Building Chairs

About ten years ago my daughter bought an Arts and Craft style desk but decided to wait awhile before investing in a chair to go with it. As luck would have it, I soon came across an article in a woodworking magazine with plans for an Arts and Craft chair. But this was no ordinary chair. It was a chair designed by Gustav Stickley to fill the dining room for the 1905 opening of the El Tovar Hotel located at the south rim of the Grand Canyon. The author of this article was given a private room in which to make his measurements and, as he describes it, after a few hours had a complete blueprint of this vintage Stickley creation.

Up until this point I probably hadn’t built many pieces of fine furniture. But throwing caution to the wind, I decided to jump start my furniture building career with a challenging project. After all, who wants to start out building bread boxes? So I gathered some materials and for several weeks remained barricaded in my workshop. I won’t bore you with details, but suffice it to say, it was quite an education. My first lesson was on how to tear out white oak on my router table with a template bit. My second lesson was how to avoid further disaster by using a climb cut. I was later told real woodworkers don’t use climb cuts, but we can save that discussion for another time.

A few years later my wife and I took a cross country drive and, of course, a visit to the El Tovar was near the top of our list. We thought we would stay there for a day or two but were about nine months late in placing our reservation. It wasn’t exactly a spur of the moment trip, but who plans these things out a year in advance? So our next best option was dinner in the restaurant. With three months lead time we managed to snag a table in one of their prime dining rooms. I don’t remember what I ate that evening, but I do remember being in awe at the vast number of my chairs on display.

Now, why am I telling you about this adventure? Well, first of all, chairs are not the easiest piece of furniture to build. There are a lot of angled mortise and tenon joints as well as curved backs and legs, upholstered seats and numerous other pitfalls. It probably wasn’t the best project for me to cut my woodworking teeth on – but I was lucky. In the end, I learned a lot and my daughter ended up with a nice piece of furniture. In fact, it received honorable mention in our first showcase in 2012. But the real reason for my story is to remind you that our last National Speaker is a chair maker and on April 22 Jeff Miller will present a workshop on this topic. If you ever plan to build a chair, this is the one workshop you shouldn’t miss. Even if you don’t plan to build one, you’ll learn things that can be applied to nearly any woodworking project you undertake. Someday, I hope to muster the courage to build another chair and plan to be at Jeff’s workshop. I hope you will be there, too.

David Sumberg