Bruce Stuart on canoeing, losing track of time and the importance of straight grain wood.
Q & A with Bruce Stuart
How long have you been building furniture?
I’ve been building for about 30 years.
What sort of furniture do you specialize in?
I like simple, functional furniture, though my specialty would be Windsor chairs.
What are the three most important items in your shop apron?
4” Double square
Do you prefer hand tools or power tools?
Solid wood or veneer?
Solid wood, but I am not against veneer, I just don’t have a lot of experience with it.
Figured wood or straight grain?
As most of my focus is on Windsor chairs, straight grain is a must.
Inherited Vintage Stanley Sweetheart or fresh-out-of-the-box Veritas?
I have a mix of both old and new but there’s something about the old tools that I really enjoy. I also like to refurbish Stanley bench planes.
Flowing curves or geometric shapes?
Certainly for chairs, flowing curves.
Comb-Back Windsor Chair
The most distinctive feature of a comb-back Windsor chair is the fact that the back spindles are all the same length, and are capped off with a top rail. The look is similar to a hair comb. This is one of Stuart's chairs.
Canoe Display Shelves
Stuart enjoys working with old canoes. He cuts them in half, modifies them to hold items, and refinishes them.
Birdcage Windsor Chair
Mixing comfort and style, a Birdcage Windsor chair has a double bow in the crest. According to Stuart, the most difficult part of the build was finding the angle and drilling for the top corner false mitres. Stuart made this chair for his wife's home office.
Quotes from Bruce Stuart
My shop is a 1200 sq ft pole barn constructed building with a board & batten exterior and a tin roof. I heat it with a cast iron wood stove in the winter and can easily get it up to T-shirt temperature in no time.
I usually get into the shop as early as I can and the first order of business is to assess the level of messiness. I can work in the mess until a certain point, but when that point is reached, everything stops until it’s tidied up. I do often work at night and sometimes completely lose track of time, only to finally turn the lights off in the wee hours of the morning.
My favourite tools are definitely the tools specific to chairmaking, such as the scorp, the travisher and the drawknife. I often use my Great Grandfather’s bit brace to drill many of the holes for legs and spindles and I’m sure it works as well today as it did over 100 years ago. I enjoy every aspect of chairmaking, but shaping the seat is one of the most enjoyable.
I mostly find inspiration from books or magazines. The need for something to fit a certain space pushes me to figure out how to make it work, which in turn leads me to the design.
In addition to furniture, I also build canoes and canoe display shelves. I love canoeing so it hurts a little bit to cut what was once a perfectly functional canoe in half. Although once in their new home, they really do look fantastic, and it’s a great way to re-purpose a canoe that can’t swim anymore.
Know your material and its limitations.
Since focusing my attention on traditional Windsor style chairmaking over the last number of years, I now use hand tools and green wood almost exclusively.
Tom Fidgen has an immense knowledge of hand tools and how to use them. I would love to meet him and just talk wood and tools over coffee. Michael Fortune, Vic Tesolin, Garrett Hack, Christian Becksvoort, Gary Rowgoski and many others have influenced me too. Being self-taught, these guys are really all my instructors and I’m very thankful to them even though I have never met many of them.
Working with my hands and with tools has been in me ever since I was young. I remember presenting a coat rack to my parents cobbled together from some scrap wood my dad had in the basement.
I like to be creative in my work, but originality or the artistic nature aren’t a high priority.
To me, good design means strong joinery, good proportions, pleasing to the eye and if you’re going to sit in it, comfort.
The simpler the piece, the less of a design is needed. The design is usually a rough sketch with a few dimensions worked out, from there things most often evolve as I go.
Identifying as a woodworker is important to me. I like being a guy who can make things with his hands.
If you can, go to a good woodworking school and save a lot of time learning by trial and error.
I think studio furniture will become more and more in demand in the years to come as people become more dissatisfied with the quality of mass-produced furniture.
I think the Birdcage Windsor chair is the piece I'm most proud of. Windsor chairs are fascinating and fun to make. A lot of very precise work goes into making a Birdcage Windsor chair comfortable, as well as look good.
Woodworking can be so much to so many. To me it is a built-in passion that I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of and also offers a lifetime of learning. It can be building a slat box to hold kindling by the fireplace to building a Federal sideboard. If it brings you joy, do it.
Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement.