When it comes to making chairs or any other complex piece of furniture, it’s easy to become paralyzed by the advice of others, even when the advice is well-meaning. It is possible to be well-meaning and all-clueless.
When you hear the following rules or dictums or whatever, just blow a silent and internal raspberry back at the speaker.
A SIngle-board Seat is Best
This is just stupid, meaningless run-for the hills crap. For years I was paralyzed by the difficulty of finding wood that is 16” or 20” wide so I could make single-board seats. While a single-board seat might be more attractive if the chair is unpainted, it’s not inherently superior to a glued-up seat.
Single-board seats are usually flat-sawn and therefore more likely to cup dramatically over time. But more importantly, their “holiness” tends to dissuade beginners from making a chair.
Here are the facts:
- Seats made from two or three boards are common in the furniture record
- You can easily reinforce the seat’s edge joints with floating tenons, splines, pocket screws or dowels
- Or you can just use a simple glue joint – just like when gluing up a tabletop
- Yes, you can put mortises for the legs and sticks through a joint line. It’s not ideal, but the seat will last a good long time. Don’t let this stop you from making a chair.
An Odd Number of Back Sticks is not Odd
One of my favorite chair designs that I make has seven long back sticks. When I post photos of this chair, I usually get hate mail. It usually goes: “That middle stick is going to hurt the sitter’s spine. Chairs should only have an even number of sticks.”
Wow. This must have been written somewhere in an early woodworking textbook and become law. The furniture record is clear on this point: You can have either an odd- or even-number of sticks and the chair will be just fine.
Why? There are two main reasons. One: Many chairs are designed so that the sitter never encounters the back sticks significantly. On all of my lowback chairs, for example, the backrest cradles the shoulders and the spine never touches the back sticks. Also, the armbow of a chair can push the lumbar spine forward, arching the sitter’s back so only a tiny bit of the spine touches the backrest.
But also: Sitters are not symmetrical sitters. When you slide into a chair, your spine is likely to shift left or right from the centerline of the chair. It won’t encounter the center stick. I have made dozens of chairs with a center stick and have never had a problem or a complaint from a customer.
The Human Body is not a Chair Shape
This is important. It is easy to think that a chair should simply be a negative image of the shape of the sitter. That way, the entire body would be supported and cradled by the chair. And this sort of chair shape would be ergonomically perfect.
Yes it would be perfect – perfect torture.
There is a reason that bean-bag chairs are made mostly for children who do not yet have back problems. These chairs provide an equal level of support everywhere. And that’s bad. The body doesn’t need support everywhere, just like I don’t want to be touched *everywhere* by someone I love (shin-shi shin-shi in the ear?).
Making comfortable chairs requires you to touch the sitter in certain places and not others. (If you are married, then you can just nod your head.) The lumbar spine, yes. The thighs, no. The neck, no. The shoulders, yes. Elbows? On special occasions. The little area around your tailbone? Of course.
I love to sit in chairs and then ask: Where exactly is this chair touching me? The answer is sometimes a surprise. And then I try to figure out how the chair’s angles work with these points of contact to make a comfortable (or terrible) chair.
But most of all, make a chair. Even if it’s a bad chair. If you make a bad chair you can figure out what went wrong and then the next one will be better. If you don’t make a chair, then there’s nothing to fix, nothing to improve on. You can’t fix or improve upon nothing.
(And here is where we end lesson four on Zen Buddhism.)
— Christopher Schwarz