Modern Morris Chair

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This article is from Issue 55 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Build a beloved heirloom that showcases your craftsmanship.

Design by Jeffry Lohr

Overall dimensions: 321⁄4"w × 37"d × 41"h

Since the creation of the Morris chair by Englishman William Morris in the late 1800s, much has happened to improve and stylize the original design. Most notable are the versions in early 20th-century by Gustav Stickley during the American Arts and Crafts era. Over time, Morris chairs offered several ways to pivot and support the reclining back. Many of the chairs included through-tenon joinery in the legs.

Pennsylvania craftsman Jeffry Lohr’s take of the beloved Morris chair preserves the best elements while adding a few more. Among them are the broad center side splats with their eye-catching square openings and walnut buttons. Concealed mortise-and-tenon joints ensure enduring strength, while bent-wood back slats add welcome comfort. Departing from the traditional quartersawn white oak of earlier chairs, Jeffry chose cherry to give his piece modern appeal.

I’ll carefully cover the construction of Jeffry’s chair to help you build a classic like the one shown at left. Although you can make the needed mortises with drill-press-mounted bits and hand chisels, you’ll find that using a mortising machine will save hours of building time. Take care with the measuring, marking, and machining, using scrap to check your tool setups. In the end, you’ll be rewarded with a treasured heirloom admired by all who see or sit in it.  

Note: Because upholstery is beyond the skills of most woodworkers, I’ll provide a sidebar that tells how the cushions are made, along with my source. Feel free to use a local source.

Bore out the ends of a laid-out mortise first. To keep the bit true, cut out the waste in intervals. Then bore out the waste between the square holes.

Start with the legs

1 Mill enough 5/4 (11⁄4"-thick) stock for the legs (A, B), referring to the Cut List. (I used 8"-wide cherry boards for this, cutting three 21⁄2" pieces from each one.) Strive for a thickness of no less than 13⁄16" at this time. If you have access to 10/4 (21⁄2"-thick) stock, save time and go with it, skipping the laminating in Step 2, but not the planing.

2 Face-glue and clamp the cherry pieces together, matching the grain as shown in the Tip Alert below, left. Once dry, remove the clamps and edge-joint the opposite edges for 23⁄8 × 23⁄8" laminations. Plane the sawn edges to a final dimension of 21⁄4 × 21⁄4". Crosscut two front legs (A) and two rear legs (B) to the lengths in the Cut List. As you do, be sure to angle-cut the top ends of the rear legs as dimensioned in Figure 2.

3 Lay out the mortises for the front and rear legs (A, B), where shown in Figure 2. Adjust the fence and depth stop on a benchtop mortising machine, and bore out the mortises to 11⁄2" deep using a 1⁄2" bit, as shown in Photo A. Clean up the mortises with a chisel.

Make the stretchers and splats, and assemble the chair base

1 Mill enough 4/4 cherry for the front stretcher (C), rear stretcher (D), bottom side stretchers (E), and top side stretchers (F). At the same time, mill enough stock for the front and rear side splats (G) and the center side splats (H). Leave the thickness just proud of the final thickness at this time. See the Cut List.

2 Rip and crosscut the stretchers (C, D, E, F) to length and width.

3 Lay out the 1⁄2"-thick tenons on the stretchers (C, D, E, F) as dimensioned in Figure 3, and cut a spacer block.  Install a 3⁄4" dado head in your tablesaw, and adjust its height, making test cuts on scrap. Slide the saw fence over to where the distance between the outside end of the spacer block and the outside teeth of the dado head equal the tenon length. Using a miter gauge and extension fence, slide a stretcher against the block, slide the block out of the way, and cut the tenon cheek shoulders, as shown in Photo B. Cut away the cheek waste. Cut the tenon cheek shoulders and waste on the other stretchers. Adjust the dado set height, and, using the spacer block, flip the stretchers on edge and cut the shoulders and waste on the edges.

Use the spacer block to establish tenon’s shoulders. Then cut the cheeks and edges of the tenons using the proper dado set height for each cut.

Align the center side splat blank and story stick at the top end, and lay out the crosscut lines for creating the square openings.

Using the waste blocks as spacers, apply glue to one edge of the mating parts and stack them on edge. Then, lay the assembly face down and clamp.

4 Lay out the notches on the ends of the tenons, where shown in Figure 3, and cut them out at the bandsaw or with a handsaw.

5 Install a 1⁄2"-radius round-over bit in the router and round over the inside top edge of the front stretcher (C). Note: Rough-sand to 180 grit any pieces that will receive the button mortises at this time. Sanding after the button mortises are complete can expose torn end grain fibers and appear ragged.

6 Referring to Figure 4, lay out the mortises for the splats on the opposing edges of the side stretchers (E, F). Using a 3⁄8" mortising bit, cut the mortises. Clean them up with a chisel. Also, lay out the 1⁄2 × 1⁄2" button mortises on the legs (A, B) and the 3⁄8 × 3⁄8" button mortises on the side stretchers (E, F). (Clear waste away from the mortising chisel as it enters the wood. A stray wood fiber can spoil the crisp appearance of the square mortise.) Mortise to a final depth of 5⁄8" on the legs. Cut a piece of scrap to fit in the mortises of stretchers (E,F), and mortise through the side wall. If you don’t support the wall, the chisel will splinter the inside of the mortise as it breaks through.

7 Cut the front and rear side splats (G) to rough width. Cut two blanks for the center side splats to 15⁄16 × 61⁄2 × 141⁄8".

8 Before cutting the parts from the center side splat blanks in Step 9, make a full-scale drawing of the blank stock on paper, referring to Figure 4. Lay out the kerfs of the saw blade and allow room for jointing part edges. From that, make a story stick like the one in the drawing to lay out the positions of the crosscuts on the two blanks. Using a square and the story stick, lay out the blanks, as shown in Photo C. (Once I have those dimensions, it’s just a matter of making the cuts and ensuring that I put everything back in the right place. This also guarantees that the grain will match well at assembly time. Tight-grained pieces work best for this match.) Also, mark the blank with diagonal lines to give yourself a visual cue that everything is in its right place when the time comes to assemble the center side splats.

9 Cut out the parts making up the center side splats (H). Here, you’ll rip the same board into five pieces. Set the rip fence at 17⁄32", and rip the first piece. Set the rip fence at 13⁄16" for each successive cut and rip the remaining four pieces. Place all the ripped pieces in order edge to edge, and number them 1 through 5. Set the jointer for a light cut, and joint the mating edges of pieces 1 and 5 and one edge of pieces 2, 3, and 4. Joint the opposite edges of pieces 2, 3, and 4 to achieve a final width of 11⁄8".

10 Using the lines established by your story stick, make the crosscuts on pieces 2 and 4. Starting from the top ends, make the first crosscut at 215⁄16", cutting on the waste side of the layout lines. Save the offcuts, as they will be useful in the glue-up. Readjust your crosscut setup for a 11⁄8" length, and cut the next block. Be sure to place all parts directly back to the blank after each cut. Repeat this process until you’ve established two rows of three square openings.

11 Remove any splinters from crosscutting the parts making up the center splats (H) with a light touch of fine sandpaper. Next, make indexing marks to ensure that the two rows of square openings in the center splats align. I used the waste blocks as indexing blocks for the glue-up. Orient them to achieve perfect 11⁄8 × 11⁄8" square openings. Now, apply glue to the mating edges and stack them, as shown in Photo D. Avoid getting glue on the exposed surfaces. Clamp lengthwise over pieces 2 and 4 to register against the indexing blocks, and then clamp across the grain to close the joints. Once tight, pop out the indexing blocks and scrub the inside of the square openings clean of glue, as described in the Tip Alert above.

Hold a straightedge against the stretcher ends to ensure that the side assembly is square. Adjust if needed.

Guiding off the edge guide, rout the grooves in the bottom faces of the arms, making at least two passes to cut to depth.

12 After the glue dries, plane all the splats (G, H) to finished thickness, and cut them to the finished widths and lengths. 

13 Lay out the tenons on the splats (G, H), referring to Figure 4. Now, cut the splat tenons following the process described earlier for the stretcher tenons. Test-fit the tenons in the side stretcher mortises, using a shoulder plane and cabinet scraper for any final fitting.

14 Glue and clamp the rail and splat assemblies (E/F/G/H) together.  To allow for expansion and contraction of the broad center splat, apply glue only to the center of their mortises and tenons. With a straightedge, check that the shoulders of the top and bottom stretchers are aligned, as shown in Photo E. Wipe up squeeze-out with a clean, moistened rag, and let the assembly dry.

15 Dry-assemble the legs onto the side assembly to make the full side assembly (A/B/E/F/G/H), and mark 1⁄2" above on the top side stretchers (F) where they intersect on the legs (A, B). Strike cutlines, and bandsaw the tapered edges of top side stretchers just proud of the lines. Clean up the sawn edges with a pass on the jointer. Trim the protruding tenons flush with the top of the legs (see Figure 1).

16 Glue and clamp the stretcher and splat assemblies (E/F/G/H) to the legs (A, B).

17 Apply glue to the opposing mortises in the legs (A, B) and fit the front (C) and rear (D) stretchers in place. Clamp the side assemblies and front and rear stretchers together to form the chair base. Check the chair base for square and adjust. If it’s out of square, fitting the upholstered seat could be a problem.

Make and install the arms

Note: While it appears that the chair arms are bent, in reality I face-glue additional 6"-long pieces of wood to the underside of the arms at the front ends and cut these assemblies to their final shape at the bandsaw. To achieve a great match, cut the 6" from the boards you are using for the arms. If this piece is cut directly from the front of the arms, the edges and end grain will match perfectly.  

1 Referring to the Cut List, mill enough 5/4 stock to 11⁄16" thick for the arms (I), adding 61⁄8" in length to both arms. Cut the arms to just over the listed width and to the exact length. Save the offcuts.

2 Lay out the grooves to fit the top side stretchers (F) to the underside of the arms (I), according to Figure 5. Label the arms “left” and “right.” Strike lines across the width of the arms where the grooves terminate at the front ends. Extend the lines onto the edges. Using a 1⁄2" bit in your handheld router along with an edge guide, cut a 9⁄16"-deep groove 11⁄8" from the inside edges of the arms, as shown in Photo F. Readjust the edge guide to create a groove that fits the thickness of the upper side stretchers. Test-fit the arms on their respective side assemblies, and leave them there for the next step.

Extend the groove into the wedges, stopping at the stop line. Square the groove ends with a chisel.

With an arm resting on its edge, bandsaw the top face, cutting just proud of the cutline.

First establish the shoulders at the knife lines with a chisel, and then remove the recess waste.

3 Position the 6" offcuts on the underside of the arms so they match well on the ends and edges. Note the best grain matches, and then lay out the tapers, as shown in the Edge Profile in Figure 5.

Now, using the bandsaw, cut proud of your layout lines to make a pair of 6" wedges. Sand the bandsawn faces of the two keeper wedges smooth with a stationary belt sander or sanding block. Save the offcut (waste) wedges to use as clamping cauls for the glue-ups.

4 Dry-fit the wedges to the underside of the arms (I) to make sure the joints will close completely under adequate clamping pressure. Now, apply glue to the wedges, and clamp them in place using the offcut wedges to help hold them in place. Avoid using water for the glue cleanup as it can penetrate the end grain and weaken the joint.  Instead, after the glue has slightly hardened, pare off the excess with a chisel. Let dry.

5 Strike stop lines between the edge marks on the arms and across the glued-on wedges indicating where the grooves terminated at the front ends. Returning to your router and edge guide, rout into the wedges, as shown in Photo G, stopping at the lines. Square the groove ends with a chisel.

6 Joint the edges to final width. Then lay out the top edge profile of the arms (I), as shown in Figure 5, to achieve the “bent” arm. Bandsaw the profile to shape, cutting just outside the cutlines, as shown in Photo H. Plane and sand the top and bottom faces for a smooth transition.

7 Place the chair base upside down on the workbench with the top side stretchers (F) seated in the routed grooves in the arms (I). Next, use a marking knife to score around the legs where they meet the arms. Remove the chair base. Now, using a handheld router with a 1⁄4" bit, carefully rout a 1⁄16"-deep recess so the leg ends can seat inside the arms. Direct a lamp at the work area to see the shadows created by the knife lines. Stay just shy of your knife lines when routing. Finish the recess with a sharp chisel, as shown in Photo I.

This ensures a clean look. Any gap where the top of the leg meets the arm will be hidden inside this recess. Sand the arms to 180 grit.

Drill to depth in the centers of the laid out 5⁄8" square mortises with a 1⁄2" bit, leveling the workpiece by using the tapered stretcher cutoffs.
Square the button mortises with a chisel and mallet, removing the waste to depth.

With the front corbel clamped to the leg, use a rule to mark the angle at the top end.

8 Lay out the 5⁄8" holes on the back inside edges of the arms (I), where shown in Figure 5. (These are for registering the reclining positions of the chair back assembly in the completed chair.) Now, with the arms against the drill press fence and using a brad-point bit, bore the holes to 21⁄4" deep.

9 Lay out the tapered back ends of the arms (I), where shown in Figure 5. Note that the arms are mirror images of one another. Bandsaw off the waste and sand or hand-plane the sawn edges to the cutlines.

10 Fit the arms (I) in place on the side assemblies, as shown in Figure 1, and lay out the locations of the screw holes and 5⁄8"-square button mortises on the top faces with a marking knife. Align these mortises so that they are centered over the legs. Because benchtop mortisers typically don’t accept 5⁄8" mortising chisels and because a 5⁄8" chisel is costly, cut these square button mortises to size and depth using first a 1⁄2" brad-point bit to remove the waste. Then complete the square mortise with a chisel, as shown in Photos J and K. Do all the square mortises in both arms front and back at this time.

11 Drill the centered 5⁄32" clearance holes through the square mortises in the arms (I) for the 3" screws. Finish-sand the arms to 220 grit.

12 Place the arms (I) on the side assemblies. Using an awl, make a dimple in the center of the 5⁄8" mortises in the top ends of the front and rear legs (A, B). Remove the arms and carefully drill the pilot holes in the legs for the 3"-long screws. Screw and glue the arms to the legs.

13 Enlarge and make two copies of the pattern for the corbels (J) on page 50. Cut four pieces of 11⁄8"-thick stock to 2 × 101⁄16" and stack them together in two pairs with double-faced tape aligning the ends and edges. Adhere the pattern to the top faces of each stack and bandsaw the corbels to rough shape. Sand the stacks to the cutlines using disc and oscillating spindle sanders. Separate the corbels.

14 Lay out the two button mortises on each corbel (J), where shown in the pattern. Using a 3⁄8" bit at the mortiser, cut the button mortises to depth on both corbels. At the drill press, drill the clearance holes for the screws, centering them in the mortises. Note that the button mortises are 90° to the back edge of the corbels.

15 Put the corbels in position under the arms (I) and centered on the legs. The undersides of the arms are not at a 90° angle to the corbels, so the top ends need to be scribed to fit. Carefully scribe a line along the top ends of the front corbels using a thin rule and pencil, as shown in Photo L. Use a disc sander and miter gauge to sand to line. Capture the angle of the slanted arms on the rear legs using a T-bevel. Transfer the angle to the top ends of the rear corbels, and cut the bevels at the tablesaw. Test the fit. Glue and screw the corbels to the legs and arms (A, B, and I).

Center the back splat laminations in the jig and against the vertical supports. Beginning in the middle, apply clamps to compress the bundles.

Place the concave jig containing a back slat against the spacer and miter gauge. Now, cut the tenon shoulder and waste on the back face.

Using the spacer block, miter gauge, and convex jig, complete cutting the tenons on the back slats.

Create the back rest and pins

1 Mill enough 5/4 stock to 11⁄8" for the back uprights (K), and cut the parts to the sizes in the Cut List. Referring to Figure 6, drill the through holes through bottom ends of the uprights where shown. These will be used for the pivot pins that allow the back assembly to recline in the completed chair. Rout or sand 1⁄8" chamfers around the top ends and round the bottom ends, as shown in Figure 6.

2 Lay out the centered mortises on the uprights (K) for receiving the wide back slat (L) and the narrow back slats (M), where shown in Figure 6. At the mortising machine, cut the mortises with a 1⁄4" bit. Clean up the mortises with a chisel.

3 Make the bending jig shown in Figure 7. I made mine from a block of pine and some scrap oak. I cut the 4' radius curves at the bandsaw. Note that this jig can form three back slats at the same time.

4 Ripcut enough milled stock for the wide back slat (L) and for the narrow back slats (M), making the pieces just 1⁄4" wider than listed in the Cut List. Cut some extra as well. At the bandsaw, resaw 9⁄64"-thick strips from the stock for the parts. Plane the pieces to 1⁄8" at the thickness planer using carrier boards and double-faced tape, or use a drum sander. Each back slat lamination will contain three 1⁄8"-thick or slightly thicker strips. 

5 Using the jig, apply glue to the mating faces of three strips and wrap the ends of the glue-up with tape to prevent slippage. Place the bundle between layers of waxed paper in the jig to prevent sticking. Similarly, add two more back slat bundles to the jig. Add clamps, as shown in Photo M, to press the lamination strips together face to face. Let the “bent” laminations dry overnight.  Then, scrape any squeeze-out on the edges with a paint scraper. Once clean, joint the edges at 90° to the faces. Rip the curved slats (L, M) to width at the bandsaw, and clean up the sawn edges at the jointer. Do an extra set, including the wide back slat, for the critical offset tenon setups.

6 Cut the slats (L, M) and extra pieces to length by marking the ends and trimming them at the bandsaw using a miter gauge.

7 Make the tenon-cutting jigs in Figure 8. Note that the concave and convex parts have the same 4' radii used in the back slats. Bandsaw these to shape and attach.

8 Lay out the tenons on the back slats (L, M), including on the extra pieces. Install a dado set in the tablesaw, adjust its height, and set up a spacer to place against the saw fence for cutting the tenon shoulders. Center a back slat in the concave tenon-cutting jig, and adjust the saw fence and spacer to align the dado set with the shoulder cutline. Cut the back face tenon shoulders, as shown in Photo N.

Remove the cheek waste, and rotate the piece end for end to cut the other back face cheek. Cut the back face cheeks on all of the back slats at this time. The goal is to cut 1⁄4"-thick offset tenons that fit snugly into the mortises of the back uprights (K).

9 Using the convex tenon-cutting jig, cut the tenon shoulders and cheeks on the front faces of the back slats (L, M), as shown in Photo O. Cut the tenon shoulder along the edges of the slats with a handsaw and chisel. Test-fit the slat tenons in the mortises in uprights (K). Adjust if needed.

10 Make two simple back assembly clamping jigs, like the one in Figure 9. Using these ensures that the back uprights (K) align perfectly during the glue-up and that the resulting chair back is not racked or crooked.

11 Apply glue and clamp the back rest assembly (K/L/M) together, as shown in Photo P.

12 Start with two turning blanks that measure 11⁄4 × 11⁄4 × 13". Now, using the dimensions in the Pivot and Back Rest Pins Detail in Figure 6, turn two pivot pins (N) and two back rest pins (O), as shown in Photo Q. (I used a gouge, skew chisel, and parting tool for this.) Note that each blank yields one pivot pin and one back rest pin.

13 To make the two washers (P), glue up three layers of 1⁄8"-thick cherry, orienting the grain of the middle layer at 90° to the other pieces. This cross-grain approach makes plywood-like washers that won’t snap. Now cut two 2 × 2" squares from the laminations. Lay out 17⁄8" circles on the squares, and drill 5⁄8" holes through the centers. Disc-sand the washers round to the lines.

Add the buttons, finish, back, and cushions

Note: I make the three sizes of button stock for the Morris chair at the tablesaw and thickness planer using walnut, which contrasts nicely with cherry. The process is simple, and the end result makes for eye-pleasing accents all around.

1 Cut 18"-long pieces of walnut to 1⁄16" over the finished dimensions in the Cut List for the side stretcher buttons (Q), corbel buttons (R), leg buttons (S), and arm buttons (T). Now, plane the adjacent faces of the lengths to the final sizes. 

2 Working with one walnut length and button size at a time, shape the beveled ends at a disc sander, forming a pyramid end. Now, cut two buttons to length, as shown in Photo R. Repeat beveling the ends and cutting buttons until you’ve made the needed number cited in the Cut List. Note in the photo that the 5⁄8" pegs for the arms should be pillowed and not display sharply beveled facets. Sand the pillows by hand after establishing the bevels. The arm buttons will be felt by anyone that sits in the chair, so they should be soft and tactile.

3 Apply a small bit of glue inside the mortises and tap the buttons in place with a smooth-faced metal hammer. Try to avoid any squeeze-out or glue marks that will spoil the finish. Keep a moist rag handy, just in case.

Fit the glue-up into the clamping jigs, and tighten its arms to align the uprights. Pull the assembly snugly together with bar clamps.

Turn one pivot pin and one back rest pin from one blank, checking the diameters with a caliper.

Using a shop-made jig with grooves sized to match the button stock, crosscut the buttons to length with a fine-tooth handsaw.

4 After installing all of the buttons, go back and buff the arm buttons with #0000 steel wool to bring them to a shiny mirror finish.

5 Cut and install the two ledgers (U) that support the cushioned seat (see Figure 1).

Note that the ledgers are notched to go around the legs and beveled on the top faces to angle the seat cushion slightly. Should you want to elevate the front end of the seat, you can cut a 1" square stick to sit loosely on the front ledge.

6 Make sure that all of the chair parts have been finish-sanded to 220 grit. Break all exposed edges so they feel nice to the touch and create soft shadow lines. Then, finish the chair following my recommended approach on pages 56 and 57.

7 After finishing, attach the back to the chair base, and drop in the cushions. Then, relax in your heirloom recliner. (In a 2014 issue, I’ll show how to build the matching ottoman.) 

Quality Custom-Made Upholstery

Making the leather-covered seat and back cushions for the chair is beyond the scope of this story and skill set of most woodworkers. To help you provide the appropriate cushions for the chair, I’ll give you the basic information for the cushions, as well as a source for the cushions used in the Morris chair shown. To save on costs and shipping (which can run $1,000), choose a local upholsterer and different cover material.

Note in the Cushion Cutaways that the upholstery begins with the maple upholstery deck, shown in the Seat Cushion Deck drawing. Build as shown, angling the deck front and back at 5°. Round over the deck’s exterior edges and corners to prevent them from tearing the cover material. Provide the completed deck to the upholsterer.

The upholsterer will then attach 5" springs to the seat deck with hardware and tie each one to the other to enable the springs to move in concert. Burlap is stretched over the springs, and an edge roll is applied to establish the shape of the seat. Various layers of synthetic hogs hair, cotton batting, and latex foam are applied. It is finally covered in your choice of leather or upholstery fabric.

The back cushion is filled with feathers (in pillow cases) and latex foam, and then covered with your choice of leather or upholstery fabric.

Cushion Upholsterer:
Ann Brandenburg
Renaissance Upholstery
658 Pennfield Dr., Hatfield, PA 19440
(215) 362-5642

About our Builder/Author

Mentored by renowned craftsman Jeffry Lohr, founder of the J.D. Lohr School of Woodworking in Schwenksville, Pennsylvania, Robert Spiece is an established furnituremaker and woodworking teacher at the school. He also designs and builds furniture for sale. For more on the school, go to

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