Shopmate Megan Fitzpatrick has watched me build 40 or 50 chairs during the last five years I’ve been working in my Covington workshop. As a result, she often jokes that she could probably teach chairmaking – even though she’s never finished building a stick chair.
So when she started checking over the construction drawings for “The Stick Chair Book,” she said something a bit alarming.
“Watching you build a chair makes it look easy,” she said. “These drawings make it look difficult.”
At first, I thought that perhaps my construction drawings were too detailed, too overwhelming or too… I don’t know. I looked them over and concluded that they were about right. They showed every important dimension and angle – no more. Plus, they communicated how the pieces fit together.
So what was the problem?
I think there’s a disconnect between how I build chairs in the shop and how I communicate that information to others.
Put another way: I could describe how to create an impressionist painting with information on brushes and paint mixing and approaching the canvas. Or I could give you a canvas with a paint-by-numbers scheme all set up for you – green here in area No. 12. And light blue in area No. 35.
Both approaches result in an impressionist painting. But which is better?
The answers is: I don’t know. For the last 25 years of my life, I have described to others how to build furniture using pictures and words – plus 15 years of teaching woodworking classes. And I have found that people learn differently. Some woodworkers need a detailed drawing that shows every relevant dimension and angle. Others need a rough sketch on a napkin with a few overall numbers.
In the end, both woodworkers can arrive at the same destination: A well-built piece with grace and beauty.
This book is an attempt to explore both approaches. The first 400 pages describe the operations involved in making stick chairs. For some woodworkers, this is all that is needed. Other woodworkers need to start with the mechanical drawings and then figure out the operations – the next 200 pages of the book. Neither approach is superior.
If you are bewildered by the mechanical drawings, skip them. If you are frustrated by the “that’s close enough” disclaimers, ignore them. Stick chairs can be built by engineers, potheads and pothead engineers.
So how does my brain work? When you take on the job of a translator, as I have, you have to embrace both sides. Accuracy and spontaneity are the angel and devil that sit on each shoulder. It’s a familiar fight in publishing. On one shoulder is the sober editor. The other has the drunken writer.
When I make tools, I can fuss over .0005”. When I design chairs, I wonder “does this rake and splay look like a jumping spider or a squashed squirrel?”
But I don’t expect (or encourage) you to become a human corpus callosum. Instead, take what you can from any book and leave the rest behind. Most of all, don’t get discouraged by the detailed measurements in the drawings or the vagaries in the text.
Or, as John Brown put it: “By all means read what the experts have to say. Just don’t let it get in the way of your woodworking.”
— Christopher Schwarz
39 thoughts on “Fearsome Dimensions”
Most of us find building boxes — case furniture — pretty straightforward. We can even add curves to aprons and such. If we do angles, they’re on tapered legs, not the box.
We let angles on chairs trip us up. And compound angles just . . . compound the problem.
The idea of sightlines helps a lot. If you can explain that simply, you’ll have won the biggest battle. I’m a fan of how Peter Galbert uses mirrors. It was a big breakthrough for me.
The best thing I did for a couple of practice “chairs” was just glue up a couple of short 2x12s, and buy a bunch of dowels. No shaping of any kind, on anything. Drill holes, stick in spindles. Not worrying about prettifying anything and making an heirloom really helped.
A dvd accompanying the book would be very helpful to me.
For what it’s worth I supplement your projects (e.g., bookshelf, chair) in the AWB with your earlier videos.
Makes it much easier for me to understand, and your comments between the project steps are often invaluable or relatable (like breaking wedges when completing chair seat tenons).
Would love to see you produce more of them, or even bring back the Saturday live Q&A show.
Yeah. We should do another live Q&A. Full-length videos are difficult because the company that did them with us is gone.
Words are easy. Numbers…eek!
Spell them out then. Twenty-eight degrees, etc.
Sorry. Too much smart-assy, not enough funny.
I liked it – but then I like numbers as well.
Yeah, I’m a weird guy, so what?
I like the sections, because they easily convey the concept of the resultant angle. Now I just need to practice drilling these holes. For three legged stools it doesn’t matter too much of they are off a tad, so those are fun objects to practise with. They are useful and fun to build. Next will be a three legged back stool 🙂
In the diagram Sect C-C, do you really mean 6 deg btwn spindles, or 6”?
The drawing is correct. The exterior sticks are 6° off 90°.
Got it, thank you.
Another dichotomy I’ve noticed is between those who want to or at least willing to “design”, and those who want to or need to reproduce a design they are given. This may or may not be a differences in how individuals learn.
Some folks feel compelled to be different for the sake of being different. I’ve been in woodworking classes where a student insists on being different just to be different, usually leading to frustration for the instructor..
I’ve also seen experienced, highly compotent woodworkers who feel they can’t build a piece of furniture without detailed plans, and who are reluctant to create the plans themselves because it might not be “right”. For some of these folks it is not a matter of learning; in some instances they have already built numerous similar pieces.
I’m an engineer by training and inclination who also likes to design. Outside of a class I usually have zero interest in reproducing someone else’s design. I’d rather take the construction methods and skills and apply them to my own design.
You are right about some students who want to change things. That doesn’t frustrate me as a teacher. What is frustrating is when they are unhappy with their changes…. “I thought the chair would look good with a cupholder!”
As a full time classical musician, i have taken the approach with my students: do it this way first to demonstrate you understand and have proficiency in the principles of good taste and stylistic/historical standards. Then bend and break the rules to your heart’s content so long as you do so in an artistically convincing way.
I tend to look at plans as just a set of features that I can pick from and cut and paste to other projects. Ingenious Mechanicks is great for this in building a custom low bench.
I used to do the same thing. Until I ended up with a low six legged pie safe with too much splay. And the damn cup holder was off kilter about 18 degrees. 🙂
Seriously, I’m in the Frankenstein school of design, too.
After almost 50 years of marine and aircraft pattern-making, I am used to almost every approach possible. My approach with new apprentices was to show them the bull’s eye and how to hit it, then go away for a bit an let them stew. People can be quite creative in their attempts to “hit the mark”, but they need to know what the tolerance of position is and why it is or is not important. Cosmetically, everyone notices different things, only emphasize the dimensions and their tolerance if it is functional and let them develop their “eye”.
Yes, people learn differently. I’m with Megan. But the engineers will LOVE the drawings.
Looking forward to building my first chair aided by the templates from your ADB. It’ll be a while before I produce some thing remotely pleasing to the eye I’m sure. BTW, I read your article in reverse order i.e. from the last word to the beginning sentence and surprisingly I still got it – clear as day. Good writing when it works in both directions! I bet you planned that to account for for those with my particular learning style.
We read backward all the time. Makes it easier to spot typos and such.
Reading backwards is especially helpful for those of us suffering from lysdexia.
I have yet to make my first stick chair though I do have the seat glued up. I am fixing these two antique chairs for a friend then I might do it. I am drawn to these chairs and I gotta do it. I am excites about this book.
Sections A-A, B-B, and C-C–so wonderful to see those in a popular audience book! I was a professional draftsman for seven years of my life, and well-chosen section drawings were one of the magic secrets for clarity and detail. Not everybody knows what they are, but for those who do, there is nothing better. Congratulations for including them in your book, and disregard any fool who faults or criticizes them. Perhaps you could give them a clue about what they are, and why they are so great though.
Some proof that everyone reads differently: I was about to suggest doing away with the drafting terms like “Section A-A” and using more vernacular language like “front leg sightline cross-section”… but then, I suppose I’m suggesting five words where two suffice.
I like to see detailed drawings, but just a few pictures also work for me. And then I usually do what John Brown said.
Are we building a chair or are we building “A ***** CHAIR”. While my family owns a dining room set and its pleasing to the eye (sitting in storage since we don’t have room for it were we’re at, at the moment). The eclectic cottage table with its collection of odd chairs old and new is more my style. While past furniture makers could and did make exact duplicates of chairs I’m willing to bet the varied from shop to shop and generation to generation. How many of them could interpret an engineering drawing even.
Bravo…..The John Brown quote said it all.
I have to chuckle at your comments – but I get it for sure. I’m a retired mechanical engineer, married for 51 years to a great woman who has wonderful artistic talent and vision – which I totally lack. Were I to build my first chair I would not freak out if I missed the angles on the print by a bit – but I definitely appreciate the guidance. I do have the gift to look at a print and be able to visualize in 3 dimensions and flip/turn the object as I visualize.
But we are all different. We wanted to build a detatched garage – like our house I drew up the plans and would do the construction. My wife wanted cupolas on top but could not visualize what I had drawn up, especially from a size perspective even though it was to scale. I had to make a cardboard model to place on the roof so we could agree on size. Yet she can take a dress she is making and modify it on the fly to get the look she desires – which amazes me.
We are all different and have to get to the result in the way that works for us as an individual – took me a long time to realize that in my arrogant youth.
They say there are 7 different types of learning and we have a particular order of using all seven. They are musical, spatial, intrapersonal, kinetic, logical, linguistic and interpersonal. More logical learners will need every detail drawn out where as a spatial learner will need just visual . There’s more info on this on the web as I am not a writer and probably are slaughtering this. I have to have “music “ on while I physically ( kinetic) work and need simple sketch’s(spatial). Just an example. As a teacher it would seem valuable as to how our so different minds work to accomplish a task. Just a thought. David
My husband was a machinist for Markey winches from the day after he graduated high school till he retired. He couldn’t cut a 2×4 without detailed plans and layout. He did make a lot of things in our shop, end tables, specialty cases, and more. but he needed detailed plans and most times he could draw them up himself.
Me I don’t build from plans I just need a sketch or a pic and some number ( H x W x D ) like the Irish chair. I ask you (Christopher) for the numbers for that chair. I need to say thank you for that. I did build that chair and it came out okay. some people need long detailed instructions and some people just need a drawing with the measurements. My husband would get so frustrated working with me on a project because of our different styles in the way we approach a it.
I think what makes the drawings confusing, at least in this post, is the angle they are presented to the reader. We are used to measuring angles off of the horizon or a line perpendicular to the horizon. If it is rotated it can cause confusion.
For example, in the first pic the chair seat is parallel to the horizon but if you were to see it in a room the seat would be angled so your brain wants to make the adjustment because it not used to seeing a chair presented at this angle.
In the last pair of drawings , Section A-A and Section B-B, the line that is perpendicular to the seat bottom that is used to measure the angle of the leg isn’t presented to the reader as perpendicular. So we want to rotate them. And if we were to measure the angles on the bench, the seat would be flat on the bench (rotated from the drawing).
Not a criticism, just a possible explanation as to why they seem confusing. Yes all the pertinent information is there. It’s just not intuitive as the drawings are currently presented.
It’s also possible I was just giving him sh*t. It’s been known to happen.
You used to offer laser-cut patterns for a stick chair and that WAS going to be my entry point to the form.
When I’m new to a form I like having someone else’s drawing. My second one is from my drawing, and the third I just let it fly. Wood and time feel a little to scarce to always fly by the seat of Frankenstein’s pants.
‘too scarce’. I know better, I really do.
The drawings you’ve given us are a great trig problem that I haven’t solved yet, but can be computed from the leg angles etc and the height of the front and back edge: What are the actual dimensions of the seat?
“Stick chairs can be built by engineers, potheads and pothead engineers.”
Well shoot, I can’t help but feel a little called out here…
I’m reading here a couple of variations on what Charlie Parker said a long time ago, and this is one of the places it applies:
““You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.”
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