I never planned on trying to drag a bunch of readers into my Stick Chair Lair, but it sure looks that way in our store. We now have four titles devoted to these chairs, plus plans, a sliding bevel, a calculator for designing your own chairs, a bevel-setting tool and a card scraper specially ground for these chairs.
This wasn’t by design, I promise you. Heck we don’t have financial forecasts or a strategic long-range map for the editorial future of Lost Art Press. (Except this: We are going to bring back turned ashtrays.)
Stick chairs have been a long-running obsession of mine since 1997 or so when I first began reading John Brown’s column in Good Woodworking magazine. I started making these chairs in 2003, and I haven’t stopped since.
If you think these chairs are ugly (a common reaction – until you see enough of them), then here is a short explanation as to why I always seem to have one in progress on my workbench.
I love stick chairs because they are deeply rooted in traditional culture, and yet there are almost no hard rules about what they should look like or how they should be made.
In contrast, for years I built American Arts & Crafts furniture, which has a hierarchy of makers, techniques, finishes and forms. Yes, there are some outliers (Limbert, for one), but otherwise there are well-defined rules about what makes a “good” piece from a “blah” one. And those rules aren’t entirely about aesthetics.
With stick chairs, almost anything goes. Want to make a chair that has five legs, 11 sticks made from branches in your yard and a piece of carved driftwood for the comb? OK! And hey, you wouldn’t be the first person to do that. For me, these chairs represent almost complete design freedom – freedom to explore different materials, angles and dimensions, and even to create new forms (see the “Sticktionary” chapter in my book for a sample).
With this freedom comes responsibility. Though you can build whatever you like, your chair can also be ridiculed for poor proportions or its lack of a cohesive vision. And again, you wouldn’t be the first to make an awkward chair. A fair number of old stick chairs are butt-ugly. (Though many of the surviving chairs are beautiful.)
We all have a few ugly chairs inside of our hands, so it’s important to get those shambling thickets out through our fingers so we can develop chairs that offer grace, movement and comfort. The good news here is that stick chairs are insanely quick and easy to build compared to most other forms of chairs. So your journey won’t be long.
The joinery is made with drill bits for the most part (I use mostly cheap spade bits). You don’t need a lot of specialty tools to build them (mostly a jack plane and a block plane), and you can use whatever wood that’s on hand. Yes, kiln-dried wood from the lumberyard is fine – you just have to be a little picky about choosing straight grain.
And once you’ve made one chair, you’ll find the next one will come easier and faster. In the early days it took me a couple weeks to build a chair. Now it’s less than three days. Because they are so fast to build, I can explore lots of new forms and details. I have yet to build the same chair twice (though I have tried a couple times).
As a result, the work is never boring or repetitive, even after almost 19 years of building these teenage swans.
Oh, I almost forgot to mention the last little benefit of building these chairs. Making them will open up a huge world of staked furniture for you. The skills for making stick chairs directly translate to making staked tables, stools, workbenches or really anything with angled legs.
So how do you get started?
I’d begin with John Brown’s classic “Welsh Stick Chairs.” It’s a short book, filled with fire and brimstone, history and handwork. You can read it in one sitting. It will give you a taste for the different chair forms, those both funky and sublime. And you’ll get a full dose of John Brown’s cranky and iconoclastic way of working. His writing led me to the realization that I could build these chairs out of any damn wood that I pleased.
The second book I’d read is “The Welsh Stick Chair: A Visual Record” by Tim and Betsan Bowen. This is the only book we sell that we do not publish – that’s how important it is to me. This gorgeous book will show you what the stick chair form is capable of achieving in terms of beauty. The Bowens are highly knowledgeable dealers who have seen more of these chairs than anyone I know. The text is brief and fascinating. If you aren’t in love with these chairs by the end of this book, you probably shouldn’t delve any further.
And the third book? Well that depends on how you like to learn. “Good Work: The Chairmaking Life of John Brown” by Christopher Williams is a deep dive into JB’s life as a chairmaker. It is one part biography – Chris worked with John Brown for about a decade building these chairs; he knows them inside and out. It is one part philosophy – the book contains John Brown’s best writing on chairmaking, none of which has been published in the U.S. And it is one part how-to. Chris demonstrates how John Brown built a stick chair, but he teaches it the way that Chris was taught. No plans. No exact dimensions or angles. Instead, each chair is a voyage of discovery, combining the wood on hand with a set of well-explained skills so you can build a chair of your own making.
If you are a woodworker who prefers explicit plans, then “The Stick Chair Book” might be a better choice. The book has complete plans for five stick chairs (two Irish, two Welsh and one Scottish). Plus detailed chapters on how to perform all the operations with a basic set of hand tools and a band saw. And chapters on finishing, wood selection, design and the like. Of all the books above, it’s most like a traditional woodworking text (with animal jokes).
After that, you are good to build a chair. Honestly. If I can build a stick chair, then dang-near anybody can build a good stick chair. Heck, you might even be able to build a great one.
— Christopher Schwarz
p.s. If you prefer looking at chairs to making them, we also offer a “Family Tree of Chairs” letterpress poster and a reprint of Edwin Skull’s circa-1865 broadsheet of the 141 chairs made by the Skull firm in High Wycombe, England.
51 thoughts on “How to Become a Stick Chair Nerd”
I hate to say I have bought some of your stick chairs books, but I never opened them. I do not like stick chairs, but I like LAP, so I thought, what the heck, I’ll get a stick chair book and support you folks. If liking stick chairs makes you a nerd, I am not sure what buying stick chair books I do not read makes me…
As this is a stick chair post, I have a stick chair question. You have explained in detail why you love your no. 5 plane, but I’m curious about why you use it to make the sticks, as you show in the video and explain in the book. As you hold it one-handed, I’d think a smaller and lighter-weight plane would be easier to handle. Is it just your comfort with the no. 5 that has you using it? Is there any reason not to use a smaller, lighter plane? The Stick Chair book is a wonder. You lay everything down in terrific prose. This is just a nagging question.
I don’t know what Chris will say but I can tell you what my brother said when I asked him the exact same question…..mass. He said he’d get tired much faster using a block plane than that #5. Since I would never consider myself woodworker, I’m willing to bet both Chris and my brother know what they are talking about…..
Yup. Mass helps. That way you just have to push forward and not down.
I encourage you to try other approaches! I have a jack plane in my hand most days, so it is the answer to most of my questions
You need the jacks mass for when those shavings get wider and wider. You probably could use a number four with a curved blade if you wanted. I would think a block plane would be uncomfortable to hold for heavy material removal.
I have the stick chair book, but I am having trouble finding 2″ thick lumber for seats in my area. I hate to resort to 2×4’s. Seat blanks online are expensive. Any tips on sourcing wood?
I am curious where do you live? Around me, (northern indiana) we have amish lumber yards and they sell 8 quarter stuff. Other lumber yards do as well. I know that often small sawmills might not be listed. Once you uncover a couple sources it will be like an avalanche. Do a search for lumber yards and ask around for 8 quarter stuff. Remember that you can use pretty much anything for a seat. That is from Curtis Buchanan and I believe Chris has either said or implied that at times as well. You can always go to the big box and get yellow pine construction lumber. 2×10’s or 2×12’s. Will get you there. Anything 2×8 or larger is probably yellow pine. That stuff is strong. You can pack it up to 2 inches on the bottom just where you are going to drill the legs in. Sometimes they have a rack of two or four foot cutoffs for i sanely cheap. Hope this helps and good luck in your search.
I’m in Wisconsin, which you think would be easy with all the timber and sawmills, but everywhere I have called and emailed so far either doesn’t want to deal with me or doesn’t have stock that thick.
Try calling around to find local lumberyards that deal in rough-sawn stock. Look for places that specifically carry fine hardwoods, as opposed to construction lumber. If all else fails, call a local Woodcraft or Rockler and see if they know where a good local source will be.
If all else fails then get on US Route 20 east of Chicago and head over to Amish country Goshen Middlebury Shipshewanna area. Seek out a place called LR Knisley lumber in Middelbury. He will get your head spinning with the options. I am sure there is something closer to you though. But really you can try using yellow pine for your first ones. It is what I am doing. I concur that woodcraft and Rockler would be good places to call.
Have you tried kettle moraine hardwoods in hartford? Also try bobkloes.com up in seymour. He does mostly figured wood, but might know a source.
I emailed Bob and I got the feeling he didn’t want to deal with me. I get the feeling he deals with high dollar sales, and a chimp looking for a chair seat is a waste of time. I called kettle moraine and the person I talked to said they didn’t have any planks 16″ wide, but I may stop there on my next trip down to see family. I also called L&N, Thomas weidmeier sawmill, etc.
Bob is probably pretty busy. Ive only interacted with him stopping at the clintonville shop on Saturdays. He has been friendly then. Im also not a high dollar sales person. I only spend around 100 while there. Just remember to bring cash.
I wonder about owl hardwoods in Chicago area. They seem to have a lot of stuff.
OWL is not what is used to be, but still pretty good. They can order whatever you want, but be prepared to pay for it.
…didn’t have any planks 16″ wide…
Don’t be afraid to glue up a blank from narrower stock. I suck at making chairs and have not completed very many, but I have not yet had a seat blank without a glue joint.
I am currently sitting in my first-ever staked chair – the one from ADB. I have a desk job (engineer) so I’ve been sitting in it daily for the better part of a year, and I am not a small man. I made the seat with glued up home centre lumber, which started out 1 1/2″ thick and is now thinner after being planed and very lightly saddled. It was all I had at the time. The chair has a lot of issues but seat strength isn’t one of them. I’m no expert but I say try the two-bys.
Did you do anything special to reinforce the wood? The book recommends batons with sliding dovetails or pegged tenon’s in the joint, but as a relative novice a 1 piece seat seems to lessen the chance of mistakes.
I tried dowels the first time but didn’t drill my holes straight and had to scrap that attempt at a seat. The one that worked, I just glued it and clamped it.
Well looks like maybe I will take a trip to home Depot this weekend. I suppose working with less expensive materials will take some pressure off the learning process anyway. 2×8’s are cheaper than a $125 seat blank
Just my 2c, but I would go with the 2×12’s. I find straighter clearer wood when I’m searching the wider stuff. But your mileage may vary of course.
I wouldn’t get hung up on a one-board seat. Lots of surviving chair seats are made with two (or more boards). Tenons are great. Dowels work. But a simple glue joint is a fine place to start.
Thank you! I will find some narrower boards and get to work then!
I am delving into the Stick Chair book now and hav been wondering how successful one would be if they added rockers to this form. I grew up on a farm in rural northern New York State in the 1960’s and my grandmother always had a rocking chair on her porch. A couple of them had the general shape/style of a stick chair with slightly less splay/rake. Am I trying to mate a giraffe with a gibbon here or is this feasible.
The primary reason why I got (back, sorta) into woodworking a few years ago is that I want to build my own furniture, to suit the tastes of my wife and myself, to fit our home, and to a level that is good enough in my own eyes. In doing so, I also want to have fun; be challenged to expand my range of skills and knowledge; bring about full-on collusion between hands, heart and head; and have a proper reason to wallow shamelessly in my life-long love of tools.
I think is only fair to say that both our tastes in furniture are the clear products of where and when we grew up: Sweden, from the mid 1960s onwards. Swedish arts & crafts. Scandinavian mid-century modern. Swedish middle class eclecticism (something old, something new, and a fair sprinkling of Ikea). And stick chairs.
The stick chair in my mind’s eye, the essence of stick chair to me, is without much doubt Carl Malmsten’s (although there’s some controversy as to how much of that design was by one of his students) Lilla Åland, and I very much want to one day build a set of chairs in that vein; however, regular (virtual) exposure over the last few years to your chairs, and the introduction through you to the tradition out of which they come, has also made me really curious about this version of the form, so while I will probably never qualify as a chair nerd proper, I will, sooner or later, try my hand at at least one or two Welsh-American-Belgo-Swedish stick chairs too.
All your fault, Chris, for which warmest thanks!
I like the lilla aland chair. To my eye it kinda looks like the democratic chaor but without the emphasis on facets.
Bring back socks over pants.
You might think you look cool but you do not look as cool as John Brown in socks over pants.
Now if I laughed out loud at “Bring back socks over pants” that I know must make me a Stick Chair Nerd.
I think the ashtray industry took an even bigger hit than buggy whips.
Ha ha! Word. Until people start saying eff it I am smoking again. Show enough pictures of John Brown smoking and working and the industry might see a resurgence.
Yep. Attach a bit of feather boa or pink latex to a buggy whip and you open up an entirely new market…
From the first time I saw a stick chair (I’m sure it was here on the blog) I thought they were beautiful. I never really understood how people could find them ugly!
I bought The Stick Chair Book after showing my daughter and son-in-law your hobbit chairs, They are such big Tolkien fans I knew they would want one and figured the book would be a good intro for me. In one of your Hobbit chair blog posts, you mention publishing plans after you finish the book. Is that still in the works?
I need to find a way to do it without stepping on anyone’s intellectual property. I strongly suspect my chair is nowhere near a copy. But I need to talk to our lawyer. My plan was to give away the plans on the blog. But it will take me a little time.
Just call it a Metrognome Chair and you’ll be fine. I mean, you are Lord of the Bean.
Turned ashtray? Surely that can’t replace my abalone shell ashtray
Where would you suggest that the ” Anarchist Design book ” would fit in this progression ?
The Design Book is a side trip – if you would like to use your chair skills to build other stuff (and an introduction to boarded furniture). If you are into chairs alone, it’s might not be your bag. But if you want to build everything for your house…. yes.
And the ADB supplement on building a stick chair? Wondering how that fits in.
That chair is a great place to start chairmaking. Lots of people have begun there. The instruction in the book isn’t as detailed as “The Stick Chair Book,” but it certainly is enough to build that chair. Also, “The Stick Chair Book” isn’t about building one kind of chair. It’s about building hundreds of different stick chairs.
Very nice post. I would encourage the stick chair curious to buy all these books and The Anarchist Design Book as well. All of these books have something to say especially to the beginning chair maker.
For me…its not the chairs; its the attitude.Competent double bevel work of one sort or another is always an aspiration – how is a set of trestles different from a hip roof. but the feedback loop of how we understand the work as a premise to how we do the work (and how we do the work as the ground to how we understand what we are doing) is essential to all our endeavors – chairmaking or shoveling snow.
Of course, I could be wrong about the shoveling snow thing, I don’t get as much practice in Oklahoma as it seems I’d need to be sure; but I’ll stand by it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wXaXaSi16QM
It’s the sweatshirt for me. Go ‘Cats.
Low bench, 2003.
Thanks for shining a light on the stick chair form. I’m not sure when I became a chair nerd, but I know I became a Stick chair nerd when you posted about them 10/27/2011. There are lots that are odd and ugly about many of them, but also something profoundly attainable and connecting with them as well (maybe another connection with the general nerdiness of my tastes in all things)
Here’s a very simple, but lovely example of making a stick chair by John Surlis from Leitrim, Ireland, the video was part of a series called Hands covering Irish traditional crafts in the 70s and 80s. Enjoy here: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=DaFFMwz2Lt8
That is an amaxing video. Thanks for sharing it.
Pleasure Jeremy, glad you liked it! I’d also recommend the Shannon Boatbuilder episode from the series, it’s very entertaining, although less relevant in terms of chair making.
Chris – you say up above that the joinery is made with drill bits for the most part. Is the selection of sizes covered in The Stick Chair Book, that I have just ordered, or have you covered tools needed somewhere else that you can point me to?
There’s a whole chapter on tools. Mostly, you need 1/2”, 5/8” and 1” bits. And you can skip the 1” if you are going to use a tapered reamer for the legs.
Thanks. We use metric stuff on this side of the pond, but that’s no problem so long as the male and female parts match …
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