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Thread: Making round mortises and tenons, chair legs

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Jan 2005
    Milton, GA

    Making round mortises and tenons, chair legs

    I have taken three different courses in which mortises and tenons ( straight and tapered) needed to be made for: chair legs, spindles, chair rungs. Peter Galbert turned some tenons on a lathe, drilled straight sided angled ones with a special drill bit (elongated Brad-Point) and designed a special wooden tapered reamer (with metal adjustable blade) for converting straight sided holes to tapered holes. Schwarz used Veritas Tapered Tenon Cutters, operated by hand like a pencil sharpener, with a straight blade producing a tapered tenon for the tenons. He drilled straight holes for mortises at the appropriate angle with either a brace or a drill press and jig. He tapered the holes using a Lee Valley Large Standard Reamer. Drew Langsner used a lathe and antique specially modified reamers. Like Schwarz and Galbert he drilled angled holes with a straight drill bit first and then reamed the taper in those holes requiring it.

    I want to make my own Windsor Chairs now. I was hoping to find ways to make legs and rungs and the joints to attach them to chairs with hand tools. The Schwarz class actually made sawbenches, but the legs were made like Windsor legs with hand tools. The class also used the same Windsor methods for laying out, drilling and reaming the holes to accept the sawbench legs. I took the Schwarz class hoping that I would learn hand tool methods for this work. Schwarz started out using a brace to drill with and hand planes to taper legs and turn them into octagons. A brace actually turns out to be a little easier to line up on a sight line or resultant angle than a bit in an electric drill. A plane, especially one with a 6-8" radius in the blade, can work well to make legs. Still when time was short Chris fell back on a drill press and jig to drill holes and a bandsaw to remove excess wood. With only four legs to make tapered tenons on we struggled through without a lathe.

    My experience in all of these classes was when work needed to go faster the instructors feel back on: bandsaws to remove unwanted wood on tapered legs, arms..., electric drills to power a myriad of different drill bit types through tough wood, lathes to make precise tapered or straight round tenons, legs, rungs. I have a bandsaw and electric drills if I need them. Lately I have been considering buying a lathe. I know this is a hand tool forum and I am hoping to find out why I don't need one. I know about springpole and treadle lathes but are these really hand tools? I had the opportunity to use a lathe at my last class at Country Workshops. I was surprised to find that these tools typically produce shavings and wood chips too large to become airborne. Make no mistake, there are airborne pollutants produced by lathes but certainly not in the kind of quantity produced by other large woodworking machines

    Lee Valley/Veritas offers tenon and dowel cutters I have not even tried yet, Veritas Tenon Cutters, Veritas Dowel and Tenon Cutters, Veritas Dowel Maker. Although some of these are made to work with electric drills I suspect they might work well in a brace too. Although the wood typically used to make these chair parts starts out green it is often placed in a kiln when it is not being worked on. Obviously the longer the wood is in the kiln the drier/harder it gets. White and red oak, elm, maple... can become much more difficult to work as a project progresses.

    I am wondering if any fellow posters who may have done this work with hand tools would like to comment on their methods?

  2. #2
    I've had good luck making the tenons on the lathe. I'm a lousy turner, but with a pair of calipers it's easy to make extremely accurate tenons. I think almost all Windsor-type chairmakers use the lathe--the only exception I know of is the late John Brown. Not having a lathe would making it extremely time-consuming to make round legs, but you could certainly make octagonal legs.
    It helps a lot to have a full-length toolrest. Mine is primitive in the extreme, but works just great:


    For the corresponding mortises, I drill with a brace and bit, then use a shopmade reamer.There are plenty of descriptions of these on Peter Galbert's blog and Jennie Alexander's site. The reamers are easy to make and work very well. They are slow, but for me that's an advantage; it helps me dial in the angle gradually.


    For the smaller tapered tenons on stiles I use a shopmade tenon cutter. Again, I got all the necessary info from Galbert's blog. You need the reamer first, then you use it to make the tenon cutter. It works very well. One thing I found that was important was to get the tenon as close as possible by hand (with a spokeshave) before using the tenon cutter. It's not really a roughing tool.


    There is a learning curve to all this stuff, but with a bit of patience and persistence it all works well.

    I was tickled that you mentioned the pole lathe. I'm really hoping to build one this summer, if I can find the time. Warren Mickley uses one, and Bob Jones did a nice little interview on his blog with Warren about the lathe. Since I haven't used one, I'll refrain from any observations other than that I really want one, and that I don't think they are for the faint-hearted!
    "For me, chairs and chairmaking are a means to an end. My real goal is to spend my days in a quiet, dustless shop doing hand work on an object that is beautiful, useful and fun to make." --Peter Galbert

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Jan 2005
    Milton, GA
    Steve, looks like you have a lathe now, electric I think. Would you mind sharing what kind of lathe you use and what the capacity is? I would also be interested to know what you use to chuck the wood in. I have a post running on the Turners forum but it seems that most of the posters there turn different things. They seem to want more vertical and less horizontal space than what I think I need. I am interested in a full length tool rest as well.

    We talked about spring-pole and tredel lathes at Country Workshops and I think I may have gotten talked out of trying to make one. I have a reamer I bought for a Galbert class from Tim Manny via Galbert. I see you made a tenon cutter using your reamer and plane parts. I have the Veritas "pencil sharpener" tapered tenon cutter. It works well if the blade in it is very sharp. I am curious about the Veritas tapered tenon/dowel cutters, designed to work on a hand drill. I would like to try one on a brace,
    Last edited by Mike Holbrook; 03-27-2015 at 6:56 PM.

  4. #4
    Mike, I've had the lathe for maybe 17 or 18 years. It's a 50's-era Craftsman; I think I paid $75 for it. It's a dinky little POS, but more than adequate for hobbyist chairmaking, turning tool handles, etc. It's probably a 6" swing. I wouldn't upgrade it unless I were trying to make a living as a chairmaker or wanted to get serious about turning, and neither of those things is likely to happen.

    Yes, the full-length toolrest makes a big difference for chair legs. Mine is just a couple wooden risers, a 2 x 4, and a piece of steel angle bolted to the 2 x 4. IIRC, Tim Manney, one of Galbert's proteges, had a blog post about making one that is a little nicer.

    Good luck with your chairmaking.
    "For me, chairs and chairmaking are a means to an end. My real goal is to spend my days in a quiet, dustless shop doing hand work on an object that is beautiful, useful and fun to make." --Peter Galbert

  5. #5
    Nice thread.

    Steve, i am curious about your comment about the pole lathe. I am also thinking of building one later in summer to use outside, my workshop has no space inside. Why do you say it is not for the faint-hearted?

    I watched Jenny Alexanders DVD "Chair from the tree" and she seeemed to mostly use drawknife for most parts. I forget if she even had a lathe.

  6. #6
    Join Date
    Aug 2007
    Dickinson, Texas
    I built a Windsor chair while attending a class at Homestead Heritage in Elm Mott Texas (near Waco).
    the, back , arms, and such were green split red oak.

    The seat was soft white wood, and was shaped with hand saws and shaves. The holes were tapered with a tapered reamer. We steamed and bent the red oak.
    The legs and leg stretchers were turned on a lathe. There is no reason to use power tools unless you just want to.

    The legs and stretchers could be made on the shave horse. They would not be be green red oak.

    Have you purchase Mike Dunbar's book. It is available again. I recommend that you order one just for the entertainment value .
    When I bought my copy, the book was out of print and my copy cost a lot money, but the new ones are reasonable. I'm sure Amazon has the book.

  7. #7
    I have used a pole lathe for 34 years. I recommend a heavy lathe and a robust pole. The light lathes with built in pole, or bow, or bungee are slower and more difficult to learn good technique on. I use the lathe to make tenons. I am having trouble thinking that one would want to make Windsor chairs without a lathe unless one wanted a kind of crude or folksy look. Centuries ago these chairs were made with a lathe. Alexander has a crude lathe on the website, probably not very useful or much used. When I made my lathe I was already proficient with the treadle lathe and the electric lathe, But the second day on the pole lathe I was doing far better work.

    For tapered holes I use a reamer. It is like a tapered spoon bit, a half round hollow with a bevel along one long edge. The Lee Valley version looks difficult to sharpen; the one Steve has looks like it is mostly scraping, not really cutting. I do not have experience with either of these two types.

    I have used a tenon cutter, but never owned one and do not want one.
    Last edited by Warren Mickley; 03-27-2015 at 8:42 PM.

  8. #8
    Mike, you are going to want a lathe in whatever powered form you choose. Tapers are done on the lathe to match your reamer angle. I believe the Lee Valley kit has a 12* taper, while the reamers that Tim makes are 6*. I use one of Tim's and as Warren points out it is more of a scraping action, but they do make quick accurate work of the job. Elia Bizzarri also makes this type of reamer and other tools. I've used similar reamers as that Lee Valley one, and it can get away from you quick if you try to do too much at once.

    Another thing I don't like about the tenon cutters like the LV and Lumberjack is that they leave an unsightly shoulder, mainly the rounder type. So, you have to go back to the lathe anyway to clean them up.

    The thing with classes like that is you have a large number of people that you have to help be successful in the project so certain shortcuts or reliance on powered tools becomes a must. What you do in your shop is up to you.
    "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes." - Proust

  9. #9
    May I suggest that anyone thinking of getting an electric powered or foot powered lathe should lurk on the Old Woodworking Machine forums for a while. (There is the danger of taking up a new interest, so beware!)

  10. #10
    Join Date
    Jan 2005
    Milton, GA
    It has not escaped my attention that just about everyone who makes more than one or two chairs seems to have access to a lathe. I took the Welsh Stick chair class at Country Workshops in the hope that I would learn how to make a less complicated, quicker to construct chair than Windsors. As it turned out the arm rest was even more complicated, less forgiving and more labor intensive. Gluing four pieces of wood and dealing with all the resulting grain issues was more work than bending the frame for a Windsor. The thicker spindles for the Welsh stick chairs have to be made more precisely and the angles for the holes they reside in have to be more precise as well. The flexibility of Windsor spindles allows the maker to simply bend them into position. I am glad I took the welsh stick chair class but, I did not find the construction methods easier or less reliant on machines like I was hoping.

    Lowell I have the 1984 version of "Make a Windsor Chair" with Michael Dunbark, bought back in the day. I also have the eBook of Dunbar's newer Windsor book. I have Peter Galbert's new Windsor book in PDF format and Lost Art Press should be mailing me a copy of the hard back soon. I also have Drew Langsner's "The Chairmaker's Workshop" and "Green Woodworking", "Swedish Carving Techniques" by Willie Sundqvist and "Carving Swedish Woodenware" DVD with Jogge Sundqvist, Welsh Stick Chairs by John Brown. All of which are helpful.

    I am interested that Warren has found his pole lathe a better tool for his work than a tredel or electric lathe. I kinda gave up on the idea when Drew Langsner mentioned that half of the rotation of a pole lathe is in the wrong or non-productive direction. My other issue with the pole lathes I have seen is they typically take up a large amount of space. If I put a pole lathe outdoors in one of my sheds, I would be afraid my German Shepherds might eat it, they love big chunks of wood.

    Jim I book marked the page. Great suggestion.

    I guess I will start looking at lathes again, if for no other reason than making tapered tenons.

  11. #11
    Mike, another option is to purchase turned parts, not as satisfying as doing it all yourself, but completely historically correct. Many chairmakers relied on others for turned parts. Here on the Cape chairmaker Samuel Wing, active in the 1790's, provided turned parts for other furniture makers. The remainder of the work can be accomplished with hand tools.
    "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes." - Proust

  12. #12
    Join Date
    Aug 2013
    Princeton, NJ
    Blog Entries
    I have the Veritas 'pro' tapered reamer, it has a removable blade and works pretty nicely.
    Bumbling forward into the unknown.

  13. #13
    Join Date
    Jan 2005
    Milton, GA
    Good to know Brian. I just bought the large standard reamer for Schwarz's class. According to Drew Langsner they have improved the design, he had an older version. I will keep the pro version with the removable blade in mind, especially if I find the one I have hard to sharpen. Drew's problem with the earlier model is it is hard to sharpen. He thought the newer designed looked like it would be easier to sharpen. I am curious how the Veritas Power Tenon Cutter works. I believe it is designed to make the other side of the joint.

    James I have thought about just buying the turned parts and I still may. I got interested in green wood because I have so much of it falling down on my property and in the large creek. My goal is to put as much of it to use as possible. If buying/making a lathe allows me to turn out leg parts from the wood I have a ready supply of then I am good with spending the money. I am a little cramped for space which is the other reason I was trying to come up with a solution that required minimal floor space.
    Last edited by Mike Holbrook; 03-28-2015 at 7:53 PM.

  14. #14
    Join Date
    Feb 2004
    Perth, Australia
    Picking up on this older thread, rather than starting it over ...

    My question is what the difference in seating the tenon is between a 6 degree reamer (ala Pete Galbert) and a 12 degree reamer (ala Lee Valley)?

    Allied to this, the shopmade reamer (ala PG) will scrape while the metal reamer (ala LV) will slice. No doubt the latter is faster. Are there other benefits for one over the other?

    Regards from Perth


  15. #15
    Join Date
    Jun 2010
    twomiles from the "peak of Ohio
    Spoon bits, and a spokepointer set for the brace.

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