Oh Geeze, This Feels Weird

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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.

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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 Undercarriage
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.)

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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.

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The Crest
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

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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24 Responses to Oh Geeze, This Feels Weird

  1. Corey says:

    That chair is a beautiful piece – well done! Do you happen to have a picture of the arm bow lumber before it was bent and finished? I’m curious to know how much exaggerated curve in the raw material was necessary to achieve the final shape. Thx

  2. Roland Stewart Chapman says:

    This is the chair that Nanna Bowles sat in when she was directing the Friday night ablutions . These took place in a tin bath in front of the open coal fire

  3. gdblake00 says:

    Looking at the photos the chair has a lightness to it that probably has something to do with its proportions. Really a beautiful piece. I appreciate the frustration you experienced in getting the arm bow right. Most folks don’t understand that it’s not about perfection, it’s about getting it right so the work is complete. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Sergeant82d says:

    Sooooo….. How does it sit? I know you said (obviously!?) that you couldn’t sit down in the original at St. Fagans, so now that you have recreated it, is it comfortable? All the whole seat/back angle, arm bow lumbar support, seat height, etc. things?

    • It sits quite well. If it were my design, I would lower the armbow about 1″ so that it would support the lumbar better. But Brendan (who has a long torso) likes it exactly where the armbow is.

      The shallow depth of the seat is odd at first. My wife, Lucy, reported, “My legs feel so … free.” But after sitting in it for an hour, it isn’t tiring.

      The width is considerable. I prefer my chairs to more closely hug the sitter, but that’s just personal preference. I’m going to make a second one (I’m already halfway done) that restores the stretchers and is not saddled. Then I’ll have a better feel for a couple other details of the chair.

      Thanks for asking.

  5. I’ve enjoyed seeing your journey through these rural chairs. The quality of your work has been ecellent too, but there was always something nagging. The look of your previous versions had a feel that was somewhat clinical and corrected. For me, this version breaks through that and you have something that looks “right”. Well done!

  6. tsstahl says:

    I’m against the pack on this one. I generally don’t like this particular chair. I stared at the photos when they first showed up on the blog trying to see what Chris sees. My uneducated take is I think this chair was just lucky, not special, to have survived so long.

    From the seat up it looks tres cool, and the addition of saddling in the reproduction is even better. The arm bow has a regal look. The legs still look low and incongruous with the top. Hopefully I’ll gain a different perspective after reading the book.

    I’m not trying to throw shade, only increase understanding of the chair form I’ve selected to become conversant in. Sorry, Megan, …in which I’ve selected to become conversant. 🙂

    • It’s an odd chair. I wouldn’t expect everyone to like it.

      • Daniel Roy says:

        It’s funny. I love the legs on the original. Chris, did you change the length, splay and rake of the legs from the original? It’s hard to tell but, it looks like the rear legs don’t splay as much as the original. Also, the edges of the original look much softer but, that may be because of the dark color of the original. Both chairs are great.

        • Daniel,

          I tried very hard to get the legs the same. But I didn’t get the rear legs right. They definitely need more splay. And maybe some additional rake as well.

          As to the rounding, again, I tried to mimic the original as best I could. But you might be right.

      • Ira says:

        Looks like it was custom made for an “oversized” person.

    • jenohdit says:

      Not seeing it either tsstahl. Not having octagonal parts mixed with round parts is a step in the right direction at least.

  7. simon says:

    The proportions of the chair may also have something to do with geography and the ethnicity. There are 4 distinct nations in the UK and while we have become more mixed our origins are quite distinct. Of the 4 nations the Scots (pict and Gaelic) were generally perceived to be the tallest while the Welsh (Celts) were by some way the shortest and stockiest and at the trime this chair was made dietary differences would have been more of a factor which may go some way to explaining the width and the short length of the seat. The English, mostly Germanic would have been almost as tall as the Scots which might account for the difference in proportion to say a windsor chair. At the time the St Fagan’s chair was made the average height of a Welsh man was probably 5’5″ and a woman less than 5′. The proportions of our furniture can tell us a lot about our development.

  8. Pascal Teste says:

    Very interesting interpretation of the original chair. Your version looks more bold and somewhat intellectual. Reducing the splay of the legs (looks like you did?) give’s it a more solid look. The red oak looks great, what did you finished it with?

  9. Steve Vlahos says:

    It is a beautiful chair. Amazing work!

  10. J.C. aka BLZeebub says:

    Dig what you said about the confusion of femininity and a lack of resolve. My mother would punch a putz for uttering such a thing and there was never any doubt about her femininity. As to the chair seat, I’m thinking a little added depth wouldn’t wreck it. I do really like what you’ve done. I didn’t at first but it has really grown on me. I won’t be making one but again, I really like your interpretation of the form. Bravo!

  11. John says:

    I see the femininity you are referring to with the narrow depth. My question or thought is; The oversized width, could it be due to poofy dresses?

  12. Overthinking load of B/S about a simple country chair The original was probably made by a local country craftsman using what was available to him who just wanted something to sit on.

    • I am fairly certain the original was made by the user, but it shows great skill in the fashioning of the armbow in particular.

      I think vernacular furniture deserves the same scrutiny and thought that high-style furniture has enjoyed for…ever. To me, just because someone made something out of pure necessity from common materials does not mean it isn’t artful or deserving of regard.

      • Scott Maurer says:

        Indeed! It’s very obvious to me that a great deal of thought went into the form and not simply the function of this chair. While I doubt the maker would have expressed himself in quite the same way, the attention to detail is the same and the aesthetic was deliberate in every way, you can be sure. When every little thing must be accomplished by sharp steel pushed by hand or hammer, this means every cut and every detail is thought out and done for a reason. The look is not just an accident of necessity but born of art.

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