Local craftsman makes handmade rocking chairs

RACHEL PARKER DICKERSON
LOG CABIN STAFF WRITER
Published Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Mike Smith of Conway has been making handmade rocking chairs since 1974. He recently completed a large one for a Texas couple who found him through an Arkansas tourism book that serves as a guide to unique places in the state.

Smith explained the process of making his handmade chairs.

 

Mike Smith and Bob Young of Texas carry out a large rocking chair to an awaiting car. Smith custom built the chair for Young. LIBERTY PARKS PHOTO

Smith's father had a wood shop and lived near a family that made chairs. About age 22, Smith learned to make chairs under one of the cousins in the family. He brought the skill back to his father's wood shop and began making chairs there.

"I just kept going, took orders, did craft shows," he said. "I've done other work. This has not been my sole income. But I've always kept my tools, and I've always come back to making chairs."

Smith and his family moved to Conway in 1980. He has built a large wood shop on his property on Round Mountain. He estimates it takes him about two weeks to make a rocking chair, although a large (jumbo) one like the one he just sold takes a month or longer. The time is approximate, as he does not work nonstop, he said.

Although the walnut tree he used for his most recent creation was a donated tree, Smith normally acquires the wood for his chairs, either oak, cherry or walnut, from a sawmill. He talks to the owner, provides his required sizes and dimensions, and picks up the wood himself in his truck. There is "no middle man," he noted.

"Since there is such an abundance of good timber in the Ozarks, that's where the best trees, come from," he said. The wood is fresh cut, green lumber, he added.

Next the wood must be dried. Smith prefers air-drying to kiln-drying with the exception of the small rungs that hold the chair together. Those he kiln-dries, and when they are fitted together with the air-dried parts, a clamping effect is achieved when the greener wood continues to dry.

"That's the advantage of green or air-dried wood compared to all kiln-dried," he said.

His preferred drying time for wood is two years so that it can go through two summers, he said. His minimum drying time is three months. He noted the family he learned chairmaking from would put "fresh, green wood with sap coming out" on a lathe, and so it is possible to make chairs without drying the wood.

"I don't think it's as good. I'd rather not," he added.

Smith learned his chair pattern from the family who taught him chairmaking. It was a porch rocker, he said, although he changed the design a little. Most of his chairs go inside homes, he noted.

He uses a lathe and chisel to hand-turn the pieces of the chair. He noted there is no automation in his shop; all the pieces are made by hand one at a time.

"It's kind of a slow method, but when I get done, I know what's in the chair and I know it's going to last," he said.

The seat of the chair is woven. Smith uses fiber rush cord, a cord made of a select grade of paper, to weave the chair bottoms. He said he has been to a factory where fiber rush cord is made.

"They make it under strict guidelines so it lasts," he said. "I soak mine 30 minutes to an hour so it's soft and pliable."

Smith can also make a white oak split bottom for chairs, which is "almost a lost art," he said.

"All the basket makers in Missouri and that part of the country make their own splits," he said. Oak splits are hard to get without hand-making them, he added.

To make oak splits, he cuts down a tree, splits an eight-foot section in half, splits the halves in half, then continues to make smaller pieces until they become boards and then slices off the splits with a split-making knife, he said.

Smith makes split bottom chairs by request, he said.

Smith no longer attends the craft show circuits. His business is by word-of-mouth, although he does have a listing in the directory under furniture repair. He said 90 percent of his business is furniture repair.

As far as seeking out more business, Smith said he has enough to keep him busy for a while and has no plans to expand his current workload.

(Staff writer Rachel Parker Dickerson can be reached by e-mail at rachel.dickerson@thecabin.net or by phone at 505-1277. Send us your news at www.thecabin.net/submit)