That’s quote is from Sam Beam, discussing the approach to a recent album collaboration with Joey Burns & Calexico. There are no “right answers” so they made the decisions that seemed right in the moment to make the music, trusting their instincts and the skills of others.
That line from Sam sat in the front of my mind during my visit with chair maker Terrry Ratliff of Floyd County, KY. He was kind enough to spend two days with me, showing his approach to making chairs and working wood. By the end of the second day we had built a two-slat ladderback together. While it’s nice to have the chair, currently sitting beside me at the computer as a reminder to put the finishing touches to it, the chair was a happy byproduct of the days together. At times the chair efforts happened inbetween conversations and at others the chair process was a prompt to springboard Terry’s thoughts towards another story.
This was my first trip to Floyd County in eastern Kentucky. I was already a little anxious – I’m new to this part of the country – and my brother-in-law told me immediately upon moving to Berea that I shouldn’t visit the mountains alone. That outlaw reputation has been shared on more then one occasion over the past few years. The fact that Terry joked that he’d “feed me to the pigs” if the visit wasn’t going well during a recent call didn’t help settle my nerves. In fact, a few cowardly thoughts of entered my mind as I pulled up his steep mountain drive and was greeted by a couple of his dogs.
That feeling quickly passed as Terry showed me around. Tucked in high on the east side of a mountain, we took a pass around his wooded property and made a plan for our days. We’d work a downed ash tree to get the back posts – taking them from around the bend where the first branch split from the trunk.
Much of the work over the two days was completed with time in mind – no time to boil and bend postees, so we took them from a crooked trunk. The chair sits at 38″ tall. Why that height? Because there was a knot at 40″ and we didn’t want to fuss with it. The rungs are of ash, white oak, and hickory – all left overs from other projects. The two slats were pre-bent and sitting in Terry’s shop since they weren’t of quality for his other chairs (the powder post beatle got to them). The front legs have ash bore beatle tracks running down a face. I left the marks and kept the legs rather massive. They’re all perfect for this project, which was much less about the finished chair than the process of getting there. In that way, the flow matched Terry’s approach while the final chair looks rather different than his .
Terry shared stories of his 30+ years of chair making while we worked and during our frequent breaks. How he changed his finish over the years. How he now adds a signature bent rung or two into all of his chairs. He wants the user to know a person made the chair right out of the forest – not a factory with uniformity and rigid precision. He shared stories about his influences – eastern KY chair makers Chester Cornett and Sherman Wooton. Terry frequently uses octagonal posts and rungs and he credits Chester with that design. His chairs flow, from the bottleneck foot detail up to the flaired ears upon the top of the posts. He has six of his own around his kitchen table – each a different design and each exactly “right.” An upright chair from his first commissioned set is at table while his most recent commission, a flaired two-slat chair was across the room awaiting delivery. Along with the organic, natural elements that Terry emphasizes in his chairs, there’s also a tension that’s been built into the design. The front posts flair out slightly from the front. They don’t seem perfectly upright from the side view – though that may be my eye and not the design. There’s flair and movement on the back posts, along with shapely, wandering rungs. Terry pins the slats, at least the top one. That’s another hat tip to Chester.
Driving the couple hours back home in the dark Friday night, I kept glancing back at the chair and reflecting on the past days. We worked much closer to the earth than I’m accustomed to. Decisions were made along the way, not predetermined from the start – which is the way I frequently work.
Another thought kept coming to mind – are there others out there who have made a life from chairs? Who make them the old way? Is there a new generation? Terry could think of one, maybe two makers out there. They seem well hiden as well.