There really is nothing like a great rocking chair. No matter whether you are nine years old or ninety, you know what I mean. A great rocker cradles you – it pitches you back to that angle where the pressure leaves your back, the weight is off your feet, your arms are relaxed – and, well, it’s just a great feeling. A rocker turns your porch or patio into an outdoor room – it’s like adding a room to your house for a couple hundred dollars.
A rocker creates an atmosphere that slows down time – loosens you up, and your guests too – to enjoy the precious time you have at the end of the day to reflect and relax. My grandmother had some really great rocking chairs on her porch – she was a true rocking chair connoisseur – and being in a great rocker takes me back to those happy evenings sipping iced tea and visiting with friends and family. Even today, sometimes I’ll find myself in a hotel that has a truly great rocking chair in a truly great spot for reading, or chatting, or just sitting still and thinking for a while.
But, you know, most rocking chairs aren’t quite perfect. Now, I think you know what I mean. They’re all pretty great – but when you’ve been in a perfect rocking chair, then there really is something missing when you sit in a chair that’s not quite right. Maybe the seat is too high – or the back doesn’t pitch back at the right angle. Sometimes the arms don’t fit you, or your head or shoulders hit the back slats in the wrong place. Some seats are perfectly contoured, others make you shift around looking for the right spot to sit on. Some squeak like a trapped mouse. Others are flimsy or lightweight, and feel out of balance when you try to rock – while others almost won’t rock at all.
And so this article is about what makes a rocking chair truly perfect. What are the characteristics of a truly great rocking chair that will totally satisfy, and never leave you with that nagging feeling that you aren’t quite fully relaxed?
And how on earth would I know anyway? What makes me such an expert? A fair question. I’ve already said that my grandmother, Elizabeth Poorman Moore, was a rocker expert. And she was. She was born in Katy, Texas, in 1917 to rice farmers, and they knew the meaning of hard work, hot days, and how to relax that sore back when the day was done. They didn’t have air conditioning, so the porch was where they went to relax. She grew up knowing what a rocking chair was for – why it was invented. After marrying an architect who shared her appreciation of quality design, she opened a small store for fine antiques, including furniture and rocking chairs. She also purchased an original 1800s-era Stagecoach Inn and operated it for more than twenty years as an upscale bed and breakfast. Thousands of discerning people came and rocked.
I got to know great design and great furniture from my grandparents, but, after a career in banking and investment banking in the 1980s and 90s, I set off on my own to design and build rocking chairs – not antiques, like my grandmother – but brand new rockers, which I could make to any perfecting standard I could think of. I opened up a store in 1992 in Houston called Frontera Furniture Company and sold the rockers we made in a little factory in rural Texas. My idea was to design the perfect rocking chair, and then make lots of them, and sell them at a reasonable price. The more I got to know my competition, the less afraid of them I became. It seemed that everyone that made rocking chairs did so because there was a market for them – but nobody seemed to be listening to the customer – it seemed like no one was taking the time to get everything just right; the way you would if you really had passion and were committed to making a chair for yourself or for someone very special to you. So that’s what I did.
Since that time I have sold tens of thousands of rocking chairs – not just made in that factory, but later made in other factories under contract to me, with a few improvements made to the design every few years. My rockers were purchased by young couples, old folks and new moms. As word got around, my rockers cradled sports stars, news anchors, mayors, governors and even a U.S. President. They were bought by designers, architects, bed and breakfasts, restaurants, and hotels. At last count, my rockers are in 41 countries around the globe, adding just a little special spot in each place they occupy.
So what makes the perfect rocking chair? I would say the key factors are comfort and strength. Comfort is what we’re seeking, but of course strength is about assuring that the comfort will last.
Comfort means a lot of things to a lot of people, but I can tell you after 16 years of selling rockers to thousands of discerning customers, there are some key aspects of comfort almost everyone can agree on, and which will help you find the perfect chair:
- Angle of incline. A great rocker settles into a pitch that takes the weight off your spine. Different people have slightly different preferences for this angle, but a good rocker is built with a back that is pitched back and long runners that provide a wide range of sitting angles. Most rockers have a back post that is straight, but set into the runners at an angle. This puts structural stresses on the chair and there is a limit to how much angle you can get in this manner. A much more expensive construction technique which improves on this is a “cut-angle” back, which allows the chair to be squared up as far as the seat, and the back post is then cut at an angle to allow a larger back angle than is possible with a straight back post. Actually, this technique is not even possible with most woods, since cutting many woods at an angle significantly reduces their strength and could result in a broken back either in shipping or while rocking! Every rocker has a balance point. Trouble is, the balance point is often not far enough back – meaning you have to maintain constant pressure with your legs and feet to hold the rocker back far enough to get the angle you need for comfort. A cut-angle back rests much closer to that balance point, so that you can get to the balance point without having to push as far back in the rocker. That makes a huge difference in comfort.
- Contoured seat and back. Have you ever been to a great restaurant that has uncomfortable chairs? How about most airplanes? It amazes me every time, but the fact is that not all chairs are created equal – and the most common reason a chair is uncomfortable is that the seat and back are not contoured in a way that cradles your rear end in a position that takes the stress off your lower back. Part of that job is done by the contours of the seat, and the rest of the job is done by the contour of the chair back. A great chair seat is contoured in both directions – it will have roughly an “S”- shaped contour from front to back, and a very shallow “U” contour from left to right. A quality chair back will angle back starting just above your lower back, and will also have a “U” contour from left to right. That is where airplane seats are so uncomfortable – the back has a “U” shape in both directions – and that’s a no-no! A U-shape in the vertical direction angles toward you as it moves up your back, putting stress on your back and leading to tremendous back fatigue the longer you sit there. Contouring costs a lot of money in the manufacture of a chair – and this is one major reason why good contouring is rare.
- Full adult size. Here is the oldest trick in retail: shrink your product just a little bit so you can offer a cheaper price. This happens all the time; a manufacturer can save a lot of money in materials and freight by shrinking a chair. People get very excited about getting a rocker for $99 and then wonder why it doesn’t feel quite as fantastic as they had hoped. If you’re small, you might want a little rocker, but a larger rocker, if designed well, almost always feels better and will feel better for your guests too.
- Heavy weight. In general, a heavy rocking chair rocks better and feels better. The reason for this is that you get leverage in rocking from a heavy chair – a little push from your feet results in a substantial range of motion that cradles you and feels right. A lightweight chair feels like nothing – you feel like you’re doing all the work – and you are. Compare sometime and you’ll know what I mean.
- Wide arms. This may seem minor, but there is a true feeling of luxury from wide arms. When you push back to rock, you want to have a wide surface to rest against, which makes rocking easier. More importantly, a wide arm gives you more room to find that perfect angle for comfort for your arms and elbows. Every person is a little different, so a narrow arm won’t “fit” most people and it’s pretty unlikely it will give you that perfect fit either.
- Non- splintering wood. You only need to learn this once – ouch! Rockers made from cheap woods develop splinters as the grain lifts from age and exposure to the elements. It isn’t only a problem for your arms and fingers – it can be an expensive problem for your pants or hose! Splinters from seat slats can and will ruin your clothes and your day.
- Seat slat Guard. Here’s a really rare feature that you need to know about. I already mentioned the way wood splinters on seat slats. But the most uncomfortable thing about seat slats is that they are usually exposed to your legs on the front, resulting in some pretty sharp experiences as you sit down or get up. Even when the slats have been laboriously sanded, seat slat edges are simply uncomfortable on the back of your legs and detract from a relaxing rocking experience. The best way to deal with this is with a “seat slat guard,” which a few makers have added to the front of their seats. This is simply a smooth solid structural element that extends across the front of the seat slats so that your legs feel nothing but a gentle curve – and not slat edges. It also makes the seat and chair significantly stronger.
- A footstool. I mentioned that the wonder of a rocking chair is that it takes the weight off your back and puts you in a relaxing position. But the best sitting angle depends on the length of your legs, the height of your back, where your elbows hit the arms, etc. So some folks will feel best at a 20-degree angle, while others will want a 30-degree angle in the same chair. The secret is a footstool. By raising your feet onto a footstool, you automatically increase the back angle – the amount of angle depending on how close you position the stool. In addition, having your knees higher will straighten your lower back and increase your comfort. In fact, with a footstool, you can achieve the g-spot of rocking perfection – which is the “zero-gravity experience.” Perhaps you’ve seen the popular new “zero- gravity chairs” that simulate a weightless experience by a combination of lowering the chair back and raising a footrest. It’s not really a new invention – in our living rooms we call this a La-Z-Boy recliner – and outside, the first “zero-G” lounge chair was popularized by France’s Lafuma Furniture in the 1940s. Anyway, you can achieve this nirvana in a rocking chair merely by purchasing a footstool. Do it. Thank me later.
- Wood type. The best way to save money is always with cheap materials. Cheap chairs are made from cheap wood. Cheap wood doesn’t hold up. The cheapest woods are “softwoods”, so named because they grow very quickly and their cellular structures are simpler and far less dense, leading to lower strength in most cases. My four-year-old son learned to break a pine plank with his hands in Tai Kwon Do – there’s a reason they don’t use hickory in that exercise. Hardwoods grow much more slowly, and therefore are much more expensive to raise. Especially in a rocking chair, strength is extremely important. Seat slats are by nature fairly thin, and so need to be made from the strongest wood possible if they are to last for a long time. So don’t buy a rocker made from pine, cedar, or redwood – those are softwoods. But even hardwoods are not created equal. Many rockers are made of oak, ash, beech, birch, or “mixed hardwoods”. None of these are weatherproof (see next section), but especially beware of anything labeled merely as “hardwood”. Almost every widely available rocker available today is now made from “hardwood”, which means in practice that it is made from a mixture of different hardwoods, all of which age in different ways. When humidity changes, as it does every season and every day, these woods will shrink and contract differently, resulting in a gradual loosening of the chair. That strong, tight chair you bring home from the store can be a flimsy loose chair within just one year of normal use for this reason.
- Weatherproof. Any chair that is going to be used outside, even on a covered porch, should be weatherproof if you expect it to last more than a few years. The three enemies of furniture are variable moisture levels, water, and sunlight.
- I already mentioned how varying humidity causes wood to expand and contract each day and night, and with the seasons. Even if you don’t touch a chair, it will loosen over time unless it is made from a dense hardwood that is extremely stable.
- Water penetration is very damaging to non-weatherproof wood. Water finds its way into any crack or gap in your chair, and through any thin spot or chip in the finish. Once water has penetrated, it will soak into the wood and begin to rot. This makes chairs turn black, especially near the joints, and is the reason why every non-weatherproof rocker will eventually have its runner snap right off – and you can’t fix a rotted post or runner.
- Sunlight breaks down the cellular structure of the wood and wears away finishes, even “exterior” paints. Remember – we can put humans on the moon, but we still haven’t made a house paint that doesn’t need to be re-applied every five to six years. Paint does not last, so don’t make the mistake of thinking a chair is weatherproof just because it has an exterior paint. Once the paint begins to degrade, all that matters is whether the wood underneath is weatherproof – and very few woods are. Teak and Brazilian Cherry are two of the most suitable weatherproof woods for furniture. Both are more expensive than non-weatherproof woods, but they are worth it because they last. After you replace an inferior chair the first time, you will have spent more for your second inferior chair than you wood have by buying a weatherproof chair the first time. To say nothing of the waste of throwing your first chair into a landfill somewhere – not environmentally friendly!
Teak is currently the most popular weatherproof wood, although it is very expensive because true teak comes only from very far-away places where the trees take over 60 years to reach maturity. By the way, don’t be fooled by lesser woods from eastern Asia marketed as “teak” but made from totally different, and inferior, woods. An increasingly popular material for weatherproof furniture is Brazilian Cherry, which matures in only 30 years and is actually harder and more stable than teak and has the added benefit that it can be painted, which teak cannot. For more about Brazilian Cherry and Teak, see my article “About Brazilian Cherry”.
- Construction techniques. Chairs take a huge amount of stress and have to be engineered more carefully than any other type of furniture, or they will loosen or break. And no chair takes more stress than a rocking chair. As you rock back and forth in a rocking chair, you place huge shear stresses on the joints, especially where the seat and arms connect to the front and back posts. Most chairs can stand this stress for a while – perhaps months or years. But few chairs can hold up to years of use unless they are made of a very dense wood, and built with serious attention to quality joinery techniques. Fine furniture is made with traditional “mortise and tenon” joinery techniques, in which each joint consists of a strong tapered end that extends far inside a matching hole in the receiving piece. Key joints are the ones connecting the posts to the dowels (horizontal braces), and connecting the posts to the runners. In an outdoor chair, there are certain joints that should also be braced with weatherproof glue and a quality screw to minimize the loosening that happens over time. But neither glue nor screws are a replacement for quality wood and construction techniques.
- Thickness of parts. If wood density and strength is one factor, then certainly the thickness of the wood is the other. The main thing to watch for in a rocker is the thickness of seat slats. The first thing to go in a low quality rocking chair is a broken seat slat – and trying to replace a broken seat slat will wear you out and beat you every time. One broken slat and it’s off to the landfill with your rocker. Sometimes, a manufacturer will try to make up for a lower quality wood by making the parts thicker to compensate. I must say I appreciate the effort, because that is helpful. However, it doesn’t fully compensate, and also results in a very clunky look and a chair that won’t rock properly either.
Heaviness alone is no guarantee of quality – but many of the factors that create a great rocker also create weight – like a dense quality hardwood, thick posts and slats, full adult size, and the other things we’ve talked about. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that you should beware a lightweight rocker. Most rockers available in the superstores weight about 20-25 pounds, and you just can’t make a quality chair at that weight. I’ve tried it and learned that lesson very early on. The rockers we make now are between 37 and 50 pounds.
Well, we’ve talked a lot about what makes a great rocking chair. Like most things in life, the answer is not simple, but there is a great reward from knowing your way as you compare rockers in order to become confident that you will have the best there is. As you shop, observe the characteristics I mention above, and sit in every chair with those characteristics in mind as you narrow down your choices.
After fifteen years in my quest to create the perfect rocker, I made what I believe is my magnum opus. After two years, I still have not found even one thing I would change to improve it – and that has never happened before - it’s a great feeling. People who buy it tell me they’ve never been in a better rocker. They buy one or two and then come back for more, and start giving them to friends and family for special occasions. Hotels are choosing this chair above the others we offer. I called the chair “The Independence Rocker” (many of my rockers are named for the founders and guiding principles of the United States). Here is a link to this rocking chair.
I partnered with a strong, family-owned furniture factory using highly precise machinery for consistent quality. I chose Brazilian Cherry so that it is weatherproof and can be painted –- it is available in natural oil, three painted colors, three more weathered paint finishes, and two indoor/outdoor luxury stains. I made the proportions large – a wide seat and back, wide arms, a tall back and long runners. I incorporated contours everywhere they should be provided – in both axes of the seat and in the back. I utilized a cut-angle back to increase the back angle, and gave the back a slight left to right contour as well. I included a seat slat guard in the front of the seat, and an extra structural piece on the side of the seat that adds strength and improves the look as well. And I made a matching footstool for that incomparable zero-G effect.
All those considerations made it significantly more expensive to build, but I compensated by buying in large quantities and not being greedy in our profit margins. Freight costs are a large portion of the cost of furniture, and we slashed those costs by creating a “partially assembled” chair that comes in a relatively flat box but can be assembled by most people in about 15-20 minutes. We perfected packing techniques to protect parts from damage inside the box, and we used top-quality thick corrugated boxes that protect the furniture inside. It’s amazing how much money you save when you make furniture that never breaks in shipping or gets returned - those costs are a large part of most furniture you buy. This chair is available from Decor Americana and Frontera Furniture with free shipping and a satisfaction guarantee. Whether you buy this chair or another one, I know you will be glad you learned a bit more about what makes the perfect rocker before investing in the last rocker you’ll ever buy.
When you sit in the perfect rocker, you will get that feeling of bliss that comes from knowing “it doesn’t get any better than this.” And your guests will notice – I have watched the faces of thousands of people light up as they sat in a great rocker and felt that feeling – and that feeling is a great way to start a memorable evening with family or friends on your porch.