How it Begins

It started with a few lines of graphite on the first page of a plain drawing pad. I never use graph paper to draw on. Too many little squares and lines. I don’t need scale at this point, just my own lines and shapes. The shapeless moved from straight lines to curves and square angles of butt joints that are not joints just yet to carefully cut joints that created a perfect and permanent union to every intersecting part as above. This is not always how my designs begin, but some do! No matter. At some point they become drawings roughed out on paper. Mostly though, they actually begin in my head where none can see and I move the shapes in the way described without moving a muscle. I let my brain have sway and when the shape comes to me I pencil in the growing details of what I feel on the pad page. This alone is the genesis of my rocking chair design. It’s the point at which I reach for some wood and begin to lay out the concept. The rest is easy. I make!

For this design, I began from scratch. I did not consciously refer to any chair for a measurement but I did refer to my brain for a couple of things, stretch a tape measure into the air to look for measurement mark that jumped out of nowhere at me, and measured distances from elbow to a plank I sat on, things like that. What I am saying is I did not copy any shape or take a measurement from what already existed but from what did not yet exist I conjured up the swirls and twists until, after an hour or two, I can’t remember, I began to make my opening cuts into my wood.


Placing my final version in place in the living room actually took two months and three versions to complete. If I tried to make a living from that then I would likely die from starvation. Now that I have the completed design fleshed out into a completed, fully tested version, I could start to make a profit. This chair would likely take me 60 hours to conclude from rough-sawn planks and boards to buffing out the finish now that I have finalised every facet of the design and made the prototype. The actual prototype is my third one, the one made from cherry. This, the final-cut version, represents the full concept of my design with the first two holding within their frames the steps it took to get here. The actual prototype is the one created for others to follow.

Prototype (n): An original version formed in shape as a model from which others follow, original or primitive, from Greek, prototypon, from protos, first, and typos, impression, mold, pattern.

This final design becomes the standard by which others that follow can be made according to the pattern and plan. The efficacy of the design concept in the trials of versions is one part of the reason for a prototype. This engineering process tests out what is at first only the possibility of the design concept. By establishing a physical example, the shape can be created and tested for comfort, sizing and visual appearance. Other elements of the design concepts can then be fleshed out to prepare for the methods of construction, techniques for making and so on. This highlights other considerations leading to possible difficulties and perhaps problems that must be addressed ahead of time to prevent or reduce any risk of failure.

My first model came from 40mm by 68mm construction studs laminated together to get my sizes. The angles were from how I visualised they would look and feel from my experience as a maker-designer. This is the most difficult part to teach and pass on. There are those who design plans and those that make according to plans. My experience is that some people, not all, perhaps not many at all, can indeed design by visualisation–visionaries if you will, and those that cannot envision as in picturing something in their head. I have known many who can make with a drawing but cannot make according to the more nebulous mind’s eye. This is by no means any kind of criticism. It’s not different than some people being able to write music and compose and others being more limited to playing according to the score that was written for them to follow but no less gifted in their ability to play.

My first chair in designing the sellershome.com rocking chair for the house began with components screwed together but unglued. To say it was crude would be kind. Bent shapes in the mind are less easy to pull together at the bench and free-handing an arc, though much faster and very valid, can then be hard define in an actual drawing for others to follow. In rectangular blocks it is easy to align the components but gradually all components lose their angularity and become organically formed in a series of as yet undefined curves. Commitment becomes everything but it doesn’t really happen with accuracy on paper. In my own life perhaps I no longer need a paper version for me to make by. Perhaps I can make every one of them slightly or wildly different. Give them their own unique individuality, but that does not create the possibility of others making their way to making their own beautiful rocking chair.

Though that first chair was more a throwaway version intended as a stepping stone, by the time I had shaped it and shaved it to represent the final version it became a working rocker I had sat in it on and off for two months before the final cherry version was pulled together. It did necessitate making many joints within its framework to test out whether this or that joint would actually work. The screws in some cases represented and replaced the glue so that I could take things apart, tweak, shape, shave and put back together for trialing. It can be wearying.

Butt joints with screws will ultimately result in joint breakdown and especially is this so in chair construction where the rigours of daily use soon takes their toll. For testing out, this is fine. I decided to finish out the chair for use and replaced or added fastenings where I could not change the butt joint to a full M&T joint, hence my decision to paint the rocker midnight blue with shine-through to reds and lighter blues. When I made my first workbench stool design I did the same. I am still using the glued-together-and-screwed version even though I never used bolt fastenings of any kind. I am surprised that it is still totally functioning with no degrade at all. All I really needed this version for was to get the shoulder-line angles together. I sit at it most days to sharpen my saws. I am not a sit-down-at-the-bench woodworker. Not yet anyway-

So came the time to make the oak version which I did tweak further. This was the one I made in a few short days of 10 hours per day. Now I am testing out the joints, giving radii to my arches and laminations and such. Here, the design becomes definitive and uncompromising. Here, the design becomes ultimately and more intimately but not exclusively mine in that it is customised to fit the human form. I want my design to be shared with others. I don’t want others to buy my design, I want them to make it! It’s my first piece for sellershome.com. It is very, very special to me!

For making this rocking chair and hundreds of other pieces designed by me for teaching the craft go to woodworkingmasterclasses.com. We’ll train you and teach you as we have many a thousand everything you need to know to become a first-class hand tool furniture maker and woodworker!

24 thoughts on “How it Begins”

  1. I’m a great believer of “thought experiments” and sleeping on problems. I think the brain, in its deepest recesses, can work on problems independently of the rest of us. To awake with the answer is great.

    1. Great blog Paul. I agree with the Andrew on your process. Sometimes it’s better to sleep on it and not rush it.

      I’ve had revaluations in the morning and was so glad I waited.

      Like a great man said if you find a way to make your passion your livelihood, you’ll never work a day in your life.

      1. Thank you, James. It’s sometimes troubling to me that this quote more realises the modern dilemma that work just gets in the way of life. He changed the wording a little but all he, whoever he was/is, was really saying was what was said for centuries and that is, “Find your calling!” or, “What is your calling?” I never hear this anymore and no one discusses vocational calling for fear of that meaning vocational or manual training in the lesser levels of manual skills. Just when did woodworking and furniture making become a mere hobby for most? I know more graduates that would have given their right arm to become a skilled manual maker than do what they do sitting at their computers and watching their part of their world pass them by. Work has never changed. What did change was people’s path in getting to the first day they begin working. For most, it is some fake path of the belief that they can somehow postpone this day of choosing their job until they are in their twenties and that a degree from a university is somehow the magic qualifier to their safe and secure future in adulthood working. I don’t truly believe the shallowness of “make your passion your livelihood” quite cuts it and not many ever find this in life. In group audiences of 200 dozens of times, I have asked how many of them used their degrees once they graduated. In every case, I have seen perhaps a dozen or fewer hands go up. Asking how many would then choose the path of university had they known what they know now, a similar number of hands went up. Now the flaw in this is that I was addressing an audience of woodworkers who just loved woodworking. Being married to your craft by recognising this is your calling, which has nothing to do with earning money at all, is the single most critical factor in my view. If you have this, then you will make it through every struggle you meet including the difficulties of making a living from your craft. This seems to be today the last thing parents require of their children and teachers everywhere are more concerned about pumping kids through university to have what has been dubbed the university experience. Perhaps one day some leaders will see the difference between a real apprenticeship with a mentoring artisan and stacking shelves in a supermarket. I doubt that I will ever see that. Also, I see no difference between an apprentice paying the same £9,000 a year to a mentoring maker/master and their paying for a university degree at £27,000 over a three-year period or more and then never using that degree for anything they do into their future. This week I learned of a man who spent 5-6 years at university doing his Ph.D. and then shifting to do what he learned alone before he ever left school to become masterful at the craft of programming where he found his true calling.

        1. To find your calling you obviously need exposure to things that are worthwhile and an upbringing that allows you to go outside your comfort zone. Most people are overcoming the dysfunction of one or many generations.

          1. I often think that “comfort zone” should be rephrased as ‘control zone’. We become less comfortable with any possibility or probability that we might not be in a condition of total control vis-a-vis self-control but the externalisms more control us than our internal self constraints. Peer pressure is often brought to bear in almost all interactions we have in a day. Parents express and often extend pressure on their children to steer them in a way that they more want them to go rather than consider that something that’s deeper within their children that might guide them in their making choices responsibly in the sense of responding to their inner feelings. I doubt that most parents would consider becoming a manual worker like myself a better course for their children over attaining a degree from the discipline of attending say a recognised university. In my world this might make parents more dysfunctional than they might want to regard themselves. You know, it might be a waste of a good education to follow a path towards manual work if it can’t be termed by another name. I mean, it’s the difference between being a furniture maker and being a freelance studio designer/maker but both being one and the same. Parents and teachers like to boast about their children attaining a recognised degree and somehow a masters or Phd all the more identifies the parents within the realms of merit to be admired by more than just about anything you care to name. Additionally, security and success are two terms associated with attaining a degree whereas becoming a furniture maker or a leatherworker is less boastable or bragable to most parents.

      2. Rebecca De Carlo

        I go to sleep thinking of whatever and I wake up with a solution / design / idea. My brain seems to work better without me. But things end up good.

  2. I can very well relate with Andrew’s comment about the effectiveness of “sleeping on it.” Recently, I was creating a spice rack/chest for my bride and a good sleep produced the answers to several design dilemmas I was experiencing. Then, like Paul, the ideas were born on paper and ultimately became the finished product.

    1. And science has a way of claiming what we already know to tell us we were right all along, somehow! Except, I suppose, some say six hours, some say eight, some say more and some say less. Ignore them all. You sleep as you like and enjoy the day when you are awake. Trust your gut feeling to confirm what science tells you!

  3. What was the paint process on the prototype Paul? It looks great! Thanks for everything.

    1. It looks much like what he used for finishing the toolchest. He made two videos about it, ‘Finishing with chalkpaint’ (either on YouTube or Masterclasses). Chalkpaint and/or milkpaint, partly sanded through, then finished with acrylic (waterbased) varnish. Anyway, those two videos describe the technique, I think. If not, someone else will correct me, no doubt. Searching the blog for chalkpaint or milkpaint may give you more info too.

  4. Certainly enjoyed the narrative of building the prototype.
    When I was young my father had a set of popular mechanics books where he would find all sorts of plans to build things. A few years ago I saved those books from being discarded in the trash. It is amazing what is in that group of annals. The old pictures and illustrations dating from the thirties to the fifties are amazing to behold. Once, when sharing some time and space with my father he showed me his latest project. For the life of me I cannot remember what it was but what I do remember is that he did not build it from plans. He built from a picture he saw in a catalogue.
    I was amazed, he always seemed to build from plans. So I tried it and built some lap desks for my daughters ( they cherish them ). Next we needed a cabinet for a tv and stereo system and it came together mostly from my head and drawings. This project was done during a severe illness I was trying to recuperate from and it provided a welcome escape. Of course the joinery was not proper. I could not figure out how to support the carcass ( I think that is what it is called ), so It seemed to me that the idea of floor joists taken from house building, of course miniaturised, would work, and it did. Although It did not occur to me that I was making mortise and tenon joints to fit the joists, I did not know what those were. It is true, the mind and imagination plus some skills learned at work and from your father are priceless gifts. Some think those gifts wrought in the mind have just sprung into existence by themselves.

  5. Here is a creative process I learned in graduate school 50 years ago, and I still use it as a woodworker:
    1. Data gathering
    2. Intensifying frustration
    3. Renunciation
    4. Latency
    5. Insight
    6. Construction
    7. Goal
    This process works for any problem-solving situation.

  6. I tried to make a template for a chair back once. Just the bit from seat to shoulders. The curve was a copy of my spine in the best position. Once I had my personal posture shape the chair was extremely comfortable. I used very thin plywood and laminated it . I can`t remember how I made the original shape now. It must be a two man job. Answers on a postcard as they used to say .
    But how does a rocking chair work ? How is the balance achieved. A film last week about Margot Fonteyn the ballerina said she had perfectly balanced proportions. An easy customer for a rocking chair probably . Maybe rocking chairs are like bicycles . I would prefer a Dutch style sit up straight design

  7. mark leatherland

    Great, thanks for all of your hard work and dedication in doing all of this. It would be an awesome thing to be able to make a rocking chair, and something that i couldn’t begin to accomplish on my own but I reckon that i can follow your steps and produce something here. I certainly feel like I’m getting great value from my subscription!

  8. Roger Browning

    “He became bolder as he went.” A balanced tweak here, one there and soon the chair became him. No longer wood and glue, but now flesh, sweat and blood.
    Tempered with an humble pride of achievement.

  9. My creative process involves days or weeks of “thinking about it”. I get up late at night because I can’t sleep…my brain is too busy sorting out design ideas…I’ll go down to my workbench and either sketch the ideas for later, or if it’s a quiet (hand tool) activity, I may start working on shaping. It drives my wife crazy, but she understands this is how I process ideas.

    1. I’m afraid working as a full-time maker no such space of time exists. Being self-employed since the age of 25 (45 year6 years to date) and putting food on the table for a family of two adults and five children life becomes more a question of economics. Processing a design may take a week or so but I still make something to sell elsewhere as my designs take shape, but then I have to, had to, get in the saddle and make; if I didn’t, living and surviving on one income only for four and half decades, we would have gone hungry. Self-discipline is as much a part of the designer maker’s life qs the making itself. Anything else is a luxury I never had nor wanted.

  10. I rarely put my ideas on paper. However, either side of sleep I will make something in my head many times to think out different options, before I do it for real, or reject it. I remember a member of the SAS saying that when tortured he built a house in his head to distract his mind from what was happening to him. In my case I do it for pleasure.

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