A Chair is Born – Part 1

All of my chairs start the same way….., with a walk in the woods. This little ritual isn’t just to get me into the right head space for the work ahead. It has a more fundamental purpose. Out in the woods are where my chairs are born. Chairs are made of wood, wood comes from trees and trees are found in the forest. So here I am, in the woods, looking for a suitable tree.

I live in the central interior of British Columbia. That means my selection for suitable trees is fairly limited. Hardwoods do not abound here like they do in the east. Essentially, I’m looking for a birch. Birch is like the Swiss army knife of trees. It’s really good at everything without specializing. It works easily (especially when it’s still green), bends well, has good strength and looks great. Since I only have one choice for my chair wood, I’m glad it’s birch.

I harvest the wood for my chairs from close to home so I’m very particular about what tree I’m looking for. It needs to be straight and nicely rounded with no branches or obvious defects in the lower half of the tree. Its removal also needs to be beneficial to the rest of the forest. I want my woods to be healthier and prettier as a result of taking this tree down. So I have a list of criteria that it must meet. Is it growing too close to another birch? Are there smaller trees that are being stunted because of the shade my choice is casting? Has it reached maturity and started dropping branches? Is it easy to get to without having to take down other trees?

Once I’m satisfied that the tree is suitable and that the forest will benefit from its removal, its time to put it on the ground and get to work!

Entry Bench

A new bench just found a new home.

It’s always nice to finish up a project. Now is when the shop time pays off and the new piece can begin to find its way in the world. After spending so much care and effort achieving the look and finish I want, its now time for this bench to start to live. For a piece of furniture that means getting put to work. A piece of furniture that works will get used, and not always the way it was intended. The proud new owner may hop up on this bench to change a light bulb, or maybe use it on its side to barricade in the new puppy. Who knows. All this use comes with a price, though I couldn’t put a price on it. The dings, scuffs, scratches and assorted wounds that it will pick up begin to tell the story of a life lived. It also creates a beautiful patina that would be impossible to replicate. It my mind it increases the value because it now embodies the memories and stories of a life lived.

 

So it’s true that soon this bench won’t look like it did when it left the shop. That’s okay. We all look better with a few wrinkles…

This piece was created as an entry bench for a new home. A place to sit down, put your boots on and prepare for what awaits out in the world. It was built using spalted birch. Mortice and tenon joinery was used throughout, with wedged tenons for the legs and stretcher.

 

Green Woodworking

If a person is asked to describe what it is that they do, it can be very useful to have a label to answer with. The problem with labels is that they can be very vague. To say that you are a doctor doesn’t really help to describe what you do. That could mean that you are a podiatrist, a heart surgeon or it might mean that you have a Phd in literature. The label needs to be specific and give an accurate picture.

So when I tell people that I am a woodworker it can be a bit misleading. For some, a woodworker is a person with a big shop and lots of noisy, dangerous power tools.  That doesn’t describe me.  To others a woodworker is someone who works only with hand tools, using exotic wood to create elaborate pieces that are steeped with historical references and nuanced with obvious influence from the great masters. That doesn’t describe me either. To some a woodworker is a person who programs a CNC machine to create parts for whatever it is they are making. That certainly doesn’t describe me.

Green woodworking is a term that was I believe originally credited to Jeannie Alexander. She reintroduced the world to the idea that chairs were made from wood and wood comes from trees so in fact it is possible to make a chair directly from a tree. Revolutionary I know. At that point in time furniture was made with kiln dried wood and heaven help you if you tried using anything that didn’t have a moisture content below 6%. Who knows what the wood would do otherwise.

Green woodworking says, “Look we know wood moves, we know wood shrinks, let’s not be scared of that, let’s use it.”

This is what I do and who I am.  I harvest a tree from the woods around my house and I turn it into furniture. There’s no need to truck trees from the forest to a mill where it is sawn into convenient dimensions with no regard for the direction the grain is running. The lumber created in the mill is then  “cooked” in a kiln. This  may force the moisture from the wood  and make it more stable but it also permanently alters the structure of the wood, making it much less fun to work by hand and very difficult to bend. Green woodworking avoids all this by going directly from the woods to the shop. (We will look at some of the myths surrounding the dangers of using unseasoned wood at another time.)

 

Bodger?!?

With any speciality there is always a unique set of vocabulary that one must learn in order to sound intelligent and in the know. Chairmaking is not immune from the infection of jargonese. In fact because it is such an old craft the myriad of strange words is legion. Reaming, riving, scorps and adzes. Rails and stiles, rungs and spindles – which is which?

Perhaps one of the most beloved of these strange words is the term – bodger. Getting a decisive definition is an impossible task but Rachel Reynolds does an admiral job in her article “A Bodger is not a Botcher”. While the term has murky origins it seems in recent years to have adopted a modern meaning that may stick for a while. It now refers to green woodworkers who use pole  lathes to fashion items out of wood, often chair parts.

As fascinating as  word origins may be I need something more to really get excited about a word. Bodger is one of the words that I can get really excited about because I discovered I have a personal connection with it. That’s right. I’m about to add another layer of mystery to the word. My last name is Godber. Godber is an old Anglo Saxon name with deep roots in the British Isles. If you were to rearrange the letters in my last name one of the combinations you would arrive at is bodger. That’s right. My name is actually an anagram.

Godber-bodger. Now the question must be asked is bodger not perhaps an anagram for Godber. Or were my ancestors perhaps part of a secret guild of green woodworking chair makers who hid their true identity behind a clever anagram. I like the intrigue of that idea. I also like the idea that I am once again shouldering the mantle of a green woodworking, pole lathe using chair maker.  Sometimes a name just makes sense!