Windsor Chair Resources

Windsor chairmaking tips-tools

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Turning Tip: Here's how to reduce, but not necessarily eliminate, catches. Sharpen the skew to at least 350 grit. It doesn't need to be much sharper than that, but keep it that sharp. Lift the tool rest to the height of the top of the spindle. Practice this on a roughed out spindle of a fairly good size, like 1 3/4" to 2" for example. With the lathe turned off, hold the shank of the skew in your left hand, handle in your right, and stand diagonal to the workpiece, left side toward the drive head. Have someone turn the workpiece as you present the skew to the tool rest and then on the top of the workpiece with the bevel rubbing and the sharp point of the skew perpendicular to the workpiece pointing toward the driving head but a little bit toward the right of the driving head. With your helper still turning the workpiece, lift up the handle with your right hand until the skew starts slicing. When you've got it, turn the lathe on it slowest speed and do the same thing about a 100 times. When you've really, really got it, you can lower the tool rest a bit. You'll still catch once in a while, but it won't be bad. At least for a year or two, don't even think about cutting with either end of the skew, stay in the middle part of the knife edge. Then go to Richard Raffan's article in Fine Woodworking and practice turning beads solely with the skew. Then show somebody else how to do it and you'll be an expert. Hope this helps. BG-WKG 9/21/04
QUESTION: I am having trouble with lathe chatter when turning green maple for my double baluster legs. All goes well until I taper down to 7/8 inch above the baluster in the middle of the leg. I start to get a swirling ripple effect when I use a gouge. I get the same effect when I use a planing cut with a skew to clean up after the initial shaping. I've tried different speeds and making sure my tools are sharp but I still get the same effect. I usually turn at 1000 RPM, but 1650 doesn't help. The leg I turn is at the minimum 20 inches long. I've even tried letting the leg dry before the finishing cut. To compensate, I've resorted to using finger nail gouge and very light cut for final shaping.

I have to take the swirls out with a rasp and sand paper. Any suggestions? BG2 3/19/04

REPLY:  This sounds like either one of 2 things to me.

Possibility 1 is you have a vibration under-load. An easy way to detect the problem is to place a glass of water on the bed of the lathe below the turning and see if you get ripples of a greater effect as you increase the cut rate. Troubleshooting further(if you have variable speed) you can increase/decrease the speed and note the water and results. Most likely, you need to weigh down the lathe. You have a harmonic vibration.

Possibility 2. Your drive journal on your lathe head could be worn or the tail stock has play. Use a dial indicator to check the run out. I don't think it is this really. Don't rule it out with the logic: if it doesn't do it on the ends it should not vibrate in the middle. False logic. The little problem on the end is amplified as you go out on the arm of the trouble source. The challenge is finding which end is bad when either end will effect the middle.

My guess from out here in cyber world is your lathe is vibrating and needs to be weighed down. I just don't see how a piece 20" long can get in too much of a "whipping" oscillation at 1000rpm. Start out with the simple sandbags solution and weigh it down. Additionally, I have had some troubles with light weight lathes on metal legs resting on concrete floors. Perhaps this could be a problem area. In any case, you can get to the bottom of this with some simple tests. Good Luck DO 3/19/04

REPLY: Here is how I compensate for that. I turn the baluster, or ball and the stem above it the very first thing I do, leaving the rest of the leg in roughed out round. I find that the momentum and stiffness of the larger round prevents the chatter. The rest of the leg, being closer to each end, doesn't usually present a chatter problem. If that doesn't do it, you need to dry the hard maple a little. BG-WKG 3/19/04

REPLY: I sometimes get chatter there also. When I'm turning legs it's the bottom of the leg towards the tailstock of the lathe and I'm right handed. The chatter is usually because my body gets in the way of holding the chisel in the proper position. So I take more time, concentrate on riding the bevel and keeping the chisel at something close to a right angle to the work surface and things are better. If there is still a little chatter my small radius ground skew or sandpaper will fix it up. If your lathe is OK, it's technique and may be a similar problem to the one I have. JT 3/20/04

REPLY: Chatter is the norm rather than the exception. Usually nothing wrong with your lathe. Its a simple matter of the wood flexing. Hold your hand behind the wood to act as a steady rest. Scary when you first try it but you can't get hurt with this procedure. If friction from the spinning wood creats too much heat wear a glove. When you get down to the final cuts use very light cuts. A touch up with fine sandpaper and you're done. Also turn the center part of the leg first leaving more meat at each end. Turn the ends last where the flex isn't that much of a problem. JJ 3/26/04.

REPLY: One more note on lathe chatter that I forgot to mention. I turn green or slightly air dried wood. When I first put this on my lathe it'll seem secure and tight but after initial turning I often will have compressed wood under the centers and it needs more tightening. I usually can tell this as it will start to chatter, especially when the piece gets pressured towards the tailstock. JT 3/27/04


Discussion of the value of turning one's own chair parts.

These are responses to a question of where to get chair turnings, which began a valuable discussion of making chair parts and honesty with customers.

Question & Comment: JT. and all the others. Thank-you for the good advice. I appreciate being able to get the input of seasoned chairmakers. I am new at the craft and haven't sold a chair yet.I've been buying my turnings because of my lack of experience on the lathe.But I must say that I wouldn't dream of trying to misrepresent the fact that I have bought the turnings. And I tell interested people that I am new to the craft also. I'm impressed with the 15-16 hrs to make a chair,as it takes me maybe 30 hrs to make a sack back. May I ask which chair it is you make in this time? Again thanks for the input . MT 1/12/00

Reply to MT: As I mentioned the lathe just takes practice. I think you'd be suprised by what an hours instruction and 2 days practice turning legs will do for your skills. Green wood helps tremendously. I started with a $150.00 Taiwan lathe which actually worked fine for what I was doing, I initially intended to only make a set of 4 chairs. The sackback takes the 15-16 hours mentioned. Which is more than half again as fast as Mike Dunbar says he can make a sackback, and if you ever saw him work you'd have no problem believing it. JT 1/13/00

Reply: I make Windsor chairs for lots of reasons to name only a few, it's enjoyable, people will pay me for it, I can take pride in it and grow in the craft. For me personally, these reasons dictate I do it all myself. This enthusiasm is transfered to my customers, they want them to sense the pride, the craft and the history. It would not be the same with purchased parts. I believe as individual craftsman what we have going for us is the uniqueness and difference between what we do and what large scale industry does. If we blurr the line at best its confusing, at worst it's dishonest. I frankly don't care if your chairs pop out of a mold in gold as long as your customers know what's up.

I do find the time or price thing somewhat hard to swallow. It takes me 15-16 hours to make a chair, I could trim an hour and half to two hours off by buying parts for $50-$60 dollars. At present not counting time to harvest wood the actually out of pocket outlay for a chair is around $15.00. It doesn't make much sense, especially when in my mind it isn't as good a chair and it certainly has less to talk about. If I thought it took me too much time to turn I'd get some instruction and do some practicing. JT  1/9/00

Reply: I have read the ChairTalk comments on turning with interest.  I am not a chairmaker myself, so my perspective is different.  While it is true that many early chairmakers bought turned parts, those parts were turned by another craftsman, often on a spring-pole or treadle lathe.  Modern purchased legs are typically turned on a duplicating lathe, set up to automatically reproduce that style in great numbers, and requiring little craft.

I think what is most important to the consumer is knowledge of what they are paying for.  If I read an ad for a handcrafted chair, I naturally (I think) assume that the whole chair was "handcrafted" by the artisan offering if for sale.  If the chairmaker is up front about what he/she has made or not made and I still like the chair, I may purchase it.  I once visited a Windsor chairmaking shop that offered "handcrafted" chairs.  Their workshop was set up to show a leg on a lathe, a back on a bending form etc. for the viewers.  But it turned out that they actually bought the turned legs, and the bentwood pieces.  No sale on that one, and I still cringe when I read their ads.  

It has been my experience in pricing chairs, that mass produced Windsors do not sell for less than most handcrafted chairs.  As a consumer if I am going to put down that chunk of change, then I like to think that the entire chair was crafted, even lovingly, by the artisan. If the issue in buying turned parts is expense, the chairmaker might consider that.  And remember, it ought to be rewarding for you too, that shows in workmanship. SP 1/9/00

Reply: I enjoy making every part of the chair myself. But, that is only I have the time or when I can get paid for it. This even includes felling and rendering wood from the oak, pine and maple trees that I have on my property. My question was not intended to take anything away from the true handmade artisans and I am not intending to gear up for production either. My question was more of a time related issue.

On a good day it takes me about 30 minutes to rive the maple and turn one leg. If my math is correct (and if the wood is good) it takes two hours to produce four legs. It then takes me another hour to turn the three stretchers and at least another hour to turn the two stumps and four short spindles. That is a grand total of four hours (on a good day).

So, for the people who don't seem to find the time or who are slow turners like me, I am still interested in sources for chair turnings so. KO 1/9/00

Reply: I've got to weigh in on this with JT. I turn out a finished baluster leg of hard maple every 20 minutes when I'm making them. I don't think I can buy them any cheaper than I can make them, and even if I could, I wouldn't. If I wanted to assemble things, I'd get a job in a factory. I think one of the things which keeps all of us in business is the unique aspects of each of our work, and I believe the artistic form of your turnings can be a hallmark of your work. WKG 1/8/00

Reply to JT: The traditional chairmakers (original ones) used to buy their parts also from other sources. Their intent was to produce chairs......to fill orders and make money.I buy my turnings also....as they did then.This helps me to keep my costs down as I can't produce them for the price they get per set. And the quality is very good.I make everything else. I do offer to do the turnings if they want to pay extra.And ....I consider this to be a hand -made chair. MT. 1/7/00

Reply: I was somewhat suprised to see your query. I had thought this was a site for traditional handmade windsor chairs. For me that means you make all the parts for a chair yourself. To me it also means riven wood, but I suppose that can be debated. I wonder where you draw the line between a factory chair and a handmade chair if 1/3 to 1/2 the parts are factory made? My concern is the blurring of handmade/factory line. As traditional chairmakers our chief asset and selling point is what we do is unique and individual. We should be doing all we can to differentiate ourselves from the factories. JT 1/6/0clear


Turning Tip:  Here's a tip which works for me on speeding up turnings. Do 20 or so at a time, not just the 4 you need right now. You'll find that midway through you're turning legs twice as fast as the first one. Let me know if it works for you. WKG (Bill@Chairwright.com) 1/10/00
Any suggestions on obtaining turning blanks? More specifically, what woods do you prefer, do you use turnings that are "defective" (big chunks having flown off) to suggest an antique look (I've seen that done), any suggested dealers in turning blanks, and lastly, I've heard of turners using firewood, any thoughts? Any highly suggested books for learning to spindle turn? What tools are folks using for windsor chair legs ( I've been told to get only 2: a gouge and a skew). Thanks. MB 1/9/00

Reply to MB: I harvest my own birch and maple for turning and it is essentially firewood. I cut the logs into approx 24" pieces and leave them that way till I need to turn. Then it's split, quartered, etc till it's close to what I need. If pieces are odd shaped you can trim them with an axe, a plane, even a bandsaw. After it's chucked I often take off the 4 corners with a drawknife and then turn. I use primarily 4 tools, a large 1 1/2" roughing gouge, a parting tool, a1/2" spindle gouge and a skew.

The large hunks missing may be the wane of the piece that is close outside of the log. Old time chairmakers though nothing of simply turning this to the inside of the chair and didn't consider it a defect. If it's not severe I don't either. When you find it on an old or new chair you know you have a honest craftsman made chair.

You will find green wood turns amazingly easy, but it needs to be very dry to build a chair. I have made a foam kiln like mentioned in Langsners book, 36-48 hours in the kiln and it just needs to be put back on the lathe for a touch up and it's ready for a chair.

PE advice to get instruction is great, I taught myself but it's definitely the long way around. It's said old turners only took 4-5 minutes to make a leg, I'm not there yet but it's fun to learn, improve and try. JT 1/10/00

Reply to MB: Good straight firewood works great for turning.  Generally maple or birch is used for the legs and posts.  If you buy turning blanks, they need to be high quality straight grain, and generally turning green wood is alot easier.  You might try Woodturning: A Foundation Course by Keith Rowley as a good beginning spindle turning book, but there is no substitute for a hands on learning experience. PE 1/9/00

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