Designing a Ladderback Dining Chair

While we were working on our upholstered chair design, (a long and involved process, see previous post), Austin noticed the obvious: We could relatively quickly design a ladderback dining chair as a variation of the chairs we have already developed. That is: Knowing the curving plane that is comfortable to and supportive of one’s back, we could find an arrangement of horizontal pieces (the ladder), use our existing seat, and have a comfortable chair with a new look. Looking at various arrangements, we were pleased at the support and comfort that these pieces could provide. But we could not quickly decide what would look the best. So we are posting the photos below (here and to Facebook) and asking for comments. We have never asked for comments before and don’t know if it is proper, but it may be a way to obtain the results one would get from a focus group.

The photos are cell phone snapshots of rough mockups, so imagination is required.

Which of the chairbacks below is most appealing to you?

Do you have any comments, general or specific?

Ladderback chair designs#1                                                   #2                                                     #3

Ladderback chair designs 2#4                                                      #5

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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:

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



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:

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


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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