Sunday, 9 November 2008

Never listen to your mother-in-law...

One of the more involved builds I have done to date is a small love seat based on a Chippendale design. That said, I never intended to build a couch from scratch. 

As I have mentioned previously, we sold our house, moved onto our boat where we lived for a number of years, then sold the boat and moved back to land. When we sold the house we put all of our furniture in storage, not knowing where we were headed in the future. When we sold the boat and moved back to land, it was like Christmas as the movers moved in furniture we hadn't seen in seven years, some of which we had forgotten we even owned.

The problem we ended up facing was a matter of scale - literally. Our friends and family were shocked that we went from a house with 3500 square feet of living space to a 40' boat with only 550 square feet of living space and loved every minute of it. That boat taught us very quickly that excess is unnecessary and actually impedes your lifestyle. Anyway, after a few years, small became normal for us so when we begrudgingly gave up the boat and moved back to land, the 800 square foot apartment we moved into seemed like a small concert hall. It felt that way right up until those movers moved in the furniture. Man, did that apartment shrink in a hurry.

Just as a side-bar, the direct expenses of keeping a boat on the water year-round is not that much different than supporting a house. Where you save the money is on the indirect costs, especially if you enforce the "One on - One off" rule. All this rule means is that if you bring something new onto the boat you have to take something old off, boating equipment and tools exempted, of course. This was a very strong rule for me and it saved me a fortune over the years. When my wife and I were out shopping and she saw something she liked she would ask me, "What do you think about this?" I would always answer, "Its lovely. What are you planning to replace with it?" Worked every time.

So anyway, we couldn't find a couch that was the size we wanted and when we investigated a custom built one all we got was a high priced quote and a whole lot of attitude. I can't figure out retailers today, but that is for another blog to discuss. What I ended up doing was telling them all to stuff it and decided to build my own.

I thought this was a great idea until I realized that I didn't have a clue how to built one. I searched the web for months and finally learned that Fine Woodworking, back in the 1980's, had published an article that included plans for a full sized Chippendale couch built in the traditional manner. Not having a copy of the magazine, I turned to eBay again, kept a watch out for one and eventually purchased a copy. I then took the proportions offered in the magazine article and scaled it down to our needs and changed the design of the arms to reflect those of a Duncan Fife couch I had seen years ago. I drew up a set of plans and went from there.

The entire frame is made from hard maple with all the joints being mortise and tenon which were glued and pinned. All of the legs are mahogany. The arms were laid up using multiple pieces of maple and shaped using a plane, rasp and a pull shave. The mahogany front legs sweep up the entire length of the arms and to ensure they wouldn't split, I drilled and drove dowels along their lengths where the grain was at right-angles and I thought would be the weakest points.

Once the frame was completed I stained and varnished the legs and cross members. The rest of the frame received two coats of S1 epoxy sealer. The manufacturer of this stuff claims it seals the wood but allows it to breath, however that works. Having used it consistently on the mahogany planking of our boat I can attest to their claims that it does retard rot. I have no idea why I sealed the frame with this but it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Once the frame was complete I brought it home from the shop I share with a friend to upholster it. This turned out to be the biggest pain of the entire project.

First, all of the openings in the frame had to be closed with webbing.

Next, all of he coil springs had to be sewn in.

Once the springs are sewn in you have to tie them all together and tie them off to the frame, which gives the seat and back its basic shape.

This is the point where things fell apart for me - not the work on the frame that I had completed, but my abilities as an upholster. I think I gave it four good old college tries but I could never get the material to cover the arms smooth enough. I decided to send it out and have a pro do the covering and this is where I made my next mistake - I listened to my mother-in-law. She had dealt with an upholster many, many years before and she knew he was still in business. She called him and set it up for me to take the frame into his shop.

When I arrived I found this ancient man who probably upholstered the seats on the Ark. My first reaction was, "Wow, a real old-time craftsman", but then I looked around and realized I was standing in the middle of the most disorganized shop I had ever seen, I started to question that judgement. There were literally paths throughout the shop defined by walls of old material, broken bits of furniture framing, rolls of foam, furniture, and other bits and pieces of junk I couldn't even recognize. The guy looked so old and feeble that I really felt my neck allowing him to help me bring in the frame from the roof of the car. I tried to explain what I was looking for but I knew he didn't hear a word I said. He just stared out the window as I spoke, his eyes glazed over. When I had finished explaining what I wanted his only reply to me was, "$650.00". Not another word, no expression, just "$650.00". When we got back into the car I turned to my wife and said, "This is going to be trouble".

Needless to say, I am not fully happy with the man's results but for $650.00, I couldn't argue. One quote I had received from another upholster was $1600.00, so the old adage, you get what you pay for, rings true in this case and I only have myself to blame. While the shape is fine and the material relatively smooth, he folded material where I didn't want it folded and added piping where I could never imagine he would put it, or even could put it.

The most aggravating thing, though, is something I never would have thought that he would do in a million years. I spent weeks building this couch frame copying the way these things have been built for hundreds of years. After months of research I spent days installing webbing, sewing in springs and tying them all together in the traditional manner. This guy grew up with this type of work and probably worked on framing of this type his first day on the job. Working on this type of upholstery job should have been second nature to him. As it turns out, what does he do to my painstakingly built traditional frame? He stuffs the whole thing with foam.



But hey, my wife is happy with it so who am I to argue.