Back in the saddle

Vacation always leaves me with two diametrically opposed things: a refreshed soul and a pile of work waiting for me when I return. That pile of work has kept me away from my workbench for a few days and I’m starting to feel the effects. This sounds overly dramatic, but I suffer a sort of atrophy when I am not in the position to make something.

Yesterday I was able to sneak in a little time preparing and bending a crest rail for a dining chair, and this morning I decided it was time to start shaping the seat. I began by drilling the holes for the legs. Last time I shaped and then drilled and I had some tear out to deal with. This time I’m trying something different.

The Anarchist’s Design Book goes into great detail about constructing a chair like this, but it only offers one solution for saddling the seat via jack plane. That’s a good solution if you aren’t into the idea of carving a traditional saddle, but I really wanted to find a happy medium between that single trough method and a more sculpted seat.

Let’s be honest. I’m not skilled enough to go full Windsor yet.

For anyone else who may be looking to follow this subtly sculpted path, I thought it might be helpful to share some observations; the first of which is it is incredibly easy to take things too far. The first seat I made (which also failed miserably) came close to this line, and it it has been in the back of my head like a mantra ever since. Each time I’m about to take an edge tool to the seat, I ask myself “is this just enough or too much?” It’s amazing how useful that has been.

On the last seat (which worked out famously) I found that I could keep the center pommel look with minimal saddle. It ended up being both subtle and graceful and I was really pleased. So, here we go with round two, and since I know it works, I took pictures this time.

I begin by laying out the outer shape of the seat, but leaving the waste. I’ll trim that when I’m ready to do the final shaping under the seat. For now it’s useful for holding the blank. I then marked a second arc 2 1/4″ forward from the first. This creates a flat where the spindles for the back will center at 1 1/8″. Work up to that line carefully.

I then mark a spot about 5 1/2″ in from the sides and back to give me my two deepest saddle points.

With those marked I use a Forstner bit to drill two depth holes to 1/4″ each. Blue tape on the bit lets me know when to stop. I then go ahead and drill a line between them to the same depth.

You can use the Schwarz Cheese Method to relieve the rest of the seat, but I think a scorp is just as fast if you have one (and it’s sharp).

At this point, I work carefully down to the depth marks and begin sculpting out the leg troughs. Remember, too much can be too much, so take it slow. If you’ve never used a scorp, this is a good lesson in learning how to control the tool. This is not brute work. There is a finesse to this tool that sometimes gets overlooked. You need to find the grain and work across it. You also need find the angle at which to hold the tool to leave the best surface behind for the next tool. 

Your shavings will be thick, but as you approach the final shape and depth of the saddle they should have a curly-que look to them that denotes you have found the optimal angle and depth of cut. Just as in shaping, there is a fine line between too much and not enough – between removing material quickly and leaving a nice surface. I’ve found that line represents efficiency.

Slow is smooth. Smooth is efficient. Efficient is fast.

Raking light and my hands will tell the story. After I’m happy with the basic shape, I’ll follow up with a travisher and scraper, but that’s a story for another post.




5 Comments Add yours

  1. Looks good Jim. Will this be one of several chairs or just a one-off?


    1. It’s the second one in a set for our dining room.


      1. That’s my problem with chairs. We can’t stop at just one. It seems so daunting from this side of things. Especially sans power tools.


      2. They go quicker than you think. I could easily build one a day if I had a full day in the shop.


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