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 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!
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.
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.
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.