Reverse Engineering a Nick Hill Chair

Two Nick Hill Carver reproductions

We were recently asked to reproduce a pair of Nick Hill Carvers for a Sydney client. Nick is a significant Australian craftsman who was active from the late 1980s until his retirement from woodwork in 2009.

Nick was especially noted for his fine chairs. Nick specialised is using some of the minor Australian species such as Sydney blue gum and forest oak (a type of Casuarina). He pushed those timbers to their limits through his extensive use of curved laminations. Nick did what I believe all craftspeople should do: explore local materials.

Unfortunately, in the early 2000’s Nick started to see an increasing flow of his early work returning to his workshop for repairs. A significant amount of the complex laminations that made up his chairs was failing.

Upper Right: The client sent us this Nick Hill Carver in Sydney Bluegum to copy. Note the delamination of the crest rail, the back leg and the backslat. The chair was quite unserviceable at this stage and was close to complete collapse.

Below Right; We used the surviving carver to reverse-engineer the curved arms. We were able to achieve tight laminations in the jarrah.

Delaminating crest rail

A curved lamination is made from gluing several thin strips of wood around a curved jig. When the glue sets, the shape is retained. In theory, gluing up straight off the table saw is good technique, because the saw blade leaves fine striations on the face of the timber, giving it a keyed surface to adhere to. Nick was using Urea Formaldehyde, a glue recommended by the CSIRO for “difficult” Australian timbers. Unfortunately, something about Nick’s process was wrong. I believe that the hard timbers he used were too striated for the Urea Formaldehyde to bond with properly, which lead to subsequent failure.

Reverse engineering a chair that consists of such complex laminations is not for the feint hearted. To make the reproductions we chose jarrah as our timber, thickness-sanded our laminations and bonded them with polyurethane glue. We fumed the finished chairs with ammonia to give them an aged quality. I still shake my head at how extreme some of the laminations are.

The tight arm laminations of a pair of reproduction Nick Hill Carvers

In 2017 we made a reproduction set of 3 of Nick’s standard chairs for the same client. It is quite probable that this set of chairs is now the only serviceable set of Nick Hill chairs in existence. We thank our client, Merridee, for the faith and financial commitment she made to have these chairs reproduced. I think it would be a tragedy if these designs were lost. Yes, there were technical problems with the process, but the designs are exceptional.

Nick Hill Chairs
Three Nick Hill chair reproductions

Left: The two Nick Hill Carvers straight out of the fuming tent. The ammonia reacts with the tannins in the jarrah to send it dark and aged looking.

Right: The three Nick Hill Chairs from 2017, fumed, oiled and ready for delivery.