Monday, September 9, 2013

Mass produced chairs

We are between houses with everything from a 36 year marriage stored in 4 large storage units, so we need more possessions like holes in our heads, but we couldn’t help ourselves this weekend.  Jacksonville, Oregon is a very old community, by Oregon standards, that is on the National Register of Historic Places.  They have a community-wide garage sale every year at this time and we happened on a pair of obviously early twentieth century oak side chairs my wife and I think are very attractive that we ended up buying for $8 each.

  They have cabriole-inspired front legs with tri-fid feet and nicely curved backs with attractive carving.  They will go nicely in our kitchen with an oak table that belonged to my beloved grandmother, so I just couldn’t resist.

These chairs were made by the Buffalo Chair Works from Buffalo, NY, which went out of business in 1919.  It was a subsidiary of The Sikes Chair Company which lasted until the mid-fifties.  The chairs were likely intended for middle class families who wanted to have a few nice things.  They are not high quality collectibles but I will enjoy having them nonetheless.  The joinery relies heavily, but not exclusively, on screws.  What surprises me is that, almost 100 years after their manufacture, these chairs are very solid.  I don’t see any obvious evidence that these chairs have been restored other than that the caned seats are not original.  I think this is a tribute to how they are designed.

I am very interested in learning how they were made, particularly how much was done by hand and what machines were used.  They are obviously from a transition period in chair manufacturing between largely hand-made and mass-produced chairs.  You can readily sense the struggle of the manufacturer to reduce labor costs and adopt mass production methods.  I was curious enough about furniture manufacturing in the early twentieth century that I did some research and found this book.  From a limited perusal, it looks like it is at least possible that the pieces were largely machine-made with only the final assembly being by hand.  It impresses me that they could come up with purely mechanical machines capable of doing this.  Amazing ingenuity.

It is absolutely clear, however, how much was lost in moving to mass production.  Try as they might, they were not able to make a chair that approaches the quality of a hand made chair.  It's too bad because the oak is really nice.  You and I would never think of making a chair with joinery like this.  So far as I am aware, this is still true a century later.  There's just nothing like hand-made furniture.  Much as I will enjoy these chairs, they will serve as a constant reminder of why I am a hand tool woodworker.


  1. Hi Andy,
    the book is written in swedish or norwegian. Can't read one word of it.

  2. Ralph,

    Sorry about that. I think it's fixed now.