Building a Carved Functional-Art Chair to Match the Tilt Front Desk

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Blog entry by Mark A. DeCou posted 10-22-2007 06:17 AM 2167 reads 0 times favorited 16 comments Add to Favorites Watch

I’ve had a fun week. I’m building a chair to match the Tilt Front Desk that I previously posted, and blogged about. If you want to read about the desk, the posting link is given at the bottom of this blog.

The desk chair is designed to fit the customer’s kitchen, as the desk is being placed in the kitchen area. She loves to cook, and hopes to move her laptop computer station to the kitchen where she can capture her thoughts on her cooking blog, and do more writing.

To design her a chair, I realized that if she does a lot of laptop computer writing, she will sit in the chair for long periods of time, and it needs to fit her ergonomically, with her fingers on the keyboard. This presents a different sitting position than a dining chair, where a person’s arms are on the dining table top, or resting in the lap.

I measured several aspects of her sitting position (careful how you say that) when designing the tilt-down desk work top, and the chair height. I want to make it all as comfortable to use as possible for her. Also, I enjoy making functional-art for people, using my mechanical engineering background to solve problems, and so this is a good project to do that.

It seems a little uncomfortable at times measuring up someone else’s wife so accurately, but it has to be done to make it fit. Like a tailored suit, the chair fits her. If it fits someone else, that’s great, but this is “her” chair.

Ok, enough background, here’s the process so far:

I started on Monday at 5am last week, and worked all week, except Thursday when I took off the day for parent-teach conferences at the elementary school, and to take my daughter to see the doctor in Wichita.

Good report at the school, and the doctor, so it’s back to work on Friday at 5am.

I find it hard to sleep when so much fun is just waiting for me in the shop behind the house.

These photos represent 50.5 hours of actual work. I don’t log the “mess around” times I have each day, as that would only skew my record log for future use.

I know, I know, I’m slow. But, I’m building templates for each part, just in case I want to make a duplicate, or a set of duplicates sometime in the future.

Also, how do you rush “Art?” It is, what it is. It takes, what it takes. Now, doesn’t that sound all romantic?

It’s what I keep telling myself, and my wife, as she waves bills at me from the house office window.

Also, I was slowed some because I had several visitors this week, something that is happening more and more.

I thought when I hid myself in the Flinthills, it would be hard to find me, giving me lots of uninterupted work time. Still, it’s nice to see a visitor, really.

Sticking a talkative extrovert out in the country can drive him nuts without some company once in a while. Sometimes when I get to talking too long in the house, the wife says, ”would you Pleeeease go back to work?”

It’s also an honor to stop work and greet someone that took the time to come see us. Still, there is the work to do that pays our bills, that don’t wait for anyone.

One visitor looked at the tilt-front desk sitting in my shop, and the chair in process, and commented while looking around the cramped and disorganized space, ”It is really amazing what you can do in this….this…..huh…this…. tiny…. well, you know….small space you have to work in.”

My wife asked me later that day if I was offended by the comment?

No, I wasn’t offended, what she said is true, it amazes me also.” I replied.

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My original hand drawn artwork has been placed on tracing paper. I will transfer the artwork to the wood back crest rail with carbon paper. I’m not trying to do a sketch for sale, the quick sketch is done in just a few minutes, maybe 2-3 minutes, just to hammer out the concept, and get me back to what I want to do…..carve.

I have been told for years that I need to do pen and ink drawings and sell prints. I tried it, but grew bored with the work.

I am a functional-artist. To gather my interest and passion, a piece must have a functional purpose, be practical for human use, but also decorative in appearance and design.

I found that I would sit and try to draw on paper, getting bored in a few minutes, only wishing the work was finished. But, if I sit with a knife and scrimshaw that same artwork on a powderhorn, I can sit through 200 hours of work, and feel sad when it is finally finished.

It’s a hang-up I realize, probably seated deep within my subconsious mind, by some traumatic childhood event. But, it is who I am, so it is what I do. Besides, I can’t recall any traumatic events. Most likely it comes from being raised by two functional-artists.

At the time I titled this sketch “Cottonwoods on the Prairie.” Sounded cute to me, focusing on Trees.

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After the artwork has been transferred. I use a combination of tools to cut the relief carving and do the work.

Here is a photo with the finished carving, and all of the tools I used to do the work.

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Here is a closer photo of the carving. I am again trying to capture the styling of Kansas artist, the Late-Birger Sandzen, who did many Kansas landscapes in an impressionistic style, in his oil paintings, pencil drawings, pen and ink sketches, woodcut prints, and linoleum cut prints. I’m a big fan of his work, as many are.

Even though I started with a sketch called something else, I changed my mind during the carving, and added a setting sun on the western hills in the background, between the trees.

So, I changed the name of the art to “Sunset on the Prairie.”

The sun looks like this (sort of) on the Flinthill’s prairie behind my shop, so I have the real thing for inspiration.

I liked the art much better this way, as the change gives focus near the center, the trees drawing the eye back to the center. The focus is the Sun now, going down, setting on the hills, lighting up the horizon in wonderful orange hues, bringing images of romantic prairie sunsets, arguably, the finest in the world.

Still, I use the trees blowing in the south wind to give it all life and movement, and to move the eyes back to the center of the art. I’m hoping that the trees show the “South wind” which rarely halts here on the prairie.

Hey, it’s my art, I can do what I want.

I know my customer well enough to take this liberty with the design.

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Here is another photo, farther back, showing the chair carving and how it relates to the desk carving. When the chair is glued up and finished, it will have the same yellowed finish and brown airbrushing work as the desk front.

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Here I’m working through the joinery. I’m not using pocket screws, biscuits, or loose tenons. It’s all old fashioned style mortise and tenon joinery.

Why? It’s what I sold the customer.

Still, it is a lot of work to get that many joints all snug and perfect.

It sounded like fun in the bid, but it is work making it happen. It has taken me all week.

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Here is a photo showing the back crest rail in place between the rear legs. I have the curved lumbar slats in place also now. I feel that the comfort of a chair hinges on whether the lumbar support is stiff, at the right curve, and in the right place. Something I learned at the Marc Adams School on Sculpted Rocking Chairs back in the year 2000. Good stuff I learned there.

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Here is a photo showing all of the joinery in place. I have also modified the back slats, giving them a profile curve on the side. I felt it improved the “negative space” of the sculpture, which is just as important as the “positive space.” The positive space is the wood, the negative space is the shape that the wood pieces form between them in the open area. Another gem I learned at the Marc Adams School.

——Update at 8:08am 10-22-07—-
Bob #2 noticed that I didn’t have a cross tie to hold the front legs apart. He is correct, it is an essential part of making a chair that survives use. I had thought about talking about the absence of the cross tie in my photos, but at 1am, I was tired and decided to quit writing. I told myself, “nobody will notice.”

Well, thanks for noticing Bob #2, as I don’t want anyone to think that I am leaving it out. I wanted to wait on placing it, and making a piece to fit, until after I saw where the back of the customer’s feet came when she crosses her ankles, and kicks them back under the chair.

She did the “fit-test” for me last night, and so I was able to see where to place the cross tie where it won’t touch the back of her achilles tendon when she sits in that position. In the past, I have been seated in chairs (made by someone else) where the cross-tie nudged my heel tendon, and after awhile, it gets annoying. Now, that I know where to place the cross-tie, I will add that board today. Also, since I don’t know how long to make it, I have to wait until the other boards are in place before I can size it and do the joinery. I have that problem because I’m not using blueprints to make the chair, just fitting and sticking it together one piece at time. Another reason it is a slow process. Thanks again for catching this Bob #2.

#3,455: ”You might be a lumberjock if you can see a photo of someone’s work and quickly see a design flaw.”

Oh yea, make that #3,456: ”You might be a lumberjock if you can respectfully tell someone else that they need something done to their project without offending them.”


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Another photo from the side.

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Another photo from the front.

Notice the metal chair in the background, sitting on the bench (Bosch 4000 table saw top).

That old metal industrial hospital chair is the customer’s chair they bought at an auction once. I asked the customer to find a chair in her house that she liked the best, the one that she felt fit her the best.

Then, I watched her sit in it, and asked her what she liked about it. Then, I asked what she didn’t like. I took measurements of what I thought I could improve in the design. I felt pretty confident that I could improve her comfort level significantly over the old metal chair.

Mainly, I raised the front of the seat, while lowering the back, added the lumbar curve at just the right spot, raised the crest rail to hit her between the shoulders, and lengthened the seat a little bit.

She stopped by this evening to give the chair a fit-test before I start gluing it up this coming week.

She likes it, so that is good.

For the seat, I will be making a seat frame, with webbing, and a padded cushion with a leather wrapped top. I’ll do that work myself, and so that is this week’s work, so that will be another blog. I’m trying to get this chair finished in time for an art showing I’m doing on Friday night this week. Busy week.

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Here is the link to the project posting of the Tilt Front Desk:

Thanks for reading,
Mark DeCou

(Note: these photos, the writing, the design, the sketches, and the original artwork are all protected by copyright by M.A. DeCou 10-21-2007. No unauthorized use of this information is allowed. Thanks for your help.)

-- Mark DeCou - American Contemporary Craft Artisan -

16 comments so far

View Dan'um Style's profile

Dan'um Style

14172 posts in 3978 days

#1 posted 10-22-2007 06:23 AM

Beautiful work Mark … you are a lucky woodworker ! Great carving

-- keeping myself entertained ... Humor and fun lubricate the brain

View 's profile

593 posts in 3967 days

#2 posted 10-22-2007 09:47 AM

As always, it is hard to say what is more interesting in your projects, either the final product that issues of them or the creative process you follow to get through.

Please, keep them coming, it is very instructional. I also think that beauty without some smart decisions behind (in this case, ergonomics) has no place when building furniture. It is OK if it is pure sculpture or art but if you have to use it on a daily basis, you need that backup.

This chair is a nice complement to the desk by the way.

View Sawdust2's profile


1466 posts in 4083 days

#3 posted 10-22-2007 10:57 AM

Those are the words I don’t have to describe your handiwork.

-- No piece is cut too short. It was meant for a smaller project.

View Roger Strautman's profile

Roger Strautman

656 posts in 4129 days

#4 posted 10-22-2007 12:11 PM

I have never made a chair but I may have to give this chair making thing a try after seeing this blog. Thanks for this blog Mark.

I’m glad to see in the one photo that you use hearing protection. I didn’t for many years and at 46 I had to get hearing aids.

-- " All Things At First Appear Difficult"

View GaryK's profile


10262 posts in 3983 days

#5 posted 10-22-2007 12:14 PM

Great chair! I love the carving.

I have some chairs on my list of things to make.


-- Gary - Never pass up the opportunity to make a mistake look like you planned it that way - Tyler, TX

View MsDebbieP's profile


18615 posts in 4156 days

#6 posted 10-22-2007 12:49 PM

it seems to be going rather quickly!

I think the “SETTING sun” is most appropriate for something that people will be “setting” on :)

Re: your art, you are a lucky man to have discovered what you love to do – and have followed that path.

-- ~ Debbie, Canada (

View Lee A. Jesberger's profile

Lee A. Jesberger

6855 posts in 3975 days

#7 posted 10-22-2007 02:24 PM

Hi Mark;

Are you positive about the negative space? LOL

Your blog explains what many clients, some pros and many prospective clients never catch. By that I mean all the time spent in engineering a practical, yet functional, yet attractive piece, and still be affordable.

I am starting a project this week for a flower shop in small town near me. It is a combination reception desk / design station for two floral designers / register station / and counter where the designers make the arrangements, with imput and “help” from the customer.

It is ten feet long, and four and a half feet wide.

I spent several hours questioning the owner of the flower shop about his desires, the designers about the functionality of the existing one, what they liked, what they hated, where the customers stood, etc…

Then I drew it, a very rough sketch,(I have worked with this client in the past, only to learn he has a tendency to take your drawing to a handyman, and get something close, rather poorly built, but cheaper.)

The floral designers loved the sketch regarding the actual design and functionality of it.

The owner, who fancies himself a very smart individual, wanted to go over every detail. For another three hours we discussed every measurement, how it would be used, etc…

We revised my skectch about four times, and each time the fellow kept saying, “I think we’re zeroing in on it now”.

Three hours later, with his help, we drew an EXACT copy of the original sketch! I guess he thought all my questioning at the initial meeting was just for show!

It gets worse, as he didn’t have a deposit check, and wanted me to come back the following week to pick it up.

Since I am working about two blocks away, that wasn’t too much of a problem, but I did have a second guy with me this time. (he’s working on the other project). The store owner wanted to review the sketch.

I am a patient person, but I have a limit. Well this “meeting” took another hour just to pry a check from his hands. (imagine his wife dealing with this, I mean most guys are afraid of commitments, but not like this guy).

The point is here’s a guy who want this to be perfect, inexpensive, and all the while wastes hours of your time. Does he not realise HE will pay for this?

Regarding the shop visitors, keep that fresh in your mind when considering your possible move to the “big city”.

I enjoy showing people the shop, and the work, but get aggravated with the interruption to my schedule it causes.

Getting back into the swing of things is difficult after such an interruption.

Great looking chair, Mark. Your talents are inspiring!


-- by Lee A. Jesberger

View MsDebbieP's profile


18615 posts in 4156 days

#8 posted 10-22-2007 02:41 PM

we had a discussion, last spring, about strategies people used to keep the visitors a pleasure to have rather than an unwanted interuption.

Lee, I thought you were going to tell us that when you went to get the cheque he had changed his mind (and had hired that handyman instead).

-- ~ Debbie, Canada (

View Bob #2's profile

Bob #2

3809 posts in 4017 days

#9 posted 10-22-2007 02:45 PM

Great work Mark.
I have to ask why you did not tie the sides of the legs with a rail?
Visually it make the piece attractive but I wonder if it will be practicle to leave off a tie there in the long run.

p.s. wish I had the patience to carve like that and I love your busy shop!


-- A mind, like a home, is furnished by its owner

View SPalm's profile


5320 posts in 3877 days

#10 posted 10-22-2007 02:48 PM

Absolutely stunning. Dang, I wish I had 20 percent of your artistic ability. I appreciate your blogging about this, it is a real inspiration.


-- -- I'm no rocket surgeon

View Mark A. DeCou's profile

Mark A. DeCou

2009 posts in 4401 days

#11 posted 10-22-2007 02:58 PM

Hey thanks everyone. Your comments are encouraging.

BOB #2: thanks for catching that point about the cross tie. I will put one in, but I wanted to wait until to position it until the customer sat it the chair, and I could see where her crossed ankles are when she puts her legs back under the chair. She did the excerise for me last night, and showed me where I can put the cross tie without affecting the comfort of the position for her. I’ll go back today and add the cross tie. Since I start with the back legs, I don’t know how long to make it, or where to put it until the chair joinery is all complete. Not like making a chair from a set of blueprints. I get bored doing that.

I’ll go back and add that detail of the project in the text above. Thanks for pointing it out. I started to talk about it, and then at 1am this morning I was tired and decided to quit writing and go to bed. I should have known that someone would notice the absence of the cross tie. Good eyes, and thanks for pointing it out. It is very important to a chair that lasts a long time.

Don’t worry Steve, sometimes I wish I had the other 80% of what someone else has. Building furniture and art for a living is a tough road financially. If only I liked doing something else, I could get a 40 hour per week job with benenfits and a retirement account. Oh yea, I used to have one of those jobs….......

Lee: great story. I hope you will continue in your blog with the progress of the project. Now, I’m hooked and want to see the process and end result.

thanks everyone,

-- Mark DeCou - American Contemporary Craft Artisan -

View mot's profile


4911 posts in 4032 days

#12 posted 10-22-2007 03:23 PM

I always sit back and just stare at your projects, Mark. Just great stuff!

-- You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation. (Plato)

View scott shangraw's profile

scott shangraw

513 posts in 4064 days

#13 posted 10-22-2007 05:53 PM

Wow!! this is going to make a great set.

-- Scott NM,

View Thos. Angle's profile

Thos. Angle

4444 posts in 3958 days

#14 posted 10-23-2007 12:49 AM

Great work, Mark. Like Tom I also stare for a while when you post something. They look great.

-- Thos. Angle, Jordan Valley, Oregon

View schroeder's profile


702 posts in 4121 days

#15 posted 10-28-2007 01:26 AM

Stunning! – I’m going to try some relief carving – very inspirational! – Thanks Mark

-- The Gnarly Wood Shoppe

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