Are You Up to the Chair Challenge?

Are You Up to the Chair Challenge?

Last week Rob wondered if chair-building is something you do, or do you avoid it all costs? Several of you have weighed in on the matter. – Editor

“I started woodworking when I was about 13 (now almost 80), and in all that time have made only one chair. It was a simple southwestern style built out of pine to go with a matching library table I built about 20 years ago. It was without a doubt the most difficult and frustrating project I’ve ever attempted … and that includes building a house!” – Jerry Brasier

“I have built six chairs (one for each grandchild) from Woodworker’s Journal’s Child’s Windsor plans (WJC133). While these are small, clunky chairs (see photo, above), the plans are really good and have given me confidence to try a regular size chair in the future. Only one chair has broken so far and that was the one given to my bruiser of a 6-year-old grandson. It also was made with cheap pine, not the ash from which I have made the newer ones. They get a lot of use and abuse from age 1 on. I think the instructions really help. Once I find a good plan, I’ll try a full-size chair.” – Barney Heller

“I’ve built entertainment centers, tables, cribs, bedroom furniture, cabinets and various other plywood box pieces but never a chair. I’ve bought a lot of chairs to accompany those items though. I don’t need the aggravation, and I (apparently) lack patience. I like to build big pieces, often starting with the aforementioned plywood boxes. Cut some plywood, glue it up, sand it, wipe on some poly and you usually have an admired gift for someone. I also envision someday moving to a city corner lot and spending my days grousing at the kids cutting through the corner. It’s one of the perks of getting old.” – William Lebel

“I have been avoiding chairs for years, precisely for the reasons you listed. Plus I don’t like building multiples of the same thing. This year I hope to tackle them but doing six different variations of the same chair. They’ll go together as a set, yet each one will be unique.” – Chris Ungaro

“I greatly enjoy making chairs (see photo, above). I will admit that they take more concentration, more design work and more time to build. But in the end, one has an item of beauty and great use. Nothing feels better after a hard day’s work than to come home and collapse into the comfort of a chair built by you.” – Jack Henz

“I watched The Woodwright’s Shop from the first time it aired on PBS in Minnesota. In one show Roy Underhill built a Shaker chair just using hand tools. Being really impressed by the procedure I grabbed some oak I had laying around and all my hand tools mad got started. Living in Kelliher, Minnesota, where I worked at a small lumber mill, I had plenty of wood.  Using Roy’s methods as best I could I shaped the legs, spindles and splats all by hand. These parts came out pretty good. On to drilling all the assembly holes … what a nightmare. The shaker chair Roy built had multiple angles for all the parts that required drilling. Trying to stay true to Roy’s eyeballing angle methods I did get the parts drilled and moved on to assembly. Well, my eyeballing wasn’t as precise as Roy’s, so assembling the chair was complicated to say the least. When finished it looked like a chair with a jute rope seat, and it sat pretty much like a chair although with a springy frame. Roy’s chair took him a half hour to make. Mine took about three weeks with a bunch of trial-and-error, to say the least. I suppose about 20 chairs down the road I could have built eight that would have made a matching set. It was fun for the most part and a real learning experience for me.” – John Matthews

“I can’t answer your question about whether or not you’re deep into the ‘Stay Off My Grass’ stage of life. In my day, the ‘Oldsters’ peppered you with rock salt from a double barrel 12-gauge, but I digress… If you are, it ain’t because of what you said about making chairs. Chairs ARE fussy, even ‘simple’ ones. I’ve only made a few, simple chairs, plus a not-so-simple Mission-style rocker for my great grandson to be rocked to sleep in, but I always make sure that I don’t go anywhere near the Mel Gibson movie “The Patriot” for at least three months before I embark on a chair project! The scene showing him trying to make a chair is horrifying! Chair-making is indeed fraught with peril, especially rockers. I had to stifle a laugh when a friend, who is a novice woodworker but already doing some fine work, asked me to look at a couple of rockers that he made recently and see if I could figure out why they didn’t rock. The answer was quickly obvious: it was because the front legs, which were attached to the sides of the rockers with screws and glue, extended all the way to the bottom of the rockers, actually touching the floor. Once I pointed that out to him, and he cut a couple of inches off, the chair rocked just fine. I think we’ve all made those kinds of mistakes, be it on a rocker or another project. Anyway, I suspect that you’re in good company regarding trepidation in chair-making. But it’s always worth it when you test it out and are pleasantly surprised that it doesn’t collapse under weight! And then you get to hear people ooh and aww and say things like ‘That’s awesome, did you really make that yourself?’” Nick Yarnell  

“My first experience with building chairs comes from when my wife wanted two more chairs for her dining set. I had never made them before, so I took one of the original chairs to my shop and studied its construction, measured every part and every angle, made patterns where possible and after a couple of weekends, produced two that I am proud of (see photo, above). They are made from cherry and all the joints are mortise and tenon. When I retired in February 2017, I began to build a bucket-list project: a sculpted rocker, which I since have completed. So to sum up, I find making chairs to be both challenging and relaxing. Just let your hands be your guide.” – Don DuSang

“(Chairs) can be real nightmares. Rocking chairs in particular can be very interesting in the build process, bomb-proof yes, but on top of that the chairs must hold together during constant movement and feel smooth doing it. Rockers shouldn’t really work at all, but somehow they do.” – Matthew Jungblut

“I have built eight dining room chairs and three rocking chairs. One of my rockers is shown above. They are my own design heavily inspired by the work of L. & J.G. Stickley. All are ammonia fumed, white oak, with real pinned mortise and tenon joinery, and they finished with shellac and paste wax. They are very satisfying to build. The rockers are steam bent. My wife wants 4 more dining chairs and a couple taller versions for sitting at the kitchen bar. The only special tool I use is a hollow chisel mortiser. I started building them because I was offended at the price of purchasing them.” – John Brock

“I too was once intimidated by the prospect of making chairs. Shortly after moving to Colorado in the mid-80s, I took a trip to northern New Mexico. I was intrigued by the vernacular furniture and architectural woodworking of the area. Years later I stumbled across the Spanish Colonial Woodworking program on the El Rito campus of Northern New Mexico College. I was able to attend a week-long class one summer. During that week, sharing meals in the campus dining room, I noticed the dining room chairs. I am now a part-time instructor in the fine woodworking program at Red Rocks Community College in the Denver area. As an instructor, I recognized that those El Rito chairs were a perfect design for a woodworker’s first chair. In 2015 I had the opportunity to return to El Rito and teach a week-long class where the project for the class was to build an ‘El Rito Chair’. The students were not experienced woodworkers, and they went home proudly at the end of the week with a chair.” – Ted Bruning

“Have I ever built a chair? Yes, once in 2009 as part of a kitchen table/chair set (see photo, above). I don’t think that I would call them pretty, but they’ve been pretty sturdy as well as being comfy. Only one has had a failure at the tenon between the top seatback and the side. They were perhaps over-engineered and could have been more graceful and still adequately strong. But frankly, for chairs we sit on every day I’ll prioritize comfort and problem-free over ‘pretty’. The table does get many more positive comments than the chairs. It has two leaves and the fit up there has never been quite perfect, and the sliding mechanism isn’t quite perfect. But other than those minor quibbles, it’s also problem-free, so I’ll take that.” – Scott Chapman

Posted in: