Bow Arm Rocker
Popular Woodworking|August 2020
Bow Arm Rocker
This modified design builds off a classic Morris chair.
By Willie Sandry

Inspiration for the next project can come from many sources, but for me, all it took was a trip to an antique furniture dealer. Legacy Modern is a boutique dealer in Portland, OR specializing in arts and crafts furniture, and they happened to have an original Morris chair that caught my eye. It was a Gustav Stickley #336 Morris chair, and I thought it would be the perfect starting point for a Morris rocker.

So, I took detailed measurements from the original chair and created a CAD drawing. However, I wanted a rocking chair rather than an armchair, so I had some additional work to do. To my knowledge, Gus Stickley never produced a bow arm Morris rocker. So, I surrounded myself with rocking chairs to ferret out the keys to good rocker geometry.

I acquired several rocking chairs— from antique to reproductions—to test and measure. I discovered that despite the varied size and style of these chairs the rockers were nearly universal. I chose the rocker radius I liked best an amalgamation of two of my favorite rockers, which turned out to be r=44.

The first thing you notice about the antique Gus Stickley Morris chair is the organic shape of the bowed arms. Next perhaps you’ll see the side seat rails are set at a dramatic angle. This pitches the seat backwards, making it the most comfortable chair I’ve ever perched in. Usually the seat rail angle and slip seat angles are independent from one another. With this design, both are set at the same angle, which results in a finished cushion that is parallel with the side seat rails. Although angled joinery adds some complexity, I think it’s a design element worth preserving.

Two Bending Forms

You’ll need two diff erent bending forms: one for the bow arms, and another for the rockers. The radius of the bow arm form is 74 (the form bulges 2 3/4 over a 40 span), and the radius for the rocker form is 42 (the form bulges 5 1/6 over a 40 span). The arms can be steam bent, but the tighter radius of the rockers require them to be glued laminations. A common structural failure on steam-bent antique rockers is of splitting the wood.

To make the best use of time, start with the steam-bent armrests. The armrests need to steam for 60 minutes and stay clamped in the form for 24 hours. To set the bend, remove the armrest from the form and expose it to dry heat for 24 hours. During this step, it’s helpful to apply a ratchet strap around the armrest that holds the curved shape, while still allowing air to circulate. I used my lumber kiln to apply the dry heat, but a pair of heat lamps works just as well. Whatever you do to the first armrest do the exact same to the next one. The goal is to create two identical curves.

March On with the Legs

We’ll build this as a standard Morris chair first, then trim the legs to make it a rocker. (This gives you one last chance to bail out at the end or stay on course for a rocking chair.) Additionally, the extra leg length is helpful when it comes time to permanently set the rocker angle.

My preferred method for laminated legs with through tenons is to start with 10/4 stock and add thin veneers on two faces. This gives the best of both worlds—quartersawn figure on all four sides—as well as no visible glue line in the exposed tenon. Mill rough leg blanks to 2 1/2 wide x 2 3/8 long, and glue 1/4 thick veneers on two faces. This will result in a leg blank that’s a little oversized, but you’ll have better luck with the glue joint if you stick with 1/4 thick veneer strips. Now plane the blanks to a finished size of 2 1/4 square which will leave each veneer about 3/32 thick.

Cut the legs to rough length, and lay out the mortises. Despite the seat rails being angled, all the leg mortises are straight and square. We’ll deal with the angles when it comes time to tenon the side rails. Chop the leg mortises, 14 in all, with your preferred method. Since the mortises for the seat rails are 51/2 long, dividing them into two smaller mortises will help preserve leg strength. I left 1 of solid wood between the divided mortises, which are each 21/4 long.

Right to the Rails

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August 2020