Arts & Crafts Rocker


Arts & Crafts Rocker:
Kevin Ley makes a Morris-style rocking chair.

‘Ley’ back and gently rock

This chair was to be part of a seating set comprising a fireside chair, a sofa and this rocker. The aim was to produce a flexible seating arrangement without resorting to a standard three-piece suite. Some aspects of the project are common to all three pieces and are repeated for convenience.

Designed to rock
The fundamental change to this version of the chair was to add rockers. Even though the fireside chair had been scaled down from the original American measurements, there was also still scope to reduce the seat size even further. The through-tenons in the arms and legs of the fireside version increased the making time considerably so we decided to use blind tenons on this version. This allowed the side rails to be brought up, level with the seat rails and the side slats shortened to fit. The side slats were also reduced in width, and increased in number, to further lighten the look. The end result was a chair, which was obviously linked in form and style to the fireside chair with sufficient difference in the detail to add interest. It’s a ‘Mummy’ version of the ‘Daddy’ chair!

Timber selection
The standard timber for such a chair would be oak, but the room this chair is destined for has large areas of oak in the floor and exposed beams. It also has pieces in elm, burr elm, and walnut, as we like a mix of woods for variety. My wife decided she wanted something darker than sycamore, lighter than cherry, and without the pronounced figure of English oak. After a lot of discussion we settled on American hard maple (Acer saccharum). This is a cream to pale straw-coloured, strong, close-grained timber with fine brown lines giving a nice gentle emphasis to the figure. Some have a ripple effect and I found some very nice ripple in the order and saved it for the arms of this chair. The wood is hard to work, blunts tools and can chip easily. It takes a good natural finish with a smooth, silky feel, but stains unevenly. Very resistant to wear, it is used in flooring, pianos, shoemakers’ lasts, and textile. It should not be confused with soft maple, which is soft, pinkish and streaked.

Attractive ripple figure on the arm

Timber preparation
The advantage of using American timber is that it is, paradoxically, probably more readily available and of more consistent quality and price than some native timbers. It is also available in straight-edged, long boards and a wide range of thicknesses, helping to reduce wastage. I was able to buy a 21⁄2in – rather than 3in-thick board for the leg posts from my local timber merchant and local joinery supplier. The timber had, however, been kiln-dried in America before shipping, and transported and stored in unknown conditions for an unknown time. I treated it as air-dried and conditioned it thoroughly in my wood store, with its dehumidifier for several weeks before use. The workshop was kept, as usual, at end-use conditions, so that conditioning continued throughout the making. 

The sequence of construction is to make the sides, join them together to make the base, add the back frame, fix the rockers, drop in the seat frame and add the loose cushions.

Turning the pegs

Spacer for accurately positioning the side slats

The finished pegs and spacers

Making the sides
Leg posts
The leg posts were cut to size, allowing 25mm over-length and the blind mortices cut for the rails. These were cut on my planer morticing attachment and squared off with a chisel. The posts were drilled for the back pivot pins, and all edges, other than the top, radiused to 3mm with a router. The dowel pin on the top of each leg to attach it to the arm, were turned on the lathe, using my trusty sizing tool and bedan for an exact fit. The legs were carefully marked front and back, left and right.

Fitting the blind dowel on the leg-to-arm joint

Next the rails were cut to size and the tenons formed on the ends. The tenon cheeks were made by multiple cuts on the radial arm saw and the shoulders on the bandsaw. The tenons were cut full, and finally adjusted using a bench hook and shoulder plane, until they were a push-fit. The top and bottom edges of the rails were also radiused to 3mm.

I cut the arms to size and drilled them to take the back adjusting pegs. Blind holes were drilled to take the post dowels. The corner was cut off the outside edge of the back end of each arm, to form the end taper. All the end grain of the arms which was finished with a block plane, and the top and bottom edges were radiused to 3mm. 

Side slats
The slats were faced and thicknessed to 13mm, cut to length, and a short tenon formed top and bottom, again on the radial arm and bandsaws. The underside of the arms were morticed with a router and the slats check fitted. Unfortunately biscuits could not be used here as the slats are too narrow.

The Rockers
The rockers were made of laminated strips of maple, which were cut 25mm over-length, 3mm thick, on the bandsaw. One side was faced on the planer, before cutting from the source piece. I cut extra pieces as insurance in case of accidents during thicknessing. Before thicknessing, each strip was fixed to a piece of 19mm MDF with double-sided carpet tape, and a fine cut set on the thicknesser. Very thin strips are likely to shatter if put through a thicknesser without a backing, and most thicknesser tables won’t go that close to the knives – fortunately!  To form the curve of the rockers I made up a simple jig from ply. The strips were well coated with Titebond and clamped up with sash clamps, then a G-clamp was used at each end to stop the strips sliding out of place during the clamping up. Once set, the rockers were trimmed to length and the edges were finished with a hand plane. The front and back edges were ‘nosed’ by rounding over with a 10mm radius bit in the router.

Laminates for the rocker sleds glued up in the jig

Side brackets
The brackets were cut to size and shaped on the bandsaw, and belt sander, and the outside edges radiused to 3mm. The sides were dry-assembled (without the slats) and the biscuit positions to fit the side brackets
were marked and cut. Holes were drilled in the top of the bracket and the underside of the arm, to take the
fixing dowels.

Assembling the sides
All the parts for the sides were sanded on the belt and orbital sanders and checked for fit. The various clamps required were assembled and adjusted to size, and the parts were finally hand-sanded to 240-grit. The arm was dry-fitted to the top of the posts and glue applied to the mortice and tenon of the side rail. The side rail was clamped into position. The side was checked square and left to set. The arm was then gently tapped off, glue applied to the post dowels and arm blind holes, and all the slat mortice and tenons.   All was briskly fitted together, using a piece of ply to check the spacing of the slats, tapped home with my trusty rubber mallet as necessary, clamped up, and checked square. Once set, the side brackets, dowels and biscuits were glued, fitted, and the brackets clamped into position.

Assembling the base
The complete base is formed by joining the two sides with the front and back seat rails. Glue was applied to the mortices and tenons, and clamps applied. The base was stood on my flat assembly area, checked for square and wind, and left to set. My assembly area is an 8 x 4ft piece of 1 in MDF on the floor of the workshop which has been set true with a spirit level to ensure pieces stand vertical!

Fitting rockers
The base of the chair was laid on its side, the finished rockers were placed on the side of the legs, in the correct position and the line of the cut required on the legs, marked. This slant cut was made by hand, and repeated for the other side. The chair base was then turned upside-down and screws were driven through the rockers into the legs. They were driven at an angle, to form a dovetail shape, countersunk into the underside of the rockers, and the countersunk holes plugged with a piece of maple. The ‘in-use’ angle for the chair, can be adjusted by altering the position of the chair along the rockers, before fixing. There must be a body seated in the correct, comfortable, position in the chair when this is done, to achieve the correct centre of gravity. The ‘at rest’ position of the empty chair may be different. 

Cutting tenon cheeks on radial arm saw

Back frame
The back frame stiles were cut to size, all edges radiused to 3mm and the ends drilled for the pivot pins.
The slats were cut to size and biscuit slots cut in the slats and the stiles. All the pieces were power-sanded
and hand-sanded, dry-fitted, glued and clamped up.

Pivot and adjustment pins were turned on the lathe, again accuracy ensured with my trusty sizing tool! The wooden spacer washers were turned blind on the lathe, and then the hole drilled out on the pillar drill.

Seat frame
This was a simple frame of hardwood, better to take the upholstery nails. I used double biscuits for the corner joints. The seat frame sits on battens screwed and glued to the front and back rails.

As with the fireside chair, Joan Milton who specializes in DIY upholstery supplies, kindly gave us some very helpful advice on the sort of foam and webbing to use. I webbed the seat frame with elasticated webbing and she provided the correct grade of foam, cut to size, for me to have simple box cushions made locally. We decided to have these cushions covered in the same natural, hand-woven, cotton as the fireside chair, but in a different colour.

Webbing on the seat frame

As with the previous piece, this one was also finished with Liberon finishing oil which I prefer to some other Danish oils, as it is more penetrative and gives less colour change. Everything was checked for glue ooze, and hand-sanded down to 320-grit. Several coats of oil were applied in the usual way and the chair left for a few days in my warm workshop to fully cure. The soothing rocking motion of this chair makes it very popular, and even with the further scaling down it is quite big enough for most adults. The figure and ripple on the arms are a particularly attractive feature.


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