the Arkansas Test

Many of you know I’ve been editing Jennie Alexander’s Make a Chair from a Tree for Lost Art Press. (yes, I know you want me to hurry…) At the same time, I’ve begun a meandering sort of research project that is only partially formed in my head. For a year or more now, I’ve referred to it as my “Craft Genealogy.” This is the first blog post on that subject. 

Much of this parallel project draws on the Jennie Alexander Papers, now housed at Winterthur Museum’s research library. JA kept notebooks from nearly the beginning of her chairmaking work, the earliest is dated 1973/4. There are other papers, notes and letters that I have here. Eventually, I’ll add these to the Winterthur collection. 

At North House, I gave a talk outlining some of it. It was mostly for me, but some of the audience claimed to like it. But they’re midwestern, they’re very polite. The focus of the talk was mostly about JA, Daniel O’Hagan and Bill Coperthwaite. All letter-writers. Many other people are involved – certainly Drew Langsner who is my connection to all of these folks.  While I was at North House, I stumbled onto a piece by surprise. 

In Daniel O’Hagan’s notes is a description of a stress-test Dave Sawyer used to apply to his ladderbacks, dated 1974: 

His chairs are so strong that he recommends what he calls the Arkansas test having learned it with other techniques from Arkansas craftsmen. The test is to tilt the chair on one leg and taking hold of a back post exert all one’s weight downwards on the chair which supports it all on one leg; by this any weak point will soon creak or break. ” 

The only Arkansas chairmaker mentioned so far in the Alexander letters was Charles Christian. More about him another time. JA eventually visited Christian, but I think had first  heard of him through Dave Sawyer. JA introduced himself to Sawyer in a letter dated May 1976 – but in an Oct 1976 letter to Sawyer, JA noted:

“It is a small world. I was going over my old notes the other day and saw that the Woody Brothers of Spruce Pine N. Car. had given me your name 2 years ago but I never got around to writing.”   

I don’t know how JA got onto the Woody Brothers of Spruce Pine, N.C. – Arval & Walter. Then-John and his wife Joyce had visited them in spring of 1974, and then traded a few letters back and forth. 

While at North House, I was browsing the bookshelves in one of the workshops. A variety of Scandinavian stuff, boatbuilding, timber-framing, etc. One little coffee-table National Geographic book “The Craftsman in America” (1975) – so I opened that, and found a photo that I recognized right away, but had never seen before. Arval Woody testing the chair just the way Daniel described Dave’s test. 

Chairmaking in the US is now is a small world, in the mid-1970s, it was even smaller. I see several explanations, none of which we really need. One is that Daniel mixed up Dave’s chairmaking friends, thus the Arkansas test might really be the NC test. Another is that the Woodys and Charles Christian knew each other, and they both did it. Another is that Dave is the transmission of this show-stopping demo – bringing it from the Christian shop to the Woodys. None of it matters. All I know for sure is when I opened that book at North House, and saw that photo, I knew right away I was on the right track. I heard Daniel O’Hagan’s voice say “It is providential!” 


I tried it yesterday and almost broke my neck.

I couldn’t balance, needed one hand on the bench. There’s plenty of weight on the chair still, I have enough to go around.

Brendan Gaffney got a better photo than I did; he’s still young & more nimble than me. 


PPS: The Woody’s Chair Shop is still going.




19 thoughts on “the Arkansas Test

  1. This is amazing stuff, I never heard of any of these guys, but I’m not a woodworking artisan. I still wonder who gave JA the prototype, maybe that’s in his papers too. Sounds to me like this might be a great introduction to the third edition, although it might also make a great article.

  2. “The Arkansas test” could easily become the highlight of any chair building class after party. I see it evolving into its own endurance event with multi-thousand dollar, purpose built carbon fiber “chairs”. Elon Musk will join the fray. A nascent Olympic event?

  3. So I was watching an episode of “Handcrafted America” on Amazon video a couple days ago that included a segment on Woodys Chairs and had a demonstration of that very test.

    • Thanks, Richard
      Went & saw it. About what I expected – but there were scanning shots of the chair display that clearly showed hand-made chairs. I’d love to learn more about those older ones. Bent back posts, etc.

  4. Heard of this year’s ago, but never saw a photo of it. Kudos to you, Peter, for attempting it! Blessings in this time of extra time to research and share. Mary

    On Sat, Mar 21, 2020 at 8:37 AM Peter Follansbee, joiner’s notes wrote:

    > pfollansbee posted: “Many of you know I’ve been editing Jennie Alexander’s > Make a Chair from a Tree for Lost Art Press. (yes, I know you want me to > hurry…) At the same time, I’ve begun a meandering sort of research > project that is only partially formed in my head. For a yea” >

  5. There was a chairmaker in Bear, Arkansas working from the 40’s through the 70’s named Dallas Bump. His father also made chairs there starting in the early 1900’s, I do not remember his name. Dallas’ nephew still ran the shop the last I knew. Maybe that makes the chairmaking world somewhat bigger.

  6. Put two 240 on dudes on it and it’s the Pennsylvania test. It was used on the glued up leg frames of my Tag Frid workbench in 1976 after I fretted to them that the frame looked a bit spindly.

  7. In the history of religion, tracing who trained or converted whom in a succession is called hagiography.

  8. Had explored similar thoughts about craft genealogy following Greenwoodfest (either of the first two iterations for me…), following branchings along both the chairmaking and Swedish slojd in America lines. I’d enjoy a proper family tree to visualizes those connections and interconnections. Of course we’re all out there, the littlest roots.

  9. IKEA has all manner of mechanical tests for its furniture but I doubt they would have one this rigorous. I’m sure it would’ve saved me from discovering on more than one occasion an inferior product.
    Thanks Peter.

  10. There’s a reference to this very test being carried out by the Masters of the Worshipful Company of Turners of London in the early 1600s – it was something they were doing to chairs produced by non-Guild makers, which the illicit chairmakers were forced to submit to, then sell surviving chairs to the Guild at a ludicrous discount. With my museum shut down for the pandemic, I’m not sure I can lay hands on the notes right now, but I’ll get them as soon as I may and send them on.

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