Building a Boggs side chair begins with selecting and milling a log. This approach puts you in control of the process all the way back to the log. If you do not have access to logs or a sawyer I will talk about alternatives at the end of this post. There are a variety of wood species that work well for this chair—maple (soft or hard), walnut, cherry, oak and hickory. I suppose ash, being similar to oak, would also work but I have never used it. Since chair wood requires very straight grain I look for logs with these characteristics:
- very straight with no bends, as close to a cylinder as possible, although all logs will taper from one end to the other
- the furrows in the bark should run straight up the log. If the furrows spiral up the log it is often an indication that the grain within is twisted
- no indication on the surface of any large branches
- 15″ to 18″ minimum diameter, larger if possible
I have been very fortunate to develop a relationship with a local sawyer, Rick Herbine of Herbine Hardwoods, in Leesburg, Virginia. He knows the species and characteristics I am looking for and lets me know when he has a log that matches them. Then at his mill he saws the log while I’m there so that I get exactly the cuts I’m looking for.
The first step, after selecting a log, is setting it on the mill and leveling the centers at each end relative to the path of the blade. This is very important as it ensures that, at the center of the log, the board is cut parallel to the long grain. Here is an oak log that has been sawed in half. This log has a pronounced taper from the larger butt end on the left to the smaller diameter of the end on the right. If you look under the right end you’ll see a block raising it up so it’s center is at the same height above the bed as the end on the left. The surface of this cut is now as parallel as possible with the long grain of the log.
The main goal in cutting the log is to get boards with the correct grain orientation for specific chair parts at a thickness that maximizes the number of parts in each board. Slats and rear legs are the most demanding and require boards with specific grain orientation. Slats use quarter sawn wood (growth rings roughly 90° relative to the width of the board), and rear legs use wood that is rift sawn (growth rings that are 45° or less relative to the width of the board). The grain orientation does not matter for front legs and rungs—those parts are round in cross section and can be rotated to the proper grain orientation at the time of assembly.
You might be wondering why mill the boards to the odd size of 9/4 (2 1/4″ thick). This thickness allows you to maximize the number of parts from each board. A 9/4 board can yield one front leg or one rear leg, two rungs, or six slats all from the same thickness, as shown below. Getting these many parts (especially 6 slats or 2 rungs) from a thickness of 9/4 requires fairly precise milling on the bandsaw. If you have any doubt about your ability to cut accurately and without waste you might consider milling the boards a bit thicker—either a heavy 9/4 or even 10/4 (especially for the quarter sawn boards).
I generally leave the bark edge on the boards—the best and straightest wood runs parallel to the bark edge which becomes a reference when milling leg, slat and rung blanks. I will sometimes cut boards in half lengthwise to make them easier to handle, especially on the wide quarter sawn boards, since the center part of those boards, which is mostly juvenile wood, is often not usable. If the boards are very long you can also cross cut to length. Increments of 2 feet work well—rear leg blanks are about 4 feet long and slat and front leg blanks about 2 feet long. Six or eight foot long boards are ideal. Once the boards are milled you’ll need to sticker them and let them dry. For wood that will be steam bent the ideal moisture content range is from 12% to 20%. You can accelerate the drying for rear leg blanks by cutting rough blanks, roughly 2 1/4″ x 2 1/4″ x 48″ long, and letting those dry. The exposed wood on the sides will aid in drying more quickly. If you must use wood that has a moisture content higher than 20% be sure to prep your rear leg bending blank about 1/16″ greater in width and height.
Milling your own boards from logs that you select is the best way to get great chair wood. But what is the alternative if you can’t find a sawyer to work with. For rear legs and slats it is critical to find a source of air dried lumber. Kiln dried lumber is difficult to impossible to bend. You will probably have to settle for 8/4 air dried stock so you won’t be able to maximize the number of parts from each board as described above. Be sure to look for boards with the correct grain orientation—quarter sawn for slats and rift sawn for rear legs. You can use kiln dried lumber for front legs and rungs if necessary, but be sure that the color and grain matches the air dried parts.
Here are two sources of chair wood. They will both will ship wood if you are not close to them.
Herbine Hardwoods, Leesburg, Virginia. Rick Herbine is wonderful to work with and over the past several years I have bought several logs, all milled to my specs. Take a look at his web site or give him a call at 703-771-3067.
Robert Carran, Asheville, North Carolina. Robert used to work for Brian and continues to supply him with chair wood. He has an intimate understanding of milling logs for the best chair wood. Give him a call at 828-319-7756.
Jeff Lefkowitz | July 3, 2013