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.
After all, isn’t this a Welsh stick chair of the kind made famous by John Brown? The guy who said there never ever should be a plan published for a Welsh chair? And who also said that people who sell plans should go out of business?
First, this is absolutely (and you know it hurts me to write an -ly adverb) not a Welsh stick chair. As I’ve written time and again, I call this form an American Welsh stick chair because it is designed for modern American woods and with details that make it as contemporary as I can manage. The “Welsh” part of its name is a nod to its origins. If you want to build a real Welsh stick chair, go to St Fagans, soak up the fantastic vibe there and get to work. Or get a good dose of it through Chris Williams’s new book “Good Work: The Chairmaking Life of John Brown.”
But still, why am I offering plans and templates?
OK, close your eyes and imagine… Wait, that’s not going to work because you have to use your eyes to read the next sentence.
OK, let’s say it’s your first ever day in music class. You’re sitting in a chair with your foreign-feeling trombone, violin or (God save my ears) a plastic recorder. The teacher then says: OK class, I’d like you each to compose a sonata in G, and please don’t forget to return to the tonic key during the recapitulation. I’ll be back at the end of the class to grade your work.
Before you can write music, it’s helpful to be able to play music.
Music class is the opportunity to learn your instrument by playing beautiful pieces composed by others. When I taught myself to play guitar about age 11, I played “Froggy Went A-Courtin” so many damn times I thought my sisters might murder me. So then I sang “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” about 60 times to torture them anew.
After learning hundreds of folk songs, standards and country tunes, I could feel their patterns in my hands as I moved them across the fretboard. I felt how suspended chords could brighten a progression. I knew so many songs composed with G, D and D chords that I also knew how odd (and wonderful) it was to encounter an A7 in a bridge. I could also spot chords that really didn’t have a name, made by people who had never formally studied music. Those were my favorites.
After a few years of playing other people’s tunes, I began to write my own. But I still continued to play other people’s songs in an effort to get inside their heads and make myself a better musician and songwriter.
So (if you are still awake at this point) this is why I offer explicit plans for this chair. If you want to become a chairmaker, it helps to learn the processes, joinery and setups while building someone else’s design. Some people do this by taking a class. Other people can’t afford that route, so plans and templates are an effective way to learn.
It is my sincerest hope that after you build a bunch of chairs that you will see the patterns and rhythms built into my designs (and the chairs of others). The language in my chairs is as straightforward as 12-bar blues. It ain’t jazz. Then, perhaps, you will be able to build chairs of your own devising.
And then maybe someday, we’ll have a world where every chair is different.
— Christopher Schwarz
P.S. We are working out the pricing on the templates that were designed and made by FirstLightWorks. We’ll have full details on them and their availability in short order. So I don’t have any more information to share just yet. Apologies.
You can now order the Lost Art Press version of “Welsh Stick Chairs” in the U.K. and Europe through Classic Hand Tools in Suffolk. Classic Hand Tools is currently taking pre-orders and will ship those out when the books arrive there (we hope in December).
We are also offering this book to our distributors world-wide, though I don’t have any information on if they have agreed to carry it.
We are especially happy that the book can now be purchased in Wales, which is where John Brown was from and where he wrote this important little book.
Tracing the provenance of individual country chairs is a complicated business, probably with few exceptions, impossible. There is no scholarly standard work to refer to. Chairs with similar characteristics are found in different parts of the country (Plate 14). They cannot, with any certainty, be regionalised. Carmarthenshire, with large areas of good farming land and a high proportion of better houses, is known for the quality and elegance of its locally-built furniture. Chairs found in the county, whilst unmistakably Welsh, have a greater sophistication than those made in the more remote parts further north (Plate 20). Dating Welsh stick chairs is very difficult. Whether these Carmarthenshire chairs were made concurrently with their more ‘folk art’ cousins from further north is difficult to say, but it looks as though they might have been. There is the possibility of another regional style. Some Welsh chairs have a wide lozenge- shaped seat, with only three or four untapered, heavier long sticks at the back. This type appears to come from the north (Plate 8, a & c).
As the standard of living improved, throughout Wales primitive furniture and chairs were made. By whom and for whom it is difficult to say. For certain, these items did not find their way into the squire’s house and they were almost entirely rural. The one thing about the chairs is that they all fulfilled the strict definition of ‘Windsor’, in that they grew from a solid wooden seat, having legs and sticks socketed into that seat. The termination of the long back sticks was normally a comb, that is a piece of wood, sometimes curved, sometimes straight, into which the tops of the sticks were mortised. Rarely, a few later chairs have a steamed bow or hoop (Plates 16 & 20). Many of the chairs terminated at the arm, that is the rear sticks did not come up to the level of shoulders or head. These arm-chairs, quite common, are the forerunner of the smoker’s bow or captain’s chair (Plate 14).
What is it that makes these chairs so attractive that now they have become highly sought after collectors’ items? Could it be some extension of the old Celtic art which makes them so appealing? – a naive folk art uncluttered by association with the contemporary urban styles. Many characteristics of the design are extremely good, and represent what we look for today in a well proportioned chair. The most obvious feature is that the legs are set well into the seat with a good rake. The English chair has the legs at the corners, and they are more upright. This is not so elegant. Stretchers to strengthen the legs were sometimes used; there seem to be no rules. When English goods and ideas reached the country village, the rural craftsman was influenced to use some design, and some of the chairs began to lose their spontaneity (Plate 16).
Rural poverty and religious bigotry have triggered much migration of Welsh people, mainly to the New World. In the 1670s, Quakers from Montgomeryshire and Meirionethshire were central to the formation of Pennsylvania. William Penn’s deputy was a Welshman called Thomas Lloyd. Later came the ‘Welsh Tract’ and, in 1786, it was claimed that there were over 900 Welsh Baptist chapels in Pennsylvania and the adjoining states. Welsh shipowners ran a continual service between Pennsylvania and Wales. From north Pembrokeshire and Cardiganshire large scale migrations took place to the Welsh Liberty settlement. Printing in the Welsh language went on in Pennsylvania into this century.
Throughout the United States, Windsor chairs are much more widely seen than in Britain. Furthermore, they are to be found in the best parlours. The class distinction does not exist there. In court-houses and banqueting rooms, hotels and country clubs, American Windsors are in all the best places. There are many unique American-designed Windsors, and the industry or craft started in Pennsylvania. This in itself would not be important were it not for the fact that in two respects American Windsor chairs are similar to Welsh stick chairs. Firstly, there are no splats in the back of either sort. The splat is peculiar to English regional chairs and Wycombe chairs. Secondly, a common feature is the rake, or splay, of the legs. A collector of American chairs, the Reverend Wallace Nutting, wrote a book on the subject in 1917. He illustrates a bow-back English Windsor chair with a pierced splat (Plate 15). Under ‘merit’ he says, “The English Windsors lack grace. Observe how stubby and shapeless the arms are. The bow is very heavy without being stronger for its purpose than a lighter one. The splat is peculiar to the English type. The legs are a very poor feature. They are too nearly vertical, and start too near the corner of the seat for strength or beauty, and their turnings are very clumsy …” The oft repeated statement that American Windsors derive from the English chair could be in error. For historical reasons, and because of similarities in design, there seems to be a more direct link between the Welsh chair and the American Windsor. Perhaps the English version is the cousin, and the Welsh chair is the father!
During his long career as a chairmaker, Chris Williams has heard stories of people filling up shipping containers of Welsh stick chairs and sending them to the United States. (You also hear stories – shudder – of people chopping them up and burning them for fuel.)
Last week, I saw another piece of evidence that the migration of Welsh stick chairs to North America was something that has really happened. As I was packing up to leave the shop at Wyatt Childs Inc. last week after a week of building French workbenches, Bo Childs drove up the shop in his white pickup truck with two stick chairs in the bed.
His father had brought them over from the U.K., and he wanted me to have a look at them.
We took the chairs over to the lawn behind his house and gave them a quick inspection. I was trying to get on the road to catch a plane to London (crazy life), so I didn’t get to document them completely. Maybe next time.
What I saw was one chair (above) that clearly is a Darvel chair, a Scottish stick chair. And based on the turnings, it’s likely one that’s earlier in their history.
For me, what was most interesting about the Darvel chair was the spindle deck. It’s slightly raised and rabbeted, like the deck on my chairs. I’ve not seen this detail on an old chair. I hope to investigate this chair a little more next time I’m in Georgia and can look for tool marks.
The other chair bears all the hallmarks of a Welsh stick chair (Chris Williams also said it looked Welsh to him). The armbow looked like it was made from a curved branch. And the seat’s shape matched the arm. The seat itself is massive and thick with a slight bevel on its underside.
Also interesting to see was that some of the mortises in the arms were blind. And when we looked under the arm it was apparent that the maker had made a few mistakes in locating these blind mortises (there was also evidence of this in the chair’s seat).
These “errors” didn’t take anything away from the appearance of the chair. I love it.
Other details I noticed on my quick investigation: The chair had an H-stretcher and was missing the middle bar of the H. Also, what is difficult to convey with these photos is how massive the components are. The legs are quite thick – much thicker than I would typically make in a chair.
As always, seeking out and encountering the “real thing” is an education that’s worth more than 1 million clicks on the internet.