You never know until you try

The “Uncommon Chairs” exhibit last month in New Bern has been stewing around in my brain for the past few weeks. Admittedly I haven’t moved much past the superficial aesthetic reaction stage for the most part, but I have really been stuck on the “marking stick” on display by the chair it helped to make.


The text reads (in part) as follows:

This Johnson Family chair illustrates the use of a “marking stick” to scribe a consistently spaced sequence of lines on each leg, reportedly as it turned in the lathe. These marks located the horizontal elements of the chair…

The precise method of handling this stick during the process actually remains uncertain. On first inspection, it would seem that the thing was simply applied to a rounded leg as it spun on the lathe, but efforts to re-enact this technique fail spectacularly, owing to uncontrollable vibration of the stick.

Perhaps it functioned instead like a “story pole” used by masons to lay out brick courses – or by carpenters to lay out ascending weatherboards. In both cases the iron pins would have provided a durably precise means of pricking the correct locations on a stationary leg. Highlighted with pencil or awl, these marks could then be graven into the turning leg with a skew chisel.

Perhaps further experimentation will provide a certain answer to this riddle of the marking stick.

Hmm, perhaps it will.

When I read something like this all sorts of questions come to mind. First, what does “efforts to re-enact this technique fail spectacularly” mean? How funny was that when it happened? Was anyone hurt?

Second, what were the parameters of the test? If some yahoo tried this on a modern lathe at 1600 RPM he’s lucky he didn’t lose an eye, but wouldn’t the original user have been turning on some sort of reciprocal lathe? Maybe something water or wind powered?

What happens if you keep the speed low?

Really, I had to try this so this morning I cut a stick, marked it off of the first turned leg for a child’s Windsor I’m working on, and hammered some little brads through the stick at the marked points.

At the slowest speed my lathe would turn, I’m happy to report that it did not fail spectacularly. In fact, it didn’t fail at all. It worked great.

I came back to the idea when I realized that I could also mark the major diameters right on the stick and now I’ve got a super-repeatable way to mark out these legs.

I mean, I guess I could buy the story pole idea to a certain extent. Turners do that all the time, but this seemed unique to me, and uniquely designed for a purpose. I’m going to experiment further, but it seems like a fruitful line of enquiry.


3 Comments Add yours

  1. senrabc says:

    Fantastic. Did you tell the museum? Thanks for sharing!


  2. Mike Hamilton says:

    Points trailing works a treat, points leading might indeed be spectacular. Was the re-enactor a turner?


    1. I don’t know. I do know that it worked great on the “reverse” setting or trailing on the forward setting.


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