Recreating Rohlfs - Charles Rohlfs 1898 Desk Chair

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Blog entry by Woodbridge posted 05-29-2012 03:08 AM 4600 reads 3 times favorited 4 comments Add to Favorites Watch

My wife and I just returned from a trip to New York city. It is one of the places that we have wanted to visit and since I retired at the end of 2011 we have a bit more freedom to travel. It was also a chance for me to see some of Charles Rohlfs work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We also took the train to Princeton New Jersey to see a few other Rohlfs pieces on display at the Princeton University Art Museum.

The Met is a fabulous art gallery. It is absolutely massive and would be best explored over several visits. There is so much to see and explore.

Four pieces were on display Rohlfs 1898 Desk Chair and his Tall Case Clock at the Met and Rohlfs Tall Back Chair and Chiffioner at the Princeton University Art Musuem. Fellow LJer Mark DeCou wrote about seeing Rohlfs Desk on his visit to the Nelson Atkins Art Gallery in Kansas City

Recreating Rohlfs

I’ve titled my frist blog Recreating Rohlfs since one of my retirement woodworking objectives for this year is to recreate three of Charles Rohlfs iconic chairs. So far I have attempted reproductions of Rohlfs Rocking Chair and his 1898 Desk Chair. I`ve got a Maloof style rocker on the go right now and when that is finished I will begin to work on Rohlfs Tall Back Chair.

As a woodworker for many years I was certainly familiar with names like Morris, Stickley and Greene and their work. Their furniture has been reproduced by many woodworkers and is routinely featured in woodworking magazines. There are numerous books with plans to create these arts and crafts era works. Charles Rohlfs has not received the same popular notoriety as his other arts and crafts contemporaries.

My main source of information about these chairs is the book “The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs” by Dr Joseph Cunningham. The book is written from what I would call an “art history” perspective and of course my main interest is to glean enough information to figure out the dimensions and how the chairs were constructed

The book contains a few pictures of each of Rohlfs more noted works, including the three chairs I mentioned, including the overall height width and depth dimensions. As well, there are a few black and white period pictures which show these pieces in Rohlfs home. From these additional views you can obtain some additional perspectives on how his chairs were constructed.

Using these pictures, and the basic dimensions I then tried to estimate the other dimensions of the chair, trying to take account of the “perspective” effect of the photographs. There is an interesting FWW (May/June 2004) on “Scaling Furniture from Photos” which helped refresh my 35 years old memories from high school drafting and first year engineering. CAD was a decade or so away at that time. No doubt, were I so inclined to search and learn how to use it, I’m sure I could find and an application out there (Sketch-up?) that can take a scanned photograph and a few basic dimensions and produce scaled drawings.

However when I was building the 1898 Desk Chair I was missing information and not surprisingly I had to make some educated guesses on some dimensions and other details of the chair. The visit to the Met was my opportunity to obtain this missing information and to see Rohlfs work first hand.

Unfortunately the way the chair was positioned did not allow a clear view of the back or the side. It was tucked away in a corner. As well, the lighting in the gallery was very subdued and the low light level made taking good pictures difficult.

The gallery Docent was a friendly gentleman. I explained to him that I am building Rohlfs chairs and came to the Met specifically to see and photograph this particular chair. I asked him if he would go behind the chair and take some pictures for me, but he declined. A few moments later when the gallery was empty he came to me and said “Go do what you have to do, I won’t see anything”. So without touching the chair I did manage to take a few pictures from the side to at least get a better idea of the shape of the vertical brace.

Overall Impressions

The chair is very light looking. The back, legs and other pieces are actually quite thin, likely less than three quarters inch. The carving is also very fine and crisp. The strands of the webbing, like the legs are quite thin.

What was the thickness of the legs and pieces that make up the X Frame structure?

When making my chair I used a leg thickness of 7/8”. The legs and braces of the orginal chair are thinner. Although I don’t have and exact dimension they are certainly ¾” or slightly less. Rescaling based on the photos I have taken I estimate the thickness at 21/32”. I was surprised how light the structure of the overall chair looked.

What was the shape of the vertical brace that runs up the back of the chair?

The Rohlfs desk chair has a vertical brace attached to the back of the chair, to stiffen and strengthen the back. I did not have a clear side view picture of the chair and had to guess at what this might look like. The actual chair has a more elaborate shape.

Was the back of the chair slanted slightly or is it vertical?

From one of the period pictures of Rohlfs living room, it looked like the back of the desk chair may have been at slight angle rather than absolutely vertical. However this was hard to confirm from the picture so I made my chair with the back straight. It turns out Rohlfs Desk Chair has the back angled. Based on the pictures I took I have scaled this angle at 5 degrees from vertical. This is consistent with angles typically used in hallway type chairs.

Is there a gusset under the seat?

From one of the pictures I took it appears that there may be a gusset or brace attached to the seat bottom and chair back. I did not notice this until I got back home and was looking at the pictures. What do you think?

Book matched seat

The seat is made from a book matched piece , the rays in the oak aligned nicely with the pear shaped seat

Leg/Stretcher/X Brace Joint

The angle between the X brace and the stretcher is 40 degrees. The angle between the stretcher and the leg and back is 69 degrees. When I was assembling the chair I also realized I needed to cut this second angle. I wondered if Rohlfs chair had the same detail and in a round about way I was able to answer this question.

Although I did not get a clear picture of the X braces from the outside I do have a picture of Rohlfs chair showing the X brace/bottom stretcher/leg joint from the inside.

On the original in this picture the X brace meets the leg in a point. Compare that to my reproduction where the X brace has been clipped at 69 degrees. If this is not done there will be a gap between the X brace and the leg when viewed from the front side. In this case I prefer my method since it results in a tight joint with no gap.

It was fun for me to see Rohlfs work first hand and to reverse engineer his 1898 desk chair. I will definitely attempt another reproduction down the road now that I have clarified some of my questions about this chair.

-- Peter, Woodbridge, Ontario

4 comments so far

View DocSavage45's profile


8872 posts in 3376 days

#1 posted 05-29-2012 07:23 AM

Great blog and tutorial. thanks for posting it.

-- Cau Haus Designs, Thomas J. Tieffenbacher

View kenn's profile


813 posts in 4254 days

#2 posted 05-30-2012 01:39 AM

It is always tough to figure what the old masters did when we try to recreate their work. You did a great job digging through your info for a complex chair. Thanks for sharing.

-- Every cloud has a silver lining

View justoneofme's profile


806 posts in 3014 days

#3 posted 06-16-2012 02:18 AM

Hi Peter: It takes a lot of fortitude to reconstruct a complicated masterpiece such as this without a pattern (other than photos) to follow … but it would seem you’ve mastered that very well judging from the previous chairs you’ve worked on!! Good luck … I’m looking forward to viewing the completion of this, your third masterpiece chair!

-- Elaine in Duncan

View rmadja's profile


4 posts in 2682 days

#4 posted 07-08-2012 03:28 PM

Really nicely done. I agree with you that the extra angle cut on the x-brace. That really cleans up the joint.

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