June went by in a flash and I realised I hadn’t written anything here all month. It’s mowing season so a lot of my time at the moment is taken up with scythes – find out about it on Scytherspace, my mowing blog.
In between that though, there has been time for some making. At the start of the month I was hired by Charlie Whinney to make a set of his steam-bent chairs for Brantwood House. It was four very busy days working with table saw, thickness and a host of other power tools on dry wood – quite a change from my usual quiet chairmaking days on the shavehorse.
I’ve also been making some rakes, refining my techniques, making tools and researching designs ready for a wooden rake course I’m running in September. I’m hoping to visit a couple of museums later this week, on my way up to teach scything in Inverness, so I can measure the rakes in their collection and add a Scottish pattern to my repertoire.
And finally I got round to making a leather sheath for my firmer chisel. It’s a lovely socketed chisel but too big to go in the roll with the other chisels so now it can live safely in my tool box or on my belt and will hopefully become an everyday workhorse tool.
I wanted to learn how to weave the willow seat that I had found on the chairs made by David Drew. They had aged beautifully during their time in the Castle Drogo cafe and worn extremely well so I knew it was a perfect material.
In another nice turn to this story, shortly after moving to Cumbria, I met basketmaker Phil Bradley through mutual friends. Phil had first learned his basketmaking from David Drew and was interested in the seating himself so I lent him my chair to examine and organised for myself and Paul Girling, another green wood chairmaker, to go up to Phil’s workshop to learn to weave them together.
We had a fantastic weekend at Phil’s workshop in Cockermouth talking about chair design, basketmaking and craft in general while he took us through the steps of weaving the seat with white willow.
It was a learning experience for him too and, though he had worked out the main elements of the seat, there were certain points that we only figured out as we did them. Several times Phil was impressed with how David had designed the seat to give it strength and comfort while making the weaving process efficient.
The finished seat is neat and has a clean look with just enough decoration given by the waling weave at front and back which also gives the seat the strength it needs. The white of the willow contrast and complements brilliantly the black of the pickled oak and gives the a really modern look bringing the story very much into the present.
After last year’s success, Charlie Whinney and I again ran an intensive steambending workshop for four furniture makers demonstrating the amazing possibilities in bending solid wood using steam.
My role is to organise the workshop and ensure that everything runs smoothly, keeping the steamers hot and providing the right wood in perfect condition for each demonstration or practical session. With the benefit of what I learned last time, this course was a lot easier as I had arranged the room more efficiently and could predict what Charlie would want next.
The course progressed through an experiment into the bending capacity of different timbers through the use of jigs, formers and freebending to create curves, spirals, fans, twists and even knots in green oak and ash. Sunday again saw us working to create a unique steambent chair with each student. I have enough steambending experience now that, despite the busy atmosphere and speed needed to achieve this, I can keep calm while working to keep everything on course, assist students with their chairs and help them with personalising the basic form into their own sculptural piece of furniture.
I was expecting plenty of response to the post “In praise of the homegrown shavehorse” which is a good thing as I want to encourage folk to debate and think about what they’re doing. I thought the first reply warranted a longer reply than is possible in the comments section.
‘r francis’ wrote:
Your ignorance amazes me. The original mule design was by Brian Boggs and made to do the job better and to help him with a back problem. Look up what he designed and how it works.
Both designs have their place. The differences are as apparent as the differences in the finished products made with them
Actually, I was aware that Brian Boggs originally designed a sawn-wood shavehorse but just to check it hadn’t changed I followed your advice and looked it up here. Below you can see the design alongside a picture of me on my own shavehorse for comparison.
The site boasts the innovative new features of this “hybrid design” but I am at a loss to see any that aren’t present in my own horse; the “full adjustability” in the cross piece and support heights, easy assembly (I don’t need the adjustable wrenches), extended work support and compactness are all there. No, I don’t have a “padded genuine leather seat” but I then I can easily add a cushion if I feel that way inclined and I’ve seen plenty of examples of horses with wide comfortable seats carved into them. If your horse has a narrow seat then use a wider plank like the little girl on the ‘clydesdale’. As for the idea that the foot crossbar “requires the user to fully extend a leg in order to get a good grip on a work-piece” this is simply a matter of ensuring you have the support and cross piece set to the appropriate positions for the size of the work – the kayak stringer I’m making in the picture is only ¾” but it’s securely held and my legs are comfortably bent. To avoid back problems you need a device that is made to suit your body size which is only possible if you make it yourself.
My main point though, which you seem to have missed, is that in making my shavehorse I used a whole lot of greenwood working techniques that I wouldn’t have learned by buying or making the mule, skills which are then essential for going on to actually produce chairs and other products from parts made on the shavehorse. What those finished products look like is down to the skill of the user, not the design of the workbench.