After 20 years of studying vernacular chairs in Western cultures, I am happy to state – again and again – something that some people refuse to believe.
Chairs do not need stretchers to be strong or to last hundreds of years.
The furniture record is clear. Chairs without stretchers survive just fine. They survive for the same reasons that any chair makes it for a few hundred years. The wood selection and joinery are excellent.
You might say: People weighed less and were smaller back then. While not universally true, it doesn’t really matter because chairs without stretchers continue to be made and sat upon by well-fed Westerners today.
So why do some chairs have stretchers and some do not?
Chairs without stretchers are easier to build and easier to repair. If a leg becomes loose, re-glue it and drive in a new wedge to return the chair to sound.
Chairs with stretchers are more difficult to build and more difficult to repair. However, they can go longer between repairs. If a leg becomes loose, the stretchers will hold it in place for a good long while. You can use the chair just fine – until the stretchers come loose.
Stretchers are decorative – this is important for chairs that are sold in stores. It’s one more place to put a fancy turning or some wooden brooch below the seat.
Chairs without stretchers look odd to people who aren’t used to seeing them, which might be why we get so many comments from people when we post a photo of a stretcher-less chair (“Sitting on that chair will kill someone” is a typical comment.) The first Welsh stick chair I built in 2003 doesn’t have stretchers, and it’s still going strong. (Meanwhile my sister-in-law has burned through three sets of store-bought chairs during that same time.)
I build both kinds of chairs, it depends on my mood, the effect I am going for and the wood on hand. If I have some dead-straight 2” oak chunks for legs, I see no reason to add stretchers, unless the customer insists. But if I have some 1-5/8” walnut for legs, you can bet I’m going to add stretchers to shore up the undercarriage – both structurally and visually.
Stick Chair Merit Badge Update
In other stick chair business, we are down to 70 merit badges. And when they are gone, this little promotion is over. What the Sam Hill am I talking about? Read this. Build a chair, follow the rules (please!) and get one of the last ones.
— Christopher Schwarz
18 thoughts on “Photographic Proof: Chairs Don’t Need Stretchers”
But your badge has stretchers! 😛
I think that’s just a horizon line? 😀 That’s what I’m gonna call it.
I’m curious.. you said “I see no reason to add stretchers, unless the customer insists.” I build plenty of things (no chairs. yet.), but do you ASK if they want stretchers, or do they tell you? People, as you know, get weird sometimes. “Hey, how come there’s no stretchers?” would be bad to hear after it’s made & finished.
If I double secret probation swear I’m going to build a stick chair can I have a badge?
I’ve heard many of the same false beliefs for years. Besides the quality of the materials & construction, only the leg splay determines the need for stretchers.
I wanna barf at the idea of making a chair with stretchers. I like this message.
I’m working on it! And very excited.
Maybe I won’t make it with stretchers for my first go around… still not sure.
What will “kill someone” is those woodesque items sold at big furniture stores that pretend to be chairs. About a decade ago (before I was woodworking), we bought a kitchen table with six chairs for $1,000. Two of the chairs have collapsed under me. I forget how the legs were connected but it was such crap I refused to fix them. So, we know have four chairs for our kitchen table and two decorations that look like chairs. Can’t wait till I have time to make chairs (and a table).
Agree. One of those chairs almost fertilized me in the 1990s.
Jayzus, Chris. I can’t even imagine what that was like. I assume it was a male chair? Did it have a redder comb than the other chairs?
Try an antique store (or estate sale) — buy something old (and wooden)?
FWIW — people give Ikea a hard time — but they generally use actual wood, with “real” joinery (granted — generally dowels).
So I’ve never made a chair in my life, all my household chairs are factory made.
I still have the same chairs in my home for over 38 years now and they will last for another 38 years or more now the kids have moved out. (I recently refinished them).
I really think there might be some really good quality factory made chairs still being made today. The real trick is to own a well built chair in a style that is timeless.
There is a reason that a 200 year old chair hasn’t been thrown in the fire pit after all that time.
I’m taking next week off from work and plan to build my first chair.
I’ve been practicing on legs by making a couple small saw benches and after reading this and looking at some John Brown chairs I’m going to try the first one without stretchers.
This from “the Warts and All Workshop”
Thank you for all your guidance
Would a Moravian style chair with battens in the seat count? I have a seat that I built a couple years ago and never finished but that would be the only way I can finish a chair in time.
A long time I bought a book, Woodware, by Ake R. Nillsson, which had a nice stool I decided to make. A simple design, 4 turned legs (with very little splay) and a turned seat, 15″ dia. The craft shop (at the U. of Illinois, Chicago student center) had a nice piece of 2″ (8/4) sugar pine which I turned for the seat, and I got some maple for the legs. It looked pretty good when I finished, but the first time I sat down, it split down the middle. The piece was dry and un-checked when I turned it, and my conclusion was that sugar pine isn’t strong enough for that kind of design. (If you’re wondering, I weighed around 140# at the time.)
Further conclusion: check out your materials before you get started.
With regard to factory furniture, we’ve got a houseful of mostly factory furniture chairs inherited or purchased 50 years ago, most of it used when we bought it. I don’t know provenance, but I’m sure at least some of it is over 100 years old. Yes, there’s flimsy crap out there (a friend asked me to see if I could fix a second-hand chair she’d recently bought: turned out to be faux wood-and I could go on). But there’s also well made pieces.
For some simple chair designs to build, check out John Porrit’s book The Belligerent Finisher, sold by LAP, and some cool finishing ideas as well. No I’m not getting a kickback, I’ve got the book, it’s great
As an over fed Westerner who has only made one chair (Irish stick chair) and received a cool badge (thank you LAP), the chair will outlast me. Hopefully I will see enough light to make many more. Making the stick chair is the most difficult woodworking item I have made to date. The challenge was enticing and my woodworking skills greatly benefited.
A badge I would like to see? How about a badge for making a chair and donating the chair to Habitat for Humanity or other worthy cause?
Have you ever built a trunk for an elephant?
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