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.



Churning, Crashing, Burning

Jad Abumrad talks about the early days of his now-rockin’ radio show Radiolab, speaking of the life-or-death feeling that comes with the creative process: that feeling that even if no one is paying attention to what you are doing (even if no one is reading your blog, for example), it is making or breaking your entire life in that moment. He describes it as the “radical uncertainty that you feel when you try to work without a template,” and recognizes “how crummy it feels to try to make something that’s new.”* Now, it doesn’t feel terrible all the time, but when it does, it’s important to recognize that it means that you are forging ahead. It feels terrible because you don’t know what you’re doing, but you’re figuring it out and continuing despite your setbacks.

Perhaps I am deliberately looking for validation that my failures are OK, but I feel like this talk by Abumrad as well as another article on anxiety and creativity found me at just the right time (thanks to Shota Yamaguchi and Dave McClinton). For Kierkegaard, anxiety arises as a product of staring the abyss of possibility in the face. It is an abyss we can fall into and fail to climb out of, or it is an abyss we fall into and swim in. The “dizzying effect of freedom” and “boundlessness of one’s existence”** can be stifling or can be generative. I am reluctant to say that my anxiety is generative, as it feels stifling, but I have completed zero projects without generous doses of it, so it is surely a part of my being able to produce.

I begin with this lesson as I had a good, easy experience followed by a harrowing failure. Here’s what happened:

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With the help of this handy jig, I cut the mortises on the dado pack at 3/8″ thick. I had to turn the jig backwards in order for the boards fit centered over the blades, which required a little tinkering on John Vehko’s (our shop manager) part, and a little extra clamping for safety on my part. Remember when I had the pieces misaligned on my armrest mock-up? It’s OK–I do, and as a result I avoided this mistake this time. The mortise-cutting went smoothly and everything lines up perfectly. Small victory!












The next step was cutting tenons to the right thickness to hold the joint together and then figuring out how to hold together two pieces meeting end to end at an angle in order to glue them up.

29I planed down the tenons little by little until they squeezed right in to the mortises. Another success. Then I set to making jigs so that clamps would have two parallel planes to register to in order to hold the angled pieces together. I did this by measuring the angles of the pieces I want to join, and then cutting pieces for the jig at the complementary angle to make ninety degrees. The table saw blade tilts, which is very convenient. Once I wrapped my mind around how this needed to work, it went fairly easily.

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Given how logical this whole process is and how according to plan it went, it seems like the glue up should go just as well, right? Wrong. From here on out, things took a dark and twisted turn. Even though I checked and checked and checked again, the mortises weren’t totally square. It truly baffles me as to how this might have happened, but it did.








They were only a hair off, higher on one side than the other, but this is enough to mean that the joint won’t close up perfectly tightly. I was afraid if I cut them down on the miter saw again, they would still be off, since this is the tool I used to cut them in the first place, and I didn’t want to spend hours upon hours making jigs for the table saw since there are actually four different angles I would have to figure out, and I didn’t trust myself enough with a hand-plane to shave off just the right amount. So, I opted for a sanding block with 150-grit paper and I worked little by little to get the high side down.

36In the end, I somehow only made things worse (the image above with the square is after I put things further out of whack). I eventually had to suck it up and trim the mortises down again on the miter saw. This worked fine–not perfect–but better than it was before, and I just have to live with it. I wish I hadn’t wasted two hours attempting to fix things with a sanding block, but you live and learn, I guess. With everything more-or-less square, I did a test run on gluing the joint up with my new jigs and it went great, so I moved on to the real thing, which went horribly horribly wrong. The tenon was a little tight when it was dry, and once I applied glue inside the mortise, the wood swelled and I could barely get the tenon to go all the way in. I struggled and clamped and unclamped and squeezed and sweat and cursed, and finally, as the glue became less workable, I had to admit defeat and just take it apart. I was able to wipe the glue out. I moved on to a different joint with a looser tenon, which I thought would be better, but this time I wasn’t able to close the joint up all the way and I have no idea why and it was too late before I realized. I now have a small gap in a critical part of the chair that I will have to repair and hope that no one notices (though I suppose the cat is out of the bag!). I don’t have pictures because I was just too mad about it. This is life and death people! The end of the end! OK, so of course it’s not life and death, but it felt like it: the terrible jump into the abyss of possibility and the coming up for air only to find you’re still leagues under water.

I did what any reasonable woodworker would do. I went for some retail therapy and had a margarita.

I’m going back today with a clearer mind and a calmer demeanor, and hopefully this will amount to a full oxygen tank.

*Jad Abumrad, “Why ‘Gut Churn’ is an Essential Part of the Creative Porcess.” 99U. (accessed March 8, 2014).

**Maria Popova, “Kierkegaard on Anxiety and Creativity.” Brain Pickings. (accessed March 8, 2014).

Mockin’ and Rockin’

The mock ups continue, presumably so I work out the process, uncover potential mistakes, and don’t make them again a second time. This week I’ve been working on the armrest/frame connection. I cut the mortises with the dado pack on the table saw (the joinery will be floating through-tenons on the frame). I put one piece facing one direction in the jig and the other piece facing the other direction, so the pieces don’t actually line up. I’ll try not to do this on the real thing. This is working proof of why mock-ups are important. Fool me once, shame on the dado blade, fool me twice…







Then I worked the mock seat by hand. I did one half with a smoother, less defined outline, and the other half with a more precise, gouged outline. I used the scraper, gouges, and did some sanding by hand.







It all worked well enough that I felt confident enough to begin the process of shaping the real seat. I got REALLY dusty. The grate behind the table there is an exhaust fan, and you can see it’s basically covered in mahogany dust, as were the inside of my ears, the inside of my socks and shoes, and, well, you get the point.







I began bringing the seat down closer to it’s final size. I cross-cut the extra length off the boards by putting the seat on the sled on the table saw, and then fit the seat inside the jig I made last week to cut the taper on the planer. It’s now a few pounds lighter–which is nice since I’ve been running around the shop with it an awful lot (not actually running. That wouldn’t be very safe)–and slightly easier to wield.


The seat is wedged in between the stops on the jig so the planer doesn’t move it around too much and the front end is actually propped up so the planer cuts only that portion of the seat, effectively creating a taper in the profile. You may recognize this effect from Nakashima’s conoid chair (or you do now). Mine still has a ways to go, but it’s getting there.

As I drifted off to sleep last night I suddenly went cold with fear. I had cut the seat too narrow! There’s no going back really. You can always make something smaller, but it’s a lot more difficult to make something big again. I wasn’t supposed to go to the shop today but I had to, just to see how badly I’d screwed myself and if there was any hope for redemption, and it turns out everything is fine and I didn’t cut the seat as narrow as I’d remembered. I am letting those hours of panic serve as a lesson though: measure twice, cut once. Or is it “don’t panic”?


Milling Things (Over)

Esherick chair with wild diagonal

I’ve looked through my sketch models with both Mark and Igor and I still have work to do and decisions to make.

Notes from Mark: Can the taper of the seat also somehow translate to the front and/or back elevations of the chair? (He cites an exercise Igor does where he translates an elevation into a new plan). How can I further refine what we’ve deemed to be called “The Offset” design in the details of the armrest and the joinery? And can we push this form even further, perhaps by looking at the work of Wharton Esherick, who has some crazy diagonals and triangles in his chairs? There is a possible extreme version taking shape.


Another Esherick triangular beauty

Notes from Igor: Does the backrest have an alliance? Right now it’s neither “of” the seat/armrests/rockers nor of the side frames. Can it be its own entity? How does this get formally expressed? The back of the seat needs sculpting on the opposite underside. Can the profile of the back of the seat inform the profile of the backrest? Igor suggests laminating the backrest vertically, which sounds pretty out there to me, but I appreciate his point.

So, this weekend will be spent considering all these questions through drawings and working on the full-scale seat/backrest mock-up. I’m just using two by fours for this. So far I’ve milled the framing lumber to make sure I’m working with square boards. 

Steps to square your boards:

1. Cut boards oversized on the miter saw.

2. Run a face over the jointer. The jointer has spinning blades that totally flatten the face.

3. Run the opposite face through the planer. Once you have one flat face, it will register to the flat bottom the the planer. The planer works somewhat like the jointer, but the spinning teeth are on the top.

4. Run an edge over the jointer. Now that you have two parallel, flat faces, you can register one flat face to the side of the jointer and know you will be cutting the edge at a true right angle

5. Trim the other edge on the table saw. Again, the edge you just flattened will register to the fence of the table saw, so you know you now have a square board.

We’ll revisit this process with the hardwood once the piece itself is getting made. It’s hard to do anything without a jointer, planer, and table saw.

One of my peers in the design department is doing a project on objects of ritual and he plans to make them out of wood. I told him this is the perfect material to use since these first steps are the same with pretty much any project. They are the familiar ritual before entering into the unknown of a new project. They warm up your hands and put you in the mindset of making.


miter saw




spinning  jointer blades




table saw