Roadtrip Day 7-1/2: Take A Seat

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The next factory we visit wasn’t a factory at all. It was more like a giant woodshop.

Here, they focus on making one thing well – the ultimate awards chair.

This is the chair you see in the corner of someone’s office, or if they’re retired, in their den.

It’s not made from plastic, or composite, or fiberglass. This chair is made from Appalachian Hardwood.

It’s exquisitely shaped and finished to fit our arms, backs and buttocks in a sturdy structure that should last a lifetime. It is more than a chair. It’s an heirloom.

Usually the chair is painted all black, with an organization’s gold seal imprinted on the headrest and a personalized nameplate on the back. But also commonly, the customer chooses to have the arms, and sometimes the headrest stained in a brilliant cherry, maple or walnut finish.

We meet David, who bought the company a dozen years ago. He introduces us to the eight-man crew and shows us around.

Each of the company’s crew is trained to work in all aspects of the chair-making process. So when more help is needed in lacquering, for instance, someone can drop a task and pitch in to help avert a production bottleneck.

Chris is working on the first stage. He’s cutting pieces from raw wood and sanding them, by machine and by hand, until the pieces are silky smooth.

Peter is piecing the chairs together, carefully fitting each component into the other, reinforcing every joint with glue and screw.

applying final coat to awards chair

At another station, someone is applying black lacquer. It’s a skillful process, slowly and steadily waving the paint spray back and forth so that lacquer goes down lightly and evenly, without runs or buildup.

Christina is adding 28 gold-striped highlighlights to the seat, legs, spindles and turned slats. She is an illustration artist working with a surgeon’s precision. Each gold line looks a bit like a reed of bamboo; each one similar, yet each one unique.

attaching arms to awards chair

Bill is adding a customized gold logo to the headrest of each chair. Some chairs might be destined for new doctors at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. Others might be for retiring pilots at United Airlines. These logos are all gold, but the logos could also be colorful, laser-etched or medallions, depending on the customer.

A personalized brass plate is screwed tightly to the back. This one says, “To Richard Jeffers, for 30 Years of Service.”

Even the shipping process takes considerable preparation. An over-sized, reinforced box is created, the chair is inserted and smaller ‘filler’ boxes are added to ensure there is no empty spaces.

The entire process to make a single chair can take a full week. The goal is beauty and quality, rather than speed and efficiency.

David tells us that there are few custom chair builders remaining in the US. And teaching new employees the skills, and patience, and the eye for detail, is not always easy.

By supporting US-based manufacturers, we can all play an important part in preserving the skill sets that our American craftsmen have mastered, important for our economy today, and our children’s world tomorrow.

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