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
27 thoughts on “Dumb Stuff to Ignore”
Not even close to Zen Buddhism my brother, I missed the first three lessons. As there are four Noble Truths in Buddhism, are you done with it?
Stupid sh_t that ruins your sit
Thank you for this. I have made various other small and large pieces of furniture. But i have always been intimidated to the point of fear of attempting to make a chair. There seemed to be so much “baseball magic” around chair-making it seemed off limits to the average hobbyist woodworker. After reading some of your books and blogs like this one, i am finally to the point where i am going to start making the stools in the Anarchist’s Design book and go from there.
Zen Buttism works for me 😀
You rule. I love The Stick Chair Book I order from Lost Art Press 🙂
Sam Maloof’s seats were not single boards either. His glue up seats were brilliant. Bevel cuts to form the curve of the seat which made final shaping much easier.
Thank you for this article! It can be too easy to get caught up in all the advice sometimes. I’m looking forward to my first chair build, and now I’m not afraid to use a two piece seat!
I wonder if the two and three board seat thing can unlock some possibilities for two inch thick stuff for you at the sawmills and lumberyards in your area. Good luck to you.
Yes, it should be much easier to source now. I just didn’t want to build something that will fall apart in a few years, so I thought a 1 piece seat would be the best. But if there are multi board historical chairs, I hopefully won’t have to worry about it in my lifetime.
I always heard that chairs shouldn’t be the color green……
From the Red Paint Consortium™? Sorry, couldn’t resist.
Alright, dammit, I’ll make a chair! Happy? I notice you didn’t share the front view of those first pairs.
I hope you’re not trying to give us permission to make a mistake!!??
The mistake is not trying.
Totally off topic, does the chair on the left of the picture have a safe word?
I want to know who made a casting of my ass without my permission.
Don’t remember that homemade fruit punch back in school? Well, that’s not all missing from that night.
I measured my family room but I don’t think it’s wide enough for the Kim Kardashian version of this chair.
Praise God, we (Sierra Nevada Fine Furniture Makers) are having a chair making class May 2 thru 7 th and the class is already full. The instructor is coming from Texas with green wood and tools. So pray for us that we make chairs and then teach others to make chairs. Ride that shaving horse ride.
This is helpful. Thank you. This post will go in the all time classics section of the blog I think. I am curious did yoy get to sit in the chairs pictured or find them online? Looks like something that could be at the Vitra.
All agreement here. Making your first (anything) will tell you more than infinite research first. Then the second attempt will be informed by specific targeted research, since now you know what to ask.
I took the stick chair book to the shop and made legs, sticks and a seat then looked at the drill and the book and back at the seat ….. ordered the full size plans this morning I’ll be patient and get it right
The story goes that Thonet’s bentwood chairs were uncomfortable. So uncomfortable that you couldn’t sit in them for much more than 20 minutes. This made them very popular with French cafe owners as it increased the customer turnover and profits!
I had a question about something in the stick chair book and this seems like the right place to put it. You say that the bark side of a single slab seat should face the ground, what is the reason for this? So if/when it cups the stretchers are forces together rather than apart? I ask because I have a small slab of ash with a lovely bark side and a knot on the pith side.
Yes, that is why the heart-side up is preferred. But there are many vernacular chairs out there where the bark side faces up.
If you have stretchers in the undercarriage, then bark-side up shouldn’t be a huge problem. So go for it.
Chris, what method do you use to make the floating tenon’s and mortises?
Until I got a Domino, I bashed them out with a 1/4” mortise chisel. And used slips of oak as loose tenons.
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