Woodworkers carve out a niche for rocking chairs

There's a romance about a rocker, a sentimental soft spot in the heart that almost everyone has for a chair that moves.

"Maybe because they've been a part of family life for so many years. Everyone remembers someone in their family having a rocking chair," says Michael Elkan, a woodworker who has been making rocking chairs at his Silverton, Ore., studio for 12 years. "There's just something nice about having a rocker in your house."


Mr. Elkan is one of nearly a dozen woodworkers who will be bringing rocking chairs to the 16th annual American Craft Council (ACC) Craft Fair, scheduled next weekend at the Baltimore Convention Center.

This number, while seemingly small, represents a miniature population explosion in rocking chair makers at the show, a trend that reflects the current return toward functionality evident in the past couple of years among all craftspeople.


Rocking chairs, perhaps because they're beautiful and comfortable at the same time, are something that a lot of people have a real attraction towards, says Edward Wohl of Ridgeway, Wis., a woodworker for 20 years. "People seem willing to invest in things that are functional," he says.

"I think there's a general consensus among the public that if they are going to spend their hard-earned dollars, they want something that's going to last," says Ray Kelso of Collegeville, Pa.

Mr. Kelso's design for a rocking chair, which he will be bringing to the show, has an elegant high back and long rockers. "You can put your head back and it supports your neck. I needed a long rocker on it then to balance that height," he says.

Michael Elkan makes his trademark rocker out of Oregon black )) walnut with a maple burl seat and arms. Part of the natural burl is left on some small portion of the edge of the seat to give a very naturalistic look. "I think in a lot of the modern homes it just feels really nice to have something so real in the house," he says.

Woodworkers agree that despite their beauty and their mystique, rocking chairs are one of the hardest things for them to make. "Chairs in general are very difficult to do, rocking chairs are worse," Mr. Kelso says.

"It takes a little bit of engineering to work out a rocking chair," says Stephen Perrin of Timonium. "It's going to have everything from a kid to a football player that might sit on it. So you have to make sure it can withstand that. And because a rocking chair is going to be moving, every joint is going to be stressed in that piece of furniture."

In spite of the fact that they're hard to make, Mr. Perrin says his fascination with the form keeps him coming back to them. "They're interesting to me because you can take something that traditionally is old-fashioned and make it very contemporary."

This is Mr. Perrin's first time exhibiting at the ACC Craft Fair, after he gave up a career as creative director at W. B. Doner Advertising two years ago to devote full time to woodworking.


Just the words "rocking chair" conjure up an image that's much more exact than if you say "table" or "chair," Mr. Perrin continues. "Just in talking to somebody you find they have an image, and if you play around with what people's normal impression of a rocking chair is, and you do a new interpretation of it, I think most people enjoy seeing that."

Mr. Perrin will be bringing two rockers that are contemporary in style to the show. One is the Empire rocker, in which the back of the chair is made to resemble the Empire State Building with a soft sculpture of King Kong clinging to the top. The other, called the Hard Rocker, is shaped like an electric guitar. "I really never meant to focus on rockers. I just had some ideas, and so I did them."

Stephen O'Donnell of Viola, Wis., makes his rockers even more complex to construct because of his use of through-tenon joinery rather than screws to hold the parts together.

"It's like post-and-beam construction except that instead of having one tenon go all the way through, I cut three side by side. It takes some real precise work to do that," he says.

Each of Mr. O'Donnell's chairs is individually fitted, although, he adds, 90 percent of the people who sit in his chairs will be #F comfortable in his rockers with no changes.

But, he says, he really enjoys it if he gets a customer whose stature or physical condition requires some real custom work. "I've had two customers with back problems who ordered


special curves in the back for the chairs. One of them was sent to me by the customer's orthopedic surgeon, who sent me a sketch of exactly the right curve that he needed. I made the mold and made the back curve just right for him, and that was really fun."

Woodworking, Mr. O'Donnell feels, has often taken a back seat among the crafts represented at shows. "Wood gets overlooked because it's something you see a lot. Everybody has it in their homes, and it gets kind of a mundane reputation."

But Ray Kelso feels that wood may finally be coming into its own. "Among people that I've talked to, people in the craft world, a lot of them say that this is the year for wood."

Robert Erickson of Nevada City, Calif., who is primarily a chair maker, says that he sells more rocking chairs than anything else. "I probably do 70 a year," he says.

The well-known furniture maker Sam Maloof influenced the design of one of his contemporary rockers. The style and highly polished finish of the chairs -- which he makes in California walnut, madrone or red elm -- have a particularly crafted look.

His addition to the Maloof style rocker is the floating back -- a moveable, flexible back that other woodworkers have since copied. "I'm trying to make as comfortable and flexible a chair as possible -- one that sort of contours to the body."


In more than 20 years as a woodworker, he has occasionally run into people who are actually rocking chair collectors, he says. "They may have 10 or 15 or even 20 different ones."