Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Bending the Rules

Back to the woodworking.   I'm reheating a spindle here to straighten in out.  You can see below how it dried with a kink in it, and to spokeshave it, I had to straighten it.  I learned this little trick from Curtis Buchanan.  I would have thought that once a piece, riven or not, was steamed and then dried, that was it, game over as far as bending was concerned.  But Curtis showed me that heat bends wood, not heat and moisture. The steam is just a convenient way to get the heat to the wood, but the moisture had nothing to do with it, other than to prevent the piece from drying out.

So, by heating the spindle and putting some pressure on it, once the wood hits the right temperature, the wood will give and bend, pretty cool.  Then just over bend a little bit, wait for it to cool a little bit, and then bingo, straight.

This shows what I do on the arms of a sack back or any chair with flat arms.  Notice how flat the ends of the arms are relative to each other.  I do this the same way, basically.  I clamp the whole arm rail, hands up, in a shoulder vise and heat midway up the arm.  I use a big adjustable wrench to hold the arm, again placing pressure on the hand, and you will feel arm give.  Keep an eye on the hand, over bend a little, and keep flat relative to the other one.  Or tipping slightly in, but not tipping out, and definitely not both tipping both the same way, that looks bad.  It's nice to know that if the steam bending and drying leaves the hands a little funky, you can tweak them back in to shape. has a great article on steam bending, look under the steam bending section of their catalog, and poke around til you find it.  You can download it as a free PDF.  One thing they say is that wood will compress a lot, but it will not stretch at all.  And that's the whole idea behind straps.  By using straps with a sturdy, definite end block, and cutting the pieces to closely fit between those two points, you compress the whole piece.  

If you bend a piece of wood over your knee, say a branch, you'll notice that the half towards your knee bends fine.  And roughly halfway out, the fibers tear apart, because they aren't able to stretch.  So, by using the strap, you shift the midpoint to the outside, and thus all the bend becomes compression, which wood will do.  I use straps to bend, all except the continuous arm.  I think it's cheap insurance.  I spend a fair bit of time prepping the piece, and I don't really find the strap a pain, so I use one.  Check out the Lee Valley PDF, it really is informative.

Here's a coat rack I made awhile back, these bends were fun, except the ring, that was not fun,  but overall I was happy the way this piece came out. 

On the syrup front,  the sap hasn't been running very well, maybe tomorrow the weather will be better.  Fingers crossed.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Sugar Shack

The Steam Man, actually this is the guy running the evaporators at a sugar shack we all went to this past weekend.  It's the Salmon Brook Valley in Perham,  just outside Caribou.  One weekend a year they have pancakes and beans, and of course fresh maple syrup!
This shows the business end, where the firewood goes to boil the sap down.  This operation was all business, 3200 taps, vacuum system, a reverse osmosis separator, and two big evaporators.  I would have gotten better pics, but there was so much steam it was hard.   The steam smells like syrup, which is a good thing.

Doors open,

Top side.  I think the valve right there is where the finished syrup comes out.

  The sap runs about 40 gallons to one gallon of syrup, so lots of steam!
Is that a camera? 

Words you never want to say to me,  "all you can eat pancakes with real maple syrup!"  Boy these were good, the service was great, and the people were super, super nice.  They had this maple butter that was unreal, plus maple ice cream

All done, can't wait til next year!  That's Salmon Brook Valley in Perham, really nice people.  Check it out if your local.  I noticed a piece of curly maple in the firewood pile, and they let me take it home.  I'll post the candlesticks when I get them done.  Good time.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

First Batch

 Told you this was maple syrup on the cheap.  This is my "finishing" pot, the almost done sap goes into this pot where I can more closely monitor the temperature and the look of the sap.  What I'm looking for is 219º F; when it hits that temp it's done, at least as far as I'm concerned.  I also watch the bubbles, they get a glassy look to them.  I don't really know all that much about boiling the sap, but I do get some sugar in the bottom of the jars.  I don't really have a filtration system, I have a piece of felt that I pour the syrup thru, that's it.

This lobster cooker does the bulk of the boiling.  I just pour the sap in and let it run, and change out the tanks as needed.  I do it right in the garage.  Not much to it, really. All you have to do it find some maple trees, buy some taps and hang some milk jugs.  Then boil it off and watch the temperature.  Some people finish it in the house on the stove.  But don't boil it all down in the house--  The wall paper will fall off the walls!  A lot of sugar laden humidity all over everything!  You could use a BBQ grill, just keep it boiling.  I don't get too wound up about the boiling.  Just keep it going, and pull it when it hits 219º. 

 Here's Erinn, she helps me with the whole syrup project.  The sap has yet to really start running great, I get about 3 gallons a day, maybe not even that much.  It's still cold, and the sap doesn't start until 2-3 in the afternoon, and then it only runs for a couple hours.  A big sugar shack near here got about 3,500 gallons of sap ( not syrup) last week.  That sounds like a lot, but when the sap is running well,  they can get that in a day!
This weekend we're going to a sugar shack where they are having pancakes and beans, and of course syrup and taffy, can't wait!

And here's the first batch of syrup, a little darker than I would have expected for this early, but it tasted so good, it has a buttery taste, different than the store bought.  Just lighter and buttery, but I realize this is quite subjective. The output was good, this was about 12 gallons of sap for four and a half pints of syrup, which puts it at about 24 gallons to one, which is really good.  Later it'll run about 30 or 40 to one.   I shoot for about two gallons of syrup total;  I give a  few pints away and then we have enough to get thru the year.  Good fun, and not really that much work.   If you have a chance,  get out and go to a sugar shack the see a real evaporator operation in action, and try some of the taffy!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Little Blackie, Shave Horse

This is a nice shot of a cabinet I built to store some china.  The original is at the Pleasant Hill, KY Shaker Village.  The Shaker communities, as they moved further west, got a little bolder in their design.  This one has a crown molding and turned legs.  The original had solid ( blind ) door, put I put in divided glass doors.  It's made from Cherry with pine back boards.

 This is Little Blackie, well, sort of.  It's my shaving horse, and it's use to shape the spindles and other parts of the chairs.  Once you use one, you'll wonder how you got along without it.  It's quite comfortable, and it really speeds up the process.  The pedal at the bottom is pushed with your foot, which pivots the head and locks the piece in place. 

The ramp just above the stick rule actually ratchets up and down to accommodate different size pieces, from rough pieces that look like firewood all the way down to the finished spindle.  It works really well and makes the whole process faster and easier, which is good.  I'm all about easier and faster.  And yeah, the seat is padded!

This shows a closeup of the horse in action (giddy-up).  It holds the piece very securely and yet allows the pieces to be quickly and easily moved and rotated.  Subsequent blog entries will better explain the process of making a spindle, but this is the shave horse I use to do almost all my spindle and rail work.  If it were more comfortable, I would fall asleep.  My daughter Erinn loves it too, she helps me sometimes, not with a draw knife though! 

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Holding It Together

 Most all the spindles in my chairs are split and wedged, which holds them a lot more securely than glue can alone, especially as the pieces move in response to humidity changes.  At the bottom of the spindle, where it goes into the seat, it is a blind hole, meaning that the hole does not go all the way thru, hence blind.  As a result, the end is super dried down to 2-3% moisture content, and when this end is hammered into the 12-14% m.c. seat, along with glue, the end will never come apart.  ( I picked a green chair because.....St. Paddy's Day! )

 But on the top end of the spindle, the fit can't be that tight, or else you'd never get the rail or bow on.  It's hard enough when it's a little loose!  So the top end, seen here, the fit is a little loose, and the joint is tightened with a wedge.
The legs are the same deal, dried, split and wedged, which fills in any little gaps and in effect clamps the joint together.

 Here you can see how the wedges can be used for a decorative effect on a chair that is not painted, as on the arm on a sack back bench.  You can't see from this shot, but on the bottom side of the arm, where the bow protrudes out the bottom side, that end is also split and wedged, and then left fat.  This prevents the bow end from being pulled back thru the arm, which is what you need.  This is a very tricky joint, and while some builders will taper the bottom side and then taper the end of the bow, I prefer to run the end more or less straight, which allows me to fine tune the height of the bow.  This is one of those times when looks are more important, and by making the ends straight, I can simply slide the bow end in and out until the height is sweet.  Then I wedge the tops of the long spindles, and then finally the end of the bow.  This way the bow is held firm and after the end is wedged, the bow is secure.

 I love this shot,  shows the arm stump top and the hand, which contrast beautifully against the walnut wedge.  The arm is ash and the stump is sugar maple.  Hey, speaking of which, the sap ran pretty good today, got about twenty gallons, start cooking over the weekend, can't wait.

This shows how the leg joint goes together, wedge ( 6 degrees ) shaped from the bottom, split on top, and then wedged from the top.  You can clearly see how tight this gets, and because of the tapered hole the glue doesn't get scraped off when you put the leg in.  Add to that the moisture content difference, and this is one chair that the legs won't loosen up on, unlike factory chairs. 

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Spring Ahead!

Spring Ahead!  It's that time again, Maple Syrup time!  I had never done this before last year, but I decided to give it a try.  I got some small plastic taps that are placed into the tree and then after cutting a small "T" shaped hole in the top of a milk jug,  you hang it and wait for the sap to run.  What you want is a nice sunny warm day and cold night, teens at night and thirties in the day, and sunny.

 The sap, especially this early in the season, has a slightly sweet taste right out of the tree.  Erinn is my official taste tester.  Early like this, it takes about 30 gallons to get one gallon of syrup, and the early syrup is the best, it is lighter in color and taste, but honestly it's all good!  One thing that's great is once the sap boils down a little I use it to make tea, it's great!

This is what it looks like when the spouts are in and the milk jugs are waiting.  Like I said, this is maple syrup on the cheap.  The spouts cost maybe 3 bucks a piece, and I cook the syrup on a lobster cooker til it starts to get thick, then I finish it on the side burner on my BBQ grill.  I watch the temp and once it hits 7 degrees above boiling (219) its done.  Then it's just a matter of having the canning jars steamed and ready, pour it over, and done. 

I'll be sure to post a bunch of pics of the whole cooking process, and some shots of some real sugar camps in the area.  I tend to go a little nuts with this whole syrup thing.  I try to get a gallon and a half, six quarts, of finished syrup--that will get us thru the year plus I give a little away.

Couple parting shots of Forrest and an owl nest in the top of one of the trees I'm tapping.  This tree is in pretty rough shape, but I still get some sap out of it.

It's a lot of work, but the syrup is worth it.  I understand the price now when I buy some at the store, sort of like my furniture.  Once you realize the work that goes into it,  the price makes sense.

Friday, March 11, 2011

And They're Off!

And they're off!  This past weekend in Fort Kent, a small town about an hour north, had their annual dogsled race.  They have different length races, including a long one over one hundred miles, which serves as a qualifier for the Iditerod.
We try to go up every year,  it's really a fun time.  The dogs are so focused and they want to RUN!!!  Some of the teams come from as far away as Minnesota to run this race.
Here you can see a typical team, a motley crew of misfits but boy can they move.  The first time we went I expected to see big dogs, but most of the dogs are small,  maybe 60 to 70 pounds apiece.
And they are mostly mutts.  I'll have to ask my friend Bob Johnson what kind they are exactly.  It's amazing the love that the handlers have for the dogs, and the work that goes into having a team.  These dogs have to be run year round, and you can't really travel, unless you have really good friends.  I have two dogs and they're a lot of work, I can't imagine having 12 to 15!
Here are the leads of a beautiful team of Malamutes,  big dogs, I can't imagine feeding a whole team.  They were pretty.  Also, hats off to the volunteers and sponsors who make the whole thing possible  especially Irving Forest Products who pay the lions' share of the prize money.  But obviously the teams do it for the love, not the money.  Fun time all around.
Shot this on the way home,  look at that sky.

Saturday, March 5, 2011


 This is one of my new favorite books.  I don't have a Forestry degree ( English) so I'd always wonder what some of the trees on my property were.  Now I knew a poplar from pine, and could pick out a maple, but honestly there were a lot of trees that I didn't know.  So I picked up this little gem for ten bucks and use it all the time.  Now I can tell a sugar maple from a soft maple, which is good when you want to tap trees for syrup, which is coming right up! 
One interesting thing that has come up recently.  I sometimes use butternut for chair seats, and unfortunately it is being killed off by a fungus.  Well, I was surprised to learn that a clients son, Phil Crystal,  is in graduate school at Purdue and he is studying, drum roll, butternut fungus.  I've been emailing him and he was pretty excited that Maine has a population of butternut trees.  There are not a lot of trees, but there are some.  And Phil is hoping to study this population to find out if they are hybrids that my be resistant to the fungus.  Too many of our trees have been killed off already, chestnut, elm, beech and now butternut.  Hopefully some good can come out of this.  And pick up the book and take a walk thru the woods, you'll never know what you'll find.