Building My First Chair with Greg Pennington

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Last fall I was fortunate enough to get to take a two day lesson with Greg Pennington and make this awesome perch. While there I fell in love with a chair called the Democratic chair and couldn’t wait to come back and try making it myself. So when I was back in Nashville to visit my best friend Anne Briggs, we asked Greg if we could squeeze in making a one. Let me show you the process, which is pretty fascinating. 

A portion of the chair I made literally came straight from this log.

I started the first day off by using a wedge and sledge to split the log into a useable section that I then used a fro and a mallet to get rectangle pieces of wood that will eventually be turned into my chair’s back spindles.

It’s amazing how easy it is to get a semi square piece of wood when you understand how to spit the wood properly. Greg says the fro is the old woodworkers table saw.

Once I got five spindles out of the log, we moved inside to Greg’s shop and sat at the shave horse to cut them down to size with the drawknife. This process consisted of getting one side flat (almost like what a jointer would accomplish) then flipping it over and getting the opposite face flat to it, much like a thickness planer. 

While making the five spindles, we also shaped what will be the curved back piece. This was my first time steam bending anything and it was enthralling.

Our piece of wood can be placed in the steam box for about 45 mins where it fills with moisture, making the green wood malleable.

But only temporarily so we had to move quickly. Greg had the jig with the exact curve and the clamps at the ready. We already marked the center of the piece so that once it was lined up to the center of the jig, I could squeeze on the clamps and start pulling it into the needed curve. 

Now that back curve needed to sit up in clamps for 24 hours, I put my sized back spindles in the kiln to get their moisture content down. Then I started turning the spindles needed to make up the four legs, three stretchers, and two back posts.

These are made from already dried out maple that Greg had. I’m not a fabulous turner, but the great thing about the democratic chair is that all these parts get facets added to them later so my imperfect shapes turn out looking just fine! Or so I think so. 

Once all the parts were turned on the lathe, I went back to the shave horse to start cutting in those facets I mentioned. This is done with a spokeshave and the process is to set the spindle in to make one side flat, then rotate it 180 and get another side flat.

Turn it 90 and flatten that side, then 180 to flatten the opposite side. If you watched me make the perch, you’ll remember that I did those legs with these facets. It’s a subtile thing that gives the finished piece a striking look. 

The next step was to cut in the tendon on each spindle so that they could be poked in the kiln to ensure the moisture content was low enough for when we assembled the chair in a few days.

Another thing I really like about this chair is that a mix of material is what the democratic chair is all about.

A gentleman named Curtis Bucannon designed it to be a chair built out of whatever you have on hand. So far I made the spindles from oak, the legs and stretchers from maple and up next was to start making the seat which is made from a huge block of pine. 

I started off by tracing our the seat template on the block of pine. This not only gives me the outline shape of the seat but also all the spindle and leg hole locations plus their angles, and also all the facet starting and stopping points around the perimeter of the seat.

Once everything was marked I could start drilling the holes. This is another part of the process I think is interesting. These holes for the legs are drilled at a compound angle and use to be done using two different mirrors. However, Greg invented a system of using two lasers instead.

After setting the proper angle and direction of the lasers, both can be set up in line with the hole and as long as you keep the cross heirs he’s placed on the back of the drill, the hole will come out at the needed angle. 

The drill bit is like a pre drill that gets the hole mostly to the size needed. But the next step, which is to rim the hole, gets it to its true size to match the tenon on each one of the legs.

Remember the pencil sharpener step? It’s important to get these two to mate up nicely to each other to have a rock steady chair at the end. This step uses those same lasers to make sure I don’t get off the compound angle that’s needed. I would have the spindle on hand to test fit every few passes until it was down to the correct depth. After getting one correct, I would repeat on the next then the next until all were fitted properly. 

Next I got a very special treat! Of using a hand plane of Greg’s that my good friend Jenny’s Bowers custom engraved all by hand. Whew, that thing is stunning!

I quickly went over the back of my pine block to remove any pencil markings, and get it nice and flat. So that I could flip it over and start my favorite part of the process, which is carving in the seat.

This is a  fascinating process for so many reason. One, the tools feel so cool when they are cutting and taking out scoops. This tool here is called a scorp and it’s purpose is to remove the bulk of wood on the seat of a chair. You can see the drastic gouge marks it leaves behind. This is just fine because the next step is to use a more refined cutting tool called a potato.

This will still remove wood but just not as quickly. It’s also great at cleaning up the unevenness from the scorp cutting and feathering in the different curves and dips in the seat. 

There will be more refining of the seat later on, but after getting it mostly scooped out, I could then take it to the bandsaw and cut out the profile so I could start on the perimeter profiles.

Sticking the seat blank vertically in a bench vise, I first made pencil marks along the top and bottom of the different edges so that I could use a drawknife to cut a champer in between.

I wish you guys could feel how cool this felt. This is end grain on this section and watch just how smoothly and cleanly this cuts. Besides feeling, it also has this amazing sound to it as it shaves off a cut. Extremely different than power tools.

Isn’t that incredible? I know time can get lost in videos but it was a days worth of work for me to make this seat and I just think it’s magical. I think it’s funny it hits me this way since I make stuff all the time but it’s another level of magic to use only hand tools

Ok, next step was to drill some holes in the legs to add in the stretchers.

This is a pretty nerve wracking step. But one great thing about taking a class with Greg is he is there every step of the way with you to make sure you feel comfortable and are having a good time. 

Now of course after I built my chair, I would have to fly back home so the goal was to only glue up the bottom of the chair so that it could be boxed up and shipped back on the plane. Then go ahead and assemble the top while in Greg’s shop but only do a dry fit so that it could be disassembled and left loose in the box. Sooo next we assembled!

On most furniture, craftsmen use hide glue instead of regular yellow wood glue, and that’s because hide glue is reversible. This is useful should a part on a chair ever break and need to be replaced. Or if the piece ever needs to be refinished, it’s much easier to take the whole thing a part to sand than to try and do it as a whole. It also has a decent open time to give you time to put all your parts together and also cleans up nicely with water.

We worked piece by piece to assemble the base as a whole, then once that was complete, we applied glue to the seat holes and attached the base to the seat itself.

And then voila… Tell me that’s not just the neatest. 

But we aren’t done, so lets continue. Next I added in some wedges to each one of the legs in order to keep them locked into their holes. 

Then I cut each leg to length so that it would sit flat.

Ok and that is the seat and lower portion done. Noooow it was onto assembling the top half which in my case will just be dry fitted into place for the mean time. 

We started off by grabbing all my parts I made on day 1 (we were now on day 3) and putting the two back posts and curved back into place so that we could mark off the location the spindles needed to be placed.

Ok focus April…..I first had to drill some holes in the posts then whittle on the curved back so that 1) it was faceted and matched the rest of the chair, but also 2) had tenons that would fit into the holes I just drilled. This was done over at the shave horse with the drawknife, then fitted into place. 

Next was to drill the holes through this curved piece so that next the spindles could start being added.

I am normally really adimanent about doing everything myself. But I was so nervous about breaking this precious part so I asked Greg to please drill the holes for me. Which of course he was happy to and did a fabulous job.  

The very last thing I had to do to complete the chair was to fit in the spindles one by one then take a seat in the very first chair I’ve made. Which, if you can imagine, is a pretty rewarding feeling.

The next morning Anne helped me package up my chair so I could tote it home as a checked bag on the plane. I wasted no time when I got home and started assembling it the very next day.

I was in a rush on the last day to get finished so before I started putting together the top half I first went over each one of the spindles on my own shave horse and fine tuned things a bit more. This is the first time I’ve gotten to use my own shave horse and spoke shave!

Then I followed the instructions Greg sent me home with to do the final assembly which started off with me gluing in the two back posts.

Next I cut the curved back to length outside of the posts….used a chisel to pop in a kerf then also wedged it into place. 

Ok and now the spindles. I placed each one into its slot then applied some hide glue to the top side of each one. This way as I popped it down into place, glue would be applied to their hole. 

Once each one was seated properly I did general clean up with water on a brush and a paper towel. Then I went to the top of each one individually and popped in a kerf with a chisel then drove in a wedge. After it was firmly in place, I cut each wedge to length then repeated on the rest. 

And that’s it! You know, I never thought I’d be into chair making. And I truly, I think my enjoyment of it is credited to Greg’s teaching style and environment. So if you are interested in taking one of his classes, I highly recommend it!

I have since painted the chair. I thought about including that in this video, but it is such an interesting video that I’ve made it its own stand alone future video. Look for that soon.

I hope you enjoyed coming along as I built my first chair! I’ll see you on the next project.

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