I’ve made a few lowback chairs, but I haven’t been happy with any of them.
Part of the problem is aesthetic. Lowback Windsors – sometimes called “captain’s chairs” or “firehouse Windsors” – are in every sketchy seafood restaurant in the United States. They feature lifeless turnings, a dark and shiny finish and questionable comfort. (The sooner you finish chewing the chum, the sooner the next party can be seated.)
The form doesn’t sell particularly well. Even John Brown had difficulty getting rid of his lowbacks, which he called a “smoker’s bow.”
And yet, I think they are worth studying. I have been keen to design one that is both comfortable and doesn’t look at home on a carpet stained by malt vinegar and tartar sauce. And I want to include its details in “The Stick Chair Book.”
So for the last few weekends, I’ve been sketching chairs and thinking – a lot – about angles and radii.
One of the recent shocks to my chairmaking brain has been the Irish Gibson chair. Its back sticks look radically sloped, and when I first saw a photo of one I wondered if it was used by Irish dentists to examine patients.
After building several Gibsons and living with them, my brain has a different take on angles. The 25° slope of the Gibson’s back sticks does not make the chair feel at all like a recliner. In Ireland they are sometimes called “kitchen chairs,” and I get that. They are a comfortable place to sit after a day’s work and engage with the household around you.
But the Gibson isn’t a lowback chair. I guess I’d call it an Irish comb back (or a Gibson chair).
One of the other compact chairs I admire is, of course, the Jennie Alexander chair. It’s not a lowback. It’s not even a stick Windsor. But it has some essential geometry that is almost identical to a Gibson. The top splat of the examples I’ve studied is about 25° to 28° off the seat, and it hits the human spine the same place that a Gibson does. Oh, and the curvature of the backs of the two chairs is pretty close, too.
With this target in mind I’ve been designing lowbacks with this 25°-28° tilt in mind. And using a similar curvature as well. It feels a little weird grafting these dimensions onto a stick chair. But after doing some drawings – both in pencil and with mouse – it doesn’t look weird at all.
I struggled with how to bend an arm that was pitched at 28°, curved with an 11″ radius and with a bottom edge that was parallel to the floor. I built jigs in my head. I visited some geometry websites that made me question my journalism degree.
After a few long walks, however, the scales fell from my eyes. I was making it too difficult. As always. After I finish up these two Scottish comb-back chairs, I’ll build a prototype lowback using parts from my boneyard of extra chair parts (population: 756 and growing).
— Christopher Schwarz
Read other posts from the “Making Book” series here.