My (Mostly) Rockin’ Visit to Michael Yates Design

After months of looking at his Giacomo rocker and learning about the increasing number of people we know in common, I reached out to Michael Yates to let him know that I admire his work and it was influential as I went through my chair-making process. He invited me for a shop tour, and I enthusiastically accepted.

When I arrived at his shop, however, he wasn’t there. His employees were, and I talked with them and learned his car was in the shop and he’s in the midst of moving, but this still meant that I was stood up. His employees talked with me about the shop, showed me a version of the rocker I’d been looking at, and Michael apologized for not being there, but I was upset. I felt like I had told someone that I admire him very much and he had responded by telling me he didn’t really care.

Now, I know this isn’t the case and I’m taking personally what was, I’m sure, a mistake during a hectic day, but that’s how it felt in the moment. Regardless, it helps me realize that even the best people in the trade are human and can’t manage everything perfectly, and that helped make me feel a little better.

When his employee pulled out the rocker I felt a little bit like I was meeting a famous person. I had looked at it so much, admired its beauty and craftsmanship, and now here it was!

MichaelYates_Chair_DB_webThere were so many small, clever nuances to the design that I never noticed in the photos, like the way the back slats expose about an eighth of an inch of tenon…just enough to look intentional and reveal the work, and the way the connection piece underneath the armrest is actually part of the armrest—one piece that has been routed out and sanded into its curved shape. I sat in it too. A great chair.

The other wonderful thing about meeting this chair in person, was that it reinforced for me that my chair is also really, really good.

I still hope I get to meet Michael at some point, but if I don’t, I’ve still gotten a lot from him that I appreciate.




183So my review was this past Thursday and it went well. Criticism focused largely on the thickness of the members maybe being slightly too big and the backrest being kind of the last thing I paid attention to–both legitimate comments. Otherwise, feedback was overwhelmingly positive. I thought you would appreciate seeing all the other projects here. They turned out fantastic. Keep in mind that many of these people had zero woodworking experience before this semester. You can also kind of see the review format. The presenter stands next to his or her piece and talks about the design and process of making it to a small panel of reviewers comprised of faculty and local and visiting architects. The panel asks questions, criticizes, and compliments.

I am proud to say that I won a Design Excellence Award. It feels really good! Thank you Mark!

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174Here are the results of my finish tests. Polyurethane is on the left and Danish oil is on the right. It’s pretty clear the Danish oil gives a richer, more faceted result.176 175







So, I gave everything one last look over while running a bright light over it to make sure I had gotten out all of the scratches from sanding, and I went for it! As soon as the finish hits the wood, the piece just comes alive. It’s amazing. I don’t have a whole lot more to report today, just images to share of the chair with its first coat of finish on it. Tomorrow when it’s dry I will lightly sand it with 220 grit so the next coat has some tooth to stick to. I’ll do this one more time after that until it has three coats on it, and then I’ll be done!

Y’all, it looks really good.

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Rounding Third and Headed for Home

So I’m no baseball enthusiast (go Mets!), and neither is my husband, but he’s really really good at baseball. That’s neither here nor there, but it helps explain my near non sequitur of a title. I’m mostly trying to bring some excitement to what has actually been a very tedious week in the shop. I’ve been hand-sanding for most of it.

Remarkably, or maybe not, my hands are the most torn up they’ve been all semester. I’ll get back to that, but here’s some more excitement: TaDAAAAA! Here’s a real person sitting in my chair!

166Once I unclamped the whole thing, I set to work on final touches. I cut the extra material off of the rockers, which was a fair amount in the front and almost nothing in the back. I used the Japanese saw to do this by hand and then hand sanded the ends down to the final size. I used the angle of the armrest/leg connection as the angle at which to cut the ends of the rockers.167





After that, this was my view for the most part for the rest of the week. I’ve been filling tiny gaps with a mixture of superglue and sawdust, orbital sanding any connections that still didn’t feel flush, and hand sanding the whole thing.

170 I’ve left the chair sitting on top of the table as it is less likely to get knocked into or moved around, and it has actually been easier for me to just get on and off of the table rather than lifting the chair up and down. I figure the less it gets moved around before review the better.

I did have one gap on one of the backrest joints that was visually just a hair larger than I was comfortable with, so I angled the table saw to cut a really thin, tapered piece of mahogany to wedge in there (don’t worry. I chiseled the excess material out).
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Amidst my sanding marathon, I have also begun a few finish tests. I plan to use Danish oil or wipe-on poly, since they’re both easy to apply. I sanded down some samples and will do three coats of each before I decide which one to go with. I like the idea of using wipe-on poly, since I think it will look slick and crisp, but I would lose some of that woody feel, so I may stick with the Danish oil. I’ll let you know what happens.


In five, four, three….

146So we’re in the home stretch. Review is in two and a half weeks and everything is coming together. This past week I worked on the backrest, which I neglected until the very end mostly because I wasn’t sure how to do it. The beginning of the process was easy enough–mark on the frame pieces and then also on the backrest itself where to cut the mortises and go ahead and cut them.






I did this while the backrest was still oversized and had two flat ends so I wouldn’t have to worry about shimming up a curved piece on the moritser. I just cut the mortises deeper than I would have otherwise, knowing I would be cutting off some length afterwards. 














Once this was done, I had to figure out how to actually cut the backrest down to size. This was complicated by the fact that when the frame was clamped up with the seat, the space for the backrest wasn’t exactly square and the fact that the frames are at an angle to one another, making it also not square in the other dimension. One dimension not being square is much easier to deal with than two. I planned to make a mock up and then just trace its size on to the actual backrest, but I cut the angle wrong and cut the whole thing too small almost immediately. Then, I made another one and made the same mistakes again. At this point I was out of mock-up material so I just bit the bullet and started on the real thing, thinking, “fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times, shame on me.”







I measured the width between the two top back corners and transferred that measurement to the backrest, then did the same for the bottom back corners, then the two distances in the front. I cut the backrest down to size on the front end (also the widest end) and set to taking off little by little by little on the back end where it tapers by setting the belt sander at an angle and touching the wood to it ever so slightly over and over.155





This involved a lot of walking back and forth between the sander and the clamped-up chair, taking a little off, checking, taking a little more off, checking, etc. until it finally fit. Also, my efforts to document this process were photo-bombed by Andrew and Morgan, two of my shop-mates and students in Mark’s wood design class. Morgan is making a credenza and Andrew is making a cradle, like for a baby. They are both talented and lovely people. It occurred to me as they jumped into the photos that it probably seems like I’m alone in the shop most of the time and that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Not only are Mark’s students down there working on their own furniture projects, but the rest of the school uses the shop for site model building and numerous other projects related to their studio designs. It is usually loud and bustling. If you look at the “people engaged/conversations had” page on this blog, it should be clear how much interaction and network building it actually takes to make something.157156









Next I did a ton of sanding. Once the chair is glued up, many places will be more difficult to reach and sand properly, so I used the orbital sander and passed over everything with 80 and 120 grits. I will go back after the glue up and sand everything by hand, probably doing 120 again, then 150 and 180. These would have been boring photos–just me standing with a sander, so I skipped them, but I had a lot of good dance time while I sanded. Then came the moment of truth: THE GLUE UP. I cannot possibly explain the amount of psyching myself up I did or how panicked I felt throughout the whole thing. I thought about having someone take pictures of me while I did it, but then saw myself yelling at a nice young architecture student to stop taking fucking pictures of me so I decided against it. It went pretty well, though I still feel kind of panicked about it even now hours later. So here it is–waiting for the glue to dry and to add all the finishing touches. Yikes!161







p.s. I thought you might be interested to see what everyone else is working on so here are a few other projects currently in process: Katharina is making a credenza out of spalted, local Texas pecan; the circle is one end of the cradle Andrew is making out of mahogany (outrageous skills on this guy), and Tristan is making a bed out of Ash.164 165







A Field Trip

132I sit in on a class called “Timber Technologies” and this week we went to Delta Millworks here in Austin to learn about Shuo Sugi Ban, a Japanese method of burning wood to make it more resistant to rot and insects. Oh, and they just so happen to have a tenant in their space named Aldo Bohm who built this amazing canoe. It’s made entirely of scrap material (mostly longleaf pine, and some mesquite) and the strips are only a quarter inch thick. I would have taken a photo of the whole thing except that it was surrounded by architecture students (not that they’re not attractive enough, but it takes away from the majesty of the piece itself).

Anyway, Delta specializes in reclaimed lumber and Shuo Sugi Ban. They gave us a little demo of how they char the wood on the outside and then seal it. 133This job seems like every little boy’s dream–burning stuff. None of the burnt wood is structural. It’s primarily used as siding and flooring and it looks really cool. 

I also had to get some of my own work done this week. I trimmed off the excess lamination material on the rockers. It seemed simple enough to just run it through the band saw and then sand it down, but it didn’t occur to me that I wouldn’t be able to get the band saw into the inside of the frame (duh), so I had to cut those ends by hand with the Japanese saw. Lots of Japanese methods happening this week apparently. After they were cut down close to size, I used the spindle sander to get the curves smoothed out and the transition from leg to rocker flush. I’m generally pretty happy with how they turned out, except I cut into one of them a little too deep and now I have to fill it (I made the mistake by hand, not with a machine. Remember David Pye’s idea of the workmanship of risk? Yep).

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Next up was fixing the joint that opened by running dowels through the tenon. I bought a half-inch, mahogany dowel from Woodcraft and used the drill press with a half-inch forstner bit. The drill press makes sure the bit goes in straight, and also allows you to control the depth of the cut. The nice thing about using two things that you know are a half inch in diameter from the beginning is that you know they will fit together well. I put glue in the holes as well as on the dowel, banged them in with a mallet, and left them to dry.

Since the next order of business is re-cutting the joints on the seat so that they properly grab on to the joints on the leg frames, I sharpened my chisel.

This is done by touching it to the grinding wheel. Sparks fly when you do this, which makes it seem like you’re doing something really hardcore. After the wheel you rub it on the whetstones, like when sharpening a scraper. You go from coarse to fine. A sharp chisel will shave off your arm hair. That’s how I determine it’s ready to use–a quick arm shaving.

Rockin’ Hard or Hardly Rockin’?

116 113115114117118119121122124126127128129130131You’ve probably been worried about my leg joint. Don’t be. It’s all going to be fine. Here’s how the joint closed up clamped overnight. It’s not as good as it was, but it’s fillable. I’ll still need to run a dowel through it, but I’m OK with that. I’ll be working on that today.

In other news, I had to keep moving forward. I glued the armrest-leg piece to the back frames, which went more easily than most of my glue ups have gone since there were clearer ways to create flat surfaces for the clamps to bear on. Clamps like flat. They don’t like angles all that much.











I also worked on the seat repair. You’ll recall I cut off the joint I screwed up last time. Well, I found a piece of wood where the grain matched fairly well to the rest of the seat and cut a strip of it to glue on where I cut the strip off. I cut the long ends off by hand with the Japanese saw and then hand-planed the extra width off so it completely matches the profile of the rest of the seat. If you look carefully, you can tell it’s an extra piece, but it blends in pretty well (see the detail below).

With most of the frame glued up and the seat now back in tact, it was time to cut the legs down to their final size. I’ve been afraid of doing this since it would be really hard to put material back on if I cut them too far and I kept envisioning cutting the legs and then putting the whole thing together only for the center of gravity to be way off. But, I used the measurements and information I had from my drawings and the mock-up (this is, after all, why I did all this planning in the first place), cut the legs down to about 3/4″ of their final length, and clamped the whole chair up just to be sure everything was looking OK.


And, well, it looks good! Ta daaaa!


Knowing the leg lengths were good, I went ahead and cut them down to final length and then cut the mortises in the ends of the legs and in the rockers. I had to work on the ends of the legs with a sanding block for a while to get them to fit the slight curve where they meet the rockers, and they’re pretty close. Since I used the same bit on the mortiser that I used for the armrest mortise/tenon joint, I knew I would be able to use the same piece of wood for the leg/rocker tenons. I had to sand them a bit to fit right, but I got them there, and I glued up the rockers last night. I now have two complete frames.

Next steps will be to put that dowel pin in where the leg joint opened and then re-cut and adjust the seat joints. Then I move on to the backrest joints,





and then I glue up the whole chair! It sounds like I’m almost done, but there are still a ton of tiny things that have to happen too. I have to trim the mortises down flush that are still sticking out of the armrests. I have a zillion little gaps to fill. I have to cut off the extra lamination material on the rockers and fair down those joints so they look smooth, and then I have to hand sand the whole thing, which will take a lot of time, hurt my neck, and cause me to have mahogany boogers despite my wearing a mask while I do it. Only when that’s all done can I start applying finish. I have about three more weeks to get this all done as well as plan my final presentation. Here’s to the home stretch.