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Chairmaking and Design
By Jeff Miller

Book Review by J. Norman Reid

Chairmaking and Design, Jeff Miller's classic on chairmaking, deservedly the winner of the Stanley Award for Best How-To Book, is a wonderful introduction to chair building for the developing woodworker. Clearly written and thoroughly illustrated with black and white images and drawings, Miller takes you from basic chair design and simple construction through progressively more advanced models. By the end of the book, he has taught the principles of chairmaking that will allow you to construct nearly any style of chair you have in mind to build.

He presents eight chair models to develop your skills and knowledge progressively from the most straightforward designs to the increasingly complex. All the while, Miller manages to keep the complexities simple and manageable by introducing them incrementally and designing jigs to ease construction. The result is a guidebook well worth adding to your library.

An introductory chapter considers basic features of chairmaking for both comfort and durability. This is succeeded by a color photo gallery of chair examples to provide inspiration and illustrate the variety of ways chair design can evolve and develop.

The real meat of the book starts in Chapter 2, where Miller delves into chairmaking methods, including joinery, shaping and an important section on chairmaking jigs that are used throughout the book for a variety of processes.

The first chair Miller builds is a dowel-seated chair. While this can be used as a fully functional seating piece, its intended purpose is as an adjustable model to be quickly built and modified to establish the best shape for back and seat comfort. He builds his model using plywood sheets for the sides and store-bought dowels he inserts into holes drilled in the sides and that can be moved to test alternative shapes. An alternative is to use hardware cloth attached to legs built with 2X4s. Not only is the dowel-seated chair an effective tool for final chair design, but it can be a design in its own right. Miller's model is so comfortable it has served as a shop chair for over a decade.

Next comes the right-angle chair, so named because all the joinery is at 90 degrees. It's a simple chair with a back that inclines only slightly and provides no lumbar support, so it's unlikely to be the most comfortable chair you'll ever build. But its straightforward construction puts it within the reach of first-time chair builders. Miller uses mortise and tenon joinery for this chair, as he does for the others, but it could readily be built using a Festool Domino. In addition to being a nice-looking chair, it is also a great confidence builder and will provide the encouragement to tackle the progressively more challenging models that follow in succeeding chapters.

Next is a child's ladder back chair reminiscent of chairs in the Shaker style. This chair introduces joinery in round legs and a trapezoidal seat, features—especially the seat—that will be repeated in the models that follow. This chair incorporates a woven seat, and Miller demonstrates how to make it.

The slat back chair, next in the series, also incorporates the trapezoidal seat and while it omits stretchers and round legs, it introduces rear legs that bend in two directions and adds a challenge in multidimensional joinery. Miller shows how to tackle the joinery and also how stretchers can be added for greater strength if desired.

A neoclassical design chair follows, with fluid lines to the legs, seat rails and back. Miller regards this design—which derives from those of Duncan Phyfe—as visually exciting but structurally more fragile because of its limited joinery and, in particular, lack of stretchers. Of all the chairs in the book, this one is most appealing to my eye, though I will likely follow Miller's advice and concentrate on other, more solid models.

A café chair is next. It introduces a major new feature, a laminated U-shaped seat support and curved legs. The rear legs are mounted at an angle to the back and curve at both the top and bottom, adding further construction challenges to this delightful design, reminiscent of chairs often found in cafés.

The captain's chair is the first to include arms, useful for both comfort and structural soundness. Following earlier designs, it incorporates back legs that curve in multiple directions and front legs that splay. This is the first chair with a solid wood seat, and Miller demonstrates how to scoop it out for maximum seating comfort.

A chapter on armchairs follows, providing illustrations of a number of variations that can be developed around this general theme.

A brief afterword encourages experimentation and elaboration on these basic chair models, which can be modified into nearly any design imaginable.

Except for the child's ladder back chair and the captain's chair, all of the models incorporate upholstered seats. While Miller sends his own chairs out for professional upholstery, he describes the upholstering processes and materials needed in case you prefer to cover the seats yourself.

What makes this book so valuable is that Miller demystifies chairmaking, simplifying it to its basic features and then introducing more complicated variations like multidimensional joinery gradually after the more basic skills have been developed. Miller excels at designing jigs that reduce potentially difficult construction steps to simple, repeatable and accurate operations. His descriptions of construction steps and his many helpful hints are clear and complete.

You won't find a discussion of furniture styles here. If you are looking for information on Chippendale vs. Queen Anne or Hepplewhite and Sheraton styles, look elsewhere. This is a book about the design of structurally sound chairs with all the features that chairs of any design must possess in order to succeed.

All but the most advanced chair builders have something to gain from this book. Although it will be of most help to first-time and novice chair builders, there is much in this book from which other woodworkers can benefit. I will rely on this book to build my first chair. If you, like me, have shied away from chair building, do so no more. I highly commend this book as a great way to get started. You won't be disappointed.

Find out more and purchase Chairmaking and Design

J. Norman Reid is a woodworker, writer, and woodworking instructor living in the Blue Ridge Mountains with his wife, a woodshop full of power and hand tools and four cats who think they are cabinetmaker's assistants. He is the author of Choosing and Using Handplanes . He can be reached by email at nreid@fcc.net .

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