Sunday, 23 February 2014

Hard Yards

Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.
Theodore Roosevelt

This week we ran another Continuous Arm Chair course. Isobel, Fletcher, James, Jane, Peter and Stephen all spent 7 days turning rough English Ash, Sugar Pine and Maple into finely crafted Windsor chairs. I'm fairly sure they were all rightly proud of what they achieved…... and they should be. 

Make no mistake, it is hard work but it's certainly worth doing. Well done to you all.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

A natural choice

As a plumber, I make a good wood worker, as someone who grew up on a farm, I make a pretty good chair. I can work with sheet metal, weld and even tinker with a motor or two. What I'm saying is I know a little bit about a fair bit of stuff, but I'm no authority on any particular subject.

So when it comes to restoring our old farm house in Tylden, I'm certainly no expert, but I believe I have a fair grasp on the direction we should be heading in sympathetically repairing the house to a point where it will reasonably last another hundred years and not look like it's been regurgitated from an Ikea catalogue.

As you may have seen last year, we have renovated the rear of the house, namely the kitchen and laundry rooms, repairing the damage left by 40 odd years of neglect and a tsunami of termites. With that structural work complete, we had to decide on the cladding for the walls. Simple, eh? There were weatherboards on it before, so just replace them with weatherboards.

Well it's not as simple as that . Yes, the main house still has the original hardwood rough sawn boards, as do some of the internal walls too. But trying to source hardwood square edged boards today proved to be near enough to impossible. It seemed every hardware store or chain I contacted either didn't not stock such a thing, or worse had not heard of such a product. Even sawmills in the area don't cut them.

It seemed that all that was available was pre-primed pink coloured Baltic Pine weatherboards, Western Red Cedar weatherboards or worse still fibre cement look alike boards. It seemed 'hard-wood' must have been too much like 'hard- work.'

Here is a snap of the original internal weatherboards that were uncovered when we removed a termite damaged original cupboard in the kitchen. The same aged boards cover the entire main house. They are as strong as the day they were nailed on. I certainly did not want flimsy baltic on the walls, nor cedar. It just was not the right choice. But I did want it to be clear to people who saw the house in it's restored state, what had been restored and what was original. To have a defined difference between the old and the new or repaired. Not pastiche.

So after a bit of um-ing and ah-ing I decided I'd look into natural or wany edged boards. I'd always liked the look of those sorts of weatherboards, having first seen them as a kid when Dad took me to Bendoc in East Gippsland to visit an old sawmiller he knew there. Jack Mustard was one of the last old time millers in the area and the side of his house was clad in these rough sawn Mountain Ash boards. The natural edge of which formed a wavy but interesting pattern and looked sort of like they had grown out of the wall.

With a bit of persistence  I found a mill in Gippsland that was radially sawing natural edged boards and we secured four logs pre-sawn and ready for delivery. A few days later the logs arrived all pre-sawn and really to be opened up with the chainsaw.  

As you can see from this photo, when the end is cut off the log, you are left with a log full of perfectly quarter sawn hardwood boards. They are then snapped off a centre core, formed in the milling process. This waste core or heart wood, is about 70mm round and with the exception of the pieces cut from the end of the logs, is the only waste product in the process.

Here's the waste core from the log above. And below is an example of the actual weatherboard material  formed by the process. As you can see, with the method used to radially saw the logs every single board has to be quarter sawn, which means minimal shrinkage and visually no cupping or warping of the boards, which is prevalent in Pine boards, as the they are flat or rift sawn.

And here is the comparison section of new boards. Similar look, but easily identifiable as new by virtue of the their wany edge.

We haven't been out there this week as we are waiting for the new windows to arrive before we can continue to fit the weather boards.

That and the fact that Bern and I are running a 6 person Continuous Arm Chair course too. It's day 7 tomorrow and judging by the quality of the chairs the guys have produced so far, it promises to come to a great conclusion tomorrow afternoon.            

Wednesday, 19 February 2014


A few weeks back, Uncle Stan, Dad's older brother had been in touch and suggested that he come up to Tylden to cast his metal detectors over the house site and surrounds to see what he might find. Sounded like a great idea to me and so we arranged to head out tot he house a few days later.

                                                                    Part of Stan's kit.

On the day, Stan arrived with his detecting kit and ran me through the basics before he let me loose. I'll be honest, I have never given metal detectors much thought before and had no idea just how accurate and sensitive these things were.

They can not only tell you whether what's in the ground is most likely rubbish or valuable but they also sound a differing tone for more precious metals and a whole host of other indicators to put you in touch with what lies beneath.

So after about 40mins of scratching around a large pile of dirt that had been excavated from around the house, I decided that I'd have a look around the footings on the North side of the house. Within 30 seconds the machine starting beeping furiously. Not the dull tones associated with scrap steel or rubbish but a higher pitched beep. A scratch with a small mattock and a single coin rolled out of the dirt.

Last year I found an 1876 One Penny piece about 2 metres away inside the building and my first thoughts were that it was another penny. But when I picked it up, it was nothing that I recognised. Got to love Google. So when I entered '1 Sen piece' into the search engine, I quickly found out that I had an 1873 Japanese coin in my hand.

Yes, I know it's not gold, but it was a pretty damn good find in my books. Question is how did it get there? I knew that there was a large Chinese population in Victoria during the gold rush, but I've not heard much about Japanese being in the area at that time. Question is, was it dropped there over a hundred years ago or was it more likely that it was a WWII souvenir, bought back by a returned serviceman? I guess I'll never know.

Amongst the other 'stuff' we turned up that morning before the heat beat us, the oil cover off a stationary engine, the tire valve cover off a vintage car, a toy tractor, three old axe heads that had been used as wedges and a couple of horse shoes. No Welcome Stranger nuggets, but the Japanese coin was gold to me. Thanks Stan.

Sunday, 16 February 2014


You may remember Carol and Larry who came to the workshop to make a couple of perches last year. Carol had worked for some time with Dickie Blackman, well regarded as the best English cottage furniture maker in Australia at one time. As I made mention of at the time, Dickie's chairs were more often than not seated with natural woven rush, also commonly known as Kabungi ( or Cumbungi depending on who you ask! ).

When woven well, rush seating makes for a strong, comfortable and good looking seat on a chair, but as with so many traditional trades, crafts and skills these days, few people remain who are able to effectively work with this raw product. Fortunately Carol is one of those few, as she was taught by Dickie whilst working with him.

Last year Carol, Larry and I agreed that come summer we would find a suitable dam full of the stuff and cut a pile of it for weaving rush seats. So about a month ago, Carol let me know that she had found a suitable dam full of rush just out of Ravenswood, near Bendigo. A day was arranged and the 3 of us headed out with sickles in hand and cut enough to fill the tray of my ute and Carol and Larry's trailer.

                                                                     Freshly cut Kabungi

Not just a case of wading in and cutting what ever is in front of you, Carol was very specific about the width and thickness of the rush and selected rush that was both suitable for large and small chairs. Bull rush ( with the flower head in tact ) was rejected as unsuitable due to it's size and thickness.

                              Here's Carol laying it out in the yard to dry in the hot summer sun.

Laid out properly and turned everyday the rush dried enough over 3 days to be bundled up and stood inside ready for use.

                                        Bundled up and in the workshop kitchen ready for use

The best part about the whole process? Carol will be one of over 25 tradespeople, artisans and crafters who will showcasing their skills at the Lost Trades Fair here in Kyneton on the 15th and 16th of March. So if you would like to watch how a traditional rush seat is woven, come along on that weekend and see Carol practising this skill along side a …...Cooper, Blacksmith, Shoemaker, Gunsmith, Locksmith, Stone Mason, Dry Stone Waller, Whip maker, Weavers and Spinners, Saddler, Tool Maker, Knife Maker, Chair maker ( yes that's me ), Potter, French Polisher, Fletcher, Hedge Layer, Letterpress typographer, Coach Builder, Harp Maker and Guitar and Ukelele Maker,  plus a few more to boot.

It promises to be a great weekend and we believe the start of something very special for the region and for the future of these trades.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

The next seating position

When I first saw the 3 legged Perch stool on Pete Galbert's blog a number of years ago I was impressed. Not just by the simple lines and design of the stool but that there were still people actively taking the Windsor form into the 21st century.

                                         One of three I'm making on commission at the moment.
                                                    Belgian Oak with blue milk paint.

A collaboration between Curtis Buchanan, Pete Galbert and Dr. Galen Cranz, the Perch reflects Cranz's viewpoint that in general the western tradition of sitting in right angled chairs is harmful to our physical health.

Cranz's  well respected book on the subject, The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body and Design, urges us not to sit still in the same position for a long period of time, with our spine slumped in a 'C' position, our pelvis crushed and our necks thrust forward.

                                       Number two, Spalted Black Heart Sassafras and Blackwood

In essence the Perch was designed to do exactly as it's name suggests, to perch upon with our knees lower than our pelvis, at about a 100 degree angle and our feet flat on the floor. She also mentions that rotating through several seating positions an hour during the day is a good way of minimising potential back issues arising from sitting still too long.

Just before Xmas I managed to aggravate an old back injury which put me out of action for over a week. While visiting a physiotherapist in Woodend I asked him his opinion on the best seating position for me whilst I recovered. He responded immediately, "The next one." Should have seen that coming...

                                                     Number three, Elm and Blackwood

I've made more Perches now than I can remember and taught dozens of others how to make them also. In fact we just finished a Perch course this afternoon with Helen and Fiona.

                                        Nice work girls, despite being a little camera shy……..

Generally speaking the average person will 'fit' a Perch well, with little adjustment to the length of the legs, unless they are exceptionally tall or short. So I have not had cause alter much with the Perch or to fix something that isn't broke as it were.

But last year a local graphic designer asked me about adapting a stool to suit his particular work platform. Richard liked the idea of the seating position of the perch but worked at desk which was set at the correct working height when he was standing. The brief: to provide a perch like seating position at a height which kept his line of sight identical to when he was standing. Also to utilise a 4 legged stool instead of 3. This would allow Richard to alternate between standing and being seated without having to adjust his workspace to suit.

In between other commissions and running numerous classes I've being playing around with the design and this week finally arrived at something that fits the bill. It took changing both the rake and splay of the legs and changing all the sight lines too but I feel that I've finally got it right. A tall four legged stool with the same raked seat angle as the perch, a foot rest at the correct height which keeps the knees bent at the right angle and the spine elongated and not crunched over.

                                  It certainly towers over the Perch from which it get's inspiration.

A quick trip down to Richard's with the prototype confirmed the results. Comfort, correct seating position and his line of sight was unchanged from standing to a seated position.

The prototype may not be the prettiest chair on the block and I'm sure I won't necessarily be making them in any great number, but it's been an interesting challenge which has me thinking about the chairs I make and the way we sit on them.