National Pi Day

This morning, I heard a piece on the radio about National Pi Day featuring a mathematicians speaking of pi and its utility. He said there could be no technological sophistication without calculations involving pi: no automobiles, no space flight. I realized there would be no Weeks Rocker, or any of the chairs we build or plan to build. Or at the very least, they’d be hard to build and likely wouldn’t fit together so well. This is a great day of celebration.

Our chairs, comfortable chairs, are forms of curves and profiles that come together, and fit, at critical points. These points and the relationship between the mating parts cannot be easily described in a way that makes the making of the chair a relatively simple process of precision rather than a more lengthy and haphazard one of “cutting to fit.” But by taking a section (finding a plane) within the solid form, mapping tangents to curves, and solving triangles using pi (and trigonometry), we can build very exact jigs, fixtures, and tools to make parts that meet in space, surface to surface, glue-line tight. I love pi.

This week, I was designing a curved bench for a patron. To find the number of slats in this drawing, I used pi to find the length of the arc described by the intersection of the seat and back slats — a simple use of the formula: circumference = pi times diameter. The drawings are handy enough to post here.

End elevation of bench

Section -- center of all benches

Plan view of curved benchPi calculations for curved bench

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Conference Room Furniture

The West Texas Rehabilitation Center provides a range of health care services and have since 1956. The mission of this non-profit “is to improve the quality of life of those we serve regardless of financial circumstances.” Over the last decade, we have given several rocking chairs for the annual fundraising auction. They are building a new headquarters in San Angelo. A member of the staff asked us to make a proposal for the furniture of the conference room. He gave us a floor plan drawing showing a 12 foot long, boat-shaped conference table, two buffets, and a wall of base cabinets with book cases above.   In addition, seating for 14 is needed. Mesquite is the wood of choice — for it is the tree, the scourge, and sometimes the delight of West Texas.

The budget is limited. WTRC is dedicated to spending for service, not administration. We can give and we will. But our best and their most dictated fewer pieces and a few compromises to features. The wood will be a mix of mesquite and red oak. (Red oak grows around too.) We won’t be building the mesquite, red oak, and leather rolling office chairs I sketched, only a couple of side chairs for overflow. The wall of cabinets will be simpler. The table will be simpler than our original notion as well. But that table will be the centerpiece of their organization and a challenge for this one.

Drawings made for the proposal:

conference room floor plan

conference table elevation

conference room bookshelf elevation

conference room buffet

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The New Website

Our website presents our work to the world. Most of our patrons find us in a websearch. We built a website early, 1998 or so.   Jim Fish, able webmaster, has managed it since 2000. We have made changes to its structure from time to time and have added to it continuously. We were still hearing compliments on the site, and it was working well enough, but by the beginning of 2014, it needed a major remodeling.

As I dug into the site, it began to remind me of a 100 year old farm house that had been added on to ten times by farmers of varying ability. It was necessary to tear down most of it and begin at the foundation. Here we had a choice to make: Should we continue to build a site from “scratch” using HTML code or should we use a template/content management system, as most sites are now using. We chose to stay with HTML — the more laborious method, but the method that permits a wider latitude of graphic control and, we hope therefore, enables an individual and distinctive presentation.

Simpler navigation, new categorization of products, consistent elements, more and better photos, clearer text — these were the goals. The tasks were myriad. I found that much of the tailoring of the presentation required an analysis of the business: its priorities, costs, and organization. New photos had to be taken and the photo archive had to be excavated, culled, and ordered. More than the site has been refreshed.

I wrote sentences, edited photos, and chose other elements to send to Jim with suggestions for placement. A quick count shows 517 emails, 97 word documents, and 600+ photo files sent to him from June 9 to December 26–the time it took. We also talked on the phone almost daily.

2014 remodel folder

This is a photo of Jim’s file of notes taken from email, word doc, and phone.

The process generated the thought that a two page, print friendly, catalog sheet of each product would serve the clientele well. And then I realized that these sheets will be our catalog of the future — easily maintained and changed. We have printed several versions of catalogs over the years, catalogs that were very nice in your hand, but shortly after ink hits paper one sees something to change — now we can.

The site at launch was 230 pages with 1,278 photo and 81 graphic files. Please have a look. (Note: if you have been to a page on the site recently, you may have to click your refresh button to see the latest version.)

The new homepage

The new homepage.

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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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