Chair building is what I do. Oh, I’ve made a lot of other sorts of woodworking projects in my career, but my specialty is making chairs and benches (and, of course, tables that the chairs are suited to). Those of you who know a bit about woodworking, and specifically understand how challenging chairs can be to build, may wonder why I would choose to make chairs my main gig. Sometimes, I wonder why, too. In addition to the truism that good, solid chairs are hard to build is the corollary that attractive chairs are challenging to design. It is so easy to over- or underbuild, for the chairs to turn out clunky or spindly. And if that was not enough, even if a chair looks beautiful and is as sturdy as the Rock of Gibraltar, if it is uncomfortable, all the aesthetics and strength are all for naught.
But like I said, building chairs is what I do. These chairs were designed and made on commission, like most of my furniture. In this case, the client had a large black walnut in their backyard which had to be cut down. They had the tree cut up into lumber, and that is when they contacted me.
After the design was agreed upon, I began by selecting lumber for the seats, the component that literally holds the chair together. When you have a whole tree’s worth of lumber, that task is a bit daunting. The surfaced 8/4-boards (2″-thick) that would compose the seat blanks needed to be more than 8″ wide so that I could glue up the blank to a minimum of a 17″ wide piece.
As these seats are one of the main visual components of the chair, I took great care to select stock that had attractive grain that would be complemented further as I shaped the chair seats. Cut the pieces to 18-1⁄2″ lengths and then glue up the seat blank, taking care to align the pieces as perfectly as you can. After the glue cures, cut them to the exact size, and then sand them flat, up through 220-grit.
The next step is forming the notches that will accept the legs. I find that the openings for the front legs are most easily cut using a crosscut jig on my table saw. I clamp a stop block in place that locates the first cut, to make the back cut of the notched opening. If you are making more than one chair, as I did in this case, go ahead and make all the corresponding cuts on all the seat blanks. Following that, reset your stop block so that you can make the forwardmost cut of the leg mortise. Once you have made all those cuts, nibble out the waste to complete the opening. I clean up any tiny grooves or unevenness created by the nibbling process by paring the surface smooth with a sharp chisel. But here is an important point: because I used a saw blade that cuts a flat bottom in its kerf, I have very little cleanup to do — which makes the whole process more accurate.
Now it’s time to form the notches on the rear “corners” of the seat. The seat’s shape will not remain rectangular. But the good news is, right now you will be working with the squared-up blank. I attach a large support board to my table saw’s miter gauge with screws and, once again, clamp a stop block to be certain of an accurate cut.
There is a 15° splay to the rear legs, so I set the table saw blade at 15° before I cut. These notches come out clean with the second pass, so it’s a faster process.