A few times a year I teach woodworking classes. It’s good to spend time out in the real world with new people and with those who have been in earlier classes with me. I’m told I do a good job, and hardly ever does a student run away screaming. The most important things to convey, in my mind are problem solving ability and doing challenging work even if it fills you with terror. As I look back on my career that’s what making furniture is all about; how can we make that with the tools we have on hand and can we generate the courage to cut a square hole in a nice piece of wood we already have considerable time invested in. That and figuring out how much wood to buy are the hard parts.
I will be back at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking for a week in April teaching a group of woodworkers how to make a reproduction of the iconic Gustav Stickley No. 369 bent arm Morris chair. (It looks like this class is “sold out” but you can call the school to get on the waiting list). The picture to the left is the chair I built for the cover of Popular Woodworking Magazine several years ago. The background of the photo is the classroom at MASW when I taught this same class a few years ago. I’ll bring it along again this year. It’s good to have a finished example in the class, but it used to bother me a little when a student would ask a question about the size of something, I would answer the question and the student would then go to the finished chair to measure. I realized that this wasn’t a slight to me, it was a student who was learning to be absolutely sure about what needs to be done before going ahead and doing it.
Rarely do I get stumped for an answer while teaching, but I’m finding it difficult to answer one of the perennial questions woodworkers have before embarking on a project — how much wood do I need? When I run the “CutList” plug in on the SketchUp model of the chair it tells me I need 31.32 Board feet of material. That’s the volume of all the finished parts and the computer doesn’t know exactly how to calculate bent parts, curved parts or parts that sit at an angle. The number is likely high but close. I could spend more time figuring out the size of each piece and how to get the maximum yield from dimensional lumber sizes like the magazines do. But that’s kind of silly because furniture hardwoods don’t come in standard sizes and even if they did, good work demands some thought about what goes where.
You might think I could dig through the receipts from when I made the chair in the first place. At that time I bought lumber once or twice a year in lots of 100 or 200 board feet. The material for this chair came from the leftovers from other projects. That’s the good thing about building one of these, almost all the parts are relatively short and relatively narrow. There are also several parts, like the cores of the thick legs and the curved back rails that are inside other parts. That is a wonderful way to get rid of the stuff that kicks around my shop; pieces too ugly to use but too valuable to toss in with the kindling. If I wanted to make one chair I would head to the supplier with a piece of chalk,my drawings, and cut list in hand. I mark the important parts on the lumber I like the looks of, make sure I have enough for everything and add in one extra piece.
Before you can decide how much lumber you really need you must determine your position on the spectrum of frugal/don’t want to waste time/want the finished project to look as nice as possible and your level of confidence compared to your tolerance for making one more trip to the lumber yard after you put the square hole in the arm in the wrong location. Before I leave the lumberyard I make this assessment and more often than not throw a second extra piece on the pile.
Several of the folks in the upcoming class are coming from a distance and live in places where quartersawn white oak costs a pretty penny. The main source of this material anywhere in the United States is the Frank Miller Lumber Company of Union City, Indiana. The stuff sold in Colorado or California likely was milled at Frank Miller and who knows how many middlemen added their markup as the wood headed west. The retail store at Franks Miller has reasonable prices and they are close enough to Marc Adams to deliver. But they are too far away and close too early to run over there in the middle of class.
So I’m telling the folks who are ordering rough lumber sight unseen from hundreds of miles away to order 40 board feet of 4/4 material plus one board of 6/4 material for the few parts that are thicker. The guys filling the order are pulling boards from the top of the stack, and each board will average 6-7 board feet. They won’t cut anything to make it exactly 40 board feet, their target is above that, and I bet they ship between 42-45 board feet for a 40 board foot order. The extra piece of 6/4 will be close to six inches wide and 8-10 feet long so that will add another 6-8 board feet making the total purchase about 50 board feet. My sincere hope is that no one calls them up and says “send me 31.32 board feet”.
If all goes well in the class, there will be plenty of material and plenty of leftovers. Someone will show up with barely enough material and someone else will bring enough stuff for two or three chairs. If disaster strikes I’m counting on those with extra to help out those who need it. Woodworkers are good people who do that sort of thing.
If you want to make one of these and can’t get in the upcoming class, I have complete drawings for the Gustav Stickley No. 369 Morris chair available either in PDF format for you to download and print or as large format prints.