Brian and Jeff Help Culminate a 20 Year Odyssey
Some twenty years ago I made the Nakashima inspired table in the accompanying photo from a walnut tree from the mountains of Madison Country, Virginia. I then began looking for the right chairs. Finally, seven years ago I found Brian Boggs and his ladder back chair at a craft show in Asheville, NC. It was love at first sight—a traditional chair with a contemporary look, designed to fit the body for comfort. Not only do you not feel the need to rock back, but the flared legs prevent that.
Six years later when I was prepared to take Brian’s class to learn how to make the chair, Brian had just turned over the class to one of his star students, Jeff Lefkowitz. Jeff lives only 90 minutes from my home in Washington DC. So in February 2012 my brother-in-law, Bill Douglass, and I took Jeff’s class over two 3-day weekends. Fourteen months later I have a set of six chairs, five fabricated in my home workshop.
I know it made a big difference that I had earlier taken a green chair course with Drew Langsner, which gave me the skills of using a draw knife and spoke shave to shape rungs, legs, and slats; the experience of executing precise joinery; and the confidence to make adjustments along the way. But to replicate the Boggs chair on my own, three things were absolutely essential—taking Jeff’s class; the forms we made at the end of the class; and the instruction manual. The manual was a godsend; as there are so many little details that you don’t remember from the class. Maybe I could have made the forms from Jeff’s instructions, and I did make several of the simpler ones on my own, but several are rather complicated and better made with Jeff as part of the class.
The sequence I followed was to make a single chair in the several months after the class —proving to myself I could do it—and then making the other four as a single batch.
The part I thought would be most problematic was bending the legs. I was wrong. I have a store of 10-year-old air dried walnut. Jeff suggested I steam it twice—a preliminary steaming the day before the actual steaming and bending. Bill and I made a simple steam box. The bending worked well—a few surface splits but no structural cracks. Four arms and hands and 2 strong backs are needed for the bending.
What I found the most difficult, and requiring repeated re-figuring and minor reshaping, was the slats. The basic shaping was easy, especially after I decided to give up trying to shape them on the shaving horse—they keep slipping off the jaws—and instead held them with the bench vice. But I found fitting the slats into the back legs took multiple attempts and adjustments, and a lot of care and time. I prefer shaping rungs and legs by hand rather than on the lathe—the quietness, the tactile feel of the wood, and the slightly irregular product. Last summer I was headed to Maine for three weeks on the coast. I carted to my vacation the shaving horse and the roughed out legs and rungs for four chairs. Sitting on the shaving horse under the trees, along the rocky coast, in 85 degree weather, was a delight.
In the chair I made in class, the tip of one of the rungs just barely pierced through the leg. It is not perceptible. But it made me wary. So, don’t tell Brian or Jeff, but for the chairs I made in my shop I reduced the length of the rungs by 1/4 inch and drilled each mortise an 1/8 inch shy.
I found it easier to do the sanding of the chair parts as individual pieces (without all the joints to sand around), leaving only a very light sanding with 220 after the chair is assembled. Besides the bending of the legs, the other point at which it is very important to have a second set of hands is in the final assembly. It was particularly helpful to have Bill who had taken the class and could help make quick decisions at critical points in the assembly process.
I cannot say enough about the hickory seats. I was instantly taken with their simple beauty and sturdiness. But I was at first intimidated at thinking about weaving this coarse, irregular, tough looking material. Again, I was wrong. Soak the hickory for a good thirty minutes; it then feels and works like leather, and is just as strong. I think the first seat took me a good 6 hours to weave; the last took 2-1/2 hours. Now I miss not having more to weave. I was at first wary of the imperfections in the hickory splits that I had ordered; I thought narrow sections and knots would be weak and look bad and so cut them out. But not by the last two seats—I found narrow sections and knot holes not to be weak and I left them in, always when they were underneath the seat and sometimes on the top.
Brian’s design and Jeff’s instructions have allowed me to make a set of chairs that my grandchildren and great grandchildren will enjoy—wonderful results from 14 months of enjoyable woodworking.