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.