Thursday, 24 July 2014

The Where and The Why.

So after about 10 hours in the car I arrived just before dark at my next stop and the original reason for me coming to the States. To make a Brian Bogg's style 3 rung ladder back chair with Jeff Lefkowitz. Jeff has been teaching people how to make Brian's version of this iconic Appalachian chair for a number of years now and has made chairs with Brian, Pete Galbert and Curtis Buchanan in the past too. So his knowledge of chairmaking is quite broad.

Jeff  and his wife Cathy were also very kind in offering me a bed for the duration of the course which meant that travelling to the workshop of a morning was a short walk along a wooden boardwalk as opposed to a trip in a car. Jeff and Cathy have lived in their house on the outskirts of Strasburg, Virginia for over 30 years. It's set off the beaten track a little, on the side of a hill and surrounded by forrest on a couple of sides and farms on the others. 

Whitetail in the woods.

This young doe was and others like her, often with fawns at foot, were a common site. 

Tony left, Jeff right

Also on the course was Tony, from Great Barrington in Massachusetts, who had actually made a chair with Pete Galbert a week or so before I arrived in the States. Apparently Tony had found out about Pete after Jeff had told him that I was going to visit Pete when I arrived. It's great how these connections come about. After chatting for a day or so, I found Tony had a very similar eclectic range of careers like me, prior to getting involved with woodworking. And, after a few days with Tony in the workshop, it's obvious  he's made a good choice.

The first thing that is apparent when you walk into Jeff's shop is how well it's set out. Two rooms are connected by a large opening, with machinery in one and a bench and hand tools in the other. 

On the machinery side of things, there's pretty much everything you'd expect. Table saw, jointer/planer, thicknesser, mitre saw, drill press, bandsaw, lathe,  dust extraction etc etc. What is surprising is how well it all functions in the space it's contained in. It's done well.

Good low level chair makers bench.

The bench room is no different, a well thought out workbench with simple but effective wood racks on one wall, mass clamp storage through to sharpening stations and plenty of cupboard space. Handy rolling benches also offer good storage and effective clamping stations.

 Good food for thought in all of it.

The Beast in Question

Now about the chair. You might ask why a windsor chair maker would want to make a ladder back chair? No? Ok well I'm going to tell you anyway. Returning to the home of the chair I make reminds you instantly that Australia is not the ideal place to make American Windsors.

Our wood essentially just does not cut it. Before I get a barrage of emails telling me that I'm barking up the wrong tree ( pun intended ), let me expand on the last comment. 

We have timber that splits well and we also have timber that bends well, but a lot of those species, such as Blackwood, Mountain Ash, Celery Top Pine etc etc are not easy to come by, in that tall straight examples are generally locked up in National Parks or other areas that are no longer accessible. Other species that meet certain criteria well, often fail elsewhere, say by being too heavy. So that leaves bifurcated garden, paddock or street trees often as the only option. Not ideal chair wood. 

With 30" spindles this is not the sort of chair you want to make with short grain issues!

When you add into the equation the long lengths needed for parts like the crest rail for a Continuous Arm ( 1485mm/49-ish" ) or say spindles for a Comb Back arm ( 760mm/30" ) that's when problems arise. Even species like the Pin Oak ( Quercus Palustris ) which thankfully were planted in plentiful numbers, just aren't the same as the Red Oaks of the U.S.

Which brings me back to the 'why?'  I want to make traditional wooden chairs. Chairs with great joinery techniques, chairs without screws, nails or epoxy being the critical element holding them together. But having made Windsors for a few years now, chairs that are more suited to the timbers I have to work with. 

I've been making one of the more difficult traditional US Windsors for years now and dealt regularly with the limitations of our timber in making it well. The Continuous Arm for instance, is not the right chair for the place I live and work. 

Which is why when I return, I'll be offering Windsor chair courses and chairs that fit that criteria more closely. The ladderback is one of those chairs. No, it's not a Windsor, but 50mm/2" thick seat stock is also becoming difficult to source, so in a way it fits the bill even more so.

But it is also an exceptionally strong and well made chair, and the alterations Brian Boggs has made to the traditional design, mean that it is also exceptionally comfortable. It's not the end of me making and teaching the Continuous Arm Chair. It's just the beginning of making and teaching even better chairs. I hope you enjoy the journey.


  1. Glen,

    I think that is really what traditional makers where all about...working with the timbers they had available and producing the best product they could from it. I say don't fight it, work with it.

    I make British style planes with American beech. It isn't the same wood as the European planes. It has slightly different characteristics but it makes a good plane. I don't worry about the rest.

  2. Thanks Caleb, your spot on. That's was one of many light bulb moments from the trip.