Church chairs are one of the most important pieces in Church furniture. Today, you will find a variety of designs for a church chair although this was not really the case in the 17th century. Most of the churches as well as cathedrals prior to 1860 had chapel chairs or church pews in the apse. The main reason was that most of the churches during that era were in a run down or dilapidated state. Churches then had no money or budgets that could help them to enable repairs. Another reason was that the liturgy discouraged participation of congregations and their ideology was that more people can accommodated when standing instead of sitting.
Between the 17th century and the 19th Century, parish churches having church chairs and pews were subjected to pew rents, which had to be paid by the occupants. The rent was charged as a tax for getting the privilege of being able to sit on a church chair situated near the main aisle. Those who were unable to afford the pew charges had to make do by standing on the side aisles and galleries.
It was around the 1870’s when changes started creeping in and social barriers started to disappear. Churches started encouraging greater participation by the congregations and this meant there was a higher requirement for seating arrangements and church furniture. Most of the chapel or church chairs were identical in shape and size. This also meant that the wood used for making the church chairs and stacking chairs had to be homogeneous throughout. As a result, almost 100 workers were involved in the production of the church chair and church pews.
One of the most important aspects was that the timber needed to match. Most of the churches during that era bought Beech, Elm, Oak and sometimes even American ash from specialized brokers for chair production. When the timber arrived at the workshop, it was kept in a hot-room so that the moisture content could be reduced by 10%. After the reduction in moisture content, the timber was planed and the various defects were taken out. The remaining timber was cut to specification and made ready for the finishing touches. This is how church chairs were manufactured couple of centuries back.
After machining the blanks or post hand turning, the church furniture was transferred to the assembly area and here the church chairs were assembled by hand-pressing or by using jigs. The joints in church pews, stack chairs and other church furniture were glued using urea formaldehyde glue. This glue was considered special as it created the perfect bond and increased the life of the furniture.
The struts of the church chairs were angled to provide strength to the struts. The legs of the chairs were also braced with glue to counteract some of the high-pressure that got created when people leaned back on the chairs. The angle or the curve was cut by a band saw or even by hand. On the other hand, an acid catalyst lacquer is used in the modern church chairs as finish. It is also considered as one of the hardest wearing finish as of date. In the earlier times, the church chairs were mostly oiled or waxed.
One of the most popular churches, the Basilica in Rome has a huge amount of space that can hold at least 90,000 people but there are not enough church chairs to accommodate everyone. When the Pope presides over for ceremonies, then only 11,500 people can be seated. The 11,500 church chairs have been placed strategically and directly in the view of the central altar.
In the early times, the church chair and church pews were being made by nomadic turners who were also known as ‘bodgers’. The bodgers lived mostly in the village around High Wycombe. Historically speaking, the skilled labor required for making the church chair was acquired from industries handling production of spoons, bowls, and variety items. The same labor was applied for developing chairs for the church and this led to the formation of a group of skilled laborers who became part time turners.
The best quality church pews and chairs were being made in England at one point in time. In 1939, around 10,000 church furniture workers were employed with different manufacturers but by 1960 the number greatly reduced to 8000. Due to technological involvements a lot has changed in terms of the manufacturing of chairs and furniture for the church. Today, you can even buy church pews or stacking chairs over the internet, a market that no one ever thought could exist even in the early 20th century.