Friday, February 19, 2016

Making the FDR chair

After deciding I wanted to make the FDR chair, the first thing I did was go to my local library and check out all the books I could find about Timberline Lodge.  I learned that the WPA required that construction drawings be made of the furniture and collected into books.  Three copies were made, by hand as far as I can tell, and are preserved in three places, one of them in the rare book room at the Multinomah County Library.  I went through the approval process and found myself in a beautiful, environmentally controlled room with walls covered in locked bookshelves.  The archivist placed the book on a special stand to protect the binding and I was able to look through it and scan the construction drawing of the FDR chair with an app on my phone.  Here it is:

I left thinking I was all set, but, when I got home and started looking at the scan carefully, I noticed several things.  First, the drawing doesn't include a number of key dimensions.  Notice the depth is blank and the width at the back isn't given, which is needed because the chair narrows front to back.  More importantly, there is no side view, critical because there are complicated curves in the back of the chair.  Construction drawings of other chairs in the book include side views.  This drawing was made after the chair was constructed in order to meet a WPA requirement and oral history interviews suggest it wasn't a high priority.  I went back to the rare book room a second time to make sure I hadn't missed something and the archivist speculated that the drawing may have been traced from the picture that was included in the book on the facing page, the one I shared in my last post.  Bummer.

Clearly, I needed to get access to the original chair.  The Oregon Historical Society put me in touch with Sarah Munro, the author of the book that I linked to previously and the editor of several others.  We exchanged emails and eventually met over coffee.  She is a very interesting woman with a Bachelor's degree in anthropology and a Master's in folklore who has accumulated a wealth of information about all things Timberline.  She very kindly gave me an introduction to the Curator at Timberline Lodge, Linny Adamson, and Linny graciously agreed to let me come up to the Lodge to photograph and measure the chair.  Several of the photos were in the last post and here is a link to an online gallery.  Now that I have done this once I could do a much better job, but the pictures are useful.  I also took as many measurements as I could in an hour and from them I learned that the measurements in the WPA drawing don't match the chair very well.  Hmmmm.

The rear legs and back are the key to this chair; otherwise it is a pretty standard Arts and Crafts armchair.  With my measurements and photographs, I used dial calipers and ratios to create full size front and side views.  I bent thin, straight-grained sticks around nails at key places to draw the curves. When I was done, I thought the templates looked quite graceful and were fairly accurate.

As a check, I blew up photographs to actual size and compared them to the templates I had made.  They did not match.  *!&%#  At first I thought the photographs must be right but then I started noticing that the arms, seat rails and stretchers didn't connect at the right places in the photographs, which I knew from the measurements I had taken of the chair.  After a lot of thought, I realized that this happened because there were considerable differences in the relative distances between the camera lens and the chair.  Since the camera was about midway up the side of the chair, the top and bottom get stretched.  Who says cameras don't lie?

This is turning out to be complicated but it has been a real learning experience.  I have been pondering this issue for some time and have come to some conclusions which I will share next time.

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