One of the frustrating aspects of editing a woodworking magazine was how little unplowed ground was left to explore. Well, let me put it another way: there was little ground that we were permitted to explore.
Most woodworking magazines stick to a steady diet of the following furniture styles: Vaguely Shaker, Somewhat Arts & Crafts, Kinda Colonial, Maybe Modern and If It’s Got Nails it Must be Country. Why do magazines stick to those styles? Because every survey of magazine readers indicates those are the styles that readers love. Put another way: Why do readers love these styles? Because they are the ones shown in the woodworking press.
Several of us beat our heads against the wall every month at editorial meetings to get people to try something different. From day one I advocated for campaign furniture. David Thiel pushed for Mid-Century Modern, and John the Intern was always on about “Some Kind of Chair.”
Sometimes the overlords threw us a bone, but mostly it was: “Come up with some kind of Shaker case piece for the next issue. And not too intimidating.”
The problem was, of course, that the Shaker style has been explored by every woodworking magazine, book publisher and online personality. The best Shaker pieces have been published a thousand times. The good ones have been published several hundred times. And now we are down to Shaker Toothpicks, Birdcalls and Corn Scrapers, a Comparative Study.
My secret love was (surprise) Welsh stick chairs, but I didn’t dare suggest we explore that topic in the magazine. I did manage to get a couple articles about chairmaking published in the early 2000s, but those seemed like strokes of luck or sheer will.
Today I get to write about what I want, and if no one buys it then it’s my financial problem. So lately I’ve been writing a lot about stick chairs. Why? It’s not like my enthusiasm for them has increased lately. I’ve been stupid in love with the form for more than 20 years. Instead, the reason I have put them front and center in my work is because this is an opportunity for all of us.
Stick chairs from many cultures are waiting to be discovered. I have been building these chairs for two decades and have barely scratched the surface of what is out there. Honestly, there are hundreds of stick chair forms yet to be explored. I threw out a few dozen examples in the “Sticktionary” chapter of “The Stick Chair Book,” but there are many more that are waiting for you to study and build.
There are pieces out there that absolutely pause my heart for a couple beats because they are so beautiful. Why aren’t those examples published here or in my book? Dealers and museums are stingy with photos of these chairs. I have collected hundreds (maybe thousands) of photos during the last 20 years, but I don’t have the rights to publish them. I have signed Non-disclosure Agreements (NDAs) in order to gain access to collections of these chairs. I have swapped private photos (hush hush, chair porn) with chairmakers and collectors around the world.
I want to invite you into this world. Here’s how it works. Haunt the websites of antique dealers who specialize in vernacular furniture. Collect their images and descriptions because sometimes these photos aren’t public for long. Then observe who follows these dealers (it’s easy to do this on social media). Follow them. And so on. It’s no different than looking at the bibliography in a book then investigating the bibliographies of those books.
It might sound like hard work, but it’s not. And here’s why: These chairs are everywhere once you start looking. Literally everywhere. They turn up at auction nearly every day, but they don’t merit academic study or an exhibit at a museum. (Because they aren’t Shaker, Stickley or commissioned by some industrialist.)
You can quickly become an expert. Find a form that you love. Explore the hell out of it, breaking new ground with every new piece that you build. You can easily surpass me.
Stick chairs aren’t the only undiscovered country in furniture. But they are the one I love. Find your own favorite furniture form and make other people love the crap out of it.
That’s how we change the world.
— Christopher Schwarz
34 thoughts on “An Undiscovered String”
What I love about stick chairs is that every time I see one like this (without any cross stretchers) I think “surely that thing will flatten out like a cartoon prank once my (quite hefty) butt sits in it”. But I imagine if something has survived long enough to become an antique, it must be much stronger than it looks.
They are an education in what is possible.
I seem to remember one of your columns, when you were editor of that magazine, that you liked Welsh Stick Chairs. I had no idea what they were. Now I do. Thanks, Sir for your Persistence.
John the Intern sounds biblical.
I’ve been fortunate to have followed your meanderings from your earliest articles, and it’s been a fun ride. But lately I’ve been wondering about what other ants might be in your pants. I love the chairs, but I know other things must be burning little holes in your skull. Can you share what other deep dive might pull you (and us) in, down the road?
I wish my brain worked like that. It is actually just a big stew of ideas. Then four carrots line up and all of a sudden my eyes are open.
I know exactly what my next big book project is. But if I told you, you would shrug your shoulders and think I was stupid.
I would never.
My head pulls me in a lot of different directions. I think I’m happiest when I get to chase them all, like a cat with a bunch of mice.
The problem is when that quality of the brain works its way into the shop. DAMHIKT. Currently in my shop I am building a cabinet for my molding planes, rehabbing a wooden plow plane, building a ukulele, working with powdered metal fillers, building 400 toys for the holidays, rehabbing two split bamboo fishing rods, starting work on a new china cabinet, and learning the properties of very flexible plywood (.8mm). I really need to retire.
It’s a different story, for sure, when you need to do things to earn a living. But when it’s for knowledge, new skills, personal growth, and just plain fun, chasing butterflies is better. For me.
I’m sure not–even if it were an exhaustive study on Welsh stick birdhouses. i for one didn’t much care for stick chairs until i visited Scotland and sat in old ones in various pubs in the middle of nowhere. even then, it was more of “huh, maybe these aren’t so bad.” fast forward and your infectious enthusiasm for them has me seriously contemplating building one.
Antique dealers and eBay are such great resources. Whereas a museum site or book might have a couple photos of an item, sellers often have it from every possible angle. Even taking my own photos inside museums – glass, surrounding obstructions and poor lighting have made for less than useful results.
Auction catalogs are rich in multiple photos of an item, professionally done. I’ve lost track if they still print catalogs, or if it’s all online.
Shaker and arts and crafts – I always thought it was a style people actually thought they could build. Straight pieces of wood, just shove it thru the tablesaw. Curved wood or saddle a chair – failure coming.
I’m into stick chairs with rockers – they’re everywhere and often free being replaced with upholstered things with electric buttons.
I suppose you could do a modern Chester Cornett and build a rocking chair with 3 rockers and analog buttons going nowhere…
I know I’d sit there endlessly flipping switches and hitting buttons expecting something to happen.
I didn’t know what the dealer meant about the arms being “retipped” on the first chair until I saw the pics. Have you ever seen that repair before with the scarf joint? Looks like the seat may have suffered a similar catastrophe along the way unless it was made that way. I’d definitely like to make a lobster pot with some dramatic curves one of these days. Thanks for continuing to get the word out on this form.
You just summed up the chair version of my dream job, bibliophile (book hunter). But now I’m seeing it though the lens of furniture.
Vive la révolution de la chaise bâton!
One of the great things about the internet age (yes, that’s a cliche. I know) is that finally what some people thought were flights of fancy–anchors dragging down the bottom line–are actually worthwhile ideas in search of an audience. In the early 2000s (when I think I read your chairmaking article in which maybe you split the seat and the instructor spent time fixing it for you? My brain is old), a bunch of spindles and tenons and weird angles were a power-tool challenge only thousands of dollars and many square feet of space could “fix.” But after this long of blogs on the old PW site and this one, books dedicated to just finding something you love and making it, the audience seems obvious. It’s not obvious, it’s work to find, and not every approach (to finding and keeping that audience interested) works equally well, though it’s worthwhile to point out that what some people call dumb luck only happens to people that worked their behinds off (and how befitting that the work resulted in some super-comfy chairs)
(this is a long thank you for persisting)
Thanks for th explanation of why “your ex-magazine” has become relatively boring. I usually tear out all of the pages that don’t have something I might use in the future, and frequently few pages are saved. Sometimes a project I’ll never make, but with some technique that might be useful for some other project. Probably won’t resubscribe. Nott intended to be unkind, but merely the facts as I see them.
It doesn’t help that there may be a number of mags published, but there are only two publishers (US centric view, of course).
It depends on how you count. Woodworker’s Journal is published by Rockler. Woodcraft Magazine is owned by Woodcraft. Woodworker West is independent. And then there are the owners of FWW, PWW and Woodsmith. And don’t forget Mortise & Tenon (independent).
Don’t forget the Brits.
Scroll Saw Woodworking & Crafts magazine by Fox Chapel publishers
If you get into the specialty magazines, there are even more. But I think the OP was talking about general-interest woodworking magazines.
I’ve got to say, unless they up their game and start looking for more new ideas/insights/designs, it’s going to be more cost-effective to just buy the archive and get an example of everything at one swell foop rather than to subscribe.
Though the subscriptions do serve to remind me that I’m not spending enough time in the workshop.
If you took a photo in a museum, by what law can they prevent its publication? Surely, any copyright ran out long ago?
If you signed an NDA, then you are violating that if you publish the photos.
Typically, however, the problem is that the piece is not in a museum or on public display. So the only photos of the piece belong to the owner. Publishing their photos without permission will get you in trouble.
And most museums have a no camera policy. Regardless, no publisher will print a photo in a book without getting permission first.
Haha! I wish that last sentence were true!
Some stick chair inspiration here but with a modern twist:
Online book from bodging event featuring trade furniture designers. I really like this one!
Thanks! I had not seen that. Ordered.
Thanks for bringing this topic up. Publishing is a notoriously conservative business model. It’s easier to keep mining the same vein than to find experts who can write from other perspectives.
I took a class on mass communication last year and we covered media kits for magazines to better understand the format. When I looked at media kits for Popular Woodworking, Fine Woodworking, and Wood, the demographics are upper middle-class, white, male, homeowners with shops full of machines.
Thank you for taking us along on your journeys, Chris.
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