not worth the effort

A red maple tree, about 10″ in diameter at the base, came down during all the hickory bark work. I went back to collect chair material for posts and front legs, maybe the slats as well if things went well. It didn’t go well.

The bark showed a slight spiral – I should have take that as a warning. But it was already down and ready for use. Opening it showed the true challenge – the truck twisted over 90 degrees in a 40″ length. I fought with the wood for a little while before coming to my senses and walking away. This tree would make great spoons and exellect cordage, but for chair work it looked miserable. So I collected all my tools and went back to the black oak log, used for a few earlier chairs this year. It stinks like limburger cheese and is boringly straight and clear – perfect for the next set of ladder backs.

bolts of red oak, 42″ in length, sitting upon a quartered white oak

My hope was to make a chair in a similar style to the one shown below – turned maple posts with hickory rungs. Here in Kentucky, red maple and hickory were a common combination for split bottom chairs, as both woods are plentiful in the eastern mountains. Though not clarified (either by location or materials) in Eaton’s book, my guess is the chair below is maple posts with hickory rungs and slats. It shows characterists of KY and TN chairs – simple, unadorned turnings, thick posts and legs, and a woven hickory seat. (I’d to see more of the chair in the foreground as well).

Settin’ Chair, From Allen Eaton’s book “Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands” (Dover Press)

A recent thought while researching all these wonderful mountain chairs: the maple posts were commonly turned, while the ring porous woods (oaks, hickories, ash) were most likely shaved. Makes sense, the maple can hold a nice detail at the lathe and the oaks work beautifully at the shaving horse. Maple’s not as tough as the other woods – maybe that explains the massiveness of the posts and legs.

lessons from ladderbacks

I always enjoy projects with risk. That’s probably why I’m getting into chairs to a greater degree. It’s the risk that keeps me sharp. And the design is hard. I enjoy working quickly, not haphazardly but with a forward momentum that requires my full of attention or focus. Lack of attention will doom a handmade chair – there’s little forgiveness in the design or construction.

Chairs can fail for a mountain of reasons. Even if the construction goes well, the chair can fail due to a poor design. That’s less likely when doing casework. Generally, if tables and boxes look good on paper then they’ll work in reality. That’s not the case with chairs. It needs to look good from 360 degrees and hold up to use.

I’m in the middle to two ladderbacks. Working through a handsome Dave Sawyer-designed chair. It’s out of white oak and will have hickory bark seats (once I gather the bark). I’m in the parts making part of the build. In fact, all the parts are made and I was doing the final shaping and fussing before assembly. But now I need to pause. I’ve made mistakes and need to correct them.

  • Mistake #1: Poor material selection for one post. The tree had an internal split – I believe this log had fallen in the forest before being harvested – and I tried to get a post out of an area beside that split. Funky post didn’t take the bend, plus had a couple small checks/cracks. No good. Won’t cut it for a chair, so it’s time to make and bend another post. It’s only a few hours of work, but I’ll need to bend it again and let it set for a week or so. bummer.
  • Mistake #2: first time using a bending rack. This method seems to be the way of ladder back makers. It’s economical, quick, and straightforward. No clamps or bending forms needed. Except to make the slats bend gracefully with the rack they must be a consistent thickness all the way across their width and thickness. I didn’t tightly adhere to this rule – I’ll know better for next time. So the slats twisted slightly and bent in a kinked manor. The thinner parts bent and took a fair curve nicely. The thicker areas are slightly kinked at the bend point. I’m not remaking these. It’s something I’ll do differently next time – probably by using a bending form instead of the rack. The form doesn’t care about varied thicknesses – all parts take the same bend. (Update: I bent them in a form while the new post set – they are all uniform curves now).

Lesson: do good work, especially when it means doing the work over again.

new technique (for me)

I use the drawknife and a spokeshave when working green wood at the shave horse. The drawknife to remove wood quickly and to create the shape before turning to the spokeshave for the final shaping. This always works and still does. It’s the process I turn to. My current chair project has legs with long, slightly convex surfaces to a swell in the that transitions into a concave profile above the foot. The convex section gave me trouble as I went about creating the tapered octagon. I shaped ugly, lopsided legs with wandering lines.

graceful tapers

Out of frustration, I turned to the block plane to correct the wandering lines and re-balance each leg. The work was quick and easy at the shave horse. My Lie Nielsen low angle block plane was the answer. Just turned the plane towards myself, pulled the plane through the cut, and in short time the legs were in much better shape. After getting the upper section shaped, I spun the leg and worker the lower, concave section and blended the the transition area at the thickest point. Of course I didn’t come up with this technique. I’m cannot remember, but I imagine the idea came from Chris Schwarz and his writings on making the legs for his stick chairs using a standard kit of cabinetmaking tools.

This technique will stay with me now as I make windsor and ladder back chairs. It gets results. And once the chair is made, no one cares if it was a block plane or spokeshave that shaped the legs. Only that the legs show good work.

mountain chair

Chair images from my visit with eastern Kentucky chair-maker Terry Ratliff.

mainly ash, with oak slats and ash, white oak & hickory rungs – and a hickory bark seat

A note about the appearance before jumping into other details. During the two-day visit with Terry, we made a number of decisions for convenience and ease. In doing so, the chair was conceived of processes that fit our time frame rather than a design target. That meant the posts, knots included, were worked until it was time to move along – more refinement was possible. We just kept moving. The front legs came out of a bucket of blanks Terry had sitting outside his shop door. They went straight into the chair. We determined it’s height of 38″ because there was a troublesome knot at 40″. It has two slats because that was less work than more. Powder post beetles got to the slats – whatever. The rungs were leftovers from other chairs. And so on.

I added a few details and finished the chair in early morning hours over the past few weeks. Ash dries quickly. I was out with Terry just over a month ago. We cut the back posts out of the fallen tree during the visit and within a week or so they were so dry that making cuts on the upper finials felt like cutting into seasoned firewood. I added linseed oil to the seat about 10 days ago and it’s finally finished drying. I used it before it was completely dry and my daughter thought I smelled like a grilled cheese sandwich.

I love the overall look of the chair. But it was Terry’s approach that made the visit memorable. He wants his chair to look handmade and that’s only achieved with hand tools and hand work. Any minor asymmetries along the way add to the appearance of the chair. We used that ethos as we constructed this chair.

Terry uses the octagonal posts and legs in much of his work. Chester Cornett influenced that design aspect. He pins the slats – at least the top one – both as decoration and to hold the upper part together. No glue is used in Terry’s chair (method – wet posts and dry rungs). It holds on it’s construction merit. Terry thinks glue fails after 10 years anyway. This chair is so funky that I didn’t scrape and intensively sand it, as Terry does with all his chairs before oiling and wet-sanding between coats. This is the first chair I wet-sanded and it’s an technique I’ll continue using. There’s a softness to the touch that my previous projects didn’t achieve.

There is a mountain of skill that goes into Terry’s way of building chairs. Bushcraft skills along with decades of hand tool work shape his chair-making instincts. One example of Terry’s approach: we drilled the holes for the lower rungs based on feel and intuition rather than trying to fiture out the proper angle. Being slightly off with the angle added a small amount of tension to the chair, something that Terry believes helps keep it together.

Buidling chairs this way is equal parts simple and complex. Just get some wood, make the parts, and put it together. That’s straightforward. But a good handmade chair takes an abundance of skill, experience and desire.

“it’s not math, it’s art”

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.

Looking back towards the shop

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.