The stick chairs that I make are on the contemporary side, with lots of chamfers, sharp angles and crisp facets. But the chairs I love – the ones that take my breath away – are the old ones, especially from Wales. These chairs are worn and polished from hundreds of hands and thousands of nights in front of the fire.
The materials the chairs are made from are nothing exotic – they are built from the hedges and woods surrounding the maker.
All of these things add up to a chair that I don’t have the materials or skills (especially finishing skills) to make.
But John Porritt does. You might remember John from a 2019 blog entry when I visited him in New York. Since then, we’ve tried to arrange for him to teach a class here, which was unfortunately cancelled by the pandemic.
Recently John finished up his latest batch of chairs and had a professional photographer, Lydia Curran of Monster Machine in Chatham, NY, take some photos. I have been staring at these photos for more than a week now. The chairs are gorgeous, like nothing I have seen from any modern maker.
John is one of those rare makers who understands how these chairs should look and feel. The forms are spot-on – like something that is 200 years old. The surfaces and finishes are truly extraordinary. Though John isn’t trying to make fakes, these chairs look like the chairs I’ve seen at St Fagans National Museum of History and Tim Bowen Antiques in Ferryside, Wales.
John has invited me and Megan to his workshop to learn more about his finishing techniques. And I am eager to take him up on his offer. “One of my finishing techniques,” John writes, “maybe the most important – is belligerence.”
These chairs are extremely special. And though this might sound weird coming from a guy who sells chairs: If you are at all interested in the real deal, talk to John about buying one of his chairs. In addition to his deep knowledge of chairs from the British Isles and finishing, John restores old tools for several prominent tool dealers. He’s a delight to talk to and one of the hidden gems in the United States.
We sold out of the letterpress posters today. I did a little math, and we broke even. We might have even made $5.
I don’t like making limited-edition things. I’d like everyone who wants one of these to get one. But I also don’t want to wipe the bottoms of my future grandbabies with letterpress posters.
So here’s what I’d like to do. If you want to buy a letterpress poster of the “Family Tree of Chairs,” leave a comment below with your name and the country where you live. That will help me determine if we can afford another run of posters, and if we should make them available to our overseas vendors.
The poster would be the same price ($33) and printed via letterpress with a different ink, such as green, blue or brown.
And for those of you who purchased posters today, thank you. Your support helped fund the custom endsheets in “The Stick Chair Book.”
Our “Family Tree of Chairs” letterpress poster is now available in our store. There are only 200 available. So if you want one, don’t tarry. If these sell out, we will consider doing another run in a different ink color, such as green or brown.
Also, our next generation of woodworking pencils are also available today here. A box of five in a nicely printed box is available for $12. These pencils are made to our specifications in the USA. We have been testing different pencil configurations for months. These pencils are robust, make a good mark and sharpen easily.
Finally, some customers have asked to purchase replacement handles for our lump hammer, mostly to have a spare on hand in case the handle ever breaks. The hickory handle is a custom shape that requires both turning and handwork. It ships with oak and metal wedges for installing the head. You can read the details here.
Editor’s note: I prefer to use the earlier term “Forest chair” instead of “Windsor.” Read more here. I know it’s stupid and confusing. But sorry. I’m a spaz and a weirdo.
If you study American furniture forms, the following question might have occurred to you: Where are the American stick chairs?
It’s a valid question, and one I have thought about quite a lot. North America is filled with people who emigrated from countries and regions with long histories with this vernacular form, including Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the West Country.
And I have yet to see a verified vernacular U.S.-made chair that looks like one of the vernacular stick forms from those Anglo-Saxony places. Instead, the most common vernacular American form is a ladderback chair. Venture into any hollow in Kentucky, and you will see them on porches and around dining tables. And they are still being made there (as Andy Glenn has been investigating) and sold as everyday objects at everyday prices ($53).
These shaved (or turned) ladderback chairs came over from Europe, as Jennie Alexander and Peter Follansbee have pointed out. And the Forest chair form (what most people call a Windsor chair) obviously leapt the Atlantic and put down deep roots in the local soil. You also will see German/Moravian stick forms that were sometimes made in the U.S.
But funky Welsh, Irish or Scottish stick chairs? Not so much.
The only examples I’ve found of vernacular stick chairs in America were ones that were made in Ireland, Wales, Scotland and the West Country and later traveled here. (To be fair, I have found a few Canadian stick chairs that were likely made in Canada.)
I don’t have any answers for why this is the case. And I am not a fan of wild speculation. But I do have some thoughts and observations that have been churning around in my head for a few years. And because you don’t pay anything to read this blog, I decided to put this stuff here instead of into “The Stick Chair Book.” Here are my you-get-what-you-pay-for synapses:
I don’t think that American Forest chairs and English Forest chairs are 100-percent stylistic blood brothers. Sure, the forms are built on the same principle: driving sticks into a planked seat. But that style of construction has been around since the ancient Egyptians. The town of Windsor didn’t invent it.
You are unlikely to confuse an English Forest chair with an American one – they are that distinct. A typical English example has legs that have minimal rake and splay. The front legs are nearly vertical in many cases. A fair number of English Forest forms have a pierced backsplat. The sticks are fairly straight or have some entasis. And the seat is almost always a hardwood.
In contrast, American Forest chairs have far more radical rake and splay. (Almost like… a vernacular stick chair from Wales or Ireland.) I can tell an American chair from an English one simply by looking at the legs. Also, American Forest chairs are unlikely to have a pierced backsplat. Backsplatted Americans are out there, but they are rare. American sticks are typically thinner and also more bulbous near the seat. Americans use softer woods for the seat.
Also interesting: I see far more American comb-backs in the wild than English comb-backs (except for the very early English Forest chairs that were comb-backs). American makers and their customers loved comb-backs. (Interestingly, comb-backs are a very common vernacular stick chair form.) In England, however, comb-backs were less common. Hoop-back chairs and what we now call sack-back chairs were more common in my experience.
What does this all add up to? Not much, I admit. But when I blur my eyes and look at American Forest chairs, I see a dynamic and angular silhouette that looks like the vernacular stick chairs I love. Then my eyes focus, and I see all the turnings, carvings and ornamentation.
So for now, when someone asks me “Where are the American stick chairs?” my answer is “Just wait a minute. They’re coming.”
John Brown brought them here and named them. He was followed by Chris Williams, John Porritt and others. And this fall, I hope to do my small part to make them part of the American tradition with “The Stick Chair Book.”
Sure, we’re about 250 years behind the Forest chairs. But hey, some of us were born too late.
We will begin taking orders for the “Family Tree of Chairs” letterpress poster at noon Eastern on Wednesday, July 28. The cost is $33 plus domestic shipping. There are only 200 posters.
This 16″ x 20″ letterpress poster is gorgeous. And I do not use that word lightly. The image was drawn by Lee John Phillips based on research (and opinions) from me, George Walker, Peter Follansbee and some other history nerds. It was printed via letterpress in New York on thick cotton stock. The image will be used as the endsheets for my forthcoming “The Stick Chair Book.”
This poster is a (probably insufficient) attempt to recoup some of the expenses in making the image and printing up the book’s endsheets. In other words, we’re not trying to turn a profit with this poster – we’re just trying to make something nice that will help cover some crazy expenses for a book.
Also worth noting: I had to increase the price $3 from our earlier announcement because we are building a custom flat cardboard box for the posters. The paper is too thick (.027”) to ship in a tube.
If, by some miracle, this poster manages to break even in the end, I might consider a new edition in a different ink color. But no promises. I’ve flushed away too much money on posters in my life already.