The joinery of the Orkney Chairs made today is completed by highly skilled craftsmen using fine quality wood. The Orkney chair has come a long way from the days where whoever was ‘well-handed’ would made the chair, and from whatever wood could be gleaned from the shore.
Scapa Crafts makes chairs based on an old design which Jackie and his master joiners have worked on over the years until it has become their own original Scapa Craft's design. Orkney Chairs have traditionally been made to many different designs, indeed each of the famous chairmaker's would have had their own style. Scapa Crafts has become a distinct style in its own right. A traditional Orkney Chair with a drawer will take Ian a full week to make and involves fitting over 30 different pieces of wood together and making over 30 hand-crafted joints.
Ian works in his own country workshop separate from the Kirkwall workshop where the strawbacks are made. This keeps any dust from the woodworking out of the straw, ensuring the straw stays very fresh and clean. He explains the woodworking process for an Orkney Chair:
'I start from scratch, no piece is ready made for me, I cut it all from planking and boards. Of course with driftwood you could be starting with a tree trunk!
All the wood is dried before I start. It's stored in a heated area with a dehumidifier going to season it before I start. It's essential for the driftwood of course, and the longer it can season the better.
Above from left - Black American Walnut, Oak and Sapele Chairs, Driftwood Chair
Scapa Crafts make their Orkney Chairs in BLACK AMERICAN WALNUT, OAK and SAPELE and all of which are hardwoods and very durable. The tradition of making chairs from wood gathered from is carried on at Scapa Crafts through the DRIFTWOOD Chair. The driftwood is usually found on the western coast of Orkney either as logs or planks and is nearly always a type of pine, from Norway or North America or even further afield. Ian explains the challenges of working with driftwood:
‘It could be years in the sea. When you saw it open you can smell the sea, quite salty. You have to be careful with the driftwood. It needs to be sawn up, properly dried, then you choose only the best pieces for the chair, we don’t use any wood which has been damaged by the sea, seaworms or sea beetles. You also don’t want any big knots as they would weaken the strength of the chair. I like the driftwood, it's nice to work with but you have to be careful when you set it down, you can damage it, it's a softer wood than oak and walnut or sapele.’
Above - collecting driftwood and the resulting planks stacked to dry. See Driftwood Chairs for more information.
Ian explains how to tell a craftsman-made chair:
‘Well, you’d be looking for raw materials which have been chosen with care for a start. Oak, for example, we only use the best pieces, you sometimes need to take out a bad bit as with the driftwood. And you'd have the same wood througout not differents types cobbled together.
Then there's the dovetailing of the drawers, for strength and a good finish the drawers of all Scapa Crafts Orkney Chairs are dovetailed for strength. That's a sign of quality.
And then there's the finish. It doesn't matter how good the joinery is, it's going to look like nothing if the finish is poor.
Then to get the good smooth finish Scapa Crafts is proud of will take me another good half day, sometimes longer.’
Finish is everything: all the wood is sanded before Ian applies the wax, this gives the wood a very natural finish. While Oak and Walnut chairs are finished with a natural wax, Sapele chairs are finished with a natural oil which brings up the colours beautifully. The driftwood has a special finish, it's treated with a honey-coloured preservative to protect the softer wood and then finished off with a wax.
Above from left - Jackie preparing a driftwood base for its strawback and giving it a final polish. Centre - light oak and dark walnut natural finish bases. Far right - Ian and Jackie making final checks to the wooden frame of a rush seat.