Friday, February 26, 2016

FDR chair prototype

My wife is a very accomplished teacher who subscribes to a theory that there are seven intelligences, not one.  I was dubious, but I have gradually come to accept it because of my own mental limitations.  On conventional intelligence I do pretty well, but on what she calls "visual-spatial" intelligence, I am basically a moron.  This was proven to me once again last week when I saw the roughed-out blank for the rear leg/back of the FDR chair for the first time.  There were all sorts of things I couldn't understand looking at the full-size front and side photographs that suddenly made sense and a couple of surprises as well.  Fortunately, I was lucky and things turned out well.

Refining the leg as it came off the bandsaw turned out to be quick and pretty easy.  I used flat and concave spokeshaves, a rasp, a file, a chisel and a smooth plane.  I don't have one, but the Veritas large spokeshave would be perfect for this.  You might be surprised by the smooth plane, but a plane works extremely well for shaping convex surfaces.  I was expecting the shaping to be more difficult than it turned out to be, in part because alder is so soft and easy to work.  Here's the result: 

This piece is pretty stout on the original, but not this stout.  I hadn't shaped something like this in quite a while and wasn't sure how much extra material to leave on the blank, so I used a thick marker and sawed to the outside of the line.  At it turned out, I only needed about 1/16", so what you see here is 1/4" too big in both dimensions.  It also looks heavier because the original has a substantial roundover on all the edges that I didn't bother with on  the prototype.  I learned what I needed to from it and saw no reason to remove all the extra material; now that I know this, I'll cut to a thin line when I make the chair.

The surprises.  I knew I needed 9" on the straight edge above the inside arch on the back for the crosspieces; that's what the photograph measured and that's what I made the template.  When I actually cut it out, it was 10" for the now obvious to me reason that it is curving quite a bit.  See what I mean about visual-spatial intelligence?  In two dimensions it's 9" and in three it's 10".  Turns out that is just fine, so I was lucky.

The second surprise was that the inside arch wasn't perpendicular to its curved side for the same reason. The arch is curving backwards at the same time that it is curving in and that is the cause.  It really showed at the upper corner of the arch where it meets the straight section of the back.  Again I got lucky because, with the extra length I had resulting from the first surprise, a little extra shaping with a chisel made it come out just right.

Now I have to decide what wood to make the chair out of.  According to the curator at Timberline, the original is made out of douglas-fir.  You can't tell because of the finish.  It looks like some kind of multi-layer faux finish, but maybe it has just become opaque with time.  You can't see the actual wood grain at all.

According to the curator, they scratched the douglas-fir with a metal comb, then applied an unknown finish.  It certainly feels that way when you touch it.  I don't know how to do this and wouldn't if I did because I hate faux finishes.  That's an advantage of giving up on the idea of making an exact copy!

There is an interesting story about this.  In his oral history interview, Ray Neufer is emphatic in expressing his dislike of varnish and preference for a linseed oil and wax finish, way different from what is on the chair.  I talked with Sarah Munro about this and she said she ran across a letter from the Forest Service late in the project directing that henceforth the furniture should be sent to them unfinished so they could apply the finish of their choice.  Maybe this is what happened with the FDR chair.  It is also possible the chair was refinished, as it was in active use in a guest room for decades after the President used it at the dedication.  

My chair will either be CVG douglas-fir or it will be quarter sawn white oak. I may apply a stain and I will use a satin varnish. I actually think that QSWO might look more like the original, although I have made chairs out of douglas-fir before and I really like it. It is our State tree after all. I do have some concern about it splitting and I suspect that is one reason why the back on the FDR chair is so stout. Both options will be expensive and I have to see what is available.


  1. Nice to know I have company being a visual spatial moron.

  2. The doug-fir is nice and it's certainly easily obtained here in the NW. Just remember that if the project involves much mortising, doug-fir eats chisels. I've used loads of it in projects I've made, especially my workbench. Nothing that I've found chews up the cutting edge of a chisel faster that chopping through those late-wood hard growth-rings. Well, perhaps dropping the chisel on a concrete shop floor would do it quicker, but not much. :)