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Shaping Chair Seat by Dennis Young

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Dennis Young
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The origins of my own chair making are much derived from the couple of years that I spent with two of the last companies in Great Britain still doing traditional work.

Both, learning the methods and being immersed in the atmosphere of the old chair making town, it afforded me the great opportunity to drink deeply from the brilliant history of woodworking within that country.
 

The "bottomers" adze for roughing out seats is still the method that I use today.  Merely picking up my adze gives me a tingle of pleasure, it feels good in my hands, and it conveys a very practical use, albeit somewhat remote from the more mechanical devices in broader application today, designed for removing wood for a similar purpose, with the loud noise and dust that they also create, and possibly being powered by the nuclear juice.  This particular seat will be for a new rocking chair design, currently in the works for a customer.

With English all wooden chairs, particularly Windsors, having been made predominantly from hardwoods, the seats more often than not, Elm, having an initial tool for seat shaping, where a lot of physical power could be applied through, as well still enabling a degree of control, the adze with the longer handle and curved wide face became the tool of choice.

During the era of segregated tasks being done by specialists, working with the adze became a separate profession in itself within the chair shops.  I'm not sure that it was such an enviable one however, as the work with the tool can be hard on your back if done for extended hours, and there also is the degree of danger working with the sharp instrument.  Carelessness can creep in with fatigue. 

I can only marvel at the fellow in the old photo, and the effort it took to adze out the many seats behind him.  Perhaps early 20th century?

Note his protective leather leggings. It's a sweet looking adze shape that he is using there as well.

Reading about the history of chair making in Great Britain, injuries weren't so uncommon within the bottomer's trade.  "No toes Neville", is one bloke still remembered in the literature.  In the very least, I still need to get one of those caps.

The seat in the video is from a local species of Cherry found in my area.  Somewhat more difficult to adze compared to the more resilient Elm, going against the grain can blow out divots deeper than you want to go, or lift up sections beyond the edges of the desired outer profile within the seat blank.

A sharp adze and caution as you go with the right touch, will give the best results. It took me a fair amount of practice initially to acquire the skill, my body learning to develop the control to lift up a shaving and follow it through to complete a pass.

With the random striking here and there without enabling the cleaner, more even furrows, common amongst folks learning to do the work, the result is far less productive in terms of more even contours, and what does result in leading up to the next steps in shaping, also comes at a slower pace.

Experience makes for the better ability.  The adze is indeed a fine tool, one where once you have learned it's use and potential, keeping it in practice is something that seems to come along with it.  I wonder how many of us are still out there using it today?

I follow the adze work with both English and Japanese hand tools for completing the seat, which I hope to also show in a video.


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