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.

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


Wearing out another keyboard….

It’s a good thing I tend to forget how much work goes into a book.

I’m now in the thick of writing my new book, tentatively titled (in my mind, at least) A Furniture Design Companion. Despite going through this process four times previously, I had forgotten just how much work goes into writing a book. Writing, writing, and rewriting over and over again, only to rewrite some more. And all this before an editor even sees it and starts the process going again. I really do tend to wear out a keyboard per book. But despite all of this work, it’s been very exciting.

This is obviously a book about furniture design. And in the first chapters, I’m attempting to describe how it is that we can create new and interesting things. The first chapter in particular deals with some of the mental processes that are at the root of creativity. And much of what I talk about, although geared towards designing a piece of furniture, is just as relevant to many other creative endeavors, including writing a book.

One of the most important aspects of designing something is becoming fully engaged in the process. You don’t design casually. You have to dive headlong into the process, and commit to doing a fair bit of work in order to find a creative solution. Designs don’t come to you unbidden; you put in your blood, sweat and tears to find and develop them. Of course, this is as true of writing (and any other creative endeavor) as it is of design.

Although I had plenty of ideas about where I wanted this book to go (and had outlined it thoroughly), I had to start writing seriously to make real sense of my ideas and to get them to take shape effectively. Not only that, but the first draft was something of a mess. But even that was a necessary step towards writing (or designing) something that works. It’s just as important to sift through all of the ideas and pick out the best ones as it is to come up with the ideas in the first place.

Another of the things I talk about in the book is that you often find yourself frustrated during the process of design. As painful as this might be, this frustration actually has a role in the creative process; it helps to engage more of the brain in the search for creative possibilities. There’s a catch, though. To access this additional processing power you usually have to step away from the struggle and stop thinking about the problem that’s causing the frustration. And that is often when you find a solution.

I’ve had many of these moments of frustration as I struggle to express my ideas. And most often, I make important breakthroughs not when I’m writing, but rather, when I’m doing something else: on my walk to work, before falling asleep, or even when planing a chair part smooth.

What this boils down to is that I’m writing about creativity as I create. And much of what I talk about is actually comforting as I go through challenging process of designing, developing and refining my book. And as I get closer and closer to expressing what I would like to say, I find these early chapters to be helpful in my own struggles. A good companion indeed.

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

Pleasant Hill Shaker Community

Pleasant Hill Shaker Community Quilt Pattern

In an attempt to stave off the post-French Oak Roubo Project depression, I decided to visit the Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill on my way home from Georgia. The community is about half an hour southwest of Lexington Kentucky; conveniently just beyond the halfway mark on my trip back to Chicago.

What a spectacular place! I actually enjoyed the overall setting as much as the Shaker furniture on display. It was a beautiful summer day, everything was green, and the rolling hills of the surrounding area were simply beautiful.Pleasant Hill Shaker Community Brethrens House and Bath HousePleasant Hill Shaker Community

The various buildings were very impressive, in an austere, Shaker sort of way (and then, with the Spiral Staircase, in an austere, Shaker, and really dramatic way).  It was exciting to get a close look at so much of the furniture, which I’ve mostly seen in books. There was a bed and a beautiful small chest that I may have to build (and perhaps write about). But mostly, it was fascinating to get a glimpse of how the Shakers might have been inspired by their surroundings, their community and their beliefs to create such wonderful things.Spiral Stairs in the Trustee's Office at Pleasant Hill Shaker Community

Some small chests at the Pleasant Hill Shaker Community

400 years before Roubo, a folding book stand

Stand for Quran

400 years earlier than Roubo, a beautiful folding book stand from a single large board

On a recent trip to New York, I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art. You could get lost for days in there, and it’s definitely worth doing that once in a while. Wandering around in the relatively new Islamic art wing near the European painting galleries I came across a fantastic, much earlier version of the folding book stand described by Roubo and popularized recently by Roy Underhill. This large stand for a Quran dates from the year 1360, some 400 years before Roubo! It was not a crude version, either; it was beautifully designed and exquisitely crafted, with multiple layers of rich carvings and piercings. The stand was made by Hasan [ibn] Zain ibn Sulaiman al-Isfahani.