Chair II

It was great to receive so many comments after the last post. I feel pretty clear now that I am not chair man of the bored. (sorry, couldn’t resist!)

It was a great learning opportunity to make those chairs. One thing I learned is that the work in one chair can easily exceed that of the table, and yet, the typical pricing structure for chairs and tables is such that the table is usually priced higher, for no other reason I think than it is larger.

A second thing I learned is that making chairs calls for creating numerous templates and jigs, and this ends up being a significant portion of the total build time. Thus, it totally makes sense to make chairs in quantity. I still have the templates and jigs from this chair project, however, there are so many little things I would change now that I would be making many of the templates and jigs all over again. I can see now the logic of making a run of say, 150~250 chairs, as that would allow for a more easily salable price point, and would mean some modicum of profit even. However, I am not the sort who would want to repetitively cut hundreds of identical parts and make hundred of copies like that – I can well understand why a dedicated furniture factory approach makes a lot of sense for chairs.

Another point about making chairs is that they engender a fair amount of waste wood. Cutting solid parts to curved necessarily produces waste, unless one happens to have material that is already curved from how it grew, and that sort of stuff is not readily available at the hardwood dealer..

Here’s some pictures of the completed chairs, both with without armrests, from the front, side, and back:

Here is the completed suite of furniture for Client C’s dining room, with a couple of chairs pulled out of the way to give a better look at the tansu:

One thing not shown in any of the photos of the chairs were the corner reinforcing blocks I fitted to the inside of the seat frames. These stiffened up the construction tremendously, and allowed for a convenient way to attach the seat panel to the frame. Since the seat drops about 5˚ from front to rear, and the seat narrows from front to rear in width, these blocks were a compound joinery exercise. While I could have done these with housed sliding dovetails, the added time and hassle was not really viable given the budget in this case, so I elected to cut the blocks to the correct shape and miter, and then fastened them in place with 10-32 machine screws, recessed in little brass cups. I normally take pains to avoid putting metal fasteners into a piece, however it was going to be part of these chairs regardless, since the seat bottoms needed to be fastened to the frame so as to be readily demountable, and this required metal fasteners. Also, the position of the inside corner blocks on the chairs with the armrests were positioned so as to work in concert with the machine screws that I ran through and into the armrest support posts, making it much stiffened. When you imagine a person pushing themselves up and out of a seat hundreds of times, and see that this could easily impart a load that forced the armrests outwards, it makes sense to give that area solid reinforcement.

You might have noticed that I said chairs with armrests – I made the one chair for the client, however as I was getting started on the project, my cabinetmaker friend Alan came by and requested that I make him a chair as well. He supplied me with some Black Cherry with which to work. His chair is customized for his body, and has taller armrests than the client’s chair. I also cut enough parts to make for one extra chair, in case something irrevocable went wrong in the making process. Well, nothing significant did go wrong, except for bandsawing one of the crest rails upside-down, resulting in a grain pattern that was also upside-down, so that became my chair. I ran out of the wonderful spalted Pacific Yew, so I made the backsplats on my chair out of Indian Rosewood. In hindsight, though this made good use of some slender pieces of rosewood I had kicking around, and though it looks nice on the chair, the rosewood isn’t nearly as resilient as the Yew and thus the splats on my chair are altogether too stiff to function as I had intended. Still, the chair has been in daily use at my dining table for 4 years now, and is going strong.

What would I change on these chairs? There are innumerable little refinements I suppose. I still feel that these chairs could be lightened up a bit. I’d be interested to try making one with a solid wood seat instead of upholstered. I think my edge chamfering could have been a little tidied in places. I think my finishing in general could have been more attentive, as I always seem to be battling with patience at that point in a project. I think that the beaded edge on the seat rails could have been a little more pronounced. I think the armrest support pieces are altogether too clunky looking. I would like to make the crest rail a little thinner. I could have done a slightly better version of the locking joints on the crest rail, and come up with a cleaner connection between the rear seat rail and the side seat rails (using a mitered return at the top, or something like that). Some of the grain patterns weren’t my ideal in some of the chairs, and this was due as much to inattention on my part as it was to not having a wide enough selection of stock from which to select. Finally, I’m feeling that if I made chairs again I might do something more with the feet, as the terminations of the chair legs on mine are nothing to write home about. I think Metcalf’s chair has quite nice feet.

Overall though, I’m satisfied with the way these chairs came out, and they have all performed without issue since. When I see a chair by a famous maker like Maloof I see a product that resulted from the maker having made hundreds of chairs and having incorporated many small refinements along the way. I wonder what Sam’s first set of chairs looked like? I think if I were to make another couple of hundred of the chairs pictured above, I could refine the design quite a bit. Whether that will ever come about however is another matter.

It was highly edifying to visit the MFA and experience the chairs of famous makers, like Wendell Castle, Nakashima, and Maloof, among others. The first two chairs I came upon were by noted studio maker Wendell Castle. The first was a laminated blob of wood about 4′ in diameter with a seat carved deeply into it. I thought it quite unattractive at first glance, and not even remotely comfortable to sit in – nevermind the prospect of having to move it around the house. The next Castle chair I came upon was formed like a mini St. Louis arch, with a fabric-covered seat slung in the middle. The seat connections to the laminated arch were failing and the seat flopped back and forth. I didn’t think that it was by design either. Decidedly unimpressive.

I think we could argue all day about aesthetic considerations in chairs. What I find attractive may repel the next person, and vice-versa, however, when it comes to a chair, the piece needs to be made so that it gives the sitter confidence it will provide secure support. I guess that this is where I part ways from the studio Furniture folks – if something looks cool, that’s fine, however I believe it really ought to function well as a chair if that is what is being made. If a piece is well made and designed, it will likely have beauty. If a piece is designed for aesthetic statement alone, and falls short in quality of build, and functionality, then it fails as a furniture piece in my view. The piece needs to be made with adequate quality so that it doesn’t fall apart, creak or groan in a few years. Those are bottom lines for me – same for architecture: we can argue about roof lines, but at the end of the day, if the architect has designed a roof that leaks, then it fails in the most basic way, since architecture, first and foremost is shelter.

The Nakashima Conoid chair at the MFA was fairly comfortable, nicely made and finished. As I noted in the previous post, however, it didn’t seem successful, ultimately, from a structural design perspective, and seems destined to develop problems at the principal joints. The Maloof chair in the museum was the best of the lot, as it was decently comfortable, cleanly finished, and structurally sound – my only beef really with those chairs is in the slope of the armrests and the way in which they are made, largely by grinding the wood to shape, which isn’t what I like to do with wood. The joinery on those chairs also relies upon glue, whereas I prefer to rely upon joinery.

Seeing the 1907 Blacker House chair at the Met was also a good experience, as it changed my perspective on the piece quite a bit to see it in person – photographs can convey different impressions sometimes from the reality of a piece when it’s in front of you. It’s a stoutly made chair that has stood up for a century, and that is a testament to the quality of the way it was made, by a Hall no less (not a relation as far as I know). That impressed me, even if I don’t quite admire the aesthetic or construction details of the chair so much anymore.

I hope the reader has found my account of chair construction of interest, and for those that have never tried to make a chair, and who have been wondering if they might try it one day – give it a go – there’s a lot to be learned from the process.

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