Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Great Welsh Stick Chair Extravaganza in Denmark

Perhaps the title is a bit much.

Painted ash chair with sycamore seat, ca. 1800.
Courtesy Paul Dunn Antiques
Jonas, aka Mulesaw, and I have been talking about getting together to make Welsh stick chairs ever since I read John Brown's book a couple years ago.

A great read if you are interested in chairs or not.
Jonas' neighbor needed a couple old elm trees removed, and we're in business.  In about ten days I'll drive the 12-15 hour trek to a remote part of Denmark, and we will get started.  It looks like there should be around three more people there to do the build with us, perhaps even another blogger who is trying to figure out how to drive to this part of Denmark from England with his family.  

Good luck, Travis, you'll need it!

The great part of this build is that none of us has actually ever built any kind of Windsor chair before (unless you count my entry in the Shop Stool Build Off), so we'll all be figuring it out as we go.  The only real help we will have is our collective woodworking knowledge, John Brown's Book, and Drew Langsner's book.
Drew Langsner's book should be a big help.
So what the heck is a Welsh stick chair, you ask?  Some call it a rustic Windsor.  Basically, like a Windsor chair, it is a solid plank for a seat in which the legs and upper portion of the chair are attached. However, while the quintessential Windsor chair is a highly refined piece usually made by a chairmaker, an authentic antique Welsh stick chair is a piece of furniture of necessity, or vernacular furniture made by a craftsman not necessarily a professional chairmaker, or even a professional woodworker more than likely for his own personal use.

Looking at examples of antiques, it becomes clear that these chairs are made by people who need a chair using whatever materials and tools they happen to have on hand.
From the Museum of Welsh Life
19th century.
Sometimes they have four legs, sometimes only three.

A nice three-legged version of ash and sycamore, 18th century.
Courtesy Welsh Vernacular Furniture.
There really doesn't seem to be any rules with these chairs.  John Brown says the legs on Welsh stick chairs are inset further than on English chairs, and often sport a dramatic raking angle to splay the legs out.
Fantastic splay to the legs on this oak and sycamore chair from the early 18th century.
Courtesy Welsh Vernacular Furniture.
As far as the legs go, they can be either turned round or octagonal, often tapering from a larger diameter base to a thinner top.
An ash chair again from the early 1800s.  I love the tapered legs.
Courtesy Paul Dunn Antiques.
As you can see from the photos, some seats are flat, some are carved with a round seat, and some are fully saddled.  I think it probably depends on the tools and skills of the craftsman.

As far as the arms go, there seems to be mainly three methods for the curved arm rail:  laminated from two or three pieces, steam bent, or carved from a single block of wood, such as a bent tree branch.
Ash and elm chair from the late 1800s or early 1900.  You can clearly see the different pieces of wood making the curved arm rail on this chair.
Courtesy Welsh Vernacular Furniture.
Solid oak chair from the early 18th century.  It's hard to tell, but I think this arm is steam bent.
Courtesy Welsh Vernacular Furniture.
Ash chair with a cool one-piece carved arm ca. 1760.
Courtesy Richard Bebb of WelshAntiques.com.
Find Richard's book on antique Welsh furniture at welshfurniture.com
As far as materials go, we will use elm (Ulmus sp.) from the logs that Jonas got last year and started to mill on his mulesaw for the seat blanks.  This is extremely traditional.  Elm resists splitting and should make a very strong chair.  Legs will be from some kiln dried ash (Fraxinus excelsior) that I'll bring up from my Munich lumberyard.  The idea is that if the elm isn't quite dry, or if it is still fairly green, it will shrink around the bone-dry ash leg tenons and never let loose.  I chose ash rather than oak or something else because these particular ash boards that were in stock that day had really nice straight grain and were beautiful.  We may use either ash or elm for the sticks, and probably elm for the steam bending.

Already I feel like I am doing it wrong, as I have collected an array of chair makers' tools over the last weeks in preparation for this class.  On the other hand, not having made one before, I think it might not be a bad idea to work with tools that will give us all a reasonable chance for success.

I am totally stoked to do this build with a group of like-minded people.  It will be a great experience, even if my chair fails.  Keep an eye on this blog as well as Mulesaw, as I'm sure this project will be one for the history books.  OK, perhaps a bit more exaggeration, but it should at least be entertaining.

The Frau isn't too crazy about this form of chair, so I may try to modernize my design a bit to make something that she will be crazy about.  If that doesn't work, I could always use a new chair in my office at work!

Thanks to Paul Dunn, Jonathon Holder and Richard Bebb for being kind enough to allow me to use photos from their respective antique businesses for this post.  Please check out their websites for pics of some fantastic furniture.

For other examples of Welsh stick chairs (inluding some neat modern ones), check out this link on Pinterest.


  1. Have fun! Don't forget to take pictures of all the step :)

    1. Hopefully we will all wind up with something worth photographing.

      No promises, though!

  2. How far of a drive is it from Illinois?...That sounds great, a chair class without a teacher. You guys are capable so I'm sure they will all turn out great, yet at the same time I'm envisioning Larry Curley & Moe building chairs for some reason. Great form for it and I'm interested to see how different or similar they. All turn out.

    1. You will just need a James Bond submarine car and it should be an easy trip.

      Thanks for the vote of confidence. And I'm sure there'll be plenty of the Three Stooges going on.

  3. I am sure that the planets will align to make this build a success.
    I'll have to inform the local newspaper to send out a journalist to see the action.
    See you in a weeks time.

    1. It will be a success no matter what happens to the chairs. I'm sure we'll learn a lot.

      A journalist means I might have to look civilized!

      Will any of the chairs in these photos influence your build?

    2. I like the chairs on the book covers, the rest are not really to my taste :-)
      I am still convinced that the best way to get a disastrous result will be to make a Windsor settee.
      So that is my plan, but I could - theoretically have a brief moment of rational thinking and start up with a simple chair at first. But I kind of doubt that will happen.

    3. I agree that most of the vintage examples I've shown here are a bit overly-rustic for my taste, too. Except, I really like the proportions of the ash chair photographed in the woods. The more I look at that one, the more I like it.

      I think your plan for a settee will be cool. I think there probably is no reason it won't turn out really cool.

  4. Sounds like an awesome group build. Have fun and share the results.

    1. The last time I built something with Jonas was at an ATC class with Chris Schwarz. Jonas' dad, a retired slojd teacher, attended too. When Jonas was gluing up his chest with his dad's help, I came over to help. Jonas' dad said in the most polite way ever that my help wasn't needed, as if I helped they would have to do the glue up in English, and it was stressful enough to do in their native language.

      The Danes make me laugh. It will be a good time.

    2. Oh, I had almost managed to suppress that incident...
      That was not my finest hour..
      I remember that Rod later said it had sounded like a Viking King being challlenged by a usurper. A lot of guttural sounds and some growling.

      I guess that we have to take a deep breath before attempting to glue up the chairs :-)

    3. I figure there isn't all that much glue in a chair, so I should be good!

  5. Brian & Jonas, looking forward to your build guys! and your blog posts as well! best of luck and congrats for putting this up!

    1. Thanks, Aymeric! Perhaps you should come along. At least France is theoretically driving distance.

    2. Thanks Brian! next time for sure!