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Sunday, April 6, 2014

National Woodworking Month Woodworker Spotlight: John Warner

 Locally, There were laddderback side chairs, arm chairs, and rockers made in Loudoun County for much of the 19th century. These chairs are commonly known as "Waterford Chairs" because many were made in Waterford, Virginia and the originator of the form, John Mount, lived and worked in Waterford. Other makers chose to repeat this form throughout the county in places like Lovettsville, Hamilton, Hillsboro, and Middleburg, VA. Common characteristics of the side chairs are two arched slats in the back and the rear posts terminate in an acorn finial.

That being said, one of the things that I find so interesting is the diversity in the the design elements in these chairs. Each maker had his own interpretation of the form and often within his own sub-form their are many variations on that form. Sometimes one design element might only be seen in one chair. It is as if these chairmakers were constantly tweaking the design in search of the perfect visual presentation. This is true in the side chairs and especially the rockers.

While each of these makers deserves his own page in this celebration of woodworking (especially Mr. Mount, the father of Waterford chairs), I chose to spotlight John Warner, who in my mind developed perfection of the Waterford chair form. While the design changes are subtle, They make for a visually and structurally superior chair.

The biographical information I have on Mr. Warner all comes from a book written by the authority on the subject, Dr. Fred Johnson Jr. called "Nineteenth Century Loudoun County, Virginia Chair Maufacturing". A link to this book can be found at the bottom of this post. According to Dr. Johnson, Mr. Warner worked as a chairmaker in Hamilton, Virginia for another chair maker and then later in a partnership. Later he moved to Ashburn, Virginia where he continued to sell and possibly make these chairs. All of this seems to have taken place in the last thirty years of the 19th century.

These chairs that Mr. Warner made appear at first glance to be much like any other chair made in the region. The key differences are both in his personal visual touches to the design of the chair and also some structural differences that played key roles in making a quality chair.

The design elements that are specific to Mr. Warner's chairs are in the back posts and the front stretcher. The back posts are the same diameter as most chairs made in Loudoun County, but the difference is that below the finial the post achieves full diameter and then quickly tapers to a smaller diameter by the time it reaches the level of the seat frame. This taper gives a visual lift to the back of the chair and seems to give move visual importance to the crest rail. The smaller diameter at the seat frame also lend itself to stem bending , which is a component of all of these chairs. Just above the seat frame, the rear posts are bent around 5 degrees to give the back a rake, making for a more comfortable chair. This bend is achieved by steaming the wood and then bending it. The smaller the diameter, the less time required for steaming. With this smaller diameter, Mr. Warner was able to facilitate steam bending while also adding visual interest to the piece.

The other visual characteristic of his chairs was the incorporation of a ornamented front stretcher below the seat. While purely decorative, this also added interest to the chair. Warner's stretchers  in general seem to be thicker allowing for a stronger chair.

Structurally speaking, His chairs were made from quality timbers that give weight and strength to the chairs. Mr. Warner also incorporated a seat frame made from boards and shaped with a draw knife. This frame used in the place of turned stretchers, was much sturdier and was also strong enough to resist warping and inward stress from the splint seat.

In general, it seems that while Mr. Warner was following an existing form, he carefully considered this form and made changes to it that were visually appealing and structurally superior to many of his contemporaries. While the changes are subtle, I find his chairs to be most desirable (and comfortable)! It is the mark of a master craftsman when one can make a piece where visual and structural design complement each other, instead of working against each other, which is so often the case. Hats off to Mr. Warner and his Hickory Splint Bottom Chairs! Below are a few photos of some of his chairs.

1 comment:

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