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A Guide to Chairmaking

I don’t use my hands a lot in my line of work. I think and I type; I build systems out of logic and functions in my mind, a brilliant collection of interlocking ideas, then implement them in the limited representations available in the form of programming languages; shackling the sacred with chains of the profane. It’s all cerebral; in the end, what I do amounts to pressing pieces of plastic to make other pieces of plastic change colour.

It can get depressing, you know?

To fight that feeling, I started making things. Not ideas, not mental constructs, but tangible physical objects. I guess that makes me a bit of a hipster. I like the way that wood spins in the lathe, how the mallet and chisel cut grooves, how the saw and the die interact.

My dad taught me how to do all of this. He was a draughtsman — a naval architect, thank you very much — but that died when the shipbuilding industry did. Even then, he always made his own things. He passed the skills on to me and my brother. We can re-wire houses and fix the plumbing; we can plaster and paint and paper all we need. We can make things.

Neither of us does, not any more. We pay people to do it for us. That’s capitalism for you; we spend time doing what someone else wants us to do, thus we don’t have the time to do what we want doing, so we pay someone else to spend time doing what we want them to do. Vicious cycle. I could spend my free time fixing up the flat, but that’s too big a job and I don’t enjoy it. It’s too much like a project.

I like making things. Unique physical artefacts, if you will. Take this chair. I made the legs myself, turning them on the lathe and then using a guide box, sled, and an old file to scrape out the fluting. It’s a bit of a cheat compared to using a fluting chisel, but at the same time one wrong slip doesn’t turn a piece of carefully-turned mahogany into a lump of firewood.

My dad ended up putting all his skills to use when he lost his job. Home maintenance, he called it. He ended up working long past when he should have retired. The job cost him two fingers and made his arthritis worse. In the end, he died on the job. Keeled over one day. Nothing to do with the tools, it was a brain aneurism. He was using a table-saw at the time. I went to make sure it was really him, but my mother and brother didn’t need to see that. They don’t like that I saw him last; I don’t like thinking about his face looking like that.

The back is a special design. I shaped the legs above the seat into an urn-shaped outline, then cut the back to a similar shape. The carvings on the back are my own, inspired by the designs on the fireplace at my parents' house. It took me three months (and half a dozen pieces of wood) to get just right, but it was worth the time. I need this to be perfect. My hands aren’t what they were. Early signs of Parkinson’s disease. Same thing that took my grandmother.

My brother didn’t take our dad’s passing well. He went the typical macho route of crawling into a bottle. While he may never have been a violent man — he never had my temper — he was a nasty drunk. His wife tried to help him, but in the end she let him. Took the kids and fucked off one evening. I don’t blame her. I told her that much; I didn’t expect to hear back but now we exchange occasionally messages. She did the right thing. I don’t tell him that we talk. It’s better for her and for the kids if he has nothing to do with them. Maybe once he sobers up, if he sobers up. But it’s been five years, and I don’t think that’s going to happen any time soon.

The seat is the simplest part of the whole design, just a hollow square of mahogany, but it is the thing that holds the chair together. Someone who didn’t know what they were doing would treat this as simple construction, but even now everything has to be perfect. The Devil is in the details, and this is one of those places that’s deceptively simple. It has to be right, it has to be perfect. Skimping now would ruin the whole thing. The sprung section is from one of my grandparents' dining chairs, the one at the head of the table. My grandfather’s position of choice.

My mother died soon after my father. She coped with losing him better than any of us. He could cope better than any of us, but she was a near second. She embraced grief and worked through it. It was, in hindsight, inspiring. Then a child with a suspended licence and a Vauxhall Corsa slammed into her at fifty miles an hour as she crossed the road. She was dead before she hit the tarmac. I organised everything; by that point my brother was already… unreliable.

Once I’d finished construction, I made sure that the chair got five coats of varnish. I like varnishing, it’s a chance to get to know the chair as a whole (well, minus the cushion, but you know what I mean). Painting everything, waiting patiently for it to dry, then sanding it smooth with 400-grit and making sure that none of the nooks or crannies have any dust remaining. It’s time-consuming, but it is so very worth it. That’s what I’ve been doing, while recounting this story to the tape recorder. Polishing the final coat, 800-grit sandpaper, and getting rid of the dust.

I made the chair using old tools. Older than my dad would use. He didn’t see the point in manual drills or pedal-powered lathes when electricity was invented to make his life easier. But then, he wasn’t looking to fill his time with the work; it was a way to make the house nicer or to make things for his customers. He put love into his creations, but he didn’t see the need to drag out the process more than it had to be. Love only gets you so far. I’ve been working on this chair, on and off, for more than a year at this point. I knew what it was going to look like from the very beginning. I didn’t have a vision, but when I knew what I had to do, I knew what it had to look like.

The chair is strong. It takes my weight easily when I sit on it, and I’m not the slimmest of people. For the benefit of the tape, I’m taking my shoes off now, I want to make sure I can stand on it. The only creak comes from the springs, and they’ve got reinforcement beneath them. It can handle eighteen and a half stone. It is a good chair.

You might think, what with me recounting some family history, that the chair is something to do with those who died, some means of processing what’s happened to my family in the past few years. It both is and isn’t. Making this thing has been a hobby, a way for me to put a tangible mark on the world, and to distract myself. It is, for a talented amateur, pretty bloody good. For all that my hands no longer work properly, it is likely my magnum opus.

I don’t want distracting from my family, you understand. What happened, happened. I’ve come to terms with it being inevitable. No, I needed distracting from my inheritance. My grandparents, entirely without meaning to, left me with a legacy. I got the Parkinson’s from one, and Alzheimer’s from another. Having seen what happened to both of them — one unhinged in time, the other locked in a prison of her own body — I know what is going to happen to me. I use my brain for one job and my hands for another. I already know that they’re far along the path to being gone, and that process cannot be reversed. Don’t worry, though. I know what I’m doing. No wife, no children, not even a cat any more. I’m not leaving anyone behind.

The rope is tight. I’m stepping forwards.

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