Project report: Hepplewhite chair

(a picture of this chair appears at: http://www.ucalgary.ca/~kmuldrew/woodworking/hepchair.html )
The Fool's Progress
A couple of years ago I bought the book, "Federal Furniture, by Mike Dunbar. Mostly I was interested in reading about the style and the craftsmanship that was employed in the Federal period, although I also dreamed of building some of that stuff eventually. This past winter, while thumbing through the book, I was overwhelmed by an urge to build the Hepplewhite Chair described in the book. The chair is understated in relation to most federal period dining chairs, which tend to be quite ornate. This was good because my carving skills were (and still are :-O) those of a complete beginner (a recent post from Mike Hide about getting a decent book on carving was taken to heart; this winter I'm going to learn a few strokes). What worried me the most about this chair was the fact that every mortice and tenon joint involved an angled (and even a compound angled) mortice. Nevertheless, I barged ahead, expecting a few hard lessons from the school of experience (you know, the one that gives the exam first and the lessons afterwards).
I started with the carved back splat, figuring that if I couldn't get that to look reasonable then I would be spared the difficulties farther along. I picked up a small piece of 6/4 Honduras mahogany (not just because it's so easy to carve, this is the wood that the original was make from as well) and cut out the rough shape on the bandsaw. I was going to get a fret saw for the interior cuts but while walking through Home Depot one day I came upon the low-end Delta scrollsaw for $69. I bought it on the spot and finished all the cutting later that day (now I know how people can get addicted to scroll sawing; it's almost as much fun as a lathe).
I had some cheap carving chisels lying around, and despite knowing that it was a fool's economy to use crap tools on expensive wood, I was trapped by the economy of obligation. No money meant no tools, so the choice was to make do or stop work. I spent a lot of time trying to shape and sharpen the chisels and was able to get very good results with the straight edge tools, mediocre results with the shallow gouge and appalling results with the parting tool. There was just no way to make any progress without a good parting tool so I dropped by Lee Valley hoping to find something on the returns shelf (returned tools that are still serviceable get re-sold on the cheap). It was a longshot, but better than nothing. There actually were a couple of carving tools on the discount shelf but no parting tool, but while talking to one of the Lee Valley people about my problem, he suggested a dirt-cheap set of plastic-handled carving chisels that they carried. He had used them and was surprised by the quality so I put down my $15 and got the set. I finished the carving using these tools and I must say that the limiting factor was my skill level, which sat a couple of orders of magnitude below the quality of the tools. Also I had difficulty figuring out what the carving was supposed to look like from the small picture in the book. It looks like a few stalks of wheat, or something like that, so I just carved a pattern that looked vaguely similar. A better pattern would have helped since I couldn't really get a decent mental picture of the relief. It's hard to remove everything that doesn't look like elephant when you can't picture the elephant.
The carving went pretty slowly as I often found myself too busy to get much shop time, but by the time it was done I had enough money to get a big slab of 8/4 mahogany for the rest of the chair. The back sides have a double-fluted reeding on both edges with the center hollowed out. My reeding tool has a flat face to use as a fence which wouldn't have worked on the curved pieces so I built a new one with a curved fence. Then I shaped a cutter for the double reeding and proceeded to scratch that in. The scraping was pretty rough in places but removing the center material was dead easy.
The joinery presented a huge challenge. Rather than make the custom cradles described by Dunbar, I decided to go with angled tenons rather than angled mortices on those joints with a curved back. On the joints with a flat back I simply angled my drill press to get the correct angle for the mortice. For the compound angled mortice I just closed my eyes and freehanded a hole using a hand drill. Remarkably, it fit perfectly. Glue-up went easily without any snags (pretty unusual for my sort of work) and all that remained was final sanding, boiled linseed oil, and a few coats of orange shellac. The slip-seat was made of 1/2" baltic birch plywood with 3/8" closed cell foam on the bottom (a piece of a blue camping foamy) and 1" open cell foam over top, covered with black leather.
The chair is very comfortable to sit in and feels solid, despite its light weight (probably about 8 or 9 lbs). Even if it had ended up on a fire pit, it would have been worth the time and money just for the experience, but I think I'll keep it just the same. Every time I look at it I'm amazed that a duffer like me could actually build something like that. Maybe when I get better at carving I might make a whole set.
Ken Muldrew snipped-for-privacy@ucalgary.ca
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Ken Muldrew writes:

snip
You done good from all I can see.
Charlie Self
"We have a firm commitment to NATO, we are a *part* of NATO. We have a firm commitment to Europe. We are a *part* of Europe." Dan Quayle
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On 08 Aug 2003, Ken Muldrew spake unto rec.woodworking:

Looks just perfect, Ken. You protest too much about your skill level, though... I looked at the rest of your woodworking pages!
Very nicely done, keep up the fine woodworking (to coin a phrase).
Scott
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Now the problem will be keeping people from sitting on it and obscuring your beautiful work ;)
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Ken Muldrew wrote:

I saw your bookcase pics - I'm about to start building from the same plans. Do you have any comments on the plans (mistakes, etc)? Of course, you modified the plans, so it may not be relevant, but I thought I'd ask, anyway...
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Chris Merrill
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Nice chair. Chairs are a lot more difficult than most furniture making ,they are more like freeform objects. You at least went the extra yard with the mortice and tenon joints , I usually chicken out and dowel the joints.
If you are interested I came across a book last year at the Duluth Ga woodworking show on making chairs . The book is by Ken Clark and is worth a look ....mjh
-- mike hide http://members.tripod.com/mikehide2

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