A week ago I was still wearing wool sweaters. Yesterday shorts & a t-shirt. Warm weather is perfect for weaving a hickory bark seat. It’s one of my favorite parts of making the Jennie Alexander-style chairs.
Last year I peeled a few hickory trees with Brendan Gaffney. We got a lot of bark in just 2 days of work, but to do so we took it off the tree pretty thick.
I like to do it that way because I want to then split the bark in half before weaving with it. Thin bark makes a better seat than thicker bark – in my opinion. The photo up top shows two coils – on the right is the bark as we took it off the tree. The one on the left I just split in half lengthwise. Both are between 25′ and 30′ long.
Splitting it is a fine art – but it yields fabulous bark. I weave the seat with the inside half. So the inner bark of the inner bark. I score across it half-way with a knife, then peel the two halves apart. You have to watch carefully – it can run out like splitting wood with a froe. It’s slow-going but worth the time spent. Not all hickory bark will divide this way. If it won’t split, you can shave it down thinner with a spoke shave. That’s slower still…
Then weaving it is a walk in the park.
This is yesterday’s seat. Now it needs to dry, at which point the strips shrink in width. Then I pack the strips closer together and add a few filler strips. The thing I like best about hickory bark seats is that they look great the minute you finish them, then they continue to improve as you use them.
Last fall I shot a video of how I work a hickory bark seat. It’s long but covers splitting the bark & weaving the seat.
I’ve been making a few chairs & sticking them up in the loft. Now that space is full and I want to keep making chairs. Time to sell this batch off and start another. The way I tend to do this is I post them here and if you decide you’d like one, leave a comment claiming the chair. Then we can sort payment either through paypal or by check in the mail. Shipping in US included. If you’re near southeastern Massachusetts you can pick them up.
UPDATE – well, the ladderback chairs sold right off the bat. You won’t see the comment claiming them because the buyer has asked that his name not be published there…
If you were hoping for one of those chairs and missed out I can always make you a chair. Just email me & I can put you on the list.
Ladderback chair, red oak with hickory rungs, hickory bark seat – SOLD
H: 33 1/4″ W: (across the front posts) 17 1/4″ D: 17 1/2″ (seat depth is 12 1/2″) SH (seat height): 17 1/2″ $1,200
This chair is one of the first in which I re-oriented the rear posts to show the radial face as the front of that post. A small change to the standard JA chair, for fanatics only. Means nothing otherwise. But I like the look of it. I also left these rungs generally octagonal, except where they enter the posts.
Below is the hickory bark seat on this chair – I had a mixed pile of bark, some from one tree, some from another. Over time the use will burnish the bark to a nice polished surface. Hickory bark makes the best seat I know.
Ladderback chair, red oak with white oak slats, hickory bark seat – SOLD
Below you can see the more “normal” orientation of the rear posts – so a different pattern on the wood depending on how it’s oriented. I assemble the chair frames, then poke around to see what I have on hand to make slats from – that’s how this red oak chair got white oak slats.
and its hickory bark seat. This was thick bark that I split in half, and used the inner part of that split for the warp (front-to-back) and the outer part for the weft.
Something I used to make as a regular offering, but this is the first since my re-entry into chairmaking. (I made some in 2009 for my kids when they were small, but that’s it.) Ash with white oak slats, hickory bark seat.
Everything about it is the same as the full-size JA chair, but just scaled down. Harder to see in ash, but again these rear posts have the radial orientation. I’m leaning towards making that the way I do these now.
Next up is something new. I was thinking this year I’d concentrate my chairmaking on the ladderbacks and the shaved windsor chairs. Then I got detoured into making some of these brettstuhls or board-chair or Alpine chair. I’m not sure what to call these. They’re fun chairs to build, simple but challenging. The two chairs here are close to what I’m after. I’m going to keep tinkering with these chairs for a little while anyway, I have walnut left to do three more.
The seat and the back are butternut, the battens underneath are white oak and the legs are riven ash. The legs tenon into the battens and the battens are captured by the back’s tenons – which are in turn wedged below. It’s a brilliant system. At the end of this post is a video showing how to assemble these.
Another view under there, showing how these parts connect.
After I used up the wide butternut I had on hand, I went out & got a 16″-18″ wide plank of black walnut. Air drying for years & years, it was perfect for what I wanted. This is the first chair from that plank. I’ve begun to change things a bit from Drew Langsner’s 1981 article that I started with – here I’ve trimmed the front corners off the seat, I’ve seen photos of historic examples with this pattern. Also a thumbnail molded edge instead of just a simple chamfer like the butternut chair above.
In this view you can see the shape of this seat
On the backs, I’ve just echoed the scrolled shape with a V-tool on both of these chairs.
here’s the underneath of this one. Same as before, white oak battens and ash legs. The battens are 1 3/8″ thick, quartersawn.
The brettstuhls I’m planning to ship partially un-assembled – here is a video showing how to put one together (first how to take it apart…) – it’s really quite simple. You need to be able to tell right from left and count to 2. A mallet for most of the persuasion, some light taps from a hammer for the last bits.
Another piece about the brettstuhls – it seems as if their feet stick way out beyond the chair itself. I thought so at first until I stood one up beside a Windsor chair I made. There’s several factors at play here; the spacing of the seat mortises for the legs, the rake & splay of the legs and to some extent the length of the legs. Here’s the butternut chair beside the Windsor and they aren’t all that different in the footprint.
I’m making windsor chairs. And re-reading Nancy Goyne Evans’ Windsor-Chairmaking in America: From Craft Shop to Consumer. Nancy read a staggering amount of period records in her research for her 3 volumes on American Windsor chairs. This is the 3rd volume.
Finishing up work on Jennie Alexander’’s book with Megan Fitzpatrick on JA chairs. Shooting some last-minute missing photos; so making a chair this week to do so.
And reading Claudia Kinmonth’s Irish Country Furniture and Furnishings 1700-2000. In chapter 1, Stools and Chairs, she writes about súgán chairs – what I know of as a ladderback chair, but with a straw (súgán) seat.
As I was looking at those chairs, I thought of our friend Masashi Kutsuwa – and I dug out his book Van Gogh’s Chair –
I can’t read Japanese, but Masashi gave me an English synopsis of his book. It involves Shoji Hamada, “one of the most famous Japanese potters”, Tatsuaki Kuroda, Japan’s first living national treasure woodworker, Soetsu Yanagi (author of The Unknown Craftsman) and a convoluted tale of chairs from Spain that look like a chair painted by a Dutchman in France 75 years earlier. The chair was introduced into Japan by Shoji Hamada in 1963, after his travels in Spain that year. A few years later, (1967) Tatsuaki Kuroda visited the same workshops, recording in photos and film some of the chairmaking process.
Masashi’s book also includes a photo series of making copies of this chair form. In his notes he writes: “I visited Spain in 2015 and met the chairmaker’s family who welcomed Tatsuaki nearly 50 years ago. I also visited the last chairmaking shop in Guadix.
The 1967 film is on youtube – I just re-watched it. Amazing. As far as I can tell, the chairmaker maybe uses 4 tools; a frame saw, a brace & bit, and a knife that he both pushes and pulls (thus not a “drawknife”) – I saw some more tools, but didn’t see him use them; the film isn’t the whole chair-making process I don’t think. The posts are pith-centered (I could see that in Masashi’s book too) and when he split a section to make rungs – he used his knife to split it.
Back to Kinmonth’s book, she writes “Similar designs are also found on the continent, particularly in Spain and Portugal, linking them to a wider Atlantic European tradition. One celebrated version features in Van Gogh’s painting “Bedroom in Arles (1888).” Below is a sketch of the bedroom at Arles.
The súgán chairs also reminded me of a chair I photographed at my friends’ house a few years ago. This chair was bought at Brimfield, the famous Massachusetts antiques fair. Around here, these are usually thought of as being from French Canada – but it certainly has much in common with those other chairs – except the bowed seat rails; particularly the square or rectangular posts and narrow slats. This one has through tenons on the rungs and slats though. So different, but quite similar.