The C-arm

The August 20 continuous arm chair class is wrapping up and 16 guys are putting finishing touches on their chairs.  Mine is done, and I am very pleased with the way it came out.  I am frequently asked what is my favorite chair?  There is no debate. It is the c-arm (our short hand for continuous arm.)  This chair is beyond a doubt the most intensely designed piece of furniture ever developed.   It is layer after layer of subtle details that all have to work together.  When you make a good c-arm, you have accomplished a major achievement.  

I start the class with this analogy.  “Imagine you are in college taking a music appreciation class and you are about to study a major work by some famous composer.  The instructor does not begin by having  you listen to the entire orchestra.  Rather, he plays just the violins and then, discusses all the subtleties of their contribution.  Next, he plays you just the wind instruments, and once again points out the subtleties of their part.  Again, he has you listen to the just the percussion instruments, and then explains how they fit in.  This goes on until you have heard all the instruments individually by themselves, and you understand the role of each.  “Finally, the instructor plays the completed composition.  Because you know the role of each instrument, you are able to appreciate the piece in a way that would not be possible if you started out listening to the entire orchestra.” 

That is how I start a c-arm class.  I point out all the individual layers of subtleties in the chair and I describe the contribution of each to the whole.  Then, as the students work through the week, adding each layer of detail to their chair, they appreciate why it is included, why each is important, and how it contributes to the whole composition.  I start with the elliptical back.  I explain how we will bend it around a semi-circle, but then before it is dry; bend it yet again to accomplish that important detail.  At this point, I show the class why a c-arm settee just does not work, which is undoubtedly why the old guys knew better than to make them.   This leads us into a discussion of fashionable versus good. While c-arm settees are popular right now, they are not good design, and the passage of time will reveal this.

I explain the complex spindle spacing, and show how the spindles create a visual cascade that wraps around the back  in three dimensions, drawing the viewer’s eye along with it.  I explain the cyma curve between the long and short spindles, how to proportion it, and how it repeats as a theme throughout the entire composition.  I point out the arm’s plane and describe how  aligning it with the vanishing point makes the chair comfortable, and keeps the viewer’s eye in the chair.   I describe the role of the waist and the outward  roll of the arms.  I explain how to proportion the back height by finding the intersection of the leg center lines.  This point  and the vanishing point create a line.  The top of the elliptical back has to touch this line.  

As you can see, a c-arm class is an intense class in chair design.   It took me a very long time to figure out all these layers.  However, I had a good teacher.  I don’t know his name, but he lived and worked somewhere along the Connecticut and Rhode Island border in the 1790s.  I bought an antique c-arm  by him in 1972 for $200.  I purchased the chair because on first sight I immediately recognized it was the best c-arm I had seen.  That still applies.  I based my production (now our class) c-arm on this chair.  Every time I made a c-arm I would compare it to this one, trying to figure out what I was missing.  Early on, my chairs had the same general shape.  That was easy, in that I took the overall dimensions from the chair. However, mine just didn’t have the depth.  Things were missing or, weren’t right.  Young and inexperienced, I just couldn’t get a handle on them. 

 I solved the chair by using  a technique I have relied on all my working life.  I would place the antique c-arm chair part way across the room and stare at it.  Periodically, I would rotate the chair one quarter turn. While taking in the whole, my eye also examined each part.  Sometime, I would close one eye to eliminate depth perception and make the chair go two dimensional.  Patience won out.  Eventually, things I was missing began to come into focus – not all at once, more one at a time.  The chair began to give up the secrets of its details in moments of revelation.  I was discovering things so subtle I had not been able to  identify them previously.  I could only tell when they were missing in the c-arms I made, or weren’t accomplished correctly.  Slowly, layer by layer, I began to figure out what the old guy had done. My admiration for him grew.  

Before the internet and before every chairmaker had a web site, I followed my music appreciation analogy by presenting to the class  a slide show of c-arms made by currently active chairmakers. I used the slide show to illustrate the point that very few Windsor chairmakers can get a c-arm right.  Following the parsing of the chair, I would point out the errors, the omissions, and design flaws in the chairs on the slides.  Today, I no longer do the slide show.  Instead, I just tell the students to tour some web sites.  The point is the same.  Very few chairmakers can get a c-arm right.   This chair remains our craft’s shibboleth.

 Speaking of c-arms…. Actually, this has nothing to do with c-arms, but I needed a segue.  At 84 years old Tom Duffy from California was the oldest guy to ever take our sack back class.  He came with his brother Ray.  Two years later, at age 86 Tom is in this c-arm class, once again setting our record for the oldest man.  Tom’s brother Ray is a mere whippersnapper of 75.  We know because he had his birthday on Tuesday.  Ever delighted with an excuse to party, the staff presented him with a cake and sang Happy Birthday. 

 Our oldest woman to take a sack back was 78.  Our youngest boy and girl were each 12 years old.  Chairmaking is truly an activity for all ages.

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