Fearsome Dimensions

Shopmate Megan Fitzpatrick has watched me build 40 or 50 chairs during the last five years I’ve been working in my Covington workshop. As a result, she often jokes that she could probably teach chairmaking – even though she’s never finished building a stick chair.

So when she started checking over the construction drawings for “The Stick Chair Book,” she said something a bit alarming.

“Watching you build a chair makes it look easy,” she said. “These drawings make it look difficult.”

At first, I thought that perhaps my construction drawings were too detailed, too overwhelming or too… I don’t know. I looked them over and concluded that they were about right. They showed every important dimension and angle – no more. Plus, they communicated how the pieces fit together.

So what was the problem?

I think there’s a disconnect between how I build chairs in the shop and how I communicate that information to others.

Put another way: I could describe how to create an impressionist painting with information on brushes and paint mixing and approaching the canvas. Or I could give you a canvas with a paint-by-numbers scheme all set up for you – green here in area No. 12. And light blue in area No. 35.

Both approaches result in an impressionist painting. But which is better?

The answers is: I don’t know. For the last 25 years of my life, I have described to others how to build furniture using pictures and words – plus 15 years of teaching woodworking classes. And I have found that people learn differently. Some woodworkers need a detailed drawing that shows every relevant dimension and angle. Others need a rough sketch on a napkin with a few overall numbers.

In the end, both woodworkers can arrive at the same destination: A well-built piece with grace and beauty.

This book is an attempt to explore both approaches. The first 400 pages describe the operations involved in making stick chairs. For some woodworkers, this is all that is needed. Other woodworkers need to start with the mechanical drawings and then figure out the operations – the next 200 pages of the book. Neither approach is superior.

If you are bewildered by the mechanical drawings, skip them. If you are frustrated by the “that’s close enough” disclaimers, ignore them. Stick chairs can be built by engineers, potheads and pothead engineers.

So how does my brain work? When you take on the job of a translator, as I have, you have to embrace both sides. Accuracy and spontaneity are the angel and devil that sit on each shoulder. It’s a familiar fight in publishing. On one shoulder is the sober editor. The other has the drunken writer.

When I make tools, I can fuss over .0005”. When I design chairs, I wonder “does this rake and splay look like a jumping spider or a squashed squirrel?”

But I don’t expect (or encourage) you to become a human corpus callosum. Instead, take what you can from any book and leave the rest behind. Most of all, don’t get discouraged by the detailed measurements in the drawings or the vagaries in the text.

Or, as John Brown put it: “By all means read what the experts have to say. Just don’t let it get in the way of your woodworking.”

— Christopher Schwarz

Shopmate Megan Fitzpatrick has watched me build 40 or 50 chairs during the last five years I’ve been working in my Covington workshop. As a result, she often jokes that she could probably teach chairmaking – even though she’s never finished building a stick chair. So when she started checking over the construction drawings for…Read MoreThe Stick Chair BookLost Art PressRead More

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