Introduction to Stick Chairs
Stick chairs are folk furniture that’s made by amateur woodworkers for their own use – or to sell to neighbors in their village. Unlike the formal chairs made by professional artisans (or in a factory) in the cities, stick chairs are built using local materials with simple joints and are not connected to a particular furniture style (like Queen Anne) or a period in time.
They are also dang comfortable at the dinner table or by the fireside.
Here at Lost Art Press, we are dedicated to teaching people about stick chairs. We think this furniture form is a great way for all woodworkers – regardless of skill – to learn chairmaking without a lot of specialty tools or costly equipment (such as a shavehorse, steambox or lathe).
The following is a little bit of history and information about stick chairs and how to get started building them.
What is a Stick Chair?
The term “stick chair” has been applied to lots of different kinds of furniture through the centuries, including ladderbacks, rustic willow furniture and Windsor chairs. Our definition of it is simple. A stick chair begins with a plank of wood for the seat. All the remaining parts, such as the legs, sticks and arms are connected to the seat with round – not square – joinery. Stick chairs are made with simple tools and readily available (sometimes found) materials. And finally – this is important – stick chairs are not mass-manufactured.
Where Did Stick Chairs Come From?
Most cultures have some sort of seating furniture that qualifies as a stick chair, though these folk pieces have long been nearly invisible to furniture scholars, auction houses and collectors. In the West, stick chairs appear in almost every culture, though they seem to be more common in cultures that had contact with the Vikings (793-1066 AD).
The first known image of a stick chair (above) comes from Wales, a country with a long history of making this kind of chair. The “Laws of Hywel Dda,” a Welsh book of laws from the late 12th or middle 13th century, shows a judge sitting on a chair that clearly has a plank seat with legs and uprights mortised into the seat.
Centuries later, the similar Windsor chair form (shown above) emerged in England in the early part of the 18th century, according to Robert F. Parrott’s 2010 research in Regional Furniture, Vol. XXIV. Windsor chairs share a lot in common with Windsor chairs, especially in the way their parts are joined together. But there are important differences.
Windsor chairs are typically made by professional chairmakers or in a factory – not by amateurs. Though there are “folk Windsors” out there that were made by amateurs (and could easily be called stick chairs) they are somewhat rare. Many woodworkers like to think of stick chairs as “primitive Windsors,” but that’s a disservice to stick chairs as they have their own distinct (and longer) history and design vocabulary. (You wouldn’t call a Native American a “Primitive American” would you?)
While some 20th-century historians (especially Christopher Gilbert and Victor Chinnery) paid attention to these forms, the first book dedicated to stick chairs is “Welsh Stick Chairs” by John Brown (1932-2008).
John Brown & His Stick Chairs
John Brown (aka JB) self-published “Welsh Stick Chairs” in 1990 to shine a light on the Welsh form of this chair. The book, now back in print through Lost Art Press, also inspired thousands of budding chairmakers worldwide to take up the tools and make these chairs.
The first half of “Welsh Stick Chairs” is the tale of how JB encountered the form, learned to make chairs and began researching them. The second half of the book is a pictorial essay showing JB making one of his chairs.
Like many groundbreaking books, “Welsh Stick Chairs” has its flaws. The chair that JB builds in the book isn’t really all that Welsh, as shown above (it has a steam-bent arm, for starters). And the construction information is purposely light on details. JB wanted you to have to work for it.
Despite these shortcomings, “Welsh Stick Chairs” is still a classic. JB’s fantastic writing captures exactly why these chairs are so important and wonderful. And the photos and drawings of historical chairs will begin to unlock your understanding of the form.
Also, it’s a book you can read in an afternoon that just might change the course of your life.
Lucky for us, JB showed Welshman Christopher Williams how to build these chairs. And Chris worked with JB for many years, soaking up both JB’s techniques and philosophy. After JB’s death in 2008, Chris has carried forward as a professional chairmaker, improving the construction, design and finish of the chairs he makes.
He also wrote a book about his time with JB that offers a much deeper exploration of the form (and JB himself).
Chris Williams & the Modern Welsh Stick Chair
“Good Work: The Chairmaking Life of John Brown” by Chris Williams explores the chairmaking activity of JB as experienced firsthand by Williams. The book includes the best essays that JB wrote about chairmaking for Good Woodworking magazine in the U.K. Plus it includes essays on JB written by his editor, former wife, nephew and one of his sons.
All in all, it is a faithful portrait of an amazing (and sometimes difficult) man. But it is also a deep and inspiring story of Williams’s love for the craft and this form of furniture. It is a perfect foil to “Welsh Stick Chairs” and answers many of the questions JB left unanswered.
Chairmakers will also rejoice at Williams’s far more detailed description of how he and JB made chairs for customers, including many of the improvements to the construction process. Also amazing is how far Williams has pushed the form forward by both looking back at the past and refusing to compromise on the craftsmanship.
Put together, “Welsh Stick Chairs” and “Good Work: The Chairmaking Life of John Brown” are the primary reasons anyone is even talking about or building stick chairs today.
Despite their love for making stick chairs, there is still a voice that needs to be heard – that of the old chairs.
Tim & Betsan Bowen – the Antique Experts
Another fantastic source of information and inspiration comes from the book: “The Welsh Stick Chair: A Visual Record” by Tim and Betsan Bowen. This gorgeously photographed book shows many of the details and forms of 31 old chairs.
The Bowens have studied and handled hundreds of Welsh stick chairs through their business, Tim Bowen Antiques in Wales. The Bowens are generous with their knowledge of these chairs and this small volume will kickstart your eye when it comes to chair design – what looks good and why.
One of the most important things you’ll learn about stick chairs is that they are a product of their environment. It’s difficult (if not impossible) to make one of these chairs in American wood. So what do you do if you don’t live in Wales or another country that is rife with these chairs?
Stick Chairs in America
In North America, Windsor chairs have always been more popular than the humble stick chair form. Yet there were many American builders who were inspired by John Brown and Christopher Williams and have adapted the form to American woods.
Christopher Schwarz first became entranced by the form in the late 1990s after reading John Brown’s columns in Good Woodworking magazine. He first learned to make stick chairs in 2003-2004 from David Fleming, a chairmaker in Cobden, Ontario, and Don Weber, a Welsh chairmaker who now lives in Kentucky.
From there, Schwarz developed techniques and designs that were suitable for making these chairs with American woods. The result is “The Stick Chair Book,” a massive how-to book that shows how to use kiln-dried woods and simple tools to build stick chairs. The book includes complete plans for five stick chairs. And full-size patterns for these chairs are also available.
To make this form of chair accessible to visual learners, Schwarz also produced a four-hour video on how to make these chairs titled “Build a Stick Chair.” And he has launched an annual publication “The Stick Chair Journal,” which offers more plans and construction information for builders who want to explore new designs and techniques.
John Porritt, the ‘Belligerent Finisher’
Finally, there is the book “The Belligerent Finisher” by John Porritt. Porritt, a chairmaker and furniture restorer, explains how to attain the aged and well-worn finishes found on so many old and beautiful chairs. Porritt’s methods use simple tools and processes. If you want your chairs to blend in with the antiques in your home, this book is essential reading.
Stick Chairs: How They are Made
Most woodworkers are intimidated by the idea of making a chair. The angles, the tools and the special equipment puts the craft of chairmaking out of reach for many. But making a stick chair is a far easier task. Here’s a quick look at how the parts are made using simple bench tools.
The Legs & Undercarriage: No Turnings
Unlike with Windsor chairs, you don’t need a lathe to make a stick chair. The legs and stretchers start as simple octagons that you make by hand or with a band saw. Then you handplane them to shape with a jack plane.
The jack plane can taper the legs or remove all the corners and create a leg that looks turned (from a distance, at least).
The joinery is generally simple: Straight mortises drilled with an auger, spade or Forstner bit. With tenons made by shaving the wood to shape with a plane or cutting it with an inexpensive plug/tenon cutter.
Many stick chairs have little or no saddling. So if you cannot afford an adze, scorp or travisher, you can make a very comfortable chair with a flat seat. Simply round over the front edge with a plane.
If you do want to add some shape to the seat, you can do it using only a travisher and scraper – the saddle is shallow and easy to make with only one specialty tool.
The Sticks are Shaved
With Windsor chairs, the spindles (aka the sticks) are made on a lathe or by shaving them with a drawknife at a shaving horse. Making the sticks for stick chairs is much less equipment-intensive. The sticks are shaved with a jack plane and a block plane against a simple stop in a vise. No need for a drawknife, spokeshave and shavehorse.
The mortises for the sticks are made with a simple 5/8” drill bit. The tenons can be made with a cheap plug/tenon cutter, or they can be shaved to size using a plane.
The Arm: No Bending Needed
Many Windsor chairs have steam-bent arms. Setting up a shop to do steam-bending is an investment in time, space and money. And it takes some practice (and the right wood) to do it successfully and consistently.
Stick chairs don’t generally use steam-bent components. The arms are either branches that grew in a curve (a common feature on the best Welsh chairs), or they are cut from flat, dry stock and laminated together to produce a basic kind of plywood.
These laminated arms can be graceful, beautiful and strong. And they offer lots of opportunities to personalize the chair with different hands.
The Comb: Again, No Bending
The combs for stick chairs are usually cut from solid material and shaped with saws, planes and spokeshaves. No steam box needed.
Most Windsor chairs are painted to conceal the fact that several species of wood were used in their construction. Stick chairs can be made out of one species – such as oak – and then painted or coated with a clear finish. With stick chairs the finish is your call, and any approach is correct.
No Two Chairs Alike
Most of all, stick chairs are never tiresome to build because no two should come out identical in the end. The materials on hand help guide both the construction process and the chair’s decorative details. Plus, there aren’t many well-defined forms of stick chairs like there are with Windsor chairs (sack back, continuous arm, fanback etc.).
Stick chairs have a bit of wildness to them. And every one of them should be a little different from its cousins.