My project is to develop full scale prototypes of what I am calling the Sylvan chairs, then to build the tooling necessary to produce this unique design and demonstrate its potential for manufacturing.
So why spend a lot of money for prototype development, engineering, and tooling for another wood chair? After all, there are already thousands of chair designs to choose from.
First, the design is REALLY COOL. Second, it is orders of magnitude greener than conventional wood chairs, and if the process is commercialized and accepted in the marketplace it could usher in manufacturing processes that use a fraction of the material and labor than is used for conventional wood chairs. They would also be quite a bit more durable. As far as spending a lot of money for tooling, trying anything new and unusual is costly, and the method of making the Sylvan chair is very different than any of the thousands of chairs we buy today.
Passion and expertise
I love to design and make things, especially chairs. This is my idea of fun. I am also really good at it, and my track record for developing and producing cutting edge designs is second to none.
Years ago I designed and produced 3 different chair designs made from a single veneer blanket, two of which are in many museums including the Museum of Modern Art, and the Smithsonian Museum of American Art. Before I produced each of these single piece plywood chairs I made ¼ scale maquettes to work out the molding dynamics. As you can see with the ¼ scale maquettetes of the Sylvan chairs above, the concept is viable.
Before I get into details of the project, a potential investor/grantor may need a brief explanation about the properties of bent-ply materials.
About Molded Plywood:
The concept is simple. A number of veneers, about 1/16” thick are stacked upon one another (this is called a blanket) with the wood grains alternating direction, running perpendicular to each other. This orientation creates strength across a sheet without a risk of splitting. The end product is stronger than solid wood and much less prone to problems with expansion and contraction. When the blanket is put in a shaped mold with adhesive between the layers and bent, the layers conform to the shape of a mold, with the veneers moving against each other as they are formed. When the glue is cured, the blanket takes the shape of the mold, it is very strong and when the edges are trimmed it becomes quite attractive.
About Laminated wood:
The process is similar to molded plywood except the grain of the each veneer in the blanket all runs in the same direction. While this configuration is not as strong across both length and width, it is much stronger along its length, and if the cross section is only a few inches in width, dimensional stability and the risk of split is immaterial.
Details of the Proposal
Developing a full scale prototype.
The task in this initial phase is to build a full scale prototype. The idea is to merge the ergonomics and and esthetics of the design. In short, try it out. Thus, rudimentary molds must be made for the legs, the seat and the backrest. These parts are then screwed together so we can actually sit in it and get a complete understanding of its feel, scale and look.
Engineering the Mold.
The second phase of this project is to generate a 3D CAD model of the mold. The model must include all the components, which include design/engineering the steel frame, the movement of the pivot arms, which are powered by hydraulic cylinders, and how they connect to the mating parts of mold. The mating parts will be made of wood and lined with grooved aluminum sheets embedded with nichrome wires that act to heat and cure the glue as the veneer blanket is under pressure. The hydraulic cylinders are mounted to the framework on one end, and pivot arms on the other, which act to fold the veneer blanket into place. In this phase of the design, we need to consult with engineers to plan and specify the hydraulic components. The mold must be designed in such a way that the veneers bend evenly without producing voids. The prospective investor/grantor may be interested to know that I have done this for years with great success.
Designing and building an amorphous veneer splicing station.
The splicing station is a new invention to the art of molding plywood. It is this aspect of the design that will radically optimize the use of the wood while allowing numerous styling possibilities.
At this point it will be useful to a prospective investor why this phase of production is so unique and important: The idea of molding a chair in its entirety from a single blanket of veneer is not new. Historically the idea was championed by notable designers Charles Eames in the US and Gerald Sommers in England. The advantages of making a chair this way are many: there would be no need to machine joints, or maintain close dimensional tolerances for mortise and tenon joints, or organizing routing logistics for the parts, or the time consuming and tedious process of assembly. Further, the end product of a single blanket molded chair would be far stronger since the unitary construction avoids joints and joint failure. Also less material is needed because the wood doesn’t have to be as thick, and could even be stronger than conventional construction. Consider also that molded veneer construction in general uses less than half the wood than conventional woodworking. So the idea has great promise. Both Charles Eames, Gerald Sommers and my former one-piece chair designs were limited to molding from a rectangular sheet and cutting slots where the arms and legs separate from the body of the chair. (see bodyform blank below) While this is effective, it limits the design to what can be made from a rectangular sheet.
The process of making the Sylvan chair allows the veneer blanket to be any shape as long as it can be molded, which opens up many more design possibilities and introduces the possibility of using contrasting species of wood to great effect. Simply changing the order of the blanks can substantially alter the look of the chair. Notice the blanks below. One is labeled Inny and the other is an Outty. When the blankets are laid up, the Innys and Outtys alternate along with the directions of the grain of the seat back blanks. Next notice the leg blanks labeled knee sock and panty hose. The grain for both these blanks all run in the same direction. This will give the legs of the chair great compressive strength along the length of the leg. Notice also that the Knee Sock blank is shorter and the end is concave, while the Pantyhose blank is longer and has a convex end. Thus as each blank is laid up into the blanket, the joints are offset to either side of where the seat/back part of the mold intersects with the leg part of the mold, this will reduce the stress on the blank joints as it is molded and will also act to give the area were the seat intersects with the leg superior strength.
As mentioned earlier, the concept for laying up the blanks is unique, so a heated clamping station needs to be devised. Actually two, one for the Inny and the other for the Outty. These stations would hold the seat/back blanks in place while glue is applied to the leg blanks and put in place. When a leg blank comes in close proximity to the seat/back blank a clamping arm would pull the leg veneer firmly up against the seat/back and heat will cure the glue in about a minute. So as the glue for an Inny is curing, the Outty gets laid up and clamped. By the time the Outty gets laid up, the Inny will have cured. So the craftsperson can alternate between the Inny station and the Outty station.
For even the most advanced conventional woodworking technology, cutting the blanks would be a time consuming operation. HOWEVER, if the technology of the printing and packaging industry is applied to this aspect of the project, the operation would go blindingly fast. I have already tried die cutting veneer using a local converter and it works great. It does a better job than any woodworking technology and it goes exponentially faster. Further, having dies made is not an expensive proposition. The heated clamping station also falls under the domain of packaging technology. Since the task is simple and repetitive, a robotic station to assemble the blanks is very similar to present automated packaging technology. So if the trade off is to use technology to reduce resource use and labor, then this is a really good idea.
Making the Chairs
For molding the Sylvan Chair we already have a press in place and operating that is perfectly suited for this project. This asset alone would cost more than the entire cost of this proposed project.
Once the mold is complete, it will be bolted into the large press and molding trials will begin. After the mold is installed in the press and the moving components are working correctly, we will begin developing a molding technique. My past experience with molding a complicated shape is that it may take as long as 25 reject blankets before we work out a technique that gives us near 100% quality parts.
After the chair is molded, the edges of the chair need be machined. The chair as it comes off the mold will have overlapping veneers and glue squeeze out. This needs to be machined off. If this project were to go into production, the entire chair would be put into a 5 axis machining station and machined in about 5 minutes. This would involve extensive tooling at considerable cost. So for the purposes of this proposal, we would do it by hand. We will make contoured jigs that a router can follow to clean up the edges. This would be done exactly the same way I made the 1/4 scale models shown above.
Sanding in woodworking is a time consuming operation. The best approach to sanding the Sylvan chair is to use a wide belt sander and sand the blank flat before it is molded. Then sanded again after all the machining operations. Ideally, the majority of sanding could also be done in a 5 axis machining station. The 5 axis could machine the chair, automatically change to sanding tools. Then all that would be necessary so for an operator to inspect/sand the chair before finishing.
The finishes would be pre-catalyzed, green guard approved, water based lacquers.
Shipping would adhere to best sustainable practices.
Right now this project is limited to making an edition of chairs to prove it works full scale and to identify problems and a market. After we complete the initial run for the project, shareholders reassess the idea and decide on a next step. Options are to make another edition, or try to sell the design to a manufacturer. The actual finished chair would be a great incentive for a manufacturer to market the design as all the risk of product development is completed. Each investor/shareholder gets a chair for each share purchased. Cost depends on the number of shareholders amortizing the tooling costs. (see attached spreadsheet) For instance, if we produce an initial run of 100 chairs, each chair costs $1975. If the initial run is 500 chairs, the cost of each chair is $979.
So what is in it for the investor?
A chair. So why is a $1975 chair such a great investment? Because you will be able to use the chairs for 10-20 years and sell them for more than you bought them for. They are really an asset investment. Here’s why: My work has never appealed to a larger market. While many people admire my efforts, few have been able to bridge their thinking to buying new chairs using remnant seat belts, recycled automobile tires, and cabinets made from plastic industrial packaging materials. Yet my designs are classic in the best sense, and each in a way performs their purpose extraordinarily well while being representative of a path to greater sustainability. It is more art than stylish. Consequently, I never produced a lot of chairs. Because of all this, Danko designs are somewhat rare and are becoming quite collectable. I’m also 73 years old, and though in excellent health, apparently the vultures are circling, because my earlier chairs are selling for as much as 10 times what I sold them for. It also helps that many of my designs are in major museum collections because they are more art than stylish. (It may be useful at this point to Google the market for vintage Danko designs and see for yourself)
Looking at the numbers
Supplementing this proposal are spreadsheets of costs related to this project, including full scale prototype development, tooling, and finally unit costs for each chair.