At Last, a Morris Chair, Part 1

When I started woodworking, as in really serious furniture making, my #1 bucket list piece to build was a classic Stickley Morris chair. Something about this chair called to me, and I felt that getting to the point of being able to build it would be a significant point on my woodworking path. But since then, I've built larger and more complex pieces, with that chair in always in the back of my mind. This past spring, I finally got the chance to check that one off the list. 

My friend and fellow woodworker Brett got his first big commission to build a Morris chair, and as we were sharing a shop at the time, I couldn't resist the chance to build one too. Scores of woodworkers have made this chair before me. Not just scores, zillions, It's a classic, icon design, and many are drawn by the same charms that I succumbed to. And it's not that it is a masterfully difficult piece to build, but it has it's challenges. There are also many, many, many variations on how to build one, both in design choices, and construction methods. But in my mind, this is a standard bearer of what I like about being a woodworker, and what appeals to me about the Craftsman style aesthetic. It's both simple, and elegant. It is plain, but with subtle proportions that speak to a strong, solid form. I set out to build a up reproduction Gustav Stickley #369 Morris Chair. I took a lot of direction from Bob Lang's article in Popular Woodworking #189 from April 2011, as well as from his blog post on it. When it was all said and done, or mainly done, It came out fantastic. Did I mention it is comfortable too?

I'll run through the build sort of quickly here, for you woodworkers out there that like that sort of thing.

As it's a reproduction, the style calls for using quarter sawn white oak. Again. I'm getting pretty used to QSWO. Good thing I love it. i've seen plenty of "modern" revision of the Morris chair in other woods (cherry and walnut look the best), but nothing works nearly as well as good old white oak. 

enough legs for two chairs

The build started with the legs. And a hallmark of the style is to make quarter sawn grain appear on all four sides of the legs, but adding veneers to two of the faces. Then it was on to milling the rails/stretchers, and side slats. The sides are where one of the first complications in this build arises. At first glance, the side assemblies look like simple square "ladders". Where the top arm is an obvious slat front to back, the bottom rail also is at an angle, and is about 3/4" lower in the back than in the front. The means the shoulders of the bottom rails where they meet the legs are angled. and all the shoulders on the bottom of the slats are angled. Each slat is a slightly different length. And then there's the angled shoulder for the through tenon where the back leg meets the slanted arm. There is a lot to consider.

After the sides are assembled, the two sides are joined by two beefy stretchers. These stretchers, like the bottom side rails, feature pegged through tenons, a feature I enjoy making a lot. The pegs are draw bored to pull the shoulder's tight, then trimmed off and chiseled flush.

The next challenge are the slanted arms. They are slightly "hockey stick" like in profile, with a bend near the top of the arm. This was one of coolest details of this build to make. The technique is to take a straight arm, and then cut an end off at the desired angle, then glue the cutoff onto the bottom side of the arm, resulting in a "bend"...

Once you've made that very tricky cut, re-glued the cutoff, and smoothed it out, it looks absolutely seamless, with the glue line disappearing. The grain direction matches perfectly, and the result is very cool.

The arms need through mortises cut to fit the tenons on the side assemblies, one is straight, and the other is angled. These have to be snug, and very clean on the top where they are not only visible, but a focus detail. People who sit in the chair look at and feel these through tenons, looking at how they stick up from the arm. This detail says a lot about how the chair is made, and is a great example of how the Craftsman style's exposed joinery really works to communicate the design and feel of the piece. A lot of trial and error is required to sneak up on the fit. In the gallery below, you'll see an image of a mortise where there's a chip taken out of the arm. That was where I had a slip of the chisel. I fixed it by glueing in a sliver of matching material and blending it in. Once fit, the arms are glues to the side assemblies, and the build is two thirds done.

The last part to be built is the back assembly. This consists of a series of curved slats mortised into two stiles. The curved back slats are made by making bent laminations, dried on a bending form. First, thin 1/8" strips are made, then they are glued together again, while clamping them to a form that makes the desired shape. Brett and I tried a few different methods to get there, but we found a good methods and applied it to the rest of the build. This required lots of clamps, lots of glue, and we could only do one or two a day. So we started making these parts at the beginning of the build, and kept at it as we worked on other parts.

With the slats made, the last tricky bit was to cut square tenons on each of the slats. This took some careful layout, but in the end, all it took was laying it out, and cutting to the line. Then the slats were glued and draw bore pegged in place.

The back is attached to the chair with a few loose dowels and pegs, which allow the back to tilt, and the slant of the back to be adjusted. This was a fun detail to make, and allowed me to have a little time at the lathe. There's also a wooden washer or spacer for each of the pivot pegs. I opted for octagonal pegs, but these could be round or even square. Then a couple of cleats to support the seat frame were added, and I build a simple pine frame for the cushion.

Next up is finishing and upholstery.

Prairie Sofa and Love Seat, Part 3

The end of my last post said "Part 3 coming soon", but that was back in April, and the sofa and love seat were completed back in May/June. Since then, I've been waiting to get some nice photography of the pieces before finishing the series. Because they were so large, and I'd already put them into my house, it was hard for me to do the photography well. Luckily, a friend of mine is a great photographer, and he came over with fancy lights, cameras, and other equipment, and he went at it for an an afternoon taking some excellent shots. Once he had the shots, it then took a while for him to edit and color correct them, etc. And pretty soon, it was September.

Sometimes, I just don't feel like posting and tweeting and promoting my woodworking - I just feel like woodworking. I also have a very linear mindset when it comes to working on projects. Although I've completed quite a few other (smaller) projects since the sofa and love seat, I didn't want to post about those until this big post series was finished. And thus the reason for the blogging delay.

Here's the result of all that waiting...

Photo by Marcus Mader.  Sofa and love seat by me!

Watching my friend Marcus ( work was a great experience, and I learned a great deal. Developing (pardon the pun) my photography skills for the purpose of taking furniture pictures is one of my goals for the next year.

So how did the last part of the build go? In my previous post, I'd left off at pre-finishing the side assemblies. After doing all the work to get all those 206 spindles ready, the glue-up for the sides was relatively easy. Each side was glued in the mortise and tenon joints, and the spindles were just friction fit in place – no glue. I was a little concerned that any loose spindles might move, or seem loose, after assembly, but the dry fit put that fear to rest. In fact, the cumulative tension of all those spindles made pulling them apart difficult, which was a good sign.

A side assembly glue up

With the side assemblies glued up, it was time to put the backs and front rails together for each piece. The backs were just like the side assemblies, but longer. During the side assembly glue ups, I had learned a technique to ease in the little tenons of each spindle in the the mortises. After placing all the spindles in the bottom rail, I then put the top rail on, starting from left to right, with a clamp securing the end on the left side, and a looser clamp on the far right side. I then carefully seated each spindle, often with the help of a "spindle comb" jig I created, and sometimes with a little brass hammer. I would tap each one into place as I advanced to the next, slightly tightening the clamps as I went. That was great practice, and made doing the longer back pieces much easier.

Each back was put together with the top & bottom rails, and the spindles, in place, ready to go into the sides. But before I could assemble that, I had to prepare the front rails. The front rails had to be tied in to the side legs very securely, as there is only the single rail spanning the sides, not two rails, like the back. For that joint I added drawbore pegs to the joint. I've described it before, but it's an old technique to help pull a mortise & tenon joint together tightly using some offset holes for wooden pegs. 

With all that figured out, I was finally able to assemble the sides, front and backs. Hooray! They now almost sort of started looking like a sofa and love seat, and not just pile of lumber.

It was on to adding the corbels (the decorative vertical curved pieces on the sides of the legs). These fit into a shallow stopped dado, and were glued in place. You can see them attached to the love seat in the photo above, while the sofa is still waiting to have them added.

I was ready to add the arms, but before I could do so, I needed to get the upholstery process underway, so that could be prepared while I finished the arms. I had to attach cleats to the inside of each piece, and then build a frame that the fitted seat would attach to. The frames would then go to the upholsterer. Building the frames and cleats went quickly, as no finishing was required and none of the surfaces would be visible in the final piece. The cleats were just screwed to the rails, not glued (on the off chance that they might need to be adjusted later), and the frames were just simple mortise and tenon frames built to the upholsterer's specs.

Finally, I could get to building the broad, flat arms. The wood for these pieces needed to have the best grain pattern, as they would be the most visible part of the design. I'd saved some really nice cuts for these, and was happy to be working with them at last. The tricky part of these is that the arms are 7" or so wide, and need to meet in broad miter on the corners. This miter was going to be tricky, not only because it was so visible, and thus had to look perfect, but I was also concerned that it would be fragile and prone to cracking if the wood moved. But, that's how the original was designed, and is still made today. I took great pains to lay out the miter cuts precisely, and cut them with a hand saw, and trimmed the to fit with a plane. For a little reinforcement, and to help with alignment, I used biscuits on the joints to proved more glue surface. The glue up required a lot of clamping, and I had to make a series of clamping jigs and cauls to apply pressure on the right places. But slowly, all four joints came together.

The arms were now glued up, and it was back to doing pre-finishing on them before assembly. To attach the arms, they are simply glued to the base, so I had to mark and mask off the glue surfaces on the underside of the arms where they meet the base. This was tedious, but went well.

It was at this point I discovered I had made a mistake. On one each of the arms of both the love seat and sofa assemblies, I had incorrectly cut the miter angle. It resulted in the arms of the sofa being 1/2" too narrow, and the love seat being 3/8" too wide, when compared to the width of their respective backs. 

Drawing showing how the incorrect angle on one of the arms makes the whole assembly out of whack

Drawing showing how the incorrect angle on one of the arms makes the whole assembly out of whack

This was a bummer, and I had a choice to make. I could just leave it as is, slightly moving the arm assemblies over, and the discrepancy would have been hard for anyone to ever notice. Or, I could break the incorrect joints apart, and re do them. I knew it would bother me forever if I didn't do it right, and I could take it as an opportunity to learn how to fix a major error like this. So I did the latter, and broke the joint along the glue line. While I was relieved that the joint seemed pretty strong, it wasn't too hard to break it cleanly. I knew it would break along the glue line, as it was an end grain to end grain joint – the weakest type of glued joint. With the errant arms broken off, I then proceeded to cut the angle on the arms correctly, cleaned it up, and did a dry fit until it fit just right. Of course, re-glueing the joint meant that the masked off glue locations on the underside of that arms were now in the wrong place, so they had to be sanded down to bare wood, re-dyed, and re-finished. This mistake added many hours to the build. But in the end, I fixed it properly. I am now very glad I stopped, fixed it, and made it right. Learning to overcome those sorts of discouragements and press through them is as important a skill as any chiseling, planing, or finishing.

Re-gluing the corrected joint

With the arms now finished, I glued them to the bases, finally seeing the whole pieces more or less in their final form. One benefit to doing all that pre-finishing is that any glue squeeze out, and there was some, was very simple to remove. The glue doesn't stick the the shellac finish, and it just pops off with a little pressure from a wooden spudger or a fingernail. After the squeeze out was cleaned up, I applied a few coats of shellac to the assembled piece to blend all the pre-finished elements together. And finally, I applied a coat of dark brown paste wax with 0000 steel wool, and buffed it out with a cotton rag to a nice, matte glow. This last step was pretty time consuming, as the final assembled piece had a lot of surface area, and many nooks & crannies. But the wax makes it look great. When that was done, all that was left to do was to wait on the upholstery.

The upholstery was being done be an excellent local upholsterer, Kylie Egge of Recovered Interior. I went with a medium covered mottled leather with a slight texture. To get the upholstery right, we had to do things in two steps. First, they had to make the fitted bottom seat, and place that frame onto the rails in each piece. Seconds, with the seats in place, they could measure for the sizes of the side and back cushions. A few weeks later, the side and back cushions were delivered, and they fit like a glove. It was really amazing to see this all finally come together. It was also the first time I had worked with an upholsterer (and it won't be the last!), and just like with the photography, it was fun to share my project with a craftperson from another trade.

With the upholstery in place, it was time for the most important test - sitting in them. It's funny, because throughout the course of this whole build, I really had no idea if this furniture was going to be comfortable or not. I'd seen pictures of other prairie style sofas before, and it was a respected traditional design, but for all I knew, they could be terrible to sit in. But to our great relief, they are a delight to use. Since early June 2015, we've been using them every day, and couldn't be happier. 

Here's a gallery of the excellent photos by my friends Marcus and Pete, and few photos showing them at work ...

And that concludes the story of the prairie style sofa and love seat build. This was a major bucket-list project for me, and I'm proud of the result. We're thrilled every day at having these in our home.

The wife, and cat, approve!

Prairie Sofa & Love Seat, Part 1

I've always loved the iconic L. & J. G. Stickley No. 220 Prairie Sofa. As the pair of sofa and love seat in our own living room have aged, and as my skills as a furniture maker has increased, I knew this day would come. This is going to be large build, as it is two pieces of large furniture that I'll be building at the same time. Space in the shop is going to get tight. Although these are once again reproductions, I'll make changes where it suits me. The first obvious change is that Stickley never originally produced a love seat version of the sofa. The love seat is a more modern type of furniture. The modern Stickley company still sells the sofa today, and has made a love seat version as well.

Generally, this build is pretty straight forward; three frame and panel sides, a front stretcher, seat frames, and then upholstery. There is also an alternate variation in the construction of the piece; instead of frame-and-panel for the sides, another popular variation is one that uses lots of little vertical slats, or square spindles, in place of the panels. I am still considering this option. 

This is the first piece(s) that I'll be working with an upholsterer on, and I'm pleased to have found a great local shop to work with on that. The pieces can be upholstered with either leather, or fabric, but I'm leaning towards leather.

The materials are going to be classic quarter sawn white oak; an old friend of mine by now. And speaking of old friends, I'm thrilled at how the material part of this is going. An old friend of mine, and fellow woodworker, David, works for the University of Chicago, and is involved with their urban lumber reclamation processes. Basically, when a tree on the universities property needs to be taken down, instead of being chipped, he helps make sure it is harvested for lumber. For the harvesting and, milling, and drying part, he works with one of my favorite local lumber suppliers, Horigan Urban Forest Products. When I was looking for the lumber for this build, David let me know that they were selling a lot of quarter sawn white oak they had on hand from a tree that had been harvested and milled in the summer of 2013. The price was right, so I jumped at the chance. David even had photos of the tree being removed.

Thank you David, the U of C, and Horigan UFP!

I picked up about 100 board feet of these great planks this week (with the help of another fellow woodworker, Brett), and they're now filling up the shop, ready to start the rough milling process. I'm excited about this on so many levels; excited for the end product, and the chance to work with others on making this a reality.

Stay tuned for part 2.

Medicine Cabinet for a Bathroom

On the second floor of our house, there is a small half-bathroom. It had long been in need of being refurbished, and now that we had re-arranged things, and were using the adjoining room as our master bedroom, the time had come. I went for a simple re-design. We had some left over solid oak flooring from our kitchen remodel, and that fit the space nicely. I used some simple pine beadboard millwork for a wainscot, finished with amber shellac. I had to make a soffit to cover the plumbing stack. I did have to move some electrical around, and installed a three light sconce. I even got fancy and installed an old-timey push button light switch. Followed with a coat of paint, it all came together nicely. But the piece de resistance, and an excuse to get woodworking involved, was a medicine cabinet.

The medicine cabinet was going to be inset into the wall (as opposed to surface mounted), and needed a nice, large mirror, and room for several shelves. For the design, I put together elements from several sources, and laid out the resulting concept in Sketchup.

For materials, I went with quarter sawn white oak, as I was going for a classic craftsman look on this one. Although the wainscot was pine, I felt the oak of the cabinet would tie in to the oak flooring. Plus, I had the stock on hand, and I always like being able to use up "scraps" for smaller projects whenever possible.

The cabinet is basically three parts: the cabinet body box, the decorative face frame, and a door. Because the cabinet was inset into the wall, and back side would not be seen, so I used pocket screws for much of the joinery on the frame and body. The door, having to be strong (as it had to hold a large mirror, and only supported by the hinges) and seen from both sides, used mortise and tenon joints. I also drilled holes for shelf pins before assembly.

Before getting to the door, I did a test fit on the case body and face frame assembly in the bathroom wall. Luckily, the wall wasn't too irregular, and the frame was going to sit nicely against the wall, with just a little bit of oddness on one corner. But it wasn't going to be very visible, and was hidden for the most part by the sconce.

Back in the shop, I put the door together. The tenons of the door frame were secured with through pegs. I didn't do the drawbore technique here, as the glue and simple straight through pegging seemed to be enough. I then installed the hinge hardware, and was ready for the finish.

For the finish, I went with my go to process of water based dark mission brown dye, followed by several coats of shellac, this time a darker garnet that I mixed from flakes. I applied about 4 coats, sanding lightly in between, then finished it off with a coat of dark paste wax, applied with 0000 steel wool, then buffed off. This finish process on quarter sawn white oak never fails to look gorgeous to me. After that, I cut the glass for the mirror, fit it into the door opening, and secured it with stops tacked in with brads.

I also made several 1/4" thick oak shelves. Installation went well, thanks the the earlier test fit, and it was attached to the wall studs with a few screws through the case. The final bit of hardware to fit was the small surface mounted latch. Although surface mounted, I had to do some mortising to fit it properly, as the design features a small 1/8" set back/reveal for the door relative to the frame. This makes a nice shadow line in the piece, but it meant that either the latch body had to be bumped out, resting on some sort of little platform piece, or the catch part had to be recessed. I chose to recess the catch as the lesser of two evils.

(Please pardon the lousy lighting in some of these interior shots: it's hard get good light in a 5' x 8' windowless bathroom with a slanted ceiling.) Once in place, we were pretty pleased with the result. The cabinet looked good, and did tie into the other elements of the room quite well. You might notice that I didn't install a backer board, to back up the mirror, on the inside of the door. Honestly, I never thought about it during the build, and not until much later when I was watching some other woodworking video with a mirror in a door, and they put a backer on, did it occur to me that might be a good idea. I'll see if that way it is now bothers me or not. So far: not.

One thing my wife and I discovered after using this setup for a few months was that we had to keep open and closing the door 10,000 times in the course of doing anything up there: shaving, brushing teeth, etc. Mainly because there is not one horizontal surface to place anything on: the sink is just a small pedestal, and... well, that's it. So, I took a little more shop time, and made a small white oak shelf that sits between the sink and the medicine cabinet. It works perfectly, and solved the horizontal space problem nicely.

This was a nice home improvement-meets-furniture project, that both solved a problem and made our home a little bit nicer. Thanks for reading.