The Easiest Chair I’ve Made
Author’s Note: Is anyone actually building the garden gate I’ve written about a couple of times? If so, let me apologize for not going on to the next steps here. There are tenons to cut, then slats to make and fit, with various water-shedding considerations in every case. Shortly after I started the gate, three major commissions were confirmed, in addition to some other non-shop work that requires my attention. I’ve been covered up (to use a good Hoosier expression) seven days a week, unable to take time to work on the gate, which is an unpaid project. So when I ask whether anyone is waiting for the next installment, I’m serious. If you are, let me know so that I can work some gate building into the next couple of weeks.
Chair making has traditionally been considered a specialty in the furniture-making world; at least, so I was told, time and again, during my training and first couple of professional jobs in other people’s shops. This makes sense, especially in the context of professional woodworking, which in many cases demands specialization in a range of products (casework, tables, built-ins, architectural millwork, and chairs being a few of the options) a shop can turn out well and efficiently.
That said, many training programs include a segment on chairs. “Chairs,” of course, represent a world of varied forms and building techniques. A Chippendale-style chair calls for materials and techniques that are very different from those of a Welsh stick.
The first chair I made was a commission from a family member — a straight up and down bit of geometry in mahogany, with an angled stretcher running between the front and back legs at both sides. Next came a set of “Chippendale-style” chairs in mahogany at the second cabinetmaking shop where I worked. (The quotation marks allude to the actual style, which I call “Chippendale meets the 1980s.”) These chairs tested my skills, for sure; their seats were angled — wider at the front than back — and the backs were pierced. Few of the parts met at 90 degrees.
After those early efforts, I made no more chairs until last year, when I was writing English Arts & Crafts Furniture: Projects & Techniques for the Modern Maker. My research for the book took me to England (big surprise), where I took measurements and tracings from a Voysey two heart chair at The Wilson. The two heart chair, an 1898 design, is one of the projects in the book. It’s an elegant tall-backed chair with a woven rush seat. It wasn’t until I turned my measurements into a scale drawing that I realized every angle in the chair is 90 degrees. It’s the easiest project in the book, so I put it first. It was a joy to build and has proved far more comfortable to use than I would ever have imagined, based on the extremely upright design.
The chair is built with mortise-and-tenon joinery. The front legs are planed from square to octagonal and finish in a rounded foot. If you decide to build a chair, you can arrange to send the seat frame to Cathryn Peters for weaving with bulrush, cattails, or paper fibre (as it’s known). Just be sure to contact her first so you’ll know what it costs.
– Nancy Hiller
English Arts & Crafts Furniture
Projects & Techniques for the Modern Maker
By Nancy R. Hiller
English Arts & Crafts Furniture explores the Arts & Crafts movement with a unique focus on English designers. Through examination of details, techniques, and historical context, as well as projects, you’ll discover what sets these designers and their work apart from those that came before and after, as well as gain a deeper understanding of the Arts & Crafts movement and its influence.
Three complete furniture builds provide a glimpse into the breadth of ideals encompassed by Arts & Crafts:
- Voysey’s two heart chair, with its woven seat and sharp finials, combines simplicity of form with an elegant uprightness
- A striking sideboard design from Harris Lebus, one of England’s largest furniture manufacturers at the turn of the century, was not just imposing, but affordable for a middle-class market
- Gimson’s hayrake table marries rural allusions, challenging joinery, and exuberant hand-carving in a project that is a joy to build
More an expression of social and economic ideals than any specific design aesthetic, the Arts & Crafts movement encompassed a staggering variety of work. This book for woodworkers and furniture aficionado provides fresh perspective into an exciting moment in design history.