Book Review – Going with the Grain, Making Chairs in the 21st Century

Green_work

I haven’t made much progress on my dresser recently, and it is mostly because I’ve been dabbling in some green woodworking, following the instructions in Mike Abbott’s book, Going with the Grain, Building a Chair in the 21st Century.

Book

This is really more than a book review, it’s also a process review.  The author of this book, Mike Abbott teaches green woodworking courses in a magical woodworking Neverland in the UK and has for many years.  In this book, he has documented exactly how he teaches the art of building chairs from green wood.  And I do mean EXACTLY.  This is a picture book that is detailed beyond any other woodworking source (DVD’s included) I’ve ever seen. This book was designed to show anyone precisely what to do in building a chair with green techniques and why they should.  Typically, I’m far too prideful to follow any published plans too closely, but while reading this book I decided that Mike made his process look so easy that I had to try it just like he teaches it.  He lays out the whole process from the perspective of someone who has no tools and no experience building anything. It starts with the tools required (probably obtained for less than $300) then moves in to building a shaving horse with construction grade lumber.  To his credit, he skipped the token 2 pages on sharpening tools.  He covered that in his other book (Living Wood), and there is tons of sharpening instruction freely available online.

 

Reading

One day I expect I will build a pretty, hardwood shaving horse.  In the meantime, this version that took me 2 hours to build is no compromise on functionality (only looks and comfort).  I built it 100% to Mike’s specifications, including a hardwood pin, which is the first thing I made using the shave horse.  I’m not publishing a how-to here because that is well documented in his book (you should buy it).

Club

I then turned to the next page and made a club (in the trustworthy hands of my nephew) with a piece of red oak firewood, again following his step by step process. The dabbling that I have been doing now is learning to use my froe and drawknife to make the first furniture project in the book – a footstool.  I thought this simple little stool was beneath me, but I decided that since these green techniques were new to me, I should start with the stool.

Stool_parts

I haven’t finished the stool yet, but I’m close.  Here’s all the pieces that I have so far.  I’m waiting for the rails/rungs to finish drying out so I can knock them into the legs. I rate this book as excellent for how-to instruction and highly recommend it to anyone considering building chairs.  Even if you think you want to saw chairs out of kiln dried lumber, this book is a great source and may convince you to find a fresh cut log instead.

Enough glowing, there are 2 problems opportunities with the book.  First, it was definitely written for woodworkers who love their Queen.  Almost all sources listed are UK based and all dimensions are given in metric (most have conversions given in Imperial).  If you can’t convert units (1 inch = 25.4mm), try Google.  (Apparently a new 2nd edition corrects this.)

One plus for North Americans is easy access to the only proprietary tool he recommends, the Lee Valley 5/8 inch tenon cutter.  So, living in North America actually makes it easier to follow this distinctive teaching.

The second issue is that he generally goes from the tree in the woods to completed chair in a week or so.  Why is that a problem?  Mike “turns” tenons while the wood is very green and plans for them to shrink into ovals (like a naturally wedged M&T).  This is fine and good if you are working with wood that is still dripping wet, but what about wood that is semi-green, or closer to dry?  I’m currently working with some cherry that I quartered a few months ago, and I’ve tried to keep green.  In my experimenting so far, this wood does not shrink up as much as Mike teaches, but he shows what to do in this case.

FYI – I’m working on a modified technique for semi-green wood.  I’ll post it here if it works (and if it doesn’t). After I finish the foot stool, I hope to build a few bar stools for our kitchen and then a spindle back chair (or 6).  Both of these builds are covered in this book in plenty of detail.  I’m really enjoying the process of green woodworking.  There is just something great about dominating a massive log with a wedge and maul, then finessing firewood with a froe and drawknife to yield the pieces needed that makes you feel like you can make anything.  That’s a powerful feeling.

Bob Jones

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One thought on “Book Review – Going with the Grain, Making Chairs in the 21st Century

  1. Pingback: Thanks, Tim Manney | The Christian Tool Cabinet

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