Harvest green wood saplings, bend ’em, nail ’em and sit yourself down.
You can make a pretty good case for bending and attaching green wood sticks as the second oldest wood-furniture making method (after sitting on a log). Today, this type of furniture is labeled “rustic,” so exposed nails, screws, and other hardware are acceptable for joining the individual pieces. Larger pieces can be joined using mortise-and-tenon joints cut by hand, a drill, or a commercially available tenon cutter. Nails or leather straps also work well for joining the wood together.
Building this chair (see Fig. A) is a good introduction to rustic chairmaking and a testament to the great bending properties of willow. With rustic furniture, there are often no drawings or set plans. The shapes and sizes of the wood at hand and the maker’s eye are often the determining factors when creating a design.
A few basics are important, however. For rustic chairs, they include the height, width and depth of the seat, and also the height of the arms. (see Fig. B) The chair I’m building here is designed for a child (the seat is about 12″ high, 15″ wide, and 15″ deep), so it is smaller than an adult-size chair, but both chairs are made the same way.
Working with Green Wood
Green wood is either freshly sawn or has not undergone any formal drying process. It retains moisture and the wood’s natural resins, which makes it easier to bend than wood that has been thoroughly dried. Alder, birch, beech, hickory, and willow are commonly used to make bentwood rustic furniture.
Willow may have the best qualities of all because it bends easily, stays in place, and the bark usually doesn’t come off when the wood dries. It can also be a reliable source of material—a good stand of willows near a creek or river will yield new saplings year after year.
Saplings work best for bending, because they are relatively straight and have few offshoots and leaves, so they’re easy to prepare. Use saplings and small branches to construct bent components, such as the arms and seat of this chair. Use thicker branches to construct the support structure.
When you cut live branches and saplings, it’s best to use them right away, before they have a chance to dry out. The sticks can be wrapped in plastic and stored for a while, but they’ll continue to dry and mildew can be a problem.
For the bent pieces in this chair, I cut willow and Osage-orange saplings that were about 1″ in diameter at their thickest. The structural members were cut from branches of willow and Osage-orange and were slightly more than 1″ in diameter.
This chair’s structural frames hold the bent elements in tension, which adds much strength to its overall structure. To create bent pieces that are uniformly shaped, you must pre-bend the thick end of each piece by hand or over the edge of a bench.
Otherwise, the pieces will tend to bend more where they are thinner and less where they are thickest, resulting in uneven curves.
Use galvanized nails (with heads) to fasten the pieces. Some joints could be wrapped with leather to add strength and detail.
From the book Woodworker’s Guide to Bending Wood by Jonathan Benson. Reprinted by permission of Fox Chapel Publishing.
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