ver the years I have built all types of wooden furniture pieces, from stands to cabinets, desks to tables, and case goods to grandfather clocks. Yet to me, the ultimate challenge for a woodworker is to design and build a chair. If you accept the “challenge of the chair,” first acquaint yourself with the standard dimensions and angles that are involved. Examine various chair styles, ranging from the simple to the ornate, then select a look that is personally pleasing and incorporate your own ideas. If you do not have the confidence to create a design yourself, choose a readymade plan and start building.
The design phase can be as hard as the actual construction of the chair. A metamorphosis almost always happens between an idea and the finished, final piece. I have found that it is very rare to create an original design that does not require change. Sometimes it is even necessary to make several prototypes before building the actual chair. Even the smallest ad justment to size or the location of key parts can greatly enhance a chair’s appeal.
In the construction of my chairs I strive for a design that will have broad appeal while withstanding the stresses of daily use. Proven joinery techniques are essential. Chairs are subjected to a variety of stresses; wood expands and contracts with humidity. Most of the chairs I produce use a leg that passes through the seat, which is then glued and wedged in place. The direction of the wood grain of the leg is oriented with that of the seat. To strengthen the legs I use either a brace that is screwed to the leg and chair bottom or traditional stretchers. The same pass-through technique incorporating a wedge is used wherever possible, especially with spindles that support the arms of a chair and also on some styles where the spindles are attached to the crest rail. Dowel pins are also used in strategic places to ensure that parts cannot separate.
Although I have always favored a traditional approach to woodworking design and construction techniques, I feel drawn towards experimentation. It was this desire to do something different with chair design, combined with a streak of pragmatism, that gave rise to my Sunburst Windsor armchair, like the one shown in the photograph at right. The chair features a removable top that could be finished separately. My other chairs also feature plain, straight lines or smooth, flowing curves that are free of ornament.
A well-designed chair is a thing of beauty and functionality. Built properly, it will last for generations. Don’t hesitate to take up the challenge of making your own.
Arthur Mitchell designs and builds chairs in his workshop in Temple, Maine. Mitchell began making furniture at the age of 12. He has also worked as a builder and designer of fine-quality homes.
Carolyn and John Grew-Sheridan on their