In the fall of 2022, I decided that I needed to build an Egyptian chair. I wanted to experience ergonomics and gain a sense of the labour involved in creating one. After a lot of online searching, inquiries with museums and specialist books stores, it be came clear there wasn’t much published information about their construction. There’s a handful of books (Killen, Svarth & Baker) and some academic papers but each of these authors tasked themselves with providing a wide overview of Egyptian furniture. A project like this chair would require a very long chapter of it’s own to adequately describe the joinery and construction.
Many of the world’s major museums are putting photos of their collections online. I chose this chair mainly because the Brooklyn Museum has included X-ray images on the object’s webpage. Powdered stone mixed into the glue allows the internal joinery to stand out beautifully in those radiographs. It’s one of the few chairs displayed in it’s own dedicated vitrine, making it possible to get close up views from every angle. I also happen to think it’s is the most handsome example to be found in any museum outside Egypt. It’s got an amazing vitality when seen in person.
PROVENANCE Archaeological provenance not yet documented, probably from Thebes, Egypt; before 1848, reportedly found in a house on the bank of the Nile opposite Thebes; 1848, collected in Egypt by Henry Anderson in Egypt who says that it was “discovered in the house of a peasant on the bank of the Nile, opposite Thebes”; by March 6, 1877, gift of Dr. Henry Anderson or E. Ellery and Edward H. Anderson to the New-York Historical Society, New York, NY; 1937, loaned by the New-York Historical Society to the Brooklyn Museum; September 1948, purchased from the New-York Historical Society by the Brooklyn Museum.
I spent an afternoon photographing the chair in it’s display case, taking note of the location of the dowels and examining any deterioration of the structure for evidence of it’s internal joinery. There’s been some shrinkage and warping during it’s 3500 years underground but besides that, the chair seems to have been constructed with pretty considerable degree of asymmetry, so I had to pick shapes and dimensions on each side that I thought worked out most successfully or split the difference. Working only from photos, I knew I couldn’t replicate every detail exactly but I’m happy with the way it turned out. I may eventually revisit the feet and try to whittle them down a bit more but I want to live with it a while before doing that. Chasing a shape in one particular view can lead you astray and once you’ve gone too far, there’s no putting wood back on. The blotchiness in the cherry will even out as it darkens over the next few months and I expect the shapes will read better.
I used hand tools for 95% of the work. I think that even a practised hand would require 200+ hours of labour from start to finish.
To mimic the two colours of wood used in the original, I chose cherry and walnut because they’re reasonably priced, easy to work with hand tools and were available in the 3” thickness I needed.
It would take an awfully long post to cover the whole process, so I’ll only touch on a few things.
The braces were all made from “Y” shaped cherry branches that came available due to tornado damage in a local farm’s woodlot. I couldn’t find anything near the 90-degree angle I thought I needed but the finished braces do generally match the grain structure of ancient examples online. The finished shape is a LOT stronger than I expected, serving primarily as a corner glue block with arms to anchor it, rather than as an “L” brace. Their contouring, with the vertical section being a more or less constant size/shape and the horizontal part being straight and of variable length suggests to me that they were commonly taken from this illustrated size and shape of rough material. When I’ve had the chance to examine other chairs up close, my opinion might change.
The seat top braces are what I believe is termed a “sandwich core composite” with straight grained veneers encasing a much less rigid core. The core was cut to shape and the top veneer bent with a heating iron into a matching curve before being laminated together in a pre-shaped jig. Then the side veneers were glued on, trimmed flush and the decorative end notches cut. Walnut pins (and more glue) hold everything tightly onto the frame.
The original seat of this chair and other examples of it’s type seem to have been made from twisted papyrus. Not having any papyrus on hand, I unravelled some 3-ply Danish cord and got what looks to be a very close match. We’ll see how long it holds up to wear. A thing I noticed with the hole layout is that each corner is slightly inset, which shifts the next hole slightly off it’s “proper” location. That second hole would otherwise need to be drilled directly on the joint in the seat rail.
Edit: after a couple months, I decided that the tightly woven cord didn’t feel appropriate and I loosened the tension a bit. I don’t like any chair where it feels like I’m sliding forward all the time and I’m happier now that it cradles my bum a little bit. The slackness is pretty subtle, so still in line with tomb depictions.
I’ve noticed (in photos) that modern replacement seats are all high and tight while on chairs that retain original seats (from the tombs of Merit & Kha or Yuya &Thuya) the weaving looks looser, dipping slightly in the middle. It makes perfect sense to assume the seats have settled during 3500 years in the tomb but I wonder if they’re that way by design? There’s a lattice stool from Tutankhamen’s tomb with (gesso painted) cords that are loose enough to follow it’s deep, double cove curvature. Generally, across Egyptian chairs and stools with wooden slatted seats, they’re saddled as though emulating a loosely slung seat. I would admit that a tighter webbing serves as a more visually neutral restoration and too much slackness causes the seat sides to dig against your thighs.
If you’d like more information…
There’s much more I could say about the internals and the fabrication, so I’ve decided to write a book covering this chair and a number of other Egyptian houseware projects. It’ll be illustrated with tons of sketches and aim to be an introduction to modern hand tool woodworking, since the tools and techniques haven’t changed much in the last 3000 years. I’ll be starting with some simple jewelry/toilet boxes, a small table and a couple different types of stools, working up to this chair. If you think you’d be interested in that sort of content, please consider following me on Instagram for occasional progress updates:
If you HAVE more information…
Please get in touch here or through my IG. There are a number of other chairs (and housewares) around the world that I’d love to see close up. I’d be grateful for photos or insights any museum can share with me. I’d also love to know about any books I might have missed.
Check out my other completed projects
Theban lattice stool…
11th Dynasty sliding lid box …
18th Dynasty table from the Brooklyn Museum (It’s got some hidden joinery that I’ll include in my book).
Huge thanks go out to Dr. Y. Barbash, Curator of Egyptian, Classical, Ancient Near Eastern Art at the Brooklyn Museum and Mr. H. Debauche, former object conservator at the Brooklyn Museum.