Chairs by Jonathan Fisher

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The affordability and simplicity of the slat-back chair made it a favorite form in 19th-century New England.


This is an excerpt from “Hands Employed Aright: The Furniture Making of Jonathan Fisher” by Joshua A. Klein.

The first chair Fisher recorded making was in December 1802. This “small chair,” probably for children, seems to have been a trial run for him because a couple weeks after its completion, he began to equip his work shop for a more efficient workflow. He “made a rack (a bending form) for chair backs.” And “made a shaving  [?] jack” (probably his shaving horse). With these two appliances, Fisher could refine his chairmaking process by “[making] several chair frames” before undertaking the production of a set of “kitchen” chairs in 1805.

Nancy Goyne Evans’s research into the New England usage of the term “kitchen chair” has shown that it refers to a slat-back side chair.  Fisher’s documentation of the construction of these chairs concurs with that assessment.

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The flats on the sides of the tenons ensured that when the legs shrunk, they would not split.

February 1805 he made four “little” chairs probably for his four children who would need them: Jonathan, Sally, Betsey and Josiah. Having his children’s sitting needs taken care of, he set out to build the full-size versions. The first one he made that March did not work  out well. “Worked upon a chair; broke it putting it together. Began another.” This comment is interesting because it suggests that the method of assembly Fisher used to make his chair required significant force such  that there was risk of completely ruining it. When driving the tenons of the rails and stretchers in the “green” legs, it was common practice to make the fit incredibly  tight. This way, when the leg dried out, it would pinch the tenon from coming out. Having not yet developed the feel for “how far was too far,” Fisher perhaps fractured one or more members.

The slat-back chair (Cat#16, p 161) in the Fisher collection shows evidence of this kind of assembly. The tenons all have small flats carved on their sides. This technique was a way to remove material on the legs’ cross-grain direction while allowing the top and bottom of the tenon to be oversized when driven in. If the orientation of the flats were reversed (meaning on  top and bottom), the driving would split the leg due to the extra thickness of the oversized tenon running cross-grain. This is perhaps where Fisher made his early mistake. The method appears to work incredibly well because although the only pins in the entire chair are in the top slat, it has no wiggle whatsoever – pretty amazing for a 200-year-old chair.

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This stout rocking chair was once painted red and had a woven seat. The tablet crest, although unusual for this form, appears to be original to the chair.

Fisher’s shop work during this time on chairs seems a little more focused than usual. Although he made a few visits and “wrote upon sermons” like always, he set aside a surprising amount of time to this batch of chairs.

Tuesday, April 2, Fisher recorded many of the steps of the chairmaking operation: “Primed some chairs. Went into the woods and cut a little chair stuff. Turned posts and put together a kitchen chair.” During the ensuing weeks of construction, we learn that he “hewed out [his] posts” before turning them. He may have also used his “shaving jack” for further shaping but only ever recorded using it to “shave … chair backs.” Interestingly, there is a comment on April 19 about “sawing out a few chair backs.” Typically “sawing out” refers to resawing rough material. So it appears that rather than rive backs from the log, he preferred to saw them.

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The red paint is clearly visible on the seat rails.

After they were assembled, he painted the chairs, probably with the “1-1/2 gal. oil, 5 lbs. yellow ochre, 5 lbs. red ochre, 1 lb. patent yellow” he purchased from Mr. Witham’s store at the head of the bay during the construction process.

The “bottoming” (seat weaving) of Fisher’s chairs always appears to be connected to the pounding of “basket stuff.” The fact that he didn’t mention weaving baskets after the prep work but instead immediately began weaving the seats seems to imply that they were woven of wood strips rather than the twisted rushes one would expect in northern New England.

Meghan Bates

 

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One Response to Chairs by Jonathan Fisher

  1. Richard Mahler says:

    ‘Stout’ is the correct term for the rocker pictured. It is a very blocky design with no pretensions to elegance, so with that tablet crest and the massive stringers that match, there is little surprise it is still around: about the only thing that would have put an end to its functional life would have be an emergency need for firewood! The arms and turning above the seat are interesting features for a chair that sacrifices any other such details. An altogether intriguing chair that must have pleased its owners in the original red scheme. If furniture could talk …

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