Nothing exudes home and comfort like an old fashioned ladderback rocking chair. Whether it's next to warm fire on a cold night or on a breezy porch on a hot summer day, nothing soothes the soul like a good sit in a rocking chair. You can keep your recliners, your fancy mechanical chairs. If you want to really take a break, kick back in a rocking chair and read a book, pick a banjo, or just sit with your dog and watch the world go by.
The writing arm Windsor is a really neat style that incorporates a writing surface and usually one or two drawers into a Windsor arm chair to transform the chair into a small, self-contained desk. They are a great furniture piece for small spaces, and a challenging but fun chair to build. Above is a short video that shows some of the work involved in building these unique chairs.
Fine furniture? No. Beautifully proportioned? Not really. Sturdily built with finely executed joinery? Not at all. A Hoosier cabinet is to a Chippendale highboy what a Farmall Cub tractor is to a Bentley. Yet, like a Farmall, they are great examples of utilitarian design; form is secondary to function, but that functionality makes them beautiful.
The Hoosier cabinet was derived from the baker's cabinet of the 1800's, and was eventually built by several manufacturers in the midwest, primarily in Indiana, thus the generic term "Hoosier" cabinet. Hoosier, McDougall, Sellers, and Boone were the biggest producers, with several other smaller companies also in the mix. The usual design is composed of two pieces; a bottom cabinet about two feet deep by forty inches wide and thirty-two inches high and an upper cabinet of the same width, twelve inches deep by three feet tall. The upper cabinet attaches to the bottom with metal brackets separating them by about an inch and a half. A porcelain covered metal work surface mounts on top of the bottom cabinet, and can be slid out on rails to increase the depth of the work surface. The bottom cabinet usually has a large door on the left and three drawers on the right, the bottom one being a large metal bread drawer. The left hand storage area typically has a slide out shelf or rack for trays and pans, and a rack mounted to the inside of the door for lids. Sometimes there is a cutlery drawer above the door, sometimes a pullout cutting board. On the right side of the lower cabinet a bracket can be mounted to hold a meat grinder.
The upper cabinet generally consists of three upper doors and either two lower doors, or a tambour which may slide up, down, or into the sides. On the left side is a large flour bin with a built in sifter. This bin tilts out for filling. On the right is a large glass sugar jar mounted on a swing out bracket. Each door has some sort of rack or hooks for spices, bills, recipes, etc. There are charts and conversion tables, substitution charts, a myriad of information for cooks. There is usually a small rotating rack for spice jars. On some there was even an ironing board that pulled out.
All in all, these babies are a lot of cabinet in a small footprint. There are no frills, no fancy trim or hardware, no decoration, just two boxes stacked up with a piece of steel in between. Yet, they are beautiful in their own utilitarian, unadorned way. Simple practicality can be perfect. There is warmth and homeyness in their unpretentious usefulness. For the same reason that a good barbecue sandwich is just as satisfying as any fine French dish, the simple Hoosier cabinet is, to me, just as beautiful as any Queen Anne chest on frame.
In the fall of last year, as Hurricane Sandy pounded the coast, it stuck a paw of wind far enough inland to inflict significant blowdown damage here in the mountains of eastern Pennsylvania. Trees that have stood for a hundred years were pushed over like dominoes. Huge oaks, black cherry trees, locusts that were big when I was young now are laid down like corn stalks in the fall. Yet, even though it's a shame to see these long standing giants brought down, to this furniture maker it means raw materials within walking distance.
When I first got into woodworking, it was building ladderback chairs. My mother bought me The Foxfire Book, and in it was a chapter about an old mountain chairmaker which I thought was the greatest thing; with just a few simple tools, you could start with a tree and build a chair. As the years went on my skills increased, my furniture became fancier, Chippendale, Queen Anne, Federal, carving, fine finishes, curves, arches, all the bells and whistles. I spent gobs of money on tools to execute ever more complicated pieces. To sell the fancy expensive stuff, I built a website, established an online presence, researched marketing, all the things that you have to do to do business in the 21st century. Then one day while cutting firewood, I realized that all the stuff laying around that had been blown down in the storm was a gold mine to a chairmaker, which I am. I hacked a chunk off of a downed red oak, split it down into billets and started building some ladderback rocking chairs for the first time in ages. I dusted off my shaving horse, sharpened up my drawknife, honed my spokeshaves, and I felt like I was back home after being gone for far too long. Now, if someone calls up and wants a Chippendale chest on frame in mahogany, I'll surely build it, but I'm glad I stepped back and remembered why I call myself "Chairmaker" first and "Cabinetmaker" second.
Great tune by Guy Clark from "The Transatlantic Sessions."
"If America could be, once again,
a nation of self-reliant farmers, craftsmen,
hunters, ranchers, and artists, then the rich
would have little power to dominate others.
Neither to serve nor to rule: that was the
-- Edward Abbey