Though they use different joinery and turnings, these Roorkee chairs function in the same manner to travel with ease and adapt to any terrain. (Courtesy of the Council of the National Army Museum, London)
As the British military was forced to become more responsive and quick at the end of the Victorian era, traditional and bulky items were traded for furniture that was lightweight and compact.
Someone in the late 19th century invented the Roorkee chair, a Spartan design that was destined to influence generations of modern furniture designers in the 20th century.
The Roorkee, named after an area in India, has no fixed joinery. The legs and stretchers are joined without glue; when the chair is assembled, the seat and strapping hold everything together. Likewise, the back of the chair is but two sticks that are covered in cloth and held to the chair’s frame with bolts.
As a result of this shockingly spare design, the chair weighs little – 8 to 10 lbs. is typical. It folds into a small package. And despite all these details, it is remarkably comfortable.
The Roorkee is designed for lounging, not for dining or work at a tall desk. As a result, it is low to the floor, like a Morris chair or any other camp chair. Most Roorkee chairs were covered in rot-proof canvas. Today, reproductions are made in both leather and canvas.
The leather adds weight and stiffness. The weight is undesirable if you are portaging the chair through the mountains. But the stiffness of the back and seat is a good thing for your comfort.
Roorkees with canvas backs can feel like sitting in a flour sack (I’ve made several using military-spec canvas). So while leather might not be 100-percent authentic, I do think it is the superior material for this chair. After experimenting with hides of several thicknesses, my favorite is an 8 oz. hide, which is a full 1/8″ thick.
If you research this form yourself, you’ll find several versions of “improved” Roorkee chairs. These might have an adjustable headrest or sticks that you are supposed to drape your legs over, like a planter’s chair. I have yet to build an improved Roorkee.
Roorkee chairs show up in a variety of species, from ash to mahogany to teak. The way the stretchers are inserted into the legs can vary. One common method is a tapered mortise-and-tenon joint. This Windsor-chair joint offers a lot of surface area for the joint without weakening the leg in the way a cylindrical mortise would. Plus, the more weight that is placed on the chair, the tighter the joint becomes.
Some Roorkees are joined with a simple cylindrical mortise-and-tenon joint. Still others have some sort of hybrid joinery – the tenon might be a cylinder but it will have a square shoulder that fits into a shallow square mortise at the top of the cylindrical mortise.
This Roorkee has cylindrical tenons that have a square shoulder. This prevents the stretcher from rotating in service.
Turnings As you study the Roorkee chair, you’ll also find a variety of turnings used for the legs, everything from a simple taper to strong (but busy) coves and beads.
The classic Roorkee has a turned cylinder near the top of each leg that acts as a convenient handle for lifting an assembled chair. The foot of a Roorkee is typically a straight taper that ends in some sort of shaped foot. Some Roorkees don’t have a shaped foot and end in a thin taper.
The Influence of the Design The Roorkee chair was designed for the military, but its utilitarian core appealed to modern designers. Kaare Klint, one of the founders of the Danish modern style, directly aped the Roorkee chair for his famous “Safari Chair,” which was popular through the 1970s.
The influence of the Roorkee was more far spread than Denmark. Marcel Breuer’s “Wassily” chair (1925), Le Corbusier’s “Basculant” chair (1928), Wilhelm Bofinger’s “Farmer Chair” (1966), Arne Norell’s “Sirocco” chair and Vico Magistretti’s “Armchair 905” (1964) all owe a tremendous debt to the Roorkee chair.
The influence of the Roorkee for decades after its introduction has always been an important indicator that campaign furniture as a whole might be an underappreciated style. Like the Roorkee, campaign furniture was designed to impress you more with its utility than its fashionableness. Its only real ornament consisted of things that made it stronger. It used woods that resisted the tropics, joinery that didn’t rely on glue and brass that held everything together.
In many ways, campaign pieces have more in common with workbenches and tool chests than with delicate dining tables, carved sideboards and veneered highboys. And that is why I think the campaign style is worth reviving among woodworkers.
There are a few tools that I consider essential to making a living. Most professionals in the U.S. live and die by the table saw. I don’t. But I think that’s because I don’t use sheet goods much.
For me, it’s a three-way tie between the planer, my old 14” band saw and my HVLP system. The planer and the band saw are – I think – obvious choices. The HVLP system might be a bit of a surprise to some.
My first woodworking job was in college at a door factory where I assembled and finished entryway doors. That was my first taste of spray finishing, and I have an apparent knack for it. As a result, I’ve always had a spray system on hand – mostly cheapos. A spray system can save days of work compared to applying finishes by hand. Today was a good example.
I’m finishing the parts for three Roorkee chairs, The parts have lots of facets, coves and tapered mortises and tenons that need to be finished (or look finished) to be presentable. Each Roorkee has 10 parts (plus two replacement stretchers), so I had to finish 36 parts today with garnet shellac.
While shellac dries quickly, getting it into tight corners and mouldings with a brush, rag or pad is a challenge. With a spray system, a job that should take eight hours takes less than one hour. And (my opinion is that) the results are superior.
Even when I want the final finish to look hand-applied, I use the spray system to build up a few preliminary coats. Then I apply the final coat of paint, shellac or lacquer by hand so it looks less than perfect. Is that cheating? I don’t believe in the word when it comes to making ends meet.
With spray systems, you don’t need to spend a lot of money to get great results. I started out on a Binks systems – arguably the best. Now I use a cheap Earlex 5500 (basically a converted vacuum cleaner) that produces the same results. I can spray anything except latex.
Honestly, the equipment is not as important as thinning your material properly and simply knowing how to spray intelligently. Before buying the Earlex more than 10 years ago, I had a Fuji spray system, which was the budget leader back in the 1990s. (However, do stay away from the Wagner systems at the home centers. I have yet to produce a decent finish with one of these. Which is curious.)
There’s a learning curve with a spray gun, just like with any tool. I can teach people to spray (decently) in about an hour. Learning all the tricks takes a little longer (two hours?).
If you struggle with finishing, maybe your problem isn’t a result of the medium. Maybe it’s the messenger.
A woodworking friend of mine has the most boring tattoo ever.
It’s a single black dot – about 1/16″ across – on his hand. He put it there as a reminder. Whenever he sees that dot, he is reminded to stop messing around and get back to studying or working or some such.
This morning, I’m pondering a trip to the tattoo parlor myself. I need some totem to remind me to lay down my tools when someone is yakking at me.
This week I am in the heat of finishing a run of Roorkee chairs, and I’m down to the part where I am cutting and assembling all the leather bits. This involves hundreds (maybe a thousand) intense freehand cuts with a utility knife and punches. One miscut and the piece is spoiled.
For the last three days, I’ve been standing alone at my bench making these cuts. I have neat piles of hundreds of components. Zero mistakes.
Yesterday a neighbor came into the shop, asking me to make him a walking stick (he’s been using a tomato stake to help him get around lately).
First mistake: I kept working while we chatted.
Second mistake: I should have offered to simply buy him a walking stick at the drugstore a block away.
Third mistake: I installed a buckle on upside-down, and I had to then destroy and remake the piece.
Fourth mistake: I fixed the problem while he kept talking. My repair turned out to be half-assed.
Fifth mistake: I cut the belting for a chair’s thigh strap 1-1/2” too short, completely ruining an assembled $150 component.
I put down my tools and wished the neighbor a happy new year as he left, tomato stake in hand.
I know a tattoo can’t fix stupid. But you think I’d be smarter after working in group workshops for the last 23 years.
In my Amercian Welsh Stick Chair classes, we start with home center dowels that have been selected for dead-straight grain for the chair’s back spindles and sticks. They work great (wood is wood), but there can be a lot of luck and driving around necessary to get enough sticks for a class of six to 12 students.
In fact, last year, I denuded the Kentucky/Ohio/Indiana Tristate area of straight-grain red oak dowels for my March 2019 class.
For my classes in the coming year, I decided to find a way to reduce my driving and gathering.
After trying many options (too many to list here without wanting to slap myself with a cold, dead mackerel), I settled on the Veritas Dowel Maker. I’ve used it before when making the sticks for Roorkee chairs.
The idea is simple: you spin square stock into the device. Two blades slice it down to size.
The only complication is that the device is a bit complicated to set up. After reading the instructions a few times, I went upstairs to see if the university had taken back my diploma. I simply wasn’t able to follow the instructions in a couple places. I needed a good video to understand what I’m missing here.
Sadly, there aren’t any really excellent videos out there on this tool. There are a lot of OK ones. After watching a few of them I was able to make the appropriate synapses and the device became crystal clear to operate.
With my stupidity set aside (for the time being), I made the blanks for my spindles. This was the joyous part. I could select the straightest, clearest stock to make spindles that were super strong.
After that, you spin the blanks into the device – a drill powers the operation. The surface finish on the dowels was pretty good. A single swipe with a scraper was enough to remove the annular rings. Another plus: I could fine-tune the dowels to come out at exactly the dimension I wanted.
After running 100 or so sticks, I decided to sharpen the blades and see if that improved the surface finish. So I stoned them both up to #8,000 grit on my waterstones (they sharpen just like a plane iron). The improvement in surface finish was minimal – I still need to scrape them.
All in all, I believe the Veritas Dowel Maker will pay for itself with my first class. It saves me a tank of gas, and I can make the sticks for a chair using $10 in wood instead of $24 to $36.
If I made only an occasional chair, I’d make the sticks the old-fashioned way with a spokeshave or block plane. But you need 50 perfect dowels with dead-straight grain, the tool is a nice thing to have.
— Christopher Schwarz
P.S. Of course I paid full price for the Veritas Dowel Maker and the accessories. And the wood. And etc.
I have one of these stools, and use it every year at my neighborhood’s storied Fourth of July Parade and other community events. And it’s seen almost weekly use at outdoor gatherings during the last 18 months or so – the addition of a carrying strap made it particularly comfortable and convenient to sling over my shoulder as I walked to various neighbor’s houses for socially distanced gatherings; the strap left my hands free for carrying bourbon.)
Three-legged folding stools appear in many Western cultures, including the French, English and American. They have been popular with soldiers, sportsmen, campers and artists for at least two centuries.
This stool is a great introductory project to campaign furniture, especially if you are new to turning or working with leather. There are only three pieces of wood, four pieces of leather and some metal hardware. You can easily build one in a day.
Choosing Materials I have seen some of these camp stools built using dowels, and they are strong enough to hold most people. However, I like to build them from mahogany, teak or ash that has dead-straight grain. I’ve had nightmares about getting a stick stuck in my backside from a stool disaster.
If you can build the stool with riven stock (oak or ash are good choices), it will be quite strong. Many original stools used 1″-diameter legs. However, my recommendation is to use stouter stock. I have built reproductions with 1″-diameter legs, and they felt too springy under my 185-pound frame.
You don’t need to make the legs baseball bats, but try for something between 1-1/8″ diameter to 1-1/4″ diameter. The leather can be almost anything 7 ounces (just shy of 1/8″ thick) or heavier. Vegetable-tanned leather that you dye yourself is a particularly strong choice.
You also will need rivets to join the leather pieces – unless you are skilled at hand-stitching. While hollow rivets (sometimes called rapid rivets) are inexpensive, easy to find and strong enough, I prefer the look and unerring permanence of solid copper rivets. I used No. 9 rivets with posts that are 1/2″ long.
To attach the leather to the wooden legs, you’ll need three No. 10 x 1-1/2″-long brass screws plus matching finishing washers.
Finally, you’ll need the hardware that allows the legs to open and shut. Traditionally, this was a three-headed bolt that once was easy to find. Now, that hardware is rare in North America. If you are a blacksmith or have access to a good welder, making a three-way bolt is straightforward. I have seen a couple of these bolts for sale in England, but the price with shipping to the United States was more than the cost of the bolt itself.
So I looked for a different way. Luckily, the Internet is good for something other than photos of cats playing keyboards. One maker of custom stools uses some off-the rack hardware to make an effective three-way bolt and shares that information freely on his web site.
Here’s what you need for legs that are up to 1-1/4″ in diameter:
• A hex-headed bolt with a 5/16″ shank that is long enough to pass through two of the legs and protrude out the other side by 1/2″. A 3″-long hex-head bolt will work with 1-3/16″-diameter legs. • An eyebolt with a 1/4″ or 5/16″ shank that is long enough to pass through one of the legs and protrude out the other side by 1/4″. (Note: You can hacksaw any of this threaded hardware to length. An eyebolt that has a total length of 2-1/2″ should be sufficient.) • Two acorn-headed nuts. • Three washers. • 15 No. 9 copper rivets.
Parts • 2 Legs, 1-1/4″ dia. x 23-3/4″ l • 1 Seat, 7 oz., 13-1/2″ w x 13-1/2″ l • 3 Lips, 7 oz., 3″ w x 8″ l
Turn the Legs The three legs are easy to turn, even if your favorite turning tool is #80-grit sandpaper. Turn the legs to round using a roughing gouge or carbide-tipped roughing tool. Create a smooth, clean cylinder of about 1-1/4″ in diameter with a skew or other finishing tool.
The feet shown are 1-3/16″ in diameter and 5/8″ tall. Make the feet by turning down the foot. Then turn the ankle to 7/8″ in diameter. Round the foot, then taper the rest of the leg down to the ankle. The taper should begin 6″ from the bottom of the leg.
I added four small grooves where the hardware holes will go – two above the hardware and two below. Little details such as these grooves and beads make the legs look like something fancier than three store-bought dowels.
Sand the legs to remove any rough tool marks. I finished the legs on the lathe. First I burnished the surface with a “polissoir” (a French polishing tool made from tightly bound broom corn). Then I applied beeswax to the legs with the workpiece spinning. I used the polissoir to drive the beeswax into the pores of the wood (again, while the lathe was spinning). Then I used a rough cotton cloth (I’d like to be fancy and say it was muslin, but it was an old bag that held corn grits) to buff the wax. Then I applied another coat of wax and buffed that.
If you want to add a little age to the wood, apply a coat of black wax and push it into the grooves and pores. Let the wax set up then buff it.
Wax is not a permanent finish, but it is easily renewed or repaired if your stool is for the drawing room instead of the campsite.
Bore Three Holes All three holes are located in the same spot on each of the three legs and should be the same diameter – just big enough to allow the hardware to pass through. The holes are located 11-5/8″ down from the top of the legs.
The best way to bore these holes is with a drill press or hand-powered post drill. You want the hole to be dead straight and pass through the middle of the leg. If you are a whiz with a hand drill or cordless drill then go for it.
Install the Hardware Strip the hardware of its zinc if you like – I use a citric acid solution for this. Here’s how the hardware goes together:
• Put a washer on the bolt. Push the bolt through one leg. • Place the eyebolt on the post of the bolt. Put the other leg on the bolt. • Add a washer to the end of the bolt, then drive on the acorn nut. • Push the post of the eyebolt through the third leg. Add a washer and acorn nut.
Drill pilot holes that are deep enough to receive the No. 10 screws into the top ends of the legs.
Leather Seat The seat is four pieces of material: a triangular seat and three pockets that look a bit like lips when you cut them out. When I cut out leather, I make patterns for my pieces from thin MDF or hardboard – usually 1/4″-thick material.
Put the patterns on the leather and cut out the seat and three lips using a sharp utility knife.
You can hand-stitch the lips to the seat. If you aren’t up for stitching, rivets work well and give the project a military flair.
Secure each lip to the seat first with one rivet at one of the tips of the seat. Punch a snug hole for the rivet through both pieces of leather, drive on the washer or “burr,” snip off the excess and peen the post over the burr.
Now bend one end of the lip up and rivet the end to the seat about 1/4″ from the end of the lip. Repeat for the other end of the lip. Finally, add two more rivets between the three existing rivets. Repeat the whole process for the other two corners.
One quick note on neatness: Be sure to put the burr so it faces the floor for all these joints.
After the pockets are riveted, use a sharp utility knife to trim any little bits of the pocket that aren’t flush to the seat.
If you purchased undyed leather, finish the leather with a dye, oil and wax. Burnish the edges with a piece of wood and a little spit (water will do nicely as well).
Attach the seat to the legs. Punch a clearance hole through each lip that will allow a No. 10 screw to pass. Screw the leather to the legs with a finishing washer under the head of each screw.
That’s all there is to it. You can make the tool easy to transport by making a belt that will go around the girth of the closed stool and screwing that belt to one leg. Or you could make a canvas bag embroidered with your football team’s logo. After all, when going into battle, it’s always best to fly your colors.