Chris Schwarz's Blog

Meet the ‘Jimmy Possum’ Chair

I’ve long been fascinated by legends involving old chairmakers. Here in Kentucky we had Chester Cornett, an enigmatic bearded maker of the wildest ladderbacks and rockers I’ve seen. In Indiana we had a chairmaker in the southern part of the state who in the early 20th century made ladderbacks with a woven seat that look incredibly modern.

In Australia, they have the “Jimmy Possum” chair. Reader Bradley van Luyt sent me a link to this interesting television story on the chair, and so I started digging a little deeper.

Here’s the Cliff Notes version of the legend: Jimmy Possum was a bearded chairmaker, possibly aboriginal, who lived in a stump and made these chairs for sale in the late 19th century. Lots of people have debated whether Jimmy Possum was a real man or more of a Hoop Snake or Drop Bear from the Australian imagination.

If you want to read more about these investigations, check out these links:

To my eye, the chair looks a lot like an Irish stick chair with some interesting variations. The most unusual part is the role of the legs in the chair’s structure. Take a look at the legs. They pass through the seat to become the stumps for the armrests. The legs are tapered so that the seat simply wedges onto them. And, like a Windsor or Welsh chair, the more you sit on the chair the tighter the joints become.

Many of the accounts I’ve read indicate these chairs are shaved and not turned on a lathe. So the legs were likely roughed out with a drawknife and finished with a shave or knife. Some of these chairs suggest the holes in the seat were burned out instead of bored. Two of the back spindles also intersect the armrests, adding to the structure without adding components.

Whether Jimmy Possum is real or not, this style of chair is compelling and is a fascinating footnote in the history of vernacular chairs.

And, of course, now I want to build one.

— Christopher Schwarz

17 thoughts on “Meet the ‘Jimmy Possum’ Chair

  1. Jennie Alexander

    This chair has a particular virtue. Stick chairs of all kinds are most subject to fore and aft stress caused primarily by my dragging and bumping the chair when seating and rising, particularly at table. listen to them. Examining old stick chairs will often evidence more loose and failed joints in the fore and aft direction. This is not going to happen with these powerful side frame trusses.

  2. bron1

    Hi Chris
    Great article on the Jimmy Possum story.
    Mike Epworth and I have a page on FB dedicated to this Australian vernacular chair tradition and would happy to share the journey to discover more about Jimmy Possum and the tradition handed down though some of the local families in Tasmania’s north particularly.
    Jimmy Possum Appreciation Society FB

    https://m.facebook.com/groups/2087604018130375?view=info&ref=bookmarks#!/notifications.php?refid=8

    Kind regards
    Bronwyn

  3. Beth

    I built one of these last year after I saw a picture in an Australian Chair Book recommended by Bern Chandley, a fine Australian chair maker. You can see a picture of the finished chair on my InstaGram account at bwwoodcraft if you like. If you want any tips, let me know. I’ve got all the dimensions and angles worked out already. Seems like you and I are on the same bandwidth! First I found the Welsh stick chair – then you built it. Now the Jimmy Possum chair – I can guess what your next chair will be as I’ve already found mine…but I think I’ll wait to see if I’m right! Unless you ask very nicely, of course! PS. Loving the Roman Workbench book.

      1. Beth

        Thanks, David. It’s an amazing chair. The side assemblies all lock together in tension and create an amazingly strong and stable design. I didn’t fully appreciate that until I was actually assembling it. It’s my best solo chair build to date. Glad you like it!

    1. mlanghof

      Agreed with the beauty of your build, Beth. Love it! And the char contrast was great – speaks to the traditional opaque Windsor finishes but with more character. Could I possibly get your dimensions and angles? I’m planning to make this my next project. Again, congrats on a beautiful build 🙂

  4. Bob Rozaieski

    Cool! And it looks like the only angles are the rake of the rear legs and back spindles. No splay and vertical front legs? Should make it pretty straight forward to build. In the second picture, are those pegs through the end grain of the seat into the legs?

        1. Les Groeller

          So are the pegs needed to prevent the taper on the legs from (potentially) splitting the seat?

        2. bodja

          Hi Y’all

          Greetings from the great southern continent. I’m Mike Epworth, the chairmaker/researcher featured in the piece Chris Schwartz mentioned. I’m just finishing a doctorate researching the personage and tradition of Jimmy Possum having completed a Masters researching Australian Vernacular furniture four years ago, I’m also a chairmaker of 34 years, making variations on the JP design. Thanks for the mention Chris.

          JP is a long lost cousin and its good to join the family. I agree with Chris re the Irish hedge chair being an antecedent design but there is much more to it. I believe there is an Aboriginal Australian element to it making it unique.

          There were quite a few other makers in the JP style from around the Deloraine district in Tasmania from 1885 to 1955, all putting a twist on the original design, so when folks say they will make a JP chair there are quite a few to choose from. I’m working on a book and am in the early stages of developing a traveling exhibition which I would love to take to the States.

          My email address is mike.epworth@griffithuni.edu.au

          I run the Jimmy Possum Appreciation Society FB page and welcome anyone who is interested in joining.

          1. bodja

            Just looked up Chester Cornett. An artisan of rare talent and a “man of constant sorrow” as he describes himself. I think a lot can be learned about Jimmy Possum from Mr. Cornett. Thanks for the lead Chris, a remarkable man and story.

  5. jeremymcon

    The article on Chester Cornett was an interesting read! He had a difficult life.

    1. Jim Dee

      Difficult is putting it mildly! Read Michael Owen Jones’s book Craftsman of the Cumberlands, which is mostly about Cornett. I’m unashamed to say it’s the only book about woodworking I have read that made me cry. If I ever feel sorry for myself, or think I need more gear, I try to remember Mr. Cornett.

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