Today Brendan Gaffney and I got a rare up-close look at one of Chester Cornett’s rockers during a preview for an antiques auction in Cincinnati.
The walnut rocking chair was one of Cornett’s later pieces. And after a close examination, Brendan and I suspect that the rocker was made during Cornett’s brief embrace of power tools.
The biography of Cornett, “Craftsman of the Cumberlands,” discusses a brief period of Cornett’s career when he purchased a table saw, drill press and router (among other machines) to speed his production of chairs as he became more well known.
It did not go well.
Though Cornett was skilled with hand tools, machines made him nervous, and the book recounts several serious injuries Cornett suffered while using them. The book also documents Cornett attempting to use a router to make the incised lines on the posts and rungs of his rockers.
Brendan and I suspect this rocker exhibits these routed details.
The V-shaped incisions were curved, irregular and even had chatter marks upon close inspection. Some of the incisions looked OK. Others looked like Cornett was having a heck of a time using the router freehand on a narrow octagonal post.
These wandering incisions looked nothing like the crisp incisions on other Cornett chairs we’ve inspected.
Part of me thought: Perhaps this is just one of Cornett’s lesser works. But that ignored all the fantastic handwork on the chair, from the shaped arms to the finials. Ah, the finials.
At the top of the posts are two gorgeous pieces of handwork – tapered and octagonal finials that are just perfect in every way. Crisp, evenly faceted and perfectly symmetrical – something no router would be capable of making. But they are doable with a drawknife.
So the piece, while still extraordinary, made me a little sad. The routed details reflected a man who was clearly uncomfortable with his electric tools, yet struggling mightily to control them. The mistakes didn’t ruin the piece, but they did lessen it.
— Christopher Schwarz