For at least the 12th time this month I’ve looked at the work on my bench and found that the odder it looks, the better.
I’m building a near-replica of a chair on display at St Fagans National Museum of History, and replica work is not usually my bag (or it hasn’t been for a long, long time). At every turn, this chair does the opposite of what I would do if it were my design. But I vowed to stick as close to the original as possible.
Why am I doing this? To attempt get inside the head of the original Welsh maker and perhaps learn something.
Why this chair? A drawing of it appears on the cover of John Brown’s “Welsh Stick Chairs,” and so he must have also seen something special in this chair. I adore it, too, but exactly why I like it is difficult to explain.
I began by making full-size drawings of the chair based on the photos I took during my visit to St Fagans with Christopher Williams. Even from the drawings, I knew this would be an odd ride.
The seat is unusual by modern standards. Though it’s about 22” wide, it’s only about 13” deep. It’s quite thin, unlike some of the chunky seats you see on many Welsh and Windsor chairs (up to 2” thick). The legs are delicate – just 1-5/16” at the floor – and they taper up to the seat.
The seat’s shape defies classification. It’s like a D-shaped seat that has been stretched with a rolling pin. There’s a big flat area where the four back sticks reside.
The original chair once had stretchers (now long gone) that ran between the front and back legs. It might have had a medial stretcher, but perhaps not. On this version, I’m building the chair as it appears now, without stretchers.
One change I have made to my chair is to lightly saddle the seat. The original seat is as flat as a board. (My saddle shape is based on other chairs from St Fagans.)
The Sticks & Armbow
The sticks on this chair are about 5/8” and don’t taper much, if at all. But it’s the armbow that has caused me the most head-scratching. The original’s arms are likely made from a curved branch. Then the two pieces that make the arm were joined by a large half-lap joint.
I wasn’t able to find a branch that works for this chair. So I made an arm with a plank that had some curved grain, but it looked like crap. So I switched gears and tried to make one from compression wood (aka cold-bend hardwood). Fail. So I made two arms using bent laminations. One was a total fail (my fault), and the second was a partial fail. Plus I didn’t like the way they looked in the end – too modern.
So I went to a sawmill in the country and dug through the 8/4 oak to look for a more suitable board. I found one with lots of curve. So last week I finally got an armbow that looked right. Well, “looked right” is not right. The armbow looks like an exaggerated harp, which matches the seat shape. As a result, the angles for four of the sticks were totally wack-doodle. But the wronger it felt, the righter the whole thing looked.
The crest (sometimes called the comb) was the most difficult shape to reproduce. It is composed of multiple tapering curves. After drawing and drawing, I had to put down the pencil and just grab a rasp to make it look right.
Bemused by the whole experience, I knocked the finished crest in place and walked away to the machine room to put something away. When I returned, I caught the silhouette of my chair out of the corner of my eye and felt the same pang when I saw the original at St Fagans.
It’s then that I saw something I hadn’t seen before. Unlike many Welsh chairs, this one has a lightness and femininity that many Welsh chairs eschew. It’s not a passive chair by any means (sometimes femininity is wrongly equated with passiveness). It still looks like it wants to bite your shin if you mistreat it. But it works. And now I know exactly why.
— Christopher Schwarz