Saturday, September 22, 2012

Mr. Natural and the Evolution of a Design

The artist, R. Crumb, his well known character, "Mr. Natural", was the initial inspiration for the design of a rocking chair that I built a few years ago.  I like how the depictions of the flowing bearded man often show him stepping out with purpose, and he seems in good balance and unfettered as he plows through his path in life.  If one reads the stories that accompanied the character, it is shown that people relied upon him for his clear pronouncements, yet there is also something a bit quizzical about the man, one should often expect the unexpected.  His shape of stability and assuredness in motion is what I also wanted embodied in the chair, along with the quality of being something unique, but with limited need for deliberation when viewed, the appearance being fundamentally solid and self explanatory.  If the curves are graceful as an accompaniment, then I would be thankful.  I desired a chair meant to be a rocker in total purpose from the beginning, not something that evolved to that from a previous history of being solely a stationary chair on four legs or other, such that often confuses me with the mixed messages of both rigidity and motion at the same time.

I liked the first edition of Mr. Natural out of some very rich Walnut, and so did a few clients of mine, but it was a bit experimental and eventually encountered some technical problems.  Perhaps those that also work with wood can pretty easily figure out what those were?  I wasn't oblivious to the possibility of a degree of failure resulting, but the form was compelling to me, and in the least wanted to test it out.  Following the advice of another R. Crumb character to, "Keep on truckin'", I thought the basic concept was worth pursuing, and went on to the next chair edition, also in Walnut, with one major change that I thought would alleviate the problem that arose in the previous design, along with a few smaller proportional ones. This model, seen below, also found a good reception, and I have made a number of them for people.   It further fulfilled my hope that a comfortable chair would likely reduce much in the way of hesitation from purchasing a somewhat expensive object gleaned from a certain comic book character, were one astute enough to notice the resemblance.  Crumb's Mr. Natural is a man of wit, intrigue, and charm, but sometimes his associations can be of a somewhat dubious nature.  Perhaps it is somewhat like the Buddha himself, who after achieving enlightenment, is said to have preferred the company of hell raisers and drunkards, over the more restrained type folk that seem more commonly met....

For a few years I went with the second design in the series, but responding to the
comment that my furniture sometimes tends to be a bit heavy, I thought less about the original inspiration and proceeded to refine the design to a lighter in visual weight chair. Most recently produced from some Cherry that I had stored for many years, and originally rescued from pulverization at a pulp mill, the results are shown below.  I was pretty happy with the way things turned out, and so is the dear woman from the next town over that commissioned me to make her a rocker of my own choosing, and now owns the chair.  Her most recent comment that when sitting down in the chair, she simply does not feel like getting up, pleases me to no end.  Success is sweet with new designs.

Still, wanting to see if I could take the chair to a further lighter weight, the results are shown below, the latest in the series  Particularly the front and rear legs are a lighter scale, as are the remaining parts of the chair to a smaller degree.  It was only a couple of days ago that I delivered the finished chair to it's owner, commissioned for her as a total surprise, an unexpected gift from a generous friend.  The wood is my local Chestnut, a material that I have come to much value and favor in recent work.  The recipient  of the rocking chair is a member of a large household comprised of three generations, from grandmother to still young grandchildren, so I expect the chair will get much use, and henceforth, remembrances will accompany it through the ages.  It all seems quite natural.

Thanks for viewing my blog, your comments are welcomed.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Japanese Chestnut on the Lathe

Our Japanese Chestnut (Castanea crenata) is fairly resistant to the Chestnut blight fungus that devastated billions of trees in the United States, and where intensive efforts to find a prevention for the disease have to this day not been successful.  In Japan, our Chestnut is still quite abundant, the wood being a valuable timber, and the nuts an important food product.   It appears that although the Asian trees have the level of resistance, it is thought that either the Japanese or Chinese variety (different species) were in fact the culprits in introducing the parasite into the west, possibly either in some lumber or living trees that were imported.  A sad day that was, beginning the demise of an important timber from trees that had also been a source of food to natives and the early settlers.

Speaking of the wood's character, it is quite 'calm', a fairly light in weight hardwood that is yielding and relatively easy to work with.   With time, objects made from the wood take on a subdued but very pleasant honey color, giving a subtle quiet effect.  One of my favorite woods, and fortunate to have a local source for it.  I have made a wide range of different types of furniture with Chestnut, both of western and Japanese style inspiration.  I currently am building a rocking chair with the wood.  There can be some range in the quality of the material, the older trees with a tighter grain are the ones that yield the best lumber, with greater stability resulting as well. 

It occurs that many woodworkers have not had the opportunity to work with the wood, perhaps haven't much seen how it turns out when worked and polished up with a finish on it.  Both a clear oil and an urushi finish will give very pleasing results.

A tray or "obon" like this is very commonly used to serve tea, I suppose nearly every household will have one.  A fine wood for the lathe as well.  This chunk has an interesting swath of reddish color through it, something that I don't recall seeing much before.

I put this small item with it's stand of tig welded stainless out as part of an exhibition that I had of pieces for sale, something inexpensive to supplement the larger furniture work.  I was interested in seeing what reaction it might bring, to my mind a very lovely piece of wood in a useful form that most people can relate to, and last but not least, at a giveaway price.  "Buy it for almost nothing and I will give you the stand too".  I like to at least show one thing at a price that a shrewd person ought to pick up on right away, my contribution to the masses, so to speak.  I don't recall there being any reaction really, folks barely looked at it. It is hard to figure, sometimes, and a bit disappointing.  Still, Illusions can inspire...

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Gone, but Not Forgotten

The folks that ordered this rocking chair finally came by the shop to pick it up.  It's been a few weeks since I completed it, and could have delivered it to them the next day, but picking it up was their preference, and the fellow is a shokunin himself and has a truck.  He wrapped it with cardboard, even carried it out of the shop, leaving me feeling odd and thinking it was a first for that.  I would have used moving blankets.  Only the next town south where his residence is, but it saved me some effort.  I never did see the location where the chair would be used, something that always interests me.  Japanese houses of a certain period do tend to be alike, so I can easily imagine.

The Cherry wood turned out quite attractive with the Egoma or sometimes called Perilla oil that I now mainly use for my finishing.  It does bring out a lot of color, and is quite a strong finish for a natural oil, something that is desirable in our relatively high humidity environment during certain times of the year.   The back support laths are made from a wood called Sen, and having the highly figured fiddle pattern is not uncommon with the species.  It is sometimes mistakenly referred to as a type of Japanese Ash, having a similar color and grain, but being an unrelated species.   The design I am pretty pleased with, though I am continuing my attempts to lighten up the chair with the current edition that is presently in the works, this time made from Chestnut, a wood that I have been using a lot of recently.  There was an earlier comment that the Windsor type side stretcher is not needed for strength,  and perhaps within that thought is also the possibility that it is incongruous with the rest of the design?  At this point I don't mind it, more think that it adds a small element of interest.  I enjoy seeing something on a chair that touches with earlier eras, when the overall concept may be of a contemporary nature.  The illustrious history of chair design evolution speaks a lot to me.

The rocking chair origin can only be traced back to North America during the early 18th century, though rocking cradles appeared much earlier, as is evident in paintings.  This type chair soon appeared in Great Britain shortly there after.  Perhaps one of the very few examples of early American made chair design influencing Great Britain, if that really was the case.  Few if any of the original makers saw the chair as something requiring further thought as to design, based on the fact that the chair had blades on the bottom and was meant to move.  Regular chairs were simply made with the usual straight legs shortened, to which the curved blades were attached, something that is still quite commonly done today.  I have done a number of them that way as well myself, but something always bothered me about what often appears as a rather stiff form stuck onto curves.  It is as if the chair has a case of rigor mortis!   To my mind, designing a complete chair where the form can carry through from and to the curvilinear parts on the bottom, and it also has some visual cohesiveness with the movement aspect, it makes more sense.  My rocking chairs over the more recent years, without the blades, there would be no safe way to sit in them without the risk of crashing over backwards or forwards.  In the lesser completed form, certainly not a gentleman's chair, or something acceptable to a lady that might easily become flustered!   I think of chairs as offering the place for the input of a great amount of subtlety, depending on the intended manner of use and location, and from that gives the possibilities of great practical seating.  It is something to hold the interest of the craftsman woodworker throughout a lifetime of work.

Some folks have asked me to post photos of the completed chair, and I welcome any comments.  Thanks for viewing my blog.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Some Old Work Revisited

A customer of mine asked me to refinish a table that I had made for him a number of years ago, his granddaughter had worked it over pretty good.  It was a bit of an unusual project at the time to build it, and I had somewhat of a hard time approaching it with the usual degree of concentration.  He was using a Mahogany table that the carpenter who built his house made, and though the material was quite nice wood, it was too narrow and the base was rather heavy and ill proportioned to the top.  He asked me to do something with it, no specifics required, whatever I wanted.

I didn't have any Mahogany and it is hard to obtain.  I did have some Maple in the length required however, and it was handy and well seasoned,  so I just widened the top with it and changed the overall shape to something that I thought was pleasing, and also used some of the lighter wood for the base, mixed with Black Acacia and Walnut for the woven pattern.  I'm not so into racing stripes, and a lot of thought really didn't go into the project, I simply produced it rather quickly as a priority, and it pretty much came from nowhere but the time.  No study, pulling out old patterns, or sketching.  My customer is a casual guy, owns a great French restaurant, from which he has mostly retired now.  His lifestyle is relaxed and at his own pace.  He likes the more unique aspects of the table, I guess could be said, and it gets treated pretty rough, used for both dining and as a work surface.  The chairs were a later addition that he asked me to do.

It's enjoyable for me to see the table now and then, he lives close by my shop.  It does make me wonder what I had in mind when I produced it?  I do recall thinking in an intuitive way about what he would like, and also what I could do expediently.  I might want to try and develop the idea of the wood weaving during another time.  I was a little concerned regarding the durability of the strips, they are quite thin, but so far everything has held up without any problem at all.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Seat Shaping Thoughts

I've added a final short summation to the earlier videos on shaping a wooden seat.  I hope that in the series, there may be some useful information for people wishing to do similar work.  I am interested in learning if anyone finds what I have shown here to be helpful within their own approach to chair making, or what other methods that they may have found useful to produce seats.  A bit of a choppy edited vid, sorry!   Thanks for viewing.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Final Seat Shaping

The last in my three part video series on how I shape wooden seats. Thanks for watching, and I hope that there may be some useful practical aspect for someone, contained in the methods shown.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Travishing a Chair Seat

Step 2 in the process of shaping a wooden chair seat, following adzing. Using "travishing" irons here, a tool that evolved with the trade of Windsor chair making in Great Britain.  Produced by blacksmiths, the degree of curve in the irons varied, and the handles were likely accordingly made by the users.  The one I most use in the video has a handle that I shaped to fit an old iron that I found.  The other is complete as I discovered it, also at a second hand tool dealers in Buckinghamshire.  Quite efficient for cleaning up the adze effects, and for more refined shaping of the contours, used both across and parallel with the grain.  Great tools, albeit requiring a degree of physical effort to accomplish the task.  I have no thought as to what might work with better efficiency, without going to some electric grinding or sanding devices.  I do enjoy keeping certain traditions alive, and have used these tools for many hundreds of seats.

Still one step to go for the final shaping, using Japanese tools.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Adzing Again

The origins of my own chair making are much derived from the couple of years that I spent with two of the last companies in Great Britain still doing traditional work.   Both learning the methods and being immersed in the atmosphere of the old chair making town, it afforded me the great opportunity to drink deeply from the brilliant history of woodworking within that country.  The "bottomers" adze for roughing out seats is still the method that I use today.  Merely picking up my adze gives me a tingle of pleasure, it feels good in my hands, and it conveys a very practical use, albeit somewhat remote from the more mechanical devices in broader application today, designed for removing wood for a similar purpose, with the loud noise and dust that they also create, and possibly being powered by the nuclear juice.  This particular seat will be for a new rocking chair design, currently in the works for a customer.

With English all wooden chairs, particularly Windsors, having been made predominantly from hardwoods, the seats more often than not, Elm, having an initial tool for seat shaping, where a lot of physical power could be applied through, as well still enabling a degree of control, the adze with the longer handle and curved wide face became the tool of choice.  During the era of segregated tasks being done by specialists, working with the adze became a separate profession in itself within the chair shops.  I'm not sure that it was such an enviable one however, as the work with the tool can be hard on your back if done for extended hours, and there also is the degree of danger working with the sharp instrument.  Carelessness can creep in with fatigue.  I can only marvel at the fellow in the old photo, and the effort it took to adze out the many seats behind him.  Perhaps early 20th century?  Note his protective leather leggings.  It's a sweet looking adze shape that he is using there as well.  Reading about the history of chair making in Great Britain, injuries weren't so uncommon within the bottomer's trade.  "No toes Neville", is one bloke still remembered in the literature.  In the very least, I still need to get one of those caps.

The seat in the video is from a local species of Cherry found in my area.  Somewhat more difficult to adze compared to the more resilient Elm, going against the grain can blow out divots deeper than you want to go, or lift up sections beyond the edges of the desired outer profile within the seat blank.  A sharp adze and caution as you go with the right touch, will give the best results.  It took me a fair amount of practice initially to acquire the skill, my body learning to develop the control to lift up a shaving and follow it through to complete a pass.  With the random striking here and there without enabling the cleaner more even furrows, common amongst folks learning to do the work,  the result is far less productive in terms of  more even contours, and what does result in leading up to the next steps in shaping, also comes at a slower pace.  Experience makes for the better ability.  The adze is indeed a fine tool, one where once you have learned it's use and potential, keeping it in practice is something that seems to come along with it.  I wonder how many of us are still out there using it today?

I follow the adze work with both English and Japanese hand tools for completing the seat, which I hope to also show in a video.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Old Friends and Windsor Chairs Again!

I recently made contact with some old friends, a couple that I had met on the airplane when moving to England to do chair making within the wonderful traditions that exist there for the craft.  Mr and Mrs Sano were also moving to England to live for awhile,  Mr Sano is a professional photographer, and more often than not can be seen with his camera in his hand. It had been thirty-five years since I last had seen or spoken to these very kindly and otherwise enjoyable people.   They had asked me to make two dining chairs for them after we did get together again, and they visited my shop one day last year.

The Sano's current dining arrangement is a mix of an antique English table with chairs of different designs, all purchased after they had mover back to Japan and found in a shop here.  The chairs I would be building for them would be replacing two of the existing ones, that were to continue finding use in another part of the residence.

The specifics of the design were to come up with something similar to some early work that the couple saw and liked in my portfolio, and that the choice of wood be American Black Walnut.  They wanted a relatively simple chair without arms.  I took the liberty of adding some Japanese Cherry for the back laths.  I have always liked the combination of Walnut and Cherry, thinking the grain and colors of the two woods play off of each other well.  Also, to my eye, the Cherry tends to lighten up the visual heaviness of the dark Walnut. The two woods will age gracefully together.  The photos below are of one of the Sano's new chairs, a commission I immensely enjoyed thinking about and making, for some folks that I consider good friends.

The Sanos picked up the chairs on a beautiful weather day.  We went up to an airy soba noodle restaurant to have lunch, at the base of some mountains nearby. An old temple is also there to explore, with a waterfall directly behind it that sends out a chilly mist.  The mountain snow is melting now and the streams are running full.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Working away from the shop

As mentioned in some other posts, I have a side work activity doing tree removals.  I live in an area where a large portion of land is forested, mostly Pine woods.   Most of the removals are around homes in the wooded areas, but sometimes also at a city location, very diverse places really, one of the reasons that I enjoy it.  Seeing some areas that I normally wouldn't get the opportunity to visit and often speaking with the residents there, working with some pleasant and highly skilled people, the challenges of the heavy work, all things that add up to a nice sometimes change from being by myself in my workshop.  Still working with wood, with a totally different goal, makes for a good contrast from the rather finely detailed aspects of furniture making, and at the end of a work day, the amount of accomplishment is often determined by a pile of logs stacked up, requiring a diversity of physical actions to achieve it, both on the ground and above.  A lot of consideration is sometimes involved in the process as well, different situations come up and there are risks that require being confronted.  It can make for some very interesting and exciting work.

Most of the tree work is aided by a crane, a great device that often allows a safer and more practical approach to removing trees. The vid here, I made with my helmet camera, and it exemplifies a typical day, part of a job cutting about eighty trees on a property to be sold, and where a recent snow had caused some damage to an adjoining house when a few trees toppled.   It gets especially interesting when the wind picks up about 25 minutes into the vid.  The wind is a truly powerful force, and something to be very well considered and respected when working with trees. 

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A pretty girl and her jewelry box

I was fortunate to have an interesting commission come my way not too long ago, and from the states.  A friend asked me to make a jewelry box for his young daughter, to be shown to her upon it's arrival, but actually will be given to her to use when she is older....perhaps turning 18?  I considered it a thoughtful and loving gift.  The order also came at a time when I really needed the work, due to the earthquake and consequences that had resulted shortly before.  Thanks, Paul!

I had been keeping a small supply of what is called Enju wood here, in my possession for at least fifteen years, but had never used any of it.  It is a legume, not so unlike Black Acacia and in the same family I believe, but is a bit softer and a warm brown color.  No previous experience working with the species, but I knew it by reputation as a material sometimes used by an old occupation of woodworkers in Japan, called "sashimono".  These are people that specialized in making smaller items in wood, from scroll cases to certain types of furniture, most frequently in a traditional style, but in many instances also having unique detail embellishments, often very intricately made articles that required a major investment in time to produce.  The level of skill and fine degree of execution is inspiring if one cares to look into it.  There are fine examples to be seen, though sadly, the demand for such goods is in limited supply today, and the number of people still involved in the trade, now few. I suspected that Enju is fairly easy to work and can take on fine crisp details, which turned out to be the case. I can only imagine that the color of the wood will become deep and rich with time and use.

I enjoyed this project immensely, from the initial conceptualizing to the finish execution.  The design is pretty simple, but there is some subtlety, as in the slightly curving sides from top to bottom.  It wasn't without a degree of difficulty to make, working within the limited allowable size, and I was quite pleased with the way it turned out.  My customer seems happy too, sent a photo of Whylie that I love, taken on her birthday!  It was a lucky coincidence that the jewelry box arrived shortly before.  The box is really not very large, but Whylie being next to it makes it appear so.  I am confident that in a few years, the proportions will be better matched!  I do hope that she will get many years of enjoyable use from what I made for her.  In thirty or forty years, I would very much like to see how it has aged....Whylie as well, alas.

Sunday, April 1, 2012


Chestnut is one of my favorite locally available species of wood to work with.  It is not so hard as many other typical furniture making woods, a nice change from using Walnut and Cherry, for example.  The species has a certain accommodating resiliency, is quite stable, and over time, ages to a very attractive warm homey color.  With use and care, it will take on a nice patina as well, one beyond what the oil finishing process can initially impart, Either with an oil or urushi finish, the results can be very attractive.  The grain pattern is bold apparent, but not overwhelming, compared to what is often found in Keyaki (Zelkova).  There is a feeling of humbleness and practicality with the material, and that coincides with the diverse locations where it can be seen growing in and around the area where I reside.  Large trees sometimes become available to be sawn into slabs to dry for later use, but as is often the case with other woods as well, finding logs without defects can prove difficult.  Age imparts the welcomed size, but it also gives time for rot or other undesirable effects to develop, and some types of boring insects frequently will target the wood.  Fortunately, Japan has not been affected by the great Chestnut blight disease, that greatly eliminated the species in other parts of the world

Since the great earthquake and tsunami in northern Japan, I have continued to work in my shop.  Though commissions came to a near standstill and it was a major disruption, I did have some requested pieces to complete over the last year, the photos shown here being representative of some of it, and with the thankfulness as well, to have such a fine Chestnut wood to provide for the making, for myself and the people that asked me to make furniture for them.

The upper photo of four chairs is for a location that I never saw.  A lady looked through my portfolio and liked some older Windsor styles that I had done many years earlier, and notified that, "Simpler is better", was her philosophy, something that I don't so much subscribe to, generally liking a certain degree of subtle ornamentation on furniture.  I was in agreement in this instance, however, as doing the work for a 'mystery spot' necessitated restraint.  The client also specified wanting a comfortable wooden seat, as opposed to using upholstery.  Those were pretty much the extent of her specifics, once again with the nod to something not dissimilar to the earlier work photos that I had shown her.  My 'hunch' of what she would like, some inspiration from the wood, and what I wanted to make, is what remained to help with the direction of things.  After sending her the completed chairs, she responded with a most pleasing note, and a box of delicious mikan, a type of Japanese fruit similar to tangerines, and available during the winter from some warmer areas in the south.  Eating mikan during the winter is a national pastime.  It is something that can help take your mind off the cold, and what a relentless cold winter it was!  Also, the fruit is a good source of vitamin C.  Stay healthy to do more woodwork, is perhaps what she was wanting to say, along with her thanks.

The cushion seat chair as part of a dining set commission for a newly built small home, is shown with flat runners on the bottoms of the legs, essential added parts when using this type of seating on the tatami mat.  Without the lower flat connecting pieces, the legs would be damaging to the mat, causing indentations and possible tearing.  With them, the weight is spread out with no edges that will grab, and the chairs slide easily over the surface.  For wooden or carpeted surfaces, I produce this design without the bottom runners.  For people that might find it helpful to have their chairs be able to be moved with more minimal resistance, the runners can be incorporated for any surface on which the seating is used, acting as glides. The arm on this chair is rather difficult to make.  There is a dip in the midway portion of the sloping arm surface, between where one's elbow and forearm make contact when sitting, yet the wood thickness remains consistent.   As opposed to the simpler alternative of merely being flat, the curve at that point makes for more comfortable resting of a person's arm, and also adds a certain visual welcoming softness, to my eye.  Done in this way complicates the joinery process, and the design requires a number of ordered steps from bandsawing to hand shaping, to give the results that I want.  A lot of care and control is required to give the smooth transition of lines and what will best provide comfort.  The method is my own concept, I have never seen similarly done.

I am certainly one of the more fortunate ones, to still have the ability to live and work as before the disaster struck Japan, where so many people suffered the tragic losses of family, home, and their place of occupation. For many individuals, returning to what had previously been their normal way of life is still far from being realized, or the hopes to do so will never be completely fulfilled.  What particularly strikes me in this post, is the strong contrast between the last two photos.  The upper one shows a hopefulness for the future, the ability to find usefulness and enjoyment within our surroundings and in the way we live, while the lower photo shows a kind of ultimate destruction, with everything gone and bewilderment towards what lies ahead.  Both can be the realities of life.