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The city council candidate was screaming at me through her phone as I sat hunched over my desk in the newspaper’s newsroom.

“How about I pull down my pants and you come and watch me go to the bathroom?” she screamed. “You’d like that wouldn’t you?”

This impolite invitation was issued after I inquired about a long string of tax troubles the candidate had suffered during the last few years. Unpaid taxes. Lawsuits. State charges. And etc. It’s all part of doing your job as a journalist. When people run for public office, you look up what the public record has to say about them. And you let them explain their side of the story, even if it involves a toilet.

After years of this sort of work, you get used to people hating your guts. You do what you think is the right thing. You try to be fair to everyone. You end up being despised. But, if you do your job correctly, something else also happens: People always – always – return your phone calls.

This might sound crazy, but I have found a similar game goes on with furniture design. There is the easy road: reproductions of beautiful pieces of furniture that have been lauded in books and magazines. These pieces are similar to feature stories you might read in the newspaper about a famous actor who is starring in a new movie and how his role challenged him as a person and a professional and caused him to grow in his soul region. Yawn.

I think reproductions of classic pieces are a good place to start as a designer. They teach you proportion, joinery and a lot of other lessons about what goes into a great piece of furniture. And if this sort of thing makes you happy, then feel free to continue down this path until you croak.

But there is a weird world of furniture forms out there that you won’t find in museums, coffee table books or magazines. There are forms that have disappeared for centuries for some reason. Pieces that were eclipsed by new technology. Movements that were never written about by scholars.

They are out there. And if you will let your freak flag fly on occasion, they are a hoot to build.

During the last couple months I’ve written about the crazy dugout chair shown above (it’s almost done – not quite). The response has been similar to the screaming earful I got from that city council candidate. A few samples: It’s the ugliest thing in the history of furniture. It’s butt-ugly. What the he&^ are you doing? You usually make nice stuff; this is not one of those things.

Dugout chairs are an important part of the furniture record, though they are rarely written about and poorly understood. They are a vernacular form that sprouts from a simple idea: Even a rotting tree has a use. And it’s importance is directly related to the cultural significance of the idea of a chair (wonder where the expression “chairman” comes from?).

The act of building this chair resulted in far more than turning a tree into an unusual chair. It opened up a door in my head that embraces axes, chainsaws and angle grinders as tools for fine furniture. And once opened, that door cannot be shut, even if there’s a screaming politician on the other side sitting on the toilet.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 28 comments
  • mje

    When I first saw the work in progress, my reaction was not positive. But looking at the finished piece, I think it captures the spirit of Nakashima- let the wood tell you what it should be. It also fits my particular living space ethic, which is to mix styles, just choosing what appeals to me. As my builder pal Gary said to me many years ago, when we were remodeling my house, “wood goes with wood.”

  • flyguy1962

    I find the tastes in furniture run along the sames lines as taste in the automotive hobby. You will get those that say a low-rider is ugly and cannot appreciate the time, effort, and artistry that went into its creation. The best thing is to do is to say that while it is not for me and appreciate the vision that is someone else’s dream.

    As for me, I would put this chair in the living room, but then again maybe I would keep it to myself and put it in my home office! Looks like a perfect chair to read a good book in.


    When I was a kid I used to help out my friends on their parents’ farm. They were milking cows using a “Milking Machine” that would service two cows at a time. When the machine was moved to the next pair, it was our “job” to “strip” what little remained in the udders. This was done, by hand, into a bucket. There was a stool available to do this, but it only had two legs. It was more of a perch but it was adequate for the task.

  • prov163

    It’s original and whether people like it or not, isn’t the main point. The best part is that you stretched yourself, tried something different. And that alone should cause “growth in your soul region.” Thanks for reminding us that it’s okay to follow our Muse instead of a set of someone else’s.

  • tms

    It somewhat resembles the driftwood chairs that my grandmother use to make. She was a homestead girl on the Oregon coast and she and her sisters use to make furniture from driftwood and sell it to rich folks from Portland.

  • C. Stanley Plane

    Since you used both hand tools and power tools, would this qualify as hybrid woodworking?

  • KAUnfried

    I would hate to discourage this, but I think it’s beautiful and would look so good next to a fire place or in a library. I can’t wait to see your next project.

  • SATovey

    Given the fact that she was in the first few pics when you started this project;
    now that it’s near done, how does your daughter like it?

  • Steve Kindem

    from the basic form above, I’m sure you could spend a lot of time and effort refining and ‘beautifying.’ A very cool project.

  • twolukes

    Will look great by the fireplace – and will hold plenty of kindling!

  • MCamaleri37

    Any consideration of building one with a hole in the seat for a chamber pot? Send that over to your politician friend? Nice olive branch-type gesture. Just a thought.

  • thekiltedwoodworker

    Isn’t this just another way of making a chair from a tree?


    Way to go Chris. There were several techniques to be learned in making your chair.
    Keep doing what you do. You also make it fun.

  • Wilson

    I would suggest you now look into the undocumented sitting appliance called the cow stool. Some 70 years ago I used one to milk the cows, and they were a home necessity. I have never seen a document showing the different forms they took, and they were as popular and used as much as chairs. In fact when we ran out of chairs, we went out and brought in a cow stool or two. Many early ones were made with out nails or other metal parts because we didn’t have metal to spare for unimportant things like a cow stool. So what do you think?

  • Sullivans Papa

    Prototype of first “lawn” chairs?
    Innovation is rarely appreciated at the time of presentation.
    This piece would be terrific in a park or similar setting!

  • swirt

    I think natural form furniture has been under-documented in the history books. I am glad it is being documented now.

  • Robert

    Its actually very good (the chair, that is). It takes years of of traditional chairbuilding to be confident of such results. You did good Chris.

  • mcpennington

    You need to eat a whole roast chicken while sitting in that chair when it’s done. Or maybe even a turkey.

  • jweisgram

    It needs to have a cup holder.

  • OldGreyTroll

    Maybe it is the surroundings and not the piece itself. I wouldn’t want it my living room. It would look horrible and would be called ugly. But in the Nature Center in the State Park I volunteer at, this would be wonderful and would be called beautiful. All furniture needs to be adapted to its environment and usage.

    Illegitimi non carborundum.

  • skanske

    If making a chair from untraditional tools and sources of wood is so so terrible, just buy one from IKEA and be done with it. Perhaps a governmental institute should approve every plan for a chair before it is built, just to be on the safe side. I’m sure some politicians would think that to be highly necessary. 🙂

  • badger1402

    Will you be using your new found skills to carve lawn decorations from old tree stumps?
    I think the chair looks great, along the lines of a natural edge table top. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and seldom do they realize the work that goes into making a piece of furniture.
    I think your dismissal of fine furniture is a little anarchist. There is incredibly beautiful work in that furniture, and countless hours in the design. There are pieces that look simple and beautiful but have incredible attention to design.
    I have been fortunate to have an instructor that goes into the history of the piece and how the design works. I will probably croak before my pieces get even even close to the beauty of the originals, but I will have fun trying, as I think I would enjoy making and using the dugout chair.

  • David

    Now that you’ve built it, I’d celebrate by painting your body, setting the chair on fire, and dancing around it like a madman.

  • Gene

    Hang onto it for 10-20 years. When your kids start bringing THEIR kids over, that will be the most popular chair in the house!

  • Just_Iain

    I wouldn’t call it ugly. Just different. It might even be comfortable. But it is still so out of everyone’s ‘comfort zone’ as to be hated. Some very iconic furniture has been down the same route and slowly everyone starts is copying it. So give it time and maybe the world will join you.

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