Thursday, February 3, 2011

A Pair of Contemporary Chairs: Working the Angles, Coming Together

It's a real leap of faith to conjure up an image in your mind and then begin creating it in wood.  It is also can be a sign of extreme hubris.  So, as the pair of contemporary chairs move from being stock, to pieces, to furniture, I approach the shop with equal parts impatience and terror.  The two skills -- designing and building -- are not necessarily linked and both are crucial if you want to be happy in your work.

That being said, things have gone well with these chairs and I am even ahead of schedule as I start the dry fit.  I was wondering why this has seemed fairly stress-free, and I really believe that it has been because I've tried to employ some discipline on the design/build process.  I'm sure that you've developed your own set of check points, but these tend to work for me.

1.  Begin with the form, but let the technical stuff follow right on its heels.  There are a thousand primers on how to build chairs, and each one is different.  When I noodled through the steam bend, lamination, cut-out decision for the curves, I was pretty confident that my chosen method would work.  Once I committed to drawing and cutting the curves, I never looked back.

2.  Don't make hand or power tools a religion.  There has been far too much power tool action in this project for my liking -- and, for the most part, I think it was the right way to go.  The problem is that I'm not good at keeping two ideas in my head at once.  While routing the mortices I got into machining mode and grabbed a random orbit sander (because this oak was proving to be a bit stringy.) In ten minutes my shop, clothes, and lungs were filled with dust.  After spending an hour cleaning, I switched my 4 1/2 smoother to the high angle frog (55 degrees) and had no problems with the oak.  I had just turned off my brain and turned this into a factory job.

3.  Making good jigs is the best possible use of your time.  Whether it is a template to rout curves, stops on your morticing jig, or wedges under your router, well-made jigs reduce frustration and make your shop safer.  It is so hard to stop from just digging into the project, but with all of these angles it was crucial that I  let something else carry the burden of the geometry and the mathematics.  Below, you will see that I even made a jig to make a jig.  This contraption allowed me to put precise 5/8" mortices in my back leg routing template that would, in turn, allow me to use a collar with my 1/2" spiral bit and mortice the upper and lower back rails.

4.  Remember that hand tools can make a good project great.  Hand planed surfaces cannot be reproduced by a sander and just look at how the first pass with a smoother exposes all the little ridges from your surface planer (thicknesser).  Beyond that, I've found it impossible to get the tolerances required in good furniture by any other means than by the micro-adjustments available with a plane or chisel.  Here is an example of how you can dial in a very small reveal by test fitting, and checking, planing and re-checking the fit.

5.  Leave a trail of bread crumbs.  Last year I was fooling around on the guitar and came up with a killer version of Petula Clark's "Downtown" with a funky rhythm and jazz chords.  Did I capo at the 5th or 7th?  I think I used a D form, but did I start right out with a Maj7 or did I go to it in the chorus? Or were they 6ths?  "Surely I won't forget, so why write it down?"  Now I have no clue.  The same goes with "composing" a piece of furniture.  I'm sure that I can make these chairs again in half the time if I just write down my process.  So why haven't I yet?

6.  Know when to quit. And I don't mean sensible rules like no power tools after 9 pm.  There are several points in a project where you need to look at it with fresh eyes.  Before glue up, I like to start the day with a final look over every detail, with all tools sharp, and with no end of the day rush to get done.  I'm much more likely to hold myself to the proper standard at 7:30 am than 6:00 pm.  The same goes for finishing or re-sawing.

7.  Treat yourself like a King (or Queen) in your shop.  For me, that means complete self indulgence with the tunes and the caffeine.  Most of the time I pipe in BBC Radio Three while I work.  I consider Sean Rafferty and Sara Mohr-Pietsch as my friends.  But today I listened to "Darkness on the Edge of Town" five straight times -- and I may listen to it again!  I find that my shop atmosphere plays a big role in how creative/professional/happy/patient I am.  I'm even finding that cleaning the place once in a while helps me to get more done.

I'm afraid that this shaggy dog story hasn't included much of the specifics about making the chairs.  I will say that as a loose tenon project, many questions are answered for you.  As I'm using a 1/2" bit, all mortices are 1/2" thick.  All pieces of stack are cut to their final length and mortices are centered in their thickness.  I generally cut one mortice, fine tune the slip tenon width to fit, and then mark the matching piece from this tenon.

I first glue up the rails with their tenons and do a dry fit.  In several cases I need to "relieve" the non-visible edge by 1/64" to allow the front (visible) edge to line up exactly.  I suspect that this translates to an error of less than 1/2 of a degree from the "Master Angle" of approx 4 1/2 degrees.

As you can see, I've let the front seat rails until last.  Theoretically, these should be 20" wide and meet the front legs at a 90 degree angle.  Once everything else is dry fit and clamped, I'll measure this and cut it to the real dimension -- it should be fairly close.

Next week I'll wrap up the details (such as squaring up the top rail "wind" -- at least that's what it is called on side rails), contemplate finishes, and prepare the chairs for the upholsterer.  I'll also free the Mt. Lebanon Side Chair pieces from their forms and assess the damage.

Thanks for reading.


  1. they're looking fantastic chris-
    can't wait for the update.

  2. keep it coming Chris. Looks great. I'm very interested on how you'll tackle the upholstery.


  3. Great post!

    I love your attitude! You think outside the box and it shows! Well done.

  4. Who is Petula Clark? Just kidding, I know the song. Your chairs look great and look like they are coming along nicely. BTW, I would like to see some photos of your shop when you get time. It looks very nice (first photo with the cool chairs).

    You have me thinking about making some chairs myself :)

  5. Thanks guys! I'm really enjoying this project and I hope it turns out well.

    The upholstery is interesting. I have some experience with it so I may have a bash - but if it starts to head south, I'll turn it over to a local pro.

    Jeff, I'll get some photos together - hopefully faster than I get to UPS ;)The best thing that I ever did was create two rooms - one a machine room and one a studio. two different vibes (and more heat in the studio.)

  6. "hubris".....exceptional!
    Great comment about creating two rooms- one for making money and the other to get your zen on. I'm thinking about taking the lathe into the studio.

  7. It's funny, my lathe is in the machine room, but I think of it as a hand tool. I always feel that anything (including disaster)is possible when I'm turning.

  8. richard in melbournApril 15, 2011 at 12:28 AM


    I came across your blog by accident and then came across this post.

    Oh my, I feel like you've just provided a blow by blow account of my own chair making endeavour. Two exceptions however - I am building ten dining chairs and so far it has taken me the best part of four months to do so and am now just at 80% of the way there (my excuse is I'm not a professional but rather an amateur who builds for a small list of clients).

    I agree with your comments about jigging everything - and yes, even making jigs to make jigs. Been there, done that. With ten chairs and close to 14 components per chair, jigs are a lifesaver... as are a Multi-router, shaper and accurate tilting table saw. Shaping curves are one thing, but cutting compound angle tenons are another and this is where the Multi-router really shines. I could go on and on... but you know what's involved.

    I am now at the gluing up stage of all ten chairs. What's left to be done are arm rests for two carver chairs - god help me here as there isn't a straight piece of wood involved. And I've decided I want to have a through mortise and tenon showing - I must be mad. The last job after that are the corner blocks to brace all four legs to the rails. And then its over to the upholsterer. I can't wait to finish this project (funny, my client has said the same thing to me too :)

    I know the excitement and trepidation you feel. Chair making seems to do that to us, doesn't it?

    Good luck with your chairs.

    And oh - I love your blog. Keep up the good work!

    Melbourne, Australia

  9. thanks for your sharing , very nice