Chairs (Surprise) at the National Museum of Ireland

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Today began with a jolt. After a long morning at the Cliffs of Moher, Lucy and I hopped in our rental car to head to Dublin. But first we had to face Corkscrew Hill.

Just as I finished the last of the hill’s switchbacks, an oncoming lorry (semi) ran us off the road and into a berm. Price: One front tyre. I changed the tyre in the spitting rain, and we limped to a repair shop to get the car sorted and inspected.

This resulted in the best “bon mot” of the trip. We ended up in a Polish tyre shop in a small village. They replaced the tyre in 15 minutes (amazing) and charged us only 65 Euros. As I paid the bill I was shivering and sopping wet – my pants and shoes caked in mud.

“You are on holiday?” the owner asked, looking out at the rain coming down. I nodded. “You are in the wrong country.”

After arriving in Dubin, we each ate a quick sandwich, and I had my first pint of Guinness in Dublin – right across the street from the brewery. Not bad. Then we trekked to the National Museum of Ireland and stormed the furniture on display, including the Irish Country Furniture Exhibit.

When I entered the room, it was like having an eye exam. The lighting was intense and marked by dark slashes, and it bewildered me. After a few seconds, the main display came into focus: 10 chairs in little backlit stalls. The good news: You could get within a few inches of all of the chairs. The bad news, the backlighting was so intense that it was difficult to see (or photograph) the objects.

All of the photos below have been heavily Photoshopped so you can see some details.

I have tons of notes on each of the chairs, but those would bore most of you. So we’ll just look at the photos for now.

After that exhibit, the museum had a good number of other vernacular chairs on display with fairly standard lighting. Those are shown below.

Tomorrow, Lucy and I head to Slane in County Meath to meet with Mark Jenkinson, who runs The Cider Mill and is a long-time chair collector. This should be the highlight of the geeky chair segment of our vacation.

— Christopher Schwarz

P.S. For those of you who think I am abusing Lucy, we are doing lots of non-woodworking stuff. Don’t believe me? I have three words for you: National Leprechaun Museum. And yes, we’re doing the “after dark” adults-only tour. Pray for me.

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And Here Come the Irish Chairs

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After years of studying Welsh chairs, my mind turned to the map. Wales has a long history that is intertwined with its neighbors – for better or for worse. Could there be similar chairs built in Scotland, Devon, Cornwall and Ireland?

The answer is, of course, yes. Faced with somewhat similar materials, geography, economy, oppression and tools, it would follow that stick chairs would be the result. After years of reading about Irish vernacular furniture, today Lucy and I plunged head first into it at the Irish Agricultural Museum on the grounds of Johnstown Castle. The museum is mostly about farm implements and transportation. But there are two areas that were captivating.

First was the exhibit on the Irish potato famine of the mid-19th century. This fungal event changed the course of history for Ireland (which lost 25 percent of its population), the United States (which absorbed many of them) and furniture, which became weirdly tied to the famine by antiques dealers. They now label anything a “famine chair” as a result. The dealers are usually wrong, but the association does raise people’s interest in the furniture.

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Second was the “Irish Country Furniture Exhibition,” a partnership between the Irish Agricultural Museum and the Irish Country Furniture Society. This exhibit features all manner of vernacular pieces from the 18th to 20th centuries. You could write a book about the fine pieces in this collection. We spent our time focused on the chairs in the exhibit.

Side note. Lucy is now on her third glass of wine. This is our first vacation alone in two decades. She reports: “I like chairs. They looked comfortable. We totally could have gotten over the wire to sit in them but we didn’t because we follow the law; hashtag respect the Irish.”

After almost two hours of examining and photographing the chairs, we headed west to Doolin to see a beautiful sunset and eat some seafood. This evening I’m poring over the hundreds of photos I took and trying to make sense of them. But it takes a while to process the overall forms and their details.

Here are a few snapshots of the chairs I liked in particular.

— Christopher Schwarz 

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A Land of Snow & Ice

Dick Proenneke, with his sled (and snowshoes).

Oct. 27, 1968: A few stars are showing. A light breeze coming up and 26°.

A day for small chores. I mixed up a batch of wood glue very thin and painted the runners on my sled. Tomorrow it will be ready to kick out the door. If I only had a pet caribou to pull it. Snow picking up – big flakes and lots of them.

“Dick’s lightweight sled is held together with 48 mortise-and-tenon joints, a few nails and his thin copper-coated electric fence wire. He put the sled to heavy use each winter, to haul firewood and occasionally meat from wildlife he found.”

This is an excerpt from “The Handcrafted Life of Dick Proenneke” by Monroe Robinson, which we are happily and fully immersed in right now. The italic portion is from Dick’s journals. The quoted portion is commentary from Monroe. — Kara Gebhart Uhl

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A Visit to Tim Bowen Antiques in Wales

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One of the unexpected treats of visiting Wales this month was getting to visit the shop of Tim Bowen, an antiques dealer in Ferryside who specializes in vernacular furniture from Wales and the rest of Britain.

If you like Welsh stick chairs, or vernacular furniture in general, Tim’s Instagram account (@tim_bowen_antiques) is a great way to keep up with the things he picks up and shows the world. Chairmaker Chris Williams, who has been friends with Tim for years, took us over and Tim pulled out some interesting chairs from his shop and his personal collection for us to examine.

My two favorite pieces were a chair from Tim’s personal collection that looks like it was made in a barn with just a few tools. The armbow has a slashing scarf joint across its back, and the whole chair looks like it was made with both urgency and skill.

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The other chair had a lovely single-piece arm and traces of early – if not original – paint.

All of the chairs Tim showed us were good enough to populate a museum gallery. And they represented a broad swath of Welsh chairmaking, from the craft at its most elemental all the way up to a chair that was almost as refined at the chairs that Chris Williams makes, with delicate decorative details.

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Tim Bowen, right, and Chris examine a Welsh chair’s details.

Plus, I got to touch the chairs. All over. Feel the flats on the stretchers and the shape of the sticks. You can’t get that at a museum (not without getting thrown out shortly afterward).

Tim spent a good couple hours with us, patiently explaining what he knew about each chair – and what he didn’t. After decades in the trade, Tim is careful about making many official declarations about the date, provenance or even species of wood in any particular piece. He’s seen too many chairs in his career.

This is our last full day in Wales – tomorrow we head to Ireland for some rest and (sorry Lucy) more chairs.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Storefront Open this Saturday

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The Lost Art Press storefront will be open this Saturday (Nov. 9, 2019) from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. This is your opportunity to talk with fellow woodworkers, ask any questions about the craft that have been bugging you and perhaps learn a new technique at the bench. Plus, there’s only this Saturday and Dec. 14 to visit before the holidays, then we won’t be open again until June 2020 (click here for more info on next year’s open days).

We’ll have our full line of Lost Art Press books (excepting “The Anarchist’s Design Book” – Christopher is working on a revised edition that will go to press soon) and we’ve a few Crucible Lump Hammers, scrapers and burnishers for sale.

At 2 p.m., I’ll give a presentation on dovetails, including a few simple “tricks” to get them nice and tight…but not too tight.

As always, there are a couple of ongoing projects in the shop for you to examine (including the ongoing project of working on the shop itself).

  • I am finishing up work on a super-sized English tool chest commission, and if all goes well this week, I’ll be fitting out the interior and/or installing a cool lock on Saturday.
  • Brendan Gaffney is working on a tour-de-force writing chair – a mahogany post-and-rung rocker with an outboard desk and drawers (really).
  • Plus we have a couple of Chris’s chairs you can check out (he’ll be on a plane, traveling back from Ireland – no doubt with a camera card full of photos of Gibson chairs).

Come for the Woodworking, Stay for the Food
And while you’re here, make time for brunch, lunch or a late lunch; here’s some great places to eat that you can walk to:

Otto’s: A fantastic brunch (you might want to make reservations just to be sure).

Coppin’s at Hotel Covington: The best eggs Benedict in town

Libby’s Southern Comfort: Crazy good fried chicken

Commonwealth: Kentucky cuisine at its finest

Tuba Backing Co: Pretzels and yummy things on pretzels – opens at 3 p.m. (It’s a new place, and open to the public right now only on Saturday afternoons/evenings…so I’ve had time to try only four offerings thus far – all delicious)

Crafts & Vines: A wine bar (they have beer and spirits, too) that we love – light bites including a cheese and meats board, house-made beef jerky, and whatever goodness is cooking on the Big Green Egg. (Maybe save this one for the early evening…so the Big Green Egg dish of the day is available.)

Also worth seeing in town:

The Cincinnati Art Museum has three new featured exhibits: “Treasures from the Spanish World,” “Women Breaking Boundaries” and “The Levee: A Photographer in the American South” along with an impressive decorative arts collection (and general admission is free).

The Contemporary Arts Center (the CAC) is also free and is currently featuring the work of Brazilian artist Sandra Cinto.

And The Cincinnati Museum Center is has reopened (following an extensive and impressive renovation). You can lose an entire day here touring the multiple museums – or just gazing around the rotunda.

And don’t forget the regulars: The Newport Aquarium, the world-class Cincinnati Zoo, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, the American Sign Museum, the Taft Museum of Art and the Cincinnati Fire Museum (to name a few).

Directions to the storefront are here.

— Megan Fitzpatrick

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The Orkney Chair at the V&A Museum

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One of the many vernacular furniture forms I’m fascinated with is the Orkney chair, which combines joined pieces of wood (sometimes driftwood) plus woven straw for the back.

The chair saw great commercial success starting in the late 19th century when David Kirkness began making them in large numbers in his workshop in the Orkney Islands, Scotland. Kirkness’s shop made upward of 14,000 chairs in his lifetime, according to the V&A exhibit.

The chairs are still made today commercially by such makers as Robert H. Towers, SCAPA Crafts and Fraser Anderson. And there is a robust market for them among antique dealers.

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I like them, particularly the hooded version, because they combine joinery with lipwork, where complete chairs would be made of woven straw.

The V&A’s furniture exhibit currently has three of Kirkness’s chairs on display and they are delightful. As always, it’s much different seeing an object in person than on a flat screen.

— Christopher Schwarz

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I Want to See the Woodworking Parts

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If I’m granted another lifetime, one of the things I’d like to do is to create audio tours of museums designed for furniture makers.

Yesterday, Lucy and I spent several hours in the British Museum, and I kept thinking: “Dang it, I don’t want to see any more sculptures of battles or boobies. Show me people working.”

If you look close, there’s a wealth of information on furniture, tools and craft in general in almost every room. You just have to look with care and at the right things. For example, instead of looking at the mummies in the display case, check out the corner joinery on the box that held the mummy. Is that a nailed butt joint or something else?

In the Greek sculpture section, you can skip the people reclining with a jug of wine and instead check out the klismos chairs (shown above). These early chairs look insanely contemporary with their curved legs and (in some images) curved backs. The design of this chair rears its head every time classicism makes a comeback in the decorative arts. During the last few thousand years, furniture makers have made the curved legs in a variety of ways – cutting them from solid, steambending and bent laminations. I wonder how the originals were made?

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Exhibits of Roman artifacts (every European town has them) always display a wealth of tools and nails. The British Museum calls out this tool as a drawknife used for making barrel staves. They could be right. I think it looks like a scorp, which could be used for hollowing out many objects, including bowls and chair seats.

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Even the religious stuff can have woodworking undertones. These small bronze bowsaws (about the side of a quarter) were left as a votive offering at early Christian churches during Roman times. I love how these slightly stylized representations of bowsaws even show which way the teeth cut.

After I finish making audio tours of all the world’s museums, then I’ll compile a book of all the best woodworking scenes in literature. And a film of all the best woodworking parts in movies.

— Christopher Schwarz

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