Remaking an icon: Tage Frid's three-legged design
Words and photos: Charles Mak
Illustrations: Graham Sands
After making a mid-century style dining table some years ago (AWR #105), I searched with little success for a chair design that would match the splayed leg feature of the table. While re-reading the third volume of Tage Frid Teaches Woodworking, I came to realise that Frid had built his three-legged stools in three different seat heights of 13", 19" and 22". This discovery essentially ended my search, as I decided to build a set of chairs based on his middle, or chair height, version.
The three-legged chair
I followed Frid’s design, including the short backrest that, in conjunction with the T-shaped seat, prevents the tipping over of the chair. I made only a few minor cosmetic changes to the chair: a personalised finger slot on the backrest, less curvature on the seat, and less oval legs. The chair can be sat on in either of the two ways: with the backrest supporting the back like a typical chair, or turned around with the backrest in the front where the arms can rest on it.
Because I was making six chairs, I used the quicker floating tenon joinery (dominos) for the seat instead of a mortise and tenon joint. We also differed in how the compound angled holes were drilled, how the legs were tapered, and how the chairs were levelled.
The chair structure is given in fig.1 above, and the various templates in fig.2 below.
If you plan to follow Frid’s book in making your chair as I did, before you start, note and correct these two errors that I found in the drawings. The wedge orientation for the front stretcher is incorrectly drawn as horizontal on p.153. The wedge should be installed vertically, across the grain of the front stretcher. Also, the seat thickness in the elevations drawing on p.154 should be 2", instead of 1-1/2".
The seat and seat extension
1.If floating tenons are used, prepare the seat extensions 4-1/2" long instead of 6-3/4" which would include a 2-1/4" long tenon. Also, use double tenons to provide the necessary strength. Mill the dominos slightly off-centre to make room for the curvature on the top.
2. To drill the 1" diameter hole at 18° on the seat extension, install a hinged platform on the drill press table. But to drill the compound angled holes (also 1" in diameter) on the seat, follow these steps:
3. The inside of the front legs meets the floor at 78°, therefore the drill press table is tilted to one side at 12°.
4. The hinged platform is raised to 4° to set the compound angle for boring holes on the seat for the front legs. Reset the drill press to tilt to the opposite side, and repeat the last step to bore the second hole.
5. With the holes drilled, use the edge template to lay out the top and bottom curves of the seat (fig.2).
6. Saw to the curve lines, and finish shaping with a belt sander to remove the bulk waste, keeping an eye on the curve lines drawn on the sides.
7. In the last step for the seat, mark out the outside shape, bandsaw to the line, and finish the edges on the router table (fig.2).
8. The backrest is joined to the seat extension with an angled dovetail joint. First, cut the ends of the backrest and the seat extension to 75°. Cut the angled tails and set the sliding bevel to 75° to check them.
9. Hold the angled end of the seat extension against the inside face of the backrest to mark the pins
10. Next, mark out the tapers and profiles on the backrest and seat extension, and shape them as follows:
A. Stand the backrest on its edge on the bandsaw, and cut the taper on the back side.
B. Trace out the finger slot and outside shape of the backrest (fig.2).
C. Use the bandsawn offcut as a spacer for the edge trimming step.
D. Rough-cut the shape and slot out, then complete them on the router table as shown above.
E. Stand the seat extension on its edge, and bandsaw the taper on the bottom. With a fence and spacer added to the jig, you can make angled cuts on the tablesaw with the panel-cutting jig. Cut the seat extension to its angled shape. Lastly, glue the seat, seat extension and backrest together to complete the seat unit.
The legs and stretchers
11. Use a 1" diameter tenon cutter on the drill press to make the round tenons on the top end of the legs. To increase the drilling capacity, I disassembled the benchtop drill from its base, and mounted the body on a cupboard.
12. Seat the leg firmly in position, and scribe the shoulder waste to be removed on each leg.
13. Then, trim away the waste around the shoulder to the scribed lines.
14. Put the chair together again, check for level and find out the lengths of the stretcher blanks. This time, cut the round tenons on both ends of the stretchers with a 1/2" diameter tenon cutter.
15. Clamp a straightedge 4-1/2" from the benchtop across the front legs with its top edge lining up with the front stretcher-centre points, and draw a line on both legs.
16. To mark the stretcher holes on the legs place a sliding bevel on the bench against the back of the leg to set its angle.
17. Use the sliding bevel to mark lines parallel to the benchtop at the centre points on the front legs.
18. Place a stick across the straightedge on the front legs, and mark a line on the back leg at 4-1/2" above the benchtop.
19. Now, with all the lines drawn, tilt the table to match the angle line on the front legs to drill the 1/2" diameter stretcher holes on the legs. Re-adjust the table set-up to drill the stretcher hole on the back leg. Lastly, drill the centre hole on the front stretche
Shaping the legs and stretchers
20. Lay out the tapers as well as a centre line on all the legs and stretchers, and taper the legs on the bandsaw or tablesaw. Or as shown above, add a fence and hold-down clamps to turn your panel-cutting jig into a tapering jig.
21. Mark out the oval shape on both ends of the legs using the leg templates (fig.2), and chamfer their corners on the router table.
22. Finally, use a handplane and spokeshave to shape all the legs and stretchers. Work with the grain, and use the centre line and oval mark on the ends to guide the shaving.
Assembling and levelling
With the chair dry-assembled, properly mark the slots across the grain on the ends of the legs and stretchers, and cut out the slots. In the last step, glue up the chair, and hammer the wedges home.
After the glue is cured, trim the tenons and wedges flush. For sanding, I worked up to 120 grit, although Frid stopped at 80 grit. I made it a point not to over-sand the legs, removing all the spokeshave facets completely, because I wanted to leave traces of the handwork behind.
Before putting on a finish, level the legs by following this foolproof technique that furniture maker Michael Fortune uses:
A. Place the chair on a flat base, and hot-melt glue the legs to the base.
B. Make a spacer with an opening so it can slide under the leg.
C. Use a flush cut saw flat on the spacer to trim off most of the first leg, leaving the leg still intact (photo 24).
D. Repeat step C on the other legs.
E. Finally, cut off all the legs one by one.
As someone who hated three-legged chairs with a full seat and back because they ‘look ridiculous from behind’, Tage Frid had redefined a chair style that encompasses form, function and comfort. His stools can be found in some renowned collections, including the Yale University Art Gallery, which houses one of his 19" stools made in 1979. Four decades later, six chairs of the same style and height have faithfully begun their service in the Mak residence!
Charles Mak is a Canadian author and woodworker, and a regular contributor to Australian Wood Review.