Back to post-and-rung ladderback chairs this week, steam bending the back legs for a new design of chair. The ash was lovely to shave down with the drawknife and bent very easily after about an hour in my steamer.
Actually, this isn’t a new design of chair at all but it’s not seen in the UK. The chair is the style made by Jennie Alexander in her book ‘Make a chair from a tree’, which kicked off the greenwood working revival at the end of the 70′s. If you live in America, this is a very familiar chair as it’s the one taught by Drew Langsner on his chair making courses at Country Workshops but in the UK I’ve never seen one or heard of one being built by a green woodworker. Over here the most common chair designs are those from Mike Abbott’s books (based on chairs made by Philip Clissett in the 19th century) which don’t seem to be made in the US. It’s a lovely looking chair and I’m curious how it feels so I decided to make one to add to my range; I think it will make a terrific office or cafe chair.
The main difference of the Alexander chair is in the back legs. Rather than being curved over their whole length, there is a dramatic bend between the lower and upper slat to give the curve necessary to fit the sitters back. I think this also gives a very clean and stylish look to the chairs and I’m looking forward to seeing how comfortable it will be.
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.
A straight stail is essential for a good rake so it can slide through your hands while you work and and for balance. You can test a rake’s balance by holding it horizontally in your hands. As you relax your grip it should rotate to hang with the head level and teeth down, ready for work. Otherwise you’ll always have to work to keep it level, tiring your arms and hands more quickly.
While Mike was shaving his rake stail from a length of cleft ash, I set about straightening some small coppice poles in the brake. The pole should be seasoned first and then steamed to make them pliable. I work carefully over the whole area of the bend, flexing it and gradually working out the curves.
You can see the results in the straightened pole stood up in the picture.
just a few extra photos from the Harvey Nichols installation.
Those of you with a keen eye may have noticed that part of the post ‘Steambending the staircase bannister’, concerning the new bending strap, has been removed. Charlie has asked me to do this so as to keep the elements of the design under wraps until he’s had time to capitalise on them himself.
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The next project I’m working on with Charlie Whinney is a steam bent oak staircase banister. Three 200mm wide strips will curl their way up the three flights of stairs replacing the existing boring straight pine version. The model shows the position of each piece of wood and it’s relation to the steps. This needs to be reproduced accurately at full-scale in order to fit the space and tie in with the existing banister supports.
First job is to create a former to bend the oak around from the model and measurements taken from the site. The former needs to accurately represent the structure, leave space to work and bend the oak around it and be strong enough to withstand the forces that it will be subjected to during the process. My completed form is 11m long, made of rough cut pine and looks like art in itself – certainly not a staircase yet.
The oak has been sourced and sawn locally and bending is due to start next week, should be an exciting time.
As planned, we went down to London early in the new year to install the ‘Spirit’ garden sculpture but I’ve only just got a photo to show here.
This was my first installation and I was a little bit nervous; often work that is simple and straightforward in a workshop environment suddenly becomes anything but when you’re on-site with the client watching what you’re up to. With this though, I’m glad to say everything went according to plan. The sculpture is simply held on the wall with high-strength screw fixings and everything plugged and blended so the finished effect is of the wood curling playfully in and out of the wall.
Another week of steam bending and finishing for a wooden sculpture which has been commissioned for a private garden in London. Working with Charlie Whinney, six lengths of high-quality ash board have been curled and twisted into an organic ribbon which swoops in and out of a wall. The bending process is an exciting time; watching and maintaining water levels in steamers, wrestling the wood into shape against it’s natural tension and grabbing yet another clamp or screw to hold it in place. While we were working Nick and Cathy Stanley, from Witherslack Estate where the workshop is based, called in with their family and were treated to an impromptu display of this performance.
All went well which is due to a combination of careful planning, experience of working with the material and an understanding of what is possible. Then comes the much longer process of dealing with any splits, carving wedges to support the ends and give the impression of the wood diving into the wall, and of course sanding and finishing the piece.
We’ll be going down to install the piece in the new year and get chance to see it in situ.
This week I’ve been working for Charlie Whinney on a bespoke version of his Curly Lightshade design. The key feature of these is coils of steam-bent ash which cover the light in curls. For this special, bigger model 50 coils have been prepared and, to add a touch of luxury, I gilded one edge of each coil.
As a greenwood worker from working-class stock, I wasn’t too familiar with working with gold leaf but some advice from John Meadows of Habberley Meadows made it seem easy enough to have a go. Each coil was wound up flat to make the job easier and the edge covered in ‘size’- a PVA gilder’s glue. The gold leaf, which is attached to a sheet of tissue paper, is then simply rubbed onto the surface like a posh transfer. We’re cautious not to spoil the natural beauty of the wood with too much gold so hopefully a 2mm line will be enough to catch the light without being too ‘bling’.
The next part is to build a spherical open frame to curl the coils over and put the whole thing together, watch this space.