A school a few minutes from us here at Manor Lane has commissioned us to make a chair to live in a green space in their grounds. Pupils will sit in a group around a teacher on the chair as he or she reads to them. The chair also commemorates a much loved teacher from the school, Karen Machin-Cowen, who was an inspiration to many pupils.
We have made the chair from oak, an obvious choice for furniture which will live outdoors as its high tannin content resists insect and fungal attack, the very things that will turn your pine planter to dust in a few years. We spent many hours making two pine mock-ups of the chair, for several reasons: we only have a limited supply of air-dried oak (an excellent limitation on any project really, as it focuses the mind and makes the furniture better in my experience); I wanted the chair to be comfortable, and it's very easy to make an uncomfortable chair; and because the chair is living outdoors I wanted every aspect of its design to aid its longevity, meaning water wouldn't pool anywhere and joints would be projected.
The school showed me a picture they had found on the internet of a design they liked. Needless to say, I thought I could do better.
I started by making pine mock ups. The first was just screwed together, and its main purpose was to get the proportions and the ergonomics correct. I made the second, on the right, using the joints I will use for the final chair.
Once I had the design worked out, I brought my few pieces of air-dried oak into the workshop, and began to convert them. Some of it used to be fingerposts in the Peak District and you can still see the writing on the side.
I made the front and back legs, and the mortises in the arms to receive them. Then I worked out the size of the rails which join them, and made these from the oak:
The chair was starting to take shape. The most complicated joints (between legs and the arms) had been made, and the next step was to fit the seat pieces and begin the process of carving the hands that will decorate the ends of the arms. I began by grinding the ends of the arms with some initial planes and faces, trying to get a good starting point for the more detailed carving:
I added a suggestion of fingers and thumb, and then worked carefully to create hands that were both figurative carvings and at the same time the natural continuation of the chair's arms:
I could now stick the frame together, for which I needed to make a cramping aid from plywood off-cuts. This allowed me to apply pressure to the gluing joints despite there being no parallel faces on which to place sash cramps:
Finally I needed to make the back pieces, which would come from the large board of oak you saw in the picture above. By chance this board turned out to have some brown staining in it, caused by the benign beafsteak fungus which enters the living oak and sets up home within the tree. When felled and dried the fungus is revealed as attractive patches of dark colour, and I could use this when choosing the pieces for the back.
And so the construction was finished. All that remained (apart from finishing with Osmo UV protection oil), was to carve a small dedication to Karen on the central panel of the back.
Performing this last, careful task in this long process of design and making brought me right back to the reason why this chair was being commissioned in the first place, and it was a moving experience to carve this dedication to a much loved teacher.
The pieces were oiled and the chair was finished:
The chair has since been tested by friends and family.