Making Book Part 8: The Geometry Burglar

A Kentucky-ized Gibson.

I’ve made a few lowback chairs, but I haven’t been happy with any of them.

Part of the problem is aesthetic. Lowback Windsors – sometimes called “captain’s chairs” or “firehouse Windsors” – are in every sketchy seafood restaurant in the United States. They feature lifeless turnings, a dark and shiny finish and questionable comfort. (The sooner you finish chewing the chum, the sooner the next party can be seated.)

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The form doesn’t sell particularly well. Even John Brown had difficulty getting rid of his lowbacks, which he called a “smoker’s bow.”

And yet, I think they are worth studying. I have been keen to design one that is both comfortable and doesn’t look at home on a carpet stained by malt vinegar and tartar sauce. And I want to include its details in “The Stick Chair Book.”

So for the last few weekends, I’ve been sketching chairs and thinking – a lot – about angles and radii.

One of the recent shocks to my chairmaking brain has been the Irish Gibson chair. Its back sticks look radically sloped, and when I first saw a photo of one I wondered if it was used by Irish dentists to examine patients.

After building several Gibsons and living with them, my brain has a different take on angles. The 25° slope of the Gibson’s back sticks does not make the chair feel at all like a recliner. In Ireland they are sometimes called “kitchen chairs,” and I get that. They are a comfortable place to sit after a day’s work and engage with the household around you.

But the Gibson isn’t a lowback chair. I guess I’d call it an Irish comb back (or a Gibson chair).

A Jennie Alexander chair.

One of the other compact chairs I admire is, of course, the Jennie Alexander chair. It’s not a lowback. It’s not even a stick Windsor. But it has some essential geometry that is almost identical to a Gibson. The top splat of the examples I’ve studied is about 25° to 28° off the seat, and it hits the human spine the same place that a Gibson does. Oh, and the curvature of the backs of the two chairs is pretty close, too.

With this target in mind I’ve been designing lowbacks with this 25°-28° tilt in mind. And using a similar curvature as well. It feels a little weird grafting these dimensions onto a stick chair. But after doing some drawings – both in pencil and with mouse – it doesn’t look weird at all.

I struggled with how to bend an arm that was pitched at 28°, curved with an 11″ radius and with a bottom edge that was parallel to the floor. I built jigs in my head. I visited some geometry websites that made me question my journalism degree.

After a few long walks, however, the scales fell from my eyes. I was making it too difficult. As always. After I finish up these two Scottish comb-back chairs, I’ll build a prototype lowback using parts from my boneyard of extra chair parts (population: 756 and growing).

— Christopher Schwarz

Read other posts from the “Making Book” series here.


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