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Eastern Kentucky artist featured in book about Appalachian chairmakers

Cheri Lawson
/
WEKU
Terry Ratliff shaves a piece of wood in his home workshop in Floyd County. This is part of his chair-making process.

It’s a warm spring afternoon in Floyd County, Kentucky. Near the top of a steep hill in the head of a holler sits a log cabin. It’s the home of folk artist Terry Ratliff and he built it 40 years ago. This is where sixty-nine-year-old Ratliff spends time crafting chairs.

Using a sledgehammer and steel wedge chairmaker Terry Ratliff splits a log outside his Floyd County workshop.
Cheri Lawson
/
WEKU
Using a sledgehammer and steel wedge chairmaker Terry Ratliff splits a log outside his Floyd County workshop.

About 75 yards to the right of his cabin, in the front of his workshop, he splits a log using a sledgehammer and a steel wedge.

“I’ve let other people define what it is I do and artist is a word that sticks pretty good. I like that. And there’s that line craftsperson, artist. And I have, I’ve done some sculpture, some public sculptures and I consider my chairs a sculpture. Every piece is carved by hand. Every piece is assembled by hand. So, I consider them to be a sculpture. But I’ve been making chairs for gosh, 39-40, over 40 years now,” explained Ratliff.

The artist, Terry Ratliff, uses an axe to carve a piece of timber in the chairmaking process.
Cheri Lawson
/
WEKU
The artist, Terry Ratliff, uses an axe to carve a piece of timber in the chairmaking process.

  Ratliff’s grey hair is pulled back in a short ponytail that rests on the collar of his plaid purple and white shirt. He uses an axe to carve a piece of timber. This is how he begins the process of making a chair part.

  “If it were a chair leg or if it were chair rounds I do it exactly like this right here,” said Ratliff.

 The artist tells how he finished a short stint as a mental health worker at a local comprehensive care center. But then he decided to pursue chairmaking. Ratliff said he was inspired by two older chairmakers he spent time with who lived within a short drive from his home.

“One was Buck Justice who was a retired coal miner and he had learned from his grandfather how to make chairs, hickory bottom, wooden chairs from the hills. And the other was Irving Messer. He had done it all of his life. I learned about him by word of mouth. Went up and bought chairs from him. And when he pulled down a spiral-bound notebook off the wall, it had names and addresses. He said I’ve got a chair or basket in every state in the Union. He made fabulous white oak baskets. I thought there might be something to this,” said Ratliff.

Some of the wood Terry Ratliff uses for chairmaking comes from the surrounding woods which is about 20 acres of his.
Cheri Lawson
/
WEKU
Some of the wood Terry Ratliff uses for chairmaking comes from the surrounding woods which is about 20 acres of his.

And now Ratliff says he has chairs in just about every state and overseas.  Ratliff credits Irving Messer with being the primary influence in Ratliff becoming a chairmaker.

“I feel like I’m carrying on not just a tool collector who may collect old tools but I’m keeping alive the skills and the skill set of using those tools, what they’re made for. Skills of taking native materials and then turning that into functional art. To me, that’s an occupation that is worthwhile,” said Ratliff.

Ratliff smiles as he splits a log in the labor-intensive process of chairmaking.
Cheri Lawson
/
WEKU
Ratliff smiles as he splits a log in the labor-intensive process of chairmaking.

Inside Ratliff’s workshop, several hand tools like draw knives and bench axes are lined up neatly near one wall. He pulls two seasoned chair parts from a bin that hangs from the ceiling above a woodstove. The chairmaker taps the parts together indicating they have dried enough to be used in a chair.

“What I listen to anymore is the ring. You’ve heard of good sound judgment. The ring that has is different than one that’s not seasoned,” reported Ratliff.

Inside Ratliff's workshop, a bin full of chair parts he's crafted hangs above a woodstove. He examines a part to see if it is seasoned enough to be used.
Cheri Lawson
/
WEKU
Inside Ratliff's workshop, a bin full of chair parts he's crafted hangs above a woodstove. He examines a part to see if it is seasoned enough to be used.

 Outside the workshop, Ratliff points to the surrounding woods and said this is one place where he gets wood to make chairs.

” I live in one of the most diverse natural forests in the world. I have a little plot of land here, about 20 acres or so. And, there’s like thirty different kinds of oak. It just came natural in my upbringing and in growing up here in the woods to know what species of tree was good for what, what they were good for,” said Ratliff.

The chairmaker said there are about 24 parts to each one of his chairs. He doesn’t use glue, nails, or screws in the chair-making process. The artist makes chairs for customers who primarily request dining chairs and rocking chairs. Ratliff said his trademark is a bend in one of the rungs of each of his chairs.

“I work with the wood. If the rung’s got a little bend in it, that’s got to be a trademark of mine. I’ll put at least one bent rung in the chair. So, from across the room, you’ll look at that chair and think, gosh, what’s going on with that? It may not have been machine-made. And then you look a little closer and you find out, no, this is a hand-carved chair,” said Ratliff.

Inside his cabin, Ratliff holds up two of his creations.
Cheri Lawson
/
WEKU
Inside his cabin, Ratliff holds up two of his creations.

  That bend caught the eye of author and furniture maker Andrew Glenn. Glenn’s new book Backwoods Chairmakers was released earlier this year and tells the stories of more than a dozen Appalachian chairmakers including Terry Ratliff. One of Ratliff’s ladderback chairs featuring a bent rung graces the cover of Glenn’s book.

” Yeah, this is what Terry does. I mean he puts these beautiful touches in all his furniture and it’s just very warm, a very inviting piece of furniture and that’s why it was the absolute right choice for the front cover,”  said Glenn.

Glenn said for the most part, Ratliff uses only hand tools when he works.

“And that really shows in his chairs. His chairs show the skill of handwork. And that’s what makes them so unique, and to me, so appealing," said Glenn.  

Terry Ratliff continues to shave a piece of wood to create a chair leg while he tells stories of how chairmaking has been good to him. One of his favorite stories is when he volunteered with Habitat for Humanity and met former President Jimmy Carter. He said they compared chairmaking notes. Ratliff said it’s clear, chairmaking is what he was meant to do.

“This was a calling, and I got to answer this calling. And I feel very fortunate that I got to do this,”  said Ratliff.

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Cheri is a broadcast producer, anchor, reporter, announcer and talk show host with over 25 years of experience. For three years, she was the local host of Morning Edition on WMUB-FM at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Cheri produced and hosted local talk shows and news stories for the station for nine years. Prior to that, she produced and co-hosted a local talk show on WVXU, Cincinnati for nearly 15 years. Cheri has won numerous awards from the Public Radio News Directors Association, the Ohio and Kentucky Associated Press, and both the Cincinnati and Ohio chapters of the Society for Professional Journalists.
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