The Best Wood for Chairs
Lessons on picking the right wood for making an attractive, strong chair that will stand the test of time.
I stared at 150 chairs, every one of them so loose as to be dangerous to sit in. “I have tried everything to no avail,” the owner said. “Do you know the glue they advertise on TV where one drop between two blocks of wood holds a car suspended in the air?” he asked me in exasperation. “Well I must have used half a pint on each chair, and they still came apart.”
“I’ll admit you cabinetmakers have some secrets. Will you fix the chairs for me?”
I said no, explaining that the chairs were made out of the wrong kind of wood and that they would never hold together for any length of time. He stalked off, obviously convinced I was out of my mind.
The preceding is a true account of a conversation between myself and the owner of a large, beautiful restaurant located on the banks of the Delaware River. The chairs in question are normally referred to as “captain’s chairs.” The original chair from which these were copied has proved to be a sturdy and practical design, made since the early 1800s. Why then were the chairs I was asked to repair not only falling apart, but incapable of restoration? Because the complete chair—legs, seat, spindles, and back—was all of soft white pine!
It seems impossible that a large manufacturer would devote great sums of money and many man hours of work producing chairs with such an obvious fault. And yet, hardly a week goes by that I don’t come in contact with chairs made with the wrong choice of wood.
A chair, especially the plank-seated chair, takes greater stresses, strains, and shocks than any other piece of furniture used in the home because of its everyday use in kitchens, dining rooms, and general living areas.
Imagine the stress placed on the legs and back of a chair that a 200-lb. person sits in three times a day while eating. First, the chair is dragged across the floor, then the body lowers into the seat, shoving forward a few inches with the full 200 lb. of weight on the base. Finally, the squirm and the wiggle to settle in! During serving and passing food to others, the weight is constantly shifting back and forth on the different legs of the chair. Now comes the balancing act! 200 lb. are thrown entirely onto the two back legs. Next is the coming down with accumulated speed to an abrupt stop, then the shoving of the chair to the rear with all the weight intact, and the final dragging to a place of rest.
Isn’t it a wonder that these chairs have held up as long as they have? Here are the reasons why.
Early chairmakers invariably used hard maple. It was easy to come by, but more importantly it is very hard, will resist impression, and does not splinter. Its fine, dense grain makes it easy to turn on the lathe. It also has tremendous resistance to abrasion, a quality especially needed where the legs of a chair meet the floor.
Base stretchers, too, were generally made of maple, only occasionally with white oak or hickory. In those cases I believe the chairmaker took into consideration a possible bending stress on the middle of a stretcher caused by the weight of feet that might be placed there. Whether the amount of stress was enough to put up with the more difficult turning qualities of the woods is debatable. In any event, although the stretchers are not to be considered as important as the legs in terms of abrasion, they too must be of a very hard wood.
Here the chairmaker’s choice was influenced a great deal by the way the seat had to be contoured and shaped. Structurally they could have used a hardwood, but they knew that scooping out a comfortable seat would require at least a 2-in.-thick plank to allow for ample depth to receive the legs, back, and arm posts. The scooping-out process was done with an adze, a large chisel, and shaped scrapers. It was laborious and time-consuming, so in the interest of ease and economy they chose softwoods to make the seat. The chairmaker knew that the greater thickness of softwood would allow the legs and spindles to be deeply seated and, at the same time, weigh less, so they chose either pine or poplar, and only quite rarely a hardwood.
There were many types of chair backs, but for this discussion let me make two categories: the low back and the tall back. The low-back chair is called a “captain’s chair,” the type I referred to in the incident with the restaurant owner. This chair is very comfortable because of the large rolled and contoured shape that forms the back and the substantial arms. I have seen no exception to the use of either pine or poplar for this purpose. However, the short-turned spindles were always of either hard maple, oak, or ash. The great dimension of the softwood back and arms allowed the hardwood spindles deep penetration.
The earliest type of low-back was a Windsor chair, which used pine or poplar for the back rail only, and here again it was thick enough to allow deep penetration of the spindles. The arms, which were thinner and therefore did not allow the spindles to be deeply seated, were either of white oak or maple.
The tall-back plank-seated chairs, which have spindles that run from the seat to the top or crest, are almost always of split-out hickory (wood split rather than ripped to rough size to ensure straight grain). A wood is needed that allows for movement—a wood that will give and spring back. Because of the small diameter of the spindles, the wood must have resiliency and an ability to resist fracture. Hickory is the only wood I know of that combines all these qualities.
When there is a thin, bent piece of wood incorporated into the back structure, it is almost always of split-out white oak, a wood that can be steamed and bent to rather small radii without fracturing. It also has great resiliency and hardness. Bent mid-arm rails, cresting rails, and backs are invariable made of split-out steam-bent white oak.
The decision regarding what woods to use for a specific chair part was to some degree made easier for the earlier chairmakers because most of their chairs were painted. Or perhaps they were painted because the chairmaker used various woods. In any event, chairmakers today may want to use other woods than those used by the earlier craftspeople for esthetic considerations.
There’s no reason why not as long as one follows these guidelines:
- Use hardwoods where there will be shocks and abrasions.
- Use softwoods only in great thicknesses.
- Never join softwood to softwood.
In other words, do not use a wood for a purpose for which it is unsuited. Following is a list of some available woods and the purposes to which they are suited, in my opinion. Others may disagree on ·specific points. For instance, hickory could be used to make a chair seat and structurally it would stand up. However, its density and hardness make it extremely difficult to sculpt to shape, and its weight would be a disadvantage.
Walnut, Cherry: Good for all parts but has limited steam bendability.
Birch: Good for most parts, but very hard to sculpt.
Beech: Same as for birch, but fractures too easily when making thin spindles.
Sycamore: Great grain for seats, but has a tendency to warp. All right for legs and stretchers, but not for spindles.
Red Oak: Has a very coarse, unattractive grain, but may be used for most parts.
White Oak: Perfect for steam-bent parts, good for spindles and other parts. Too hard and heavy for seat.
Maple: Perfect for legs, stretchers, and posts, but too hard and heavy for seats. Can be used if desired.
Poplar, Pine: For seats in 2-in. thicknesses or better and for heavy back and arm sections. Do not use for any other parts!
Ash, Hickory: All parts except seats.
Mahogany: Great for most cabinet furniture, but really not suited for plank-seated chairs except as pine and poplar are used.
Spruce, Fir: No use.