Leila Lemerond started making smaller children’s furniture but now makes full-sized rockers and chairs with willows.
Photo By Gloria Hafemeister
Turning willows into durable pieces of furniture
Fast-growing willow trees are sometimes nuisances to farmers because they plug drainage ditches in fields. While farmers spend time cutting this pesky growth out of the ditches, Keith Lemerond seeks healthy growth to harvest for his wife’s furniture-making hobby.
Lemerond comments, “Willow furniture is the poor man’s wicker. A lot of it was built during the depression because the material was readily available and it was free.”
Keith and Leila Lemerond live in a rustic house in rural Dodge County. They built the home themselves, putting many of Keith’s woodworking skills to use in every room.
When they set some plastic lawn chairs on their front porch, a neighbor suggested they ought to have something that blended more with the styling of the rest of their home – something like willow patio furniture.
The neighbor’s mother was a skilled willow craftsperson and taught Leila the art. Now, five years later, Leila has made numerous pieces including children’s seats, doll chairs, full-sized rockers, love seats and chairs, tables and plant stands.
In the beginning she used her husband’s woodworking tools but it didn’t’ take long before she assembled a collection of her own special tools including vibrating saws that cut the willow twigs without splintering the bark, drills, clamps, hammer and special nails and screws.
She has made many pieces for gifts to family and friends and she has sold many of her pieces through the new and unique Knitty Gritty Shop on Highway 33 just outside Horicon.
A BIT OF TALENT AND PATIENCE
Working with willow takes a bit of talent and a lot of patience.
Willow is ideal because it can be easily bent, but it took a little experience to determine what type works the best.
Her husband cuts the willow in ditches and willow patches in the area. He always obtains permission first but has found most folks welcome removing these fast-growing trees while they are still small.
Keith cuts them by hand, carefully selecting twigs that are a variety of diameters and lengths.
It’s important to cut them in winter when the wood is dormant. That’s when the trees naturally store their moisture. It’s hard to tell, however, if a willow twig is actually living. He said a good way to tell is if mushrooms are forming on the bark.
Keith only cuts a few more than she will need for a project. If they sit around too long they begin to dry out and get brittle. Some willow furniture makers soak their twigs before attempting to work with them. She does not.
A full-size chair will take about 30 pieces of willow about 12 – 14 feet long. These pieces, he estimates, are about five years old.
In the beginning she made the entire chair, including the frame. Now he assists with the frame simply because he has the proper woodworking tools and it goes faster.
The braces and supports on some chairs are made with a bigger diameter willow. Others are actually made from what he calls ditch maple. These are the wild trees that grow like weeds in roadside ditches. Road workers usually just come along and cut them before they get too big and cause problems for snow removal, vision or ditch flow.
Developing a touch for bending
An essential part in how to make twig furniture is developing a touch for bending the twigs. In the beginning Leila used the support pipe in the basement first for bending and sometimes used her knee.
Then Keith made her a simple bending tool using a heavy iron light post base with a wheel hub bolted on top. A few inches out from the small wheel is a heavy pipe bolted in place.
She places the fresh cut twig between the pipe and the wheel and gradually bends the twig around the wheel. She works slowly along the length of the branch, then works it back again until it will actually bend around the wheel.
If there is a cracking noise she knows the piece was too dry or the wood was nearly dead and didn’t have enough moisture to allow bending.
If the branches are not worked first in this manner the bark will split when working with it. It is also harder to bend the pieces into shape if they have not been bent first.
It is the bending of these living twigs that actually gives the chairs strength.
Once the twig is pliable, she bends it into a shape using her design pattern. She fastens each piece to the frame, using nails or screws and when the design is complete she uses wires to hold it in place until it has dried.
Then she removes the wires because the drying process has shrunk the wood enough to hold the nails and screws in place.
She made straight patterns first but now has created her own fan design in the back of the chair.
This takes a little more imagination and as the last twigs come into place in the center of the back, she sometimes finds herself removing one or changing the pattern so it will be balanced and attractive.
Each piece is very heavy right after it is built but it gets lighter with time as it dries out. A month after it is built they put a coat of varnish on it to give it a shiny surface that is easier to clean.
Every chair is different but the concept is the same. Leila likes to experiment with different designs and methods.
Most of the pieces still have the thin layer of bark intact. She cuts off any knobs that might protrude and makes sure there is nothing sticking out to scratch someone sitting in the seat.
Leila experimented with one chair, stripping the bark before building the chair. Now the yellow-toned dried chair resembles bamboo. She said that is a lot more work, though.
They recommend that the chairs be used indoors or outside in a sheltered area such as a porch. When properly cared for these chairs should last many years and are something parents can pass on to their children or grandchildren.