Build a Charles Rohlfs Rocking Chair
Heirloom Project: This solid and unique rocker will provide many years of enjoyment. It will be the center of attention in any room, and will be handed down through your family for generations to come.
Most woodworkers are familiar with arts and crafts makers such as Morris, Stickley and Greene. Their furniture has been reproduced by many woodworkers and is routinely featured in woodworking magazines. Charles Rohlfs has not received the same popularity.
Rohlfs was born in Brooklyn in 1853 and trained as a designer and draftsman. He and his wife, detective novelist Anna Katherine Green, moved to Buffalo, New York. Like many of us, Rohlfs couldn’t afford to by quality furniture and began to design and build furniture for his home and then professionally. His work contains many elements of arts and crafts furniture, but is set apart by its unique details. His furniture is rare and Rohlfs’ works are highly valued at auction.
Rohlfs’ Oak Rocker, first built in 1898, is a mix of arts and crafts and Asian styles. Only one original rocker is known to exist. Until recently it has been in a private collection but has now been gifted to the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, near Pasadena, California.
Knowing the overall height, width and depth of the rocker, and using the few pictures I had, I scaled the dimensions from the photographs. I filled in any missing information by referring to arts and crafts rocking chair plans from woodworking magazine archives.
While I tried to remain faithful to the original design, I did make some changes. I used a sculpted wooden seat instead of an upholstered seat, a taller curved coopered back instead of the straight low back and slightly longer rockers.
Marcucci built a full-sized MDF mock-up, made some adjustments and then developed full-sized plans.
With the circle cutting jig set to cut a radius of 7-1/2", rout the circle with a 1/4" diameter bit, making successively deeper passes. You will end up with an offcut that is 14-1/2" in diameter.
Screw the side template to the inside of the side blank along the seat centerline. Rout the waste with a flush trim bit.
Apply the pattern with spray adhesive, drill clearance holes to match the contours of the pattern, then cut out the pattern using a scroll saw.
Rout Three Grooves
Line up the groove template (in the background), attach it with a few drops of hot glue and rout each groove. Once complete, insert a temporary spline to hold the medallion in place, then remove and reattach the template and rout the other two grooves.
Shape the Seat
Marcucci starts by marking the shape onto his seat blank with a dark marker. He then drills depth holes at the front, middle and back at 1/2", 9/16" and 3/4" depths, respectively.
A Strong Rocker
When gluing the rocker laminations, be sure to offset the joints by at least 4" to ensure a strong rocker.
Shape the Rail
Locate and drill the 1/2" inch diameter holes in the front rail with a Forstner bit.
The front rail is attached to the seat with one screw from the underside. Two screws are driven through each side into the rail.
Series of Screws
The top three screws attach the side to the back. The next screw attaches the side to the seat and the lowest screw fixes the side to the back stretcher.
The back is notched on the bandsaw so that it fits between the two sides. This is a difficult joint to cut, but hand tools will assist in creating a tight-fitting joint.
Work begins by making three templates. All the templates can be cut from a 4′ × 4′ sheet of 1/2″ or 3/4″ MDF or plywood.
To make the rocker template, mark a center line onto the 4′ × 4′ sheet. Locate and drill a pivot point along the center line 40-1/2″ from the edge. Two arcs need to be cut; the first series of cuts will be at a 40″ radius and will shape the underside of the rocker, while the second series of passes will be at a 38-1/2″ radius and will shape the upper surface of the rocker. When setting the radius on the jig, make sure to account for the thickness of the router bit. I used a 1/4″ diameter spiral cut router bit. I took a number of shallow passes but left about 1/16″ of material intact. In both cases the final cut was made with a jigsaw. Clean up the edge with a rasp and sandpaper.
Next, make the 24″ × 24″ side template. Draw the side onto a piece of sheet stock and locate the center of the circular medallion template. The circle that will be removed from the center area of the side template will be the medallion template. Cut the outside of the side template with a bandsaw or jigsaw, leaving the line. With a file or rasp, trim and smooth the template down to the line. The only crucial dimension when cutting the side template to size is that the lower edge of the template be routed to a 38-1/2″ radius, so it matches the upper surface of the rocker perfectly. Set up your router with 1/4″ diameter bit and circle cutting jig to cut the medallion template to 14-1/2″ diameter. This will also leave you with the perfect 15″ diameter circle in the side template. Before routing the medallion template out, ensure both the side and medallion template are secured to the work surface so the cut edges on both templates are smooth, and can be used to template rout down the road. I attached both pieces to a sacrificial MDF backer.
Making the sides
I came across a pile of gnarly wood destined for the landfill site and decided to use it for this rocker. I spent some time cleaning up the wood, milling it, and laminating pieces together, but I enjoyed the process of transforming junk wood into something beautiful.
Each side is made from four pieces. Cut each piece to the required dimensions. I used dowels to align the pieces. Dry fit the four pieces and outline the side using the template. Disassemble the four pieces and rough-cut them at the bandsaw, being sure to leave your line. Now glue the four pieces together to form the side blank. When it is dry, you can attach the side template and rout the finished outer edges to shape, as well as the inner circle to final dimension.
To finish each side, use a 5/8″ Forstner bit to drill the three notches at the outer edge of the side panel. Fair the curves when completed.
Making the Medallions
Glue up enough 1″ thick stock so you can cut a 15″ diameter circle for each medallion.
Trace a 15″ diameter circle onto the medallion workpiece. At the bandsaw, cut away the waste, leaving about 1/16″ extra material. Attach the 14-1/2″ diameter medallion template to the stock with double-sided tape. Install a 3/4″ outside diameter guide bushing on your router’s base. Using the same 1/4″ bit as before rout the circular medallion with multiple passes. If you’re at all unsure of the dimensions and process, cut a test medallion from scrap material to check that it will fit properly.
Once the medallion is cut to size you can apply the pattern to its face and cut it out with a scroll saw.
Using Splines to Attach the Medallion
The medallions are attached to the side with three splines. The two splines located along the horizontal center line of the seat will be covered up when the seat is installed. The other will only be slightly visible on the bottom, inside surface of the rocker side.
Route a 5/8″ × 3″ inch long slot into a piece of wood to use as the template to rout the spline mortises. Align the medallion in the side. To raise the face of the medallion flush with the side, place some 1/2″ thick pieces of wood under the medallion. With a small amount of hot glue, tack the top of the medallion to the side. Secure the template in place, overlapping the side frame and the medallion, then rout the first groove. Repeat for the other two grooves.
Sculpting the Seat
The seat is 19″ deep, 21″ wide at the front and 19″ wide at the back. Once the blank is glued up, draw a center line (from front to back) along the seat blank. Cut the tapers along each side. The back of the seat is curved, but it is best to cut this curve once the coopered back is made and the rocker is dry-fitted.
The seat can be carved by hand or using various power tools. My approach starts by drilling a series of depth holes to guide me. I then use a grinder with a coarse 4″ Kutzall grinding wheel.
Shape your seat until you reach the bottom of each depth hole. Then switch to a coarse sanding disk on a right-angle grinder to smooth and shape the seat to the final depth. Finish up with a random orbital sander and hand sanding to remove any grinding marks.
Coopered Back for Added Comfort
The coopered back is made up of ten pieces, 31″ long and 2-1/4″ wide. Each side is jointed at 1°. It’s easiest to glue up the coopered seat two pieces at a time. Glue the first five segments together and then join these segments together in pairs. Once the glue has set, scrape the excess glue and sand both the front and back to round it out. Adjust the table on your bandsaw and cut the bottom of the back at a 10° angle. Final shaping and sizing of the back will be done when dry-fitting the chair.
Rockers are typically made by steam bending, bent lamination or cut from a single board. Since the wood I had was cut to 18″ lengths, I used a segmented lamination process to build the rockers. You can use whatever method works best for you, but here I will detail the lamination method I used.
Each of my rocker laminations are made up of four segments glued up to form an arc. Then three rocker laminations are glued together to form one of the two rockers.
The 24 rocker segments are 2-3/8″ wide by 12″ long. Cut each segment at an 8.5° angle. Four segments are joined with biscuits and glue to make one rocker lamination. Masking tape is used to clamp the segments together. Two of the rocker laminations are now glued together, with their joints offset. Don’t glue the third and final lamination to the rocker yet, as you can screw the rocker template directly to the center lamination to rout it, then cover any screw holes with the third lamination. Once the segments are dry, scrape off any dried glue, joint one face of each rocker then run the other face though the thickness planer. Mark the shape of the rockers on each lamination using the rocker template and rough-cut at the bandsaw, leaving the line.
Screw the rocker template to one of the rocker laminations and rout the final shape using a flush trim bit. This will be the middle lamination so the screw holes will not show. Now glue the third rocker lamination to the other two and flush trim it to size using the middle lamination as the guide. Repeat this for the other rocker, then cut each rocker to a finished, straight line length of 36″.
Front Rail and Back Rail
Trace the pattern onto each rail and drill the 1/2″ diameter holes on the drill press. Cut out the step shape using a bandsaw or jigsaw, then sand the edges smooth. Drill a screw clearance hole in the middle of the rail. It will be used to screw the rail to the bottom of the seat.
Cut each rail to length so they match the final width of the seat at the front and back respectively. Remember each rail is cut at 3° to match the angle of the sides. Before making this angle cut, decide which face will be the show face and be sure to orient the rail on the saw appropriately.
The chair is held together with #12 × 2-1/2″ long screws. These are large screws and you need to drill pilot holes. When dry-fitting, it’s helpful to rub the screws with candle wax to make it easier to drive the screws. For final assembly I coated the screws with five-minute epoxy.
In spite of best efforts, parts never seem to go together as precisely as I would like. Dry-fitting will give you a chance to do final shaping, make adjustments to ensure tighter joints, and provides an opportunity to rehearse the assembly process prior to applying glue and epoxy. The glue-up is a bit tricky, but this is the order of operations I found worked best:
Attaching the stretchers, seat and sides
Attach the front stretcher to the seat using one screw in the middle of the stretcher. Stand the assembly on its side. Position one of the sides onto the side of the seat. Drill two pilot holes through the side and into the seat and attach with screws. Each hole is drilled along the centerline of the medallion about 1/2″ from either side of the circle.
Locate and drill the two pilot holes to attach the front stretcher to the side.
Flip the assembly over and install the other side.
Attach the back stretcher to the bottom of the seat with one screw from below.
Fit and attach the back
Using the hole drilled at the back of the seat, mark a 10° angle onto the side to assist in establishing the angle of the back and location of the holes. All five holes drilled into the back of the side should line up as closely as possible along this 10° angle line.
Using the 10° angle line, locate its intersection with the back stretcher. This intersection will assist you in locating and drilling a pilot hole through the side and into the back stretcher.
To fit and install the back between the two sides, two notches need to be cut from the bottom of the back, parallel to each side of the back, to allow the back to fit in between the sides of the chair.
Mark the width and angle on the back, adjust the angle of your bandsaw table and cut the back to the required width. Cut up about 12″ then use a handsaw to cut into the side to remove the waste. Using a block plane adjust the width until the back fits snugly between the sides.
Align the back at a 10° angle and locate and drill the three pilot holes to attach the back to the sides. Be sure to adjust your drilling angle to account for the curve of the back. Repeat the process for the other side.
Trace the final shape onto the back. Using a Forstner bit, drill out the holes then cut the final shape with a jigsaw or bandsaw. Smooth the cuts and fair the curves.
Cut the seat to match the curve of coopered back
With the back reinstalled, mark the curved shape of the rear surface of the back onto the seat.
Disassemble the chair.
With your bandsaw table set at a 10° angle, cut the curve along the back of the seat. Reassemble the chair for a second dry fit. Remove the back stretcher. Drill pilot holes up through the bottom of the seat into the back. Orient your drill to 10° to match the angle of back. Insert screws to attach the back tightly to the seat. You may need to use some bar clamps to pull the back tight to the seat.
Attach the rockers
Each rocker is attached to the side with four screws: two at the front and two at the back.
Plug the holes in the rockers and cut the plugs flush. Be careful not to saw a flat spot into the rockers. Any bumps or ripples in the rockers will be felt during use. Use one of the side cut-offs to make a sanding block to smooth any ridges on the rocker.
Rohlfs’ work is characterized by protruding wooden plugs with hand shaped facets at the ends. The 1/2″ diameter plugs were made at the drill press using a tapered plug cutter.
Smooth and sand your pieces prior to assembly as much as possible. Once assembled, give the whole chair a final sanding. With a block plane or sandpaper, gently break any sharp edges to give the chair a pleasing feel.
There are a number of ways to get that arts-and-crafts colour and finish. I used a Fumed Light Oak aniline stain followed up with a number of coats of tung oil and a final coat of dark wax.
Though Rolfs’ chair is over 100 years old and is holding up well, the front and back cross-rails provide a problem in terms of engineering. In winter, when the back and seat shrink, the two rails stop the sides from moving closer together. There’s potential for the sides to work their way loose from the seat and back. Using quarter cut material for the back and seat will minimize problems. I decided to stick close to the original design, though you could simply not include the front and back rails if you felt more comfortable doing so.