Creating Rustic Twig Furniture From Natural Wood

Twig furniture blends the natural grace of the growing tree with the personality of the builder, including choosing the wood, planning and making rustic furniture, alternative tenon, and wood finishing.

| January/February 1987

  • Peeled maple twig chair
    Daniel Mack with a peeled maple chair he designed and built.
    PHOTO: BROWNIE HARRIS
  • 103-042-01i3
    Hollow auger and taper bit tools.
    KAY HOLMES STAFFORD
  • Sugar maple twig chair
    Daniel Mack's sugar maple chair he designed and built.
    BROWNIE HARRIS
  • 103-042-01i8
    Seating options include (from left to right) oak, hickory, and a variety of fabrics.
    BROWNIE HARRIS
  • Building twig furniture 1
    STEP 1(a): TAPERING THE TENON. Use a taper bit (or a knife) to bevel the end of the piece to be cut into a tenon.
    KAY HOLMES STAFFORD
  • Building twig furniture 5
    STEP 2(c): Proceed down the tenon until you reach the end of the taper. Don't go farther or the bark may tear away in advance of the auger.
    KAY HOLMES STAFFORD
  • Alternative tenon 1
    THE ALTERNATIVE TENON, STEP 1: SCORE THE END OF THE TENON. Use a backsaw to cut around the circumference to the depth of the tenon you're planning.
    KAY HOLMES STAFFORD
  • Building twig furniture 2
    STEP 1(b): Bevel far enough to reach the depth of the tenon you're planning. Don't completely sharpen the end, or it might split the mortise.
    KAY HOLMES STAFFORD
  • Building twig furniture 3
    STEP 2(a): CUTTING THE TENON. A hollow auger in a hand brace makes a quick and very precise tenon.
    KAY HOLMES STAFFORD
  • Building twig furniture 4
    STEP 2(b): Start the tenon on the bevel you made with the taper bit. Be careful to keep the auger properly aligned with the work.
    KAY HOLMES STAFFORD
  • Alternative tenon 3
    STEP 3(a): FILE TO SIZE. Use a wood rasp to file the tenon down to the final size. Then smooth it with a finer file.
    KAY HOLMES STAFFORD
  • Alternative tenon 4
    STEP 3(b): BORING THE MORTISE. Use an auger or spur bit to bore the mortise. Stop the hole a little deeper than the tenon.
    KAY HOLMES STAFFORD
  • Alternative tenon 2
    STEP 2: CHISEL AWAY THE WASTE. Use a chisel to trim the tenon down close to the right diameter. Don't use too much force.
    KAY HOLMES STAFFORD

  • Peeled maple twig chair
  • 103-042-01i3
  • Sugar maple twig chair
  • 103-042-01i8
  • Building twig furniture 1
  • Building twig furniture 5
  • Alternative tenon 1
  • Building twig furniture 2
  • Building twig furniture 3
  • Building twig furniture 4
  • Alternative tenon 3
  • Alternative tenon 4
  • Alternative tenon 2

"I capture the power of saplings. . . and want some chairs to dance." "I'll tolerate anything in my chairs that's not a hazard to my body." 

Creating Rustic Twig Furniture From Natural Wood

As the tree grows, so the chair goes. That's the almost magical transformation that accounts, at least in part, for the increasing popularity of rustic furniture-chairs, sofas, even beds made from full saplings or branches, often with the bark left on. For the city dweller, such furniture carries with it a touch of nature. For those in the country, it's yet another gift from the nearby forest. And for those who like handwork, making these functional sculptures can turn into a challenging and rewarding craft.

I make my living designing and building rustic twig furniture. Occasionally I teach others to do so and have yet to find a student who can't create a satisfying object. It is a truly democratic craft, both primitive and immediate. As such, it doesn't really have as much to do with sticks and twigs as it does with the people who put twig furniture together.

The main roots of rustic furniture making in America reach to the so-called Romantic Movement that flourished in the nineteenth century and was marked by the attitude that contact with nature had a soothing, spiritually healing effect. Summering in the mountains was seen as the clear antidote for the debilitating, relentless, confusing stress of urban industrial living. As a result, the "Great Camps" of the Adirondacks and the various resorts and retreats in the Smokies, Appalachians, and Catskills sprang up. Their architecture and furnishings reflected the romantic notion of intimacy with nature. More practically, however, the use of native building materials kept building costs down while also employing local craftspeople. Finally, both builders and users found something immensely pleasing in this crude but beautiful furniture.



Making Rustic Twig Furniture

Many of these characteristics contribute to the appeal of creating contemporary rustic furniture today. There's true excitement in finding, cutting, and drying just the right piece of wood. There's also a delightful bewilderment in the many choices the rustic furniture builder faces in design, assembly, and finishing.

You make what you are. Because simple rustic furniture can be built with a minimum of formal woodworking skill, it could be said to be a translucent and sometimes transparent window into its maker. Every workshop I teach reaffirms this. The selection of woods, and the arrangement, the assembly, and even the intended use of a rustic chair tells more about the person who made it than it does about trees or furniture. A rigid person is likely to produce a straight conventional piece, while a more flexible one will explore the possibilities of wood shapes more freely.

Kari Lonning
5/14/2009 5:50:12 PM

Where is Dan Mack now???? Is he still in NY making furniture??? Kari


Wayne_1
1/24/2009 1:50:13 PM

Nice article I have made several of these rustic chairs and tables in the past and would only add that I find through tenons with cross grain wedges seem to hold up very well without getting loose if you make the mortise in a slight cone shape{larger cone on entry,smaller on exit the entry cone pointing to center and reversed cone on exit so they meet in center where hole is smallest} from both the entry and exit side and the tenon pointed so shoulders fit the entry side with the end of tenon being the size of the center hole and extending at same size to far side of mortise,be sure to cut a slot in the end to accept the wedge and make it so it runs across the grain of the mortised piece.Leave the wedge a little proud until everything has dried good so it can be driven in a little further to tighten everything up. This is a great way to make furnishings for the homestead and pick up some extra money.It can be done indoors during bad weather,and is a very relaxing,rewarding craft.







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