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.

 

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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.
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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. 

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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.”

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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
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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
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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

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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

 

 

 

 

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Postcards from the Edge

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I actually haven’t seen this movie, but I think I’m going to watch it tonight. A 1990 comedy/drama sounds like just the ticket. Phew! It has been a big few days! Good and bad things have happened. I cut the end of the armrests to match the angle of the front frame so they connect smoothly. I did this by angling the blade on the miter saw. Once the two chair parts lined up, I cut the joint, which is a floating tenon, so I had to cut mortises in both pieces that were being connected.77

The School of Architecture has an incredible shop. I’m not sure I’ve mentioned that before. It is maintained by John Vehko, a former naval machinist turned educator. John is a cranky man with a big heart and an incredible mind for how to figure things out. 78 Often, I’ll know what I want an outcome to be, but just not be sure how to get there, and John tells me six different ways to do it after thinking about it for five seconds. It’s incredible. Anyway, the point of this digression is to say that the shop has a really cool horizontal mortiser, which makes life good. It allows you to set the height, depth, and width of your mortise really really easily. If you look at the photo above, the lever on the left slides the table from side to side to cut the width and the lever on the right slides the spinning bit in and out to cut the mortise to depth. I clamped boards on either side and on top of the frame piece to keep it in place and so the second piece gets cut at exactly the same angle. I first made a full-depth cut on one end of the mortise, then another full-depth cut on the other side. Then I made shallow passes in between the two holes to cut out the rest of it. I did it this way so the shavings and sawdust had somewhere to go, as opposed to tightening up inside the uncut mortise and burning from the friction.

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Then I repeated on the other frame piece, then I went through the same process on the armrests. With both mortises cut, I now had the size information I needed to cut the tenons, which I did on the planer and the table saw and then sanded the corners and trimmed down the length until they fit snugly and held together the frame and armrest!

82They close up flush, but I wanted you to see the “inner workings” (below). 84

Tenons don’t have to float; they can actually just be part of one of the boards, but I wanted to be able to test out the alignment of the pieces before I cut the joint and not having a tenon sticking out from one end from the get-go allowed me to do this.

With three sides of each frame complete (the fourth being the rockers), it was time to notch in the seat. The back connection is literally a notch where the back of the seat sits inside (below), and the front connection is more of a lap joint, where each of the two pieces sort of grabs the other one.85 To cut the back notch, I created a jig for the router. The jig is essentially a guide that only allows the router bit to go where I wanted it to, and stops the router from moving beyond the joint, essentially by clamping or screwing other boards in the way. The fence rides along the boards sitting on top of the chair frame and then there are additional boards on top of those that act as a barrier. The spinning bit cuts the notch and you move the router within the selected area to be cut by hand.86

Since the router bit is round and the notches are square, they have to be chiseled out afterwards to square the corners. There seems to be a lot of this incongruity in joinery: round cuts, square joints. The good thing is that you wind up cutting the joint a little too small with the router and then adjusting little by little until it’s the right size to fit the piece that goes into it. Too small is always better than too big. You can’t put material back. 87Well, in some cases you can, but let’s not worry about that right now. In general, too small > too big.

Oh wait, did I say let’s not worry about that now? I think I jinxed myself by saying that. I wrote that yesterday and I should have known better, I mean been more superstitious. I repeated a similar process on the actual seat, where it will grab the legs–routing out a smaller chunk so I could chisel it to size afterwards–only I made the mistake of checking it against the leg/frame without the leg being connected to the armrest and back frame. As a result, the frame piece fits onto the seat, but now doesn’t fit perfectly into the armrest. I am mad. In hindsight, I should have glued up the frame first, and then cut the notches for the seat…in hindsight. So, now I’m left with a dilemma, do I slightly adjust the way the three frame pieces connect to one another or try to repair the joint that is off? Given that the frame pieces all fit together really well at this point, I’m inclined to try to repair the joint, but I will need a professional consultation before proceeding. I don’t meet with Mark until Tuesday, so I will get John’s opinion tomorrow and work on something else in the meantime. Stay tuned…

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D pulled me over and said “hide your gold. The girl is crafty like ice is cold.”

I’m not a thief, just conveniently both a lover of the Beastie Boys and a female craftsman (one of which I’m a veteran at). 38 Here’s what’s been happening on the ranch: I had a little repair work to do after those glue ups didn’t go exactly as planned. There are a few joints that don’t close up totally perfectly all the way through and so I filled those tiny gaps with a mixture of super glue and mahogany sawdust. 39A good woodworker will be able to spot this if she’s looking, but it’s pretty unlikely anyone else will notice this. Mark always says that being able to make repairs is also part of the craft and I’m learning more and more how large a part of the process it is (for me). This is not to say that there isn’t a point at which something should actually be done over again because it’s just not good enough, but that minor imperfections, which will always happen, can be toned down, hidden, or even played up depending on intention of the piece. I am also learning that superglue and sawdust look really gross when they dry on your finger.

After this, I moved on to the rockers, something I felt a little more confident about having done a couple successful mock ups a few weeks back. I cut 1/4″ strips on the table saw, kept them in the same order, spread glue in between each layer, and then bent them over this heavy-duty foam form. I started with the middle clamps and then worked my way out. I repeated with the second rocker.

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And I’m now back in unfamiliar territory. I began the process of trimming down the legs, being careful to leave them long so I can still adjust as necessary as I start to assemble all the separate pieces together. There are two pieces on the back frame and two pieces on the front frame, and the pairs didn’t line up exactly once they went through the band saw separately, so I then took them to the belt sander, clamped together, to make sure the separate pieces in each pair are the same size and shape. In doing these steps, I trimmed down the extra material on the tenons I glued in last week, and most of the joints are looking better than I had feared.

44 45 46It’s now actually possible –if I stand way back–to see the whole piece taking shape in elevation.  48

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!

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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.

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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. http://99u.com/videos/7278/jad-abumrad-why-gut-churn-is-an-essential-part-of-the-creative-process (accessed March 8, 2014).

**Maria Popova, “Kierkegaard on Anxiety and Creativity.” Brain Pickings. http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2013/06/19/kierkegaard-on-anxiety-and-creativity/ (accessed March 8, 2014).