chairs, furniture

Chester Cornett: Retracing the methods of his cursive letter carving

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).

Rocking chair Chester Cornett gave to president Nixon in 1973 

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. 

Cursive letter carvings on the bookcase rocker (1965-1966)

Another theory is that he used his general purpose knife (pocket) to do the carvings.

Chester Cornett using a knife to carve details into a rocker post

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.

Wooden mallet and 8mm (5/16″) wide straight chisel

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.

Carved with a Sloyd knife

Next, I used an 8mm single bevel chisel and a wooden mallet to carve the letters. Carving like this was, quite surprisingly, very easy.

Carved with a chisel and mallet

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!

-Rudy Everts

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