The Woodworker Sessions Series is all about South African woodworkers sharing our craft and learning from each other. Our techniques, shortcuts, mistakes and triumphs all combine to grow our common passion - working with wood. I am always looking for interesting, intriguing and dedicated woodworkers to interview. If you are, or you know of a woodworker who fits the above bill, I would love to hear from you at email@example.com. Please offer your comments on The Woodworker Sessions in the comments section below each article.
Leon Nolte found his woodworking niche quite late in life and I am extremely glad he did! His love and intense passion for the rich and sensuous forms of the late Sam Maloof's exquisite chairs has led him down an artistic path of dedication and perseverance in reproducing these wonderful art forms.
Leon Nolte of Mokopane, Limpopo
Tobias: How, why and when did you become interested in woodworking?
Leon: Although woodworking has held a fascination for me since my early twenties, I did not get around to actually doing any real woodwork until I was almost half a century oId!
At the time, I was in the crop protection business. Woodworking and design however, always tended to play with my day to day thoughts. I am one of those people whose brain is always busy with concepts and designs of some form or another. Simply put, my brain never stands still...
At first, I built a few kitchen cabinets, but that kind of woodwork did not stimulate me at all. Kitchen cabinet construction is terribly repetitive and I become bored very quickly, however it did give me a income and paid the bills at the time.
I then took a job working for a rice drying company in Texas. I must say that America has always intrigued me, ever since I was very young and I jumped at the opportunity to work in the USA.
What first amazed me was that they build houses entirely from wood and build them incredibly fast indeed! This really took hold in my mind.
Whilst in the USA, I purchased my first copy of Fine Woodworking magazine. This publication really fired up my creative side with their vast range of in depth and fascinating articles.
Greene & Greene Side table with Traditional Inlay
In this magazine, I came upon a beautiful Greene & Greene furniture piece, was instantly hooked and started to make reproduction pieces in my spare time. They were pieces from the Blacker House, of which I found the measurements in a museum. I excelled at this style, bringing me to the realisation that I can actually do really competent woodwork!
Leon's Greene & Greene Sideboard with Ebony Accents
On returning to South Africa, I started to build Greene & Greene style furniture pieces and also did kitchen cabinetry to keep the income flowing. In 2011, I returned to the company in Texas to earn enough to help my mother with the costs of her cancer treatment. It was at this stage that I came across the the amazing world of legendary woodworker, Sam Maloof. His style immediately and completely resonated with me and I fell in love with his graceful designs and exacting joinery.
After two and a half years in the USA, I again returned to South Africa and began in earnest to build Maloof style chairs.
Ebonised Maloof High Back Dining Chairs
Tobias: What aspects of your craft do you find most enjoyable and least enjoyable?
Leon: The most enjoyable stage is right at the beginning of the process, when selecting the wood for a specific Maloof style chair. I try to source planks that are the same colour. The wood for the seat is very important. The grain must match on both sides of the middle of the seat. The boards for the arm rests must also be a very close match to each other.
Cutting the five pieces that make up the seat section and making the joints for the legs in the two outer pieces is great fun and requires critically accurate layout, marking and cutting.
Cutting the angles on two of the five pieces next to the middle section (left and right) so that the middle of the seat is lower than the two outside pieces when glued up, is a real challenge and must be done with infinite care and accuracy.
I derive great pleasure from laying out the legs in the rough, cutting them out and cutting the 3mm thick sub-sections for the rocker laminations (ten for each rocker)! This laminated structure for the rockers results in them being incredibly strong and having the perfect amount of "spring". I also get a kick cutting the 3mm thick pieces for the back splats, four each for the seven back splats (28 in total per chair) and glueing them up in my customised template jig. This process makes the back splats slightly flexible and adds to the amazing comfort experienced in a Maloof style chair.
When starting the final hand shaping of the parts, my adrenalin kicks into high gear! The most exciting and satisfying phase of a chair build is when applying the first coats of oil onto the finished piece and suddenly the entire chair comes to life. This is an "instant gratification" that I have difficulty in putting into words that can adequately describe the feeling.
Least enjoyable is the sanding, of which there is plenty in this furniture style. I sand to 800 grit to get a very smooth surface for the oiling.
Tobias: Which are your favourite hand tools?
Leon: I have a variety of hand tools that I bought in Texas whilst working there.
- Veritas #62-1/2 Low Angle Jack Plane with the three blades sharpened at different angles, makes this a wonderfully versatile tool.
- No 5 ½ Wood River Jack Plane. The The blade is nice and thick and does not chatter in use.
- Wood River Spokeshaves.
- Stanley #5 Jack Plane.
- Veritas Low Angle Block Plane with two blades sharpened at different angles.
- Stanley Block Plane
- Stanley Spokeshave
- Japanese Rasps. These are a pleasure to work with. Very sharp and they leave a smooth surface.
- Builders Rasps
- Narex Chisels
- Stanley Router Plane
- Veritas Large Shoulder Plane.
- Veritas Cabinetmakers Trimming Plane.
- King Arthur Tools - Holey Galahad Shaping Discs
- Diamond sharpening plates from medium grit up to extra extra fine.
- Veritas Honing Guide for my chisels and plane blades.
- A selection of stainless steel rulers
- High end Try Squares
- Veritas Wheel Marking Gauges
- Tape Measures.
- Digital Angle Rulers
Tobias: Which are your favourite power tools and stationary machines?
Leon: I have a large 20” band saw, which is critical for working in the style of Sam Maloof. There are endless curves that require accurate cutting. I also believe a table saw is a must in every woodworking workshop, mine is a Martlet 10".
I make extensive use of custom jigs for cutting joints on the table saw. I use a custom table saw sled for crosscutting, as it is fast, safe and very accurate. Also critical to the workshop are a Metabo Compound Mitre Saw and a Martlet 200mm long bed jointer . I firmly believe that no workshop can function without a decent freestanding jointer.
The Martlet 300mm Benchtop Thicknesser is a fantastic little machine and copes admirably with all my work and I also make extensive use of the workshop built router table.
In the workshop arsenal are also several routers and cordless drills.
The floor standing Jet Drill Press is wonderful, as it has a radial headstock. The head can move forwards and backwards and can also tilt to both sides, as well as the table being able to tilt.
I make heavy use of small 4" handheld angle grinders, as they are perfect for much of my curving, fairing and shaping tasks. The seats of the Maloof chairs are predominantly shaped using angle grinders.
Tobias: Which machines, power tools or hand tools could you not go without?
Leon: It's really difficult to choose which tools I could do without. All of the tools are employed at one or another stage in the manufacturing process. I use angle grinders with Holey Galahad discs for the primary shaping of the seats of the Maloof chairs, and with them the initial shaping a seat is accomplished in about a hour.
The table saw is predominantly used for ripping, cross cutting and cutting joints. The band saw is the mainstay of the workshop for cutting all the intricate curves and is also used for initial rip cutting of rough stock. Every single one of my machines comes into play in the chair building process.
Tobias: Do you use a dedicated space for your craft, what floor area do you have and how much time do you have in spending on working per week?
Leon: I am a full time woodworker and the workshop is my home for 6 days a week.
My total indoor space is about 20m x 20m and there is a similar size space under roof outside. I have plenty of cabinets inside with worktops for tool storage and to work on.
The dedicated workbench was built from 38mm thick MDF and it suits my style of working very well. There are also two other tables in the workshop that are used for sanding, shaping and gluing. One of the tables also doubles up as the outfeed table for the table saw.
Tobias: What was the first piece you ever made, what is your favourite piece and what is your next piece you would like to build?
Leon: My first piece was a side table that I built at school.
My favourite piece is the Maloof rocker and maybe the Blacker side board.
The Maloof rocker is a incredibly challenging piece of furniture to create. So many things need to come together for it be pleasure to finally sit on. The back splats contribute a large part of comfort of the chair, however all of the other factors such as the angle of the back legs and seat height are critical for the superior comfort of the design. Chairs are extremely difficult pieces of furniture to build, because of all the angles involved.
I would really like to build a Maloof style dining table. It would be a big challenge. The Maloof style is always a challenge ……and that's why I enjoy it so much!
Tobias: What are your favourite timbers to work with & what timbers do you avoid ?
Leon: I have become very fond of the North American timbers. Favourites are definitely Black Walnut and Black Cherry. These are not difficult timbers to work with, when it comes to shaping the wood as in the Maloof style. They also sand easily to an exceptionally fine finish.
Other woods that I enjoy working with are Hard Maple, Ash and red & White Oak, although these timbers are a bit more difficult to work.
I have tried to build a Maloof chair from Kiaat, but the timber quality available of late is really not good at all. The same goes for Zambezi Redwood (Rhodesian Teak) and African Rosewood.
Tobias: What is the standard finishing process for your furniture pieces ?
Leon: On my Maloof style pieces I use exactly the same mixture that Sam Maloof used. This is basically 1 part Tung Oil , 1 part Boiled Linseed Oil, and 1 part Polyurethane Varnish( the oil based version that dissolves in turpentine). Sometimes I add a bit more Urethane and reduce the amount of Linseed. It all depends how I feel!
The method is as follows: Apply the mixture liberally with a cloth and let it stand for about 15 minutes. Then wipe all the finish off until the piece feels totally dry. Let it stand for 12 hours and repeat. Repeat this process until there is total saturation. If you see spots that absorb the oil fast, go back and put more oil on that specific area. This finish will not form a layer on top of the wood, but will rather fill the pores of the wood with finish. The result is a wonderful and tactile surface, where the grain is still visible and it is waterproof.
One can also apply a paste wax maintenance coat every 6 months.
All of my other furniture pieces are finished with good old tried and tested Woodoc 10.
Tobias: If you could add another discipline of woodworking to your arsenal, what would it be?
Leon: I have no wish to work in other furniture styles and am happy building my Greene & Greene and Maloof furniture, as this is where my passion lies.
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