Chippendale Chairs at the Port Townsend School of Woodworking

Chippendale Chairs from the classI’m back from the Port Townsend School of Woodworking for over a week, now, but I wanted to write a little about the class I taught. This was by far the most challenging class I’ve done – at least from my end. My goal was to get a class full of students to build a sophisticated chair using almost exclusively hand tool joinery. We incorporated what is now years of my work developing methods, jigs and systems for cutting complex angled joints with accuracy and repeatability.

I did more preparation for this class than for any other class I’ve taught. I needed to make special historically inspired tools and jigs (Chairmaker’s saws and Tenoning Frames), develop some simple paring and chopping guides.

Mortise Paring Jigs

A simple and an adjustable (and angled) mortise paring jig

I also had to  work through the building process in a way that students of varying skill levels (from talented beginner to pro) could handle it. I also had to prepare the “kits” of parts for the chair, which consisted of pre-cut rough parts for all of the components. Then there were drawings of the chair, detail drawings of the joinery, and patterns for the shaped parts to create.

It all went well, although we lost power during a wind storm on the last day. This only really affected the shaping of the crest rail, back splat, and saddle, which we were cutting on the band saw. The hand tool work went on as planned.

There were a few keys to the successful build:

  1. PortTownsendChopping

    Chopping an angled mortise.

    We used mortise paring guides; simple, shop made blocks with fences that helped guide the chopping – whether it was for straight or angled mortises – and then paring of the mortises. This helped keep the mortises under control. Good, clean mortise walls are key to a good joint.

  2. We fit the tenons using a router plane. This ensured that the cheeks were flat and parallel, and once everyone got the hang of taking off just a little bit at a time, the fitting went well.
  3. Fitting tenons with a router plane

    Fitting the tenon cheeks with a router plane

    We cut the shoulders using a Chairmaker’s saw, holding the work in a Tenoning Frame. I wrote about both of these previously, both in Popular Woodworking, and here. This is what these tools are designed for, and they do the job amazingly well. They take a challenging process and make it simple.

  4. We used wedges for the two main angles in the chair. One wedge was for the outward splay of the back legs (and it also helped lay out the twist in the side rails, the optional stretcher mortises, helped cut the angled tenons on the back rail, and also worked as a clamping caul for the back assembly). The other wedge was for the splay of the side rails, and was just as versatile. I’m not sure how I’d build chairs without wedges. And I think the students got a good taste of why I feel that way.

The most difficult part of building the chair? There were four joints where we couldn’t use router planes for fitting. Relying instead on shoulder planes proved challenging. Even though these are considered the standard tools for this job, shoulder planes take a lot of practice to use effectively when fitting tenons, and there were more than a few of these joints that had to be patched and reworked as students got the hang of the tools.

There’s no question that a router plane (I’m speaking mostly about one of the modern versions from Lie-Nielsen or Veritas) makes fitting tenons much more reliable. If this is something you haven’t tried, it’s worth giving it a shot. It’s not a universal replacement; as we saw with this chair, there are joints that call for other tools. But the router plane is a terrific tool for tenons.

Measuring for the front rail

Measuring for the front rail

The Toccata Rocker is finally done (and photographed)!

The toccata Rocker

photo: Fine Woodworking/The Taunton Press

Leading up to Handworks, I was working hard to finish my new Toccata Rocker design. I just managed to get the last coat of finish on before the event, but I didn’t have time to get a decent photograph until last week. Asa Christiana from Fine Woodworking was visiting to shoot photos for two articles, and he graciously agreed to shoot the rocker as he was photographing another chair for one of the articles. So here it is!

The chair is obviously a close cousin to the Toccata Chair, with a couple of significant differences: I came up with a completely different front leg structure (the addition of the rocker changed what needed to happen with the legs and arms), and carved the seat. The front legs now extend through the seat, with a very complicated joint that could well be tweaked a little in future versions of the chair.

The design is the result of pursuing an old structural idea for a chair leg (which morphed into the slatted structure of the back), combined with some inspiration from Windsor chairs.

The chair is incredibly comfortable, and rocks beautifully; the culmination of years of working with issues of comfort and balance in chairs.

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


The Hidden Agenda

I have a few classes coming up that offer interesting opportunities to learn some of the less commonly taught skills.

The Slat-Back Chairs from J. Miller Handcrafted FurniturApril 21st through 26th in my shop, I’ll be teaching how to make  my slat-back chair. This is both a chair basics class and a class in some really sophisticated techniques. And it’s all very do-able. You’ll learn about cutting and smoothing curves, and also about lamination as a way to make exceptionally strong, thin curved components. The joinery on this chair covers what you’d need for almost any other joined chair; and I’m excited to be able to show off all kinds of methods for making even the most complex mortise and tenon joints simple. Chairs have been my focus for the last 30 years, and this is a chance to tap into the insights, techniques and tricks that I’ve learned.

Stool/Table for the Wortheffort Woodworking School ClassOn May 9th – 11th, I’ll be at the Wortheffort School of Woodworking in San Marcos, Texas. The project here is a small stool or table (it works and looks good either way). This is an opportunity to master hand-cut mortise and tenon joinery, and there are a few dovetails thrown in just for fun. Mortise and tenon joinery is the backbone of all woodworking; it’s the best joint for joining parts in most furniture projects. But it somehow gets short shrift compared to the dovetail (its showy, and much more famous sibling). I’ve been cutting mortise and tenon joints using countless different methods since my very first days as a woodworker. And I’ve been teaching what I’ve learned (and continue to learn) for almost 20 years.

And then on May 19th through 23rd, I’ll be at the Port Townsend School of Woodworking, in Port Townsend, Washington (a spectacularly beautiful town on the Puget Sound) I’ll be teaching a class on building case pieces. The project is a small nightstand, but the fundamental construction techniques apply to all kinds of traditionally joined casework. We’ll cover frame and panel construction, mortise and tenon joinery, and half-blind dovetails; along with gluing up and smoothing panels, ship-lapped backs, and more. This is an ambitious project, but it all comes together beautifully, with lots of methods that make the seemingly difficult much easier.

So what’s the hidden agenda? Throughout each of these classes, I’m secretly trying to make you a significantly better woodworker. I’ve been pretty focused over the past few years on what really makes a difference in a person’s woodworking abilities (leading to the publication of my book, The Foundations of Better Woodworking); stuff that doesn’t get a whole lot of play in your typical book or article. And I’ve found that this foundational stuff makes a huge difference for my students. I’m constantly looking out for little things that I can help you to understand what you’re doing better, and ways you can use your body more efficiently and accurately to get the work done.

And don’t miss the Lie-Nielsen Hand Tool Event taking place in my shop this coming weekend (April 11th 10 am – 6 pm, and April 12th, 10 am – 5 pm).

Talking about chairs….

This past fall the folks at Grainger stopped by to film a short video for their “Everyday Heroes” series. I had a lot of fun talking about my work with them, but we concentrated on my rocking chair. Don’t worry… no promotional stuff; just some talk about chairs.

Chairs at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship

We finished up the Chair Design class at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship on Friday, after which I high-tailed it down to Boston for a too-early flight home on Saturday morning. I was in full recovery mode for the rest of the weekend; lots of sleep, a run, some good home-cooked food, and some more sleep.

Chair from CFC Chair Design class

Jed’s Chair

Now it’s time to reflect back on the class. I was – as I usually am – very impressed with both the ambition and the overall designs that the students came up with. Very few people designed within their limits. I made a point of trying to push people beyond their comfort levels (some squirming ensued). But I made an even bigger point of showing them how to actually get where they wanted to go. Everyone was pretty excited by the time we did a show-and-tell for the other students at the school on Friday afternoon. And there were a lot of really nice – and very individual – chair designs.



Chair from CFC Chair Design class

David’s Chair (Child size)

I was lucky to have a terrific assistant while teaching the class. Reed Hansuld is a Toronto-based furnituremaker (moving soon to Brooklyn) who went through the 9-month program at CFC a number of years ago. His help made getting everyone through this ambitious class much easier. It’s worth checking out Reed’s web site ( and his designs. I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot more about him.

Chair from CFC Chair Design class

David’s Chair (Adult size)

Chair from CFC Chair Design class

Tony’s Chair

Chair from CFC Chair Design class

Keith’s Chair

Chair from CFC Chair Design class

Kyle’s Bar Stool

Chair from CFC Chair Design class

Jay’s Chair

Chair from CFC Chair Design class

John’s Chair

There’s more than one way…

Designing chairs does not fit into a one-size-fits-all pattern. We all explored comfort in somewhat similar ways (the quick and dirty prototype), but from there, we did a variety of different things. Some of the students spent some time drawing, but limited perspective drawing skills led most to explore other methods. We made some full size mock-ups out of building insulation foam, cardboard, solid poplar, and MDF. Once student made up a 5″-tall model, which we photographed against a white paper “backdrop.” Another turned to SketchUp. In truth, anything that allowed us to see the idea in 3-dimensions and play with options was fair game. Modifications and improvements were made. Ideas were changed. And we’re moving ever closer to some wood prototypes that look more like real chairs, and which we can also sit on.

There’s plenty of work to come. Lots of particulars still to work out. And then all of the joinery to figure out, along with some shaping, laminating, smoothing, and more. Stay tuned!

Building insulation foam for exploring chair ideas

Building insulation foam shapes easily, screws together (sort-of), and allows you to quickly explore an idea

Chair model

A small model, photographed against a paper backdrop can be a surprisingly effective way to test out an idea.

Poplar chair prototype

This idea was complex enough to merit going to wood.

Chair prototype in cardboard

A cardboard prototype

Building insulation foam chair

The foam has no structure. Interesting look, though!


Center for Furniture Craftsmanship Chair Design Class

We got off to a running start yesterday for the Chair Design class at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Maine. We did a rather different kind of woodworking – the quick and dirty kind – but by the end of the day, everyone had a prototype that they could sit on. Everyone also had a much better understanding of what makes a comfortable chair. We actually modified the prototypes multiple times over the course of the day, and with each modification, that understanding grew. I found this all quite exciting, as students would go from, “This is ok,” to “Oh, this is much better,” to “Oh wow! This is great!”

These comfort prototypes answer some of the important questions when building a chair, but now we’ve started down a similar path with many of the visual elements. To figure out how their chairs will look, everyone is both drawing and doing rapid prototypes in insulating foam, MDF, cardboard, or poplar. And then there will be countless modifications as we get closer and closer to a good design. IMG_0638 IMG_0639 IMG_0640 IMG_0641 IMG_0643 IMG_0644

The Complex Joinery of the Toccata Chair

double, or twin tenons IMG_0624I worked on the stretchers for my Toccata chair today. This is probably the most difficult part of this chair. Each stretcher is a bent lamination, which gets let into a groove in the rear leg, and then joins with the front leg with what turns out to be a compound-angled twin tenon (into a curved part). And there’s a little twist (in the stretcher) thrown in for ‘fun’.

I guess the first question is “why?” Well, after messing around with various options as I was designing the chair, I settled on this as by far the strongest way to do the stretcher. It also allows for the stretcher to grow out of the rear leg visually, and adds the strength of a lamination to a vulnerable part of the rear leg. The twin tenon? Again, it’s the strongest joint for the job. There’s lots of good glue surface in the two short mortises and tenons that run vertically. A horizontal tenon would leave lots of endgrain in the mortise, which adds almost nothing to the joint strength. And the compound angles? Well, that  happens a lot on chair stretchers.

I try not to let technical issues get in the way of what I want to do with a design. Once I know what I want the chair to look like (which certainly can take a while), I figure out what I think is the best way to do it. This single thing – not designing within my limits – has done more than anything else to improve my woodworking skills.

I don’t really worry about joints like this any more. I’ve seen these over and over as a chair maker, and I’ve learned to deal with them in many different ways. Most of the work here was by hand. The trickiest part of the day was scribing the shoulder of the twin tenon to match the leg. I’m still developing my own tools for this, but here I relied on a thin knife blade and a spacer. Then came paring back to the scribed lines. Toccata Chair from J. Miller Handcrafted Furniture