I don’t care what they say about dogs, Morris chairs are a man’s best friend. The reclining back, wide arms and expansive seat create the perfect place to watch TV, read the Sunday paper or simply contemplate the finer qualities of a well-crafted beer.
For the last 10 years, I’ve spent every weekend planted in the original version of this chair, which was built by the Shop of the Crafters in Cincinnati, Ohio, during the heyday of the Arts & Crafts movement. The Shop of the Crafters was founded by German-American businessman Oscar Onken (1858-1948), who ran a successful framing company until he entered the furniture business in 1902, according to Kenneth R. Trapp’s history of the company.
Unlike many furniture-makers of the day, Onken didn’t want to merely copy the Stickleys of the world. Onken produced an unusual line of Arts & Crafts furniture that was influenced more by German and Hungarian designs than the straight-lined Stickley pieces of the day. In all honesty, a few of Onken’s pieces were kind of ugly. Most, however, had a refinement and lightness that rivaled some of the best work of the day.
This Morris chair is an almost exact replica of the one produced by Onken and his company. It differs in only two ways. One, the original chair was constructed using dowels at the major joints. After almost 100 years of use, the front and back rail came loose. This chair is built using pegged mortise-and-tenon joints. Second, I made one change to the chair frame so that furniture historians of the future will know instantly that this not an original piece. I did this to prevent people from passing off these reproductions as originals.
Though this project might look daunting to you, it can be completed by beginners who have just a few projects under their belt. There are only a few principles to learn here: mortising, tenoning and routing with a plywood template. Plus, I’ll share with you exactly how I achieved this finish, which has been something we’ve been working at for several years.
How to Save Money on Lumber
Begin by choosing the right quartersawn white oak for this project. It requires about 10 board feet of 8/4 and 30 board feet of 4/4 lumber. Quartered white oak can be expensive, from $6 to $12 a board foot. If you live in the Midwest, or will pass near east-central Indiana on your vacation, I recommend you check out Frank Miller Lumber Co. in Union City, Ind. (765-964-7705). The company is a huge supplier of quartersawn oak. As a result, prices are reasonable, about $4 to $6 a board foot. Once you buy your lumber, save the pieces with the most ray flake for the arms, legs, front and sides. To save money, use flat-sawn oak for the seat and the adjustable back.
Mortises: Machine or No Machine?
The large curves on the legs and the small curves on the side slats were cut using a plywood template and a pattern-cutting bit in a router. I made the patterns from 1/2″-thick Baltic birch plywood. Use the drawings to make your own plywood template using a scroll saw, band saw or coping saw. Smooth all your cuts with sandpaper, then try shaping a couple scraps with your template to make sure your pattern produces the right shape. When satisfied, cut the curves to rough shape on your band saw (about 1/16″ shy of your finished line) and clean up the cut with a router and pattern bit. Finish shaping the legs with a chisel.
To produce the large cutouts on the front legs, do what Oscar Onken did: cheat a bit. Make the “cutouts” using a dado stack on your table saw, with the legs on edge. Then glue the applied sides to the legs to cover the open end of the cuts. Instant cutout. While you’re at it, cut out the notches on the arm pieces for the rod that adjusts the back.
To complete the legs, you need to cut the bottom of all four legs at a 2-degree angle so the chair sits flat on the floor. I recommend you make a full-sized mock up (see the photo above) so you can get the angle exactly right. Cut the angle on a chop saw.
Now cut your mortises. I used a template bit with cutters on the bottom and a guide bearing on top. If you don’t have a bit with cutters on the bottom, you can still plunge with a straight bit. Just plunge slowly and wiggle the router a bit as you go. Cut the mortises in two passes.
After you’re sure the arms fit on the legs, cut the curve on the front of the arm. Attach the full-size pattern to your arm and cut the shape on a band saw. Clean up the cuts with a stationary belt sander. Now taper the arms with your band saw and clean up the cut with your jointer. Glue the arms and slats in place.
Now shape the back rod that adjusts the seat back angle. Bevel one edge of the rod on your jointer and cut notches on the ends so the rod fits between the arms. Attach the back to the seat frame with a piano hinge. Screw the cleats to the front and back of the frame in the locations shown in the diagram; slip the seat in place.
This takes some effort, but it is well worth it. The first step is to dye the chair with an alcohol-based aniline dye that’s reddish. See the supplies list for ordering information. Then apply one coat of boiled linseed oil to the chair. You can get this at any home center store. Wipe off the excess and let it dry overnight. The linseed oil helps seal the wood before your final coloring step and helps bring out the ray flake.
Now wipe on a thin coat of Lilly’s warm brown glaze. We live and die by this stuff when finishing Arts & Crafts furniture. We’re not aware of a catalog that sells it, but you can visit Lilly’s website (at the address in the supplies box) to find a paint store that carries this glaze. Wipe the glaze until you achieve an even tone. Allow it to dry overnight. Finally, apply three coats of a clear finish — whatever you’re comfortable with. PW
Christopher Schwarz is editor of Popular Woodworking.