The classic Chippendale Chair – a great project to build by hand

Chippendale ChairMost of my furniture designs are decidedly contemporary. But I’m always looking at period furniture as a source of inspiration. A couple of years ago, I was doing some research into chair design and I found myself powerfully drawn to the basic form of the Chippendale chair. This chair can be almost modern in its appearance, but it is still classic 18th Century design. I decided I had to make one.

What is particularly intriguing about this style of chair is that is was typically made by hand. It’s a project that still builds well by hand; some of the joinery is actually easier by hand than with machines. I’ve been working on methods that make the process much more manageable than you might expect. These are simple ways to control some of the more challenging aspects of chair design; namely, coping with the angled joinery.

Angled mortises can be mystifying, but an angled block of wood with a fence can make them almost foolproof. And tenons with angled shoulders can be a real pain if you’re trying to do them by machine, but by hand they are no harder than straight tenons. And some historic jigs that I’ve been working to resurrect make the process even simpler than with machines. And the jigs themselves are simple to build and work with.

After building a few of these chairs, it occurred to me that this would be a terrific project for a class.

Building this chair is very much like building a Windsor chair: it’s a project that seems complex, but it’s a piece that was originally designed to be built using hand tools and it’s far more manageable than you might think. The techniques may be less familiar than Windsor chair techniques have become. But what you learn is also much more applicable to the rest of your woodworking. Mastering mortise and tenon joinery and shaping and smoothing curves are gateway skills to a whole world of better woodworking.

I’ll be teaching a Chippendale chair class at the Port Townsend School of Woodworking (in beautiful Port Townsend, WA) from August 24th– 29th. Port Townsend is a beautiful waterfront town at the northeast tip of the Olympic Peninsula, with great food and plenty of other things to do nearby (among other things, Olympic National Park is close – the mountains form the backdrop for the town).

I’ll also be working on a video on how to build this classic chair for Lie-Nielsen Toolworks. We’ll be recording a couple of weeks before the class in Washington. So I’ll definitely be bringing my A game to the class.

Chippendale chair details

 

Using the Wood Stretcher to attach the rockers on my new chair

Lower assembly on rocker My new rocking chair design is coming along very nicely. But there have been some real challenges. At the moment, the front legs/arm supports are single pieces of wood that pierce the seat (which extends back to make the rear legs). This joint is my usual brand of crazy, but that’s not the problem. The front legs need to be glued in place to the seat before I can move on to attaching the rockers. But the front legs point in a different direction from the back legs. And the tenons on the ends of the legs point in different directions as well. So they don’t fit in the mortises in the rockers. And there’s not enough flex in the assembled parts to force everything into place (I tried).

 Cue the Wood Stretcher. I laminated the rockers, so they are exceptionally strong. But they do flex a little, with very little risk of breaking. Flattening them out a bit by pulling down on the ends with clamps doesn’t just take some of the curve out; it effectively lengthens the rockers a little. Just enough, in fact, to allow me to slip the tenons into the mortises. Releasing the clamps lets the rockers spring back, and locks the joints together, making the attachment between the legs and the rocker pretty much impossible to get apart (without flattening the rocker again). It’s incredibly cool to see this work.mis-aligned tenonStretching the RockerTenon now aligned with mortise