Tag Archives: chair

Chair Back Styles

From 1995 to around 2004, a magazine known as Proptology was published by a Canadian props professional named Wulf. He published a multi-part series called “A Field Guide to Furniture Styles”, which contained a lot of useful illustrations and information for identifying period Western furniture. One of the parts had a nice little list of chair backs. I have taken this information and these illustrations and arranged them in a nice little grid where they are grouped by similar appearances.

I have some other helpful illustrations in previous posts: analysis of a chair, 40 styles of chairs, and parts of a chair. Armed with these images, we are well on our way to developing a visual guide to identifying the period of a chair based on its appearance.

Chair Backs
Chair Backs, illustrations by Wulf

Bentwood: Late 1800s.

Fiddle: Characteristic of Queen Anne style. 1700s.

Sheaf: Can also be a splat which is pierced in the same style. Late 1700s.

Pierced Splat: Characteristic of Chippendale designs. Late 1700s.

Balloon: Characteristic of Victorian style. Mid 1800s.

Round: Often an open frame with no upholstery. Mid 1800s.

Anthemion: Greek motif favored by Hepplewhite. Late 1700s.

Shield: Characteristic of Hepplewhite. Late 1700s.

Lath: Curved, flat uprights. Very sturdy. 1800-1900s.

Bannister: Like stick back but with turned posts. 1600-1800s.

Stick: Primarily used in country furniture. 1600-1800s.

Bow: Typical form of Windsor style chair. 1600-1800s.

Pillow Top: A narrower top is called “Bolster Top”. 1800s.

Lyre: Popular motif in Empire style designs. Early 1800s.

Ladder: With pierced splats is called “Pretzel Back”. 1400-1900s.

Square: Characteristic of Sheraton’s designs. Late 1700s.

Last Friday Sites

Just a reminder that tomorrow from 9am to 10pm at the Holly Hill Mall in Burlington, NC, is the first Burlington Mini Maker Faire. Check it out if you are in the area and you like making things. The mall parking lot will be hosting a D.A.R.E. carnival that day too, so after you look at the robots and wood lathes, you can ride a cocaine-free ferris wheel.

A career in theatre props” is a well written article about Antony Barnett, Head of Props at the Royal Opera House. It discusses what he does as the lead prop maker at a very busy shop. It is also interesting in telling how British prop makers learn their craft and get started in the business.

Sad news out of Brazil; Tiago Klimeck, an actor playing Judas in an Easter Passion play, died from an accidental hanging during a performance. The article, while light on details, does mention that authorities think “the knot may have been wrongly tied.” The only safe way to do a live hanging is with the rope attached in the back to a harness under the actor’s costume. The loop of rope in the front should be incapable of holding any weight, and should be able to break away when the slightest bit of weight is applied. In other words, there should not be a knot that can accidentally be “wrongly tied”; there should not be any knot. Though this story may remind you of the accidental hanging of an actress in a Halloween haunted house last year (the girl lived), in that case, the noose was never intended for live hangings. It was simply a prop “used for visual affect” (I am not sure why articles on accidental hangings all need grammatical errors).

I just came across this, though it is from 1996. Patrick Tatopoulos is the maker of monsters from Stargate (the film), Independence Day, the John Cusack Godzilla film, and many others. Visual Effects Headquarters has an interview with him and a look at how he got started and what he has accomplished.

I missed this on the first go-around, but in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Titanic disaster, Popular Woodworking Magazine has posted free plans and instructions to build the deck chairs used on that infamous ship. It’s a complicated and involved chair, but it looks like a fun project if you want to own a piece of history (or if you are doing the musical Titanic).

Christopher Schwartz has posted the first chapter from Bernard Jones’ “The Practical Woodworker” on building crates and packing boxes. Crates and boxes seem like an easy item to construct, but the endless varieties and methods to construct them make them a good first project for a budding carpenter. Besides that, we build a lot of boxes in props, and even complicated forms have elements of box construction somewhere in them. This chapter does a great job of showing some of the more popular standards for box and crate construction.

Friday Link-tacular

It’s Friday once again! I hope everyone was able to finish their taxes!

Last week there was a great newspaper piece on James Blumenfeld, the prop master at the Metropolitan Opera. The operas they put on are among the largest in the country, so it is fascinating to read what it takes to organize and corral all those props.

Here is another great newspaper piece on Torontonian prop maker Chris Warrilow. He runs a prop rental and fabrication shop, but his specialty is custom stage combat swords. The article has some great information about stage weapons.

It must be the year for writing about props people; here is an article on Peter Smeal, the props designer at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte right down here in North Carolina.

You can view the entire “Fundamentals of Machine Tools” (1996) published by the US Army. This is the manual used to train Army members in the use of powered machines for making and repairing things out of metal.

Here is a homemade carving pantograph; you trace your pattern on one end, and the Dremel on the other end carves it into a piece of wood. The commercial kits I’ve seen for this always look so cheap and flimsy.

Finally, if you have the time (about 16 minutes), this video shows the construction of one of Denmark’s most famous chair designs, called “The Chair”. It’s an expert blend of top-of-the-line CNC machines with old-world craftsmanship as the video goes from hundred-year old oaks in the forest to a completed piece of furniture.

Analysis of a Chair

I’ve always thought it might be helpful to have a way of determining the identity and style of a chair by using visual means rather than by memorizing the names of all sorts of periods and styles. Sure, one can attempt to divide all chairs into forty distinct styles, but that is more helpful after the fact. As a props person, we are often faced with an existing chair, or picture of a chair, and we need to discern its style so we can find more like it. “This chair has kind of a Chippendale back, but with turned legs. What is it?”

Well, I haven’t accomplished anything like that, but I have come across a series of plates in the book Furniture Designing and Draughting, by Alvan Crocker Nye, published in 1907. These plates break down and illustrate the variations in each of the parts of a chair. If you remove ornamentation and look at just the basic shapes, you can design almost any chair from Western furniture history simply by picking and combining these variations. Even with the rudimentary distillations of chair design in  these plates, you can create 486,000 distinct-looking chairs.

Chairs - Front and side elevations
Chairs - Front and side elevations

Plate VII above shows variations on how the legs can be oriented. In the top row, we see side elevations of a chair with a straight back and straight legs, an inclined back with straight legs, an inclined back with back legs inclined, and the back and all legs inclined. In the second row, we see the back inclined and legs crossed, than front elevations showing an upright form, an inclined form, and finally an X or scissor form.

Arms, seats and stretchers
Arms, seats and stretchers

In Plate VII, we see the variations a chair’s arms can take. Under the “horizontal arm” drawing, we first see a plan showing how the orientation of the chair’s arm matches the shape of the seat. The two plans below it show how the arms curve out so the space between the arms is wider than the shape of the seat at the back. The two plans under the “receding arm post” show how the arm can be a compound curve or can be a continuation of the curve of the chair’s back. Finally, the elevation of the “sloping arm” chair shows that the arm can be higher in the back than in the front.

The plans of stretchers show how the reinforcing bracing of the legs can be arranged in either a box (trapezoid), an H, or an X (or cross) configuration.

Finally, the last column shows us different seat plans: square, trapezoid, triangle, circle, a circle and rectangle composite, and a circle and curves composite.

Outline of chair backs
Outline of chair backs

Plate IX shows outlines of common chair backs. 1) Rectangular. 2) Trapezoidal. 3) Polygonal. 4) Elliptical. 5) Semi-circular. 6) Shield.

Composition of back
Composition of back

Plate X gives various compositions of the chair back. 1) Paneled. 2) “Splat”, vertical. 3) “Banister”, vertical. 4) “Four Back”, horizontal. Variations include the “Three Back”, or the much rarer “Five Back”. 5) Composite.

In the bottom right corner of the plate are four outlines of top rail shapes: horizontal, triangular, trapezoidal, and circular.

Chairs for Tea

Back in 2007 when I was working at the Santa Fe Opera, we were mounting a new opera called Tea: A Mirror of Soul. It had a heavy Asian influence, with scenes taking place both in Japan and in China. I was given a drawing of a chair, which they needed nine copies of.

drafting of a prop chair
drafting of a prop chair

If you study the drawing, you’d notice a few things. First, it’s rather small. Normally, a chair is eighteen inches off the ground; this is only twelve. Second, the back stiles for the circular back are offset from the back legs (if you don’t know what a stile is, check out my “parts of a chair” diagram).  Wooden chairs usually have a single piece of wood running from top to bottom in the back for strength. Where the back meets the seat is the point where a lot of stress is placed on the chair, so relying on the strength of a joint rather than a solid length of wood is inviting trouble. Finally, you may notice that the back has pieces floating in the air. That’s always an engineering challenge.

attaching the back stiles
attaching the back stiles

The seat of the chair was two and a quarter inches thick. I decided to skin the top with a piece of quarter-inch plywood and the bottom with eighth-inch lauan, so the interior frame had to be one and seven-eighths inches thick. That gave me a nice big chunk in the back to attach my back stiles to. I also added some bolts through the joint for extra reinforcement.

Bottom of the chair
Bottom of the chair

The rest of the joints were glued and doweled.

Next came the fun part: the back. We (the props master, master carpenter, and I) needed to figure out a way to make the back pieces appear to be floating. As I mentioned above, I was making nine of these chairs, so the process had to be repeatable as well. The master carpenter was also making a throne with this same cut-out design in it, so he began developing a jig so we could rout the design out of a solid piece of wood. We had discussed using plexiglass in the middle so the pieces would actually look like they were floating, but that would not be strong enough. Instead, we would hide a steel frame inside and have small pieces of steel connecting the pieces. Between the distance of the audience, the sightlines, and the smallness of the gaps, a few pieces of quarter-inch rod steel painted black would be as close to invisible as we could make it.

Dave making a routing jig
Dave making a routing jig

The photograph above shows David Levine, the master carpenter, working out the jig. Note that he’s not actually cutting yet, which is why his dust mask and goggles are off. It was a complicated, multi-piece jig with several steps involved, but the results were beautiful and consistent.

For the back ring, I sandwiched poplar boards on either side of a piece of quarter-inch plywood, with the grain of each side running perpendicularly to the other. In other words, I made a giant Oreo cookie out of poplar, with a creamy plywood center. The interior back pieces were cut out of a solid piece of poplar,  made by gluing several boards together. I put this in the jig and cut my design out.

steel reinforcement in the back
steel reinforcement in the back

Before I had cut out the back pieces, I had routed the channels in where I would hide the steel rod. The channels were as deep as the diameter of the rod, so once they were in, the whole back could get a coat of Bondo and be sanded smooth, and no one would be the wiser. The steel rod continued sown into the stiles and up into the “horn” at the top so the whole back could be tied together with the same steel structure.

I cut the top horn piece out of a solid chunk of poplar, which I made by laminating two boards with their grains running in different directions.

finished chair for Tea
finished chair for Tea

Looking back, even as I write this article, I see a number of things I would do differently, or at least experiment with to see the results. As with any complicated prop, you learn a lot just by building it, but because you will never build the exact same prop again, it can be hard to assimilate that learning into your overall experience. As it turned out with this prop, I had only finished three of the nine chairs by the time they were cut from the show. It seems the stage was getting too cluttered, and the chairs were one of the more extraneous elements, so away they went.

That meant I got to keep two of the chairs, which let me test just how long my construction would actually hold up. The back on one of them did eventually break away from the seat, though not where I thought it would. I contemplated building more of a steel structure, but worried that the extra weight would either make it too heavy to carry, or even make it more likely to break; picture using a crowbar versus a stick of wood. The crowbar is extremely good at separating two pieces of wood from each other, where a stick of wood is just as likely to break itself before pulling the wood apart. Now look at a chair. The point where the back meets the seat is the focal point of a lever formed by somebody leaning back in the chair. If the stiles were metal (like a crowbar), it might tear the seat apart if you leaned back too hard.

But I digress and ruminate too much. Enjoy the pictures of the chair.