Steady On: An Interview with Chairmaker Lawrence Neal

To describe my recent interview with English chairmaker Lawrence Neal as unusual would qualify as my greatest understatement of 2021, albeit from the standpoint of just one month in. Despite the research I did a few years ago for my book “English Arts & Crafts Furniture,” I didn’t become aware of Lawrence until Peter Follansbee suggested him for this series of profiles. Had I known of him five years earlier, I would certainly have wanted to include him in the book, along with a few others who keep Arts & Crafts traditions alive in silver, glass and wood.

Lawrence is a practicing craftsman in an unbroken line stretching back to designer Ernest Gimson. While engaged in the process we today would call “finding himself,” Gimson had taken some lessons in chairmaking from Herefordshire chairmaker Philip Clissett in 1890. Later, having established his workshops at Daneway House in the Cotswolds, west of London, Gimson encouraged Edward Gardiner, a young man in a family of sawyers who lived nearby, to learn to make chairs. Gardiner later moved to Warwickshire, where Lawrence’s father, Neville Neal, began learning from him in 1939. So I imagined that Lawrence would be full of stories, perhaps even willing to talk about such abstract notions as the meaning he finds in his work.

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Nope. Instead, he was more chill about his life and work than pretty much anyone I can recall having interviewed, ever. At first I found his “Just the facts, ma’am” responses disappointing – where was the personal stuff, the color?

But as I worked in my own shop yesterday, my strength, along with my hemoglobin level, temporarily reduced by chemotherapy, the well-intentioned comments from some readers about the healing comforts of “making sawdust” jostled less happily around my head. It hit me how familiar, in the end, I found Lawrence’s “Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts“; it brought so many of the people with whom I worked at small shops in England in the 1980s shooting right back. Look, this is my livelihood. Sure, it’s a gift to be able to turn a drawing into a practical three-dimensional object. But there’s no need to wax romantic. In my own woodworking-and-design-icon-deprived muddling way, I’ve spent most of my adult life as a cabinetmaker. It’s simply what I do. Yes, my work gives me great satisfaction, and it’s easy for me to go on (at length) about how wondrous it is to have any kind of practical skill. But on an hour-to-hour basis, I’ll tell you that spending a day amid the wood chips, whether I’m building a set of paint-grade bookcases or a solid walnut sideboard with hand-cut joinery throughout, is work, not something I’m inclined to romanticize. Amid my frustration at my reduced productivity, Lawrence’s low-key attitude quickly turned into balm for my soul.

Lawrence was born in Stockton, Warwickshire (pronounced “Warrick-shirr”), in 1951 and has spent most of his life firmly rooted there. His father, Neville Neal, was a chairmaker; his mother was a housewife. He has a younger sister, Janice.

When Lawrence was a boy, Neville spent his days working at Gardiner’s Warwickshire workshop, but he had a shop of his own in an outbuilding at the Neal family home, a “pretty brick cottage” built in 1843. The same outbuilding had housed Neville’s grandfather’s business, a barbershop. Lawrence went out to play with tools whenever his dad was there; he remembers a shavehorse and a lathe, a small bench and “a big sash cramp he’d put the chairs together with.”

After Gardiner died in 1958, Neville stayed on at his mentor’s shop for a couple of years. When another workshop became available in 1960, Neville took it over. It’s where Lawrence works today.

Neville and Victor Neal, Lawrence’s father and grandfather, respectively, in Edward Gardiner’s workshop during the 1950s.

Lawrence left school at 15, without taking GCSE or O-Level exams. He went straight into the chairmaking business, working with his father and a fellow who wove rush seats. “It was taken for granted that I would carry on with the chairmaking trade,” he says. Chairmaking had become part of the family; sometimes his granddad came over and joined them in the small workshop.

“I suppose I took the easy option,” he goes on, though he may be the only one alive who would call his life course “the easy option.”

“I’ve always enjoyed working with wood and any tools, really, so it wasn’t a problem going into the family business. My parents had to keep an eye on me when I was a kid, because I was forever getting into the tools and modifying the furniture in the house if I got half a chance!” One day his mother caught him “sandpapering the Welsh dresser, which didn’t please her too much.”

Lawrence in the ’70s, on a ferry from Harwich (pronounced “Harritch”) to Hook of Holland.

Lawrence takes the making of a chair through the entire process, from tree to finished seat. Early on, he felled his own trees, though he has not personally cut down any trees for chairmaking in many years. He and his father had an arrangement with the owner of a nearby woodlot; they’d choose a tree, fell it and take it to be sawn and dried. He still gets ash from woods near his home and has several people he calls on as additional sources. Sometimes he goes farther afield, within a radius of about 50 miles – to the Cotswolds in one direction, the Malvern Hills another. In addition to ash, he builds chairs in English brown oak, which he buys from a local timberyard.

He’ll select a tree and the sawmill will slice it into planks. Starting with green planks, Lawrence breaks the material down with a circular saw, then cuts it into smaller blanks. He turns the back legs, boils them, then leaves them in the bending frames for around a week. Next he saws the wood for slats; he planes the slats to thickness, boils and bends them, then mortises the back legs to accept the slats. He starts by drilling a row of holes, then trims them by hand with a chisel. Next he might do the spars (stretchers) and seat rails. He turns the former on the lathe and shaves the seat rails on the shavehorse, then dries them “properly” over the stove until he has the chair ready to assemble.

Lawrence used hide glue when he first started out; there was always a glue pot on the stove. Now he uses PVA. (This is the kind of disclosure that warms my heart.) He finishes the chairs and weaves the seats himself. Most chairs get a wax polish; Lawrence and his father used to make their own, from beeswax and turpentine, but he says “it was sticky, to be honest, and particularly ash chairs, which are light colored, tends to [collect] dust and dirt, which makes them look a bit grubby.” Today he uses a commercially produced wax made by Myland’s. Some customers want their chairs stained to match other furniture; recently, some have asked him to paint them grey. He prefers to leave the wood natural with a clear finish.

Rush for seat weaving.

He gathers rush from local rivers, mainly the Avon, harvesting between mid-June and mid-August. I asked whether he had to get permission from local government authorities. “We just ask the farmer,” he replied. “The river authorities and all that don’t seem to bother with us at all. You’re not really doing any harm, because [the rush] just grows back the following year.” He twists the strands of rush for the seat’s top side and edges, then weaves them around and around the frame “until there’s a seat.” Like you do.

Lawrence has spent the last 30 years with his partner, Alwyn. She worked at a solicitor’s firm (a law office) until she retired. “She likes life in the village,” Lawrence says, “the various clubs, things like ‘Knit and Natter’ (known in the States as ‘Stich ‘n’ Bitch’), the Women’s’ Institute, walking clubs and so on. There’s quite a lot going on, really, but COVID has put a stop to that.” Stockton’s population is about 1,000; its economy was long based on a combination of farming and two cement works, which took advantage of the plentiful area limestone. Many of the village houses were originally built for cement factory workers.

Lawrence and Alwyn have “quite a lot” of his chairs “scattered about the house.” He considers the chairs “very comfortable,” not least thanks to their woven rush seats.

None of Lawrence’s children is interested in going into chairmaking, though he says his middle son, Daniel, who works in digital marketing, has been getting into woodwork of late. Lawrence’s daughter, Laura, works at the solicitor’s office where Alwyn used to work. His eldest child, Joe, was a musician; Joe died in 2018.

Even Lawrence, who wants the craft to continue, describes his career in chairmaking as “almost more by accident.” The craft, he says, “could easily have died out at some point. A lot of [credit for its survival] is down to Edward Gardiner. He struggled to find work in the ’20s and ’30s. He’d started with Ernest Gimson in the late 1890s. He went back to [his] family sawmill during the First World War, then returned to chairmaking following Gimson’s death.” Neville, Lawrence’s dad, started with Gardiner in 1939, left when conscripted, but went back after his time in the army. “Since my dad took over in 1960, there’s been plenty of work,” Lawrence says. “There was a bit of a craft revival in the ’60s, and from there on it’s not been difficult to find work really, at all.”

Neville Neal in the 1980s.

Lawrence has trained a couple of apprentices, Sam Cooper and Richard Platt. That project began when a friend, Hugo Burge, offered to sponsor two apprentices; he paid them while Lawrence trained them to build chairs for his customers. Hugo lives at Marchmont House near the village of Greenlaw in Berwickshire (“Berrick-shirr”), Scotland; his property has several outbuildings that he has turned into creative spaces. When Richard and Sam left following the onset of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, they opened their own workshops, so they’ve been in business nearly a year. While Lawrence appreciated the opportunity to pass his skills on, he missed building chairs himself while training his apprentices – all he had time for was prepping and planning. “It was a bit strange, really,” he remarks about that time.

Lawrence has no plan to take on other full-time apprentices; he’s unwilling to commit another two or three years. Instead, he says, “I’m enjoying working by myself.” He gets by on a government pension and doesn’t “desperately need” to make a lot of chairs, so once again he’s enjoying the process of making.

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He and Alwyn live in a modern house, built in the ’70s. They sold the family cottage – neither he nor his sister wanted to live there.

These days Lawrence gets a lot of repeat orders from families who bought chairs in the past. Other orders come from parents who want to buy chairs as a wedding gift for their children. In recent years, he’s also received plentiful work through interior designers, a phenomenon he attributes in large part to the internet. Then again, it’s a nice echo of how those we now know as luminaries of Arts & Crafts design – the Voyseys, Barnsleys, Gimson and their peers – sent prospective patrons or clients who had attended their lectures or seen their work published in magazines to trusted workshops.

To learn more about Lawrence’s chairmaking, see this video and this one. Also check him on Instagram, where he shares images of covet-able chairs, along with some amazing historical photos of his forebears at work.

Neville Neal weaving a seat in 1971. Lawrence is in the background.

— Nancy Hiller, author of “Making Things Work.”

You can read more of Nancy Hiller’s profiles, which we call “Little Acorns,” via this link.


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