While I love making cabinets, tables and bookcases, I have always been drawn to making chairs. At first I made Morris chairs because they were very cabinet-like – lots of 90° angles and traditional square-mortise joinery. There might be an odd angle or two for a builder to conquer, but nothing outrageous.
Then I encountered John Brown, a Welsh chairmaker who made stick chairs that didn’t look like a frilly Windsor. In fact, they looked downright animal-like.
After becoming obsessed with the form, I began to fret about how they were made. There were so many odd angles, and many of them were compound angles with both rake and splay. It seemed like I needed to get a doctorate in geometry just to begin.
So I sought out a teacher. Somewhere in the back of my head I thought that there had to be a trick to it – something about their construction that wasn’t obvious to me. I couldn’t afford to go to Wales to seek out John Brown (one of my biggest regrets), but I managed to get to Cobden, Ontario, to take a class with Dave Fleming.
Dave straightened me out on the geometry. In fact, he opened my mind to accept something that was shocking to my younger mind: There is nothing special about 90°. All angles are equally easy to achieve.
That lesson is something that is difficult to pass on in books or on a website. I highly recommend you seek out a chairmaker and learn the fundamental geometry that governs chairs (and other work). With a skilled teacher it takes about 30 minutes to change your perspective forever. And now those lessons are etched permanently on my brain.
Today I am working on four chair projects in my shop. Two of them are Welsh stick chairs for a customer. These commission chairs are parts John Brown and part Don Weber (two of my teachers), with a bit of my own perspective thrown in. I’ve made these chairs more than 20 times now, but each chair represents another chance to (perhaps) equal my teachers.
The two other chairs I’m working on loom in the background. One is a chair I saw in England last summer that compels me in weird ways. I have to build it. Why? Don’t know. The other chair is of my own design but needs arms. I’ve been staring at this design for a couple weeks now and need to finish it. But if I finish it, it might stink. So I pace around it like a zoo animal.
Sometimes I curse the chair class I took more than 13 years ago that opened my mind to complex geometry. In fact, today I wished that I was cutting carcase dovetails instead of boring resultant angles. But then my brain interrupted that wish with a message: Can you combine the undercarriage of a chair with a dovetailed carcase above to create a drop-front desk?
I grabbed my pencil.
— Christopher Schwarz
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