Chairs & Crapitalism

Editor’s note: When I write a book, I usually write about 10 chapters that get cut out because the tone is wrong or they just don’t fit into the flow of the chapters. This was written to be the final chapter of “The Stick Chair Book,” which is what I’m working on now. It’s flawed, but good enough for a blog entry.

If there is one thing we can agree on, it’s probably this: Factory-made wooden chairs are the biggest hunks of garbage on the market today. With rare exception, their parts are joined with dowels or (worse) flimsy mechanical fasteners.

These chairs are designed to fail after a certain number of uses. Then you are supposed to buy a new chair with the same limited lifespan. Furniture manufacturers don’t tell you this, of course. Who would buy a chair that was advertised to be good for 6,000 sits or 400 lap dances?

But we all know it. And somehow, we accept the fact without complaint. As soon as a wooden chair starts to sway, you better throw it to the curb lest you end up in the ER with a new stick implant. (And a new nickname.)

Here’s the other maddening thing: This is not a new problem.

I own a gorgeous Morris chair made by the Shop of the Crafters, circa 1905. It’s made from thick quartersawn oak and looks to be built like a tank. The truth, however, is that the chair is a piece of crap. After I owned it for six years, its base became loose. I decided to take it apart and reglue the mortise-and-tenon joints with hide glue. Do the job properly.

I injected a little alcohol into the joints and the whole thing popped apart. It was completely joined with dowels. Dowels. And not that many dowels. I have no idea how the thing survived as long as it did.

The Arts & Crafts movement was supposed to be a reaction to this shoddy type of joinery. It was supposed to embrace the mortise-and-tenon joint and solid construction principles.

I guess every movement has its charlatans.

What can we do about this problem? Burn down the chair factories? Petition Congress to ban dowel joinery? Nah. Screw that. Instead, let’s learn to make our own damn chairs and make them so they’ll last forever.

In many ways, we are in the same situation as the people who made stick chairs in the 18th and 19th centuries. Back then, well-built chairs that were made by a professional were far too expensive for a farmer or day-laborer to own. In other words, good chairs were unobtainable.

So, the solution was to make chairs for yourself. With the tools you had on the farm and the wood around you.

There isn’t much written about these amateur chairmakers. Most of the academic research on old furniture is focused on high-style pieces made for the wealthy. And when the research does mention vernacular work, the broad assumption is that these farmers were imitating the high styles from the cities. But because vernacular makers didn’t have the skills to copy the high styles, they produced simple items that were shadows of Windsor chairs, highboys or secretaries.

These assumptions and declarations always piss me off. While we don’t have a written history of stick chairs, we do have a wooden one. And it is writ clear.

Thanks to a few furniture historians and open-minded museums, we still have collections of the old chairs that weren’t burnt for heat when the farmers could finally afford tubular steel chairs with plastic cushions. And if you spend some time with these chairs, you will see that these makers spoke their own language.

Stick chairs are their own weird and wonderful thing. Most of the forms have no analog to high-style pieces. None. They have unusual forms. Unexpected shapes. And a lot of knots, bark and splits.

If you are reading this, there’s a chance that you already appreciate stick chairs. So, this next section is on how to educate (pronounced “placate”) your family.

When people encounter stick chairs for the first time, they are usually repulsed or confused by them. They don’t look like any sort of chair they’ve encountered – ever. Stick chairs aren’t something you see on television, in furniture stores or in magazines about interior design.

It’s like visiting a foreign country where they eat raw fish for breakfast. It takes some getting used to.

When I first started making three-legged stick chairs, no one in my family or circle of friends would sit in them. It was like having a live tiger at the dinner table. The three-legged chair seemed a wild and unpredictable thing. You could be thrown to the floor at a moment’s notice.

After a few months with no injuries, however, the three-legged chairs became part of the normal dinnerscape. And when I gave my last one away to a family member, our kids howled in protest.

The best way to make the people around you appreciate (or even accept) stick chairs is to build some and put them in your home.

Well, that’s what I did.

Every stick chair around our dinner table is unique. They aren’t a matched set. They’re made from different woods. Some are painted and some aren’t. They all have different forms – tall comb backs, medium-size comb backs, a backstool with arms, and lowbacks. None of the chairs looks more important than the other.

All of them are scratched, stained and dented from almost 20 years of daily use, thanks to thousands of meals, homework sessions, family budget talks and late-night games of Uno. And while I feel sorry for the chairs at times, I sometimes I wonder if the chairs have also affected my family.

When my daughters were ages 4 and 9, I built them each a stick chair that was based on chairs in the background of the film “The Fellowship of the Ring.” We are a nerdy J.R.R. Tolkien family.

These chairs were made roughly and quickly. I was working full-time as an editor and didn’t have time to fuss over a couple chairs. We needed them for the girls, and I built them in a week or so. Even though they are the ugliest chairs I’ve made (yet), the chairs were built to last using all the principles that I now use to build chairs for customers. And they are pretty comfortable.

When our oldest daughter left for college seven years ago, she packed up her car. Then she plucked her “hobbit chair” from the dining table and put it in among her other things.

I wasn’t expecting that.

The chair followed her from Ohio to Connecticut to Pennsylvania. She eats dinner in it every night. It is her chair, and no one else’s. Her younger sister has the same plan for her red hobbit chair.

When I made those ugly red chairs, I had no preconceptions that they would become personal totems. Now I know better. It’s highly unlikely that anyone would claim this-is-mine-because-I-sat-in-it-for-decades rights from a matched set of dining chairs from Pottery Barn. But stick chairs, like three-legged stray cats, tend to imprint on you.

That might be because chairs are a reflection of us – more so than any other kind of furniture. They have many of the same parts that we do ­– legs, seat, arms, backs and hands. And they cradle us – like a never-tiring skeleton – after a long day in the world.

You can abuse them, and they won’t go away. They get better looking with age. And if made well, they will never leave you.

I can’t think of a better way to tell my family that I love them.

— Christopher Schwarz

Editor’s note: When I write a book, I usually write about 10 chapters that get cut out because the tone is wrong or they just don’t fit into the flow of the chapters. This was written to be the final chapter of “The Stick Chair Book,” which is what I’m working on now. It’s flawed,…Read MoreGuerrilla ChairmakingLost Art PressRead More

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