A Sam Maloof rocking chair is certainly one of those woodworking bucket list items for most woodworkers. Fortunately there are exceptional plans and instructional videos available that makie it a very attainable goal.
I am friends with and occasionally work for Marc Spagnuolo over at The Wood Whisperer. I was originally very interested in making this chair when Marc announced he was adding it to his guild projects. I expressed interest in building along with him; however, when the time came for Marc to start the video series I was just too busy. Then one day I received a message from Marc letting me know he was starting ‘tomorrow’ and that I was welcome to come to his shop to start my chair with him… apparently I have a hard time saying no.
I immediately ran out to the local lumber yard that day and purchased a stack of walnut, came home and picked out the best boards I could find to make up the seat… the first task. I milled them up to dimension in preparation to kick off this chair build.
I bought the plans for this rocking chair through The Wood Whisperer Guild, including the large format templates. The paper templates need to be transferred to a more rigid substrate like 1/4″ plywood or MDF. I mostly use MDF for my templates that are used for transferring shapes and at least 1/2″ plywood for templates that are used for template routing.
The seat is made up of five boards which are coopered to give the seat some side to side curvature. It’s hard to see in this picture, but the outside boards sit higher then the middle board. Because of the coopering it is easier to cut the leg joinery prior to the glue up. Floating tenons (Dominos) were used to keep the boards aligned and prevent slipping during the glue up.
After the seat is glued into one piece, the initial shaping of the seat is done with an angle grinder. I used the King Arthur Holey Galahad fine disk for this operation. These disks are sold with three different grits (course, medium, and fine). They are fairly expensive, so I opted to only purchase the fine disk which was more then adequate for the job. I also had to purchase the King Arthur Universal Nut.
The seat shaping was a ongoing process throughout the build. Significant refinements were done even after the chair was fully assembled, which I’ll explain later. Spokeshaves, card scrappers, and a sander were used to shape and smooth. I used pictures from the Sam Maloof Facebook page as reference during the shaping process. Here is the seat after what I ‘thought’ was the final shaping:
The router bits and a few test cuts make fitting the front legs relatively easy. The front leg joinery is cut and fitted prior to turning them on the lathe. Here is a good shot of the crotch grain I incorporated into the seat.
If you look at Maloof’s rocking chairs, you will see that he always uses two screws to attach each leg. An alternative is to just use one screw. The joint is plenty strong enough to use one screw and it makes it a lot easier. My original plan was to just use one screw; however, my plans changed after snapping off the head of the screw during my dry assembly. I tried several methods to extract the screw with no success. I opted to make two new front legs and attaching them with two screws. The two new screws would straddle the one that was broken off. This worked out well and could have been a disaster, with so much time invested in the seat at this point. I’m not entirely sure what caused the screw to stick which led me to snap the head off, but I wonder if it has to do with the crotch grain it was going in to.
The head rest was the next task. The shaping of my head rest was featured in the guild video. Marc opted for a more contemporary look by removing the ‘horns’ from his chair (which I ended up doing as well), but he wanted to film the headrest carving with the horns. Since my horns were still intact and ready for carving, I brought my chair to his shop to film that process.
Making the spindles was probably the area where I struggled the most. They are relatively easy and fun to make; however, you will see in the pictures below the troubles I had. Here I’m using my spoke shaves to cleanup the bandsaw marks and refine the shape.
Here the spindle blanks cut to shape and ready to be refined.
Here is where I began to have problems…. when the tenons began snapping on me. The photo below shows the top of the spindle. The grain was relatively straight; however, based on how it split (usually with the grain) it appears there was a slight taper in the grain. The tenon fit was probably a little too tight as well causing this to happen when I tried t remove it from the headrest.
In this photo we see a break on the bottom of the spindle. The grain here was pretty straight in relation to the tenon. This type of break happened to me three times… my patience was certainly tested that day. I attribute this break to the design of the chair. The mortise holes cut into the seat are at a 90° angle to the surface, when they should be tilted slightly forward to accommodate the curvature of the spindle. These breaks happened when I pulled the spindles back into place, but I eventually got them to work.
Here is the dry assembly with all of the spindles in place.
At this point it was time to glue the legs to the seat and begin shaping them. I borrowed a Foredom die grinder with a Kutzall Original Ball Nose Burr (Fine) for this process. While I was very happy with the Kutzall Ball Nose Burr, I wasn’t a big fan of the Foredom grinder. The flexible shaft that attaches the hand piece to the motor is too short making it somewhat cumbersome to use. I think an electric die grinder would would be better then the Foredom, but they tend to be bulky. I think the best solution is a pneumatic die grinder.
The arms are the area I was most concerned with in terms of difficulty; however, Marc’s methodical approach made them somewhat easy and fun to carve.
12/4 walnut is a somewhat rare commodity here in Arizona, but I was able to source some decent boards. You can see in the photo below that I was able to find some straight grained boards to follow the curve of the arms.
The hard lines that run from the inside of the arms into the back legs add a nice subtle detail to the chair. I used pictures from the Sam Maloof Facebook page for reference while shaping this section.
While shaping the horns I found a crack that ran through one of them, so I decided to cut them off to avoid problems down the road.
Here is a good look at the crack I found. I thought about trying to fill it with epoxy, but felt more comfortable cutting the horns off altogether.
I like the contemporary look without the horns and it removed most of the crack, so I’m very happy with the decision.
In the picture below you can see the front of the seat has an odd shape to it. More of a “U” shape then the traditional “W” shape. I kept refining the center point of the seat to get that section to the point I was happy with it. I eventually reshaped the sides to get the “W” shape back, which you will see in later pictures. I was very happy with the final shape.
The rockers are made by laminating thin strips of wood in a bending form. The strips are made of walnut to match the chair with one strip of wenge as an accent piece.
Riser blocks are added to the rockers with another strip of wenge before attaching them to the chair.
Dowels and epoxy are used to attach the rockers to the chair legs. The initial shaping of the rockers is done with the rockers off the chair.
Once the rockers are attached, final shaping of the entire chair begins. Now is the time to take a step back and inspect the chair from all angles to see what needs refinement. You can see in this picture that the front of the seat has some nice swooping curves. When you’re satisfied with the final shaping it’s time to start sanding.