A Chairmaker's Laboratory
Popular Woodworking, February 2005

Initially, chairmaker Brian Boggs's woodshop in Berea, Ky., holds no surprises. Strips of hickory bark are drying in the ceiling's rafters. A man sitting on a shaving horse works on a back slat with a drawknife. Jigs and templates hang from the walls, as do half-finished ladderback chairs.

But as you walk through the various rooms, each with a specific purpose, you begin to notice jigs, fixtures and even machines that you've never seen before. And then your eye catches sight of this, well, thing – a complex configuration of oily steel, wood, rubber, bolts, drive belts and gears.

Boggs proudly calls this his hickory bark stripper. While it doesn't actually strip the bark from the log, strips of hickory bark 25' to 30' long are fed through the machine where they pass through four 8" rotary knives, slide down angled tables and slither through pipes as they are split, processed and sliced until out pop perfect strips of hickory bark, ready to be hung from the ceiling for future woven seats. The machine took Boggs 12 years to develop.

Suddenly, it occurs to you. You aren't in a chairmaker's shop. Rather, you're in a chairmaker's laboratory. And all those jigs, fixtures and machines, you realize, are the scientist's chairmaking inventions.

The results of 45-year-old Boggs's constant ingenuity are ever-evolving, Appalachian-style ladderback chairs with a contemporary flair that have earned him national acclaim. Boggs continually strives to improve the way he builds his chairs (he talks about R&D – research and development – as much as he talks about hickory bark stripping) and he's constantly reevaluating his designs to make them more pleasing to the eye and more comfortable to sit in.

Surprisingly, Boggs isn't an engineer-turned-woodworker. No one in his family was a woodworker either. How he got to this stage was just a matter of reinventing himself.

The Philosophy of Chairmaking

Boggs grew up on various horse farms his father ran in Kentucky. He spent his childhood working horses, attending rodeos and dreaming of someday painting for a living.

After high school Boggs read James Krenov's "A Cabinetmaker's Notebook" (Linden Publishing) and "The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking" (Sterling Publishing). After finishing the books, he decided to attend Berea College and study woodworking. But at the time, the college wasn't teaching hand-tool skills, which is what he wanted to learn. So he doubled-majored in philosophy (he had taken a philosophy class his freshman year and really liked it) and French (an easy second major, he says). Not satisfied, he dropped out and began carving spoons and working for woodworker Kelly Mehler.

Having discovered what it would cost to set up his own woodworking shop, he was about to drop the idea of woodworking altogether when he stumbled upon John Alexander's book "Make a Chair From a Tree" (Astragal). He was intrigued by the fact that he could make a chair with hardly any tools, and Alexander's primitive methods appealed to him.

"I saw a lot of connections with what he (Alexander) was doing and the spirit of what Krenov was doing," Boggs says. So he started building chairs using Alexander's methods, which were affordable, and incorporating what he liked about Krenov. It seemed bad timing to start a business – his wife was in school and they were expecting their first child. But his idea, it turns out, was a good one.

At the time Boggs was renting a house from the late master woodturner Rude (Rudy) Osolnik. Osolnik's son, Joe, saw the first chair Boggs built and immediately ordered it for his gallery. Since that time, Boggs has never been without chair orders.

Joe continued to order chairs for his gallery. Joe, Rudy and some other folks put together a craft festival and invited Boggs and his work to the show. More orders resulted from that. Then, in 1988, Boggs was invited to teach at the Southern California Woodworking Conference in Clermont, Calif. Chair orders came pouring in. Renowned chairmaker Sam Maloof ordered four of them.

Boggs continued to teach across the country. (He still teaches chair-building workshops at various locations. For details, visit brianboggschairs.com.) He also began writing articles for woodworking magazines.

During this time Boggs was building ladderback chairs working out of his house. He and his family decided to rent a different house from Rudy, but still there wasn't enough space. So he rented a church outside of town with plenty of room but one wire from a neighboring building that provided electricity. Even though he worked with mostly hand tools, the electricity simply was inadequate. Plus, the church proved to be too cold in the winter (wood heat). So he added garage space to his house and, for six years, worked from that. This shop was featured in "The Workshop Book" by Scott Landis (Taunton Press).

Boggs started hiring help and eventually outgrew his garage shop. Nine years ago he found a lot, and then designed and built the shop he's in today.

A Chairmaker's Shop

There are several rooms in Boggs's shop. The back room is called the green room. It's not temperature controlled. One of the first things you notice is the 36" 1941 Yates American band saw with custom-made solid-steel wheels. The band saw uses a rail system to carry green logs through the blade. Boggs uses the band saw for quartering logs. His hickory bark stripper also occupies this room, as well as coils of hickory bark hanging from the rafters.

The kiln and steam-bending room houses the steamer, which Boggs made. In it is a three-phase, 10,000-watt electric boiler gravity fed from a pot that contains a toilet bowl kit to keep the water level. The steamer can steam 12 chair legs at a time. Boggs steams his curved chair parts one hour per inch of thickness. Typically he'll dry chair legs to about 15 percent moisture content, and then bend them in a form with compression straps. The legs are then placed in one of the holding forms that line the wall for a day or two.

The shop also has a machine room. But unlike most woodshops, there is no table saw. Boggs considers it unnecessary for his work and would rather keep carts loaded with material in the middle of the room than a rarely used saw. Another Yates American band saw (this one 30") immediately grabs your attention. Boggs equates this one to a souped-up race car. Incredibly accurate, this machine can cut stock with less than .002" variance in thickness. Boggs says this is possible thanks to a quality resaw blade and wheels that are very carefully dressed for nearly no runout. Also important are careful setup, a good featherboard, even feed rate, a tall, sturdy and accurate fence, proper body position, and steady breathing, Boggs says.

Also notable in this room is the system Boggs invented for cutting tenons (shown right), which uses a QuickTenon jig. Wood can be clamped at countless angles and orientations for a variety of joints, including double tenons. Thanks to registered stops, there's no initial setup time. The routers use a bushing system to make the cuts. A shimming system allows quick router changes.

Boggs also invented a system for cutting mortises using his Powermatic overarm pin router, which also is in the machine room. The indexing is so precise that Boggs claims he can cut 12 mortises for a rocking chair all within .001" tolerance of each other.

Boggs says that he can guarantee the same degree of comfort in all his chairs because of his many templates and jigs. He gave up using wood to build jigs years ago. Today, everything is made from aluminum and steel, and is milled to strict specifications, making his shop look a bit like it was built from a grown-up erector set.

Everything in his machine room has been tuned-up, souped-up or made better thanks to Boggs's constant tinkering. He made a new toolrest marked for production runs for his Oliver lathe. He also designed and built his router table, which features room for a dust collector and a drawer. The aluminum extrusion makes it easy for Boggs to add an extension table when slotting rocking chairs with his router.

Next to the machine room, separated by a thick insulated wall, is the assembly room. Here is where the "quiet work" is done – the work that requires a shaving horse and hand tools. Here is where Boggs and his two employees, Aaron Rust and Aaron Beale, listen to music and talk as they work. Here is where the chairs are assembled.

Boggs's shop also features a gallery with hardwood floors, big windows, a vaulted ceiling and an open pass-through to the assembly room. The gallery showcases his work – three-slat ladderback side and arm chairs, six-slat ladderback arm rockers and a footstool.

There are separate rooms for finishing and office work. Lumber is stored upstairs.

Creating New Tools and Joints

Boggs's inventions aren't limited to templates and jigs. His ingenuity has overlapped into the world of tools and joints as well. Lie-Nielsen Toolworks sells one of Boggs's inventions – The Boggs Spokeshave. The tool, which has received favorable reviews, features a heavy 12-ounce bronze body, an 1/8"-thick A2 blade and hickory handles. Lie-Nielsen plans to offer two more of Boggs's shave styles (one concave) this spring and the company is reviewing Boggs's fourth spokeshave design now.

Boggs's joint design, which he calls the universal joint (shown on page 36), features double offset tenons and housed shoulders. The joint, which Boggs says resists torque and rack, has more than 10 square inches of glue surface, including four parallel glue planes that stabilize the joint. The joint requires custom-made jigs (which Boggs designed) and two routers to make. The joint allows for a more open design and forms a much more organic intersection.

This joint, which Boggs already is incorporating in his chair designs, is just one example of the continuing evolution of his ladderback chairs. "I made some ugly chairs," Boggs says laughing, talking about his early years. Antique or "country" chairs have a certain awkwardness that's charming, he says. His early pieces had some of that charm (and some did not, he says again laughing) but he continued to tinker with the design. For years he tried to design a more contemporary style ladderback chair but finally realized that as long as he continues to weave his seats from hickory bark, they're only going to be able to look so contemporary.

"Hickory bark always has a country vibe," he says. "It really limits what you can do." But Boggs appreciates the bark's strength (it's stronger than leather) and the fact that it makes his chairs distinctly regional. However, if a customer wants an entire chair built from hickory, he must be prepared to pay 50 percent more. Hickory wood is difficult to steam, and is littered with defects and color variations, making chair construction difficult.

Although Boggs enjoys inventing, right now he says he's a woodworker who's not woodworking much. The balance is off. But it's been necessary – he says he can't build the chairs he wants to build until he has the right tools and equipment. And for the most part, those tools and equipment don't exist. But the time he's spent doing research and development has paid off – his chairs are better than ever.

As far as future growth is concerned, Boggs doesn't want to become as big as Thomas A. Moser has become. He likes being extremely close to his work. He acknowledges the fact that growth (currently he runs a three-man shop) has allowed him the time to invent – the time for his research and development. Eventually he wants to try running a five-man (or woman) shop, and see where it goes. But his motto is this: If it's not fun, it's done.

As much as Boggs enjoys his job, he's constantly wary of burn-out. He's adamant about working a 40-hour week and rarely works on weekends. He's careful that his employees stick to a 40-hour work week, too. He uses the example of woodturner Bob Stocksdale. "Stocksdale never worked more than an eight-hour day and that's why he was always so fired up about spinning a bowl," Boggs says.

The Almost-perfect Chair

Sitting in one of Boggs's six-slat ladderback arm rockers, you have to wonder how another invention – whether it be a jig, a tool or a joint – could possibly improve the chair. As you gently rock back and forth, Boggs shows you how the wood's growth rings wind around the chair just like they did in the tree. This, he says, orients the chair's parts so they receive the least amount of stress.

He explains how each of the six back slats have a different curve for perfect lumbar support. He asks you to hold your hands up, as if you were reading a book. As you perform this act your elbows slide into the angled part of the armrests and you realize this cut was intentional. The heavy cut taken underneath the end of each armrest was intentional, too. This, Boggs says, gives your fingertips something to play with.

Over the past 22 years Boggs has reworked the beauty of the Appalachian-style chair into one that fits the human form more comfortably. And although from the time he sold his very first chair he's never been without a chair order, Boggs still sees room for improvement. Sometimes, the constant redesign and problem solving can be overwhelming and even downright scary, he says. But Boggs equates the work to a favorite carnival ride – it can be the scariest ride you've ever been on but as soon as you get off you pay your money and get right back on again.

Boggs can't resist jumping back on, perhaps because he knows this: As he continually reinvents his company – whether it be adding more employees, inventing a new way to cut a new joint or putting a new tool on the market – he continually improves his work and, ultimately, himself. And that's really all a scientist can ask for, or ever need. PW

—Story by Kara Gebhart Uhl
—Photos by Al Parrish