Traditional chair making involves the simple post-and-rung construction techniques that have been in use for centuries in the western world. While these chair types were once widely found in this country, only small regional areas within the nation have held to and depended on this chair design into the 21st century. The Appalachian area of the upland South, including West Virginia, is the most notable region. Chairs of this design are still commonly found on the porches and in the kitchens of Mountain State homes.
Whether lathe-turned (originally on treadle lathes and now on machine tools) or shaped with hand tools (drawknife, spoke shave), chairs that use the post-and- rung design formula are still made by country craftsmen in West Virginia. Names for these chairs vary widely according to materials or region and particular design, with some names being ‘‘ladderback,’’ ‘‘slat back,’’ ‘‘mule ear,’’ ‘‘bent back,’’ ‘‘Shaker,’’ ‘‘post and rung,’’ and ‘‘split bottom.’’
Traditional chair joinery entails working with natural drying characteristics of hardwoods, whereby the unseasoned ‘‘green’’ wood of the posts shrinks onto the dry and seasoned horizontal rungs for superior strength and endurance. The result is an exceptionally tight joint, made without glue or fasteners. This is an important aspect of traditional chair construction. While common in the work of independent chair makers, it cannot be duplicated in ‘‘factory made’’ chairs because of the logistics involved with the timing and handling of the larger amounts of materials needed for such production.
Rocking chairs, with widely differing styles, share many of the same aspects of design and construction found on standard split bottom chairs. They vary more widely in appearance, however, because of the arms and varied, sometimes woven, backs they sport, as well as the slats of common design.
A surprising number of native hardwood species are used in the makeup of traditional chairs. Oak, maple, ash, cherry, and walnut are favorites for the posts and back slats, while hickory is used almost exclusively for rungs because of its superior strength. The inner fiber of hickory bark is normally used for seating material, but white oak splits are also common. The long strips of seating material are often woven in a herringbone pattern by West Virginia chair makers.
This Article was written by Gerald Milnes
Alexander, John D. Make a Chair from a Tree: An Introduction to Working Green Wood. Newtown, CT: Taunton Press, 1978.
Di Bartolomeo, Robert E. & Cherry G. Di Bartolomeo. Wheeling's Chairs and Chairmakers 1828-1864. Spinning Wheel, 5/1/1970.
Milnes, Gerald. West Virginia Split Bottom: The Seat of Choice. Goldenseal, (Fall 1986).
Cite This Article
Milnes, Gerald "Chair Making." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 10 September 2010. Web. 01 March 2015.