Hand Tools Archive

Curtis Buchanan program summary

Bill Tindall, E.Tn.
Given the interest I will summarize points that stood out for me.

Chair makers would have gotten much more out of this program but there was a lot to ponder even for an orthogonal woodworker.

Background: Curtis got into chair making because this trade enabled him to support a family using hand tools to make something to sell. He clearly enjoys shaping wood with hand tools. He only has two power tools, a lathe, and band saw, which he somewhat regrets owning for it detracts from the hand sawing he prefers. Over the 31 years of his chair building career he has sold over 2000 Windsor style chairs and allowed that he is still learning. I think that if he wrote books he would be the Krenov of chair making.

Teaching/learning- He professed that as one learned the trade of wood working with hand tools, what one learned at first should be a logical path to learning more difficult steps. As an example he digressed into sharpening. He said to begin by learning to sharpen a ¾” chisel. It has a huge bevel and sufficient width to make it relatively easy to hold on the stone, or wheel (see below sharpening). Once the “feel “ of bevel on stone was learned, then progress until one was eventually proficient with a thin Stanley block plane blade. He offered similar examples from the seat carving but they were lost on me for I don’t free hand shape much.

Design: His chairs are designed so that no one feature stands out to detract from the whole. I want to consider this design philosophy some more. He offered two examples. The sticking up place on the seat between your legs (I think he called this a pommel) is subtle on his chairs. Of all the parts of the seat, he fussed over this feature the most. He thought that on some chairs it was too high and attracted attention at the expense of considering the whole of the chair. As a second example he spoke of the now common gallery furniture featuring wood with some striking feature. One just sees the wood, he allowed. He asked the rhetorical question of what would it look like painted black like his chairs. Would it be inherently attractive and well proportioned if your eye was not focused on some striking feature of the wood grain? A good point to ponder I thought.

Sharpening: Last night he was cutting on white pine, which he allowed was the most difficult wood to cut and leave behind a bright surface, ready for finish, without crushed wood fibers. I have not been there to look but he said that the on-line videos have a section on his sharpening techniques. He allowed that sharpening doesn’t make product so it is something to do quick and effective. What he said last night was that his tools are largely sharpened at 28.5 degrees for optimum wood penetration and edge durability. His procedure is to hollow grind on a 60 grit ½” crowned wheel, followed by 1200 water stone and then 8000 water stone. He uses a spinning-charged maple dowel for concave edges.

He creates shavings with a card scraper on white pine! That got my attention. In response to my question he went into some detail and I learned that I have not been refining my edge enough before rolling it.

While he didn’t come out and say he never used them, he was wary of secondary bevels (without elaboration of why). He prefers O-1 steel. In his hands A2 microchips and leaves behind detracting tracks in the wood surface.

Tools: Frugal would characterize his tool arsenal. His seemed guided by the philosophy that “poverty makes a good cook”. It was another thought worth pondering. That is to say that if you don’t have much you learn to use well what you have.

Sanding: To everyone’s surprise he sands the seat bottoms. It comes back to his design philosophy which in this case trumped the hand tooled surface. With a flat black finish every micro detail of a surface shows. He found that if the seat bottom was not smooth one’s eye was attracted to any irregularity, be it a track from a microchip of a tool edge or whatever. Hence, he lightly sands the seat bottom after shaping. note: his un-sanded seat bottom looked gorgeous to me).
Summary: Even for someone at home powering through lumber with a table saw the sight and sound of Curtis’s tools slicing through the wood was alluring. It was the woodworking equivalent of a YoYo Ma performance.

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