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Learn How. Discover Why. Build Better. - Christopher Schwarz


Chairmaking Tools by Christopher Schwarz
Copyright 2006. This article originally appeared in the Fine Tool Journal

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Tools that help you shape with precision
and pound with persuasion.


Thanks to schools such as The Windsor Institute, there are probably more people making traditional Windsor-style chairs today than there were when this country was young. More than 3,000 students have passed through the doors of Mike Dunbar’s school in New Hampshire, and there’s no way to tell how many more have taken classes at other schools around the country, such as Country Workshops in North Carolina.

All this chairmaking has created a demand for the specialized tools of the craft; and some specialized vintage chairmaking tools are getting harder to come by every year – travishers and real vintage spoon bits, for example, are quite scarce.

Modern cottage toolmakers have long been happy to equip these blossoming bodgers, but recently the larger tool manufacturers have entered the market for chairmaking tools.


Chairmaking tools have long been a specialty of antiques dealers and cottage toolmakers.  Now a couple of larger toolmakers are beginning to offer these tools, and more are in the works.

 And there are a lot more new hand tools on the drawing board that you’ll see in catalogs in 2005 and 2006. Look for travishers, compass planes, specialty rasps, rounding planes and even more specialized spokeshaves.

As I’ve become enamored with building stick chairs, I’ve put a fair number of these new tools to the test. Some of them are so good that I think they also deserve a spot in woodshops that don’t (yet) have a chairmaker working there.

Superior Spokeshaves

Chairmakers use a variety of spokeshaves to shape the sweeping curves and spindles that are part of every Windsor chair. When working with green wood that has been rived from the stump, most chairmakers prefer a traditional wooden shave with a low-angle cutter.

But thanks to the urban chairmaker, a good number of us work with air- or kiln-dried wood that has been sawn instead of split. And so the metal-bodied spokeshave with a higher-pitched cutter has become an important tool.

Both Lie-Nielsen Toolworks and VERITAS – the tool-making arm of Lee Valley Tools – now manufacture metal-bodied spokeshaves that easily exceed the quality of many vintage spokeshaves.

When I first started making frame chairs years ago, I went hunting for vintage shaves for my tool kit. After examining more than 70 old-timers I was struck by how poorly manufactured many were.

Here’s where you can see the difference between the premium shaves and the inexpensive ones and many vintage ones. The bed of the premium shaves has been machined flat. The bed of the inexpensive Indian-made shave is simply a rough casting.

With the exception of a few Preston shaves, most tools had their irons bedded on a rough casting – there was no machining or even finishing beneath the iron. It was no wonder my Record shave chattered like a set of false teeth when faced with anything tougher than poplar.

Both Lie-Nielsen and VERITAS decided to make shaves that had characteristics of a high-quality bench plane.

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