Ask the Experts: Issue 3

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This article is from Issue 3 of Woodcraft Magazine.

The Whole Story on That Stick

Q: In the March issue project on making a Shaker stool, Kerry Pierce refers to using a “story stick.” What exactly is this and how is it used?

Kerry Pierce responds:

Every chair I build has six nearly identical side rungs, three nearly identical front rungs, and either two or three nearly identical back rungs. If I’m making a set of, say, six dining chairs, I have to multiply those numbers by six: 36 side rungs, 18 front rungs, and at least a dozen back rungs. Each of those rungs has four locations along its length that must be accurately marked: two marks indicating the shoulder of each tenon and two marks indicating the length of each tenon. That’s 144 measurements on the side rungs alone. 

If I were to use my 6' carpenter’s rule for each of those measurements, I’d have to devote a significant part of each workday to the tedious process of unfolding and refolding my rule. In addition, giving each of those measurements a separate reading from a rule increases the likelihood of error. The 42nd tenon I mark might be 7/16" long, rather than the required 7/8".

Fortunately my woodworking ancestors solved this problem long before I was born: They created the story stick.

This array of story sticks represents all the parts needed to create one chair.

I have a separate story stick for each rung size on each chair I build. On that stick I’ve marked shoulder locations, as well as tenon lengths. To mark a rough-turned part in my lathe, I simply lay the stick along the part and quickly transfer the measurements from the story stick to the part. 

Similarly, I have a story stick for each post of each chair. In addition to length, on these sticks I’ve marked the center of each side-rung mortise on one face of the stick. Then on the other face of the stick I’ve marked the center of each front (or back) rung mortise. I’ve also included a brief sketch of any turned details on these sticks, marking the locations of every bead, cove and vase. 

I also include bandsawn patterns with my story sticks. So in the case of a rocking chair, I have a pattern for the rockers, a pattern for the slats and a pattern for the arms. These patterns and the post-and-rung story sticks are always kept together, hanging from the same coat hanger like a set of keys (which, in a way, they are). I suspend these sets from a nail on the wall of my shop next to my lathe, so when I build a chair, I don’t need a measured drawing or ruler. All I need is the clutch of story sticks.

Kerry Pierce is the author of 10 woodworking books,  including the recently published “Authentic Shaker Furniture.”

When Is A Finish Finally Finished?

Q: We had a particularly harsh winter, and I’m concerned about the finishing materials that have been stored in my unheated garage shop. Could any of my finishes have been harmed and, if so, how would I be able to tell?

Bob Flexner responds: 

Freezing temperatures can ruin water-based finishes and latex paints. Some products will tolerate several freeze/thaw cycles with no damage. Others won’t. The visual evidence of a ruined water-based coating is coagulation that resembles cottage cheese. (An additional clue is that the coating will smell horrible.)

I don’t know how cold it would have to get for a particular solvent-based finish or paint to freeze, and I’ve never heard of a lacquer, varnish, polyurethane or shellac being ruined by cold temperatures. The definitive test for any coating is pretty obvious: Does it level out and cure hard when applied?

To check any product, simply use a stirring stick to drip a small puddle onto the lid of the can or onto another nonporous surface and see what happens. Unless the coating has a thick, gel-like consistency, it should spread thin and cure hard. You’ll know if everything is all right by the next day. With water-based coatings, shellac and lacquer, you’ll know within an hour. With gel finish or latex wall paint, neither of which flow well, spread the coating to a thin layer using a cloth. You don’t have to get the coating level.

For the test, be sure to apply the finish or paint in a warm room, and keep the room warm until the coating has cured. The curing of any coating always takes considerably longer in cold temperatures.

Bob Flexner is the author of “Understanding Wood Finishing.” 


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