A Community Together

The following is based on an article originally published in issue 276 of Furniture & Cabinetmaking. Richard Arnold has just annonced that this year’s open house event will be taking place on 8 June – I will be there (with Dr Moss and the Apprentice). Hopefully I will see some of you there!

Every summer in the ancient market town of Market Harborough, Leicestershire, celebrated joiner and furniture maker Richard Arnold holds an open house event. The format is very simple. At the open house, Richard and plane maker Ollie Sparks (whose workshop is a few doors down from Richard’s) open their doors and welcome the public as well as likeminded makers and retailers. A charity auction of tools offers the opportunity to add some interesting pieces to your tool collection while supporting a good cause. The end result is a convivial and relaxed day of friends and makers coming together to talk woodwork and browse the treasure trove of Richard’s antique plane collection, as well as the wonders of Ollie Sparks’ workshop, all while fund raising for Macmillan Cancer Support.

_DPP5630

As well as a collector of vintage planes, Richard also makes some very nice wooden planes of his own

From humble beginnings

As a keen collector of eighteenth-century wooden planes, Richard found that he was buying large lots at auction just to acquire a specific plane within the lot. As a result, he was building up a large inventory of surplus planes which didn’t fit within his collection. Instead of trying to sell the planes on, he decided to open his workshop for a day and let people pick through the unwanted planes in return for donations to charity. Macmillan was identified as the charity of choice from the beginning, and so began an annual tradition.

_DPP5612

Vintage shoulder planes as far as the eye can see

Over the years, the open house has grown in scope. As word seeped out that something very special was happening, the event rapidly became a highlight of the woodworking calendar as makers benefitted both from Richard’s knowledge of historic tools and from the strong sense of community engendered at the open house.

_DPP5635

I’ve never seen so many vintage planes in one place as I have at Richard’s workshop

The workshops

I first heard about the open house back in 2016 when Richard Maguire mentioned it on his blog (www.theenglishwoodworker.com), and my interest was piqued. Events had conspired against my several on several years, but this year on 9th June I finally made the journey to picturesque Market Harborough.  Enduring the predictable M6 gridlock was well worth it – both Richard and Ollie’s workshops were buzzing with plenty of familiar faces and animated discussion of woodwork, tools, and historic trades. Joining Richard and Ollie were Skelton Saws, Classic Hand Tools, Bill Carter, and Mac Timbers (who I am happy to report are once again back in business after previously closing down in 2015).

_DPP5659

Mitre plane by Bill Carter

Entering Richard’s workshop, I was greeted with a stunning collection of vintage planes, including many 18th century wooden planes. Not only does Richard collect vintage planes, but he also makes beautiful reproductions of some of them, and seeing modern and vintage versions of the same tool side by side is a wonderful experience. When I was able to tear myself away from Richard’s tool collection (a feat which took real determination), I found plane maker Bill Carter and many of his beautiful planes, including several made from the brass backs of vintage saws: a signature style of Bill’s. As an added bonus, on display this year was a Welsh Stick chair made in 1992 by celebrated chairmaker John Brown.

_DPP5616

Welsh Stick Chair by John Brown

If Richard’s workshop is a study in wooden planes and vintage ephemera, then Ollie Sparks’ workshop is the work of a genius mad scientist. As well as a display of many of his completed planes, Ollie also had prototypes on display as well as his design and sketch books. One particular highlight was Ollie’s new Kimberly Patent Plane, which features a patinated phosphor bronze escapement fitted to a Macassar ebony body. As well answering questions on tool making and hand planes, Ollie also demonstrated his metal casting techniques.  If that wasn’t enough, Skelton Saws were also set up in Ollie’s workshop. It is always a pleasure to see Shane and Jacqui Skelton, and marvel at the beautiful saws Shane makes. The open house was no exception, especially as Shane had examples of his new Mallard saw (named after the Mallard steam locomotive, which had a significant influence on the appearance of the saw) and reproductions of some of the saws from the Seaton Tool Chest.

_DPP5653

The new Mallard in flamed beech, by Skelton Saws

The Auction

The auction this year extended to 37 lots comprising a wondrous variety of tools (both vintage and modern), classes, books, and timber, all donated by supporters and tool makers. The generosity displayed by the donated auction lots, and the level of bids made in the auction, really emphasised the strength of community and also showed the profile of the open house – as well as bids from attendees, supporters from across the globe were also allowed to submit bids electronically. Some of the highlights of the auction included tools by highly sought-after boutique makers including Ollie Sparks, Philly Planes, Skelton Saws, Bill Carter and Jeremiah Wilding, along with classes with the London School of Furniture Making, and Derek Jones. The auction was presided over by the inimitable Jim Hendricks, whose fledgling tool museum in Kent is gaining a lot of attention (stay tuned for news of the grand opening in the hopefully not too distant future!).

 

_DPP5610

The auction table

The Community

The auction, and seeing the workshops, was wonderful. But what made the open house a truly special event was the sense of community. Catching up with many friends from previous classes and events, and becoming acquainted with like-minded woodworkers, can be a challenge in what can be a solitary trade or hobby. Events like the open house offer an important reminder of why it’s so vital to make time to connections with the wider maker community. I left Richard’s workshop feeling invigorated and inspired as much by conversations with skilled craftspeople as by seeing the products of their crafts.

_DPP5654

Ollie Sparks demonstrating metal casting

Richard’s annual open house is a real highlight of the woodworking calendar – an opportunity to meet likeminded woodworkers, spend time in professional joinery and tool making workshops, and raise money for an excellent cause. This year between the auction and cash donations over £7,100 was raised for Macmillan Cancer Support. The open house will be a permanent fixture on my calendar, and I hope to see many of you there in future years.

_DPP5643

Just a small selection of Ollie Sparks’ sublime hand planes

First article of 2019

img_1571

Over the autumn I put my regular bench planes away, and put a Lie-Nielsen No.62 through its paces to test whether a low angle jack really is the only plane you need. Issue 280 of Furniture & Cabinetmaking is now in print, and contains a four page article about that test, and my conclusions. So if you were wondering about the utility of low angle planes, it might just be worth a read.

Rising to the Occasion

IMG_0166

Furniture & Cabinetmaking issue 274 is now in stores, and features my in-depth review of the new panel raising plane by Philly Planes. Also included is Nancy Hiller’s article on the history and social significance of the Hoosier Cabinet, and part 3 of Steve Cashmore’s on-going series of WoodRat techniques, along with plenty of excellent content and inspiration.

On ending the tyranny

IMG_9880.jpg

Issue 273 of Furniture & Cabinetmaking is now being posted to subscribers (I received my copy today) and will no doubt be on newsagents’ shelves very soon. This issue includes “Rasps – ending the tyranny of straight and square“; an article good friend Richard Wile and I have co-written as an introduction to using rasps in furniture making (and which features Chris Williams’ hands in a surprising cameo). Also featured in this issue is Nancy Hiller’s fascinating article on the Wooton desk, and the second in a series of articles by Steve Cashmore on WoodRat techniques. Finally, Derek’s Leader and article on batched production proves that “octagonalisation” is now a valid part of the lexicon, so I feel fully vindicated!

A Beginner’s Guide to Welsh Stick Chairs

The following is based on an article originally published in issue 268 of Furniture & Cabinet Making

02

Blonde stick chair by Chris Williams, photograph by Kevin Thomas

I remember the very first time I saw a picture of a Welsh Stick Chair, how it appeared to be both familiar and completely alien. At first glance this chair shared common DNA with the Windsor chairs I was more familiar with, but there was also an underlying tension that felt very different to the Windsor chair form. More angular than Windsor chairs, the aggressive rake and splay of the legs, together with the distinctive comb perched atop four long sticks, gave the Welsh Stick Chair a dynamic silhouette suggesting a feral energy – this was a chair that wanted to spring out of the corner. I was hooked.

Several years on, and I find myself co-authoring a book for Lost Art Press about Welsh Stick Chair maker John Brown. My co-author, Chris Williams, is a Carmarthenshire-based Welsh Stick Chair maker and furniture restorer who worked with John Brown for a decade. The deep research required for a book has led us to many historic examples of Welsh Stick Chairs, as well as modern examples made by John Brown and Chris. That research has revealed a vibrant and enduring form that has evolved and been adapted over many generations, and which remains relevant today.

07

Single piece carved arm on an early Stick Chair

While a comprehensive survey of a chair form that has been in use for centuries is outside the scope of a magazine article, what is possible is to introduce a fascinating chair that continues to inspire chair makers and furniture collectors alike, and to explain the key characteristics that set Welsh Stick chairs apart from other forms.

Background

Boiled down to the basics, Welsh Stick Chairs are an example of staked furniture – a method of constructing chairs that has been in use since the medieval period. Staked furniture relies on a thick seat into which conical or cylindrical mortises are drilled, and matching tenons are back wedged. The result is a strong mechanical joint that requires minimal specialist tooling to prepare. In his book Welsh Stick Chairs, John Brown suggested that the lineage of Welsh Stick Chairs extended as far back as the 12th century. A 12th-century manuscript of the Laws of Hywel Dda (a 10th century Welsh King) includes an illustration of a judge, or possibly Hywel Dda himself, sitting on a chair very similar in form to surviving examples of 18th-century Stick Chairs. This is a long-lived form.

04

Stick chair by John Brown

Culturally, Welsh Stick Chairs are significant in that they were not typically built by chair makers, and instead would have been made by craftsmen from related woodcrafts such as “village carpenters, wheelwrights, or coffin makers” (John Brown). Welsh Stick Chairs then are furniture of necessity – a vernacular form made by (and for) common folk when they had need of something to sit on. That they were not made by professional chair makers also had a profound impact on the construction methods, and there is a notable lack of steam bending or turning in the Welsh Stick tradition compared to other chair making traditions.

Key Characteristics of a Welsh Stick Chair

As can be expected of vernacular furniture, there is a great deal of variety among surviving historic examples of Welsh Stick Chairs. That being said, there are also commonalities which make Welsh Stick Chairs instantly recognisable.

13

Sticks on a historic chair, showing tool marks and facets

Historic examples can broadly be split between arm chairs and comb back chairs. Arm chairs are very much as the name would suggest – a number of sticks hold the arm above the seat, so that it is supports the middle of the sitter’s back, and the sticks terminate at the arm. In contrast, comb back chairs feature long sticks at the back which extend through the arm and terminate in a decorative comb level with the occupant’s head.

It all Flows from the Arm

The element that really separates the Welsh Stick Chair from its Windsor cousins is the arm. The shape of a Windsor chair is typically determined by the dimensions and shape of the seat, with the legs and back flowing from the seat. In contrast, the shape of early Welsh Stick Chairs was defined by the curvature of the arm. This is in large part due to the practice of using timber with a natural bend, such as a curved branch or crook, rather than steam bending. The curve of the arm would be refined by carving excess material away from a heavy crook while retaining the natural strength of the grain (which would flow the full length of the arm). With the shape of the arm defined, the position of the sticks would then be laid out and the arm joined to the seat. The result is a distinctive organic curve to the arm, and an arm which on early examples is often visually heavier than steam bent arms. A later development was the use of arms constructed from two or three pieces of timber using scarf joints, with the third piece being placed on top of the two major pieces to reinforce the short grain at the apex of the curve. Combs would also have typically been made from a naturally curved piece of timber, or a curved part would have been cut to shape rather than steam bent.

03

A three piece arm by Chris Williams, photograph by Kevin Thomas

Saddle Up?

Early Welsh Stick Chairs had a seat that is wider than it is deep, and the shapes vary from simple rectangular examples to curved seats which more closely follow the curve of the arm. Many examples show little or no saddling.

06

Rectangular seat and a one-piece carved arm on an early Stick Chair

Welsh Stick Chairs tend to have a much more aggressive rake and splay to their legs than Windsor chairs, and as a consequence do not always feature stretchers between the legs. Both three and four legged chairs are common, and the leg tenons are usually set further away from the perimeter of the seat than is often the case for Windsor chairs. The legs are typically tapered octagons or tapered cylinders, although tapered hexagons can also be found, and the sticks may also be octagonal or cylindrical in cross section. Because Welsh Stick chairs were traditionally not made by chair makers, the use of turned parts was uncommon and cylindrical legs or sticks would likely have been shaved by hand instead of being turned on the lathe, leaving distinctive facets and tooling marks. The sticks supporting the arm and comb may be set straight through the arm, or can be curved through the arm to give a “lobster pot” shape.

Native Species

In terms of timber choices, oak, elm and ash were (and continue to be) typically used as these native species are plentiful in Wales and have attributes which lend themselves well to chair making.  Although elm is increasingly difficult to source, it is particularly prized for seats thanks to the interlocked grain which makes it resistant to splitting when driving the leg tenons home. Ash and oak were commonly used for legs and spindles, as they can be rived easily to yield strong, straight grained components. However, there were no strict rules regarding timber selection and surviving chairs also show the use of yew, and fruit woods.

05

Stick chair in yew, by John Brown

Evolution of the Welsh Stick Chair

While the Welsh Stick Chair is certainly less common than Windsor chair traditions, the Welsh Stick Chair is enjoying something of a renaissance. The late John Brown is undoubtedly the most well-known Welsh Stick Chair builder, particularly thanks to his outspoken articles for Good Woodworking magazine in the 1990’s, but he is not alone. Chris Williams continues to make Welsh Stick Chairs from his Carmarthenshire workshop, while the form has a number of supporters in America, including Chris Schwarz and Don Weber.

01

Pair of stick chairs by Chris Schwarz

Modern examples of the Welsh Stick Chair have adapted the form for contemporary tastes – often comb back chairs will feature fewer long sticks for a sleeker appearance, and milk painted or oiled finishes are common. The use of crook backs also appears to be less commonly used than scarf jointed or steam bent backs. But despite these adaptations, the form remains distinctive and easily recognisable as the Welsh Stick Chair.

The Welsh Stick Chair remains a relevant and exciting chair form that while not being as widely known as the Windsor, has a cult following among those who have been exposed to its charms, and continues to fascinate chair makers.

 

The author would like to thank the staff of St Fagan’s National Museum of History for allowing access to their collection, and for permission to reproduce photographs of their chairs.

Further Reading and Viewing

Welsh Stick Chairs – John Brown

Welsh Furniture 1250-1950 – Richard Bebb

Oak Furniture, The British Tradition – Victor Chinnery

Visit: St Fagan’s National Museum of History

Build: Build a Welsh Stick Chair with Don Weber

 

 

Welsh Stick Chairs – A Beginner’s Guide

If you’ve been waiting for an update on the John Brown book, then you might want to pick up issue 268 of Furniture & Cabinetmaking (which went on sale yesterday). Issue 268 carries my “Beginners Guide to Welsh Stick Chairs“, featuring photos of historic examples, and chairs by John Brown, Chris Williams, and Chris Schwarz. As always, the rest of the magazine contains a bumper crop of projects, reviews, and tricks of the trade.