LONG TIME IN THE MAKING
That Stickley guy may actually have a feel for ergonomics.
SHOP OWNER: Mike Fitterling
LOCATION: Lake Wales, FL
The story of this Morris chair starts a few years ago. I had wanted to make furniture for our restored 1914 house that would fit the era it was built. I also love Craftsman-style furniture, which was very popular at the time our home was built. I do not usually slavishly follow plans, but this time I wanted one piece that was authentic. I got a Dover book of plans, taken right from the pages of Gustav Stickley's ‘The Craftsman Magazine’ and discovered this chair. This design is from about 1907, close enough for the period of our house.
I milled up most of the parts of the chair years ago, with the exception of the back posts and legs. I had run out of quarter-sawn oak at the time. Before I could get my hands on more, Hurricane Charley blasted through here and left our house badly damaged. My priorities changed, and for the next three years all my energy was devoted to repairs of the house, tearing down our old damaged garage and building a new one, and repairing parts of the shop that were hit with flying debris. Luckily, the shop interior was intact and dry, and there these milled parts lay, until recently when I decided to get back to building the chair. This shot shows the initial pile of milled wood.
Now I turned my attention to making the legs and back posts. The back posts were not difficult, I just needed to mill some oak to width and length and then cut a taper on the bandsaw and round the tops. The legs were another matter; I went round and round in my mind about how to approach them. Usually on these chairs people want face grain showing on all three sides, so the figure of the quarter-sawn oak is evident all around. Most of the time a lock miter bit is used in conjunction with a router table. I decided, however, to go another route. I made up these parts of the legs. When glued together, and a chamfer is run down the length of each corner, the seam is hidden by the margin of the chamfer. Although this worked very well, be prepared to have many clamps on hand.
Here the legs are in glue up. Notice that the legs are hollow.
Once out of the clamps, I glued and drove square stock, milled to fit the cavities, down into the legs far enough to reach to the location that the rail mortises would be made, so there would be solid wood there. I also drove shorter pieces into the bottom of the legs to seal the ends. This resulted in almost solid legs, with only small hollow areas between the rails and the feet.
Then, of course, I had to mortise the legs to receive the rail tenons. I did this with my benchtop mortiser equipped with an X-Y vise.
The rail tenons on the front legs intersect, so part of the ends of the tenons had to be mitered to avoid contacting each other. The easiest way was to simply get out a handsaw and cut those sections out.
Here is the result. You can also see that I back-cut the cheeks so when clamped and glued a very tight fit is assured. I back-cut all the tenons on this project, even all those itty-bitty spindle tenons.
Here is the very first dry fit. Dry fitting proved to be very important with this project. Making sure that the leg tenons lined up perfectly with the through mortises in the arms was tricky as all the spindles had to also line up with their corresponding mortises on the underside of the arm. It took some tweaking of the shoulders of the rail tenons to get the fit right.
Here you can see the multiple mortises to receive the spindle tenons. There is no top rail supporting the arm, and the bottom side of the arms are mortised to receive the spindle tenons.
And here are the spindles, ready to go.
And now a second dry fit to assure that everything is right before it gets glued.
Next, I turned my attention to the arms. There is a bar that runs across the back to support the back assembly in three different positions. This bar fits into these notches and there are corresponding notches in the ends of the bar. All that’s needed is a little handwork here. A diagonal cut to establish the sides of the notches, and then chop out the rest.
Final glue up.
Now that the chair frame was complete it was time to think about finishing. I wanted an authentic look and had always been interested in fuming, so it seemed like the perfect time to try it. I got an old bottle of ammonia from a draftsman friend that now uses a plotter to do his prints. I assembled this tent out of scraps I had and some sheeting and tarps on the shop deck. A shallow pan under the seat will hold the ammonia.
The chair goes in the tent. Then it gets buttoned up for a day, another, and another. Each day I would cut a small hole in the plastic and peer in. It seemed to take a long time to make much difference. Perhaps the ammonia from my friend had partly evaporated and was not as strong as it used to be, or maybe it just took this long. It also was not very warm during the fuming time, so perhaps this also affected the length of time it took. After three days, I finally pulled the chair out. Not as dark as I thought it would get, but it still looked nice.
Unfortunately, during this time it had also rained, and some of it leaked into the tent. As the water dripped onto the chair it apparently was mixed with ammonia fumes, and I found these stains on one arm. I was pretty disappointed, but luckily with a little sanding the stains were almost indistinguishable from their surroundings, although I could probably still find them if I looked hard enough.
Here is a piece of unfumed quarter sawn white oak held up against the fumed white oak when the chair came out of the tent. You can see the difference is not that dramatic, but a day later, when I went out to the shop, the chair was considerably darker. A swipe with some mineral spirits revealed that the color was going to be what I was hoping for.
Here is the raw chair, now out of the tent.
Next, I rubbed on several coats of Minwax poly, thinned 50/50 with mineral spirits. The initial coats are gloss followed by a final coat of satin. Once dry, I wove the Dacron cord (Dacron does not stretch like nylon) through the holes I had made around the supports glued inside the rails. I had chamfered both sides of each hole with a brace and a chamfering bit so the rope would not have a hard corner to chafe against and wear. Here is the chair, finished except for cushions.
I jobbed out the leatherwork to an upholsterer, which ran about $385. I had quotes all over the place from this price to over $700 just for materials. Part of the expense is having to buy an entire hide, but this project took almost a full one anyway. If I plan it right, I have enough scrap left to just be able to make a footstool at a later time. While on the cost of materials, I would hazard a guess that the wood required for this chair ran around $400, but that is a wild guess because it was so long between starting and finishing this project. So the total cost was probably somewhere between $600 and $800. Wood here in Florida is usually much more expensive than other places, so the cost may be a couple hundred less elsewhere.
I also found that most of these Craftsman designs require thicker stock. There is not much in this chair made from 4/4 stock, probably only the spindles and the back slats. The rest required 6/4 material or thicker. I plan to do more Craftsman style furniture for the house, so I won't make the mistake of ordering 4/4, but will make 80% of what I get 6/4.
I did wander from the original design a bit. The original plans called for legs a few inches shorter. That seemed awful low to me, so I added some to the leg length. Now that it is complete, that Stickley guy actually may have a good feel for ergonomics. The chair sits a bit high; my wife's legs don't quite reach the floor, but mine will. I will live with it for a while and see how I like it. I figured from the start that I could take off some length later if need be, but not add any, so I still have the option of reducing the seating height if I want to. On the other hand, the longer legs do give the chair a visual lightness that seemed to be missing in the original plan. Another thing I learned was that the cushion thicknesses called for in the Stickley plans were probably the result of not having the modern materials we do now. I expect the original stuffing would make the cushions settle down thinner after a while than they are with the stiffer modern and firm foam the upholsterer used. I could still have the cushions altered I suppose, but I will wait and see how they feel over time. I would have made the cushions thinner than the plans called for if I was to do it again. However, the chair is comfortable, so I am not in a rush to make alterations to its cushions.
Finally, here is the finished chair. I like the symmetry of the figure on the arms and the inclusion of the sapwood on the sides. Now, I finally have my "man chair" as my wife calls it, to sit in when I read or edit. I hope any of you wanting to try a Morris chair will be encouraged to try your hand at it, and that this little story will help you foresee some of the issues with which you might have to deal when building one.
. . . Mike Fitterling