Banister-back Chair: A Yale Commission

When I got back from vacation a while back, I hit the ground running. In the past two months, I’ve written two articles, built a grain-painted chest over drawers, a white oak spring pole lathe, and an 18th-century Rhode Island banister-back chair. It’s been enjoyable concentrating all my effort on making rather than my customary conservation work. I’ve learned a lot through these projects because I am not a production furniture maker. When I build, it’s always a one-off of something that piques my interest. This recent banister-back chair build was no exception to that.

When curator Pat Kane from the Yale University Art Gallery contacted me to discuss this commission for the upcoming Rhode Island Furniture exhibition, I leapt at the opportunity. Not only was this a chance to be involved in a very cool exhibition, but this was an opportunity to meticulously measure a charming 18th-century chair and replicate it using preindustrial methods. Sounds like a dream job to me.

With the exception of a bit of bench work, the entire chair was made on my spring pole lathe in the woods next to my house. I rived the stock from maple and ash logs, hewed it with an axe, and turned it with foot power. Each time I tackle a new project I gain new appreciation for the object I am replicating. Walking through the exact steps the original artisan deepens my understanding of the piece’s idiosyncrasies even further. That’s the kind of revelation that excites me.

On Thursday, a film crew from Connecticut came up to get footage of the building process. The shoot went swimmingly. Having all the mock parts prepped and tools set up made the shoot really efficient and Guy and Mark did an excellent job directing the shoot. It made the endeavor painless and quite fun. We were able to capture snippets of each step of the build before lunch time. They will be making a 3-5 minute cut to be looped in the exhibition. I understand that there may also be a longer version made to be hosted on the Gallery’s website. I’ll let you know when that comes together.

I will be writing an article detailing the construction of this chair for M&T Issue Two (due out this January). This piece is interesting to me because it bridges (in my mind) the “green woodworking/folk craft” world with the period furniture making crowd. This chair is made straight out of logs but has an elegance and sophistication not seen in common ladder-back chairs. Beyond the basic construction description, I will include my thoughts on preindustrial chair making practice because there are a lot of subtle things that are only noticed when you walk through the process yourself. Using a pole lathe is a distinct skill; one I hope to encourage others to try.

So make sure you plan a trip to the Yale University Art Gallery’s exhibition this summer. And hang tight for M&T #2. The table of contents is just about full now and I have to say that I am very excited about it. I think you will be too.

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