Find out about Ireland's traditions of furniture making and wood turning.

Wooden furniture such as chairs, dressers, tables and frame beds became commonplace in even the most humble of rural homes from the second half of the nineteenth century as a result of increasing prosperity. Carpenters, joiners and wheelwrights constructed furniture to take advantage of both the available wall space and the relative lack of floor space within the house.

The seat is probably the oldest of all types of furniture and throughout the exhibition many styles of stools and chairs, including súgán (rope) and straw armchairs, are on display. Carpenters’ chairs are a style which were developed by carpenters at the beginning of the nineteenth century in imitation of the Regency style They are in striking contrast to the comb-backed ‘hedge’ chairs of the same period that were made of wood found in the hedgerows.

The Wood Turner

The specialised woodworker – the wood turner – used a lathe to shape solid pieces of wood into a range of round or cylindrical objects such as bowls and eggcups, handles for spades and tradesmen’s tools. In its simplest form the lathe consists of horizontal beams with fastening points upon which the piece of wood being worked is revolved.

Thomas Loftus, son of James Loftus, Borrisokane, Co. Tipperary seen using his father’s pole lathe.

The pole lathe, a development of the basic type, works on the principal of turning the piece of wood by means of a cord passing around it, with one end of the cord being fastened to the treadle (a lever that is operated with the foot), and the other to an elastic pole above. Unlike the modern woodturning lathe, which has a continuous rotary motion, the pole lathe allowed the craftsman to work on just one side of the wood at any time. This meant that he could leave a projection on the wood that could be subsequently carved to form a handle.

James Loftus of Borrisokane, Co. Tipperary, (1851–1933) was one of the last traditional pole lathe turners.

Stave-built vessel made by Ned Gavin, a traditional cooper, of County Cavan.

The Cooper

The cooper made staved wooden vessels for use in the home and on the farm: they included churns, barrels and buckets as well as vessels used for eating and drinking and storing liquid. The larger of the vessels were known as piggins and the smaller as noggins.

The wooden pieces were carefully shaped on four sides to fit tightly together and were held in place by hoops of iron or by lengths of split willow or hazel. The cooper’s work was essential to most rural families who needed a variety of containers to process milk, wash clothes and store foodstuffs.

The late Ned Gavin of Ballinagh, Co. Cavan was among the last of the active country coopers until his retirement in the late 1980s. He learnt his trade over an apprenticeship of eight and a half years and supplied butter churns and other dairy containers to customers in the north and west of the country.