Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Prairie Chair By the Numbers

Arts and Crafts furniture, particularly the kind still produced by the Stickley Company, was the first genre that made me take notice and begin to think of furniture as an expression of my own tastes.  College furniture just needed to be strong and not smell (too) awful.  Newly-married furniture needed to fill space.  But as my wife and I began to look past pure function, we found ourselves travelling long distances to actually visit the elite showrooms deemed worthy of carrying the Stickley line.

It was much later that I discovered that they are just the most well-known of the many companies and individuals who keep the craftsman spirit alive by producing pieces that aesthetically and physically stand the test of time.  (Kevin Rodel and Jonathan Binzen's book, Arts & Crafts Furniture is a great history of the movement, and should be part of every furnituremaker's library.)  I've decided to make the Prairie Chair for myself, and I turned to Robert Lang's book, Shop Drawings for Craftsman Furniture for inspiration.

When this book is mentioned you will, without a doubt, get one or both of these reactions -- "What a great book." and/or "Beware of the errors in the measurements.  I would echo these sentiments.  The description of Stickley techniques, the selection of the projects, and the diagrams are all superb.  I did find a couple of errors in the measurements, but caught them before they cost me any time.  We're all adults here and we should be checking these dimensions anyway, so I'm not too bothered.

This project consists of creating two frame and panel sides, one frame and panel back, four posts, arms and decorative corbels.  The biggest challenges look to be keeping the balky quartersawn white oak square and true, double-checking the dimensions, and tackling the dreaded quadralinear leg details.  I started by milling the necessary stock to 13/16 and creating the mortise and tenons for the sides and back:

I did all of the tenons on the tablesaw with a sled (slightly oversized) and brought them to final size with a rabbet plane.  The mortices are all grooves and I machined these on the table saw as well.  Here's the irony: the arts and crafts movement is often described as a desire to bring humanity back to the trades, yet this entire piece is best suited to industrial production.  So it goes.

I also resawed the panels for the sides and back, bookmatching them for effect.  True to form, the resawn QSWO cupped something fierce, so I'll have to rely on the sturdy rails and stiles to hold it in place.  Before glue-up I pre stained the panels.

Next, I'll look into the finish and tackle the quadralinear legs.


  1. Hi
    I'm building a pair of the chairs from the book and plans. As an adult I've rough milled the parts and am making my cutlist. I too noticed a few discrepancies, or at least one so far. The top side rails are two widths in the plans, 3 1/4 and 3 1/8 if my memory works. Do you recall any others that I should look out for? As usual I buy the plans thinking it will save time and end up wishing I'd done the work myself. I'm not grinding on Bob Lang, his work is a great help.
    How is the chair holding up? Did dowling the cap work well? I'm thinking of a spline in there, but your dowel work looks great.
    Beautiful work, thanks for posting, I appreciate the time it takes.