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  Master of Willow

by Dave Yanko

GREENWATER LAKE DISTRICT – It costs *$75 to take Jim Steadman's popular two-day course in bent-willow chair making.
- all photos courtesy Jim and Rose Steadman
Steadman's students sitting in their finished products.
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.

"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."

Jim Steadman

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 time.

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 started teaching."

Steadman's 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.

With 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 is unlimited.

"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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