A trip down memory lane

My kids, as part of an on-line history class, are watching the PBS series Colonial House. I keep interrupting to say “I made that [chair/chest/stool/table/bench/bed]” etc. The museum where my wife & I (& most of our friends) used to work collaborated on the project – the period carpenters built the houses, I made the furniture – that sort of thing. I think we worked on it in 2002/3.

screen capture from Colonial House

I’ve been sorting through old files here at the same time – and have run into some turned chair photos from 15 or more years ago. The chair above (with a servant sitting in it, while the head of the household sits on who-knows-what) is made from ash, with oak slats and a rush seat. Here it is when I photographed it back at the museum – after the series was done shooting. I “made it up” – by that I mean it’s not a copy of any particular chair from the early 17th century. I measured chairs when I could, studied a lot of Dutch art – and then came up with something plausible.

Ash & oak turned chair

It’s made using techniques I learned when making chairs with Jennie Alexander and Drew Langsner – some basic principles still apply. All the wood is riven and then turned green. I used to dry the rungs near the potters’ kilns then – and I bent those slats before they went in the chair. Below is a typical press or form for bending slats. JA didn’t use this setup because the slats of her chairs each have a different bend.

slat-bending press

This is a different chair – but here I’m boring it vertically – with a spoon bit. Those large-diameter posts are an easier target than JA’s 1 1/4″ posts. More room for forgiveness.

boring with a spoon bit

Assembled the front & back first, then bored & fit the sides together. That top rung (in my hand) is not turned, but just shaved. The seating will cover it.

knocking the front section together

The other extreme is the shaved chair pictured here – another screen shot – same notion; using techniques from working with JA I often made these simple chairs – shaved & hewn posts, left square. Mortises made with a spoon bit and tenons shaved at a shaving horse. Rush seat. At this fellow’s right foot is something that never seems to have actually made it to New England – a three-legged board-seated turned stool. I got real interested in making them and the chairs with the same construction. But probably shouldn’t have. For whatever reason, they don’t seem to have been made here. The 3-legged turned chairs are found a lot in England – but not New England.

a “plain” chair with a rush seat

Four-legged versions are found in New England – some years ago I made this copy of a famous one at Pilgrim Hall in Plymouth. Ash with an oak seat. Heavier than all get-out. Pilgrim Hall has a couple of them – worth a look when you’re in town – https://pilgrimhall.org/

PF copy of Gov Bradford’s chair

I hope this photo below is a test-fit to get the size of the seat. The seat is a beveled panel that fits in grooves in all four seat rails, so it has to go in during assembly.


And for scale – here’s one of my JA chairs beside my copy of Bradford’s chair. Yes, that JA chair is the standard-size, 34″ tall. Note the seat height of both is about the same.

two chairs, 2018

board-seated turned chair

repro board-seated turned chair
repro board-seated turned chair

This reproduction chair I made last year is based on an original in Pilgrim Hall in Plymouth, Massachusetts. That chair belonged to Governor William Bradford of Plymouth. In his probate inventory, dated 1657, there are several chairs listed along with other pieces of furniture. Most seventeenth-century documents just list “chair(s)” – yet Bradford’s inventory has several descriptive adjectives. Still, these are not terribly enlightening. Here’s most of the furniture in his inventory: 

“a Court Cubbard £1-05, winescot bedsteed and settle £1-10, 4 lether Chaires £1-12, 1 great lether Chaire 10s, 2 great wooden Chaires 8s, a winscott Chist & Cubburd £1-05, 2 great Carved Chaires  £1-04, a smale carved Chaire  6s, 1 great Chaire and 2 wrought stooles  £1, a Carved Chist £1″

So, the Pilgrim Hall chair is clearly not a leather chair, nor is it a carved chair, either great (large) or small. It could be the “great Chaire” listed along with 2 wrought (upholstered with textiles) stools; but it is most likely one of the “two great wooden Chaires.” It’s the “wooden” that gives it away, it refers to the material the seat is made from, much like the “leather” chairs.

The finish on mine is conjectural, and is something of a comprimise…there is next to nothing known about what color period turned chairs were finished, but iron oxide was a common pigment used in joined work. There are some nice turned chairs that show up in Dutch paintings of the period with leopard-skin paint schemes, or blotchy polka-dots…I hope to give this a try, but perhaps on a simpler chair first.

This chair has 40 of the decorative turned spindles. The version I’m working on now, based on a Boston example, only has 24. In both cases, the turned work is ash, the seating boards are oak.

If you are in Plymouth, Pilgrim Hall has some great furniture to see. worth a visit. http://www.pilgrimhall.org/