by Dave Yanko
GREENWATER LAKE DISTRICT – It costs *$75 to take Jim Steadman's
popular two-day course in bent-willow chair making.
At the end of
the second day, he asks his students to sit down in their new chairs
and he makes them an offer they all refuse.
photos courtesy Jim and Rose Steadman
students sitting in their finished products.
"I tell everyone that if you guys aren't happy with your chair,
I'll give you $100 for it," says Steadman. "I've never, ever had
anyone take me up on it."
It's not a boast. It's the way Steadman begins to describe the
satisfaction people gain from creating something useful with their
own two hands.
"There are so many people in our society who work hard, but at
the end of the week they've got nothing to show for it. Nothing.
I mean, even the paycheque is automatically deposited now.
"Then they come here and they pound some nails, get a little blood
running through their fingers, a little sweat on their brow, a sore
back. And look what they've accomplished."
Steadman is a master of bent-willow furniture. Students come from
as far away as Winnipeg and Vancouver to attend the spring and fall
classes at his home, a half-section of land a few kilometres south
of Greenwater Lake Provincial Park. His book, Building the Bent
Willow Chair, has sold 10,000 copies, led to a popular do-it-yourself
video and indirectly furnished scores of porches across North America.
And almost all of this occurred on what, for Steadman, was borrowed
Steadman, who's in his 50s, was diagnosed with cancer of the lymphatic tract
in 1989. Doctors told him he might survive a year without
an operation, perhaps twice that long if he underwent surgery. He
agreed to the treatment and he's beating the odds.
At the time of the diagnosis, he was operating the Ford dealership
in the Town of Kelvington, about 35 km (20 miles) south of the
home he shares with his wife Rose, a painter. He acquired the dealership
a year earlier in a move that represented an expansion of the autobody
business that employed as many as eight people at a shop located
on his property.
The doctors thought the cancer may have been activated by chemicals
used in the autobody shop, or during a 15-year farming stint that
ended when 22.5-per-cent-interest rates forced him to give up most
of his land. Whatever its cause, the cancer brought about a ‘major
lifestyle change', says Steadman.
"I started building bent-willow chairs," he said during an interview
at his home. "I got good at it and I modified the design. Then I
Saskatchewan design features a back resembling a wheat sheaf.
Steadman has taught more than 500 people how to make bent-willow
furniture, about 20 of whom have gone on to become teachers themselves.
In fact, when he and some of the instructors he trained got together
to socialize about a year ago, they estimated they'd taught about
3,000 people in Saskatchewan, alone – maybe as many as 5,000.
"We'll be going down the highway on the bike (a Harley-Davidson
with a bright yellow gas tank) and we'll see a chair and we'll say
‘oh yeah, there's one built from my book or by someone who's taken
my class'. We see them all over, sitting on porches. And they're
obviously my design."
Many of those chairs were built by women. Steadman says 75- to
80-per-cent of his students are females from 35 to 45 years of age.
Men between 45 and 60 make up another typical, but much smaller
section of students. However, he estimates half the men continue
to build chairs after taking the course, but fewer than five percent
of the women do the same.
"I've had some women take as many as seven classes. They can't
seem to find the time to do it on their own. But here, it's very
structured. They leave the husband and the kids behind and they're
here for the weekend."
Bent-willow chair building begins with the gathering of raw material.
Steadman prefers sandbar willow (also known as sallow, wolf and
coyote willow) because it has few branches and it's tough – he once
counted 42 growth rings on a section of sandbar that was only two
and one-half inches in diameter.
just a little care, the bent willow chair will grace this porch
for a long time.
The ‘benders' should be one- to one-and-one-half inches in diameter
at their base and as straight as possible. Willow used for the frame
is about twice that width and it must be harvested from separate,
more mature stands. Once the material has been gathered, creating
a chair is a simple, step-by-step process of building the frame
and then bending the willows and nailing them into place.
The result is a beautiful and unique piece of rustic furniture
that's so durable, it will serve 20 years of porch duty with no
weather treatment at all. With just a single application per year
of linseed oil and turpentine, the lifespan of the bent-willow chair
"The nice thing is that you can build that chair and you can give
it to your son or your grandson. And when you're gone, it's going
to be here. There are very few things we can do nowadays that are
going to be around after we're gone."
*All values are as of time of writing and may well have changed since. Jim Steadman can be reached by phoning (306) 278-2773. His mailing
address is: Box 715, Kelvington, SK., S0A 1W0 (note that Canadian postal codes alternate letters and numerals).
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