Designing an Upholstered Dining Chair, Part One

The last addition to our catalog of dining furniture was the Heflin Barstool.  We developed it in response to requests for a barstool with a back — designed and built to our standards of comfort, style, and durability.  It has been proven.  On the website, there is a page describing its genesis:  www.garyweeks.com/designing_bar_stool/htm.

The way we do it, the design and development of a chair require a very large investment of heart and mind, time and money.  To make that investment, we must perceive a need and receive an inspiration.  It’s not all toil; it’s some fun.

We are now responding to a new category of comments and requests, for example:  “Do you have an upholstered seat dining chair?”  “We need color in our dining room.”  “Wooden chairs are kitchen chairs and upholstered chairs are dining room chairs.”

We have an idea, and we are designing an upholstered dining chair.

We have studied upholstered chairs, researched the literature, queried others in the trade, and experimented with materials and arrangements.

First, we had to choose the category of seat to develop.

Will the upholstery be on a panel that sits on the finished wood chair frame, will it be on a panel that drops into the chair frame, or will it be directly attached to the finished chair?  We chose to design a chair with a drop-in, upholstered seat, where the upholstery is an integral part of the sculpture.

Knowing the category of seat, we were ready to test.  We built a “fitting booth.”  The fitting booth has adjustments for the pitch of the elements and for the relationship of the upholstered seat to the lumbar support.  Since we are using our proven lumbar and upper back support, we have not had to develop those curves and surfaces, a big plus.

Chair Fitting Booth

Upholstery being a new medium for us, the fitting booth has been in the shop for months. Many friends and visitors have helped us find the way.

A fitting booth trial

Another fitting trial

Another fitting trial

How do we keep flesh from being compressed between bone and the wood of the upholstery frame without using so much cushioning that you feel “perched on top, rather than settled into?”  (This is a quote from a perceptive client helping us test.)

Concurrent with testing webbing and foam, we developed the upholstery frame shown below.  Note the sculpted relief and imagine the “settling into.”  There is relief at the front for your thighs.  There is relief at the back to locate your hipbones so that your lumbar is supported by the chair splats and to make room between bone and wood.

Upholstered Seat Frame

For the webbing over the frame and under the cushioning, what is the best material?  What is the best spacing and tension for it?

We ordered samples of webbing with different widths and flexibility and tried different spacing and tension.  In the photo on the left below, I am applying some webbing.  In the photo on the right, I am tearing out some webbing.  We could have taken many such photos.

Experiments With Webbing

What is the best density and thickness of foam for the cushion?

Again, we ordered samples.  We ordered various densities and thicknesses and tested them with different webbings.

Fitting Booth

I rigged up a way to test the difference in compression of latex and polyurethane foam with wood scrap and a bucket of bolts.

Testing Foam Seat Padding

Here is the booth with some of the materials we used for testing and some failed upholstered seats.

Fitting Booth

The typical upholstered frame used today is a piece of plywood with a hole cut in it and webbing over it.  We tried one of those early on, knowing it was not going to work, for when sitting back in such chairs, your tailbone is right over wood at the edge of the hole cut for the webbing.  In the top photo below, you can see the point of contact at the tip of Austin’s finger.  In the lower photo below, you can see the relief for tailbones that we have formed on our seat frame.  Sitting back in our chairs is essential to experience the comfort of the lumbar support, and they are designed to locate your hips and tailbone deep in the chair seat.

Unrelieved Seat Frame

Relieved Seat Frame

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Pecan Rockers Again?

In 1992, as I was designing the Weeks Rocker, I was considering what wood to build it out of.  Pecan appealed to me because I have spent many days under the trees, it is the state tree of Texas, and I thought chairs of it would appeal to my Texas clientele.  This was before the internet gave us a world-wide clientele.

Pecan is hard, strong, and tough.  Its heartwood can be a very lovely and variegated red-brown.  Pecan is difficult to dry without cracks and shrinks and swells more than most furniture woods.  The sapwood can be a very bland white.  There is much more sapwood than heartwood.  Most of the pecan lumber in the primary commercial channels is actually hickory.  Hardwood lumber rules allow them to be sold together.

For many years, I made rockers of pecan that were mostly of the red-brown heartwood with some creamy white sapwood carefully matched into the compositions.  I used exclusively pecan, no hickory, some from Texas, and some from Mississippi.  In Texas, supply was sporadic from small mills with often questionable drying and grading abilities.  The lumber from Anderson Tully in Vicksburg, Mississippi, a venerable mill with impeccable practices, was delivered dry and flat to a specification of 80% heart on the best face.

Early on, maybe 1993, we joined the Wimberley Chamber of Commerce.  Some folks came out for a ribbon cutting.

Ribbon Cutting

Overtime, I despaired of using Texas pecan because of the poor color selection, the poor drying performance of the mills, the presence of powderpost beetles in a couple of loads, etc.  One day, Anderson Tulley quit milling pecan in 2” thickness.

People still ask for pecan rockers from time to time.

Last week, Austin and I visited Swift Pecans.  Troy Swift harvests pecans, the nuts.  He has begun harvesting the trees that die along the San Marcos River.  We might be able to specify, and obtain, what we need for making some rockers from Troy.  There are still problems and inconveniences not present in cherry or walnut that I don’t miss, but we brought home a slab of pecan.  It might make two rocking chairs.

Pecan Slab

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Shoes to Fill

Aaron Jones came to work with us when we were building the shop and showroom, almost 14 years ago. He stayed on. He came as a carpenter’s helper and became one of the best craftsmen and leaders of production I have seen. He saved his money and bought 35 acres with a house and barn on the Sixes River in Oregon. He moved last week. We wish him well in this adventure, look forward to fishing the Sixes, and miss him badly already.

Aaron sawingAaron sawing

Aaron at work

Aaron at work 2

Aaron at work 3

Aaron at work 4

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A Batch of Mesquite Rocker Back Legs

Mesquite trees do not grow straight or tall. They tend to make multiple trunks and to make branches low to the ground.  They twist. Most mesquite trunks of 12″ in diameter or more have many radial cracks, i.e. cracks from the heart of the tree to near the sapwood.   Other cracks appear randomly. Knots and other defects are numerous. The grain runs in wild directions.

Therefore, it is difficult to find and produce sound and beautiful parts from cuts of mesquite wood. I would not use the term “lumber” for cuts of mesquite wood for “lumber” implies a structural integrity to the piece. We must search for a few parts in a sea of waste.

Recently, we received some mesquite wood that had been selected for us by the sawmill from a large volume of wood. At the mill, they used our patterns to find backlegs, but they did not understand our specifications and how strictly we adhere to our specifications. Hoping against certainty, we marked and milled this wood.

Austin re-marking backlegs — on a shipping day.

Austin re-marking backlegs

We sorted the legs that we developed into three categories, with the worst face up.

  • Top: Firewood
  • Center: Let us look again and maybe…
  • Bottom: We can use these.

Legs sorted

Firewood

Firewood

Looking again . . . These are firewood.

Firewood too

We can use four of twenty-four.

Four we can use

This was an unusually poor yield, but it is illustrative of the amount of waste and the rarity of good, sound mesquite worthy of fine chairs. The mill went through another mountain of wood and sent some better rough blanks. The backlegs that meet specification are in the kiln.

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Taking Photos of Rocker Making

We build rocking chairs in small batches, or runs, of 8-12, usually of the same species.  We are “running” walnut rockers now and taking photographs of the process.  Some of these photos will appear on this shoplog, some on the website, some in the catalog, some may be submitted for press of some sort, and some will molder in their digital shoe box.

A run of rockers usually takes 8-10 workdays to get ready to assemble, but the photography is drastically slowing us down.  The chairs have been underway for 8 days now, and we are about halfway.  It takes a while to decide what needs taking, choose the angle (figurative and literal), get the light right, remove the clutter, and find the depth of field and exposure — and then, and yet to come, the editing of hundreds down to … fifty?

Cell phone photos of taking photos:

taking photos 1

taking photos 2

taking photos 3

taking photos 4

taking photos 5

taking photos 6

taking photos 7

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Assembling a Standup Desk

We are building a small standup desk for a patron who found the new desk section of the website: http://www.garyweeks.com/desks.htm.

Gary Weeks Standup Desk

The frame of the desk was assembled in two days.  On the first, the two sides were glued.  This post features photos taken on the second day of assembly.

Assembling the Front and Back Rails to One Side Frame

glue up a desk

assembling a standup desk 1

assembling a standup desk 2

assembling a standup desk 3

Adding the Other Side Frame

assembling a standup desk 4

assembling a standup desk 5

assembling a standup desk 6

assembling a standup desk 7

assembling a standup desk 8

Clamping

assembling a standup desk 9

assembling a standup desk 10 assembling a standup desk 11

Driving the Wedges and Pins

The through tenons are wedged.  The blind tenons are cross-pinned.

assembling a standup desk 12

assembling a standup desk 13

assembling a standup desk 14

assembling a standup desk 15

assembling a standup desk 16

Washing the Glue from the Surface

We keep a bucket of water with a rag and old toothbrushes to scrub away the squeezed out glue.

assembling a standup desk 17

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A Fine Woodworker in France

In Semur-en-Auxois, Burgundy, France, I asked if there were any furnituremakers in town.  I was directed to the shop of Christian Boisseau.  He was just the man to see — competent, successful, and friendly.  I spent about an hour and a half with him in two visits.

(left) Christian with a door for a church restoration.  Note the molded and carved panel.Christian Boisseau(right) Christian with a set of patterns from a desk he built for his daughter.

Christian and his two employees build doors, cabinets, interior elements, and furniture, and restore such items. They integrate moldings, carvings, inlay, and marquetry in their work.  Everything is made to order.  By chance, they built the staircase in the house we had rented for the week.  The name of his business is le Meuble dans tous ses Etats (Furniture in all its Forms).  The website is http://www.lemeubledanstoussesetats.com/.  Have a look at the desk (patterns shown above), and its marquetry, on this home page.

In France, as in the US, fine woodworking is a demanding, and tough, business.  I told Christian that I couldn’t make it as a custom builder.  I don’t have the temperament; I tired of working all the time; and the margins are too slim.  I am glad to have a small catalog of items to build (and demand for them).  He said he could understand the appeal of that, but in his shop, they never build the same thing twice.  Knowing the demands of that and seeing the level of production in progress, I asked when he slept.  He often gets up at three or four.  Coincidentally, a friend and client dropped in to say, “He works all the time.”

The shop is about 3000 square feet and fully equipped with good machinery — very good, well-made machinery.  “Fully” equipped in two senses: they have what they need, and the building can hold no more.

The front of the shop.  They were enclosing the section to the left to place another machine.Front of shop

Shop interior

Shop interior

Shop machinery

They use a lot of recycled French oak.  French oak is fine.  French oak from 100 years ago is marvelous

The lumber storage was rudimentary and open to the damp Burgundy air, but they have an Italian made vacuum kiln.  Christian said the kiln would bring the moisture content of wood that had sat out or in the shed for months from 25% to 7% in four days.  My experience with vacuum kilns (Woodmizer) has not been good, but this machine was clearly well-designed, clearly well-made, and highly praised by its owner.  It made his work possible.  My photo of it turned out badly.

The lumber shed and stacks of wood.Lumber storage

Lumber storage

I asked Christian if he drew his designs to make proposals, and he brought out a big stack of drawings–beautiful, perspective drawings with line, shading, and color.  It was an impressive moment.  I remain impressed with the quality, clarity, and conception of these drawings.  I believe the drawings, and the perception and commitment illustrated by them, are key to his success.

Design drawing

Design drawing 2

Design drawing 3

Design drawing 4

I commented that there were no dimensions on the drawings and asked if he used full-size sticks or paper to develop dimensions and parts lists.  He does.  He had taped some paper to a bench and was working out the details of a piece, full scale.  Just as we do for our casegoods.

Paper design

Paper designChristian Boisseau and his wife.

Cabinetmaking and furnituremaking have historically been highly developed in France (with an apogee in the 16th and 17th centuries.  It was a pleasure to find that these skills still exist at a high level.  I could sense tradition and continuity.  It was a pleasure to find such a person.  I could sense character and judgement.

“Enfant, j’ai grandi dans les copeaux de bois que mon père faisait au cours de ses réalisations. Peu à peu, j’ai appris que le beau meuble vient en y mettant toutes ses convictions, toutes ses trippes. J’ai pris le temps de regarder les réalisations de mes pairs et j’ai finalement eu cette passion du beau meuble capable de traverser les âges.

J’aime écouter mes clients pour dessiner leur rêve et concrétiser une idée. Je dessine, puis je réalise les meubles à la mesure dans la tradition et dans le respect d’une qualité d’antan.”

Christian Boisseau

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