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.
The following short story was passed to me by a guy at the John C. Campbell Folk School, and it is well worth reading, especially if you are a vernacular chair nerd.
Published in the Christian Science Monitor in 1986 (the year I graduated high school), the short story “I’d Like to Make You a Chair” by Pippa Stuart begins with a couple’s home being burgled. It ends with a chair and complex thoughts about forgiveness.
As I read this story, I tried to envision the chair the Scotsman was building. I concluded that it had to be a stick chair.
With the Star-M bits and many other similar bits in short supply (in the chairmaking sizes), I had to switch back to spade bits for all my chairmaking activities.
This is not a horrible thing. In many ways I prefer the spade bits. They’re cheaper, they are easier for beginners to steer (because there are no side flutes that cut) and they are more readily available.
I’m still not a fan of the new Irwin Speedbor spades. They removed the bit’s rim cutters so now they cut slowly. Too slowly in hardwoods. Why is slow-cutting bad? They cut so slowly that they heat up and soften in no time. You can cook a bit in just a couple holes in oak.
So I’ve been looking for alternatives to recommend. The WoodOwl spades are good, as I’ve mentioned before. But they are sometimes in short supply. So I’ve been buying a lot of bits from various suppliers and testing them. Most are quite poor. They cut slowly and lose their edge quickly.
I am happy to report that the spade bits from Benchmark Abrasives are very good. The 5/8″ spade is made in the USA (I don’t know who makes it). It cuts as fast as the old Irwins and seem to hold a good edge. And the price is right: $2.59 per.
Please don’t be a Greedy Gus and order 20 or 30 bits. I get about four or five chairs out of a spade bit (when it’s treated properly).
If you’re a vernacular furniture fanatic, or you live in Tasmania, you may already know what a Jimmy Possum chair is. If you’re one of the other 7.4 billion people on earth, buckle up and read on about my journey to Jimmy Possum: an unbroken tradition.
With international borders reopened, wanderlust took my wife, Kathy, and me to the farthest reaches of Earth (for us): Tasmania. We landed in Hobart on a dark, rainy December night. After picking up our diesel 4-wheel-drive rental, we set off into the rural part of the main island. Using all my skill and every last ounce milliliter of focus, I narrowly avoided the mobs of wallabies zig-zagging through the country roads.
Chairmaking class started the next morning when Stanley, the shop dog, dragged us out of bed. Jon Grant teaches a number of American Windsor chair classes in Melbourne, but if you ever get the chance, building a chair with him at his home studio in Tassie is a one-of-a-kind experience in one of the most uniquely beautiful places on earth. Being half a world away from the States, Jon and I agreed that it would make more sense for us to build a Tasmanian chair.
The George Peddle chair came to prominence around the same time as the Jimmy Possum (“JP”) chair, but in a different part of Tasmania and for a different purpose. If you looked at the photo above and thought “Hey! That’s not a stick chair,” hold your (shave)horses, we’re almost to that part.
I learned a number of things in Jon’s studio, including (but not limited to):
1. How to turn wood 2. Tasmanian blackwood is beautiful 3. Wallaby patties are delicious 4. There’s an ongoing JP chair exhibit in Launceston.
If someone asked me what a JP chair looks like, I’d say it looks almost like the love child of an Adirondack lounge chair and an Irish stick chair. If someone asked me how to pronounce Launceston, I’d probably just embarrass myself.
If you do an internet search for “Jimmy Possum,” you’ll readily find the legend of the man himself. For the purposes of this post, it’s sufficient to know that:
1. He was not a possum or a professionally trained chairmaker 2. The JP chairmaking tradition is alive and well. In the 35 minutes I had at the exhibit before speeding to the airport, here’s what I saw.
The Legs The defining characteristic of the JP chair is the fancy leg design. The four legs suspend the seat, pass through it, and support the arms to boot. The lack of stretchers, combined with the rake, creates a lot of negative space under the chair, highlighting the smooth, shapely legs. If you’re planning to build one yourself, make sure that leg grain is straight!
The Joinery It’s not obvious at first glance, but this chair has more pins than granny’s sewing kit. Legs meet seat? Pins. Legs meet arms? Pins. Sticks meet seat? Pins. Sticks meet crest? Pins. You get the idea.
Many of the arms and crests are secured with a “belt and suspenders” approach, having both pins and wedges, but the curiosities don’t end there. A number of JP chairs sport through-tenons with just pins, no wedges. The early JP chairmakers lived in or around small farming settlements, so I suspect the chairs were built using techniques the makers knew from their trades.
The Seat Many of the seats are a single board, and a lot of them appear to be rived. These days, people rarely build chairs using green wood seats, and you can see why in the photo above. On the other hand, most of these 100-year-old leg-to-seat joints are fantastically tight from the green seat drying and shrinking around the leg.
Know Your Neighbor It may be difficult to tell from the photos, but the chairs range drastically in size. To me, this suggests that most of these chairs were made for friends, family, the maker themselves, or by commission, rather than as spec chairs. This isn’t surprising, given that the town of Deloraine (where JP chairs are believed to have originated) had a population of 836 as of the 1881 census.
All Rake, No Splay If you hate resultant angles (sorry Chris), this is the chair for you! The nature of the floor-to-arm legs prevents the chair from having any splay. If you’re having trouble visualizing it, draw a JP chair with splayed legs, then try to figure out where you’d sit.
The Similarities Despite being on the other side of the world, parts of these chairs have some similarities to historical vernacular chairs from the northern hemisphere:
• The front edge of many seats is natural, not cut, creating a bevel. • The seats are not saddled. • The arms intersect the outermost back sticks, similar to an Irish stick chair. • They were made from local timber, then (in many cases) painted green.
All coincidence? Unlikely. In 1870, just more than 40 percent of the population of Tasmania was made up of immigrants. Some were gold miners from China and mainland Australia, but the majority were from the U.K. (which at the time included all of Ireland).
I find the JP chairs beautiful, but also meaningful. They began popping up around 1870 (or perhaps a little earlier), only a few decades after colonists settled in Tasmania. Most of the early years were likely spent fighting the native Palawa people, figuring out how to eat the local plants, farming in unfamiliar soil and generally struggling to find a way of life. The early Europeans sent to Tasmania were primarily convicts, but not the murder-y kind. They were guilty of “petty crimes” like stealing bread, committing fraud or sharing political opinions. I like to think of JP chairs as a sign of life improving for the settlers – early evidence of leisure activities.
The JP chair is a form of folk art and has a healthy bit of tradition associated with it. I’ve never spoken directly with any of the families who have been making JP chairs continuously for more than 100 years, but I suspect they’d tell you not to touch a lathe. Historically, a drawknife is used to shape the Tasmanian Blackwood legs and spindles.
There’s a lot to learn from building a traditional form the “right” way, but I also have a habit of doing things my own way, so I’ve decided to build two chairs. I don’t have access to green wood, so I’ll start by setting aside a large chunk of kiln-dried ash to Galbertize*. While that’s marinating, I’ll get to work making an “Amurican” version from walnut using handplanes and a scorp. Maybe I’ll even add stretchers, like the Obnoxious Yank that I am.
If you have the chance, go check out the JP exhibit before it ends in May. If you can’t get there in time, renew that passport and go to Tasmania anyway. You’ll see, among other things, some incredibly humbling trees.
– Lewis Laskin
* Galbertization: Pete Galbert lays out a method for rehydrating kiln-dried wood to be worked with a drawknife in his “Chairmaker’s Notebook.”
Bonus Content: Before today, this next piece of knowledge was only available to those who live in or road trip through Australia. The local market price of a Bag O’ Poo ranges from $2 to $4 USD, depending on provenance (sheep, horse, or cow), size of the bag, and currency exchange rate.
This seven-stick comb-back chair was built using red oak during my most recent chairmaking class. It is being offered at a discount because of a couple small cosmetic issues (which most people will not notice).
This chair is one of my newer designs, which uses a four-piece arm (for stability) and a thin shoe, which streamlines the look by removing visual bulk from the arm. It also is one of the most comfortable chairs I make.
This chair is set up for general use. The back leans 12° off the seat, and the seat is tilted 3°, so the back leans 15° off the floor. The seat is 16-3/4″ above the floor, which is a good height for most sitters. Overall, the chair is 38-1/2″ tall and there is 19″ between the arms.
Like all my chairs, the joints are assembled with hide glue and oak wedges, so the joints are strong but can be easily repaired by future generations. The red oak is finished with a home-cooked linseed oil/wax finish that has no poisonous solvents. The finish offers low protection, but it is easy to repair by the owner with no special skills or tools.
As to the cosmetic defects: One of the tenons in the seat has a small bit of chip-out. Also, I had to ream slightly one of the mortises in the underside of the armbow. You’ll never notice this unless you turn the chair upside down. Neither of the defects affect the chair’s structure or comfort.
Purchasing the Chair
This chair is $1,200 and is being sold via a drawing. (I’m sorry but the chair cannot be shipped outside the U.S.) If you wish to buy the chair, send an email to email@example.com before 3 p.m. (Eastern) on Friday, Jan. 27. In the email please use the subject line “Red Oak Chair Sale” and include your:
First name and last name
U.S. shipping address
Daytime phone number (this is for the trucking quote only)
Shipping options: You are welcome to pick up the chair here in Covington, Ky., and also get a free yardstick and pencil. I am happy to deliver the chair personally for free within 100 miles of Cincinnati, Ohio. Or we can ship it to you via LTL. The cost varies (especially these days), but it is usually between $200 and $500.