Working in Berea, KY means there is a strong tradition of hickory seats all around me. Just up on the college square, a short walk from where I work, there a few small business. Two of them (maybe more, I haven’t scouted them all) have older mule-ear chairs behind the register for the shopkeeper to rest on. I’ve enjoyed examining these chairs. Each has an issue or two – like a broken seat rung, or an unevenness of the back posts – that demonstrate the use it’s seen over it’s life.
The hickory seat in each chair is beautiful, even with the age and broken pieces that are apparent upon a quick glance. Even with broken pieces throughout the seat it is still plenty strong enough to hold my weight. I won’t even venture to guess when the chairs were bottomed – they’re at least a few decades old. The bark has taken on a smooth, shiny, worn-yet-consistent look, along with a deep color that must have come with age. I’d guess the chair bottoms were oiled a few times over their lifespan, but that’s really just a guess. The bark is around a 1/16″ thick throughout the weave.
I recently wove a small stool with thicker bark. Bark that approached 1/4″ thick (while soaking wet) at some points. And in doing so, I came to realize why thinner bark is preferrable. First off, the thick bark wouldn’t soften for the weaving. Even using scalding hot water, with a small amount of soap added to bath, it was still too stiff to weave after a few hours. I let it sit in the water for 24 hours. It became stiffly pliable the next day, enough so that the seat could be woven. But it was a fight.
I’m not a hickory expert, so a more experienced weaver may laugh at these thoughts. The warp wasn’t too difficult, since it was primarily just wrapping the frame front to back. It was the weft where I knew I was in trouble. The tight warp, along with the thick bark, made weaving in-and-out of the seat challenging. On previous seats, with thinner bark, it was easy to manipulate the leading edge in-and-out of the warp. Not so with the thick stuff until I thinned out the lead edge to knife point.
Then came the challenge of getting a tight weave. That was impossible, as the heavy bark prevented the weft weave from coming anywhere close to the previous line. It took a good deal more effort to weave this seat in relation to the previous work I’ve done with thinner barked . It was a struggle to pull the line of bark through the seat even after I got the lead edge through the warp.
After weaving a row, I would push that row as tight as I could to the row before it. There are wide spaces between the rows of weft – probably 1/4″+ or so. It looks good on this seat, since it’s a single piece and doesn’t need to match other work. The wider gaps gives it a rustic look that is completely appropriate for the ash, post-and-rung stool.
It’s clear now why chairmakers dress the bark before a bottoming, thinning the thick areas and trimming the edges to get a more consistent width. It would be impossible to make an even, tight and consistent bottom with thick bark. And a rustic weave might not look right on a comtemporary or clean-lined chair.