If you or a woodworking friend are wondering what the heck a stick chair is, we’ve made a page that is a quick but complete introduction to the form. It also explains how all our stick chair products relate to the form. So you can better decide if you should go Old School (“Welsh Stick Chairs” by John Brown) or American (“The Stick Chair Book“) or historical (“The Welsh Stick Chair: A Visual Guide“). So yes, the page is a bit commercial. Selling books keeps the lights on here at the blog.
The following is included in Volume 1 of “The Stick Chair Journal,” an annual publication to expand the universe of all things stick chair: More history. More plans. More techniques. Reviews of tools. And Big Thoughts. (Important note: We have printed 4,000 copies of the Journal. Once that press run has been exhausted, we will not reprint this issue.)
We thought “A Vampire Chair” would be a perfect accompaniment to this spooky season.
Handmade sitting chairs have long been a staple of the antique and crafts business in rural, wooded communities. When Allen Eaton published “Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands” in 1937, there were several noted chair makers in eastern Tennessee. Mary Ownby, of Gatlinburg, was a highlight of Eaton’s book. She crafted her chairs from beginning to end. Mary’s first step in making a chair was finding the right tree, which she cut herself. She then split the wood and turned the posts. Mary made her own chisels. And, like other chairmakers, she bragged that she had made her first chair with a pocketknife.
Other well-respected chair crafters in the 1930s were Ebb Bowman, hard at work in Creeneville, and Noah McCarter in Sevierville. Along with those produced by Mary Ownby, Bowman and McCarter chairs are highly prized by today’s collectors.
Long before the craftsmen (Ed: and women) of the 1930s began to put together chairs, other southern chairmakers had adapted the standard slat-back chair into an item distinct from manufactured Hitchcock chairs. The rear posts were shaved down and curved backward. The result was a seat that folks now call a mule-ear chair. It is similar to the type made in the early 1800s. Sometimes there were two slats across the back, sometimes three.
But the most famous handcrafted sitting chair made in the region hasn’t been located recently. When it is found, you don’t want to be the one sitting in it. The chair is cursed in a peculiar way and is apt to draw blood.
A true antique, the so-called Vampire Chair of East Tennessee was made by brothers named Eli and Jacob Odom up in the high mountains of Carter County near Shell Creek. The brothers seem to be of no relation to Solomon W. Odom, a highly regarded former chairmaker in the same area.
Eli and Jacob Odom came to Shell Creek in 1806, it is believed, and began making chairs that they traded for salt, sugar, meat and coffee. The brothers knew that a chair was only as good as its joints, and they had a secret for making perfect joints. They carefully fitted seasoned hickory rounds into green maple posts. The green wood shrunk over the rounds as it dried, holding them tightly into place. Old wood into new, that was all there was to it.
The brothers’ chairs became famous because they held together so well. Hundreds of chairs were made and traded. By the 1840s, the chairs Eli and Jacob made were being carried down the mountain and taken into stores where they were sold for hefty profit. Resort hotels lined their long front porches with the mule-ear chairs from Shell Creek.
Wagonloads of the chairs were eventually driven south and the slat-back seats of Carter County found their way into the finer homes of Chattanooga.
Through normal trade, a pair of chairs made their way into the domicile of a woman who lived alone in a little cabin high above the Hiwassee River near Charleston, Tennessee. This woman was nobody’s sweet little old lady. The woman who lived high on a cliff above the river was a vampire.
There is no record of her exploits, nor of the reasons her neighbors held for killing her. All that is known is how she died and where she was buried.
In 1917, a county crew was widening the upper road on the river bluff just outside Charleston. Not far from Oostanaula Creek, they unearthed the body of an adult woman who had been buried long before. She’d been buried, apparently, in the middle of the road. The body, according to the late Frank G. Trewhitt, was wholly petrified by the high level of minerals in the ground water there.
Also petrified was the wooden stake that had been driven through the woman’s heart prior to her body being buried in the road.
“The land on which the body was found was once the property of my great grandfather, and it was passed to his sons,” Mr. Trewhitt wrote in an article published in the Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin. “If they had ever heard of any vampire stories hereabouts, I would have been told.”
It was once tradition to refuse sanctified burials to known murderers, witches and other perceived villains of society. Scoundrels and witches were at times buried at crossroads, so that their eternal rest would be anything but peaceful. It was the practice to bury evil persons where foot, horse and wagon traffic would create a continual clamor overhead.
Traffic would also keep the dirt above the grave tightly packed down. This is important, particularly with vampires and witches. Such evildoers might be able to return from the dead and escape their coffins by tooth and fingernail, clawing their way to the surface to seek revenge.
As an additional measure of safety, these ghouls, once executed, were buried face down. Should they wake from death interred and seek to dig themselves from under the earth, they would dig in the wrong direction. They would only dig themselves more deeply into the earth.
The piece of wood through the dust-dry heart of the mummified corpse of Bradley County’s lady vampire wasn’t any old piece of wood. It was a cradle-lathed post, a bottom leg support, from one of the chairs that had been in the woman’s cabin on the ridge. The chair had been crafted by brothers Eli and Jacob from Shell Creek.
Soon after her murder and burial, the woman’s furniture and other worthwhile belongings were carried from her home by those who desired them. The house fell to ruin. Nobody would live there.
It wasn’t long until the Eli and Jacob chair, its round expertly replaced, found its way into a prompt series of trades among the citizens of Bradley County. No one wanted to keep that chair. After a few years, it ended up at one of the hotels. Someone, who was afraid to throw away or light fire to it, left it on the hotel’s porch at the end of a line of similarly made chairs.
Legend says the chair sits as comfortably as any, with a finely woven seat of hickory splits. Well, at first. Then it becomes very uncomfortable for the person who sits in the chair.
Nothing is seen, but plenty is felt. The occupant is held fast for a time, against one’s will, until a scratch appears on a forearm or bare leg, and blood drips to the floor. Only after a drop of blood stains the floor or the ground under the chair, is the occupant capable of fleeing from the chair.
Those familiar with the blood-drawing qualities of this individual chair were afraid to destroy it, beat it to pieces with hammers, or catch it on fire, lest they be cursed in a manner much worse than a drop of blood hitting the floor. So they passed it along.
The Eli and Jacob Odom handcrafted slat-back chair haunts eastern Tennessee still. Reports have placed it in any number of antique stores over the years. Others have sworn it was once on the creaky front porch of a bed-and-breakfast in Gatlinburg, on the college campus at Tusculum, and at a garage sale in Kingsport. Truth is the Vampire Chair of East Tennessee could turn up just about anywhere. The hope remains that it doesn’t turn up perched under you.
One of the most common questions I get is why I don’t use Forstner bits much in chairmaking. The bits are readily available, make flat-bottomed holes and cut cleanly.
The answer is basically this: The Forstner’s lead point is too short*. That means if I want to drill anything other than a shallow angle I need to start the bit nearly vertical then tilt my drill to get to the desired angle. It’s do-able, but it’s easy to over- or under-shoot things.
So most of the bits I use in chairmaking have a long lead point. This long lead point allows me to tilt the bit to the right angle, lock my elbows then drill. Here are the three bits I use the most, with their advantages and disadvantages.
Star-M F-Type Bit, 16mm, by WoodOwl
This is my favorite bit, but good luck finding it. Most reliable sources are regularly sold out. This bit can handle just about any common chairmaking angle. I can tilt up to 30° off vertical if I make a small starter divot with an awl for the bit’s point.
Other advantages: It cuts clean holes without any splintering on the exit side. This makes drilling through the arm and seat a quick and painless operation.
Disadvantages: The side flutes are sharp. So if you move your drill sideways while boring, you will end up with an overly oval hole. The solution is to practice (sanding down the flutes doesn’t seem to help much).
The bit is metric and drills a 0.629”-diameter hole. So you’ll need to adjust your tenon-cutter to get a snug fit.
Finally, the bit seems to dull faster than my other WoodOwl bits. This is a problem with the other two bits discussed below. I get about five chairs out of one of these bits, and I haven’t found a way to sharpen them (yet).
WoodOwl OverDrive Bit, 5/8”
This bit is much easier to find than the Star-M. So keep searching. Lots of little suppliers have them in stock. The bit makes a true 5/8” hole (0.625”). And it also leaves a clean exit hole.
So what’s the catch? The lead tip isn’t long, so you are limited in the chair angles you can bore. I can easily bore 11° off vertical. And 14° when I am pushing things (and if I make a small starter divot with an awl for the bit’s point). That range of angles will get you through most dining chairs without too much trouble.
Like the Star-M’s, the side flutes are sharp – so practice makes round. And the bit doesn’t last as long as its big auger cousins from WoodOwl, which seem to last forever.
WoodOwl 5/8” Spade Bit
Really, any spade bit will do. The WoodOwl just happens to come sharper than most cheap bits. Another good option is to look for vintage (meaning ye olde 2020) Irwin bits that have the rim cutters. Other people have had luck with Milwaukee and Makita bits. Basically, look for spades that look like the WoodOwls. The bit needs two rim cutters (the little cat ears). The bit’s faces need to be surface ground (otherwise the bit will fail to bore gouda). And the lead point should *not* be a screw. These lead-screw spades are a sin against the Chair Gods.
Spades can handle almost any angle – up to 34° off vertical with ease. They can be resharpened. You can adjust their diameter on a grinder in seconds. They are cheap and plentiful. And they don’t have the side-cutting problems that the two above bits do.
But they blow out the backside like an American tourist after 10 currywursts. So you need to clamp backing blocks below the arm and seat when you make through-mortises.
— Christopher Schwarz
*There are Forstners out there that have a long lead point – usually a replaceable brad-point bit. But they are hard to find. And expensive when you do.
When you drill a hole with a 5/8” bit, then use a 5/8” tenon cutter to make the tenon, you should be golden…right?
Nope – unless you get lucky.
If you dare enter the fascinating world of boring you will quickly realize this truth: It is up to you to get your drill bits and tenon cutters to work together. You cannot trust the measurements stamped on the tool.
A quick example: a 5/8” WoodOwl spade bit and a 5/8” plug/tenon cutter from Lee Valley are not compatible. The tenon will drop into the mortise like throwing a hot dog down a hallway. It’s not a good joint.
There is no way I can cover all the bits and tenon cutters out there. But here is the methodology I use to get my mortises and tenons nice and tight.
Suggestion No. 1: Ignore the Official Measurements & Make Samples
A WoodOwl 5/8” spade bit and a WoodOwl 5/8” OverDrive bit make different-size holes. Because of its cutting geometry, the 5/8” spade bit cuts a hole that is .010” oversized. And that difference is enough to ruin a joint.
So when I get a new bit, I drill holes in oak, cherry and whatever species I have sitting around. Then I measure the holes and test them against the tenons I am making.
Suggestion No. 2: Ensure One Tool of the Pair is Adjustable
I can pair my Veritas 5/8” Power Tenon cutter with almost any 5/8” or 16mm bit because it’s adjustable. So usually I lean on that tool to make fine adjustments to the bits I have in my shop. I can pair it with my WoodOwl 5/8” spade by retracting the cutter of the tenon cutter. Or I can match it with my 5/8” OverDrive bit by advancing the tool’s cutter.
And that’s when you should definitely turn to spade bits. You can easily grind spade bits to match your tenon cutter. It takes seconds to do it, and you can sneak up on the right fit.
Suggestion No. 3: Go for a Snug Fit – at First
I am obsessive about the fit of my joints. Perhaps overly so. If you are like me, here’s how to go overboard. I adjust my tooling so that the tenon is a bit oversized and will not enter the mortise with hand pressure (usually .005” oversized or a little more). Then I use soft-jaw pliers to compress the tenons so they slip in to the mortise easily with almost no pressure.
This process makes assembly easier – the tenons slide right in. And the joinery is sound. The wet glue expands the tenons and locks the joint.
Suggestion No. 4: Use Tape
Once I have matched a tenon cutter and a drill bit, I wrap them each with a piece of brightly colored tape. This prevents me from making a terrible mistake.