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The Tools I Use · Bern Chandley, Chairmaker

Creative People

There’s something special about Bern Chandley – although he would likely be the first to disagree.

Using both traditional and modern methods, Bern has devoted his work to meticulously handcrafted Windsor chairs of ‘heirloom quality’. Of course he enjoys the technique involved – he’s good at it – but there seems to be a deeper satisfaction in the knowledge that these robust, yet delicate pieces will likely be passed down from generation to generation, designed to last well beyond the lifetime of their owners.

For this latest instalment of The Tools I Use, we travel to Thomastown to visit Bern in his studio and see how the magic happens.

16th November, 2018

Bern Chandley’s Windsor chair shaping tools. Photo – Amelia Stanwix. Styling – Ashley Simonetto.

Photo – Amelia Stanwix. Styling – Ashley Simonetto.

Photo – Amelia Stanwix. Styling – Ashley Simonetto.

Sally Tabart
Friday 16th November 2018

A carpenter and joiner by trade, Bern Chandley is renowned for his impeccable Windsor chairs, a classic design consisting of a solid timber seat, where everything underneath and everything above terminates in that seat. They offer long-term sustainability, and are not ‘just going to end up on a junk pile’, says Bern. ‘I love how durable they are… what really appeals to me is the inherent strength of the wood, to make a join that can last for centuries.’

This interview was initially over 4,000 words transcribed from multiple phone calls, so I’ve cut it down with a drawknife (read on to understand this hilarious chair joke!) to make it a bit more digestible. Bern’s just that kind of guy  – passionate, generous, and incredibly patient – a quality dished out liberally while explaining Windsor Chairmaking For Dummies to me (yep, I’m the dummy). We visited Bern in his Thomastown studio to take a look inside his toolkit.

1,2,3. Steam bending setup

‘There are a whole lot of bent sections in Windsor chairs to make them comfortable to sit in, and the most economical way of bending wood is steam bending.

A piece of wood is at its strongest is when it’s got continuous grain – it’s basically transferring the strength of the tree into the chair component. You need to have wood that has a continuous grain from one end to the other in order to complete a successful bend.

My steam bending set up consists of a steaming chamber, F-Clamps, bending form, pulleys, rope and a hand winch. I’ll put a straight piece of wood in the steamer for an hour or more depending on species, then clamp it around the bending form and dry for 4-5 days.’

Steaming chamber: 11mm thick PVC pipe. 

Steamers: Earlex wallpaper steamer. Wagner wallpaper steamer. 

Pulleys, rope and hand winch: boating supply shops.

Bending jig made by Bern.

Bending form made by Bern.

Bessey F-clamps

Photo – Amelia Stanwix. Styling – Ashley Simonetto.

4. Shavehorse

‘To shape anything, you need to have it held securely – which is where the shavehorse comes in. My updated version is called a pinhead shave horse, and I couldn’t do the work I do without it – it’s essential to Windsor chairmaking. On that foot vice, I can turn a piece over and over instantaneously and make sure I’m doing an even job without constantly stopping and starting.’

Shavehorse custom made by Bern. 

Photo – Amelia Stanwix. Styling – Ashley Simonetto.

Photo – Amelia Stanwix. Styling – Ashley Simonetto.

5. Drawknife

‘This basically removes a lot of material quickly, I pretty much just use it on the spindles. When I start on [the spindles] they’re a big square section that I need to turn into a round. A drawknife is used to cut off big slices of wood, and get rid of most of the material whilst the wood is still soft.’

Find it here

6. Spokeshave

‘The spokeshave has got a sole on it, which means it rides over the piece and will take down all the high spots, so it evens up the work you’ve done with the drawknife.’

Find it here

7. Travisher

‘This is pretty much like a curved spokeshave, evening up the carved parts of the seat and unifying the shape of all the curved edges in the process of saddling the seat, making it even and harmonious.’

Find it here

8. Mortise drill set up

‘To create the beauty of the geometry of the chair you have to have accurate drilling for the mortises, and this is a way of providing it.  Being able to look straight into the mirrors means I don’t have to cock my head down to line up the drill bit. I’m able to align the side of the drill bit with the side of the square and the bevel, which are perpendicular to each other, in the mirror.’

Mirrors bought from a glasscutter. 

Mirror stands made by Bern.

Square: Starrett.  

Sliding bevel: Shinwa

Bern with a Windsor chair work-in-progress. Photo – Amelia Stanwix. Styling – Ashley Simonetto.

BERN’S TOP Tips

What’s a piece of industry advice you wish you’d known before learning the hard way?

Develop your own designs as opposed to only doing bespoke one-offs.

Top three creative resources?

1. Museum furniture collections.
2. Libraries.
3. Social media

Most visited website related to your work?

A blog by American maker Peter Follansbee.

Favourite stores to shop for your tools?

I buy directly from the tool makers – some of my favourites include Caleb James,  Lie Nielsen and Claire Minihan.

what are you listening to when you work?

It’s the golden age of podcasts so I get through quite a few – my favourite woodworking podcasts at the moment are  Woodworker’s Podcast and Against The Grain.

Favourite books related to your practice?

Chairmaker’s Notebook’ by Peter Galbert
Welsh Stick Chairs’ by John Brown
Windsor Chairmaking’ by James Mursell
Chairmaker’s Workshop’ by Drew Langsner
The Men Who Made The Celebrated Chairs, Windsor chairmaking in Tasmania‘ by Denis Lake

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First Nations artists, designers, makers, and creative business owners are encouraged to submit their projects for coverage on The Design Files. Please email bea@thedesignfiles.net