Outside of Mountain View signs direct cars down Owen Road, the unofficial name of a passage so narrow it feels as though the forest is closing in on you. Just when you are certain the road couldn’t go any further, the trees open up to a small clearing. This is where craftsman Owen Rein has made his home and work, creating handmade dining and rocking chairs, bowls and baskets from timber he harvests from the property.
Having loved woodworking from an early age, Rein built houses and made furniture for other people for most of his life, but frequently saw small business owners struggle to keep up in tough economies. He realized that if he applied the same ideas he had about living simply off the land in the woods to making his own chairs, he could remain in control of his own economics. Plus, since he lives on land he owns with plenty of trees, the resources were already there.
Rein breaks down his craft into three important steps. “These tools I’m using are really old hand tools, so the first step is to find a tree that’s just the right size, shape, and in the right place, too. That’s how I can work without machines.” Once Rein finds the perfect tree for a project, he takes the main section of the trunk and, rather than sawing it into boards, he splits it into wedges. “That’s fundamentally where you part company from conventional woodworking, because with conventional woodworking, the saw determines the line. But when you split wood, you’re following the grain so the line is actually in the tree. From then on, it’s a completely different thing.”
In the third step, the piece is shaped by hand with a drawknife, held on a shaving horse. Flexible, green trees are best, and Rein can make as many as twenty chairs from one tree. “This traditional technique gives me access to the very best wood – all I can carry.”
Rein’s craft is second nature to him now, but he admits it wasn’t always so easy. For twenty years, he struggled to perfect his art, tweaking designs and fending off bouts of frustration. “You can sit in a chair and if it’s not comfortable, it’s not comfortable. And if it’s not well made, it’ll break. As far as making furniture goes, chair design is pretty demanding,” Rein says. “I found that I couldn’t design on paper—it was all trial and error. It’s a relationship. It’s a ratio between two pieces. First you know what too thick is, then you know what too thin is, and once you know that? Just right is in the middle.”
Thirty years after his start, Rein has chairs in the permanent collection of the Arkansas Arts Center, baskets as part of an exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum and has been commissioned to make chairs for U.S. Senator David Pryor and former President Bill Clinton just before he took office in 1993. “I had great expectations of fame and fortune, you know, making the president a rocking chair,” he laughs, admitting there was a bump in sales when word got out that he had a chair in the White House. “But mostly my business has just been a slow and steady building of reputation. People own the chairs awhile, really like them then tell their friends about them. After ten or twenty years, people go, ‘Wow, that’s a really good chair.’ That’s what really makes a difference.”
“It’s kind of a responsibility but also a reward knowing that 50 years down the line this chair is going to mean something to these people’s lives because it’s been through so much. It’ll gain that position slowly over time.” -Owen Rein
The Moffett Hollow Chair Company, Mountain View, (870)269-5381, owenrein.com