Why Handmade Chairs are Better: Tension & Imperfection
There are many reasons that factory-made chairs fall apart, but I think the biggest reason is they lack what handmade chairs have in droves: tension in their assemblies due to imperfections in the angles.
If you’ve ever had to repair a factory chair you might have noticed this: All the parts fit perfectly – spindles in their mortises etc. – and everything can be put back together with little fuss.
A good chair should fight you at assembly time, and many chairmakers (myself included) actually introduce certain inaccuracies to encourage the parts to tense up when the chair is assembled. Here are a few that I use:
- If the chair has stretchers in the undercarriage, I make them 1/8” over-long so the stretchers will push the legs out when they are driven into the plank seat (this is for Windsor-style chairs).
- I use bone-dry spindles and stretchers and make them about three thou oversized for their mortise. A tenon that is this amount oversized requires me to drive the parts in with a hammer but (usually) won’t split the work.
- I don’t use a spotter when I drill the mortises for the spindles, stretchers and legs. As a result, my angles might be a degree or two off what I would get with a spotter.
- I drive wedges into every joint that I can. For chairs that will see heavy use, for example, I will wedge the spindles in both the arm bow and from below in the seat.
All of these small details make a chair frame that has to be knocked together. But the result is that the chair will probably stay together even if the glue fails because all the parts are pushing against one another in a wide variety of directions.
There is a downside to this approach. Sometimes you go too far and split the seat or the chair simply won’t go together. This is why I built all the chairs for my house and family before building them for customers. We sit on the prototypes and experiments (and I want to burn them all).
If you’re interested in building chairs such as this, absolutely purchase and watch “Build a Welsh Stick Chair” with Don Weber.
— Christopher Schwarz