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Just Another Chair

Spindled chairs are not complex. Not really. In fact, though they mostly look it, they are truly simple. The chairs most predominantly used in public places relying on chairs for seating (taking out plastic ones of course) are mostly made of turned components. The reason of course is that they re surprisingly strong, easily jigged for boring reception holes and the wood can be dried down to almost zero so that no further shrinkage after manufacture can possible take place meaning the wood will only expand into the holes long term. This method means that most restaurant and cafe chairs are not jointed chairs as joiners and furniture makers might know it, with angular shoulders set at 90-degrees and such but think rods into bored holes. This has to be the single most simple form of connecting one or more pieces of wood to another. You bore a hole and size the spindle. It fits and is driven home. By tapering the ends of the dowels slightly the leg, rails and spindles tighten as the bottom out in the round recesses.

Chairs made with spindles, no matter how the spindles are turned or rounded and no matter the shape, are mostly made up as a multi-dimensional wheel with spindles splaying out to form seat backs, arms and legs. Think of the seat as more a wheel hub. Seeing the spindle chairs this way marks the difference between jointed chairs and spindled chairs. I like such simplicity and seeing such practicality helps us to see the intrinsic strength, speed and easer of manufacture.

I bought this chair in damaged condition at auction for a few pennies – 50 pence I think. It is one of my favourites and it is a comfortable working chair. The features comprise a few twists and turns that came from the steamer to the former and then to the chair. The back of the frame is a continues 2″ by 1 1/4″ oak section bent to a half round U shape that’s then tenoned permanently into a front crosspiece member. Joinery as such is minimised. No more than ten minutes work I should say. The next bend comprises two bends in a single stick.Again looking complex but all. Then there is the back support crown:the bit with the hand hold in the topmost section.

Spindles on my chair are fairly rugged, not finer work at all, yet still I like it. It’s nice enough all round and also quite robust. English chairs like this have very upright legs rather than the splayed legs of say the American Windsor chair. This verticality increases the longevity but certainly looks less graceful. The question for me is who said, “less graceful” and what does it really mean?

9 Comments

  1. Tom Angle on 23 September 2019 at 2:25 pm

    Which bend or bends would they do first on the back support? I was thinking the part where your back rests on.

  2. John 2v on 23 September 2019 at 2:44 pm

    Fantastic……I seem to be able to pick up old chairs….a chapter in Charles Haywoods book talks about the mechanics of chairs
    I’ve just bought on freeserve 4 chairs for £10, all different, what on earth will I do with them? All old, well used.
    If I were starting building a home again I would not buy, or need to buy any new furniture….but Paul you have the chance to furnish/build your collection of daily items in your new house

  3. Michael Murphy on 23 September 2019 at 4:43 pm

    I had to laugh when you used the word “verticality”. You sounded like the language -challenged sportscasters of the media world. Verticality, a take off from the word physicality, which was actually used in Roman Empire days has that made up tone, but is actually a word. So I suspect that words which follow “form” will eventually flourish. We can get a head start by making our own. For those whose bodies succumb unfavorably to gravity there could be gravicatilty . For those people and objects who possess a plethora of curves be it appealing or not, you have curvacality. This could be a fun and entertaining endeavor to keep us ahead of the curve, (not to be confused with curvacality), unless of course, there are multiple curves ahead, then we can describe roads as such as well. Ahh, the list could be endless. Good information about these chairs, Paul. You always provide keen insights.

  4. Ed on 24 September 2019 at 1:48 am

    I like turning and have wanted to make spindle chairs, but I’ve come upon so many that are falling apart that I’ve held back out of concern that the form is intrinsically weak, at least if not built right. People say they are strong, but then there’s my pile of degenerate chairs. I can see the handplane marks under the seats of some, so those at least weren’t mass made.

    Here is my question which I’ve asked many people and none have been willing to answer: Is green wood mandatory? Those who seem to give the most details about construction rive green wood, then do various drying incantations, and orient radial and tangential grain just so. Can reliable chairs be made by sawing billets instead of riving and made from seasoned wood rather than green? And, when all that is said, can someone make a lifetime chair by teaching oneself, or are there critical tricks, like the drying you mentioned, that one just won’t know to do?

    I’m sure I can make a spindle chair that will stand for a few years. I have no confidence that I can make a spindle chair to put my name on, sell, and back with my reputation. I’d do that with mortise and tenon, but there’s the stack of failed spindle chairs I’ve seen….

    I’m not trying to argue or contradict you, but I’ve tried to find this info for several years now. Is there a reliable resource that describes spindle chair building, preferably a book older than 50 years so that it’s more likely to be solid?

    • Paul Sellers on 24 September 2019 at 7:45 am

      This is a good question David. Worth a blog. I’ll do it.

  5. Ed on 24 September 2019 at 11:11 pm

    Thank you! Very much looking forward to it.

  6. John Cadd on 1 October 2019 at 12:30 am

    On a classical guitar forum I offered an idea for a guitar chair for playing with both feet on the floor to avoid back pain . The chair was an old damaged spindle chair with loose back rails and a lower damaged cross rail . I removed the top rails and mended the bottom rail .Then I screwed a wooden bar beneath the seat (centrally ) emergeing between the legs . Added a mortice and tenon glued joint at 45 degrees sloping towards where the guitar would be . Then added a padded guitar support.
    at the sort of angle your leg would be if a footstool was used .
    That`s it in a nutshell . But one reader ——-insisted on a photo . I refused as it takes no imagination to imagine a chair and one simple glued joint.
    So if anyone wants to recycle a damaged old chair , you might find a market for it in the classical guitar community . Just include some height adjustment (nuts and bolts ) for different sized players / guitars .
    Why did I remove the back rails ? It`s easier to sit on without climbing over the guitar pad .
    For Paul , using a stopwatch and his offcuts it would not cost a lot of pennies .

  7. Stan Stevens on 1 October 2019 at 1:11 am

    The chair in your blog is a perfect twin, even to the padded seat, of one that I inherited from my Great Grandfather, who used it when he was a reporter for the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City, Nevada. That was in the 1870’s. The chair is still usable although we no longer allow anyone to sit on it.

  8. D. J. Quigley on 1 October 2019 at 1:45 am

    That spindle chair photo certainly took me back, we salvaged several from the soon to be torn down pool hall/dance hall/& bowling alley my great grandfather built around 1900 in San Francisco. Ours were nearly identical to yours except for being unpadded, and having X-pattern wire and nut tensioners through the legs (likely not original); possibly added to extend the chair’s useful life under pool hall conditions. I remember the Johnson’s Wax and bristle brush [or fine steel wool] cleanup that revealed that beautiful oak grain.

    I would be pleased to see more detail on the making of these great chairs.

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