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.

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.