Published March 23. 2013 4:00AM
The other day, as the spinning chain from my gasoline-powered saw bit into a freshly felled maple tree measuring nearly 2 feet in diameter, I remembered some advice once given to me by an old-timer in Maine who is well-known for carving wooden bears with a chain saw.
"It's easy," he said. "Just cut away everything that doesn't look like a bear."
In my case, I wasn't sculpting a bear but a chair.
I had seen a model of this seat in a hardware store a few weeks earlier and instantly realized I had to have one. So I raced home, did some online research, bought some tools and went to work.
As you can see from the accompanying video by Day videographer Peter Huoppi, this is not a chair for sitting on in a drawing room while sipping Dubonnet and deciding whether or not to bid three no trump.
Weighing more than 200 pounds, it also isn't a piece of furniture you would casually point to when inviting a visitor to pull up a chair.
It is a seat that can withstand a Force 9 gale, 6.2 earthquake or the ample dimensions of Shaquille O'Neal.
Best of all, you don't have to be Thomas Chippendale, or even Paul Bunyan, to make one.
I'm a guy who once spent an entire semester in high school shop class fabricating a lopsided napkin holder, and even though I since have learned a few modest skills I would not consider myself a journeyman carpenter, let alone a skilled woodworker.
I admit to feeling a little hypocritical touting the use of a chain saw and other power tools to fashion my chair, but after my son left for college I no longer had access to labor for my two-man crosscut saw, which we relied on for years to cut all the firewood to heat our home.
These days I continue to cut all our own firewood, but exclusively employ a chain saw.
As for my chair, though I tapped away with a hammer and chisel to remove some of the bark, and smoothed some hard-to-reach gouges with a rasp and hand file, I mostly shaped the wood with an angle grinder and a palm orbital sander. Both are electric-powered.
The version of the chair I first saw was pretty rough-hewn, and if you want that rustic look you don't need to sand it down after the initial cutting. I went for a slightly smoother finish.
Anyway, if a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video is worth a million, so I'll let Peter's work do most of the explaining. Here's what you'll need:
1) A tree. In my case, I felt guilty cutting down a maple that had the bad luck to grow right where I will be planting grapes in a couple weeks. I would feel even worse simply burning such magnificent wood for heat. Creating what I hope will be an enduring, heirloom piece of furniture pays proper respect and should allow future generations to appreciate its history.
In addition, one benefit from all the hurricanes, blizzards and windstorms has been a surplus of toppled trees. For people without wood stoves or fireplaces, making a chair is an excellent use of that resource.
After felling the maple I cut a knot-free section about 4 feet long and stood it on end.
Still using the chain saw, I cut a foot-long V-notch with the grain on the butt end, removed the wedge, and then repeated the cut at right angles. This created four stout legs.
Then, I flipped the log over so it stood on its new legs, and made a vertical cut about 2 feet long, starting about 6 inches from the edge and angled slightly toward the middle.
Next, I turned the log on its "back" and sawed across the grain toward the bottom of the vertical cut. When you reach this cut, remove the block of wood and you're left with a seat, a chair back and four legs, all in one piece of wood.
2) If you decide to finish the chair, the best tool to start with is an electric-powered, 4½-inch angle grinder, equipped with a cutting disk that resembles a miniature chain saw. I'm not in the endorsement business, but as far as I can tell only one company, whose products are mostly available online, manufactures these disks, in 14-tooth and 22-tooth models. After consulting with a customer-service representative on the phone I chose the 22-tooth version.
It took a while getting used to this tool, and I always wear Kevlar chaps, Kevlar gloves, a face shield, dust mask and ear protection. I also work outside on the deck because it throws off a haboob of chips and sawdust about 20 feet in every direction. After an hour or so I swept up enough debris to fill two garbage bags, which I'll eventually use for mulch.
You can use the grinder to remove bark and then shape curves into the back, seat and legs. Next, you can replace the metal cutting disk with a fabric disk backed with sandpaper of varying grits. Start with coarse and work your way up to fine.
I found that by eliminating use a rubber backing disk and simply using the fabric disk offers more flexibility in tight angles.
For an even smoother surface, finish the process with an orbital palm sander.
I'm still uncertain about the final step, treating the chair.
Because the tree was alive at the time of felling it could take months or even years before it is dry enough to apply tung oil, polyurethane or varnish. If you try to speed the drying process you risk creating cracks, checks and warping.
For the time being my chairs – I've made four – are outside under an eave so they won't get water damage while drying slowly.
I think I have enough maple left to fashion a couple more chairs. Then, I suppose, I'll need hassocks.
And maybe end tables.
I may even get around to making a bear. Or a new napkin holder.