Chairmaking Made Easy
Words and photos: Raf Nathan
Well known furniture designer/maker Evan Dunstone has created a unique kit which makes the complex art of chairmaking accessible for people who have as yet limited skills and/or equipment. The Alpha Chair Kit comes, to a large extent, fully prepared for assembly, but shaping of components is still required.
This kit is a good way for people of any skill level to complete a solid wood chair. Being able to customise the component shapes leaves room for personalising the design. On another level the kit is an ideal way to learn about chairmaking and can be used as a stepping stone to creating your own designs.
The wood supplied is FSC Victorian blackwood which is sourced as short lengths (from the sawmill) to minimise cost. The rear legs are laminated up from two pieces but the joint on these is not that noticeable. There are four gluing processes: the seat, frame, back legs and front legs.
1. Gluing up seat panels. Arrange boards for best grain pattern.
All components are accurately machined and sanded to about 150 grit and the joints are pre-made. The latter use loose (or floating ) tenons with everything except glue supplied. The supplied loose tenons were all a neat fit in the machined recesses except for a couple that were marginally undersize however the kit comes with spares.
Gluing the chair frame is straightforward. The included instructions are comprehensive and guide you through this. The front legs can be tapered to personalise the design although I left them straight. You do need to take care the legs are glued on parallel with each other but this is not difficult.
2. Planing seat base flat after glue dries.
The instructions say to pre-polish everything prior to assembly but you can also do the polishing afterwards as I did. After the frame was glued, I cleaned up everything and finish sanded it. Three coats of shellac were then applied and served to highlight the beautiful blackwood colours.
3. Gluing up chair frame. Check everything is square and parallel.
The chair seat is made from five pieces of wood that need to be laminated. The seat components are well machined with a matching ripple joint on the edges to aid alignment and strength. The shaping of these pieces is thankfully also done for you, as the curves are both concave and convex. Presumably this machining was run on a spindle moulder.
4. Twin tenons used on front leg joint for extra strength.
Align the boards with the best grain arrangement and apply glue and clamps. After the glue is dry the seat base can be flattened and sanded. A cardboard template is supplied to cut the outside of the seat to final shape. I used a bandsaw and spokeshave and then sanded everything smooth.
You still need to refine and sand the top of the seat. This is the only part of the kit which I found scary. Despite trying chisels and scraping ultimately this required hand sanding to achieve a flowing curve. I’m not saying I did a great job of it but working through 80, 120, 150 and 180 and 240, 320 grit abrasive achieved a pleasing form. The edges of the seat were then eased with a spokeshave.
5. Gluing the rear legs in place. Check everything is parallel.
The backrest comes with the concave side pre-sawn and sanded — this would otherwise be a big job. To achieve a smooth flowing concave shape the backrest was sanded cross grain at the factory, fortunately to about 120 grit. But this does mean more sanding as you have to sand long grain to remove any scratches. For many people hand sanding is an enjoyable process but for me this was laborious. However it did not really take that long to complete this.
6. Sand the backrest smooth working through various finer grits.
Another template is supplied to saw the backrest to the required shape. I did alter this slightly from the template; being able to customise some components is part of the fun of this kit. I eased the edges of the backrest with a spokeshave, taking care to keep the applied bevel as even as possible.
The seat and base can now be fitted. I chose to do this prior to final polishing so things can be easily trimmed if needed. A small point here but the screws supplied for this process all use square drives so you may need to get the correct head. The small screws for fixing the seat at the rear are a mid-size square drive that was a bit unusual for me. I substituted some screws I had in stock for this.
7. Easing the edges of the seat back with a spokeshave.
Clamp the parts in position and check that all overhangs are even. I found that the back needed to be trimmed
a little on one side to sit equidistantly on the rear legs. Drill all pilot holes and drive home the screws, then remove the seat and back to sand and polish.
8. Assembling the chair using supplied hardware.
To finish things off I applied a wax and buffed everything up, then screwed the seat and back finally in place.
The Alpha Chair Kits are made in Queanbeyan, NSW. Currently they cost $295 and can be ordered by phoning (02) 62978200 or purchase online from www.dunstonedesign.com.au