E’ it’s funny names I give chairs isn’t it. Last month I promised you the details of how I was playing around with colour on a development of the writers chair we featured a few months ago. This chair is lower than the writers chair. Do you remember she was faced with the problem of a work surface 6 inches higher than any known desk. So she needed a correspondingly tall chair but the chair we are making here is taking the idea of that writers chair with its big sweeping curves and developing a salon chair of a more standard height.
We started off with the idea of making a matched and handed pair of chairs – that is a pair of chairs that went together but one was swooping to the left and one was swooping to the right. The construction of the chair was based on the writers chair and this time it was Martin Dransfield who was making the chair for me. We don’t have a client for these chairs so there was no problem if Martin took longer than usual, which is what I would expect from somebody new to this business. All of the legs and the crest rail are in this case laminated up from constructional veneers of either 2 mm thick or 1.5 mm thick. We went for the 2 mm where the curves were relatively gently but on the lowest arm that formed the top of the front leg the curves were getting very, very tight and we used 1.5 mm constructional veneers to create that leg. Constructional veneers are quite expensive but it is possible, by using consecutive veneers that are cut from the same piece of wood so that when they are reassembled in a laminated process they can create a curved form with no evidence of the laminating process visible at all. That is if you get your joints are right which of course Martin did. Fitting the crest rail on this chair was the most difficult part. Martin is getting pretty good at that now. It’s mostly down to marking out and then cutting very exactly to the line. Each leg is fitted to the top rail with a double mitre joint or bird’s mouth joint, and we pull it all together with a screw that is plugged from the underside of the crest rail. I like using screws in this situation because it enables one to do a joint that would in normal circumstances be impossible to cramp up and also a screw gives it a considerable amount of strength to an already very strong joint. When you are using a screw in this situation you have got to make sure that the plug is fitted absolutely cleanly. We have a set of matching plug cutter drill bits that give very clean results. You don’t need a special set like those sold for the purpose but you do need to have matched your drill bit to the plug cutter, kept for that purpose. We recently checked the size of holes that were cut by 10 mm drills. We have 4 in the workshop and each one can cut a different size hole. The difference is almost ½ mm over the entire range. All the drills were new and all the drills have been bought from the same source.
My greatest fun with this chair was applying the coloured surface. This was done by first applying a Gesso to the wooden frame don’t worry ill tell you about Gesso in a minute.
My greatest fun with this chair was applying the coloured surface. This was done by first applying a Gesso to the wooden frame don’t worry ill tell you about Gesso in a minute. The wood was first scraped but not sanded. I wanted a slightly toothed surface for the Gesso to take on. The chair was then given a coat of thin rabbit skin glue size. Rabbit skin glue is a little bit like Hide glue but it’s a paler slightly weaker glue and is used her because it will nor darken the finished surface. Gesso was then applied. All the Gesso is, is a very fine mixture of whiteing powder or powdered chalk and rabbit skin glue. The Gesso makes a mixture which is very much like single cream and can be painted onto the job like a posh coat of emulsion paint. What you have to do is apply approximately 6 or 7 coats of this thin creamy liquid. As each coat is applied it is sucked on to the surface by the previous layer. This is one of the reasons I wanted a Gesso finish because its so absorbent. After 6 or 7 layers of Gesso is applied it is allowed to cure for a couple of days before it can be water polished. This is done by taking lukewarm water and a fine cloth and gently rubbing the surface. This is effectively melting down the top layer of the Gesso. The top coat can then be finished off with 500 grit wet and dry paper. The whole process took us a bit longer than we thought and the closing day for the exhibition was looming large so I was presented with a schedule of two more days to finish this chair before Mary Holland, who does our upholstery was arriving to put the seat on. Hey, ho!
What is so nice about this is that it is absolutely porcelain smooth and the surface absorbs moisture so I was able with a fine air brush, to spray artists water colours to achieve the kind of colours that I wanted. Firstly, I was after a very pale green, to reflect the colour of the suede leather seat that we were going to use and then this rhubarb red colour around the tops of the arm. I got the whole idea from growing forced rhubarb on my vegetable patch. Each spring I put a large Victorian square chimney pot over my rhubarb so that the young shoots grow up through this chimney pot searching for light, making long thin and very delicious stems of rhubarb. What caught my eye this year was the colour, the pale green at the bottom of the stems going up to this vivid rhubarb red at the top.
Firstly, I was after a very pale green, to reflect the colour of the suede leather seat that we were going to use and then this rhubarb red colour around the tops of the arm.
Having finished the piece I must admit to having some worries about this finish. These worries really revolve around how well it will withstand further use. Gesso is a surface is vulnerable to chips and damage and although its been used in the Louis XIV period of guilded chairs in that situation it takes chips and damage relatively well. The gesso merely shows through the gold as a relatively unobtrusive part of ageing but I’m not so sure how well this chair will age. I’ve a feeling that in a little while it might just look tatty. So after our exhibition I may take it back and play with it again a bit further. The surface we have at the moment is fairly strong being covered in protective water based lacquer but I would like to have something a little stronger than this.
Our other chair was known first in the workshop as Madam Butterfly to reflect the kind of open winged petal shapes we were working with and then as the shapes became more resolved she got the name of Miss Whiplash. I think I prefer Miss Whiplash. The challenge with Miss Whiplash was to make the arm sections which although he made them superbly took Nick an inordinate length of time. The centre of these sections was cut out of stack laminated plywood. On the either side of that core a laminated front and back leg was then fixed and the whole assemble was then veneered in a vacuum bag with constructional maple veneers. To that assembly the top arm rail was then fixed up. A slide here shows that the cramping set up used for fixing that top arm rest being checked in a dry glue up before the core had been veneered and the legs fixed on. Compared to these the back section was relatively straight forward made of 4 pieces of which I think only 2 were laminated. I think one of the slides here shows Nick lacquering these pieces. The core of this chair is the seat assembly. This is a square frame to which the two side arms and the back frame is fixed. Here again with screwing through that frame into these side and back frames. And also getting a fixing as far up the back frame as we possibly can to give rigidity. The fun part of this chair was deciding the wiggles along the arms and across the top of the crash rail. Here it’s a matter of the designer coming in and waving his magic pencil all over the place. I wanted a shape that was spirited and very energetic and it was a matter of going over and over and over again to create the right kind of pencil line. One arm came very quickly. The crest rail came if I remember, very quickly perhaps after a couple of goes. But the third arm took dozens of attempts to find the kind of shape that I wanted. Working with Nick here is essential to my creative process. He can translate my ideas into 3-dimensions, making suggestions about how the thing can be developed a step or two further by twisting a line, undercutting it here, leaving it thick and fat there, making it lean and sharp here. I think without Nick it would be very difficult for me to do this kind of work so convincingly. The upholstery went relatively well. I always have worries about upholstery but this chair was upholstered in two very straight forward sections. The back went on to a laminated frame which sat inside rebates in the maple chair back. The seat was a drop in seat upholstered on a separate frame that just sat on the seat base. The front of the upholstered seat came down and oversailed the seat base and gave a nice neat totally upholstered look to the front of the chair. I like this kind of work because it means the upholstery can be done separate from the chair and our upholsteress is very clever and careful at not waving her tacker gun around our delicately lacquered surfaces. We gave Mary a terrible task with the rhubarb chair saying that she had to upholster that seat in record time but not touch the chair with her dreaded tacker gun at all ‘cos it was very delicate and very vulnerable to dings. This she did with consummate skill.
We gave Mary a terrible task with the rhubarb chair saying that she had to upholster that seat in record time but not touch the chair with her dreaded tacker gun at all ‘cos it was very delicate and very vulnerable to dings. This she did with consummate skill.
At last you get a chance to see Martin Dransfield’s wonderful little cabinet. Martin made this cabinet to show a prospective employer his skills as a trainee cabinet maker. I think he has achieved a wonderful result. This piece is now on exhibition at the Devon Guild of Craftsmen in Bovey Tracey at the annual exhibition of members work. Do, if you get a chance go along and see that show as there is a lot of very nice woodwork by other members including Alan Peters, and Petter Southall. You also get the chance to see “Rhubarb” and the “Zoe” –The writers chair. I have two students at the moment making jewellery boxes James Harvey who joined us about 3 months ago is shown here sawing the lid off one of his boxes. We’ve tried sawing the lids off jewellery boxes in all sorts of ways including putting them on a table saw and firing them through the bandsaw but we come back to the safest way of using two pencil lines and a tenon saw. The aim is to start the saw cut on the far side of the box and gently and slowly lower the saw down to create a kerf coming towards you. In this way the straightness of the saw is used to your benefit to create a straight shallow cut rather than a deep cut.