The building of #4 has been mostly seamless. The maple came from a local sawyer in the form of a fresh, thirty inch long, twenty four inch diameter cutoff from a veneer log heading to Canada. It split beautifully and turned like butter. The legs, stretchers and arm posts emerged from the splittings with minimal coaxing. The arm bow came from a beautiful white oak I got for #3. The spindles were born from a different section of white oak that a local tree doctor dropped off for my use. Both oaks split nicely with a minimum of wasted wood.
When I went to shave the arm bow blank, I noticed a little "kink" in the wood, slightly to the left of the center of what was to become #4's most visible feature. Remembering well the lesson that "perfect is the enemy of good enough" (thanks Pete), I decided that this little "kink" would come out in the steaming process or at least be a charming addition to the chair. I fancied myself an experienced chairmaker, who, having mastered the fine art of following the fibers, would quickly tame this little flaw on the otherwise flawless piece of white oak. So I shaved and shaped and very quickly had a mostly pleasing arm bow, ready for the steam box. Mostly pleasing, except for the "kink" that looked like the tree had grown around a one inch section of steel pipe. Of course, there was no pipe, but there was a pretty severe bump. My best childhood buddy and motocrosser, M.L. Walker (a.k.a. "Mr. Motocross") would have called it a "woop ti do". A little voice inside my head warned me of problems to come, but I dismissed that little voice as being overly picky and fired up the steam box.
I shaved spindles while the steambox was doing its magic. After about 45 minutes, the arm bow felt ready so I put it back in as I went thru my pre-bend checklist. Form clamped to workbench - check, dowel pins - check, wedges - check, dead blow hammer - check, plastic tie wraps (to hold the bent arms to the form) - check, gloves - check, extra boiling water on the portable stove - check.
I opened the steam box and deliberately moved to the form and began the dance. The internal dialog went something like this: "Place the arm bow with center mark up into the form, center and wedge. Smoothly bend the right side along the form, insert dowel pin and wedge. Smoothly bend the left, kinky side, along the form, pin and wedge. The kink didn't crack, but it is still there. Hmmm. No time to think about this. Grab boiling water and pour on right arm at the point of main arm bend. Support with both hands and gently bend along the form. Tie with the tie wrap and a piece of scrap wood to prevent the tie wrap from cutting into the wood. Success. Move to the left arm, pour boiling water and smoothly bend, tie with tie wrap. Breathe."
Bending wood is great fun, but to quote Forrest Gump's mommy, "ya never know what you are going to get." I'm four for five in my amateur arm bow bending career. My one loss I attribute completely to a lack of sleep and a hastily and poorly constructed steambox. The three inch piece of Schedule 30 PVC couldn't take the heat. I suffered from the loss, regrouped and built a wallpaper steamer powered version. It is all screws and chemically-laced plywood and is not a thing of beauty, but man does it steam wood.
But I digress. I stood relaxing, admiring the arm bow of #4, feeling accomplished because the critical ninety degree "arms" bent smoothly and without any tearing or cracking. But instead of a nice arc across the top, my bow was an arc, then a kink, and more arc. Worse yet, it would not snug up flat against the form. For those not familiar with bending forms, imagine a square piece of plywood with a smaller, half circle screwed down board edge to diameter edge. The are six to ten holes drilled approximately 1 1/2 inches from the edge of the circle. The goal is to pull the steamed arm bow along the circle and insert dowels in the holes as you proceed around. Once the main bend is accomplished, small wooden wedges are used to force the arm bow up tight against the circle form.
#4's bow had bent wonderfully, except at the point of the kink, where it was about 1/4 of an inch from the form. The kink was close to a dowel and it looked that I could reverse the wedge and force the bow against the form. So I did and fearfully began to tap the wedge snug. At this point, with no drumroll needed, my arm bow voiced a faint cracking complaint. The kink, it seemed, was very attached to its form and the fibers along the top were going to commit separation hari kari if I insisted on them taking the form of my choosing. So there I stood, with a little kink in an otherwise beautiful arm bow or, as the Buddha in me would recognize if I could find him, a beautiful arm bow. Leave the kink or risk the crack - that was the question. So I pondered, thought of Pete, looked, waited and then shut down my shop and walked back to my house.
In the light of the following day, the little kink didn't look so bad. Maybe it would straighten out in the kiln? Maybe it was charming? Maybe this chair needed a kinked arm bow? The thought crossed my mind to make another arm bow, but I placed the form and bow into the kiln to begin the drying process and turned my attention to other parts.
After the round with the kinky arm bow, #4 progressed uneventfully. The leg glue up went well and the undercarriage came out nice and straight. I scraped the seat, reamed the tapers and fit the arm posts. I fussed and fiddled and fussed some more with the spindles until they looked "just right". And then came time to drill the arm bow. For the uninitiated, arm bow drilling is a bit like Zen archery. The goal is to drill 3/8 inch holes in the arm bow on angles that match those of the spindles emerging from the chair. P.S. - don't put any pressure on the drill because the drill bit leaves a big tear out on the back side of the hole if you aren't gentle. Breathe, aim, fire, breathe, open your eyes and see if ya did any damage. In fairness, the process looks much more unforgiving than it actually is. Most of us survived learning to ride a bike - learning to drill an arm bow is pretty similar.
At one point in my life, I spent a lot of time on a bicycle. I could even do bunny hops and endo's and pull off the occasional tabletop. I can still do a wheelie. But I can't drill arm bows without a lot of agita. So I procrastinate. I ponder. I measure. I dilly dally, change the music, turn off the music and finally drill the first hole. Sometimes the first angle is good, sometimes it isn't, but some of the stress dissipates after the first drilling. From the first hole to the last is a series of highs and lows, all while trying to keep in mind the goal of managing the overall level of error to an acceptable level. I have drilled some doozies at this point in my chairmaking career. The good news is that wood will move a lot and oak is strong, but these errors do make the final glue up process a lot more exciting so we strive to be as accurate as possible.
I drilled the arm bow of #4 with no major hiccups. I reamed, adjusted angles and fit spindles. The chair took shape until it was time to assemble. I scraped the inside of the arm bow and did final shaping of the underside of "hands" with a drawknife. I mixed hide glue and waited for it to cook. I made maple wedges for the spindles and cut kerfs in the arm posts for wedging. I mentally signed off on the quality of all the parts and got ready for the ballet that is final glue up.
The glue up went great too. The arm bow slipped into its marked position without a great deal of effort. I fixed a slight highness on the left side with a little tap from the deadblow and a piece of pine. Perfect. A tap or two here and there and a mindless final tap on the right side arm post and I was done. Or so I thought.
I started wedging the arm bow from the left side of the chair. One by one, I split the spindles with a small chisel and then tapped a glue covered maple wedge into position. With two more spindles and the right arm post to go, a small detail caught my eye. The front of the arm bow was cracked from its front edge to near the arm post joint. As Jerry Seinfeld would say: "Newman!" And then I remembered that last mindless tap. Tapered tenons and thin strips of oak can be a volatile combination. So I had goofed and now faced another decision - scrap the arm bow and start anew or try to fix it.
The chair looked great. Even the kink. But I was concerned about the break because people put a lot of weight on the front arms when then rise from the chair. After wracking my brain for a few minutes, I remembered that instrument makers use butterfly splines to fix guitar and violin tops, which are subject to very heavy string forces. I figured it was worth a try.
Time will tell whether the fix will hold. I used epoxy, which is very strong, and the butterfly is about 1/8 inch thick. I think it should hold, but fortunately, I will be the only one to complain if it doesn't. In the meantime, every member of my family has a chair. My son saw the butterfly and interpreted it as a special feature built into "his" chair.
I am a big admirer of #4. I smile when I see the kink in the arm bow. I appreciate the repaired but imperfect hand. #4 schooled me in humility and loudly protested my sometimes lack of grace. I hope the lesson sticks and that I can bring a lighter hand and clearer vision to my roles as father, husband and employee.
This morning at 6:30 am, I looked at #4, occupied by my beautiful eight year old son sleepily waiting for a breakfast taco, and was happy.