All posts by Max Vollmer

I began my journey into building solid wood, traditionally joined furniture while in law school 35 years ago. After a career in agricultural finance, law and business, I felt an irresistible call to do something different with the next chapter in my life. Building furniture was a natural fit. I begin each new project with a commitment to the highest level of craftsmanship. Machines can do the "heavy lifting" but can't duplicate the human quality, the subtle "fingerprints" of the artisan. For that reason, I employ traditional hand tools in shaping every piece. The hand plane, chisel and scraper each play a part in creating a fit and finish that says, "hand built." Every piece that comes out of my shop is designed to serve the practical needs of my clients. But furniture should also be a source of quiet satisfaction . . . an invitation to the hand and eye to come again.

Priest’s Chair – Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, New Mexico

I found this picture online of an 18th century chair in the collection of the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico, known as the Priest’s Chair.  See below.

There are a few, early, carved armchairs like this one from northern New Mexico that are referred to as Priest’s Chairs without any documented connections to churches.  However, chairs of any kind were few and far between on the northern New Mexico frontier in the 1700’s and armchairs like this one would have been found only in the homes of prosperous Spanish families and in a few Catholic churches with larger congregations.  The wood used in the original was the best timber available at the time, Ponderosa pine from the Sangre de Cristo mountains.   I decided to make a copy of this chair, with added details, to accompany my carved New Mexico bench (October 2015 Archive) and my carved Harinero chest (January 2018 Archive).  This was the last project I completed before dismantling my shop in January 2020.

Without plans or the actual chair to go by, I based my chair dimensions on the research I did for the New Mexico bench and the old photograph.  I prepared scaled drawings and then followed my usual practice of cutting and shaping all the individual pieces for the chair, including in this case, the “through” mortise and tenon joinery used on the original (“through” referring to the fact that mortises pass all the way through the wood so that the tenon ends are exposed).  See below.  [Click on any image to enlarge, All photos copyright symbol Max Vollmer]

I then tried to estimate the original dimensions of the back splats and those in front, below the seat; drew them on paper, glued the paper down to boards, and rough cut out the shapes on the bandsaw leaving enough wood top and bottom for tenons to go into the chair rails front and back.

The front and back sub-assemblies for the chair, with carved details, looked like this.

I assembled the main chair components, leaving the armrests off at first so that I would be able to accurately locate them on the back legs of the chair.

Locating the armrests was a little tricky.  I wanted them level with the ground and at a height that would be comfortable for someone seated in the chair.  I clamped the unfinished armrests to the front and back legs, marked their position, and then marked out the mortises in the back legs.

The location of mortises and tenons were marked on the armrests and the chair legs, cut as marked, and then all that remained was to attach them.

I sealed the pine with Minwax Natural and then made a blend of Minwax tinted sealers to darken the wood.  Finally, I attached a temporary plywood seat that will be upholstered when  I get the chance.


A New Home for my Timberline desk and chair

Not long after moving to Eugene, Oregon in 1987, I traveled to Timberline Lodge on the slopes of Mt. Hood to take photographs and measurements of what are known as the Mezzanine Desk and Chair, part of the of the original 1930’s Depression era collection of furniture made by WPA (Works Progress Administration) artisans for the lodge.  I did that so I could make an exact reproduction of the two pieces.  Below you see a picture of the cover of a book on Timberline Lodge published by Friends of Timberline in 1978 and a photograph from the book of the original desk and chair in one of the alcoves on the lodge’s mezzanine level.

My reproduction differed from the originals in two repects:  one, I used clear vertical grain (CVG) Douglas fir while the originals are made of Douglas fir with knots; and two, I made rubbings of the carved five-petal flower on either side of the upper portion of the desk in order to replicate the carvings on my reproduction.

With no plans to guide me on the actual construction of the heavy-timbered  desk and chair, I settled on what I thought would be the most durable way to secure the leg and stretcher sets for both, and that is through the use of sliding dovetails.  Although I do not believe this is the technique used on the originals, it made the greatest sense to me because of the fact that both leg sets are splayed outward creating compound angles where the legs connect to the skirts and the stretchers, as you can see in the photograph above.  The desk legs were approximately 4″ x 4″ square and the chair legs were approximately 3.5″ x 3.5″ square.   Constructing the legs sets so that the splay angles matched those I had measured in the originals was a  challenge, involving the use of the traditional sliding T-bevel.  Below you can see the leg set for the chair, and the skirt sets for both the desk and chair, prepared for assembly with the dovetail slots and keys.

In the next two photos you can see a detail of how the skirt pieces are joined to a leg, and then the fully assembled leg set for the desk.

The rounded profiles on all four legs of the desk and chair were created prior to assembly by rough cutting the profile one leg at a time on the bandsaw and then finishing by hand with wood rasps, files, and what are called wood “floats,” and finally sandpaper.

The pieces for the desk top, the seat and back for the chair, and the upper section of the desk were all worked with handplanes to create the smoothest surfaces, smoother by far than what is possible with  sandpaper.   Below you can see my use of a jack plane to refine the edge of the desk top.

The next photo set depicts the desk and chair assembled, with a detail of the chair back support, but prior to the application of any finish.

With a Minwax Natural sealer and a Watco Danish Oil natural finish, the set looked like this when new in 1987.

I used the desk and chair from 1987 until 2020 when I sold the two pieces and the 1978 Friends of Timberline book to a couple in Portland, OR.  The wife in particular has a love of Timberline Lodge and has collected Timberline memorabilia, including commemorative Timberline Lodge blankets woven by the Pendleton woolen mills in Pendleton, OR, to display in one corner of her home.  The couple have two children who use the desk now for homework.  I could not have asked for a better home for my work.  Here are two pictures she sent me of the desk and chair in their new home.

Emily’s Pocket Door

My daughter Emily and her partner Trav are building a Tiny House from the ground up in Nehalem, Oregon.  My contribution is a pocket door for the bathroom.  For this project I selected some  rough sawn, old-growth, clear vertical grain (CVG) Douglas fir that I had been hoarding for 30 years for the door frame and panels.  [Click on any image to enlarge, All photos copyright symbol Max Vollmer]

CVG Douglas fir beams and boards.

The first step was to size and plane the lumber according to my plan and cut list for a six-panel door with a stained glass mosaic visible from one side only.  Then I cut the mortises and tenons for the door frame and dry-fit the pieces.  It is absolutely critical for a door that the frame be dead-square, with 90 degree angles at all joints.

Checking for square.
Door frame, dry fit.

The next step was to cut the rabbets all around the inside of the frame members to accept the 3/4 inch thick panels.  As with any frame and panel construction, allowance has to be made for the expansion-contraction of solid wood panels that occurs with changes in ambient humidity.

Dry-fitting panels in the rabbets cut into the door frame members.

With the door frame members sized, the mortises and tenons cut, and the panels sized, I now had a door “kit” ready for embellishment, sanding, and assembly.

The pocket door “kit.”

To add a little interest, I created 45 degree, stop-chamfers around all framed openings in the door on both sides.


The side of the door that faces out was planned with a stained glass mosaic depicting a cormorant perched on a piling in the surf, a common sight on the Oregon coast.  The hand crafted mosaic was created by Emily’s Mom, Sheila, and was glued down to a 1/4 inch thick masonite panel sized to fit the door frame.

Stained glass mosaic.

My plan called for the stained glass mosaic to be recessed 1/4 inch in from the front surface of the door frame and “picture-framed” with thin, beveled pieces of fir.  Then backing up the mosaic, and on the back side of the door, I cut and planed thin but solid fir panels to make it appear as a six-panel wood door on the reverse side.

Front side with mosaic.
Back side.

Because this is a pocket door and will slide into a cavity in the wall rather than be hung from hinges, I used door pulls that were inset flush with the door surface, instead of regular door knob hardware.  To retrieve the door from the pocket when it is open, I used an edge pull inset into the door frame.  Finally, we wanted to employ a rare-earth magnet catch to hold the door closed and you can see one-half of that magnetic catch installed above the edge pull.

Recessed door pull.
Edge pull and rare-earth magnet catch.

Although the framing members were glued at the mortise and tenon joints, I built in extra stability and longevity by pinning the four corners of the frame with 1/2 inch cherry dowels that are visible only from the back side of the door.

1/2 inch cherry dowels pin all four corners of the door.

I signed the door on the bottom edge of the back side with my “makers mark.”

The “makers mark.”

Here are photos of the finished door, front and back, in my shop.

Framed mosaic.

Biomechanics – Chopping Wood, 2019

Actually ‘splitting wood’ more accurately describes what I do each winter in order to maintain a two year supply of cured firewood for my woodstove.  [All photos copyright symbol Max Vollmer,  Click on any photo to enlarge.  ]

Red oak (Quercus rubra)

A year ago I felled a red oak tree on my property that had succumbed to  a pest locally referred to as the ‘green ash borer.’  The base of the tree was a little over 24 inches in diameter and I cut the bolts (log sections) into approx. 24 inch lengths to fit my cast iron, airtight stove from Ireland.  I let these bolts sit all summer to begin to dry and then in the Fall I split them into sections left to dry another year.  I fell trees and split firewood when the days are cold to avoid breaking a sweat.  Temperatures in the low to mid-40’s Fahrenheit are perfect for splitting, while temperatures in the mid-30’s are better for felling and bucking.

Split red oak

I’ve been splitting firewood since I was 11 or 12 years old.  As a kid I used a Plumb ax to split wood for the family fireplace.  For the last 40 years I’ve been using a maul which is much more efficient!  Currently I am using an 8 lb. maul which is needed for these large oak rounds.  When I bought my current property it came with a gas-powered log splitter that I used for one season.  It was fast, but I sold it because I prefer to split the wood by hand.  It’s naturally much harder work by hand, but it is part of what keeps me in shape at 73.  Through the years of using a heavy maul,  I’ve learned how to put biomechanics to work for me.  I’ve perfected something like a full overhead, figure-8 swing that employs gravity, momentum, a pendulum motion, and centripetal force to do the work.  My arms and arm muscles don’t really do the work of splitting, so much as they direct the mechanical motion and application of force (mass x acceleration = force) that does.

Wall Cabinet – Oak, Cherry, Elm and Maple

I made this small, wall mounted cabinet to hold my layout tools for measuring and marking.  It puts them within easy reach and keeps them organized.  I used some off-cuts of red oak, black cherry, American elm, and sugar maple that were too good to throw away.  And I used some of the same tools that are now housed in the cabinet to make it.  [All photos copyright symbol Max Vollmer, Click on any photo to enlarge]

Wall cabinet. [Click on any photo to enlarge]
I’m going to illustrate the step-by-step process I use for hand cut dovetails, both the through dovetails on the case and the half-blind dovetails on the drawers.

Step one:  having determined the dimensions for the cabinet and cut the component pieces to size, I started the through dovetails for the case by marking the length for the tails based on the thickness of the board to which they will be joined, using an adjustable marking gauge made by Veritas Tools in Canada.

Marking the length of the tails.

Having decided on my dovetail spacing, I then marked the tails with a brass dovetail guide made by an Englishman, Richard Kell, many years ago.

Marking the tails.

The next two steps were to cut alongside the marked tails and then chop out the waste between them.

Using a chisel to chop out the waste between the dovetails.

To align the dovetails with matching pins, I clamped the board with the finished tails in my bench vise and lined up the board that will have pins and marked their location.  With the spacing marked in pencil, I used a marking knife to inscribe the outlines of the waste between pins.  I go to all this trouble to get the narrowest pins and finest fit.  There are always slight variations in hand cut dovetails, unlike those made with a router and jig.  It is not possible to get the very small pins you see in fine, antique furniture with a router and I want my furniture to reflect the skill required for hand work.

Alignment for marking  pin spacing.
Pencil marks for spacing and marking waste between pins with a marking knife.

Next, I fully outline the pins with a pencil to guide my cuts.  This is slow work but yields good results.

Outlining pins.

Since I planned to have a recessed back panel for the wall cabinet, after cutting the tails and pins for all four of the case frame pieces, I took this opportunity to cut the stopped rabbets around the back edges of the case pieces as well.  See Below.

Stopped rabbet for recessed back panel.

The six drawers, with American elm sides and Black cherry drawer fronts, have through dovetails on the back corners and “half-blind” dovetails on the front corners.  “Half-blind” means that the tails do not go all the way through the adjoining boards so that they do not show on the face.  My technique for the half-blind dovetails was basically the same as that for through dovetails.  See below.

Drawer side and back with rabbets cut for drawer bottom.
Elm side with tails fits into cherry front with pins to create the half-blind dovetails.

All sides, backs, and front pieces for the six drawers.  Ready for assembly.
Dry fit through dovetails at the rear and half-blind at the front of the drawer.

After cutting the 3/16″ oak plywood for the drawer bottoms, I cut and shaped a piece of Sugar maple with the table saw and a router to be cut into individual lengths for drawer pulls.  Then I cut stopped dadoes on the outside faces of the drawer sides before final assembly, and made and attached matching wood drawer guides on the inside faces of the case pieces .

Assembled drawers.  Drawer sides have stopped dadoes cut on the outside face to match up with drawer guides mounted on the inside faces of the case work.
Case sides and center section with guides for drawers.

What remained was assembly and finishing with clear/natural Watco Danish Oil.

Case sides and center section.

To hang the wall cabinet, I used a piece of oak with an angle cut mounted to the back of the case that mates with another oak piece, with the complimentary angle cut, that is mounted to the wall.  In this way the cabinet can be hung and removed as needed.

The back of the case with a cross piece that has an angle cut on its bottom edge to mate up with a complimentary piece mounted on the wall that allows me to hang the cabinet.