Type 2C - Folding Chairs

From Wayne's Dusty Box of Words
From the book 'Oude Meubels' by Sigrid Muller-Christensen

This form is a more significant evolution of folding seating. One that makes a huge difference in comfort.

By making one leg assembly flush with the seat, you can sit across the X. Then, the other leg assembly is extended high above the seat to be used as a backrest. The resemblance to modern folding chairs is particularly clear.

So far, the earliest examples I have found date from the very late 15th Century to the early 16th Century. That encompasses around a dozen surviving chairs in various museum collections around the world. All examples are believed to be from Northern Italy, Austria or Bavaria.

Above at the right, is one that is housed in the Kunstgewerbemuseum, Berlin.

I have seen photos for almost a dozen surviving examples from the 16th Century, but I have only found one contemporary depiction so far shown in the gallery below.

Each of the above examples has straight boards making up both leg assemblies. I have noted three variations:

  1. The leg assembly that makes up the back formed into a shallow S-shape while the other leg assembly is made up of straight boards.
  2. Both leg assemblies are made up of shallow S-shapes.
  3. Both leg assemblies are made up of straight boards.
Sedia Tenaglia, Italy, late 15th Century, Philadelphia Museum of Art

This chair to the right is an example of the 1st type of variation.

Why these variations? Curving the leg/back assembly brings the crest rail (the carved horizontal board on the top of the chair) closer to the vertical making it more comfortable. Just as important, it also brings the crest rail over or close to over the back foot. This makes the chair more stable and less likely to fall over backward if the sitter were to lean into the back.

Curving the front leg assembly doesn’t have a practical benefit, it just balances the legs aesthetically.

Examples with these variations are more complex to execute and are probably later chairs. Or perhaps made in more urban settings where higher-skilled workers were available. There are two ways to achieve this S-shape: steam bending or sawing out of thicker boards.

Sawing out is an obvious solution. But you’d need much thicker wood as stock. This is more expensive and in a world without large kilns, rough lumber dries at about 1” a year, so it would take 3-4 years to prepare wood for this method. Care would also have to be taken to ensure all the boards curve by the same amount.

Steam bending solves both problems. You start with the same flat boards you would construct the simpler version with and then enclose them in some sort of box through which you pump steam. The heat and moisture soften the lignum in the wood and allows it to bend. After an appropriate amount of cooking (depending on the thickness of the wood and the efficiency of your setup), you remove the wood and quickly affix it to a form of the desired shape. Clamp it down. Once it cools it will maintain that shape (within reason). This method produces very repeatable results.

Species with open pores are easier to steam bend then closed pore wood. White oak is the best we have access to, followed by red oak and then beech. Native European brown oak has a tighter pore structure than the American species and probably doesn’t take steam as well as beech. This would help explain the prevalence of beech in the surviving chairs of this type.


Seating is across the X.

Practical Matters:

I have not yet made any chairs of this form. They are in the queue so I should soon have some practical observations.

Extra care should be taken in selecting boards for the back legs on this project. Give their length and the extra pressure them from being leaned on, one or more might fail if the grain "runs out" (the grain runs off the board instead of along it).

I would rate their packability as high as it should fold close to flat.

Construction Notes:

Coming soon!

Common Terms: Sedia tenaglia (Latin), Klappstuhl (German), High Backed Folding Chair

Gallery of Period Illustrations and Extant Examples
Gallery of Modern Reproductions

Folding Chairs Home
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