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A look inside the shop of chairmaker John Porritt


Article Image
John Porritt’s shop is in a barn behind his house.

I recently enjoyed a glorious fall weekend in the Berkshires at the shop of chairmaker (and more) John Porritt, whose work is inspired by traditional Welsh and English chairs (one of his chairs was praised by John Brown in a 1995 Good Woodworking column!). What takes Porritt’s work into the extraordinary are his incredible finishes, which mimic a century or more of use. And that’s why Christopher Schwarz and I were there – to take pictures for a book on Porritt’s finishing techniques (so for more on that, you’ll have to wait, I’m afraid, for Lost Art Press to publish it).

john porritt at his bench
Porritt is at work on a chair finish. Here, he’s drying a first finish coat with a heat gun.

Porritt trained in the U.K. and has spent his life immersed in woodworking using mostly traditional techniques and tools. He does own a bandsaw and an electric-powered lathe, and now has a friend plane some stock for him in a powered planer, but much of his work is with wood and branches he has harvested himself and tools that would be familiar to a pre-industrial maker. Chairs are Porritt’s passion, but he’s also known for his repair work on furniture of all types as well as tools. He has restored tools for Jim Bode, Martin Donnelly, Lee Richmond, and many collectors both here and abroad. He is also a great guitarist and storyteller (I wish we’d had more time for those).

moulding plane wedges
A collection of vintage moulding plane wedges from Porritt’s tool restoration work.

His shop is in a restored barn behind his 1700s house, alongside a stream. It has a large sliding front door; a bank of windows on one wall; an efficient wood stove for heat and rag disposal; cabinets and chests full of carefully arranged tools (the most well-organized tools I’ve ever seen, actually); a finishing cabinet chock-full of paints, stains, waxes, solvents, and other finishing supplies; a workbench (of course); a stack of shelves filled up to the rafters with old wood (some of it 300 years old, saved from old furniture pieces); and his own chairs as well as some gorgeous ones he’s collected over the years (that he may or may not restore). Both days we were there, several deer came up to drink from the stream, and eat from the bounty of fallen apples. He and his wife, Sue, an American, bought the property shortly after they moved to the United States in 2008.

I could continue trying to convey the place in words, but I think pictures will do their magic more justice. Below are more than a few.

shop interior
The stove provides heat and serves for rag disposal.
welsh stick chairs
A few of Porritt’s Welsh stick chairs are in front of (and atop) a press cupboard that is awaiting restoration. In front are the two side chairs we photographed during finishing. Here, they’re still “in the white.”
welsh press cupboard
A better look at the cupboard. To the left is a Nicholson lathe Porritt is restoring for a customer. On top of the cupboard is one of his Welsh stick chairs that features a blackened, rubbed finish to mimic age (one of the two processes we recorded.)
tool cupboards
An assemblage of tool cupboards and boxes – each drawer/box contains a carefully arranged selection of tools.
chsiles in a tool drawer
Chisels.
drawer of marking gauges and other tools
Gauges and files
drawer of gouges and dividers
Gouges and dividers.
drawer of levels
Levels.
box of wooden handled screwdrivers
Wooden handled screwdrivers.
drawer full of old keys
A drawer full of old keys.
chest of hand planes
Metal planes.
molding planes
Molding planes.
shelves of wood
Shelves full of old wood, much of it from old furniture, and brought over from England.
old drawer pieces
A closer look at the collection of old stock, mostly old drawer pieces.
handsaws and chair parts
Handsaws and chair parts.
braces
Braces hanging on the wall.
paintbrushes
One of Porritt’s many collections of brushes.
wood finishes in a cabinet
The full-up finishing cabinet.
Natural crooks are the best traditional material for Welsh stick chairs – Porritt collects them from the forest and from friends.
crests from antique welsh dressers
Welsh dresser parts, stored in the rafters.
pico the dog
Porritt’s dog, Pico, gives us the side-eye. (That green is the first of many treatments in one of Porritt’s finishes – see below).
This Welsh stick chair was painted with the same Lily Pad green as the one above, as part of the finishing process.
chair sketches
Sketches such as these are all the plans Porritt uses.

 

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