A fair number of the stick and staked chairs that I make lack stretchers between the legs. But some of my chairs have them. So I get asked regularly: When do you use stretchers and why?
The simple answer is I add stretchers when the customer wants them. But that’s not a helpful answer for those getting started in designing and building chairs.
First a little history: Chairs don’t have to have stretchers to survive. I’ve seen plenty of chairs that have survived 300 years or more without stretchers. And yet, because most modern chairs have stretchers, a chair can look odd or alarming without them.
Stretchers add rigidity to the undercarriage and make the lower area of the chair visually balanced with the stuff above the seat – the spindles, arms and other hoo-ha. And they really aren’t a lot of labor to add to a chair. I’d guess that the stretchers add about an hour to the construction time of a typical chair.
So I guess the question then becomes: Why would you omit stretchers? A lack of raw material? Stylistic reasons? A lack of skill by the maker?
I think those reasons are unlikely.
The best explanation I’ve read is in Claudia Kinmonth’s “Irish Country Furniture: 1700-1950” (Yale). She begins her explanation with a description of the damp and earthen floors in a typical cottage. Then she adds:
Uneven floors have a bad effect upon seats with legs rigidly joined by stretchers. Except for mass-produced chairs, the majority of locally made stools and chairs had independent unlinked legs, which could be individually removed and replaced by the householder whenever they become worn or loose. This lack of stretchers combined with the common use of the through-wedged tenon to attach the legs to the seats, meant that chairs could survive inclement periods for long periods.
Kinmonth then goes on to describe several historical examples of stools and chairs that have had repairs.
To me, ease of construction and repair makes the most sense. If anyone else has a better explanation, you know what to do.
— Christopher Schwarz