Naked Necessity

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Earlier this week, contributing editor Suzanne Ellison suggested a short Q&A on early seating furniture, which she has been helping me research for “The Furniture of Necessity.” I consented, as long as the interview was conducted nude. This is my new condition for all interviews, except when it comes to Rosie O’Donnell. The following is the transcript of the chat.

Suzanne: The only condition you have for this email chat was it be done in the nude. Due to the low thermostat setting in my place I asked for a slight change of terms. I will be unclothed but draped (artistically) with a fleece blanket. You agreed this change was fair as you are already covered in fur.

You have written often of your admiration for John Brown and through him you discovered, and became enamored of, Welsh stick chairs. When did you build your first stick chair and how did it turn out? Was this the first chair you made? What did you learn from that first stick chair build?

Chris: I first learned of John Brown in the late 1990s when he was writing columns for Good Woodworking magazine in England. I was completely smitten by his chairs – unlike Windsor chairs, these looked like an animal that would pounce on you.

At the time I’d built quite a number of chairs, but they were all “frame” chairs – built using rectangular mortise-and-tenon joinery. Lots of Morris chairs (too many, really) and other Arts & Crafts arm chairs, settles and cube chairs.

I wanted to go to England to take a class with Brown, but I couldn’t afford the trip, so John Hoffman and I found a chairmaker in rural Cobden, Ontario, who taught Welsh chairs. We went up there for a week, and Dave Fleming introduced us to many of the skills that would change my thinking – turning on a pole lathe, working green stock with a hatchet and froe, all the wacky geometry and (most important) the wedged, conical mortise-and-tenon joint that is the foundation of Windsor chairs and staked furniture.

Suzanne: What, if any, modifications have you made to your stick chairs through the years? Do you have any photos of some of your early stick chairs?

I’ve tried lots of variations – different kinds of arm bows, different spindle shapes, different crest rails. I even tried a couple that had a solid backsplat (those were a design failure and so we sit on those at our house). Mostly, I’ve just been trying to expand the range of chairs that I can build. This book is getting me into three-legged variations and the backstools.

Suzanne: When it comes to necessary furniture it made sense to first have some sort of box or chest to store valuables. Eventually, something to sit on and get off the dirt floor was needed. Can you compare the Countrey Stoole and the staked stool? What are some of the earliest examples of these you have found? (In the van Ostade painting from 1661 the little girl to the left is at a countrey stool, to the left of her is a staked stool or small bench.)

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Chris: These forms of furniture are hard to date because they remained unchanged for so long. So the furniture record is murky – stools made in the 1500s look identical to those in the 1800s, so we look to painings and drawings for clues. The Countrey Stool shows up in Randle Holme’s “Academy of Armory,” which I believe is the first written reference to the form. Holme shows it with a thick top and three legs that pierce the top – just like the photo you have.

The van Ostade paintings implies this stool – which could also be a table or work surface – was made from a section of a log that has been crosscut. The end grain is the top. It’s an easy way to make a work surface that can take abuse – the earliest butcher block. Holme’s drawing does not give me the impression that his stool was made from a stump, however.

In contrast, the staked stool or sawbench or whatever, is clearly made from a flat board and the face grain of the board is the working or sitting surface. In the painting, you can also see how some material has been added below the top to create more joinery surface and stiffen the top. This is also pretty typical and is still used today in what we call Moravian stools or chairs – the high form of staked furniture.

Suzanne: You’re not kidding about how long these forms have been around. D-shaped three-legged and rectangular four-legged stools dating to the 10th and 11th century have been found in Britain and Ireland. Since the Vikings left their DNA in large parts of Europe and the Mediterranean, who knows where else this form was used. We don’t know if it was their invention or if it was found on one of their expeditions and adapted for their use.

John Gloag wrote that the two furniture forms are a box and a platform. Despite the 17th-19th century “cheery peasant” paintings complete with dramatic lighting and smiling faces, life and living conditions were pretty grim. How did the stool, a form of platform, improve the life of the peasant?

Chris: Social hierarchy at the time had a lot to do with where you were sitting – hence the word “chairman.” The lowest class sat on the floor. Then you get stools, backstools and forms for the working people – these got you off the floor and in a position to do some work by the fire. The highest class of people got chairs. There’s little doubt that the progression – from floor to armchair – was all about comfort for the human body and was something you earned (or perhaps inherited).

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Suzanne: Where actual peasant homes have been preserved, and in paintings, we often see a variety of stools (creepies, D-shaped, square), low benches, backstools and chairs. What does that tell you?

I see a family hierarchy. The stools and benches were multi-purpose – so-called “pig benches” could be used for slaughter and sitting. The chairs were for the heads of the family.

In looking at all these forms in one household you also get the impression that they were user-made. They look like they were made using found materials – sometimes roots, sticks and stumps. And the joinery is basic. You can make a stool with just an auger or brace (which has been around since the 1400s) and a hatchet.

Suzanne: I think it also shows a progression of furniture through the generations of a family. As a new piece was made, or possibly obtained through a dowry, the older stools or benches became available for younger members of a family to use. Subsequent generations had more seating and work surfaces and life was a bit more comfortable. It also speaks to how sturdy these pieces were. They stood up to a lot of use.

You have written about at least three different sawbenches; the most recent is the staked sawbench. What variations have you used in building this sawbench and have you determined your “best build?”

Chris: I’ve been messing around with staked sawbenches to explore the form a bit, inside and out. I’ve been changing the legs, the materials, the way the joint is made and then cutting them apart to see how things work inside the joint. In all likelihood, the original builders didn’t over-think it as much. But I can’t help myself.

The sawbench is the first project in “The Furniture of Necessity,” and it introduces people to the joint and the geometry. Once you build the sawbench, all the other staked forms are a cinch to construct. So I’m trying to start readers off on the right foot – hence the building of the same piece over and over. I don’t know if there is a “best” way to do, but I do have some clues about what makes a good staked joint.

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Suzanne: In the last week you have been working on your trademarked Staked Chair, really a backstool. Can you explain the significance of the backstool in the family tree of seating? With the back added how does that change leg angles (rake and splay), if any?

Chris: The geometry of chairs is different than stools. You don’t have to use much rake and splay on a stool because all of the force applied to a stool comes from above – the buttocks. You need just enough of an angle to keep the stool from tipping over, but not so much angle that you trip over the thing constantly.

Adding a back to a stool – a backstool – changes the forces. Suddenly you have lateral forces (your back pressing on the crest and spindles) plus downward pressure.

The historical solution is to keep the front legs minimally raked and splayed like a stool. But you rake the rear feet (or foot) more dramatically backward. Ideally, I like to put the foot of the rear leg under the head of the sitter.

So this form adds comfort and complexity to the construction.

Incidentally, I’m building this three-legged version to test the assertion of furniture historians who say it takes “skill” to sit in a three-legged chair without toppling. That smells of crap.

Suzanne: You also have a three-legged stick chair (from one of the Temple Newson Stable Court exhibitions) planned as a future build. This looks to be a transition piece from backstool to chair. You got pretty excited about this little piece when you saw it. What are you looking forward to with this project?

I love Welsh chairs. I don’t think I have a drop of Welsh blood in me, but something about their shape speaks to me. The Cwm Tudu chair (what does that rhyme with?) is particularly enchanting because of its arm bow. It might be made from a found piece of wood with a natural crook. I’m trying to work up the guts to make the chair with a branch for an armbow, but I don’t want it to look like a driftwood sculpture you’d find for sale at Panama City, Fla.

The biggest joy for me is finishing a chair that looks sculptural, sits well and is built using dirt-simple geometry. It’s almost like knowing a secret that has been obscured for many years. And every chair form is a slightly different riddle to solve.

Suzanne: I like the idea of a favored chair as sculpture rather than just a holder of bodies. Experimentation is necessary for the maker to find the balance of design, materials and construction. Mies van der Rohe said, “The chair is a very difficult object. Everyone who has ever tried to make one knows that. There are endless possibilities – the chair has to be light, it has to be strong, it has to be comfortable….”

On the other hand we need to find out how to pronounce “Cwm Tudu.” I can’t use it in a limerick until then.

Last year I sent you an image of a child’s four-legged Welsh stick chair and quickly got a reply from you that the chair had five legs. You were correct, it had five legs. Without being able to examine the chair in person, what do you think was going on with that chair? Three legs too tippy, four still not enough, let’s go with five? Have you come across any other five-legged chairs?

Chris: I can only guess as to why you would make a chair with more than five legs. It uses more material and complicates construction. Here are some guesses, which are probably wrong: Perhaps it started life as a four-legged chair and one leg became loose or weak, so a fifth leg was added as an easier solution to replacing the bum leg. Second theory: It was built for a corpulent person. When dealing with furniture that was made by self-trained woodworkers, non-standard construction methods are the standard.

I have seen folk chairs (and rockers) with many more legs. Chester Cornett was famous for this.

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Suzanne: OK, let’s look at the wacky “Sculpstoel” or “Men Shoveling Chairs,” Flemish, by the Circle of Rogier van der Weyden from 1444-50 in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. It is earlier than Randle Holme’s history of 17th century seating which you recently posted. What do you see and please give your interpretation of why they are shoveling chairs.

Chris: Once again, I see social hierarchy. This was a drawing for a sculpture for the Brussels town hall. One of the best explanations of its meaning (by Erwin Panofsky) is that the men with shovels are the city fathers creating social order amongst all the classes of people in the city, which are represented by the different kinds of chairs. There are curules and a fancy frame chair that represent the upper classes and staked stools and the like for the lower classes.

As a chairmaker, I see all the forms that were extant at the time. And different construction techniques, from the rectangular mortise-and-tenon on down to the staked stool. What is most important – in terms of the “Furniture of Necessity” – is that these 15th-century forms are indistinguishable from Holme’s 17th-century forms or the extant 19th-century forms in Wales.

— Christopher Schwarz & Suzanne Ellison

Posted in Furniture of Necessity | 13 Comments

The 17th-century World of Sitting

From Randle Holme III’s “Academy of Armory,” which he began in 1649. As republished in “Living and Working in Seventeenth Century England”

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Throne
He beareth a Throne, a chair Royall, or a Cathedre (from it Latine terme), adorned with a veriaty of precious stones.

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Chair
He beareth a Chaire.
This is a chaire made vp by an Imbrautherer, which being all of one colour needs noe more termes; but it it be of contrary colours, as when it is made vp of needle, or turky worke then the fringe is diuerse coloured, (or the seate and back of Needle work) proper ffringed answererable thereunto, Garnished (or set the Nayles), of the first. If the chaire be made all of Joyners worke, as back and seate then it is termed a Joynt chaire, or a Buffit chaire. Those which haue stayes on each side are called Arme chaires or chaires of ease.

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Turned chair
He beareth a Turned chaire with Armes.

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Settle chair
He beareth a chaire. This is the old way of makeing the chaire. Some term it a settle chaire, being so weighty that it cannot be moued from place to place, but still abideth in it owne station, haueing a kind of box or cubbert in the seate of it.

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Stool
He beareth a stoole (or stoole frame).

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Joint stool
He beareth a joynt stoole. It is so called because all made and finished by the Joyner, haueing a wood couer: In most places in Cheshire it is termed a Buffit stool.

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Turned stool
He beareth a Turned stoole. This is so termed because it is made by the Turner, or wheele wright all of a Turned wood, wrought with Knops, and rings ouer the feete, these and the chaires, are generally made with three feete.

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Country stool
He beareth a countrey stoole, or a planke, or Block stoole, being onely a thick peece of wood, with either 3 or 4 peece of wood fastned in it for feet. Note that if these be made long, then they are termed, either a Bench, a Forme, or a Tressell; of some a long seate. Some of these stooles haue but three feete.

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Stool
He beareth a round three footed stoole, or a countrey stoole made round with three feete.

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Nursing stool
He beareth a nursing. stoole; In some places it is called a crickett, or low stoole, or a childs stoole.

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Joint form
He beareth a Joynt Forme, or Bench.
These are termed Joynt formes, because wholy and workmanlike made, by Artists of the Joyners craft. Some are made with turned feete, 4 or 6, according to its length, hauing railes or Barres both aboue, for the seate to be fixed vpon, and below, to hold the feete firme and stiddy. If the couers be broad then they are blazoned, Tables.

Twiggen chair
There is another kind of these chaires called Twiggen chaires because they are made of Owsiers, and Withen twigs: haueing round couers ouer the heads of them like to a canapy. Thes are principally used by sick and infirm people, and such women as haue bine lately brought to bed; from whence they are generally termed, Growneing chaires, or Child-bed chaires.

Posted in Furniture of Necessity, The Academy of Armory | 4 Comments

2nd Printing of ‘Campaign Furniture’ & Other News

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We’re going back on press for a second printing of “Campaign Furniture” with a few corrections and a slightly different cover. The only significant correction, which was to the Roorkee Chair chapter, is discussed here. I also added a thank you to Greg Miller, who I neglected to include in the first printing.

I’m telling you all this because we have some customers who collect first editions of our books (no, we don’t have any first-edition copies of “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” hidden here).

The new cover replaces the image of the chest pull with the title of the book. We’re also switching inks used for the cover stamp. The new ink will be more matte and coppery – less gold.

Also, the third printing of “By Hand & Eye” should be back in stock next week. And the expanded “With the Grain” is right on its heels.

In news on new projects, Peter Galbert’s “Chairmaker’s Notebook” is almost completely designed and should be headed to the printer within a couple weeks. As I type this I’m scanning the last of about 500 hand-done drawings for this book. I promise, this book will be worth the wait. The book will be 8-1/2” x 11”, hardbound with a dust jacket and more than 350 pages (perhaps close to 400). No word on pricing, yet.

Designer Wesley Tanner has begun work on designing Don Williams “Virtuoso: The Tool Cabinet and Workbench of Henry O. Studley.” It will be ready for Handworks and the exhibit of the cabinet and workbench. Come to Handworks, see the cabinet and get your book signed.

“Roubo on Furniture” is awaiting some final work by the translating team before going to the designer. And our massive book on Charles Hayward will head to the designer as soon as Linda finishes designing Peter Galbert’s book (sorry about the workload, Linda and Wesley).

We have another dozen projects in various stages of completion, but these are the most immediate.

— Christopher Schwarz

Posted in By Hand & Eye, Campaign Furniture, Chairmaker's Notebook by Peter Galbert, Charles H. Hayward at The Woodworker, Virtuoso: The Toolbox of Henry O. Studley, With the Grain | 11 Comments

Sandpaper and Shaved Legs

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When I make early chairs, I prefer a surface finish for the legs and spindles that is faceted and created by shaving instead of turning.

I also use sandpaper to help me see what I’m doing (he wrote, pausing and waiting to be slapped by an unseen hand). So here’s what’s going on in the photo above.

I don’t own a shavehorse because I don’t have enough room in my shop. My shaving pony ran away many years ago, or is hiding in our basement. So I make spindles and legs in my leg vise. It is slower than using a shavehorse, but you get pretty good at it. Don’t let the lack of a shavehorse stop you from making chairs.

On the leg above, I have turned the tapered tenon on my lathe and have added a small V-shaped notch where the tenon diameter will more than fill its mortise. The notch is a reminder to stop shaving at that point.

I taper the leg with a spokeshave. Then I finish with a gunstock scraper, which is the tool I’m using in the photo. Once I get the surface looking semi-acceptable, I remove the leg from the vise and quickly hand-sand the shaved section with #150-grit (the grit isn’t really important). This creates a powdery, dull finish on the leg.

Then I put the leg back in the vise and shave the leg to its final surface with the gunstock scraper. The sanded sections of the legs peel away and I can see exactly what needs to be shaved and can make the facets nice and semi-regular.

In reading what I just wrote above, I sound like a fussbudget. But I do this operation to save time and prevent me from over-shaving sections of the leg or spindle.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Posted in Furniture of Necessity | 28 Comments

First, Add No BS

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One of the turning points in my writing was courtesy of Bob Flexner. Years ago we were discussing ideas for future columns that he could write, and Bob threw out this one: You don’t have to finish both sides of board.

I laughed because I thought he was joking. Everyone else, and I do mean everyone, had told me you had to finish both surfaces of a board to prevent it from warping. Bob dissected the myth, eviscerated it. Here’s a later column Bob wrote on the topic for Woodshop News.

Bob’s column was fantastic. And it changed my thinking process immediately. Whenever I evaluate or explain a technique, I ask myself: How do I know this? Am I certain that every word can be demonstrated? Am I just repeating something I’ve read elsewhere?

It’s the same strategy I used as a crime reporter for newspapers. Every sentence of my articles went through those filters because if I slipped up I would end up sued. But I hadn’t applied that to woodworking writing. After all, this stuff had all been figured out thousands of years ago.

It’s an easy trap to fall into. And I’ve been climbing out ever since.

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This week I’m cutting up a bunch of joints to see what is happening inside. When I first learned this staked furniture joint, I was told that you should use a hard wood for the legs and a softer wood for the seat, and that you should hammer the legs home hard. Like John Brown above.

It makes sense, but why? My theory is that the joint works much like a cut nail. The leg or nail crushes the fibers in the seat, helping to lock it in place. But is it true?

— Christopher Schwarz

Posted in Furniture of Necessity | 39 Comments

Roorkee Chat No. 3

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— Suzanne Ellison

Posted in Campaign Furniture | 4 Comments

The Skep: The Symbol of the Artisan

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When we started Lost Art Press, we kicked around several ideas for what should be the symbol of our small company. We toyed with a saw and then a plane, and we eventually settled on using Joseph Moxon’s compass.

The dark horse candidate was to use a skep, a woven, basket-like beehive. The beehive has long been the symbol of the industrious, and I love its shape and the parallels between the world of the bee and artisans.

But few people (aside from Mormons, Freemasons and the history-obsessed) associate the skep with building things. I’d like to change that and have been working on a T-shirt design that marries the skep with the tools of the joiner.

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To prove that I’m not nuts, take a look at some of these images. The cover of “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker,” a Victorian reprint of an 1830s volume, features a skep at front and center in the cover design.

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Or check out this 18th-century certificate from the New York Mechanick Society. Yes, we all see the hammer and the butch muscles. But check out the little bird just to the left of the hammer.

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Yup. It’s a babe with a skep. (Note: Lost Art Press does not endorse walking around while carrying a beehive and a shovel. There are easier ways to get someone to buy you a drink.)

— Christopher Schwarz

Posted in Personal Favorites | 13 Comments