Highland Woodworking
Turning the Corner: Short Tale of a Story Stick
By Temple Blackwood

Turning the Corner focuses on using woodturning on the lathe as a way of enhancing cabinetry, furniture designs, and architectural installations. Each article also suggests an important woodworking book to read, reread or listen to, and a link to an appropriate article in The Highland Woodturner. Along the way, these articles seek to inspire woodworkers (cabinetmakers, carpenters, and housewrights) to extend their skills into basic, novice, and advanced woodturning while discovering for themselves this particularly sensual and spiritually rewarding dimension of working with wood.

Our local Wilson Museum Executive Director, Patty Hutchins, approached me last week carrying a small, rather elderly child's chair, which was only partially seated in natural rush, with her request that I make four copies of this little chair for her new program in the summer Living History exhibits.

Her promise was that in late July after she and her assistant take visitors to the nearby stream to collect the cattails and other natural rush fibers, process the fibers, chase away the creatures that might survive the washing, and weave the seats, she will return one of the chairs to me for my grandson. Patty knows how to bargain for a great deal, and this one is a win-win because she asked me to prepare two of these as unassembled kits for them to sell in the Museum Store for those visitors inspired to assemble and learn to weave on their own.

With a project like this, turning multiple chair parts for copies of an existing chair, the best place to start is by making a "story-stick" – which means to carefully record the critical features of the chair's detail on a thin piece of wood, labeleling each section clearly for its position and its connecting position to the adjacent parts.

An experienced builder can use two sticks, each slightly longer than half-way across the widest measure, enter the room of a house, and by marking and positioning the sticks with a pencil and notches prepare an accurate set of measures on those two small sticks that would allow them to go somewhere else and reproduce that room. My goal with this project will be to occasionally replicate this little chair without needing to have the original back and without needing a drawing – because by using a story-stick, I do not need to stop the lathe to measure and mark transitions and features.

Making a chair, such as this one, properly begins with creating front and back posts plus stretchers and rails with absolutely straight grain. It also bodes the turner well to work in relatively green wood because as the wood dries, it will shrink around the tenons, tightening the already tight joints. The best and historically correct way to create the billets is to use a froe and hand-split out the billets for turning. This handwork is extremely rewarding as revealing the inner grain and figure from a wet blank is about as up-close-and-personal as woodworking can be.

Once a blank is sized and mounted on the lathe, the blank is rounded at the largest diameter dimension.

Using the story-stick, the turner marks the critical transition and high points on the blank with a pencil.

Another way to do this is to drive a small brad into the story-stick edge, clip off the brad's head to make a sharp point, and then press the story-stick/template into the spinning wood to make all of the marks at one time.

Using the story-stick does take some practice because the copying process for production work rests heavily on the turner's skill replicating the beads, shoulders, tapers, and coves to make the new piece of wood appear to be identical to the original as well as to each other newly turned part.

One of the major challenges for a turner in turning multiples like these is to remain alert and attentive.

I find that having a completed turned item visually in the background helps sustain that focus, and the rhythm of mounting, rounding, marking, turning, and sanding promotes efficiencies and the rewarding pleasure of essentially "power carving" with well-sharpened chisels at the lathe.

That three-dimensional model can also serve as a story-stick, but too often it is more difficult to locate the precise feature points, and the risk of creating and then copying an error is much higher than when applying the marks from a story-stick that rests comfortably on the toolrest.

In this project, finishing the blunt top ends of the front posts (legs) and the top finial of the longer back posts requires cutting away the short waste-block and sanding. This is again a separate step best done as a group process.

The free-standing flexible belt sander makes quick work of sanding the nub without flattening it and allows for a short session of hand sanding with 320 grit paper to be ready for finishing.

Following through with each group of activities for all four chairs at once – front leg post, back leg post, each size of rail and stretcher (long/front, shorter/sides, short/back) – promotes the advantage of muscle-memory and yields the benefit of changing activities through the process, particularly when making multiple copies.

Once all of the parts are complete and the flat pieces are shaped and sanded for the ladder-back, the process of shaping the mortise for the back and boring the holes for the rails and stretchers moves along quickly because the story-stick identified the critical locations of the v-grooves for the drill bit.

The story-stick for this project is labeled and hung with other such sticks in the shop, ready to make two, four, eight, or ten more nearly identical chairs when they are ordered.

This month's book recommendation to read or inspiring re-read: The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees by Robert Penn.

Article link: Turning a Small Classic Child's Bench by Temple Blackwood.

Click here to browse through Highland Woodworking's Woodturning department

Located in Castine, Maine, Highlands Woodturning gallery and shop offers woodturning classes and shop time, a gallery of woodturned art, custom woodturning for repairs, renovations, and architectural installations. You can email Temple at temple@highlandswoodturning.com. Take a look at Temple's Website at http://www.highlandswoodturning.com/

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