Chris Schwarz's Blog

Perfect Jigs (Which are Handcuffs)

After I learned to make stick chairs in a class, I returned home and set about to build jigs that would let me reproduce every aspect of the chair we built in class.

I spent an entire week planning and building the jig shown in the photo above. Though it looks like a platform for holding Roman candles, it actually allowed me to drill four legs in a seat blank without worrying about rake and splay.

I would simply clamp a seat blank inside the jig and let the pipes guide my auger bit as it bored the perfect angles for the front legs and back legs. Then I removed the seat blank from the jig, shaped it and built the undercarriage – joining the legs and stretchers.

I built a dozen chairs using this jig. It worked brilliantly. But one day I put it on a shelf in the basement and haven’t used it for more than a decade. Why? Because the jig was perfect – and a perfect prison.

Every chair out of my shop had legs with the same rake and splay – it didn’t matter if it was an interpretation of a Welsh stick chair from the early 19th century or a modern design of my own. The jig never faltered. So I used it for everything, perhaps even when I shouldn’t have.

The other downside to the jig is that it allowed me to make chairs without truly understanding rake, splay, sightlines and resultant angles. Because I didn’t have to know those things in a deep way to make bang-on mortises, my understanding of the concepts was a bit dim. And that held back my ability to design new things.

What was the turning point? A deadline. I had to build a stool, which wouldn’t fit in my jig. And I had to do it really fast, so I didn’t have time to build a second jig. So one night (yes, that’s all it took), I sat down with the trigonometry tables in Drew Langsner’s “The Chairmaker’s Workshop” and figured out the calculations behind chair angles.

(Since then I’ve figured out a way to do this without trigonometry. I wrote the article “Compound Angle, No Math” for the June 2015 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine to explain this process.)

The next day I made the stool and put the jig away. On the one hand I was happy (I understood the trig), but I was a bit disgusted with myself (that I had put it off for so long).

The experience made me look around at what other jigs I had in my shop that were holding me back. And I’m still looking to this day.

— Christopher Schwarz

5 thoughts on “Perfect Jigs (Which are Handcuffs)

  1. JoshCook

    This is seriously spooky. I just created a jig ( this week for my kiddie version of the Schwarz ADB chair so I can quickly make a full set. Now I’m having second thoughts as to if it’s holding me back.

    I can model up a new design and 3D print the drill guides pretty quickly so I don’t think it’s keeping me from rapidly iterating or hampering my design process. But I can see where it’s preventing me from developing the skills to create multiple identical pieces by hand.

    Definitely a lot to think about here.

    1. SATovey

      I don’t see a problem with you using a jig to make multiple copies of the same chair; especially if you intend to sell a set. You would be hard pressed to sell a set of non matching chairs.

      There is only a problem when, as Chris pointed out, you use the same jig on different chair designs.

      Besides, if you get rid of all your jigs, you’re not likely to be able to bend wood consistently or properly!

  2. bowmandk

    I don’t know about the “handcuffs” analogy. It sounds like the jig did exactly what you needed while you needed it to. It helped you getting your confidence up in a new technique and let you just worry about building. As soon as you had the a-ha moment and outgrew it, you stopped using it. We should all be so lucky to get to that point and realize it. Perhaps “training wheels” is more appropriate?