chairs, furniture

Chester Cornett: Retracing the methods of his cursive letter carving

One of the more peculiar things about some chairs by Chester Cornett is the cursive letter carving that he sometimes decorated his works with. The big rocking chair he made for president Nixon in 1973 has every back slat covered in cursive writing (Chester’s handwriting – but then carved).

Rocking chair Chester Cornett gave to president Nixon in 1973 

At some point recently it occurred to me that it is actually very hard to carve cursive words in wood. Getting constant flowing curves and constant depth is also quite a challenge in cursive. Though initially I thought that cursive carving is more forgiving than normal “Roman” carving, I actually think cursive is a lot harder to get right.

So why did Chester Cornett decide to carve cursive letters into his chairs? And what technique did he use? My theory is that it makes his chairs look personal, spontaneous and charming (and he may have thought so too). Plus when you start carving it gets addictive. It may be a mixture of both, in any case I get the feeling he carved primarily for himself and not to please his customers.

As for how he carved the letters, it is a mystery. I have scanned through many pictures of Cornett at work but have found none where he is carving. Normally, people use a set of carving gouges for letter carving. Since reliable sources indicate that no carving tools were found in Chester Cornett’s tool kit, the theory that he used a set of gouges is out. 

Cursive letter carvings on the bookcase rocker (1965-1966)

Another theory is that he used his general purpose knife (pocket) to do the carvings.

Chester Cornett using a knife to carve details into a rocker post

Studying some high resolution photos of his chairs, I could spot several small straight(ish) incisions.

Carving with a pocket knife would give you one flowing line and not these kinds of small stubs.

Carving into hardwoods with a pocket knife, you will end up really hurting your wrists. Chester Cornett did not use basswood for his chairs. Chester’s Nixon rocking chair from the top of this blog post for example was made out of sassafras.

My theory as to how he carved these is something completely different:

With a straight chisel and mallet.

Wooden mallet and 8mm (5/16″) wide straight chisel

The best way to test a theory is to try it out in practice. I carved some cursive letter carving into a piece of hard birch wood using one of Cornett’s examples (“Hand carved”). I carved it one time with a chisel and mallet and another time with a fixed blade (sloyd) knife, similar to Cornett’s knife in the above picture..

Carving the lettering with the sloyd knife was hard, irregular and potentially dangerous.

Carved with a Sloyd knife

Next, I used an 8mm single bevel chisel and a wooden mallet to carve the letters. Carving like this was, quite surprisingly, very easy.

Carved with a chisel and mallet

They don’t look all that different (though I think the chisel/mallet one looks superior) but with the chisel/mallet combination carving was a breeze compared to the life-threatening carving with the solid knife.

You wouldn’t think carving round shapes is possible or even easy with a straight chisel but it is. After all, you often use straight blades to shape the outsides of rounded objects in woodworking, like spoons or bowls.

We may never know the way he really did it, but I do believe that Chester Cornett carved his cursive lettering this way. It is fast, easy, and very fun – exactly what woodworking should be about. Carving into hard wood is not fun with a hand held knife, doesn’t produce good results easily and is not intuitive. Apart from that it is far more dangerous.

Having said that and having typed up this blog post, I decided to watch “hand carved” once again.

Chester Cornett is using a knife at around 49 minutes in to shape a tenon. It is not completely clear what knife it is because you only see part of it but I recognised it as a pruning knife, a folding knife used to harvest mushrooms or trim you garden plants. It has a slight downward curved edge at the tip that is similar to a chip carving knife.

I am going to try to order one of these knives online to see if I can carve cursive letters with this blade shape. It would still not explain the straight marks that are present on the larger letters in Cornett’s carvings though… 

To be continued!

-Rudy Everts

My trusty Chopin Block

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chairs, furniture, philisophy

This will outlive me

There has been much talk about furniture “outliving the maker”. And that chairs currently made could still being around in several hundreds years. A romantic view that has a nice soothing feeling for the egos of the makers currently alive. After all, what is better than feeling that your life was not in vain, your legacy still lives on, there is a tangible piece of “you” still in this world after you are gone.

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A fine example of a chair that didn’t end up in the firewood pile

The view expressed has its basis in the repulsion of the current throwaway culture. When a store-bought chair doesn’t live as long as it should because it is not well-made, it is a waste of workmanship and resources. Even if the chair was cheap it is frustrating.

Many people who make their own furniture these days therefore feel a righteous feeling about the quality of the things they make. Though this is understandable, there is one hole in the argument:

The survival of your furniture does not solely depend on how well it was made.

People forget the possibility of future idiots owning their furniture after they are gone. Sure your spouse and/or children may find your work special and treasure it in their homes during the rest of their lives but what about when they are gone? At that point your work is in the hands of the world and will likely be judged upon its appearance more that on how “well made” it is. And they won’t care about it on the same personal level because they have never known you.

Sometimes it already ends sooner. The day after you die your spouse throws out that one chair they always hated. But at least the chair outlived you!

I am a strong advocate of making things as well as you can, using the best materials and techniques at your current disposal. But there also is a danger in design and fashion, two areas furniture has historically been very susceptible to. 

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Will this chair be in style again? Is it currently in style?

The furniture you make has its roots in the current time. It doesn’t really matter what you build, it will at one point likely look dated. This means at one point your creations could (temporarily) end up in a damp cellar or a non-climate controlled barn or attic when they go out of fashion. So much for that strong staked leg joint when your chair is under attack by worms or termites..

But after that the chair will have that true antique-y look so it may become attractive again.

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This chair has been in the barn long enough and finally looks like an antique.

The bottom line is, people need to care for your creation after you are gone, or the piece may not have the long life that you intended for it. 

How do you make people care for your furniture? It helps to give or sell your pieces to people who value them. Their ancestors or friends will likely have a similar mindset. There are many examples of Welsh Stick Chairs having been in a family for generations. And this is where the quality of materials and workmanship comes in again.

I do feel that it is remarkable that, to stay with the Welsh “peasants” that built Welsh Stick Chairs several hundreds of years ago, their pieces survived for this long even if the makers’ intention never was this.

The makers back then needed something to sit on and they made it the best they could. They never meant for the chairs to be around this long – why would that be their intention?

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My latest chair

Therefore I make my chairs for the here and the now, to be enjoyed by the people who sit in them and look at them. Not for the future.  I need a place to sit and I enjoy making chairs. That is enough for me.

I hope that when my chairs get burnt they will be providing warmth to a cosy home and hopefully accompany a nice philosophical conversation.

Rudy Everts

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chairs, furniture

A German ‘Brettstuhl’

I bought an antique German ‘Brettstuhl’ from 1832.

It is in great condition and only cost me 39,30€ shipped (I guess not a lot of people want to buy these?)

Though the traditional Brettstuhl style doesn’t speak to me as much as Welsh armchairs, I am still fascinated by this one.

What I particularly like about the chair is the carving in the back rest.

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A Brettstuhl often has a hole in the shape of a heart carved in the back rest. The reason for this hole is to me unknown but it could be to hang the chair from a wall when it is not in use (I have come across a picture that shows this).

But this back is different, there is an abstract carving that to me looks like a half-open eye. This gives the chair a weird appearance (good weird). The chair is looking at you with one eye, how cool is that.

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Dating the chair was easy as the maker put the year and his initials in the back rest. He was a better chairmaker than he was letter carver, but I think his messy carving only adds to the charm of the chair.

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Detail of back rest

The wood used is oak for the back, cherry for the seat and beech for the legs.

The chair is constructed in the typical German way of adding cross battens to the seat using sliding dovetails for extra strength. The legs are then mortised through the batten and the seat, making a very solid construction. If the seat would split, the chair would still remain together because of this.

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Detail of sliding dovetail

The legs taper in towards the floor, as is common in German chairs (as opposed to Welsh chairs that usually taper out to the floor).

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There is one thing that puzzles me about the leg mortises visible from the top of the seat. Somehow there are larger holes surrounding the actual wedged legs. I don’t think it was a repair because it is present on all four legs in the same way. Perhaps the specialists can shed some light on this?

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Note the bigger circles around the leg mortises

All in all I am very happy about my purchase and I will learn a lot from studying this real-life specimen that soon enough will celebrate its 200th birthday. It still sits excellent, nothing is wobbly or loose and it is in good enough shape to survive another 200 years

I am not sure if I will ever build a Brettstuhl myself but I will take a lot of inspiration from this chair.

Rudy Everts

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chairs, furniture

Welsh Stick Chair – Part Two

Part Two

Please click here for part one of my Welsh Stick Chair build

Let’s make some sticks

With the undercarriage done, I moved to the second level of the chair – the sticks and armbow/comb.

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All sticks pentagonalized

Shaping the sticks took a lot of time. I don’t have a straight tenon cutter so everything had to be done by hand. Experimenting with a dowel plate to make the tenons made it a bit easier but the bulk of the 26 tenons in this chair was made with my Slöjd knife. It worked fine but was a lot of work.

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Short sticks done

Test-fitting the tenons is best done in a separate piece of wood and not directly in the armbow, as I found out when my armbow snapped, right at the tenon. I glued the armbow together again and made a tenon-testing-block with a 15mm hole in it.

Drilling into the seat

Drilling the mortises for the sticks in the seat has to be done at the correct angle. How do you find the correct angle? By using a long spade bit that fits through the mortise in the armbow and extends all the way to the seat. You basically pretend that the drill bit is a stick. I started with the four long sticks in the back, after those were in drilling the six short sticks was easy.

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The four longs sticks in place

For drilling the four long sticks I held the armbow in place with a jig that keeps the armbow 8” above the seat (jig is not in this picture).

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Long sticks done, starting on the short ones

The comb

With the chair now mostly done, the last thing to make was the comb.

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Here is the piece of wood I used for the comb before I carved it

I made the comb out of a piece of firewood (pine). First I marked the mortises using the long sticks and drilled them using a 15mm bit. Then I shaped the comb using a single bevel hatchet for the convex area and an adze for the concave part, followed by a draw knife and spokeshave.

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Making the comb

Testing if all pieces fit together

With all the pieces done, it was time for a dry test-fit

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Test-fit of the chair, everything fits tightly

Glue-up time

With the chair complete, I glued up the undercarriage and let it dry overnight. When hide glue is too cold, it reduces the opening time a lot. I found this out the hard way.

When I glued in one stretcher, the glue dried before I could adjust it. Trying to turn it anyway made the tenon snap. So I made a new stretcher and went ahead with the glue up. A stretcher is easy to make but the next time I will make sure my glue is hot enough.

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Undercarriage all glued up and wedged

The next day, I leveled the chair, trimmed the wedges, and glued up the sticks / armbow / comb.

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All glued up – Chair finished

Painting the chair

I decided to paint my chair with milk paint. Though I am a big fan of natural wood finishes, I wanted to paint this chair black over green. With time, the black paint will wear off and expose the green paint, making a nice contrast.

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First layer of green milk paint

After the green paint was dry, I painted the chair black.

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Finished Welsh Stick Chair

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Finished Welsh Stick Chair

The next day, I sealed the chair with linseed oil, followed by some awesome wax I got from Brian Eve, who says he will start selling it soon (and he should).

The chair is very comfortable to sit in and I like the shiny glossy black finish a lot.

I hope you enjoyed my build, please feel free to leave I comment, I would love to hear from you.

-Rudy Everts

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chairs, furniture

Welsh Stick Chair – Part One

The inspiration for a Stick Chair

When visiting San Diego last January, there was a chair that spoke to me in a special way. The back legs were splayed outward in a particular, almost determined way, as if the chair wanted to go somewhere. I wanted to take the measurements of it to replicate this inspiration at home.

 

Though I didn’t have a sliding bevel with me and there was no tape measure in sight, paper and cardboard were available in abundance, as were pencils. I decided to “use what I got” and measure away.

With the help of a piece of cardboard and a pair of scissors I was able to eyeball the angles of the legs and sticks.

 

I used a piece of card board from a Corona beer box – but I’m sure any other beer brand would have done fine too.

I put the chair upside down and turned the chair around until a leg appeared at 90 degrees toward me. This gave me the sightlines. I put a piece of paper square to the seat and used a straight piece of cardboard where the sightline was, drawing it onto the paper with a pencil.

I decided the shape of the seat and armbow could be figured out from pictures afterwards.

The rake and splay on this chair is interesting. The sightlines of the front and back legs are nearly identical and almost form a perfect ”X” when drawn on the seat. But the angle (splay) of the back legs is much more pronounced than the front ones. All four legs are parallel sideways, whereas on most stick chairs the back legs are closer to each other. This gives the chair on the one hand a balanced look but also makes it look funky and almost a little wrong – exactly what I was looking for.

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The chair from the back

 

The build – starting with the undercarriage

Funnily enough, this type of chair is often called a ‘captain’s chair’ in America, which, as written in Welsh Stick Chairs by John Brown, has its origins in Wales. Taking the inspiration from this captain’s chair to build a Welsh Stick Chair makes the circle complete.

Coming home to Munich with the valuable analysis of a comfortable chair in my pocket I was determined to start building right away.

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Wood at the home center

I went to the home center, which only carries a limited amount of wood and nothing fancy but in absence of something better I got a 58mm x 78mm x 3m spruce plank for 6,26€.

I figured if I would mess this up at least I wasn’t out too much money.

I cut it up into seven pieces and glued it up.

Seat blank before glue up

The shape of the seat is a simple D shape. After the seat was glued up I cut the shape of the seat and outlined the spindle deck 2″ from the edge. I clamped the legs at their approximate angles and took a couple of pictures upside down to make sure I was happy with the rake and splay.

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Making sure the rake and splay look good – the Australian way

When I was happy with what I saw, I took the angle of the legs using my sliding bevel and drilled and reamed the leg mortises.

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Drilling the leg mortises

With the leg mortises drilled and reamed, I added a bevel to the bottom of the seat to make for a lighter appearance. For this, I chopped the bulk away with my single bevel hatchet and cleaned it up with my jack plane.

 

The Legs

I made the legs out of the same material as the seat. The grain was remarkably straight in these pieces of wood. I first tapered the square stock and then planed the legs into octagons. The tenons were made with a draw knife followed by my Veritas tapered tenon cutter.

 

 

Saddling the seat

I saddled the seat with several tools, starting with an adze for the rough work, followed by an inshave, pullshave and lastly a curved scraper.

 

 

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Seat done, armbow started

 

Stretchers for added strength

Since I glued up the seat from 7 pieces, I decided it was a good idea to add stretchers to the undercarriage. I marked the rough location of the stretchers and clamped them to the legs to see if they had to go any higher or lower.

 

I raised the stretchers a bit more than in the above pictures, to around 7” from the ground and parallel with the seat.

 

Where to go with all these sticks

With the undercarriage done, now came the process of determining where the sticks would have to go. Finding their rough positions and marking them on the seat, I used dividers to mark their final placements.

 

Almost starting to look like a chair

 

The Armbow

The armbow was the most difficult thing about this chair. I initially wanted to use a natural crook, as historically this was the way it was often done and it seemed a fun challenge.

However it proved to be not as easy as I thought. The two pieces were shaped irregularly and eventually proved to be unsuitable. After wasting valuable time but learning valuable lessons, I used a flat board instead.

First attempt with a natural crook

Second attempt using a flat board

Shaping the armbows with a drawknife, rasps and a spokeshave was easy enough and fun. My only worry was that the armbows would be too thin, being 18mm thick (which fortunately proved not to be the case).

 

The doubler was made from a scrap piece of pine I had lying around.

 

 

Now for some funny business

I had decided that I wanted to make the sticks pentagonal. I made a bench with pentagonal legs and wanted to explore pentagons further.

Then I had the brilliant idea (…) to also make the mortises for the long sticks pentagonal.

This proved to be much harder than I assumed.

Nevertheless I am glad I did it, because I got it out of my system to ever do it again.

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Pentagonal mortises. Warning – don’t try this at home!

Since the mortises that go through the armbow and the doubler are drilled at an angle, chopping these mortises pentagonal all the way down and keeping the correct angle proved to be a difficult task. I managed it in the end with no visible gaps but I am looking forward to making a chair with round mortises, and making this part easier.

 

Next up: making the sticks.

 

The build of my chair is continued in part two.

 

 

 

 

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chairs, furniture

Chairs: Is Design The Enemy Of Comfort?

I made my first chair a couple of months ago. It was a three-legged chair to go with our Fender Rhodes electric piano. Reflecting back, I think of all the happy hours spent sourcing my materials and getting all the necessary tools together. The actual act of finishing a chair was a special moment. And it was a moment I can best describe as a “healthy addiction”, –  I knew I was hooked.

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My first chair

When I think about myself of two or three years ago I had never thought I would be building furniture. Making a chair? No, that’s impossible, only a …. what? can do that. Who or what makes chairs anyway?

Chairs are some of the most common furniture items that exist in the western world. We sit in chairs every day. Humans are quite unique in that way – animals sit or lie down on the ground, some monkeys sit on logs or rocks but no species actually makes chairs, only humans do that.

The chair as a furniture item is therefore very interesting.

You have sat in thousands of chairs in your life, but probably mostly without paying much attention to the chair. But if you were not aware of the chair that’s a good sign for the chair’s comfort.

A lot of people’s chair-sitting experience comes from sitting in mass-produced-over-designed-nice-to-look-at-but-a-pain-in-your-bottoms chairs. Many people haven’t ever sat in a chair that is specifically built to their proportions (neither have I).

The ideal chair is one that has pleasing visual proportions and high comfort.

And there lies the base of the problem. Pleasing to the eye is a subjective term and comfort is highly dependent on the sitter’s features (height, length of legs, size of buttocks, etc.). Thus compromises have to be made when corporations want to make chairs they can sell to lots of people.

Most chairs you can buy have generalized proportions to sit the gross of the population fairly okay – but not great.

The real emphasis lies on the visual design of the chair.

That is exactly why companies like IKEA can be so successful. Their designers know very well what people want to see. Their products are sometimes of dubious quality but their designs appeal to a lot of people.

Furniture is nowadays unfortunately mostly picked with the eyes and not the body.

Captain’s chair in San Diego

I have another chair in the planning. It will be a Welsh Stick Chair based on an old chair that we sat on for extended amounts of time during our trip to San Diego.

It was very comfortable and I am glad I took the measurements of it.

More on how I copied the design – without having any measuring tools with me – in this blog post.

 

-Rudy Everts

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chairs, furniture

Chair Models

I have been thinking about a chair design that has been floating through my head and decided it would be a good idea to make a model before building the actual chair. I want to make a chair that has four legs but the two back legs splay towards each other to a point, making it essentially a three legged chair. I therefore call it

a four legged three legged chair.

I had the opportunity to work in my workshop a little so I made a model of the chair:

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Chair model

I made the seat out of linden wood and drilled the holes at an angle using my Dremel with a small drill bit, by eye. This was easier than I thought and gave better results than I had hoped for. When I put the skewers (legs) in, the angles were right, amazing!

The back rest is carved out of a solid linden piece. Putting the model together was easy and it is surprisingly solid. The skewers have tapered ends so the joints work a bit like real staked furniture.

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first chair – front

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first chair – back

The outer two spindles point outwards and the centre spindle is vertical. Since the legs are all angled and there are no vertical lines in the chair, I thought it was a good idea to increase the number of spindles to four and angle them like you see on some examples of Welsh Stick Chairs, essentially creating a big shape of a W (I suppose the W stands for Wales?).
So I made another model.

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1st chair left, 2nd chair right

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2nd chair left, 1st chair right

I like the orientation of the spindles on the second chair better than the first one. The angle of the two inner spindles matches the angle of the front legs and the angle of the outer spindles matches the angle of the back legs.

The rake of the front legs has to be a bit less to decrease the chances of someone tripping over a leg (which is fine at this scale, but not in full size).

I may make one more model, adding stretchers. When I feel like the chair is to my liking I will note all the sight lines, angles and measurements from the model and make a full size chair out of it.

-Rudy Everts

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