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Designing a piece of furniture with multiple spindles – or even working with someone else’s plan – can be tricky. Drawings will tell you one thing; your eye will tell you another. And relying on math or simple proportions is usually little help.

The problem is how to array the spindles so they appear to be balanced compared to their neighbors and also either fan out or get closer together. After many years of experimenting, here’s how I do it.

Let’s take a complicated project – an armchair – so you can see how simple this technique is. I start by laying out the locations of the spindles at the base, in this case the base is the chair seat. The spindles then travel through the arm and end up in the crest rail (sometimes called the “comb”). Some of the spindles terminate in the arms.

The spindle locations in the seat are typically spaced evenly at the base – in this case 2-3/8” apart on centers. After laying out the locations of where the spindles will begin I make a dimple in the wood with a birdcage awl at the location of each spindle.

Make Pencils
Then I hunt through my scrap pile for thin offcuts, usually 1/4” x 1/4” strips of wood. Each one of these will represent a spindle. I cut them to rough length and then sharpen one end with a pencil sharpener to a fine point.

The pointed end goes into the dimple in the seat, and I then tape the upper part of the spindle to the arm where I think it might go. I do this for all the fake spindles in the project and then I stand back.

Next comes the easy part: Arrange the spindles so they look pleasing. Don’t try to figure out a formula for the spacing or try to rationalize your decision. Just make the spindles look good. This is easier than it sounds.

Once you are happy with the way the spindles look, mark their location on the arm and then get out your ruler. Measure the distance between the spindles and make sure the ones on the left are symmetrical to the ones on the right (if symmetry is your thing). My eye is usually accurate to 1/8”.

Use Your Fake Spindles to Guide You
I use the taped-on spindles to guide me as I drill my mortises in the arm and the seat. These fake spindles are almost at the perfect angle, which helps you as you drill. And once you drill the first holes, you can place the fake spindles in the holes to give you even more accuracy with your angles.

It’s easy to over-think this process. I know because I’ve messed up a few chairs by relying on formulas or plans. Your eyes are better instruments.

— Christopher Schwarz

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