Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Making an exact copy of the FDR chair, or not

I started out, without really thinking about it, wanting to make an exact copy of the FDR chair, but my efforts to come up with precise templates failed.  I obviously can't have the original in my shop to measure and trace.  I found out that I could hire a professional to produce a 3D scan which would be precise right down to the dings in the chair.   The resulting file could be used to control a CNC router or to produce paper templates.  I suppose another option would be to print out a 3D copy of the chair.  Not a real good fit with hand tool woodworking, to put it mildly, and extremely costly to boot.

Ray Neufer himself made several copies of the chair later in his life and they don't appear to be exact from the pictures I have seen.  Given how he made the original, he probably didn't feel that was important.  Linny Adamson, the Curator at Timberline, also encouraged me to not get too hung up on exactness.  The Forest Service has made an explicit policy not to produce exact copies of the furniture when replacements are needed, if I understood her correctly.  I don't really understand this but, mostly by necessity, I've come to the same place.

Back to the drawing board.  The first thing I decided was to pay less attention to the WPA construction drawing.  Of the three sets of information I have--the drawing, my photos and the measurements I took--it is the least reliable.  My measurements are the most reliable, but I only had an hour with the chair and they are incomplete.  The photos are extremely valuable but are distorted by perspective, so you have to be careful how you interpret them.  This time around, judgment played a much greater role.  Here are the templates I came up with, mounted on thin baltic birch plywood:

I generally don't make prototypes, as I am too impatient, but this time I thought it was essential because of the cost of quartersawn or riftsawn 4x6s and the uncertainty about how this would look.  I laminated some of the alder I have and was finally ready to do some woodworking:

Those of you with bowsaws could probably do this much faster, but I don't have one and use my bandsaw.  That means that, after you saw from one side, you have to put the pieces back together with double stick tape so you can saw from the perpendicular face:

When you are all done and you are peeling off the remaining pieces, it's like opening a birthday present:

Now it's on to shaping to see what I have.


  1. It may be too late now, but there are tools for correcting such photos, e.g. http://epaperpress.com/ptlens/

  2. It looks like you'll have a lot of waste.

    1. To make these two pieces requires 12 board feet, half of the requirement for the whole chair. I may be able to use some of the waste, but not much.

  3. How different are these back legs from the regular armless chairs? He already had those in production so his design and construction problems would have been easier than your problem of needing to start from scratch. He might have been able to use jigs or even pre made parts like side stretchers from those chairs to ease his very tight deadline. Looks like the FDR chair is wider than the armless version which is normal practice but fairly easy to accomodate.

    1. I thought of that as well, as the drawings of the Cascade Dining Room chair in the WPA book are excellent and include a side view. However they are 4" shorter and the seat rails are higher because they have a solid, carved seat. The back on the FDR chair at the top is behind the rear legs at the floor but this isn't true of the CDR chairs. The general shape is very similar though.

  4. That's an interesting project.
    Looks like you are deeply dedicated to the project.
    Curious to see how it will progress.