Xmas chairs, done

got 'em done

I finished the chairs today. Did the second hickory-bark seat, a few pins for slats, and some general scraping & smoothing.  It was funny making this style of chair again after many years. This type of chair was the first woodworking I really did, and I made quite a few of them over the years. As many of you know, I first heard of this chair when Taunton Press published John Alexander’s Make a Chair from a Tree in 1978. In 1980 I met Alexander when he taught his 2nd class at Country Workshops. Years later, when Alexander did an afterward for the 2nd edition of Make a Chair from a Tree, (Astragal Press, 1994) I was fortunate enough to be able to help a bit. At that time, the point of the afterward was to cull the un-necessary parts out of the original text, and in a sense simplify the task. I make a long-haired cameo in the afterward.

 Ultimately, Alexander went even further when it came time to make the DVD that is now the record of that process. The DVD is quite detailed, and really nails the chair. Jennie still sells it through the website: www.greenwoodworking.com – there are clips there as well: http://www.greenwoodworking.com/MACFATVideo

Alexander's post-and-rung chair


By the time the DVD was made I was somewhat removed from making Alexander-style chairs. For the past 20 years I have mostly concentrated on the seventeenth century stuff, including some turned chairs, like this:

turned chair, ash w rush seat


Another sort that I have made is what we call “plain” chairs, i.e. those with shaved parts instead of turned. We latched onto the term “plain” chair for these shaved period examples from a record I found from the Worshipful Company of Turners of London:

“20th February 1615 It was directed that the makers of chairs about the City, who were strangers and foreigners, were to bring them to the Hall to be searched according to the ordinances. When they were thus brought and searched, they were to be bought by the Master and Wardens at a price fixed by them, which was 6s per dozen for plain matted chairs and 7s per dozen for turned matted chairs.”  [from A.C. Stanley-Stone, The Worshipful Company of Turners of London – Its Origin and History (London: Lindley-Jones & Brother, 1925) p. 121.]

 This chair is in essence related to Alexander’s; but done in the simplest manner…

plain matted chair, PF

Typically a turner using riven stock would hew or shave the stuff prior to turning it on the lathe. This is how Alexander started making chairs ages ago, then just dropped the turning part. Some chairs (the plain matted ones) just omit the turning, presumably making a slightly cheaper product. The few surviving oldies are still quick heavy & thick…

plain chair, MFA Boston

As I was making these chairs this week, I kept thinking about how this or that step would be easier/quicker on the lathe, something I never imagined thirty years ago. I still use techniques I learned from Alexander when making the turned chairs, but certainly the most distinct difference is the bulk of the parts. In general the rungs on the turned chair above are about 1” in diameter, with ¾” tenons. I think Alexander’s rungs are just a hair over the 5/8” tenon. Even my kids’ chairs from this week are beefier than Alexander’s adult chairs!  

 In the end, I think of the shaved chair designed by Alexander as a modern chair, with its origins in the many traditional examples made down the ages. Alexander engineered a construction principle that is probably more meticulous than most early chairmakers bothered with. But it works great…makes a very strong, extremely light chair.

Antique shaved chairs are rare survivors. Last year Jennie & I worked with our friend Robert Trent on an article for American Furniture 2008 called Early American Shaved Post-and-Rung Chairs. There’s a slew of chairs in it, worth seeing if you like this sort of chair.

7 thoughts on “Xmas chairs, done

  1. Beautiful chairs and nicely executed Peter.

    Your “plain” chairs are very familiar to me; I spent the first 30 years of my life in Ireland, and worked at both the Ulster Folk Museum at Cultra and the Ulster-American Folk park at the Melon Homestead near Omagh. I also worked at many listed houses in N. Ireland and Donegal where these rustic chairs were a common sight even up ’til the mid eighties when I left Ireland.

    The seats were of woven Maram seagrass (Ammophila arenaria), coloquially known as ‘Bent’ in Donegal. The Bent is pulled (not cut) from the sand dunes along the Atlantic coast in Summer. Much of it is used for thatching the low-roofed cottages, but some is reserved for seating.

    I have woven many a seat with Bent. It’s very tough – much more so than rushes, and lasts well.

  2. I agree with your description of Alexander’s chair as “modern”. That’s what I like about it, and the lightness of the frame and careful shaping improve the aesthetics of it, for me, over heavier versions. My impression after watching the DVD is that here’s a guy who has put an inordinant amount of thought into the process and reduced the sculpted chair to a very essential and minimal form.
    Your history of chairs in this post was really well done and enjoyable. Thanks.
    Tico vogt

  3. the chairs look great!

    hope to try a couple myself this winter. With the shaving horse complete there’s no excuse now…

    I really like the hickory-bark warping, over shaker tape or even rush.

    With respect to felling a hickory, is there a window of workability or a time of year that should be avoided, for shaving off the bark?

    thanks, Joel

  4. Regarding bark harvesting, I haven’t seen the DVD by Brian Boggs that Joe recommends, but I imagine it’s first-rate. Brian is one of the foremost practicioners of this sort of chair.
    The time to cut the bark is spring – it’s outlined in Alexander’s book Make a Chair from a Tree, as well as in Drew Langsner’s The Chairmakers’ Workshop = see http://countryworkshops.org/books.html

  5. Peter and Joe

    Three great authorities on the subject,
    Drew Langsner’s book is on my wish list…

    lets see what tomorrow brings!


  6. Just popped by for a catch up Peter and your plain matted chair is one of the nicest things I have seen for a long time. Modern folk find it so hard to work in that way yet it has so much honesty and humility about it. Interesting Jack mentioned the Irish chairs, it made me think of Irish sugan chairs too.

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