One of the more peculiar things about some chairs by Chester Cornett is the cursive letter carving that he sometimes decorated his works with. The big rocking chair he made for president Nixon in 1973 has every back slat covered in cursive writing (Chester’s handwriting – but then carved).
At some point recently it occurred to me that it is actually very hard to carve cursive words in wood. Getting constant flowing curves and constant depth is also quite a challenge in cursive. Though initially I thought that cursive carving is more forgiving than normal “Roman” carving, I actually think cursive is a lot harder to get right.
So why did Chester Cornett decide to carve cursive letters into his chairs? And what technique did he use? My theory is that it makes his chairs look personal, spontaneous and charming (and he may have thought so too). Plus when you start carving it gets addictive. It may be a mixture of both, in any case I get the feeling he carved primarily for himself and not to please his customers.
As for how he carved the letters, it is a mystery. I have scanned through many pictures of Cornett at work but have found none where he is carving. Normally, people use a set of carving gouges for letter carving. Since reliable sources indicate that no carving tools were found in Chester Cornett’s tool kit, the theory that he used a set of gouges is out.
Another theory is that he used his general purpose knife (pocket) to do the carvings.
Studying some high resolution photos of his chairs, I could spot several small straight(ish) incisions.
Carving with a pocket knife would give you one flowing line and not these kinds of small stubs.
Carving into hardwoods with a pocket knife, you will end up really hurting your wrists. Chester Cornett did not use basswood for his chairs. Chester’s Nixon rocking chair from the top of this blog post for example was made out of sassafras.
My theory as to how he carved these is something completely different:
With a straight chisel and mallet.
The best way to test a theory is to try it out in practice. I carved some cursive letter carving into a piece of hard birch wood using one of Cornett’s examples (“Hand carved”). I carved it one time with a chisel and mallet and another time with a fixed blade (sloyd) knife, similar to Cornett’s knife in the above picture..
Carving the lettering with the sloyd knife was hard, irregular and potentially dangerous.
Next, I used an 8mm single bevel chisel and a wooden mallet to carve the letters. Carving like this was, quite surprisingly, very easy.
They don’t look all that different (though I think the chisel/mallet one looks superior) but with the chisel/mallet combination carving was a breeze compared to the life-threatening carving with the solid knife.
You wouldn’t think carving round shapes is possible or even easy with a straight chisel but it is. After all, you often use straight blades to shape the outsides of rounded objects in woodworking, like spoons or bowls.
We may never know the way he really did it, but I do believe that Chester Cornett carved his cursive lettering this way. It is fast, easy, and very fun – exactly what woodworking should be about. Carving into hard wood is not fun with a hand held knife, doesn’t produce good results easily and is not intuitive. Apart from that it is far more dangerous.
Having said that and having typed up this blog post, I decided to watch “hand carved” once again.
Chester Cornett is using a knife at around 49 minutes in to shape a tenon. It is not completely clear what knife it is because you only see part of it but I recognised it as a pruning knife, a folding knife used to harvest mushrooms or trim you garden plants. It has a slight downward curved edge at the tip that is similar to a chip carving knife.
I am going to try to order one of these knives online to see if I can carve cursive letters with this blade shape. It would still not explain the straight marks that are present on the larger letters in Cornett’s carvings though…
To be continued!
7 thoughts on “Chester Cornett: Retracing the methods of his cursive letter carving”
I love it! Great work, and the “chopin block” is truly apropos!
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Thank you, Brendan! As a person who has seen Cornett’s work in person, would you agree that the carvings are possibly made with a chisel of some sort? I was supposed to come to Covington this November together with Klaus (Skrudland) and was looking forward to see Cornett’s chairs in person but Covid unfortunately messed that all up. Some time in the future we will make it happen. In any case take care and stay safe!
Chester changed his techniques often over his decades of making chairs, and I think it’d be hard to state that he approached any aspect of making his chairs in a single way over the course of his decades. He went in and out of full-time employment as a chairmaker, used machines off and on, and changed his aesthetic and approach from making as many chairs as quickly as possible (the earliest chairs of his that I’ve seen were made with terrible quality materials and clearly put together quickly) to making the elaborate rockers like the bookcase rocker you show above, which took months and were made with beautiful materials.
I’ve never seen any evidence of his having a straight chisel. There are images of him with a stubby mortising chisel that he used to make the slat mortises, but I haven’t seen a bench chisel in his hand. I don’t have access to the archive of images we were given at this moment, but there are certainly lots of photos of Chester with knives. Remembering that he was often carving oak (the bookcase rocker’s panels are walnut, however) I think it’s likely that he did the work with short stabbing cuts, which might make it look like chisel work.
I appreciate your detective work! I have to find my thumb drive with those images, and I’ll look through and see if there’s a good shot of him carving letters.
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Just looked through out photos from the Chester archive – not a single chisel. Lots of knives. But, alas, not a single photo of him lettering a slat. But, plenty of him putting the carved elements in the back posts and carving the arms, and those are all drawknife, axe and knife, nary a gouge or bench chisel that I could see.
Hi Brendan, Thanks a lot for looking through your files and interesting to hear Chester didn’t seem to have owned any chisels. I have seen the mortising chisel you mentioned in ‘Hand Carved’ where he chops the mortises by hand. The chair he made for that movie features letter carving as well. Unfortunately, there is no footage in there of him carving any slats either. I may contact Appalshop to see if there is any unreleased material from shooting the movie (it’s a long shot I know).
The stabs in the letters are not completely straight either, more like a bunch of small curves. Which points towards a different tool than a chisel.
The other chair I find interesting is the 90$ white oak rocker at the Kentucky Folk Art Museum. Chester wrote letters on the slats but somehow never carved them out. I presume this was the stage right before carving the letters. The chair looks finished for the rest so I wonder why he never carved the letters?
I will have to experiment some more with the knives I have. What were the types of knives you found in the pictures? I have seen pictures of the grey all-purpose folding knife and the pruning knife from Hand Carved. With the limited tool kit documented in the pictures available of Chester, I think it should be possible to figure out how he did it. Heck, maybe he used the tip of his axe to carve his letters. I am ready to try anything! In fact, when I get home I will try and see how that will look. I have carved with my axe before and it is doable, especially if you have to carve hardwoods like oak the extra weight may be advantageous. I will report back!
Hi Rudy – I’m fiercely late to this party – but one thing to think about is that sassafras is very soft. You could carve it with your teeth. But I know he lettered other woods too. We should see what Dave Fisher thinks – he carves letters better than anyone and uses the tip of a pocket knife. Sharper than Chester’s I’d bet.
Hi Peter, Sorry for the late reply. I think that the hardness of the wood definitely plays a role. Chester’s letter carving is unique for sure and despite its crudeness I love its spontaneity. Perhaps I’ll write Dave and see what he thinks. Apparently Chester has several knives but no gouges, it is very possible that he used the tip of a knife. With harder woods, it becomes difficult to use the tip of your knife – maybe he used the tip of his axe (it can be done). I am planning a visit to Kentucky next year where we will hopefully see some of his chairs in person, that should give me some hints (tool marks perhaps) as to the size and shape of the tool he used.