Editor’s note: When I write a book, I usually write about 10 chapters that get cut out because the tone is wrong or they just don’t fit into the flow of the chapters. This was written to be the final chapter of “The Stick Chair Book,” which is what I’m working on now. It’s flawed, but good enough for a blog entry.
If there is one thing we can agree on, it’s probably this: Factory-made wooden chairs are the biggest hunks of garbage on the market today. With rare exception, their parts are joined with dowels or (worse) flimsy mechanical fasteners.
These chairs are designed to fail after a certain number of uses. Then you are supposed to buy a new chair with the same limited lifespan. Furniture manufacturers don’t tell you this, of course. Who would buy a chair that was advertised to be good for 6,000 sits or 400 lap dances?
But we all know it. And somehow, we accept the fact without complaint. As soon as a wooden chair starts to sway, you better throw it to the curb lest you end up in the ER with a new stick implant. (And a new nickname.)
Here’s the other maddening thing: This is not a new problem.
I own a gorgeous Morris chair made by the Shop of the Crafters, circa 1905. It’s made from thick quartersawn oak and looks to be built like a tank. The truth, however, is that the chair is a piece of crap. After I owned it for six years, its base became loose. I decided to take it apart and reglue the mortise-and-tenon joints with hide glue. Do the job properly.
I injected a little alcohol into the joints and the whole thing popped apart. It was completely joined with dowels. Dowels. And not that many dowels. I have no idea how the thing survived as long as it did.
The Arts & Crafts movement was supposed to be a reaction to this shoddy type of joinery. It was supposed to embrace the mortise-and-tenon joint and solid construction principles.
I guess every movement has its charlatans.
What can we do about this problem? Burn down the chair factories? Petition Congress to ban dowel joinery? Nah. Screw that. Instead, let’s learn to make our own damn chairs and make them so they’ll last forever.
In many ways, we are in the same situation as the people who made stick chairs in the 18th and 19th centuries. Back then, well-built chairs that were made by a professional were far too expensive for a farmer or day-laborer to own. In other words, good chairs were unobtainable.
So, the solution was to make chairs for yourself. With the tools you had on the farm and the wood around you.
There isn’t much written about these amateur chairmakers. Most of the academic research on old furniture is focused on high-style pieces made for the wealthy. And when the research does mention vernacular work, the broad assumption is that these farmers were imitating the high styles from the cities. But because vernacular makers didn’t have the skills to copy the high styles, they produced simple items that were shadows of Windsor chairs, highboys or secretaries.
These assumptions and declarations always piss me off. While we don’t have a written history of stick chairs, we do have a wooden one. And it is writ clear.
Thanks to a few furniture historians and open-minded museums, we still have collections of the old chairs that weren’t burnt for heat when the farmers could finally afford tubular steel chairs with plastic cushions. And if you spend some time with these chairs, you will see that these makers spoke their own language.
Stick chairs are their own weird and wonderful thing. Most of the forms have no analog to high-style pieces. None. They have unusual forms. Unexpected shapes. And a lot of knots, bark and splits.
If you are reading this, there’s a chance that you already appreciate stick chairs. So, this next section is on how to educate (pronounced “placate”) your family.
When people encounter stick chairs for the first time, they are usually repulsed or confused by them. They don’t look like any sort of chair they’ve encountered – ever. Stick chairs aren’t something you see on television, in furniture stores or in magazines about interior design.
It’s like visiting a foreign country where they eat raw fish for breakfast. It takes some getting used to.
When I first started making three-legged stick chairs, no one in my family or circle of friends would sit in them. It was like having a live tiger at the dinner table. The three-legged chair seemed a wild and unpredictable thing. You could be thrown to the floor at a moment’s notice.
After a few months with no injuries, however, the three-legged chairs became part of the normal dinnerscape. And when I gave my last one away to a family member, our kids howled in protest.
The best way to make the people around you appreciate (or even accept) stick chairs is to build some and put them in your home.
Well, that’s what I did.
Every stick chair around our dinner table is unique. They aren’t a matched set. They’re made from different woods. Some are painted and some aren’t. They all have different forms – tall comb backs, medium-size comb backs, a backstool with arms, and lowbacks. None of the chairs looks more important than the other.
All of them are scratched, stained and dented from almost 20 years of daily use, thanks to thousands of meals, homework sessions, family budget talks and late-night games of Uno. And while I feel sorry for the chairs at times, I sometimes I wonder if the chairs have also affected my family.
When my daughters were ages 4 and 9, I built them each a stick chair that was based on chairs in the background of the film “The Fellowship of the Ring.” We are a nerdy J.R.R. Tolkien family.
These chairs were made roughly and quickly. I was working full-time as an editor and didn’t have time to fuss over a couple chairs. We needed them for the girls, and I built them in a week or so. Even though they are the ugliest chairs I’ve made (yet), the chairs were built to last using all the principles that I now use to build chairs for customers. And they are pretty comfortable.
When our oldest daughter left for college seven years ago, she packed up her car. Then she plucked her “hobbit chair” from the dining table and put it in among her other things.
I wasn’t expecting that.
The chair followed her from Ohio to Connecticut to Pennsylvania. She eats dinner in it every night. It is her chair, and no one else’s. Her younger sister has the same plan for her red hobbit chair.
When I made those ugly red chairs, I had no preconceptions that they would become personal totems. Now I know better. It’s highly unlikely that anyone would claim this-is-mine-because-I-sat-in-it-for-decades rights from a matched set of dining chairs from Pottery Barn. But stick chairs, like three-legged stray cats, tend to imprint on you.
That might be because chairs are a reflection of us – more so than any other kind of furniture. They have many of the same parts that we do – legs, seat, arms, backs and hands. And they cradle us – like a never-tiring skeleton – after a long day in the world.
You can abuse them, and they won’t go away. They get better looking with age. And if made well, they will never leave you.
I can’t think of a better way to tell my family that I love them.
— Christopher Schwarz
61 thoughts on “Chairs & Crapitalism”
That was cool. I like this book already! Can’t wait for it.
I’m patiently awaiting your completion of this book…..it sounds like it will be another hit!
I envy you the experience of seeing your daughter very intentionally go into the house, pick up her chair from childhood on, and take it out to her vehicle to share her life’s journey. That’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve read about in a good long while. I can wish that I’d taken up chair making when my kids were little, but that and $75 will just get an on-sale Ikea chair with a name that sounds like a cat coughing up a hair ball, and of course ends up with various bits sticking out of the trash bin in the not-so-distant future. Or…I can start making chairs. As soon as I get through the list of things my wife (quite rightly) insists upon being done first. I’m gonna start making chairs. Thank you for the inspiration.
Any pics of the hobbit chair you can share? It sounds super cool 🙂
Second the request for hobbit chair photos. My boys are 8 and 5-1/2. Would love to get them mixed up in this.
He actually just posted a more extended discussion of the chairs (with several pictures): https://blog.lostartpress.com/2021/03/15/hobbit-chair-against-my-better-judgment/
Ha, it is a perfect chapter, though imperfect (I found a typo), as it brings home the concept of craftsmanship, ownership, and pride in the gifts we make and receive. Even if considered ugly on our part as the builder, it can mean so much to the one who receives and uses it over and over. The Morris Chair I just chalk up to mass production. Though I have three of my grandmothers Mission pieces and felt the need to check their joints. Safely made with proper joints I am happy to report.
I am looking forward to this book!
Most authors should be so lucky as to write a chapter this effective.
Wow, did I ever enjoy this blog entry. Two surprises: Dowels in your Morris chair and your daughter taking her Hobbit chair to college. It’s this last surprise that really got to me as father-daughter stories usually do and this is one of those stories I’ll surely remember each time I work in my shop. Thank you.
Me too. My daughter left for college this past fall and this story made me a bit weepy. That’s so cool she loved and was attached to her chair her dad made.
I own my mom’s dining table and chairs she bought for her first apartment. My brother and I grew up using them, there’s scratches and dings all over. I just redid the table top. It is surfaced with sawn oak veneer, and was finished with poly crap or whatever. I and my wife scraped it off and sanded it with linseed oil. Make an oil sludge, let it sit, apply more oil, sand with high grit, let dry a bit, then clean off. Then let dry for a week or so. It was raw linseed oil (organic food section, the grocery store was open!). Oh, and the table and chair set is a nasty arts and crafts imitation, pseudo mortise and tenon and metal fasteners and all. It is now used and abused by the second family with little kids. Glue, marker pen, scratches, nicks,… “patina”.
I need a few more chairs for guests though. I’ll grab my two little helpers, I guess, and build some. Nasty spruce from the DIY store and all. Will it be perfect? Hell no! Will I learn something? Yes. Will it work as a chair? That shall be seen…
I’m sorry but I’m stuck at “hobbit chair”… so for a “but good enough for a blog entry” – I think it is required a proper picture of those chairs or your some of your audience will live in a cliff hanger for eternity, or worst … start building themselves…
Cheers to you all, be safe and have remember… a laugh a day keeps the doctor away!
So well stated.
Make a grown man cry why don’t you. Wrong tone, my hat.
Man I can’t wait for this book!. Thanks for the yard stick and sorry for the beard scare.
Good to see you! Hopefully next time we will all be vaccinated!
Indeed…so different then how we last saw each other a year ago. Your beard is shorter, mine is longer! Megan’s hair is longer too!
Ridiculously so. It was lovely to see you, Justin!
It was great to see you Megan! I am looking forward to hanging out more in the not too distant future.
Looking forward to this book! Is the chair pictured above a “hobbit” chair! This geek would love to see that chair too.
No. I don’t have a photo of those chairs. I’ll try to snap one.
I want to see the hobbit chairs.
Good stuff. I agree with you. I hate to throw cold water on, but just wanted to say that part of the problem with factory made furniture is similar to a lot of other things. Pogo said, “we have met the enemy, and he is us”. People, that amorphous mass of consumers, generally want low prices. And that’s what we get, in furniture, clothes, you name it. I worked as an engineer in consumer electronics for 30+ years. We were continually hit on the head for lower cost.
The answer as you say is to build it yourself, and I really enjoy doing that very thing.
Wrong. This really should be included in your book. Lap dances, tubular steel, off to college and all. Best thing I’ve read in a long time.
How is there not a Hobbit Chair chapter? Might I propose “Hobbit Chairs: The Hermeneutics of Seating Furniture in the Seven Kingdoms.”
This blog has just made up for my Sunday Times not arriving this morning…very well written (as always).
I never thought of myself as a furniture maker not beyond shop tables anyway…I may just have to reconsider…before my granddaughters are old enough for college.
What the hell was wrong with that chapter!!!
What a great post and story. I made a dresser for my daughter before I really knew how to make furniture. It’s imperfect and heavy and has moved twice already. It will last a lifetime.
Clearly, we need a “Hobbit Chair” chapter…the subject may warrant an entire book, but I’d be happy with a dedicated blog post with pictures. I anticipate a whole lot of hobbit chairs emerging from workshops around the world.
If you don’t think this fits in the flow of the book as a chapter you should at least consider it as a Forward to the book. It’s too good not to include in some fashion.
if you don’t keep the chapter, I’ll customise my own version of your book when it’s out. I’ll paste the blog in the very front to correct the erratum.
Great post. When reading this with your comment on it being the “last chapter” I couldnt help thinking that the first part of would make a good intro chapter and the second half would make a good last chapter. The story of the hobbit chairs put a huge smile on my face.
Now I’m going to put the movie in and check out Bilbo’s furniture to try to guess which one you made.
Outstanding Blog entry! I am of the age where I’m not ashamed to admit the emotions this entry brought out of me. I hope to leave my legacy and memories to my family in the form of items I’ve made for them. Thank you.
If that chapter didn’t make the cut I can’t wait to read the ones that did! I’ve always wanted to make some furniture seen in LOTR! Pics pics pics!
Thats funny. I recently re-watched the Hobbit and the LOTR trilogy with my daughter and seeing the chairs in the hobbit hole, I thought to myself “that would be a good chair for a chair chat”!
I remember reading the philosophical sections of the ADB (and earlier the ATC, especially the ‘Three tables’ section) and thinking, ‘yes, yes, YES’. It’s a shame that vernacular furniture gets so little attention compared to the high-style stuff, because if I had to chose I’d choose the more vernacular stuff rather than, say, overly elaborate and ornate French rococo-style furniture made from expensive and exotic woods. Both to build, and to live with. With regards to chair making I bounced off it pretty hard due to the (seeming) requirement of an arsenal of specialised tools, and rigorous demands on what wood to use for them, so I’m really looking forward to this book as it looks like it’s going to address all of that.
This chapter is a paper and ink example of a stick chair, it has it’s own character and will stand the test(s) of time. Why do I purchase your books and refer to them frequently? For the same reasons.
I remember being told as a young hippie woodworker that you can never consider yourself accomplished or skilled until you can make a chair. That remark kept me from attempting it for a couple of decades. Once learned, chair-making is just another set of skills in the mental toolbox. It’s kind of like when I was learning traditional lapstrake boatbuilding. I heard another fellow remark that he didn’t think he’d ever be able to build a boat. The geezer working to teach us remarked, “Aw, hell, boatbuilding is nothing more than a million simple tricks that it takes a lifetime to learn.” Go build a chair or a boat or a guitar or a drawleaf table, and learn some new tricks.
Wonderfully written – should be included.
Like others I am glad you decided to post this on the blog vs it getting relegated to the cutting room floor.
I too and looking forward to pictures of your Hobbit chairs.
Love this post!
Holy cow, your a good writer…
Perfect blog/chapter, keep it in this book.
Hi, do you know if the Chinese or Japanese made stick chairs? I was visiting a historic home in Dunedin, New Zealand, where the original owners had done a world cruise in the 1900s to pick up stuff to furnish their new home and I noticed a pair of stick chairs with what looked to be solid wood oriental carved backs, e.g. a dragon.
I am wondering if these chairs were western knockoffs to fit in with a fad for all things oriental, or the real article.
PS the chairs were behind a ribbon barrier to stop tourists sitting in them.
I’m afraid I don’t, Paul. The Chinese used low benches that could be staked, but a lot of the images I’ve seen of vernacular furniture there are either stump-based or frame-based.
And Japanese furniture is not on my radar. Sorry.
I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t be Japanese: traditionally, they’d sit on cushions — or for the arthritic, very low benches. –GG
Like, “six inches tall” low.
When we bought our home in SOCAL about 6 years ago we bought a new kitchen set with. 6 chairs. Two of them had to be thrown away over the next 5 years. Finally got fed up and got rid of the darn things this past year. Bought a new set, hand made by an Amish consortium. You get what you pay for. This set’s really well made. No gimmicks or shortcuts.
I have one of those beautiful chairs. It’s the most beautiful piece of furniture I own, so I don’t sit in it. Silly me!!
Please sit in it!
Hi Chris, I agree with this and also take umbrage at some of the thoughts you expressed. I used to work for one of “those chair factories” in Oregon. We made chairs (and other furniture) kits from local Alder. They were flat packed to be assembled by the buyer, or by 3rd-party furniture shops. The chairs (and all the other) kits were built to last. Every part was (at least) triple inspected along the way and anything not top quality was discarded or reworked. My family has a houses full of the furniture, and it will last for generations with proper assembly and care. There lies the rub, once the kits went out the door, we no longer had control on how much attention to detail the buyer put into the assembly. I know a lot of kits were slapped together quickly and never finished. The fault they failed wasn’t that the owner didn’t care to assemble them correctly, it was a “design flaw”. I’ve fixed more than a few chairs for my friends who did just that. I think our throw-away consumer culture has made generations of consumers who have no idea of what maintenance is. They fully expect to buy something to (ab)use until it breaks and then buy something new.
BTW, I love the captains chair.
Christopher I am really impressed by this idea and this story.Chairs are a piece of furniture that cant be considered precious.They have to withstand abuse and they have to abide by certain functional design rules or close to them.Then they have to serve the user many times a day.A true workhorse of the interior designscape.But regarded by many as an aftter thought. How many times I have built and delivered a dining table to a client only to have it surrounded by 6 sturdy looking ugly pieces of crap .Chairs deserve more respect. They also deserve to cost more than people think they should. After all, look how hard they work , just sitting there , waiting for the next weary butt to plop down
Great blog that reads like a three-legged chapter.
I want to make a couple of stick chairs.
A lot of what you write, Chris, is informative or entertaining, at least to some. But I think not a lot of it really changes me, personally, as much as reinforces or maybe refines what I was already thinking.
In contrast, this piece, particularly the closing comment, is perhaps something that I’ll carry with me and will maybe change me, and by extension, those for whom I make things.
After a Death
by Roo Borson.
Seeing that there’s no other way,
I turn his absence into a chair.
I can sit in it,
gaze out through the window.
I can do what I do best
and then go out into the world.
And I can return then with my useless love,
because the chair is there.
So seeing as no one else has asked…just how many lap dances is a stick chair good for?
Haven’t broke one yet.
This was a nice and emotional read for me, with my own kids playing with their own half-scale back stools (from the ADB) right by me. I know I’ll be making them more chairs in the future and I hope they mean as much to them as the hobbit chairs do to your daughters.
Like everyone else I’m excited to see the aforementioned chairs, a quick google search and the best looking chair I found was the writing chair in Bag End, I’m curious if this is what you based yours off of.
I am building my way through the Anarchists Design book and am on the back stool chapter. I was wondering why the seat is built with 2 1/2″ material and the 3 legged stool is built with 1 1/2 material. Can the seat be 2″ thick? What determines the “break point?” As I have gone through the book I sometimes have questions. Is there a place to ask questions on specifics in the book?
In general, legs without stretchers require thicker seats. That’s the guideline. Stretcher constructions allow you to use thinner materials.
There are no rules on this because it depends so much on the material. The dimensions in the book will works – I’ve built those projects many times.
As you build more staked stuff you will get a feel for it. In general: staked stuff requires 8/4 material.
If you have specific questions you can send them to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
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