When Christopher Schwarz started talking up the Roorkhee chair I was intrigued because the project looked so easy. Why not give it a try? It would supply a use for some of the mahogany scraps left over from my table. After completing the table and moving it out of the shop I started tidying up, and ran across those scraps. In the blink of an eye the joinery for the chair was complete. (Meanwhile the finishing of the table was proceeding at a glacial pace in the other room and wasn’t even half done.)
Schwarz says that this project is very forgiving, and I have to agree. A variety of things went wrong, and yet the chair still works fine. This chair requires tapered mortise and tenon joints. The tapered mortise and tenon is new to me and is nice because the joint wedges together and is remarkably tight without glue. I made a paper towel holder for the shop to test the joint and the requisite special tools, a reamer and giant pencil sharpener. These tools enabled me to quickly and easily cut the joint. Or not so easily. My wrist got tired of spinning the tenon cutter on the hard maple dowels. As I was finishing up the last one my eyes fell to the instructions sheet which read, “As supplied, the cutting edge is adequate for rough work in most woods; however, accuracy and surface finish will be improved with additional sharpening.”
After cutting the tenons I made the mortises by drilling a hole (which I did on the drill press) and then tapering it with the reamer. Schwarz has a video where he shows how to test that your mortise is square using one of the rails you have cut, and how to correct when it’s not. I carefully followed this method. Once everything was done and I was assembling the chair I discovered that the tenons weren’t straight. So in fact my test that the mortises were square was no good, and instead had encouraged me to produce crooked mortises. Despite this problem, the chair works.
The challenge in making this chair is the leather work. The Popular Woodworking article gives detailed drawings for the woodworking part of this project, but is vague about the leather work. Advice is lacking on how to fit the leather parts to the structure. Schwarz has also simplified the design since he wrote the article, eliminating two straps that are screwed to the legs and substituting a pair of buckles on the wide strap that runs from side to side behind the front rail. In doing the leather work I had trouble cutting the leather the right length. The seat sags. When I made the aforementioned wide strap it was about a foot too long. I kept having to cut the buckle part longer and add more holes. When I made the back rest, I made one side a bit too tight, so you have to force the wooden rail in. Despite all of these problems, the chair works great and is remarkably comfortable: a very forgiving project indeed.
Another gotcha is the choice of leather. I used leather from Brettuns Village because it was cheap and Schwarz mentioned them. Brettuns Village is a leather discounter that gets random shipments from tanneries. The leather I selected was the only one in stock at the time that appeared suitable: it was 6 oz leather available in a “side”—that’s half a cow. I suspect, however, that this leather might be a bit stretchier than the ideal. And it also has a surface that is very easily marked by the lightest touch or scratch. The article gives no advice at all on how to lay out the leather pieces on the side of leather. It seems that leather does have a grain direction and in principle you should line up parts along the grain, which means parallel to the back of the animal. And you should avoid the belly area, which is weaker and more stretchy, and use the area along the back for parts that need to be strong. The leather arm rests are remarkably comfortable because they give a little and can twist and flex. But even though I tried to make the arm rests as tight as possible, you can see in the picture that they are sagging quite a bit. Perhaps I need to try making them from a double layer like Schwarz does in his later chairs. I asked Schwarz about choice of leather and the answer that emerged was that you can’t judge the leather by its weight. Despite being thick, it could be too stretchy or too soft. Instead, ask the leather vendor if the leather is suitable.
Schwarz warns on a blog post that if you don’t use straight grained dowels for the rails they may split. He said only 10% of the dowels at the home store were straight grained enough. I ordered mine from McMaster and found that all of them were nice and straight grained.
An interesting property of this chair is that the frame is not rigid and none of the joints are glued, so it can shift and flex. You don’t notice this when sitting in it, but if you pick it up, the structure moves. As a result, the structure can shift to accommodate uneven ground. Even with one leg a couple inches off the ground, all four legs rest solidly on the floor.
This chair, as designed, is low to the ground. My next one will have longer legs. This chair also has the seat tipped backwards more than I’m comfortable with. I’ll make my next one closer to flat. I wonder if it would work to make a chair with two configurations, a more reclined option and a more level one. In the published design, the chair has handholds turned into the legs near the top. I figured I could dispense with these, since they were a complication to make with no lathe. However, I noticed that without them, the leather on the back rubs against the leg. These spaces provide clearance for the leather on the seat back when the back of the chair tips down. A problem not mentioned in the article is that the chair tends to unscrew itself in use. I asked Schwarz what he does about this problem and he said he puts in a square nut to jam against the wing nut. Why square? Because square nuts are earlier historically—not something I care about. I wonder, though, having deployed hex nuts, if the square ones would be easier to jam tightly without tools. I have trouble holding onto the hex nut.