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Chairmaker's Notebook , by Peter Galbert

by J. Norman Reid
Delaplane, VA

If one were to conjure up the perfect woodworking book, what would it be like? I think it would very closely resemble Chairmaker's Notebook . In this most recent contribution from Lost Art Press, legendary chairmaker Peter Galbert has created much more than a guide to building Windsor chairs from green wood. He has set a new standard against which all future woodworking books will be measured. As such, this book—destined to be an instant classic—belongs in the library of every woodworker with aspirations to serious craftsmanship.

To be sure, Galbert lays out in exquisite and clearly-stated detail the steps for building Windsor chairs. But this is more than a Windsor chair book—it is a woodworking craftsmanship manual. Even if you never want to build a Windsor chair, or any chair, there is much of instructional value in this book for any woodworker, especially those whose interests incline toward the use of hand tools of all sorts.

The book's 25 chapters lay out in fine detail all that is needed to proceed from green logs to painted and finished chairs. What's more, the writing—sufficient in itself—is complemented by over 500 beautiful illustrations hand drawn by the author that are nearly enough in themselves to construct a variety of chairs without resort to Galbert's text.

Galbert's introduction considers what constitutes a Windsor chair, why they have become a part of the furniture repertory and how he came to be one of their foremost builders. He presents two model chairs for the reader to emulate, a balloon-back chair and a fan-back chair.

The story of building Windsor chairs begins with the selection of wood and why split green wood produces the strongest chairs. Galbert offers lots of detail on selecting, drying, cutting and shaping the wood and presents a drawing of a small parts kiln the reader can build. The narrative continues to joinery, especially the characteristics of the round joints used in Windsor chairs and how air drying vs. kiln drying mortises and tenons affects their fit and durability.

Following a chapter that presents drawings of the two project chair models and reviews design principles and methods, Galbert discusses the chairmaker's workshop itself. Galbert is a minimalist, carefully balancing real needs vs. budget and often fabricating tools and equipment from salvaged materials. Too much space invites more and perhaps unneeded tools—the Peter Principle of cabinetmaking—and can be as big a problem as too little space. What's essential are enough light, particularly raking light, a sharpening station, hand tool storage, a shavehorse, a hewing stump, a workbench, lathe, kiln and steamer. He finds a bandsaw useful but not essential.

Galbert emphasizes the critical nature of sharp hand tools and goes into considerable detail about his methods for keeping a keen edge on each of his tools.

Selecting the right wood is an important step. Galbert prefers logs that have been considered and rejected for veneer because of the likelihood of straight and clear grain. He likes white pine or poplar for seats because they accept tenons more readily and carve more easily. For turned parts his choice is hard maple, which holds detail well and is strong and straight-grained. The spindles—which are carved— are usually hickory or white oak, which split well.

Galbert outlines the tools needed for splitting the logs—many of them garage sale finds—and describes how to split and rive them into billets and rough parts with a froe. Importantly, he describes how to use the unexpected results of riving. He begins the splitting process with a cutlist and a plan for where he'll take each of the parts from the log.

The drawknife is a major tool in building Windsor chairs and Galbert reviews the types of drawknives—bevel up, bevel down and knife edge—as well as their various shapes and handle positions. A key section details the use of the drawknife for splitting billets into their rough shape as chair parts before drying them.

As Galbert explains, chairmaking requires many different skills as the chairmaker progresses through the steps. Among these—described in enough detail to replicate—are steam bending, turning legs and spindles on the lathe, drilling, reaming and carving the seats. Each of these processes is the subject of one or more chapters. The parts, once shaped, are then joined. Galbert notes that many beginners fear joining at angles other than 90⁰ but asserts that these fears are, at the least, overdrawn. Though a drill press can be used to bore the holes, he chooses a boring bit. Once the holes are bored, the undercarriage is assembled, glued and wedged where appropriate. Uppercarriage assembly differs for the fan-back and balloon-back chairs and each is addressed in a separate chapter.

The final step is finishing the chairs, which he describes as "the art of enhancing the work done at the bench" and that requires yet another set of skills. Over the centuries that Windsor chairs have been produced, the use of paint has come in and out of favor. Galbert's view is that sometimes wood grain can overwhelm a chair's design and that paint not only unifies the design but can also highlight complex shapes. Galbert cleans the wood with naphtha, sands to 220 grit, then wets the wood to raise the grain before final sanding lightly with 220 grit. He then paints the chair, sanding after the first coat. He favors milk paint, which wears well and is colorfast, and he details his methods for applying two different color schemes.

Appendices discuss creating and using sightlines to set angles, building a shavehorse and grinding drill bits. Also included is a list of sources for materials and tools including the Galbert Woodturner's Caliper and the Galbert Drawsharp, invented by Galbert himself, as well as a bibliography for further reading.

Chairmaker's Notebook easily ranks among the best woodworking books ever written. It's easy to read, expertly edited and profusely illustrated. Not only does Galbert clearly describe the techniques of chairmaking but he also explains the underlying rationale for his methods, an essential contribution to understanding and learning in detail.

Any woodworker who wants to work with green wood and any woodworker interested in hand tools will find this to be a refreshing and highly instructive book. Further, through his careful explication of Windsor chairmaking, Galbert has given us an inside look at a perfectionist at work. Those of us who aspire to produce high quality furniture of any type or style will benefit from his guidance and his example. Advanced woodworkers and those who seek to follow in their footsteps will especially benefit from this book. If you have any interest at all in building more than birdhouses and bookshelves, do yourself a big favor—go out and buy a copy of this book.

CLICK HERE to order your copy of Chairmakers Notebook

J. Norman Reid is a woodworker, writer, and woodworking instructor living with his wife in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains with a woodshop full of power and hand tools and four cats who believe they are cabinetmaker's assistants. He can be reached by email at nreid@fcc.net .

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