Chair making is a highly specialised craft; to make chairs of superb quality and comfort takes exceptional joinery skills. Soane now owns one of very few workshops in Britain still making chairs entirely by hand and continuing the traditions of eighteenth century master chair makers.
Soane’s quest to make a faithful copy of a particularly wonderful antique Swedish Klismos chair eventually led to the discovery of a small workshop in Dorset. Numerous craftsmen had been defeated by the challenge of recreating what Lulu describes as “a miracle of eighteenth century chair making,” with its faceted legs perpetually twisting upwards to join an extravagantly curvaceous back, but perseverance won through!
A modern master of his craft, Paul has been collaborating closely with Soane for the last decade. Having previously worked in antique furniture restoration, at the age of 50 Paul became eager to hone his skills and responded to a local advert for a cabinet maker. “It was hard work to begin with, and especially difficult to learn new things at that age, but the team were patient and really recognised the importance of allowing people time to learn properly,” recalls Paul.
After five years of training, Paul’s teacher retired. In an effort to ensure these skills were preserved for future generations, Soane then took full ownership of the workshop.
“Learning was nothing like I thought”, explains Paul, “and honestly if I’d known, I would have steered clear of chairs! Most carpenters avoid chairs because they’re often a real challenge: the details are so precise and can be quite fiddly, and they’ve obviously got to sit just right.”
To ensure absolute precision, jigs and patterns, hung safely together on a loop of string, are constantly referenced. All measurements are methodically checked against these component parts, as well as the master workshop model. New designs are guided carefully by the Soane design team but the process is always fluid and organic, allowing Paul to make important tweaks to angles or scale; these might be determined by materials or specifications from the upholsterer. This collaborative approach results in designs that are the best they can be.
Different planes and angles in elements such as legs must meet perfectly at the joints. “It’s not just about boxes, it’s about making curves,” Paul says, “we take planks of wood and turn them into something three-dimensional.” The more closely the chair is studied, the more apparent the sophistication and detail of the design becomes.
Tools are only part of the craftsmanship story: when working with natural materials Paul is always responding to variations in the wood and adapting his movements to suit them. He explains how he “battles with the grain,” finding its direction and working with it, rather than against it, for the best results.
“Your hands are the best tools in your box. You just need to rely on them and trust them and everything will turn out well.” A true master of his craft, Paul does everything visually. “You just need to start and your hand takes over. You’d be surprised – it all just falls into place.”
At Soane, we are lucky to work with makers who continue this highly skilled craft. After a decade of training, Paul is now proudly teaching his wife the chair making skills he has honed, and is looking forward to a third craftsperson joining the workshop imminently.