Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Bucket-list sub folder - The mock-up

In the bucket-list - there is a sub-folder. The furniture sub-folder. I add to this folder way faster than I take from it. Some of the pieces on the list include some sort of Seymour inspired piece - likely a sideboard, something Ruhlmann, and something Danish and Sam Maloof inspired - dining room chairs and a table perhaps.

I love chairs - and they have always terrified me. Of all the furniture we make, the chair is the one piece that has the most interaction with our bodies. This means when it is done poorly - it is usually a catastrophic failure. When it is done well however, you have a piece of furniture that hugs you in a way that is comforting and relaxing. You should melt into it and not actually ‘feel’ the chair beneath you.

For me, there are 2 major criteria for a chair. Firstly - it must be comfortable. If it does not meet this criteria - it is not worth taking any further. Once the comfort hurdle has been crossed (which is no small task), it becomes a very compact opportunity to make something beautiful - the second criteria. There is a long list of other criteria that are also important - things like keeping it light weight yet strong, building it in such a way that it is repairable, keeping it somewhat compact so it does not take up too much room around a table. Chairs are a complex dance of angles and human anatomy - there are few if any 90 degree angles or flat surfaces.

We are fortunate to have several very well made, comfortable chairs. We have a wonderful chair by Brian Boggs and a set of 6 Windsor chairs made by Bruce Chambers. These 7 chairs are the ones that everyone fights over when we have large gatherings. You can sit in them for hours and not get a sore butt. Everything is where it should be - the arm rests are in the right spot, at the right angle, the height of the seat allows your feet to hit the ground, the seat is not lumpy and does not have any pressure points, and the back rest allows you to sit at a comfortable angle for eating as well as relaxing afterwards.

The first step was to figure out what type of chair to make. I have always loved Danish chairs and Sam Maloof’s chairs. From what I have read, Sam was heavily influenced by Danish furniture and when you look closely at his work, it is readily apparent. This was an early decision for me - to explore and work within a Danish and Sam Maloof inspired style.

One of the biggest appeals of Sam Maloof’s chairs is how sculptural they are. They look to be as much about artistic expression as they do a place to sit - and they strike this balance wonderfully. I was drawn to the idea of working with spokeshaves, rasps and files - something I have become familiar with when making planes. This settled it for me - I wanted to make a sculptured chair.

With the recent purchase of 220bd/ft of 8/4 curly black walnut - the ‘materials’ issue was a bit of a no-brainer.

It was time to gather information and start the process.

I have a rather extensive collection of web images of Sam’s work as well as various Danish chair makers (Wegner, Moller). Jeff Miller’s excellent book, ‘Chairmaking & Design’ was also a valuable resource. My Tilt-box also proved to be a valuable tool. I used it to compare angles on Brian’s and Bruce’s chairs and cross checked them with the information in Jeff’s book. It is amazing how close everything was - from seat angles, to the angle of the back rest as it relates to the seat, the width and depth of the seat. All these measurements and dimensions fell within a very small margin and suggested that I was on the right track.

A very close friend in Toronto has this amazing Rosewood lounge chair that I have always loved. The arms in particular have always captivated me. Of course it could have something to do with the fact that it is Rosewood... but the arms are beautiful to look at and extremely comfortable.

I wanted to see if I could capture the look and feel of these arms.

A friend lent me a DVD on Sam Maloof which provided a great deal of information and insight into how he worked. The way he sculpted the seat was of particular interest as were the integrated joints he used to connect the legs to the seat.

I purchased 30 bd/ft of 8/4 Poplar and jumped in with both feet.

(the poplar seat blank with the center piece shaped on the bandsaw)

I used the same technique as Sam - cutting 3 degree angles on some of the individual seat boards to help achieve a pleasant curve. I also used the same joints for attaching the front and back legs to the seat.

(the front leg joint cut into the seat)

I decided to tilt the back legs in by 3 degrees as well as rotate them in 5 degrees. This made for a lot of head scratching when figuring out how exactly to cut these joints, but it really helped give the chair a very solid look and a graceful hourglass shape.

These next 2 images show the progress of the arm and back rests. At this point, I was using the mock-up as a working drawing - taking it apart, cutting a bit here, drawing a bit there and placing cardboard templates to get a sense of how it might look. I decided not to glue anything together so I could take everything apart to do any additional shaping and to allow me to make a set of templates as I went.

One of the early shaping decisions was to avoid round or square looking legs. A triangular based shape was really appealing and I had a notion of how this might transition into a detail at the top of the back leg.

This was the first arm I made. It was pretty stiff looking and way too flat, but did have a detail that I really liked - the cut-out where it joined the back leg.

This detail would end up being repeated several more times throughout the chair.

You can see the intended shape of the arm rest drawn on the end. You can also see some of the shapes drawn on the back rest. It was at this point that I decided to work on one half of the chair at a time - essentially giving me 2 prototypes in one.

The next day I continued refining both the back rest, the arm and the front leg. This was a really exciting stage - things were finally starting to take shape and some of the visual bulk was being removed.

(top view of the arm rest joining the back leg)

These next 3 shots show where I ended up. The shaping under the arm worked out very well as did the front leg.

The arm rest needed some serious changes - it is way too straight (and too long) and the transition into the back leg is too abrupt. Glad I had a second arm to mess with on the other side.
All was not lost with this side though, and I decided to continue shaping the back leg to see if the cut-out on the arm would work with my vision of the top of the back leg.

I also ended up shaping half of the back rest - to make sure the transition between the leg and the back rest would work.

The hard line created at the top of the back leg extends down the entire length of the back leg.

I was quite pleased with how this turned out and was happy with the interplay between the flourish at the top of the leg and the arm rest.

It was time to work on the second arm.

Here is the set-up I was using. A large plank clamped to the bench with the chair clamped to the plank.

The second arm is closest to the camera and was a big improvement from the first arm.

This second arm also allowed me to start working out some of the joinery details. I used a 1/2"D, 2" long dowel to join the top of the front leg to the arm rest. I used a Domino to join the back leg to the arm-rest.

One other detail was to modify the back edge of the seat. By mirroring the sculpted area where you sit, it created a thinner looking seat and created a better transition into the back leg.

This also allowed the hard line that runs from the top of the back leg to the bottom to be highlighted a bit more.

At this point, I was pretty happy with the prototype. Happy enough to proceed to the walnut at least.


Blogger mokusakusensei--woods teacher said...

Your prototype is really inspiring. I am not sure that I have the patience to spend the time on a prototype and then do the real thing. I guess that I am a little too much type A personality. I have 4-5 projects in the works at any one time because I find I get too bored and have to move on.

8 February 2012 at 18:23  
Blogger Mark Harrison said...

Love the design and the description of the process you used to arrive at it. Inspiring stuff.

May I offer one suggestion? Lighten the look of the front legs slightly by accentuating the curve at the bottom of the legs (the back part). Alternatively, make the front legs more sabre like on the front. I wouldn't go overboard so let me accentuate the slightly bit.

Maybe it's just me but I like slender "ankles" on furniture legs.

Of course you are free to ignore my "advice" :)

I've been repairing antique balloon back chairs recently. I had to shape a new balloon top for one chair. The tools I found the most useful are the Stanley 100 and 100 1/2 block planes. I don't have originals. Mine are the bronze ones that Woodcraft used to sell. Lie-Nielsen and Veritas make other versions that would work equally well.

I also have an Auriou rasp but the one I have is really too fine for rough shaping. Despite what everyone says about the current Nicholson rasps, they still work well enough as rough shapers. No they are not as nice to use but hey! They work.

8 February 2012 at 19:31  
Blogger Kevin Brehon said...

You're idea to make the chair in halves is a great one. I wish I could see things the way you do. The first arm looked great to me, until I saw it next to the second one. Is that something you saw right away or did you have to spend some time with it to decide it had to change?

8 February 2012 at 19:55  
Anonymous JeffB said...

Great looking design. The second arm was definitely a big improvement. Kinda funny how the first arm looked pretty good until you compare it with the second.

I have a Maloof inspired chair (and rocker) on my bucket list as well. I am not as adventurous as you though. I bought the Charles Brock plans.

8 February 2012 at 20:08  
Blogger Konrad said...


This is the first chair I have made and I was really nervous about the entire process. spending a week making a mock-up was a new process for me as well - but in hindsight - it was the perfect use of that time. I will always make a mock-up from here on in.


8 February 2012 at 20:29  
Blogger Konrad said...

Hi Mark,

Thanks for your comments. I should confess that the first walnut chair is already completed - I am just getting around to writing up the blog entries about the process. Your leg suggestion is one that has already happened:)

I will write more about the actual tools I used for shaping in a later post, but there were Auriou rasps everywhere! And a pair of Boggs spokeshaves.


8 February 2012 at 20:32  
Blogger Konrad said...

Hi Kevin,

The first arm started looking wrong pretty early in the process... but I wanted to see it through as there were a lot of other details I had to work out. There was even a further evolution of the arm from the second Poplar arm to the first walnut arm. I will point it out in the appropriate post.


8 February 2012 at 20:34  
Blogger Konrad said...

Hi Jeff,

You are the second person to comment that the first arm looked good until the second one came along.

I had a chance to see one of Charles Brock’s Maloof inspired dining chairs at WIA last October. It was good to see it in person and gave me insight into what I wanted in a chair. I would recommend finding a copy of FWW’s woodworking profile DVD on Sam Maloof. There are some key dimensions and valuable insight into the process he uses. If you have any technical questions - feel free to send me an email.


8 February 2012 at 20:39  
Blogger Art said...

Chairs terrify me also... I'll be watching!
The comment about the dowel + domino... was that just the mockup or also how you plan to assemble the final product?

Oh, and that walnut is gorgeous. Any chance that place is on the London side of KW? I'd love to go spelunking for stuff like that!

8 February 2012 at 22:07  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Really interesting, Konrad. As you say, a chair is perhaps the most challenging of woodworking projects. Yours is looking really good.

Cheers ;-)

Paul Chapman

9 February 2012 at 06:42  
Blogger Tico Vogt said...

Fantastic post, Konrad. Very intelligent and successful approach.

9 February 2012 at 08:35  
Blogger Jim Shaver said...

I am thinking about aking one the same, I bought the dvd about a year ago, we think alike! Always fun to see where you go with designs my friend, I know the one I saw was amazing!!

10 February 2012 at 09:00  
Anonymous Chris Bame said...

Great post Konrad. Love your process. There is know better way than a full scale mock-up for a chair.

After doing the whole set I'll bet you have a good feel for that new bandsaw too !!

Can't wait to see the finished chair in that wonderful Walnut you found.

10 February 2012 at 10:12  
Blogger Konrad said...

Hi Art,

Dowels and Dominos for the final chairs.

The walnut is not your side of K-W - but then Southern Ontario isn’t really that big anyway. It just depends on the distance one is willing to go to get good wood. So far - England is the furthest for me:)


10 February 2012 at 13:42  
Blogger Konrad said...

Thanks Paul. Stay tuned for further installments.


10 February 2012 at 13:43  
Blogger Konrad said...

Thanks Tico. The next phase of the chair is to live with it for a while and see if there are any comfort bugs to work out. So far so good, but there are a few minor tweaks I am going to look into.


10 February 2012 at 13:44  
Blogger Konrad said...

Thanks Jim.

This was a similar learning curve to planemaking - although there is way more information on chair making than planemaking. When you get to it - I would be happy to pass along what I have learned from making one chair:)


10 February 2012 at 13:45  
Blogger Konrad said...

Hi Chris,

The bandsaw has already become an indispensable tool. The sad (little) Laguna has seen very little action ever since.

Glad you have been enjoying the process - stay tuned for part II next week.


10 February 2012 at 13:47  
Blogger Jamie said...

Hi Konrad,

Great post, and I love the chair, and so well written. I didn't know about the Seymours, so I must appologise for wondering off on the links you provide. I must have spent an hour or so on that site, just brilliant. I havn't looked at the others yet, but I will.

Keep up the great work.


16 February 2012 at 17:52  
Blogger Konrad said...

Thanks Jamie - glad you enjoyed it.

If you can find it a copy of this book; for not too much money - it is a marvelous reference for all things Seymour.


17 February 2012 at 21:33  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Konrad,

I don't believe it! I am in the middle of making this very chair (Charles Brock plan) and taking a rest I thought I'd just on the net and check out what Konrad is doing. Lo and behold he is *machining* a Maloof inspired low back dining chair. I don't have the same machinists abilities but you have inspired me to work a little harder at it. The gain on the coopered seat is amazing, you are doing a fine job so far.

Looking at the walnut chair (above) I noticed that you have cut the back legs so there is short grain at the bottom of the legs. You really want to avoid this if possible by choosing stock where the long grain curves with the curve of the leg. This will be far stronger and less likely to snap under load.

I'll definitely be watching and learning from this thread.

All the best,
Wayne - Nobleton ON.

22 February 2012 at 19:26  
Blogger Konrad said...

Hi Wayne,

Thanks for the note and the comments. The short grain issue at the bottom of the legs is one that I really struggled with. Partly because I was dealing with so many legs at once and was really struggling with the amount of material I was wasting (something I will have to start getting over). The other kinda funny reason is that this walnut was frightfully straight grained - there was no curve to anything at all. Time will tell if this ends up being a fatal error or not.


24 February 2012 at 08:59  

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