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Sitting With A Chairmaker

  Near the top of a mountain, three miles from Martin up Stephens Branch in Floyd County, there’s a steeper climb that takes you to the world of Terry and Deborah Ratliff.

  Their 20 acres, “steep as a mule’s face,” traces back to a Revolutionary War land grant. Their two-and-a-half floor cantilevered, tulip poplar log cabin grew straight out of Terry’s own hands. He even made some of his tools.

  He’s a chairmaker.

  “There was nothing here but a path. My dream was to set our house here and not change it. My grandfather, Beverly, was a coal miner. He raised pigs, corn, sold eggs, and he grew what the family ate. He sold railroad ties for 25 cents apiece. My father, James, worked for 22 years in the mines. In ’67 when the mines quit we moved to Indiana.”

  Terry-born down the mountain in Beaver Valley Hospital-returned home to Kentucky and graduated in 1977 from the University of Kentucky. He majored in psychology. He and his wife Deborah have two teenage children, Carlie and Joseph.

  Terry’s career took a turn to chairs and tables and mantels for fireplaces and thinga-mabobs like a hand-carved wooden ball that when you pull it, the commode flushes.

  “I try to visualize what I want in a piece of wood, see the grain, let the wood, the log, determine…I’m at my best when I’m not worrying about anything…On a good day I’m working with wood and wood is working with me.”

  When Terry receives an order for a cherry dining room table with four chairs for a couple in Pikeville, he goes out into the woods and selects the tree. Sometimes it’s a neighbor or a strip-miner that calls and says, “There’s a log over here, you can have it if you come and get it.”

  Terry was 26 years old when he made his first hickory bottom for a chair. For a couple of years he made “smurf” furniture: “half a log, smooth it up, put legs on it, and call it furniture.”

  At 44, well past the years when he was a professional in community mental health, Terry Ratliff is a self-taught
chairmaker. “I’m not a carpenter,” he smiles.

  “No formal classes…(but I learned by) listening to and watching Buck Justice of Floyd County and Irving Messer of Knott County and Woodrow Burchett, the Sage of Cow Creek.”

  It was the late Woodrow who gave Terry a valuable lesson in self-esteem and the pricing of the wood that goes in raw and comes out smooth, ready to sit on and push back from the table after a good meal of homegrown meat and vegetables.

  “At the Squirrel Festival, Woodrow came by with some friends who laughed at my rocking chair with a price tag of $1,600. I was red-faced. But Woodrow came back and he said that chair is worth it. He said, ‘If you don’t value your work nobody else will.’ “

  Terry considers his work to be folk art. “Heritage is involved…quality…the way it was done 100 years ago.” He has taught chairmaking at the Hindman Settlement School.

  I first met Terry Ratliff at this year’s festival at Old Fort Harrod in Harrodsburg, but the best way to get to know a chairmaker is to sit with him on his own front porch. That’s why I went up Stephens Branch to listen and to hear the words flow.

  “Start with a log…bring (it) back…split wood out with wedges into quarters, and bolts…use a board break, a frow, and a shaving horse…cherry is more difficult than hickory…tulip poplar grows fast and works easy…white oak is a favorite for furniture building, it has a dense grain pattern and will take a lot of compression… some people wouldn’t call it making a living…this 20 acres is my garden surrounded by a hillside of hickory, oak, and walnut facing east for the morning sun…poplar, maple, southern pine, black gum, sweet gum, sassafras, five or six kinds of oaks.”

  Terry sums up his passion for chairmaking: “The Temple is right here within us.”

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