and curl your toes.... both at the same time. So some serious rethinking was in order. Around the time of us contemplating our respective navels, a little place just two doors down happened to become available. Star Anise restaurant.

So the plans are on hold just for the moment and the future home of Rundell & Rundell is assured. There's a pretty overwhelming sense of excitement in the household at the moment, with plans of the shop setup coursing though our minds. Stay tuned for more on that soon, but when looking out the back at the organic garden that supplied this Chef's Hat awarded restaurant, I couldn't resist getting the camera out and capturing the amazing fruit and vegetables growing there.

Tomatoes galore, so many that you could make pasta sauce for a month. Black currents, Tahitian limes, lemons. Artichokes, pumpkins and peas. Mint, rosemary, thyme... the list goes on. So it looks like we will be well catered for when we move in. A great resource too for lunches for people coming to take a chair course here.

And the view across the fence isn't bad either. It sort of reminds me of the little towns and villages we stayed in on our trip to England and Scotland last year, deciduous trees and stone buildings. We've got a great feeling about the place already are counting the days now until we can make it our own.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Something about cake.....

I really meant to post about the first chair class I've run in Kyneton earlier than this, but moving house sort of got in the way. Then a nasty bug decided he would take up residence in my stomach for bit and see if he could cause a little bit of unrest. Well mission accomplished bug, nice work.

Anyway, back to that happy day, being last Friday, when my first clients finished their two Continuous Arm Windsors. And what a great pair of chairs they were. Both Mark and Tony were suitably impressed with the finished product and well they should be, they both turned out a great chair. I was glad they chose to have baluster turnings in the chairs too. I don't know, maybe it's because the first Windsor I made had balusters, but I really feel the Continuous Arm shines with that extra detail that the balusters afford over the Bamboo/Double Bobbin.

There was a third fella who was just as happy as the guys and that fella was me. There was a good deal of satisfaction had in the knowledge that this chair making stuff had merit!

Seeing the course come to fruition over the last week was very satisfying indeed. The week flowed very nicely too and I was able to tweak and structure the days to suit the guys as their progress unfolded.

The result was a very laid back last day, with no pressure, no hurried work or mistakes and both chairs being finished and spindle tips trimmed in time for a celebratory beer or three afterwards. Tom bought around his box bacon flavoured Cheesels too, as you can see in the background.

The icing on the cake was both Tony and Mark discussing throughout the week, building their own shave horses and their plans for making more chairs in the future. That was always a big part in my interest in teaching others to make chairs.  Inspiring people to continue to make chairs and windsor style seating after taking a class with me. To have it happen already assures me it was the right choice, kind of like having the cake and eating it too.

Saturday, 7 April 2012


In 2009 when I travelled to Tennessee to learn how to make windsor chairs with Curtis Buchanan, I recall being excited just at the prospect of learning how to make a chair. I had travelled a long way to do so, sold my beloved motorbike to finance the trip and left my wife and then 2 year old boy behind at home to find what I hoped to be a new future for us.

In a way I didn't have any expectations of how the course should be, look or pan out. I was just as excited about the experience, as having a chair at the end.

You could probably imagine how the excitement grew when I first laid eyes on Curtis' workshop tucked away next to the organic raspberry patch at the bottom of his garden. The next week was the greatest learning experience of my time to that date. Thankfully I've had another since with Pete in Massachusetts in his original 1790's chair makers house.

So what made both classes special? Quality. When I say that, I mean not only the level of expertise of both my teachers. But the materials provided, tools used and definitely the depth of the experience had whilst learning. The experience itself is as important as the final product, being the chair. The purpose built workshop in Tennessee overlooking the valley of Jonesborough or Pete's workshop looking out to the ruins of the Rocky Brook Chair makers workshop across the way, both were inspirational places to experience making windsor chairs

Today when I began to teach my first Windsor Chair making class here in Kyneton with Mark and Tony from Melbourne, I knew that I wanted them to be just as inspired as I was ...... and still am! I also know that they should expect to have as close to my U.S. experiences as I can provide and so that is just what I have set out to achieve.

Crisp Maple baluster turnings. U.S. Yellow Pine seat blanks and best yet, green spindle and crest rail stock which has been split straight from the log. In fact the 5 foot long crests that I split out of the log a few days back for the class were as close to the white oak ones from Tennessee as I could hope for.

Here's a snap of one of the splits about half way through. I finished with six good crests out of the quarter of the log that I split.

These are the two crests from the split above. Beautiful, split straight grain. I'm almost tempted to do away with the strap to bend them!

And here are the guys on the horses, shaving spindles in the fresh country air and warm Autumn sun under the skillion of the workshop. No, it's not an 18th century chair makers workshop, but it's as close as you can get here without jumping a plane half way round the globe. Before the next class at the end of the month, the rest of the fruit trees and the veggie gardens will be planted and the cottage in the background should be a good deal further along too. A quality view to finish the package.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

A Sterling Rocker

Going through my photos last night in preparation for the class this weekend I came across some photos of a rocking chair that I had seen in the Sterling Historical Society House in Massachusetts. The curator of the Society had heard that Pete Galbert had moved into Newton Burpee's original chair makers house and had approached Pete while I was there and offered for us to come by and be shown their collection of chairs.

It was an amazing collection of chairs all made by local chair makers stretching back to the late 1700's, ( there were apparently nearly 40 chair makers in that little region alone ) including a couple of original Burpee chairs too. But in amongst it all was something that I had never seen in person.

This little rocking chair. Interesting design and some very finely applied line details too. But the one hint that all was not as it seemed was the secondary round mortise hole just right of the left arm stump. Surely a chair maker of this calibre wouldn't be that far out with his drilling, or send out a chair with a big hole in the seat.

But 30 seconds later all became apparent as the curator had 'transformed' it into this, a rocking babies cradle. Very impressive. Quite simply the right side of the chair extended out from a sliding rabbet joint. The crest rail then lifted out and was fitted into two round tapered mortises, including the strange hole in the seat, becoming the front 'fence.' Don't know if this would pass government safety tests these days. You might have more of your baby out of the thing than in it!

It was a very cleverly thought out piece with all of his joins hidden amongst gouged details in the seat or turning details in the stiles. Above all else though, would have been the time and effort that would have gone into making such a piece as opposed to a standard rocker. A chair like this would surely have been a special order as making pieces like this regularly would not have been economical. It was a great thing to see and all of these chairs were good food for thought in firming up my design for a new chair. More on that soon.

Mont De Lancey - Part 2

The weekend before last Lisa, Tom and I packed up the car and my ute with half the workshop and made the journey across to Mont De Lancey in Wandin for the Wood Steel and Steam Festival. It was a great little country style fair, with steam engines chugging away all day, the sound of Blacksmiths hammering at the anvil and brilliant wood turners demonstrating their skills at the lathe. In amongst it I set up my bench and shavehorse and talked all things Windsor until I was blue in the face. 

 Also on board was Dad with his Timberking Sawmill, which drew a huge crowd every time he fired it up. He milled a stack of logs for some of the locals.

There was face painting for the kids, great food and coffee and of course the spectacular Mont De Lancey homestead and out buildings too, which is just like the original owners walked out the door over a hundred years ago. Read about it here -

We had some great feedback over the course of the weekend and Tom entertained as only he knows how, sitting confidently at the shavehorse and wielding a spokeshave like it grew out of his arm! He even had a good little dialogue going, describing how the spokeshave was cutting his spindle. He's got a bit of size to him, so a few people were very surprised when they learnt he was only 4. With a couple of courses booked and an order for a chair, perhaps I'll put him on the payroll!

Since returning from the U.S. last year I've been trying to get a copy of Pete Galbert's chair makers adze made up by a blacksmith, as I don't have a forge of my own. I'd contacted a few smiths but had trouble even getting a response half the time. I had an old rabbit trap setter, which was the ideal blank. With this in hand, I took it over to Dietmar Fleckhammer ( great blacksmiths name hey? ) in the blacksmiths shop, with some scale patterns I took while in Pete's workshop. No problem said Dietmar and before I knew it he was back with the modified setter now in the form of a adze.

 Brilliant. Over the course of the weekend Dietmar also whipped up a couple of sets of hold downs too, again in the blink of an eye. 

We couldn't help ourselves and end up buying a set of his fireplace tools too, knowing that the little house we are about to move into, has open fires. Deitmar is a very skilled and competent Blacksmith and has his shop set up at Mont De Lancey. It's well worth a visit. 

Keep an eye out for the Festival next year, it's a great weekend and good to support the small groups and communities that run them. I often get asked how to sharpen edge tools with curved blades so next entry I'll be showing how I sharpened and turned and fitted a handle to the adze.