A Vote of No Confidence

For better or worse, my chairs tend to flirt with stretchers. Should the chair have them or not?

While common sense might dictate that all chairs should have stretchers between their legs for added strength, the historical record disagrees. Early chairs were just as likely to skip the stretchers.

Why? It’s anyone’s guess. Chairs with stretchers are almost certainly more durable. The legs are less likely to come loose when someone kicks them inadvertently or drunkenly. But chairs without stretchers are far easier to repair if a leg does become loose.

Chairs with stretchers are certainly more complex and require additional time to build. But they offer another opportunity for the maker to embellish the chair with turnings, balls and tapers.

Stretchers are a good place to put your feet. But they take a beating from feet and can look like dog crap in short order.

For me, however, stretchers can grant me a good night’s sleep.

This week I’m building a couple of Welsh stick chairs in some crazy curly white oak. This particular design, one I’ve developed through 15 years of flailing, doesn’t use stretchers and looks just fine to my eye. That is, until it doesn’t.

The front legs of this design use a 16° resultant angle to set the legs’ rake and splay. The back legs use a 22° resultant angle. While reaming the front legs I grabbed the wrong bevel gauge. As a result, the front legs are splayed out more than expected. And the legs rake forward more than expected.

When I finished the job, I knew it was wrong. But when I assembled the chairs and put them on the ground, I was happy with the additional rake and splay. It made the chair look rakish and splayish.

I sat on the chairs to see if they were solid. They felt fine, but I asked some friends to sit in the chairs and I watched the legs. They moved too much for my taste. I lost confidence in the chairs as-is.

So I started making stretchers for both of the chairs. This added two hours of work to the job, but it set my mind at ease. It made me wonder: Is this how stretchers were first invented? Perhaps an ancient chair without stretchers flexed just a little too much and the builder thought: I have to put some sticks in there to fix that.

Or not. Whatever.

— Christopher Schwarz

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30 Responses to A Vote of No Confidence

  1. Finn Koefoed-Nielsen says:

    I’m firmly in favour of more things ending with – “Or not. Whatever.”

    “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. Or not. Whatever.”

    “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor. Or not. Whatever.”

    “After all, tomorrow is another day. Or not. Whatever.”

  2. Rudy Everts says:

    I think looking to the future it is probably best to add stretchers to your chairs for the simple reason that most people nowadays don’t have the tools or skills to fix or replace a broken chair leg. It adds to the chair’s complexity and adds more time but I think stretchless chairs have a lower chance of survival due to this fact. Or not. Whatever.

  3. Jonathan Schneider says:

    How to fix a loose leg🤔

  4. Dave says:

    If stretchers help you sleep, that’s all you need to know!

  5. sfmoorex says:

    Chairs which sat on rough floors used the floor as their stretcher. Modern floors are slick, and will cause failures on splayed legs even if they have stretchers. (I have empurical evidence)

  6. kmhatch says:

    I’m kinda, mostly in the no stretcher camp. The chairs just “look” right without stretchers most of the time or at least when they do.
    Ken, wandering blindly down the chair building road.

  7. Barry MacDonald says:

    Faceted legs look better with stretchers.
    Round legs without.

  8. Dan says:

    A while back you showed a picture of a chair you built (maybe a commission, if memory serves?) with two stretchers across the middle, built parallel to the ground. That chair settled the debate in my mind–it looked great, and it also gave you a place under the chair to put a couple books or a sheepskin or whatever, if you wanted. This will sound like an insult, but isn’t–reminded me of the seats in schools, where I used to be able to stow my backpack, and just struck me as obviously a terrific idea.

    Or not, whatever.

  9. Murray Heidt says:

    Stretchers for sure, without looks like it was unfinished / rushed / to lazy to be bothered / good enough, in my opinion. Have a good end of the week.

    • tsstahl says:

      I agree that stretchers look more formal. In my mind stretchers bring the eye up and down the whole chair. The lack of stretchers keeps the eye on the top of the chair (seat and up), like looking at a table.

  10. Richard Mahler says:

    That is as good a surmise as any for how stretchers came about. It is interesting to consider when chairs may have evolved from simple stools long after we got tired of squatting and it was realized a constructed stool was more portable than a crosssection of tree, and a stool the average height near where the legs bend is more comfortable to sit on than anything higher or lower; when backs and arms were added to suit the other body parts at rest must have been one of those “duh” moments in history.

    The single connecting stretcher in your photo is one solution to shoes wear. I have seen children hook their feet behind the front legs of a chair when a front stretcher was not available, but the result is not that damaging.

  11. Richard Mahler says:

    Stetchers or no stretchers, we have an entire set of inherited 19th c. walnut, caned seated dining chairs so delicate and elegant that they cannot be used by modern-day humans including ourselves because they would be damaged, even by those decidely not classified as overweight. Also a chinese beautiful early 19th c. lady’s rocker so delicate no one dares use it today. They are lovely to look at, admirable design and undamaged workmanship, but of no practical use now, though once they definitely were used and had utility. Museum and art gallery pieces for sure.

  12. Dave says:

    As an easily influenced reader of this blog I am on a chair kick. After too many case work pieces in a row I decided I need a diversion.. something to feed the brain. I can build a dresser or end table in my sleep and usually without plans so I wanted something that I’m not at all comfortable with. My current welsh stick chair is the first of three planned and the idea is to get comfortable enough with the concept that I don’t go to sleep at night wondering if I screwed the whole thing up. Last night I I glued and wedged the legs in place….this morning I caught myself smiling at how nice they came out only to be startled at the small pile of sticks off to the side. Hmmm- I’m pretty sure the stretchers are supposed to go on with the legs. Another form of no confidence vote for me.

  13. Joe Newman says:

    Good chairs if you tend to reel after too much ale.

  14. Old papa says:

    One,since I have not built a chair to say, curiosity got me wondering According to a book “Furniture Treasury” by Wallace Nutting which references 1600-1800 furniture 99 percent of the photographs had a stringer of some design. You said that you were happy with the additional rake and splay so I guess my question would be ; Do we have to keep making things the same , or do we want to try something different .

    • Nutting’s statement was about American chairs (or English chairs that influenced American ones). Early chairs in the UK and Europe are different and much less likely to have stretchers.

  15. Richard Mahler says:

    Whether someone “likes” antique furniture, or not, is a personal matter of style and, to some degree, a reflection of lifestyle, but discounting the value of furniture of the past is kin to turning a blind eye to history itself; what we make and keep is branded into history. Whatever we ourselves make, crude or sublime, if it outlasts us for long it will be antique and say volumes about who we are/were. People half my age are already glibly branding everyday items of my own past as antique, as mistaken as I think they are! I’ll get over it. Or not.

  16. johncashman73 says:

    Could you define “resultant angle”? I think you are referring to the angle between both front (or rear) legs. But you might refer to the angle between one leg and the perpendicular to the floor. Or something else.

  17. Steve C says:

    So no one has mentioned….Dogs love chewing stretchers……yet. 🙂
    I’m sitting here staring at a chair that needs repair…..

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