Designing the Weeks Rocking Chair
In 1992 I built a contraption in the middle of the shop. Many people, of many sizes and shapes, sat in this "fitting booth" over many days. Various elements of this device were adjustable. I would adjust, the sitters would comment, "Too high," "Too low," "No," "Yes," "Can you . . ?" We came to a set of points. I plotted this constellation of points, full size, on the drawing board. I designed a chair around these points, refining the curves and contours. I did not pursue a style, but sought to define one.
These were the criteria:
I wanted to build a rocking chair where anyone could sit without feeling an edge, a flat, or an odd angle, where a parent could rock for hours in the middle of the night and feel as softly enfolded as the infant in arms.
I wanted to build rocking chairs to last for generations. This requires joints appropriate to the load, technical specifications for the material, and workmanship of the highest order. For example, the arms are deeply mortised into the back legs like a limb growing from a tree.
I wanted to build beautiful rocking chairs. There are two dimensions to this criterion. One: the lines, curves, contours, and surface quality of the chair must secure it as a work of art. Two: the figure, color, and character of the wood must be carefully composed and revealed.
I wanted to build handmade rocking chairs to the highest standards of beauty, construction, fit, and finish, sell them for less than such artistry would suggest, and deliver them on time.
How can the parts be developed from available lumber? Can we build a tool, jig, fixture, or machine to perform this task safer and with more precision? Where can we apply our handwork to the most benefit?
An Example to Illustrate the Process of Creating Each Part:
After finding the curve for supporting the lumbar and upper back, I decided to use the lower muscles of the back as user supplied padding — two vertical muscles, therefore, two vertical splats. I tried two splats, each about the width of a lower back muscle, and the two about as far apart as those muscles are. I thought two might do, but a trial showed that more support was needed at the rib cage. We tried six, but no there was no functional or visual benefit.
I settled on a 1/2" thickness for the splats, thick enough to be firm, thin enough to be light. A 2" thick piece of wood of at least 4" in width will make a blank from which splats can be efficiently cut. Selecting flat sawn wood for the blank, the growth rings will be perpendicular to the face of each splat. This is the strongest orientation of grain and displays the most pleasing lines in the overall composition of wood figure in the chair.
The drawings showed that a tangent to the back curve intersected the plane of the seat at 7-1/2 degrees and entered the crest rail (headrest) parallel to its face. To fix the splats at both places, I chose to mortise them deeply into their receiving parts. The splats were clunky looking so I tapered them — making them a quarter inch narrower at the bottom than at the top.
Isolved every problem similarly: draw, think, draw, try — rethink, redraw, retry, refine. I made a rocking chair. Many people sat. I made minor changes until I thought it was right in fit and detail and construction. I knew it was right when I got a card from Elizabeth F. who received #6 as a gift. She wrote, "The rocking chair is a perfect blend of art and engineering."
In the dining furniture section of our website the page, Designing the Heflin Barstool, features photos taken of that process. Unfortunately, there are no comparable photos taken during the conception and development of the Weeks Rocking Chair.