Thoughts & Ideas

The Cabinetmaker’s Ultimate Challenge – Part 1

We’ve put off making chairs for many years. We’ve made dozens of fabulous dining tables but whenever we are asked about dining chairs to match, we usually make some excuse like “...Chairs are just uneconomical to make in small quantities….”

After two more requests for sets of dining chairs, we decided that it was time to make a serious attempt at the cabinetmaker’s ultimate challenge – designing the perfect chair.

A good dining chair needs to work well on several different levels. We think there’s five things you need to get right -

  1. Comfort
  2. Strength
  3. Lightness
  4. Style
  5. Cost

Let’s look at each of these in turn:

1. Comfort – It may seem like we’re stating the obvious but a dining chair must be comfortable. Many are not. After a good meal with friends, some people will spend an entire evening round the table and the chairs need to be supportive and comfortable. More than any other piece of furniture, a chair has a uniquely intimate relationship with the human body. People come in all different shapes and sizes so it’s good if chairs can be made in a range of sizes. We also want to make chairs that could be supplied with wooden or upholstered seats.

2. Strength – Chairs have a tough life. They are sat on, leaned on and stood on. People tilt them back, spill food on them and dogs chew the legs. They need to be designed to withstand hard use but without becoming too heavy or over engineered.

3. Lightness – A dining chair should be light enough to move around easily but without sacrificing comfort or strength. A very fine balance needs to be struck between a light and graceful design and strength. The position of the joints and the thickness of each component is crucial.

4. Style – Over the centuries, there have been countless attempts at designing the ideal chair. Many designers are preoccupied with originality over integrity. A unique design does not necessarily mean a successful design. It’s good for a chair to look “stylish” (and that can mean different things to different people) but it also has to perform well in every other way. Every designer stands on the shoulders of those who went before and design classics like the Windsor chair have evolved over centuries. They are classics for a reason. We’d like to design a chair that ticks all the boxes – including stylish looks.

Lethenty Cabinetmakers Aberdeenshire Scotland woodwork and furniture

Cabinetmaker Phil Pratt working on an early prototype of the back leg design.

5. Cost – This is the big one. It would be far easier to design the perfect chair if cost was not an issue but that’s rarely the case. If we were to design a really comfortable chair that was light, strong and good looking but it ended up costing several thousand pounds, it would not be a successful design. In designing a chair, we are attempting to find the best compromise between form, function and cost. Our chairs will be relatively expensive compared to mass produced imports but hopefully, not completely out of reach. The cost is directly influenced by the economies of scale. If we were to design and make just one or two chairs, they would indeed cost a thousand pounds each. If we were to make chairs in small batches of twenty or thirty at a time, they would cost several hundred pounds each. If we were to make chairs by the thousand, they would probably need to be made in China – but that’s globalisation for you!

So, when designing the perfect chair, each one of these five factors needs to be considered as each one directly influences all the others.

In truth, there’s no such thing as the perfect chair but we are going to give it our best shot. To find out how we got on, look out for The Cabinetmaker’s Ultimate Challenge – Part 2.