The Irish Gibson chair is a feat of ingenuity, simplicity and geometry. Its radical angles and spare construction suggest it is an odd place to sit. But everyone who has sat in one will tell you this: It is remarkably comfortable.
I first encountered Gibson chairs through my research on vernacular furniture. And I wondered the same thing. How could this chair be sittable? So I spent a year recreating a Gibson chair with the help of hundreds of photographs and a few books.
My cheap copy sat remarkably well, and it altered the gears in my head when it comes to chair geometry. Intrigued, I went to Ireland in 2019 and studied a lot of Gibson chairs, including some beautiful ones in the collection of Mark Jenkinson. Then I came home and started building lots of Gibsons, fueled by my hands-on experience with the chairs.
I made some changes to suit the way I work and the way I look at chairs. I make no claims that my chairs are “authentic” (stupid word, that). But I understand the chair and have made quite a few to earn that understanding.
This year I decided to make a video on how I build these chairs. Gibsons are quite unlike the other stick chairs I make. And I have devised novel ways to use cheap lasers to make your life easier when building them (meaning you don’t have to build a lot of complicated jigs).
Megan and I spent a lot of May 2023 filming the process, condensing it into a video that:
Will not waste your time. I dislike prattling on and on in a video. I tried to make this video 100 percent meat – no gristle.
Will show you how to build the chair and avoid common pitfalls. I have made a lot of mistakes while figuring out the Gibson. I am happy to show you my scars and detours.
Is somewhat enjoyable to watch. In our video there are cats, self-deprecating jokes, the breaking of the fourth wall and other small amusements that will, I hope, keep you awake.
Has the information you need. The video comes with all the patterns (hand-drawn by me) and cutting lists and sources so you will get up to speed quickly.
This chair is a good first chair. Yes, it’s a bit angular. But you can do it. You just have to commit.
We are releasing this 3-hour video today with the introductory price of $50. That includes all the videos and all the drawings and patterns. All free of DRM (Digital Rights Management) so you can put the video on your laptop, iPad, phone and desktop with no restrictions.
You can read more about it here and order it if you like. After June 18, the price will be $75 forever.
When I came to “A Vampire Chair,” while copy editing Issue No. 1 of The Stick Chair Journal, I side-eyed my own stick chair in my house. Without even reading the first sentence, I thought, There’s more than one?
Turns out the story in The Stick Chair Journal is about a fabled chair in Tennessee that was broken apart to murder its owner and, once repaired, begins acting odd. Although my chair was never broken apart to murder anyone, my entire family insists it’s hell-bent on trying. And I’m to blame.
In late 2004, I was an editor at Popular Woodworking Magazine, and in between copy editing, they’d throw me into woodworking classes. Given that this was almost 20 years ago, the details are a bit fuzzy, but I do remember I got married in October 2004, and soon after I returned from my honeymoon I was building a Welsh stick chair with Don Weber and several other editors at the magazine in a week-long class. I remember Chris being particularly excited about this opportunity, and I knew it was a big deal.
So I tried to soak in everything Don said. And not just about building chairs. I was going to start doing yoga every morning on a beautiful rug in a stream of sunlight! I was going to start making my own lemon curd! I even considered wearing vests.
I was also a nervous wreck. I was 25 years old, had majored in magazine journalism, and was finally getting used to rabbets being spelled with an “e.” But everyone was more than kind; I had a lot of help, and I built a stick chair.
I’m pretty sure I was behind everyone else in the class because I think Chris was done and helping me finish my chair when he told me I might want to break my edges a bit.
“No,” I said.
Why? I don’t know. I was a stupid stubborn 25-year-old. Or maybe it was because he had presented it as a choice instead of an order. Still, Chris was my boss, and to break up the awkwardness, I think I said something along the lines of, “I want it to look crisp,” as if I knew what that even meant/how Welsh stick chair edges were supposed to look/what I was even talking about.
Chris just let me be, which he always graciously does.
So I brought the chair home, which, looking at, y’all will probably criticize, but I was (quietly) proud of this chair. Crafting letters into sentences came naturally to me. Crafting wood into something sturdy and useful did not. And as young, broke newlyweds, this chair was, by far, one of the nicest, and most useful, pieces of furniture we owned. Even if it looked a little wonky.
My husband, Andy, and I painted the chair. (If you ever want to test a marriage early on, take two very different personality types, add a can of milk paint and paint a stick chair together. We are still married. I’ll leave it at that.)
Beforepainting, Andy asked if I wanted to break the edges a bit.
“Why does everyone keep asking me that?” I asked/yelled. “They look so good sharp! I want them crisp!”
I’m pretty sure I let out an exasperated sigh, as one does in your mid-20s, thinking no one understood me or my good taste.
My chair listened to my mulishness and responded in kind. It had no mercy.
It cut everyone it encountered.
Friends would come over and, looking at it, a bit perplexed, Andy would say, “Kara made that!” which was very kind and loving. And I swear the chair, in response, would magically beckon them over because the next thing I know, they would be touching it/sitting in it and then there would be blood and then I would be apologizing and getting them a Band-Aid.
But I was stubborn.
“You could still break the edges,” Andy said.
“Everyone is just sitting in it wrong,” I said.
Then we had kids.
First Sophie. Then two years later, twins, James and Owen. Once they were old enough to walk and talk, they didn’t call it The Vampire Chair. They called it The Evil Chair. Anytime they bumped into (or, as they claimed, the chair reached out and bit them), they carried on about how this chair was trying to kill them.
For a while, the Vampire/Evil Chair lived in our attic.
There are benefits to accidentally building a Vampire Chair:
1) If you ever find yourself parenting a 4-year-old and two 2-year-olds in a small home, and you are tired, and they are (always) not tired, you will eventually learn the only way you can keep them from (literally) swinging from the dining room chandelier is to put all the dining room chairs up on the dining room table when not in use. We did this for over a year. Because our kids refused to engage with my Vampire Chair, if all our dining room chairs had been Vampire Chairs, we wouldn’t have had to go to this trouble.
2) We like to have people over and especially when you’re young and broke, seating is limited. We’d bring out everything we had – the random rusty folding chair in the garage, plastic outdoor chairs, pillows on the floor for cushions. Sometimes my Vampire Chair, which had gotten a bad rap, would sit empty. This would annoy me to no end and I’d usually sit in it to gently prove a point. (No garlic, I simply had a whole move down I made so I could sit without drawing any blood.) But every once in a while a friend or family member would visit and despite a still very-present scar on their skin they would, unafraid, make way for the Vampire Chair and settle in. Respect.
3) If no one is sitting in a Vampire Chair, you always have a place to put things – your coat, your bag, the mail etc.
If I’ve learned anything since accidentally building a Vampire Chair 20-plus years ago it’s that if something you love keeps biting, it’s easy to place blame. “The edges are fine – everyone just needs to be more careful. What were you thinking, wearing shorts?” But love doesn’t have to (nor should it mean) perfection. You can love something you created and admit you made (sometimes many) mistakes.
Also, does this mean I think you should always listen to what others tell you should do?
But I do believe we’re all stupid stubborn 20-somethings and stupid stubborn 70-somethings. Real growth happens when we learn when to ignore advice and when to listen. Now in my 40s, I think that’s a lifelong thing.
(For what it’s worth, our Vampire Chair is no longer in the attic and it has stopped biting! Or, the edges have been broken finally. On flesh.)
Next week I teach a class here in building the lowback stick chair from “The Stick Chair Book” to a class of six students. Our lumberyard was low on straight-grained 8/4 red oak that was ideal for chairmaking, and I barely squeaked out enough material for six chairs.
I always build a chair during a class for two reasons. One, if a student commits a fatal error at any point, I can hand them my parts so they can continue. Also, if no disasters occur during the class, I have a chair to sell at the end of the class that can be less expensive (because I’ve already been paid for teaching the class).
But I didn’t find enough oak for me to build a chair. So I went to my cellar and pulled out a gorgeous board of old Honduran mahogany left over from my “Campaign Furniture” book.
I have a small fortune of mahogany down there, much of it from the 1950s to 1970s, that I purchased when Midwest Woodworking in Norwood, Ohio, closed its doors. Some of it is 20” wide. I love working with the stuff, and I know it will make one hell of a stick chair.
But I have misgivings about the material.
Yes, there are environmental problems with using rainforest woods. Plus, there are social ones that not everyone knows about. As someone who deals in wood every day and talks to people in many areas of the industry, I have little faith that all South American exotics are produced by free laborers.
You might be thinking: Wait, this wood was cut 50 years ago. It has done no recent environmental or labor harm. While that’s true, promoting the use of the wood by showing it here doesn’t help today’s situation. Someone might look at the chair and say: Damn. I definitely want to build my next chair out of mahogany. And so they buy some mahogany, which encourages the continued harvesting of it.
Mahogany is beautiful, beautiful stuff, so this is a logical reaction.
So I am telling you all this so you know the caveats I have with this material.
If you do want to make a stick chair using mahogany, I have a good suggestion. Buy sinker mahogany from a reputable seller such as Hearne Hardwoods. Sinker mahogany is stuff that sank in the rivers as it was being transported about 100 years ago or so. It survived underwater and has been recovered, cut and dried. It is gorgeous stuff – I’ve worked with it.
It can smell a little fishy when you cut it, but the smell dissipates quickly, and the finished piece does not smell like a tuna sandwich left out in the sun.
The Veritas Power Tenon Cutters are incredible tools. They are based on the old hollow auger tools, but they are easier to set, maintain and use. They make perfect round tenons, and you don’t have to use a drill to power them. I have used a brace, and my right hand at times, to make tenons.
The tools have a bit of a learning curve. Many people end up with tenons that are slightly off-center. Or worse, wildly off-axis.
I first started using these tenons cutters when I was in my “willow furniture phase” in about 2000, so I have thought about these tools a lot and used them a lot. The following video shows my tips for how to get the tenon centered on your stock.
If you like this sort of hard-won information, you’ll find more of it in my three chairmaking products:
For the last year I’ve been building chairs using slabs of bog oak that are 2,000 years old (according to a carbon dating test) and was harvested in Poland.
Furniture maker Andy Brownell is responsible for starting me down this path. He offered me some scraps of bog oak from one of his commission pieces. After experimenting with it and building a chair using the scraps, I was sold.
Together we bought a large chunk of a bog oak tree. It was the most I have ever spent on a single load of wood. However, don’t be freaked by that statement. Because I work almost entirely with common domestic woods that aren’t highly figured, my lumber bill has always been minimal.
This entry is about my experiences with the wood – good and bad. I’ve worked before with some older bog oak from Denmark, so I have a little perspective. But I am not an expert. Trees, like people, are individuals and are weird.
My biggest concern with the bog oak was that it wasn’t strong enough to use for a chair. This is oak that has been in a peat bog for 2,000 years and is on its way to becoming petrified. After wallowing in an anaerobic environment filled with turtle poop, is it too weak?
The good news is that the tree we bought was fast-grown oak. Some of the annular rings are 3/8” apart. Fast-grown oak is typically stronger than slow-grown oak. Also, the grain was incredibly straight, except at the butt of the tree. I have never worked with wood that is this rod-straight.
I made some sample chair-sized parts – legs, stretchers, sticks and arms. Then I propped the test pieces up on 4×4 blocks and smacked them with our lump hammer. Hard. They all survived just fine. No cracking, though they dented a little more easily than modern European oak.
Because the parts passed the test, I made some chairs using the bog oak.
The bog oak feels a bit like plowing dirt at times, instead of slicing wood. The wood requires more effort to saw, chisel and shape than modern European oak (which I have a lot of experience with). I also feel like it is more difficult to get a finished surface, but it’s not because of tear-out. It’s because the stuff is dense and resists you.
It smells quite a bit when you cut it with electric machines. And the smell it makes is: bottomland. Mud, dirt and cod poo. But it’s not awful. The worst-smelling wood I ever used was mahogany that had been sunk in the Amazon for 200 years. When you cut it, it smelled like rotten, burning fish that had been injected right into your nose.
The smell goes away quickly. And the finished pieces have zero smell (just like normal wood).
Bog oak gets darker as it percolates in the bog. I’ve worked with 4,000-year-old stuff that is almost black. This 2,000-year-old stuff has lots of variation. The wood by the bark is nearly black. The majority of the heartwood is a chocolate brown. And some parts are tan or khaki. And you see that variation all in one board from one tree.
So you have to think about color the entire time, even though the wood comes from the same damn tree. A stick from the bark part of the tree can look radically different from a stick 3″ away.
Downsides and Defects
Wood that has been under ground/water for a long time can have some faults. I find far more structural faults with bog oak than standard European oak. Some of these splits and cracks look like the result of the wood being dried. Other cracks look much older (something killed this tree and sent it into the bog).
When ripping up the stuff, you absolutely have to pay close attention to the end grain and look for splits. Most of the splits I have found are near the pith of the tree, but I have also found some out by the bark.
I reject anything with a split for structural parts (basically all my chair parts). These pieces are fine for boxes or stuff that doesn’t support a human body, but shakes and chair parts don’t go together.
The other odd quality of the wood is that it’s not good for making wedges. I made many bog oak wedges to secure the legs and sticks of the chair. It was poor wedge material. When struck on its end grain, the bog oak was mushy and split easily. (Even though it was strong when struck 90° to the end grain – weird.)
The stuff is beautiful, even with simple finishes. I use linseed oil and beeswax, and the range of color is extraordinary, from coal black to an olive green. Plus, after five or six chairs, I have found ways to use this color shift to my advantage in the design.
All in all, the stuff is worth working with. The prices I fetch for bog oak chairs make it worth the effort. However, I wouldn’t want to work with it exclusively. It is recalcitrant. And I am always happy to start saddling a chair in modern red oak or white oak after working the boggy stuff for a couple weeks.
Where to get it? There are vendors who specialize in the stuff. I don’t have experience buying from them, so do your research. Andy and I bought our bog oak from M. Bohlke, a long-time local supplier of amazing woods.