How To Build a Bow-Arm Stickley Morris Chair
Lamination puts beautiful grain and a graceful curve within arm's reach.
Synopsis: This chair, with its large, square legs and wide arms of quartersawn white oak, says “Craftsman” with every feature. It should, since it was based on a design by Gustav Stickley. The bowed arms and reclining back add comfort and style, yet the construction is not difficult. The two greatest challenges are making the bowed arms and cutting the mortise-and-tenon joinery in the curved parts. Woodworker Greg Paolini takes you through the construction step by step, adding tips for cutting accurate joints, laminating the arms, assembling the base, cutting the joinery and shaping the curved back slats, creating a seat-cushion frame, and finishing.
Craftsman furniture is known for its straight lines, quartersawn oak, and sense of earthen mass and solidity. No piece displays those features better than a Morris chair, with its large, square legs and wide arms decked out in beautiful ray-fleck figure. The gracefully bowed arms of this version, designed by Brian Murphy of American Furniture Design and related to a design by Gustav Stickley, lighten the mass just enough to give it the feel of irresistible comfort. Throw in a reclining back and firm, but giving, cushions, and you have a chair that you’ll never want to leave.
For the most part, the construction is straightforward. But the most distinctive part of the chair—its arms—presents two big challenges: making bowed arms with attractive grain, and cutting a mortise-and-tenon joint on the curved arms and side frame. I’ll show you how laminating the arms gets you around those challenges. And I’ll show you how to get striking quartersawn grain everywhere it counts, including a simple and authentic method for making a leg with four quartersawn faces.
Legs that look good from every angle
The legs of a traditional Morris chair have four quartersawn faces. Lumber like that doesn’t grow on trees, but it can be made in the shop. There are several different methods to achieve the look, but the one Stickley used, which is the easiest by far, is to glue up a core of quartersawn lumber and then laminate two quartersawn veneers over the flatsawn edges of the core.
After the glue is dry, trim the veneers flush to the core with a router and flush-trimming bit. Then crosscut the bottom of each leg to square it up. Don’t worry about the tops right now.
Mortises, then tenons
When making a mortise-and-tenon joint, I usually start with the mortises. It’s much easier to fit a tenon to a mortise than the other way around. You can cut all of the mortises now, except the four in the arms. They’re laid out and cut after you make the tenons on the tops of the legs.
Remain consistent with your reference edges. When cutting the mortises on the legs, for example, reference the same fence against the outside face of each one. Otherwise, the position of the mortises will vary, resulting in sloppy joints and possibly a chair that’s out of square.
Now cut all of the tenons, except those on top of the legs, at the tablesaw. Cut a full tenon on the back of the upper rail; you’ll just saw away part of it later.
Router-cut mortises have round ends, so I round the tenons with the rasp portion of a Nicholson 4-in-hand file. Its smooth edges won’t mar the tenon shoulders, and its aggressive teeth make quick work of the rounding.
Watch Paolini demonstrate how to build the chair, step by step, in a 12-part video workshop.
From Fine Woodworking #205
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