This week I’m building two prototypes for a lowback stick chair for my next book. There’s a good chance this form will be a failure. But if I don’t try, then it definitely will be a failure.
Chair prototypes start with sketches and hours of staring at the hundreds of images I’ve collected from my travels, auction sales and images shared by brother and sister chair nerds.
Then I build a half-scale prototype with scrap wood, wire hangers and epoxy. I’m starting with a basic D-shaped seat, though that might change down the evolutionary path.
For this prototype, I found a better way to glue the wire hangers into the seat. In the before times, I would drill a slightly undersized hole, coat the end of the hanger with epoxy and tap it in. Then I’d dab some epoxy around the place where the hanger met the seat.
This was usually a strong-enough joint to bend the legs a few times. But sometimes the leg would come loose while bending it.
To fix that, I first drilled the hole for the hanger and followed that with a countersink. This created a bowl for the epoxy to pool. This greatly strengthened the joint, and I didn’t have to be gentle while bending the legs with pliers.
After settling on the rake and splay for the prototype, I visit my “boneyard” of chair parts. These are the bits I’ve accumulated after years of building chairs for customers and in classes.
Using leftover parts saves time, of course. But it also helps me visualize what’s right and wrong about a prototype. By using old legs at new angles, I can see clearly if I like the rake and splay without being distracted by a new leg shape.
Put another way: If I build a prototype with a new leg shape, new leg size, new stretcher orientation and new rake and splay, then it’s difficult to decide how to improve the chair. Is it the angles that are wrong? The leg shape? A combination of two factors?
It’s a cautious and slow approach, but I rarely hit a dead end as a result.
The other nice thing about this approach is that even a failed prototype isn’t a total loss. I can cut up the cherry, ash and oak parts and put them in my smoker with a pork shoulder and prototype me some pulled pork sandwiches.
— Christopher Schwarz