The Amazing Spiral-Turned,
Steam-Bent, Woven-Back Cherry Rocker

What is it about rocking chairs?

Millions of mothers have lulled their little ones to sleep in them. Pipe smokers, sitting out on an old porch, have found them to be as good a companion as an old dog. A rocking chair will stimulate conversation; slow the pace of life without stopping it; dispel the jitters by its gentle caressing back and forth movement; be the mantra by which deep thought is induced. The worst thing that can happen to a rocking chair is for a flat to develop in the arc of its runners, reducing or eliminating that pendular swing to and fro. The best thing that can happen to a rocking chair is for someone to sit down in it, and have her life enriched. The vocation of rocking chair—its calling—is to comfort, compose, and stimulate. friend. A good rocking chair is a good friend.

Fifteen years ago, a woman client who was moving to Seattle asked me to fix a number of her furniture pieces before her move. Being a good fellow, I agreed. At some point in the process, she produced a raggedy old upholstered rocking chair, not wanting to take it with her and a little apologetic about dumping it on me. She knew it would be a project. She then also gave me a photocopy of the old rocker when it was brand new, in 1887, with a photo of a pretty little girl sitting in it holding her doll. I was smitten, and accepted the parting gift from this now- forgotten client (What WAS her name??). With great anticipation, I carefully began removing the many layers of fabric and old padding that covered the chair. I remember at least four different fabrics had been layered up over the years, as one wore out or lost its charm. And what I found underneath was at once the most wonderful treasure and the most awful discovery.

The wonderful part of this treasure was a relatively ancient rocking chair of solid cherry. It had spiral turned radial posts, and an amazingly comfortable round-hollowed seat. There was a spiral turned, woven back the likes of which I’d never before seen in twenty some years of refinishing and repairing old furniture. The posts were fluted, the front arm posts spiral turned, and altogether it was a delight to unwrap.

The awful discovery was what the first of several upholsterers had done to butcher this piece of furniture. It had many layers of fabric so I must assume the blame lies with the first guy. The turned, round finials at the top of each post had been cut off and tossed. The large, round, wonderful front arm finials had been cut off. There was a missing spiral-turned back finial. And the whole chair was wobbly and loose.

What I've done so far

The first order of business was to evaluate what had to be done. As I have mentioned, there was a complex spiral-turned back spindle completely missing, two posts with missing finials, and two arms with large cherry hand grips that had been hacked off. I disessembled the rocker and isolated the two back posts, two arms, and got my hands on a spindle matching the one that was missing.

Spiral turning “by hand” (I had no fancy jig to manage this) was the work of a happy afternoon: lathe turning the overall shape and then—still working on the lathe—laying out the spiral, hand carving, rasping, and sanding it to match the surviving spindles.

The large round hand rest stock was glued up, turned, and fitted to the ends of the arms. At which point I remember stopping, for whatever reason. Some years went by before I found myself back at work on this project. It needed gluing together, and much other work which has yet to be undertaken. I think that I would get inspired after someone would see it, amazed, and wonder when it would finally be completed. That would spur me to work on it again for awhile. At some point in time I undertook to hand strip the old worn finish. Always the severe tack damage was lurking, a task I have yet to undertake. You, dear reader, may well be the catalyst that takes us all to the end!

I DISCOVER WHAT A GREAT RIDE THIS IS

Getting this old rocker reglued back together was quite an experience. Like wrestling an octopus, there was always another arm to deal with. Still I had no idea whether this was, in the domestic and truly essential meaning of the phrase, a GREAT rocking chair. For that I needed the chance to sit in it and see what sort of ride it gave.

Not long ago, a curious customer of mine spied the rocker sitting, covered in dust, behind my bandsaw in the back of my shop. He demanded that we dig it out and have a look. He’d been in furniture sales of one kind or another all of his life. Never had he seen anything like this. After thoroughly dusting it off, I invited him to have a seat. What a mistake that was.

Half an hour later: “Um, say Rich! Hey, time I got back to work, you think?”
“Oh, oh. Just a few minutes longer!” said the thoroughly ensconced Rich. He went back to rocking. How do you depose an entranced client? Tricky business, that…

There is something about that seat, and the dimensions between the arms. The round hollowed seat WELCOMES one to sit in it. Rich had discovered what a fine ride indeed this is. The arms seem to encompass one’s body just…so. The large round hand-rests welcome and invite caressing. And the runners are curved perfectly, so that the ride back and forth is just right. From the VITAL standpoint of comfort, this rocker passed with flying colors! What pleasure this piece of furniture will once again give.

Origins

The document given to me by the rocker’s former owner consists of two photographs. The first is shown at the beginning of the article and carries this caption: Ruth Adair Smart Hazelet Branson Winter of 1897-98.

The second picture (above) is labelled: Lulu Bethel Smart 1987-98 with Ruth Monroe, Iowa. And below the picture: Rocking chair gift of Brother George Bethel to Lulu on her wedding.

Where do I go from here?

There is a lot to do to get this rocker ready for staining and finishing. The first task is filling all of the nail holes. I will be attempting to match the stain color of the photograph, which is a very dark cherry color, though not ebony, I think. So the fills will be German hard waxes in very dark colors. After fills comes sanding, some attention to trimming up some glue drips, and then staining, finishing, and hand rubbing of the finish.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about this bizarre, strange rocker. If you by any chance happen to learn anything about its provenance, please let me know and I’ll publish it if possible with kudos to YOU.

Cheers;
Bruce Gee