In 2008 I renovated an old and damaged Orkney Chair.

 I  finished the back of the chair on April 9th. My hands are slowly recovering.  The pictures below show stages in building the back, finishing with binding the edge to give a firm top.
Though the chair probably had a hood originally, the owner has opted for a straight top edge with no hood.
Scroll down past the pictures for a diary of the job.

There is a crucial difference between the straw work on an Orkney chair and a bee skep.  The chair is sewn through the straw BETWEEN stitches in the previous row, whereas the skep is sewn THROUGH stitches in the previous row so stitches form a chain-link type network. The skep method is probably stronger but you can only get the straight vertical rows of stitches by the chair method.

the top row is bound all along
The chair now needs a slight haircut to remove the oddments of straw and string sticking out. There is also some filler needed in places and a couple of extra screws in the inside to strengthen the frame, but the main job is finished!   The patchwork cushion is just there for comfort - made by my wife.


Feb.12.  The chair arrived today having picked up a lift for about 300 miles in an auctioneer's white van. It was bought at auction so we have no information about its age or history.

It is in a sorry state and if it were not so interesting and unusual it might well qualify for the tip.
An Orkney Chair consists of a wooden square stool frame with two side uprights and arms. The back of the chair is made from straw in a similar (but different) manner to a beehive skep - a form of lip work.

This one has lived somewhere damp (ever been to Orkney?) so the iron nails which hold some parts of the frame are quite rusted away and will have to be carefully chipped out and replaced. They look very like horseshoe nails in an advanced state of decay. Luckily the really important joints are wooden pegged and sound, though there is some woodworm, especially under the seat, which looks a bit of a problem if anyone heavy were to sit down in it.
Traditionally O.C.s were made from driftwood, there being no trees (higher than about 4 feet) on Orkney. This chair may well be driftwood, It looks like pine, and the seat is made from tongue and groove floorboard-like boards, At least I won't have to find a lot of seagrass and re-weave a seat for it.

About the trees:- It's so windy on Orkney that trees don't stand a chance even in relatively sheltered spots.
On a visit I was told a story that one time there were no eggs for weeks because all the chickens had been blown out to sea.

Here's the chair as delivered. I took lots of photos to monitor progress. The detached back stands over on the right and you can see the rusty nails that attached it once.

In most O.C.s the back is attached to the two wooden uprights by being tied with twine to a series of drilled holes. In this one it was not: There was a wreath of straw nailed to the uprights and the back was sewn into that. Now the nails have rusted, the whole back has come away in one piece.  I will have to make a new back.  I shall attach an extra strip of wood to the uprights, which look a bit thin to have a series of holes drilled in them. I can make new holes in the new wood, which will mostly be hidden by the straw and twine. The twine lies in grooves cut from the holes towards the back.

Feb 20. Tackled the nails in the uprights. They crumbled to rust as I gripped them and leave rust inside the wood. This will have to be carefully picked out and filled or it will continue to stain the wood black. Tried a little beeswax polish on several places, but there is no patina to enhance, just dirt and a rough surface,  The wood is mostly pine and very worn on the arms, where the grain is now quite prominent - sure sign of age and use.

March 10th.   I cleaned off quite a lot of dirt (not patina but dirt - it looks like mud) from the corners of the seat and generally. The nailed joints all seem very badly rusted.  I have picked out the rust from a few key joints at the bases of the uprights and found nothing but a small pellet of iron remaining from what was once a substantial nail. No good doing a lot of work on a new back for a frame that is about to fall apart, so I am looking for good places to put in new woodscrews, mostly from the inside of the frame under the seat so the heads are out of sight. A few have to be from the outside because of wood thicknesses, but these heads I can hide with some filler to match the wood.
There may once have been a "patina" on this chair but it has been lost because the chair has been somewhere damp. The wood now has no shine and is grey rather than brown, mostly.  I may have to give it a coat of something suitable to protect the surface and restore the finish. I will not be the first - looking underneath it is clear where someone once varnished the chair but did not go into the corners or the underside of the frame.

March 15th.  Having carefully picked out the rust that once was nails in the bottom ends of the side uprights, I replaced the nails with brass screws and filled in over the heads. This has made the frame much more solid. A coat of teak oil has improved the appearance of the wood.

March 31st. Have now made and attached the extra pieces behind the uprights. These had to have staggered sets of holes drilled to take the tie-ins for the rows of straw alternating sides. The rows are 19mm thick so it all had to be in multiples of 19mm, starting at 9.5. Hard to explain and even harder to be sure you are doing it right. The new wood was very white so has been given a stain coat to almost match the original.
Whilst doing this I realised that the chair must at some time have had a hooded top. The holes in the tops of the uprights are for the ends of the wire hoop that outlines the hood edge and all along the top of the old straw back is a row of empty stitch holes where stitches have been removed. I guess the hood became damaged and was removed to leave a horizontal top edge to the back.

April 3rd.  I am now about 1/3 of the way up the back building the straw and string.  It is very hard on the hands, mainly because of the difficulty of pulling the needle and its load of sisal string through the straw wreath repeatedly. I have resorted to using pliers for this in the hope of keeping the skin on my fingers.  The woven back is remarkably stiff and strong considering the materials. I had to change to a wider gauge for the straw because the prescribed 19mm diameter one was not meeting accurately at the drilled holes in the uprights. The join does not show and the wreaths now come to the right places for tying in and turning.  The most difficult bit is turning back at the end of the row and getting the needle travelling the right way on the return row, which has the stitches reversed so that all rows look the same when finished, whether done left to right or right to left. The return row is also done from the opposite face of the work. All very confusing.

April 9th. Finished by binding all along the top edge and snipping off the "whiskers" of straw and string to tidy up the back.  The chair returned to its owner  May 8th.