Chippendale Chairs at the Port Townsend School of Woodworking

Chippendale Chairs from the classI’m back from the Port Townsend School of Woodworking for over a week, now, but I wanted to write a little about the class I taught. This was by far the most challenging class I’ve done – at least from my end. My goal was to get a class full of students to build a sophisticated chair using almost exclusively hand tool joinery. We incorporated what is now years of my work developing methods, jigs and systems for cutting complex angled joints with accuracy and repeatability.

I did more preparation for this class than for any other class I’ve taught. I needed to make special historically inspired tools and jigs (Chairmaker’s saws and Tenoning Frames), develop some simple paring and chopping guides.

Mortise Paring Jigs

A simple and an adjustable (and angled) mortise paring jig

I also had to  work through the building process in a way that students of varying skill levels (from talented beginner to pro) could handle it. I also had to prepare the “kits” of parts for the chair, which consisted of pre-cut rough parts for all of the components. Then there were drawings of the chair, detail drawings of the joinery, and patterns for the shaped parts to create.

It all went well, although we lost power during a wind storm on the last day. This only really affected the shaping of the crest rail, back splat, and saddle, which we were cutting on the band saw. The hand tool work went on as planned.

There were a few keys to the successful build:

  1. PortTownsendChopping

    Chopping an angled mortise.

    We used mortise paring guides; simple, shop made blocks with fences that helped guide the chopping – whether it was for straight or angled mortises – and then paring of the mortises. This helped keep the mortises under control. Good, clean mortise walls are key to a good joint.

  2. We fit the tenons using a router plane. This ensured that the cheeks were flat and parallel, and once everyone got the hang of taking off just a little bit at a time, the fitting went well.
  3. Fitting tenons with a router plane

    Fitting the tenon cheeks with a router plane

    We cut the shoulders using a Chairmaker’s saw, holding the work in a Tenoning Frame. I wrote about both of these previously, both in Popular Woodworking, and here. This is what these tools are designed for, and they do the job amazingly well. They take a challenging process and make it simple.

  4. We used wedges for the two main angles in the chair. One wedge was for the outward splay of the back legs (and it also helped lay out the twist in the side rails, the optional stretcher mortises, helped cut the angled tenons on the back rail, and also worked as a clamping caul for the back assembly). The other wedge was for the splay of the side rails, and was just as versatile. I’m not sure how I’d build chairs without wedges. And I think the students got a good taste of why I feel that way.

The most difficult part of building the chair? There were four joints where we couldn’t use router planes for fitting. Relying instead on shoulder planes proved challenging. Even though these are considered the standard tools for this job, shoulder planes take a lot of practice to use effectively when fitting tenons, and there were more than a few of these joints that had to be patched and reworked as students got the hang of the tools.

There’s no question that a router plane (I’m speaking mostly about one of the modern versions from Lie-Nielsen or Veritas) makes fitting tenons much more reliable. If this is something you haven’t tried, it’s worth giving it a shot. It’s not a universal replacement; as we saw with this chair, there are joints that call for other tools. But the router plane is a terrific tool for tenons.

Measuring for the front rail

Measuring for the front rail

The classic Chippendale Chair – a great project to build by hand

Chippendale ChairMost of my furniture designs are decidedly contemporary. But I’m always looking at period furniture as a source of inspiration. A couple of years ago, I was doing some research into chair design and I found myself powerfully drawn to the basic form of the Chippendale chair. This chair can be almost modern in its appearance, but it is still classic 18th Century design. I decided I had to make one.

What is particularly intriguing about this style of chair is that is was typically made by hand. It’s a project that still builds well by hand; some of the joinery is actually easier by hand than with machines. I’ve been working on methods that make the process much more manageable than you might expect. These are simple ways to control some of the more challenging aspects of chair design; namely, coping with the angled joinery.

Angled mortises can be mystifying, but an angled block of wood with a fence can make them almost foolproof. And tenons with angled shoulders can be a real pain if you’re trying to do them by machine, but by hand they are no harder than straight tenons. And some historic jigs that I’ve been working to resurrect make the process even simpler than with machines. And the jigs themselves are simple to build and work with.

After building a few of these chairs, it occurred to me that this would be a terrific project for a class.

Building this chair is very much like building a Windsor chair: it’s a project that seems complex, but it’s a piece that was originally designed to be built using hand tools and it’s far more manageable than you might think. The techniques may be less familiar than Windsor chair techniques have become. But what you learn is also much more applicable to the rest of your woodworking. Mastering mortise and tenon joinery and shaping and smoothing curves are gateway skills to a whole world of better woodworking.

I’ll be teaching a Chippendale chair class at the Port Townsend School of Woodworking (in beautiful Port Townsend, WA) from August 24th– 29th. Port Townsend is a beautiful waterfront town at the northeast tip of the Olympic Peninsula, with great food and plenty of other things to do nearby (among other things, Olympic National Park is close – the mountains form the backdrop for the town).

I’ll also be working on a video on how to build this classic chair for Lie-Nielsen Toolworks. We’ll be recording a couple of weeks before the class in Washington. So I’ll definitely be bringing my A game to the class.

Chippendale chair details


Using the Wood Stretcher to attach the rockers on my new chair

Lower assembly on rocker My new rocking chair design is coming along very nicely. But there have been some real challenges. At the moment, the front legs/arm supports are single pieces of wood that pierce the seat (which extends back to make the rear legs). This joint is my usual brand of crazy, but that’s not the problem. The front legs need to be glued in place to the seat before I can move on to attaching the rockers. But the front legs point in a different direction from the back legs. And the tenons on the ends of the legs point in different directions as well. So they don’t fit in the mortises in the rockers. And there’s not enough flex in the assembled parts to force everything into place (I tried).

 Cue the Wood Stretcher. I laminated the rockers, so they are exceptionally strong. But they do flex a little, with very little risk of breaking. Flattening them out a bit by pulling down on the ends with clamps doesn’t just take some of the curve out; it effectively lengthens the rockers a little. Just enough, in fact, to allow me to slip the tenons into the mortises. Releasing the clamps lets the rockers spring back, and locks the joints together, making the attachment between the legs and the rocker pretty much impossible to get apart (without flattening the rocker again). It’s incredibly cool to see this work.mis-aligned tenonStretching the RockerTenon now aligned with mortise


Shaker Nightstand Online Class

Shaker Nightstand


I spent some time over the summer shooting a video class on building a Shaker style Nightstand (or side table) with the folks from Craftsy. The class is now up and running on their site.

This is a class on using hand tools to do the joinery and shaping on the table. I cover jointing and gluing up a top, and then flattening it by hand. I talk about hand chopping the mortises, sawing the tenons, and then fitting the joints properly. Also covered is shaping the bevel on the underside of the top and tapering the legs with hand planes, cutting table buttons and mortising the aprons for the slots so the buttons can attach the top, and assembly and finishing techniques. Underside of Table

The table itself is incredibly versatile. I think we have eight or ten of them (with some variations) in various places around our house. They work next to traditional as well as contemporary pieces. And although the design is so subtle as to be spare, done well, the piece has a lot of impact.


Click here to get $10 off on this class!  










Port Townsend and the Jig of the Week

Port Townsend School of Woodworking nightstandsI just got back from my week of teaching at the Port Townsend School of Woodworking. The class was on building a  frame and panel nightstand (or side table), with haunched mortise and tenon joinery (and half-blind dovetails for the upper stretchers), all of which was cut by hand. In other words, this was a seriously ambitious project for a 5-day class. But also a project that really put into practice the fundamentals of solid wood case construction.

The killer day was Wednesday, which was when we cut and fit all of the tenons to the mortises. It was a long, hard day, but that really put us on the path to completion on Friday. One of the things that helped get everyone through the process was a dead-simple jig.

The walnut block aligns the grooves in the leg and the rail.

The walnut block aligns the grooves in the leg and the rail.

Using the tool

Keeping the walnut block in place and moving the rail back out of the way, I mark out the location of the mortise at the bottom of the groove.

The “jig of the week” was a simple 3/8” by 1 ¼” by 3” block that fit into the grooves for the panel in the legs, the rails, and for the case bottom. This helped with mortise layout and was invaluable in fitting the tenons to the mortises (you could easily tell where to remove wood from the tenon to keep the grooves aligned by sliding this stick out along the tenon while still in the groove in the rail).

"Tool of the Week" in use

The walnut stick shows how much wood needs to be removed from the tenon for perfect alignment of the groove with the groove in the leg.

I’m not sure that this is something that would be as helpful in different situations, but here, where the legs and rails were not aligned flush but the grooves needed to be, it was something everyone used over and over. And everyone’s grooves lined up perfectly.

Port Townsend School of Woodworking Nightstand Class

Nightstand Assembly


Assembling the nightstand

Fitting the nightstand bottom

The Hidden Agenda

I have a few classes coming up that offer interesting opportunities to learn some of the less commonly taught skills.

The Slat-Back Chairs from J. Miller Handcrafted FurniturApril 21st through 26th in my shop, I’ll be teaching how to make  my slat-back chair. This is both a chair basics class and a class in some really sophisticated techniques. And it’s all very do-able. You’ll learn about cutting and smoothing curves, and also about lamination as a way to make exceptionally strong, thin curved components. The joinery on this chair covers what you’d need for almost any other joined chair; and I’m excited to be able to show off all kinds of methods for making even the most complex mortise and tenon joints simple. Chairs have been my focus for the last 30 years, and this is a chance to tap into the insights, techniques and tricks that I’ve learned.

Stool/Table for the Wortheffort Woodworking School ClassOn May 9th – 11th, I’ll be at the Wortheffort School of Woodworking in San Marcos, Texas. The project here is a small stool or table (it works and looks good either way). This is an opportunity to master hand-cut mortise and tenon joinery, and there are a few dovetails thrown in just for fun. Mortise and tenon joinery is the backbone of all woodworking; it’s the best joint for joining parts in most furniture projects. But it somehow gets short shrift compared to the dovetail (its showy, and much more famous sibling). I’ve been cutting mortise and tenon joints using countless different methods since my very first days as a woodworker. And I’ve been teaching what I’ve learned (and continue to learn) for almost 20 years.

And then on May 19th through 23rd, I’ll be at the Port Townsend School of Woodworking, in Port Townsend, Washington (a spectacularly beautiful town on the Puget Sound) I’ll be teaching a class on building case pieces. The project is a small nightstand, but the fundamental construction techniques apply to all kinds of traditionally joined casework. We’ll cover frame and panel construction, mortise and tenon joinery, and half-blind dovetails; along with gluing up and smoothing panels, ship-lapped backs, and more. This is an ambitious project, but it all comes together beautifully, with lots of methods that make the seemingly difficult much easier.

So what’s the hidden agenda? Throughout each of these classes, I’m secretly trying to make you a significantly better woodworker. I’ve been pretty focused over the past few years on what really makes a difference in a person’s woodworking abilities (leading to the publication of my book, The Foundations of Better Woodworking); stuff that doesn’t get a whole lot of play in your typical book or article. And I’ve found that this foundational stuff makes a huge difference for my students. I’m constantly looking out for little things that I can help you to understand what you’re doing better, and ways you can use your body more efficiently and accurately to get the work done.

And don’t miss the Lie-Nielsen Hand Tool Event taking place in my shop this coming weekend (April 11th 10 am – 6 pm, and April 12th, 10 am – 5 pm).

Difficult tenon shoulders made easier

The Tenoning Frame and Armchairmaker's Saw

The Tenoning Frame and Armchairmaker’s Saw

The tenoning frame and armchair maker’s saw (see my article in the February 2014 Popular Woodworking magazine) are great for cutting ordinary tenon shoulders. But these tools are also perfect for cutting tenon shoulders on curved parts, and equally good at cutting angled shoulders on straight parts. In fact, the only real difference in any of these cases is in the set-up of the part in the tenoning frame.

Setting up the workpiece in the Tenoning Frame with the spacer block and scribing disk

Setting up the workpiece in the Tenoning Frame with the spacer block and scribing disk

Straight parts and right-angled shoulders are easy; put the part in the jig against a square registration fence and align the shoulder with the layout guide. I usually do this not just by eye, but by feeling for the scribing disk registering in the scribed shoulder line.

With angled parts, you can do exactly the same thing if you have a wedge to help you set the angle. Just place your wedge between the workpiece and the side of the tenoning frame and slide the workpiece up or down until the scribed line registers with the disk on the spacer block. Note that you can orient your workpiece so that either the wide face or the narrower edge is clamped in the jig, depending on which way you need to angle the shoulders.

Using a wedge to set the shoulder angle

Using a wedge to set the shoulder angle

You could do the same thing with curved parts by making a making up a curved positioning jig to match the curved part. But you could also try a different approach that I have found works faster. Replace the scribing disk on your spacer block with a spokeshave blade (or any other small blade with one flat side) mounted flat side down. Better yet, just screw the blade to the opposite edge of the spacer block. Using this to register the scribed line, it will be easier to line up your scribed shoulder line perfectly level in the tenoning frame. The blade works

The spacer block with a spokeshave blade

The spacer block with a spokeshave blade

with angled shoulders, or even straight ones, but I find that with these, it’s easier to work as I suggested above, using either a square fence or a wedge in combination with the scribing disk.

It works well to leave the workpiece in the tenoning frame to cut the cheeks of the tenon as well. It will be well positioned for this work, and there’s no need for any additional set up.

The set-up for cutting the shoulder on a curved part

The set-up for cutting the shoulder on a curved part

Another way to angle the tenon shoulders

You can also set up to angle the shoulders this way









I’ve added a drawing for the simpler version of the tenoning frame. This one is best used with a flush trim saw held with the side of the saw against the top of the jig.Drawing of alternative jig

The Complex Joinery of the Toccata Chair

double, or twin tenons IMG_0624I worked on the stretchers for my Toccata chair today. This is probably the most difficult part of this chair. Each stretcher is a bent lamination, which gets let into a groove in the rear leg, and then joins with the front leg with what turns out to be a compound-angled twin tenon (into a curved part). And there’s a little twist (in the stretcher) thrown in for ‘fun’.

I guess the first question is “why?” Well, after messing around with various options as I was designing the chair, I settled on this as by far the strongest way to do the stretcher. It also allows for the stretcher to grow out of the rear leg visually, and adds the strength of a lamination to a vulnerable part of the rear leg. The twin tenon? Again, it’s the strongest joint for the job. There’s lots of good glue surface in the two short mortises and tenons that run vertically. A horizontal tenon would leave lots of endgrain in the mortise, which adds almost nothing to the joint strength. And the compound angles? Well, that  happens a lot on chair stretchers.

I try not to let technical issues get in the way of what I want to do with a design. Once I know what I want the chair to look like (which certainly can take a while), I figure out what I think is the best way to do it. This single thing – not designing within my limits – has done more than anything else to improve my woodworking skills.

I don’t really worry about joints like this any more. I’ve seen these over and over as a chair maker, and I’ve learned to deal with them in many different ways. Most of the work here was by hand. The trickiest part of the day was scribing the shoulder of the twin tenon to match the leg. I’m still developing my own tools for this, but here I relied on a thin knife blade and a spacer. Then came paring back to the scribed lines. Toccata Chair from J. Miller Handcrafted Furniture

Pins First, or Tails First? It Doesn’t Matter.

Want to start a woodworking argument? Start talking about cutting pins first or tails first for dovetails. And the funny thing is, it doesn’t matter. I’m not saying there aren’t reasons for choosing one approach over the other. But that’s not what’s going to determine your success or failure with dovetails. Of course, that’s not what we’re led to believe. “The best method,” “a new method,” or “so-and-so’s method” are supposed to make it easier. And so we try these new methods, or new tools, or whatever, in the hope of finally getting better.

Most of the time, searching around for the best method is just chasing around in circles. It doesn’t address what’s really keeping you from improving. In fact, it’s a serious distraction from working on what’s really important.

So what’s the secret? The same things that are important when cutting mortises and tenons; good saw and chisel technique, which in turn is based on proper body position and movement, and a strong concept of how the tools actually work with the wood. Also important are good layout and a really clear understanding of the lines. Beyond that, it’s just a set of instructions and a fair bit of practice.

These foundations of good work are the subject of my new book, which is currently at the printer, and expected to be out in early November (and first available at Woodworking in America). Or you can pre-order from:

The Foundations of Better Woodworking

Lie-Nielsen Weekend Workshop

The weekend after Las Vegas was more or less the exact opposite experience: teaching a workshop on mortise and tenon joints by hand at Lie-Nielsen in rural Maine. Hand tool heaven. It was great to get a tour of the Toolworks, get to know Thomas Lie-Nielsen and a bunch of the great people who work there a little better, and to teach a room full of very enthusiastic hand tool woodworkers.

Here are some photos of the weekend, graciously provided by Lie-Nielsen:

Sawing the cheeks must have been going well....

LN workshop 2

....and the shoulders, too.

LN workshop 3

LN workshop 4

LN workshop 5

LN workshop 6

Thanks to everyone at Lie-Nielsen, and to all of the students who were there!