To this day, I’m still rather baffled at how I got into this class in the first place. To give you some perspective, this class only accepts 12 students (predominantly architecture students) per semester and hence overprescribed. And as a student at the business school, my chances of getting into this design intensive class seemed to be close to none. Even though Chris assured everyone at the info session that everyone had equal chances of getting in, many who submitted their pitch about why they wanted to get into the class also dropped down rather impressive portfolios as well. At this point, I thought it was hopeless. But maybe it was the enthusiasm I showed by submitting some chair design sketches (although at the time, I hadn’t made anything substantial) or mentioning that my mom had been a carpenter back in the day, or perhaps everyone had just dropped the class for something else (aka class fomo). What ever the reason, this class was one of the best things I’ve ever done. And it taught me numerous life lessons as well:
- Nothing is more therapeutic than starting your day in the woodshop
- Furniture is interactive and weight bearing, so don’t forget about physics
- Do not use a hand router if a CNC router will do. You can see the scar from my terrible routing skills on the seat in later pictures.
- The Festool system is stupid good. Although, I’m sure some purists would disagree.
- Do not use spray adhesive in an enclosed area. Actually, don’t spray anything in an enclosed area, unless it’s intentional.
- Steam bending white oak requires at least 2 grown ass men
The requirement of the final project was to “design an original piece of furniture that will support 185 lbs at least 12 inches off ground.” I think 12 inches was added to deter students from handing in polished tree stumps.
With open-ended requirements, I went to work on designing a piece that represented my experience at MIT. I wanted to make a chair that represented rapid-prototyping, agility and living on the fine line between balance and chaos. Aesthetically I wanted each element to flow into each other seamlessly, yet structured enough to stand the test of time. At first glance, the piece may look like it’s only balanced on two curved legs, but it’s actually reinforced with a cross-beam underneath the seat. Another goal of mine was that I wanted to use as many tools in the shop as possible,so that I could transfer those skills to later projects. I’m happy to say that I achieved that with the jig saw, joiner, table saw, hand router, drill press, band saw, hand saw, and the CNC router.
As if my stubborn out-of-thin-air requirements were not enough, I wanted to make a chair. The one piece of furniture that Chris said not to make because of the difficulty of pretty much everything. You have to factor in posture, ergonomics, weight distribution, tilting and shifting body weights, etc. So since I didn’t want to compromise on the design, I pretty much picked the hardest wood available at the time, hoping that it would compensate for what ever miscalculations I may make.
The chair ended up being made entirely out of white oak (quercus alba). I chose white oak because it was a widely grown hardwood native to eastern North America, and hard enough to withstand the test of time, plus Chris found a bunch of planks at the lumber yard for a good price (win win!). White oak is also had the perfect properties for steam bending. Not only is it pliable when steamed, it also holds its shape for decades without much recoil.
The legs and arm rest are quarter inch thick steam bent laminates. The seat was designed in AutoCAD, rendered in Rhino 3D and machine cut on the CNC router. The beams that hold up the seat and the arm rest are hand carved and partially shaped with machine tools. If you’ve ever hand carved white oak, you’d know why machines were involved. The entire chair was then sanded down with P220 sand paper and finished with Danish oil. The entire process is outlined below.
After the seat was cut out, I took it to the mortiser to cut out where I wanted all the tenons to be.
Also published on Medium.