I’ve seen a blurry photograph of a detail of Chester Cornett’s chairmaking workbench and read Michael Owen Jones’s description of the bench in “The Craftsman of the Cumberlands.” At the time I thought: That sounds like a Roman-style workbench.
And yesterday I found out that I was correct.
Brendan Gaffney and I visited the storeroom of the Mathers Museum of World Culture in Bloomington, Ind., to view artifacts related to Cornett. And we got more than we bargained for. In addition to some of Cornett’s traditional chairs and rockers, the Mathers also had Cornett’s incredible “bookcase rocker” (more on that from Brendan in a future entry), a chair made by Cornett’s grandfather, Cornett’s worn-down Pexto drawknife, his worn-out dumbhead shavehorse and his workbench.
Located on the top rack in the storeroom, the workbench is a segment of a log with four staked legs. The workholding consists of three pegs that Chester could wedge his work between – exactly as described by M. Hulot in his 18th-century book on turning and chairmaking.
I’m pretty sure that Cornett didn’t read Hulot. So it is an amazing thing to see this low Roman-style workbench made by a 20th century woodworker who lived in the wilds of Eastern Kentucky. Did he come up with the idea for the bench himself? Was it something he learned from his family members who also were chairmakers?
The bench is 11” wide at the top and the benchtop is 10” from the ground. The log segment is 4” thick at its thickest point and about 62” long. The four legs are about 1” to 1-1/4” thick and wide x 8” long (minus their tenons).
So this is just another data point showing that low workbenches, as described in “Ingenious Mechanicks,” haven’t disappeared.
Today Brendan Gaffney and I got a rare up-close look at one of Chester Cornett’s rockers during a preview for an antiques auction in Cincinnati.
The walnut rocking chair was one of Cornett’s later pieces. And after a close examination, Brendan and I suspect that the rocker was made during Cornett’s brief embrace of power tools.
The biography of Cornett, “Craftsman of the Cumberlands,” discusses a brief period of Cornett’s career when he purchased a table saw, drill press and router (among other machines) to speed his production of chairs as he became more well known.
It did not go well.
Though Cornett was skilled with hand tools, machines made him nervous, and the book recounts several serious injuries Cornett suffered while using them. The book also documents Cornett attempting to use a router to make the incised lines on the posts and rungs of his rockers.
Brendan and I suspect this rocker exhibits these routed details.
The V-shaped incisions were curved, irregular and even had chatter marks upon close inspection. Some of the incisions looked OK. Others looked like Cornett was having a heck of a time using the router freehand on a narrow octagonal post.
These wandering incisions looked nothing like the crisp incisions on other Cornett chairs we’ve inspected.
Part of me thought: Perhaps this is just one of Cornett’s lesser works. But that ignored all the fantastic handwork on the chair, from the shaped arms to the finials. Ah, the finials.
At the top of the posts are two gorgeous pieces of handwork – tapered and octagonal finials that are just perfect in every way. Crisp, evenly faceted and perfectly symmetrical – something no router would be capable of making. But they are doable with a drawknife.
So the piece, while still extraordinary, made me a little sad. The routed details reflected a man who was clearly uncomfortable with his electric tools, yet struggling mightily to control them. The mistakes didn’t ruin the piece, but they did lessen it.
For many years, I have been an undying fan of the work of Chester Cornett (1913-1981), a traditional Eastern Kentucky chairmaker who crossed over to become an artist who lived out his last years in Cincinnati, just a few miles from where I am right now.
Cornett’s story is long, tragic and documented in the book “Craftsman of the Cumberlands” (University Press of Kentucky) by Michael Owen Jones. My personal copy of the book is dog-eared and always within grasp.
For years I’ve known that the Kentucky Folk Art Center in Morehead, Ky., had some of Cornett’s work, which it acquired for an exhibition and its permanent collection. But despite my long love of folk art and woodworking, I’d never made it down to the Folk Art Center until Wednesday.
It was a bittersweet journey.
Kentucky’s state budget is in turmoil. And though I try to steer clear of politics, I am deeply saddened and angered at our governor’s proposed budget cuts, which would shutter both the Kentucky Folk Art Center and the University Press of Kentucky, which published the book on Cornett. (And has a 75-year history of publishing fantastic books about the Commonwealth.)
If you dislike funding for cultural institutions, don’t bother leaving a comment. I don’t want to hear it. We’re talking about pennies.
Anyway, we arrived at the Kentucky Folk Art Center on Wednesday and spent a couple hours with the director, Matt Collingsworth. We arrived unannounced and unheralded. But Collingsworth enthusiastically gave us full access to all the pieces and all the paperwork the museum owns on Cornett – including the only known drawings and descriptions Cornett made of his pieces.
Side note: Some of you know that I have been collecting folk art/outsider art for as long as I have been a woodworker. My home is full of it. The Kentucky Folk Art Center is – hands down – the best folk art museum I’ve ever visited. (Yes, I spent a day at the American Folk Art Museum in New York. I went to the Garden of Earthly Delights in Georgia while Howard Finster was still alive. I’ve been to every folk art museum in every town I’ve ever visited.)
In fact, when I arrived home on Wednesday night I spent the next hour showing my family all the photos from my trip, and I cannot wait to take them there as soon as possible.
OK, back to the woodworking.
The Kentucky Folk Art Center has three of Cornett’s pieces on display: an early side chair that resembles a heavier version of Jennie Alexander’s chair from “Make a Chair from a Tree” (Taunton). There’s a standard rocking chair that looked to be a “sample” chair because the slats were scrawled with Cornett’s sales pitch on the slats.
And there was one of Cornett’s “chair-and-a-half” rockers in walnut, ash and hickory bark. This chair, which Cornett also called his “fat man’s rocker,” was stunning. Octagonal seat. Four rockers. An astounding amount of drawknife work. Pictures do not do the piece justice.
Brendan Gaffney and I were stunned by it. Brendan took lots of measurements and vowed to produce a version of it. I tried to capture its essence in photos (and failed).
We also got to see one of Cornett’s tables, which is eight-sided and has octagonal legs with a most unusual taper. And the table broke down into two pieces.
As I made the drive back home up the AA highway, my head spun with the joy of seeing Cornett’s pieces (and getting to sit in one of his rockers) and the foreboding feeling that I wasn’t going to be able to make many more of these visits in the future.
If you have a free weekend, please make the trip to the Kentucky Folk Art Center, which is deep in the hills of Eastern Kentucky, before the axe falls. And know that we’ll do our best to keep writing about Chester Cornett and his unusual and incredibly well-made chairs.
Eastern Kentucky is the most beautiful part of the state – and the most poor. Ravaged first by the lumber industry and then coal mining, the land and its people are surprisingly resilient. When visitors come to Kentucky and want to understand the state, I drive them east into the mountains.
It’s also an area rich with a cultural heritage in art, music and furniture making. And for the last 50 years, Appalshop has been recording all aspects of the culture with fascinating short films.
During the pandemic, Appalshop has made all of its videos on its streaming platform free to rent. This is a remarkable chance to browse and watch the organization’s films from the 1970s to the present day.
You can see all the videos available here. To rent them for free, click the “apply promo code” link at checkout and enter: watchparty.
Of special interest to woodworkers: Watch “Hand Carved,” the fantastic film about chairmaker Chester Cornett. Also, check out “Chairmaker,” a film about Dewey Thompson and his rocking chairs. There are also films about quilting, bluegrass, coal mining, hip hop in the mountains, and civil rights.
If you find films you like, they are inexpensive to purchase, usually about $5. And it helps support a great organization.