Chairs for Joes
The Following articles were originally written for the February 2010 and March 2010 JoeCanuck Newsletters
Part 1: A Universal Problem
By: Eric “Cap” Vaughan
One of the largest problems all collectors and customizing people face at one point or another is the issue of seating our figures. If using a vehicle, this is not so much a problem with seating as it is personal taste. Of course, dimensions of the figure to be seated are the real issue. Some figures just do not fit in certain seats. With the wealth of options though, this is just a bump in our road.
The problem that I am writing about, and one I have faced is the scarcity of true, contemporary seating for our figures. After combing both the Internet and available brick and mortar stores, I sadly came away with the feeling that there just aren’t many chairs out there that can be used universally. To be blunt, as a diorama guy who is often asked to do offices, laboratories, and military installations, I need office chairs. Bad.
Some of my fellow diorama artisans were lucky enough to utilize the offerings from the CUBE Toys line, which from images look as if they might be promising. But to date, I have never seen one sold in a store commercially, never held their chairs in hand, and given how unattainable these seem to be it was not an option I could take seriously. So like the guy who has a windowed cubicle directly across the street from bikini yoga class, all I can do is give long loving looks at my fellow creators who can acquire these things in some sizable amount.
Our exemplary toy gun running creator, Marauder John was kind enough to supply us with the folding chair variety, which has many uses for all manner of environments. But when placed into a contemporary office setting, they just seem a bit out of place, when compared to those Herculon covered foam, metal, and plastic office chairs we see in home and office. As little as six years ago, I used to be able to hit many a large hobby outlet, finding many of the odd pieces as shown above, as well as some that were used in my dioramas such as lounge chairs, sofas, and the like. Sadly, I watched with great sadness how each store eventually closed due to the changing times and economic stressors. Yet with all of the chairs and benches above, nothing remotely resembling an office chair.
When I was asked to research the issue about chairs, I decided to start from the figures first, and what I discovered was that our problem was not just about a good chair, but the fact that many of our figures we use have a true disparity when it comes to the seating space from bottom to feet. Unless the chair you are using is a definitive Bar Chair, as shown in the picture above with the red ones, you really do not want a chair where your figure’s feet are dangling off the ground like a very young child at the dinner table. I laid a few different figures from our lines going from a RAH figure, through other sculpts and then lines ending in that headless Marvel figure, which shows atrocious seating ability.
As you can see above, depending on the type of sculpt of the figure the seating space grows a matter of mm with each difference. Also the wideness and construction of the hip makes seating nearly impossible for some.
With this problem in hand, I sat for a few nights hitting every type of dollhouse site I could find. Many of them were victims of the times, while others offered some very interesting pieces, but the price range was clearly hard to reconcile. Some chairs went for mere dollars whilst others commanded prices well over $40 (USA). One of these sites that at least offered some contemporary seating separated by scale (ours would be closest to the ½” or 13mm scale in dollhouse terms) was Miniatures.com. They possessed an actual office chair, as well as many different styles of regular home or apartment seating. Clearly in the vein of the high-end builder, these were the best so far I could come up with. Considering the vast offerings both here and overseas, my search still continues.
As a diorama artisan living the starving artist life, I have been forced to find alternatives that offered seating yet would not look out of place in a modern setting. I’ve tried to fashion office chairs from my usual patent foam board style, but there is that one facet of the office chair, namely, the tined stand that is impossible to recreate with facsimiles. I’ve gotten close using the stands from some of our line’s machine guns but not close enough to suspend disbelief. For some dioramas, I preferred to utilize the bench. You can make a very convincing bench likened to those seen in museums, government buildings, and schools just by gluing one 1-inch strip of foam board perpendicular to another one. If you can cover the top of it in say a leather or marble patterned contact paper, all the better for suspending disbelief. While a bench offers an alternative, my heart is still set on the one chair that has universal appeal. The person or business that will one day take on this much needed item for our craft, well, they’ve got a market that I see lasting a very long time.
Office chair design
My sculpting and casting skills are limited to foam and rocks, but if I could get someone with the requisite skills to consider the project, I think I came up with a sketch of a contemporary style chair that would fit in with all our needs, from diorama to outfitting a toy playset where it was devoid of proper seating:
With the office chairs at home as a guide, and we have three of them, it was easy to eliminate the parts that were just too complex to make mass-producing it worth the trouble. I have an artist’s chair, so mine is one where the feet are indeed off the ground and on a foot bar. This idea was immediately tossed. The second idea was the two-piece seat that I am sitting on now as I write this, and again, multiple parts mean multiple needs for sculpting and casting. I then looked to my wife’s new chair, with its one-piece seat construction, that just sits firmly into a six-tined wheeled stand. This to me offered the best possible construction for our toy needs, since the seating part would be a solid form, with only a complex post on the underside. The seating stand need not really be complex, if we consider simply solid wheels/stand construction. Form over function, for this need. That is also why I eliminated the need for arm rests. Many of our figures are quite broad in the shoulders and arm placement is just too different from figure to figure.
So that is where I am with it. My initial interest in this was a sincere hope to have a large list of suppliers for great contemporary chair options and in the end I was left with far more questions and more avenues to explore. For myself, it was an interesting realization that we have asked and often received the strangest and most desired weapons, items, and gear, without ever thinking that what we really needed for our figures, playsets, and diorama was a good chair to sit on.
Part 2: A Touch of Class
There are several diorama play sets I've wanted to build for the longest time. One of the biggest reasons for keeping them on the back burner is that I haven't found the right accessory set pieces to pull them off. I guess "found" isn't the right word. I can find them, but I'm not willing to pay a high price for them. For instance, one of the dioramas I'm making is an office. It requires a desk and chair with a computer. I scoured eBay for used Playmobil pieces. I hit every craft or antique store in the area. I even took a long hard look at some of those Star Trek movie figures on clearance for their chairs. Like U2, I still haven't found what I'm looking for. I recently walked into a doll house specialty toy store and finally found the perfect set. The craftsmanship was breathtaking...as was the price tag. It cost more than my actual life size desk and chair.
Making a chair
Whenever I get frustrated over these kinds of things, I ask myself, "What would Cap do?" The response is always the same, "Build it himself." I was going to build some chairs from scratch. While I could make them using styrene plastic, I really liked the look of the real wood and leather chairs I saw. I picked up a 1" wide balsa wood strip and some 1/4" wide pine squared strips and 1/4" flat strips. All for under $3. Taking a 25th styled figure I measured off how long the seat had to be and how long the leg had to be for the figure to look right when sitting. It turns out the seat looks good at 1" by 1" and the figures feet hit the floor realistically at 1". I marked off the measurements with a sharpie and started cutting the legs. After cutting most of the legs, I realized I had enough of the strip to make four chairs. Since this was an experiment I decided to make three different styled chairs, two guest chairs, modern basic mid backed chair, and a high backed gothic style chair. The high backed chair will have 3" long legs in the back.
Make it stronger
Instead of depending on the wood glue alone to hold everything together, hidden pegs made from tooth picks were inserted in the legs that connect to the seats. Holes were drilled in each leg about an 1/8" deep using a 1/8" drill bit. For the seats, I tried not to drill all the way through, but without a drill press to help control the depth I wasn't always successful. The pegs and glue formed a bond strong enough to withstand me dropping them several times without breaking.
The basic mid backed chair is what you would see in a doctor's waiting area. Plain, generic, but with a touch of class instead of class room. I used some legs for the backing support frame. The peg in them runs through the chair seat and into the actual lower legs to give it a little more strength. I made notches on these supports only about a 1/16 of an inch deep to help support the back piece. The back piece was cut from the same 1" wide strip of balsa at 1/2" in height and then rounded a little. I cut a piece of the 1/4" inch wide strip 1 1/4" long. This piece will be glued to the bottom of the seat to brace the arm support. The support piece is 3/4". The arm itself is 1" long, like the seat and I rounded the ends of the arms with a couple of passes of the emery board so it looks like a real chair. The brace was glued to the bottom of the seat and the back side of the front legs. Once that dried, the support pieces were glued to the top of the brace and the sides of the seat. Finally, once those dried, the arm was glued to the back support frame and the top of the arm supports. The glue will have to hold these pieces on. After all the gluing I realized, this "basic" chair is actually the most complicated.
As I was measuring off and marking the high backed chair's top detail, inspiration struck and I decided to use some Spy Troops era Cobra shields as the backing for the guest chairs. They have the perfect curve to them with just enough detail, but they also look really elegant. I gave them a quick coat of Krylon Camo System brown so the stain would match up a little better with the stained wood. I drilled a slot wide enough for the tip of the shield to slide into and glued it in place.
The high backed chair started not looking right to me. I wanted some top detail to over hang the extended leg support frame. It looked like poo poo. I cut them off, re-designed the top, and re-sanded the area. I used sewing pins instead so it still retained the gothic look I was going for. You can see how the top design evolved as the project moved along.
Now that everything was put together, an emery board nail file was used to sand down all the chairs. The wood has to have a nice smooth finish to it for the staining and clear coating phase. All are necessary to make them look as realistic as possible.
In the shower I had an epiphany. Instead of using Thompson's wood stain on the chairs, I decided to use a touch up marker. These are used to cover up scratches and dings on wood furniture. There are several reasons why this got me excited. First, the touch up markers come in several shades of wood finishes from redwood to pine to mahogany. Second, not only are they cheap, but you can find them in just about any furniture, craft, or hardware store. Lastly, because you draw it on like a sharpie marker, you don't have to worry about spills or clean up. Unlike regular markers they don't cover up the natural wood grain. I ended up using a brown sharpie to go over just the joints where the touch up marked couldn't reach.
In order to get that nice furniture look, the chairs need to be clear coated. You could probably use a spray clear coat for this, but I opted a brush on high gloss clear coat to help prevent air bubbles. After it dried, I used a polish cloth for that final sheen.
Looking at the final product I pulled my wife over to get her opinion on them. She liked them, but suggested adding a leather piece to the high backed chair since the back lacked any detail you'd normally see. I used some brown leather from an old wallet. You can find leather or fake leather that will work, but you want to be sure it doesn't have the thick fabric backing that a lot of leather fabrics have. When I saw how well the leather pieces looked on that chair I went and added it to the mid back chair too.