Why Add Stretchers to a Chair (And Why Not?)

replaced_leg_irish_chair

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

stick_chair_stretchers_IMG_1987

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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13 Responses to Why Add Stretchers to a Chair (And Why Not?)

  1. One gorgeous chair. Hopefully it will occupy a suitable environment in the future as well, not to be sorry the stretchers were added to begin with.

  2. Jeremy says:

    Is there any correlation between the presence of stretchers and say the volume of the tenon? (i.e. the thickness of the seat or the diameter of the tenon)
    While I imagine they are predominantly best for footrests, does a stretcher does become necessary at some seat height?

  3. Richard Mahler says:

    As to stretchers between the front two legs, who knows if stability was the primary motive in some chairs, or if a convenient footrest was in order for the younger and less sedate members of past society. One of the markers of age and use in antique chairs is the amount of wear to be found on that part of any chair. I have chairs that I am sure were not made specifically for children or teens, what I think of as ‘lady chairs’ that have a surprising amount of front stringer wear – even rocking chairs – which suggests that female owners in their long skirts may not have spents as much time with their feet demurely on the floor as we have been led to suppose. Good for them! There is something to be said for comfort in a chair.

  4. Tommy Reese says:

    I’ve noticed that some people would place their foot on a stretcher, while sitting, the heel of the shoe would lock on the stretcher. Just wondering if that might be a reason for a stretcher?

  5. rons54 says:

    Chairs without stretchers make me think of the Sawhorse from Oz. Like they could just up and run off while you are sitting on them.

  6. Jim Dillon says:

    ” . . . inclement periods for long periods” . . . thus in Kinmonth, or a misquote?

  7. Barron says:

    John Brown writes that he doesn’t use stretchers if the seat is over 1 5/8” thick and made from a single piece of elm. I always wondered why the single piece didn’t need stretchers but a glued up seat did. Now I think the concern might have been the more flexible “unstrechered” under carriage might stress the seams of the seat. Does the single board seat vs. a glued up seat affect your decision to use stretchers at all? My copy of Brown’s book is a paperback, can’t wait for the Lost Art Press hardcover.

    • Hi Barron,

      A quick clarification: Our version will also be paperback – a very heavy card stock – to imitate the first edition.

      Whether the seat is glued up or one piece dosn’t affect my decision to use stretchers. A good joint is as strong as the wood. And while I would rather always have a single plank for the seat, that’s difficult these days.

      On seat thickness: When I work without stretchers, I like 1-3/4″ or thicker. I rarely make seats less than 1-5/8″.

  8. Barron says:

    Thanks for the reply, and I still want the Lost Art Press version.

  9. Bob Jones says:

    Legs without stretchers can flex more to balance the load on slightly uneven surfaces. I think the faster to build also fits – they weren’t being built for fun or amusement.

  10. Barry MacDonald says:

    There was a book in the 80’s on sexual positions. As I recall, one them had the woman stand on the lower stretchers wile the man…. well… I don’t want to be the wiener here. Just cast my vote in favor of stretchers on a chair.

  11. Peter Marcucci says:

    As I was hanging my workshop chair up and out of the way on the wall (like a shaker chair) I thought about this blog. I could not hang the chair if it did not have stretchers. There is one use for stretchers.

  12. Merle G Hall says:

    If you’re ever in the Taos, NM, area, take time to visit the Taos Art Museum at The Fechin House (https://www.taosartmuseum.org). Nikolai Fechin was a wonderful portrait artist (emigrated from Russia), but he spent five years (I think?) remodelling the house, adding on, and building a lot of furniture for it. When I first saw the chairs last week, I thought of you, Chris, and this post and the Anarchist’s Design Book (which I read last winter). I do have a few phone photos, if you’re interested.

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