Looking at some chairs

I first learned how to make ladderback chairs based on Alexander’s book, Make a Chair from a Tree. Then later, I studied a thin slice of furniture history from the perspective of those who made it. So what I know, or think I know, is pretty narrowly focused. There’s lots of kinds of chairs; generally I break them down into two forms – Joined chairs, like this one:

And turned chairs, like this one: 

turned chair, ash w rush seat

For now, I’ll concentrate on turned chairs.  Whether they have a board seat, fiber seat; spindles in the back, or slats – the common feature they all have is the round mortise & tenon joint. I think of JA’s chair as a turned chair that isn’t turned. Alexander’s earliest chairs were turned; here is a one-slat Alexander chair all in hickory, with a paper imitation rush seat. Made c. 1974. 

By 1976, Alexander’s chairs parts were shaved with a drawknife rather than turned. There is a long tradition of “un-turned” turned chairs, some reaching back to the 16th & 17th centuries. One helpful reference I found when studying London records was this, from the Company of Turners:

“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. The effect of such an order…all chairs which came into London had to be submitted to the Company and if approved, were taken over at the fixed price. The Turners reaped the benefit by the removal of possible competition.” – this quote is from The Worshipful Company of Turners of London – Its Origin and History A.C. Stanley-Stone, (London: Lindley-Jones & Brother, 1925)

My italics. If “plain” matted chairs are distinct from “turned” matted chairs, then I conclude they aren’t turned. “Matted” refers to the fiber seat, usually rush. Paintings & prints are helpful to a degree in seeing what sort of chairs were in use at a given time. There’s loads of examples. This painting by Cornelius Decker (1618-1678) shows a 2-slat shaved chair in the lower right corner. 

Looking at it in detail, I see a few things. Square posts (well, sometimes they’re rectangular, but not round, thus “square”). Only 8 rungs, and the lower ones are quite close to the seat rungs. Doesn’t offer much strength that way. Either the chair has wracked so the rear posts are now canted back, or it was bored to achieve that. Rush seat. Moving those lower rungs down would strengthen the chair.

 

Meeting in a tavern, by De Jongh (1616-1679)

The chair in the lower right hand corner, has some perspective problems. But we can see several details. Might be 12 rungs, it’s at least 11; through mortises; a cushion; square posts.

this detail from Michiel Sweets’ (1618-1664) “The Academy”: 8 rungs, through mortises, rush seat, 3 slats. No bend to rear posts. Small chair.

Sweerts, The Academy

A mezzotint by Wallerent Vallaint (1623-1677). This is a detail; all we can tell is the chair has square posts, round side rungs, through mortise for a very tall slat. Either intentionally bored to cant the rear posts back, or wracked to just-about-falling-down.

Same artist, different chair. Note the raked rear post, clearly shown here. I’m of the opinion this is intentional to give the chair a bit more comfort than if it were bored so the rear posts were plumb. This time, two rear rails, with turned spindles between them. Discard any notion this chair was shaved/square posts because there was no lathe! Very low seat, allows you to work easily in your lap. Only 8 rungs. Rush seat.

Vallaint, boy in the studio

I made lots of shaved chairs in the years when I wasn’t making JA style chairs – mine were more like these period-style chairs. I could make the chair frame in a day, maybe 6 hours. The rush seat took me as long or longer! This one is maple posts and white oak slats. Rungs might be white oak or ash. Rear posts hewn above the seat to cant them back just a bit.

plain matted chair, PF

more of this sort of stuff here; Alexander, Trent & I (mostly Trent driving this article) on shaved chairs – http://www.chipstone.org/article.php/581/American-Furniture-2008/Early-American-Shaved-Post-and-Rung-Chairs

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Plymouth CRAFT’s class making the JA chair

Sorted some photos from Plymouth CRAFT’s recent class in making the Jennie Alexander chair. We held this class at the wonderful Wildlands Trust property in Plymouth, Massachusetts; great venue for us. https://wildlandstrust.org/

Pret & I brought the red oak to the site in eighths of a log, 5′ long. Then the students took it from there. Here is some froe/riving brake work.

I think we based this brake on one in Pete Galbert’s book Chairmaker’s Notebook https://lostartpress.com/products/chairmakers-notebook 

Might be an adaptation from the whole bunch of those Windsor chairmakers; Sawyer, Curtis Buchanan & Pete…maybe Elia too?

6 students, 6 days, 6 shaving horses. Here’s three of them anyway. We made a lot of shavings. They started with the front posts, then moved onto shaving the rear posts.

After shaving the rear posts, they go in a steambox to soften them for bending on the forms. Here’s Nathan limbering a post prior to bending it for real.

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The posts bent on forms, they’ll stay in the form for a couple of weeks. The students were then issued a set made by the previous class.

And rungs. Dozens of them.

Nathan & Elijah hunkered over slat-mortising.


Despite my near-constant ridicule, this “mortise-cleanout tool” from Jennie Alexander proved popular. Rubbish, I say.

Jon, Job & Nathan boring their posts in preparation for the first sub-assembly.

and here is the final bit of that assembly – stubborn joints get driven the last bit by a clamp. Job & Nathan.

One day Daniel came with me, I got him involved prepping rungs with the spokeshave. I think he did 3, then focused on eating biscuits.

Then onto boring for the front & rear rungs.

What we don’t see here is forming the tenons, we used a spokeshave to get them to size. Then more assembly.

Part of  any class like this is being ready to tackle problems. Let’s say for example, someone’s front rung breaks under pressure from the clamp (next time make the tenons tight, but not TOO tight…) There ain’t no getting it out, that’s for sure. So cut it off. Pare the posts smooth again. Transfer the center of that mortise around to the outside of the post – bore an 11/16″ mortise from outside – right through the tenon that’s stuck in there. Then in the other post do the same, only 5/8″ like the original joint. Then shave a long, tapered rung from dry hardwood and tap it in from outside the wider mortise. Glue the 5/8″ mortise if you like (I did, we glued all the joints. Belt & suspenders.) Trim the rung a 1/2″ or so beyond both ends outside the chair. Split the tenons, drive a dry wedge in there, & trim. Done, chair saved. I had done this once before, and was pretty sure it would work. Takes some careful alignment to get it right.

Marie Pelletier always says we have to have a class photo – she took it just after lunch, so a few slats short still, but here it is. The chair I have is an oldie I made for Daniel when he was little.

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I was trying to make a chair for my demos, but along about day 4 I abandoned it. Daniel & I finished assembling it the other day, after unpacking. I got the slats & seat in it today, but no photos. Next time.

I’m sure we’ll do this class again next year – this was the 2nd one we did this year and it seems to be a hit. I’ll be sure to post about it here, but for the belt & suspenders approach to hearing about it, sign up for Plymouth CRAFT’s newsletter. We only send out stuff when we mean it, so it’s not like we’ll assault your inbox. https://www.plymouthcraft.org/contact 

Chairs on the brain

One of JA’s last chairs

 I spent a lot of time wtih Brendan Gaffney while I was at Lost Art Press last week, and chairs were our main subject. He’s gone bananas over Alexander’s (& Chester’s) chairs. https://www.instagram.com/burnheartmade/  

Earlier I posted a bit about a visit I made with Brendan to see a few of Chester Cornett’s chairs at the Kentucky Folk Art Center in Morehead KY. He gave me a copy of an exhibition catalog produced there called “Chester Cornett: Beyond the Narrow Sky.” I see now it’s available online so for those of you who can tolerate reading stuff on-screen here’s the link:
https://scholarworks.moreheadstate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1012&context=kfac_exhibition_catalogs

After the carved box class at Lost Art Press, I came home & finished up a couple of boxes, then launched into preparation for the JA ladderback chair class starting tomorrow with Plymouth CRAFT. I’m looking forward to shaving up some nice fresh red oak, should be fun. Smelly, but fun. 

While on the subject of JA’s chairs, after all these years I’ve been published in Taunton’s Fine Woodworking magazine.  https://www.finewoodworking.com/ 

Issue #277, Oct 2019 features an article I worked on about making a rectangular stool with a hickory bark seat. The focus is on the wet/dry joint so critical to this construction. It was Taunton Press that first published JA’s book back in 1978 that led to me being a woodworker in the first place. I’ve worked with FWW a few times, appearing at some of their events and it’s a thrill to now be presented in their magazine. Thanks to all on staff there that made it happen. It was an extra surprise to get a nice book review for Joiner’s Work from them as well, in the same issue. Thanks, Barry. 

If you need the book after reading the review, it’s here:  https://lostartpress.com/products/joiners-work

 

Chester Cornett chairs

I first saw photos of Chester Cornett’s chairs in Alexander’s Make a Chair from a Tree in 1978; but didn’t know it. For various reasons, some of the chairs in that book are attributed, some are not. There’s three of them in there; here’s one:  

 

Some years later, Drew Langsner showed us a VHS of Chester, called “Hand Carved” produced by Appalshop, a non-profit dedicated to “document, disseminate, and revitalize the lasting traditions and contemporary creativity of the region.”  That film is where I first learned the story of Chester. I guess Alexander then showed me The Hand-Made Object and Its Maker a book by Michael Owen Jones. This was published in 1975, and expanded and revised as Craftsmen of the Cumberlands: Tradition and Creativity in 1989. 

So when I went out to Lost Art Press last week for our box-making class, the day off after the class entailed a trip to the Kentucky Folk Art Center https://www.moreheadstate.edu/Caudill-College-of-Arts,-Humanities-and-Social-Sci/Kentucky-Folk-Art-Center in Morehead to see some of Chester’s chairs.Chris Schwarz and Brendan Gaffney had been on a Chester binge in recent years – here’s a blog search at Lost Art Press for Chester Cornett https://blog.lostartpress.com/?s=chester+cornett 

Brendan was my guide, and he’s not only seen a lot of Chester’s chairs; he’s made a version of one of the 4-rocker/8-legged chairs – https://www.burn-heart.com/fatman-poptart-rocker/onf4ok366nyfz8kmkjpyi2rd4c3cft

This white oak rocker astounded me. Virtuoso craft.

Those rear posts are probably around 1 3/4″ or more in “diameter”; we estimated the mortises for the arms and stretchers to be about 3/4″ – so not delicate in any way.

I forget the whole inscription; Brendan translated it for me. This is some of it, I might have some of it garbled. The price, $90, is also written the top slat.

“Made Buy
Chester Cornett
______ ________
Engles Mill
Trouble Creek Kentucky”

Now -before anyone makes fun of this chair – I’d like to see you make it with a handful of tools. A four-rocker, eight-legged walnut rocking chair with hickory bark seat.

This one is walnut & hickory bark. The seat rungs might be hickory too.

The most basic chair is itself a beauty. I think this is what Chester called a “settin’ chair”.

The relief shaved in the rear post to make it easier to bend is in the radial plane here, not the growth ring plane like JA always did. I just was looking at some of Kenneth Kortemeier’s chairs, and was planning on swiping this idea from him. Then here it is on Chester’s too.

The front post, oriented just like JA taught us, medullary rays bisecting the angle between the front and side rungs.

It was amazing to see these chairs in person. Regardless of the design debate about his over-blown rockers, Chester was often in full control of his tools in making a chair. The oak rocker here is a perfect example. I’ve thought of him as an idiot-savant whose gift is chair-making. His sad life was a struggle; but he was a natural with a drawknife and brace and bit. 

Here’s a feature on Chester from the Cincinnati Magazine https://www.cincinnatimagazine.com/features/chester-cornett-humble-chair-maker-mad-genius/ 

 

where do I get logs?

It’s a very common question. I usually suggest small sawmills, firewood dealers, tree-cutters, etc. For many years, my friends & I have worked with the folks at Gurney’s Sawmill in East Freetown, Massachusetts. They’re very patient with us, I am extremely picky when it comes to oak logs, and am never buying more than one at a time…

Pret & I went there yesterday to shop for Plymouth CRAFT’s ladderback chair class coming up in August. Here’s the first pile we saw; but there was another pile just before it.

 

 

For once, I’m not looking for the largest diameter log I can find; for many reasons. The heaviest parts of the JA chair are just 1 3/4″ or less in diameter when we split them. So straight & clear were more of a priority than wide. Straight & clear is always a priority. The logs in this pile were 12-footers (over 3.5 meters for some of you). I didn’t think to take the camera out until after they plucked our log off this pile, but it was near the front, on top. That NEVER happens. They’re usually buried under lots of other logs.

 

The crew at Gurney’s moved the log to a spot where we could split it into pieces we could manage. Here’s a clean cut on the end; showing just how centered this log is, nicely round. Even growth rings – looks great.

The log was 12 feet long, about 20″ in diameter. Pret cut it into two five-foot sections, with the remaining 2 feet in the swelled butt of the log. Here’s the wedges driven into the end of that first cut.

 

Honestly, I did work at splitting too – he just doesn’t work the camera. It’s OK, I don’t like to work the chainsaw, so we’re even. Using a peavey to lever apart the first split.

Hard to read in this photo, but Pret’s using a slick to get in there & snip the crossed fibers in the red oak. I’m sorry I didn’t get a better shot of this. It’s quite an innovation to use that wide chisel this way. We’ve always used a hatchet or small axe for this, but he came up with the slick for it. The cutting edge is just where you want it for this job. The hatchet can bounce around in there, the slick doesn’t.

We first thought we’d load the quarters in the car. Then came to our senses and split them into eighths. Took one five-foot section in this load. Will return for the rest later. Total time splitting was just under an hour probably. 165 board feet in the log and I paid .75 per board foot. I hope this section will make the six chairs we need for the class, with a few extras. We’ll see in August. But first, I’m off to Lost Art Press for box-making.

This one’s for McKee – when I’m back 2nd week of August. If you can handle the program….

I’m speechless (if you can imagine that)

Well, not exactly speechless. I’ve been waiting for this day a long time. Many of you have heard me say I have the greatest friends. The woodsy ones lots of you know. But there’s Heather too. She’s a category all her own. Every summer about now, Heather Neill previews her winter’s work before it hits the Granary Gallery on Martha’s Vineyard. https://heatherneill.com/studio-blog/

I have seen many of these paintings as I’ve visited during the past few months – but now you can see them too. And read her kind words about our shared friendship…

Then go back & see the previous two posts, and wait for them to unfold each day. Great great stuff…