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In the Make: Online Toolbox, we focus mainly on tools that fly under the radar of more conventional tool coverage: in-depth tool-making projects, strange or specialty tools unique to a trade or craft that can be useful elsewhere, tools and techniques you may not know about, but once you do, and incorporate them into your workflow, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without them. And, in the spirit of the times, we pay close attention to tools that you can get on the cheap, make yourself, or refurbish.


In 1994, I wrote a book called Mosaic Quick Tour: Accessing and Navigating the World Wide Web. It was, arguably, the first book dedicated the the World Wide Web. The publisher, Ventana, wanted it to be the first, so they wanted it fast, really fast. I wrote it in 30 days. I did literally nothing but eat, sleep, and write that book for a month, all in a very crappy, bottomed-out, office store “task chair.” I like to tell people that I sacrificed my right hip to that book. I have bad arthritis and my hip was already shot, but I had a hip before the book, and it was pretty much history by the time I was done. I had to have a replacement. It was stupid to not get a better chair during the writing marathon, but I had tight deadlines every day and didn’t feel like I ever had the time to go shopping. But literally the day the book was finished, I went to a “bed and back” story and blew about $1300 of my book advance on an amazing chair with crazy amounts of adjustability and lumbar and neck support. From then on, I’ve never skimped on my seating. And neither should you.

We asked a bunch of our readers and staff, through mailing lists and our Facebook page, for input on chairs and work stools. Here’s some of what they had to say. Hands down, the chair-of-note is still the Herman Miller Aeron. But there were a few others. And one suggestion for no sitting at all.

Chairs

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For the past ten years or so, I’ve had a Herman Miller Aeron Chair ($920) for desk work and I love it. I’m not alone. Lots of people responded with enthusiastic thumbs-up for the Aeron. Andrew Righter, of Q Labs, said: “I’m a simple man. And there’s nothing better than this chair.” ChopSey, of HacDC, adds: “it’s all about the air flow, configurability, and easing of any pressure points.” Dorkbot DC Overlord Alberto Gaitán says: I concur. I’ve used an Aeron for almost 15 years and wouldn’t buy another chair that isn’t fully and adjustable, with lumbar support, and a mesh seat so one doesn’t eventually end up bottoming out.” MAKE contributor Alden Hart writes: “In the tech bubble days, we used an “Aeron Count” as a predictive indicator of startup failure. The more Aerons, the greater the likelihood of failure. That said, I love my Aeron, and so does my wife. Got cheap from a failed startup!” HacDC member Ben Stanfield writes: “As the token fat geek, it might be good to include a couple of options for those of us who are, euphemistically speaking, “big boned.” Of course, that would require actually finding a decent chair for us, something I’ve yet to come across. The Aeron is probably the closest in terms of comfort.”

Usually when the topic of the Aeron comes up, complaints of how expensive they are follow. They do retail for over $900, but you can get them new for under $800, and used or refurbished, for much less than that. Andrew Righter says he’s spotted them on Craigslist for $200. And even if you have to pay the high end of these prices, you have to consider how much time you’re going to spend in it and how much comfort (or discomfort) it’s going to profide. I probably spend a good 60-hours in my Aeron chair every week, and have for a decade now. When you look at it that way, and as one of my most used office tools, even $900-1000 isn’t too much money to spend.

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Last year, Joel Johnson did a video review on Boing Boing Gadgets of the Steelcase Leap Chair and the Herman Miller Embody [Caution: Mildly saucy content on the video link]. My Aeron has now seen better days and doesn’t hold some of its adjustments anymore, so I’ll likely want a upgrade soon. So, I’ve been looking at what’s out there. Of these two new chairs, I found the Leap the most intriguing. It retails for around the same as the Aeron. The Embody retails for $1600-2000. Joel didn’t seem to find the latter appreciably more comfortable or anything more than swankier in style. It does have a full, flexible back. The chair I had before my Aeron has this feature, and as someone with spinal arthritis, I really appreciated it fully cradling my back. For me, this might be a feature worth spending around $1200-street to get. I’ll have to go to a store and try one out. I also did like the fact that my old chair looked like it was off the deck of a spaceship, a look the Embody shares. But looks alone wouldn’t be worth paying 40% more for over the Leap (or just getting a new Aeron).

A lot of people brought up the key requirements for a great chair, and it basically comes down to lots of adjustability and the ability to do those adjustments easily and on the fly. The chairs need to have adjustable height, armrests, seat-back angle, seat-pan angle, and needs to be correctly adjusted to fit your work area(s). And all of the controls to adjust these angles should be with convenient reach.

MAKE’s Collin Cunningham writes: “Adjustability! I’m still in search of highly adjustable, well-made, and affordable seating. Being able to change up my seating style on the fly is a requirement for taking on a wide variety of tasks, each for an extended period of time. Until the ideal soldering/coding throne presents itself, I’ll be using a mesh-back Acadia chair from Staples. It’s surprisingly comfy for the price, though sore elbows have prompted me to add some cushioning to the armrests.

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Katie Wilson, our awesome, and awesomely tall, designer just ordered a YogaChair to try out at work. I know people who have, and swear by, these. I’ll take their word for it. Katie writes: “My body hates sitting all day at the 90-degree angle it attempts to make. My lower back and hips have an awful time of it. [MAKE Assoc. Editor] Goli has something like this chair, as does my friend Jen. I’ve tried them before, but never for a full eight hours. It’s worth a shot.

“The most important thing to me is lower back support — or a position that prompts you to do it yourself — and flexibility in the hips. Most chairs can’t provide the latter, though the way most Aeron chairs recline can give a little relief. I spend a good portion of the day siting cross-legged just to give my hips a chance to open up. I’d sit on the floor if I could, on a meditation pillow. This yoga chair is the next best thing.”

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You can even get an exercise ball with a backrest and casters!

One of our MAKE Facebook community members, Michelle Sullivan Goldsmith, uses an exercise ball to sit on. Dave Clarke does too: “I have done the same as Ms. Goldsmith and switched from a chair to an exercise ball. Actually, mine’s a hopping ball, but I haven’t had the nerve to bounce out of my office yet.”

Tall, “big-boned,” arthritic — we are so many different body types and shapes, you do need to shop around to find what’s right for you, even beyond a chair that offers lots of adjustability and good ergonomics. Make: Online Associate Editor Becky Stern says: “I’m super short, so office furniture isn’t designed with my ergonomics in mind. I find I need a footstool and keyboard tray to make up the difference. I rock an Ikea office chair, and I’ve been pretty happy with it. I also made a lapdesk for laptopping from my
couch/bed, but it leads to a less-than-optimal neck angle for computing. And you didn’t ask, but I use a trackball instead of a regular mouse, and I haven’t had a carpal tunnel flareup since I switched.

Work Stools
Of course, sitting at a desk, wrangling electrons, is only one of the ways that we work in our offices and shops. For some situations, you need a good stool. Years ago, I bought a padded, adjustable drafting stool with a back on it and a lumbar and a foot right at an art supply store sale for under $100. I use that at my drafting/light table and have been more than happy with it.

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Alberto Gaitán says: “If I worked on a high desk/bench, I’d probably opt for an Aeron Work Stool.”

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Sean Ragan: “I dream of having one of these Medrazzo tractor-seat stools by Achille Castiglioni. What I’d really like to do is remake it, because it’s stupid expensive for a tractor seat with a bar and a stick on it.”

Standing
And then there’s the idea of not sitting at all, or switching off between seated and standing positions.

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Ergonomics Made Easy Sit or Stand Station

Make: Online’s Sean Ragan’s advice on chairs? Don’t use one! Viktor Papanek, author of Nomadic Furniture and Design for the Real World, strongly advocated standing to work. Lots of famously productive people also advocate working at a standing bench. Donald Rumsfeld springs to mind. Regardless of your feelings about the guy, he’s in his 70s and works like 12 hours a day standing up. Hemmingway was also a stander. And our very own Marc de Vinck likes to stand while he works. People in a state of nature don’t have chairs. They stand, or squat, or they lie down.

Some folks also favor a one-legged stool, which takes some of the weight off your feet but also requires that you keep both feet on the floor and actively balance, which is better for your legs and better for your back. Keeps you from slouching.

More:

Gareth Branwyn

Gareth Branwyn is a freelancer writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture, including the first book about the web (Mosaic Quick Tour) and the Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Building Robots. He is currently working on a best-of collection of his writing, called Borg Like Me.


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Comments

  1. Nate says:

    I’m sitting on one (or one pretty dang similar), right now — got it on sale a while back.

    I’ve had it for five years or so, and it’s great!

    My only complaint is the weak arm rests — one broke at the end, so it swings wildly from side to side. As a result, the foam-rubber tore. I really need to glue the bugger in place. Though, the damage could very well be from my odd way of leaning against the rest. Or my 15 pound cat. …but it’s probably me.

    1. Collin Cunningham says:

      yah – I was wary of armrest breakage as I’d heard some complaints before buying. Luckily I don’t seem to be much of a leaner. I actually have 2 of these chairs and worth mentioning is the fact that the minimum height of one seems considerably higher than the other – oh well, “ya get whatcha pay for” as they say

  2. Carnes says:

    I like going to staples/office depot(max?) and sitting in all the chairs. But typically don’t spend more than $150 on a chair.

  3. Alan says:

    I’ve been thinking about getting a tractor seat, too; if old-time farmers could spend 12-hour days sitting in one while bouncing across their fields, they can’t be too bad. Rather than shelling out piles of cash so some designer can stamp his brand on it, though, I’d just order the seat from Lehmans (http://www.lehmans.com/store/Home_Goods___Furniture___Indoor_Furniture___Cast_Implement_Seats___247) and mount it to some homemade or salvaged stool legs.

    For now, though, I’ll keep sitting in my old Ikea office chair. It was less than $200, fits me perfectly, and has lasted seven years without problems. I’m blessed with being Average Man, so most mass-production stuff is built for me.

  4. ib says:

    This chair looks impressive but i’m skeptical anyone tried it out? http://www.anthro.com/furniture.aspx?computer-cart=verte

  5. Vicki says:

    I want to swap out my office chair at work for a yoga ball to sit on. My brother works at Microsoft and he says a lot of people in his office sit on yoga balls instead of chairs all day. I don’t want to spend much on the ball base itself, the Gaiam chair base is nice looking, but too pricey. I saw some simple round ball bases on Amazon.com for around $9.00 to $25, but the shipping for the cheapest one cost more than the base itself, and I hate to pay that for a piece of plastic. Surely someone on Makezine could suggest to me a way to make a yoga ball base from a recycled garbage can lid or something else that would work as well??

    thank you!