Friday, January 7, 2011

Building A Mt. Lebanon Shaker Chair - Jigs and History

Once this Shaker thing gets a hold on you, it's hard to shake off its allure.  While doing the research for the tables, I started to be drawn into the complicated web of Shaker chairs.  I suppose that it is because, like Stanley planes or English silver, there are a set of markers on each piece that allow you to identify their date, community, and even the individual makers.  Understanding this brings order, and (sometimes) order is a good thing.

When embarking on a project like this I often end up referring to two sources -- one directive and instructional, the other more qualitative and expansive.  In this case I found two excellent sources of information that fit the bill.  The first, I must say, is a masterpiece.  The Shaker Chair, by Charles R. Muller and Timothy D. Rieman pulls together a vast amount of information about Shaker chairs -- from standard rockers to makeshift wheelchairs -- and the communities who made them.  In its profiles of individual craftsman like Freegift Wells and Robert M. Wagan, it tells the story of the chair's path from utilitarian furniture to iconic symbol of American design.  And if that wasn't enough, it comes with a big fold-out wall diagram that compares styles across time and among communities.  I haven't been this excited about a poster since the one of Farrah Fawcett-Majors that hung in my high school bedroom.

Kerry Pierce's book, Authentic Shaker Furniture is a very good, straight-forward how-to book.  Loaded with photos and a great deal of descriptive text, he is honest about his strengths and weaknesses as a craftsman.  He gets the most of of a modestly-equipped workshop -- and I mean that as a compliment.  I think a beginning woodworker could take a project from start to finish under his tutelage.

In my opinion, chairmaking is one of those specialized woodcrafts like boatmaking or woodturning that can require a whole different mindset.  No piece of furniture is expected to be as strong or as graceful as a chair, and successful pieces use geometry and physics to their advantage.  This chair will more or less follow Pierce's dimensions for a a #6 side chair from the Mt. Lebanon community of New York State.  Within that genre, it is modeled on a chair that would have been built by the grandaddy himself, Robert M. Wagan.  Wagan, quite literally, turned that community into a chair-making factory, and many of the pieces that survive today come directly from his influence.

Chairmaking also lends itself well to the use of jigs. . . and because Kerry Pierce never met a jig he didn't like (see his book, Quick and Easy Jigs and Fixtures ) I'm starting with two of his most popular contraptions.  Just a word about chairs in general (from someone who is not a chair specialist.)  Chairs are all about materials and angles.  Select the right stock and they will last; noodle through the correct angle and they will come together like a dream.  In my limited Windsor chair making experience, I always measured and drilled by hand, setting legs and spindles with my Fray brace and a bevel gauge. In this case, I'm building two jigs that will help me drill the holes for what is, by category, a post and rung project.  If I don't explain it well today, hang in there until next week as I will show them in use.

Front Rung Mortise Jig
OK, here is what I will not do.  I will not reproduce Pierce's jigs and pass off something that he worked hard to design for free.  For complete instructions, I encourage you to buy his book.  I will however, show you the jigs and tell you how they are used and clear up a couple of points of confusion.

This jig will allow you to drill the holes for the rungs that connect the back posts together into a "ladder" and the front posts together (also in a "ladder".)  This is a simple 90 degree hole drilled into the dead center of the post.  On this chair there are two back rungs and three front rungs.  The top rungs are also referred to as seat rungs as the seat material will be woven around these "stretchers".  The jig itself allows you to set a fixed distance from the fence to drill your hole, and then lets you slide the post along so that you can drill additional holes on the same axis.  It lies flat on your drill press table.

Side Rung Mortise Jig
If chairs were like boxes, you could take those completed "ladders" and drill another set of 90 degree holes and insert the side rungs -- but they are not.  Most chairs are wider in the front than they are in the back.  Another way of saying that is that the front rungs are slightly longer than the back rungs.  In order to accommodate this difference, the angles between the back rungs and the side rungs are slightly obtuse, and the angles between the front rungs and the side rungs are slightly acute.  This difference will always result in supplementary angles (92 and 88, etc.) 

This jig allows you to insert the entire "ladder", angle the jig a couple of degrees (with a wedge) off the 90 degree table, and drill holes.  Rotating the jig 180 degrees on the table allows you to the cut the supplementary angle on the opposite side.  Many plans will tell you this angle, and you can work backwards to create the appropriate wedges.  More on this later.

Next week, I promise to raise a tool in anger in order to start making a chair, but still have a couple of little jigs to help with the turning.  I'm not ashamed to admit that this is the first time that I've ever spent an entire week simply making jigs, and I do not wish to repeat this experience.

Thanks for reading!


  1. Jigs. A necessary evil. I'll say no more.

  2. I'll be watching for future posts as I don't build chairs, but would like to some day. I'd also be interested in your process for turning the parts.

    I have an interest in Shaker furniture too. I have two Shaker books: "Illustrated Guide to Shaker Furniture" by Robert F.W. Meader (anyone with two middle initials has to be an expert, right?) and "How to Build Shaker Furniture" by Thos. Moser. Both good book and Meader's is much more of a refernce book on all things Shaker.

  3. Jeff- I just got Pierce's "Pleasant Hill Shaker Furniture" and it is really a good reference to the western Shaker styles -- and a bargain through Better World Books or Alibris. I've also heard that Norm Abram's "Mostly Shaker" is good. I'll have to check out that Moser book. I have a couple of his others.

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