Chris Schwarz's Blog

Typical (& Frightening) Chair Construction

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Most modern, factory-made furniture is poorly constructed – most woodworkers agree on that point. But would you ever call it dangerous?

This fall while teaching at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking, I got a moment to peek in at the upholstery class being run by Mike Mascelli, a New York-based professional who does some really incredible work. One of his students had brought in the wooden frame underlying a fairly typical commercial side chair for people to see.

At first I laughed when I saw the joinery. Then I thought: Wait, people sat in this? Frightening.

The frame was constructed using a variety of softwoods, some of which were spray-painted, suggesting it was made from pallet or crate wood. I’m not knocking crate wood – that is actually the nicest thing I can say about this chair-shaped object.

Most of the joints in the chair were made with a commercial adhesive – something akin to liquid nails – and then reinforced with staples or thin steel mending plate. At the most critical joint – where the back leg intersects the seat – the maker added two screws.

And take a look at how they made the chair’s back tilt back: They scarfed the back leg and simply flipped the frame. Clever, actually. It might be the best joint in the whole thing.

I hope the upholstery on this chair was wicked good because it would be the only thing holding the chair together.

— Christopher Schwarz

If you want to learn how to make a chair that will last generations (instead of hours), definitely check out this new DVD from Elia Bizzarri “Build a Traditional Windsor Rocker.” Elia makes fantastic chairs.

11 thoughts on “Typical (& Frightening) Chair Construction

  1. Dawsie

    I am with jurgen01 I would not use the chair, I did something like this once because I was in a hurry to finish my project and start using it, well I paid the price for that impatients 12 months down the track and I had to pull them all apart and fix them all correctly. I will never use construction staples again for a project that will be used constantly and special never for a chair, it does not mater that the chair was going to be covered with lovely fabric, that chair will fail with the constant use around the dinning room table.
    People fidget at the dinner table it’s something I have notices with the very large number of dinner parties that I have held over the years. 90% of the time people will sit around the table after eating to carry on the conversation rather than getting up and retiring to the living room which does not hold the same number of people as the dinning room table does.
    So yes that chair is scary and will not stand up to the test of time.
    Chow Angela

  2. Kevmeister68

    I’m going to play Devil’s Advocate here and say this: the chair frame is undoubtedly ugly, but it is not obvious to me that it is less strong than a traditionally made chair, in terms of the “joinery” (using the term very loosely).

    I only say this because these days modern glues are so strong that the timber breaks before the glue does. Is a mortise & tenon actually stronger than the two screws and glue they put in? Is the scarfed joint weaker than the diagonal grain you inevitably end up with in a one piece back leg? These questions are perhaps not just specific to chairs but to any project where the same joint choices might be considered.

    I’ve never built a chair and I’d never build one in the manner shown, but academically I’m interested in how they would stack up structurally.

    I’d suggest a “chair off” but the downside is that merely paying attention to its crappy engineering – to the point of testing it – gives that crappy joinery more legitimacy than it deserves to receive.

    1. ctdahle

      Kev, look at the close-up photos. It appears to me that the glue/screw/mending-plate joints have failed at the most critical points.

      I would personally be mortified to allow anything that looked like this leave my shop in any form except woodsmoke. But clearly the joinery is going to be hidden under the upholstery and the frame itself will be shot full of staples, so the only goal is to produce joinery that won’t fall apart. So, how far should a competent craftsman go to build a frame like this?

      It looks comparable to chairs sold at K-walgetbarnandbeyond for around $100. So it would be impossible for me to produce even the crappy frame in the example if I had to meet a mass market price. Definitely not a business I’m going to try to chase down.

      But I could imagine being hired by a designer to make frames for a set of custom upholstered chairs for a discerning client. What if I could charge a “fair and reasonable price” for a “workman like product”?

      If I was hired to make ONE, or maybe two of these I would probably glue up the entire frame with no fasteners at all and then go back and bore insertion holes so I could glue and drive in dowels at each of the critical joins. If I had to make say 10, I would make up some basic jigs and mill for loose tenons. If I were setting up a production line, I think I would set up more complex jigs to mill actual mortise and tenons, and instead of those roughly cut diagonal braces, I’d bang out precision triangular plywood gussets to hold things nicely together and secure the legs to the seat.

  3. bearkatwood

    This is scary, makes me think I could make a killing selling my crappy prototypes 😉 I wonder how long that chair survived.

  4. jszens

    Chris:

    Are you sure this is not a mock-up/prototype for a chair design that would eventually be constructed with proper joinery? As you know and advocate, mock-ups are often used as a design evaluation tool when making chairs – and the joinery in a mock-up is about what you found in this object.

  5. TikhonC

    My guess is the fact that it is completely upholstered saves it from any dangerous stresses. People see that foo foo sort of chair and it brings out a “proper etiquette” sort of attitude in them. So, sit gently and upright, no leaning back on the back legs, moving it carefully, etc. It sort of screams (or politely insinuates) “I’m delicate. Treat me with respect.” How little they realize the truth of that!

  6. jurgen01

    Scary, indeed. I wouldn’t even use this construction as a mock up, much less as a chair somebody would actually sit in. This is the result of an invasion of the chair snatchers! It looks like a chair, but it’s not.

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