Chair maker creates DVD to teach others how to build fine chairs

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buy this photo David Grubbs/Gazette Staff
Scott Morrison shows off one of his tiger maple chairs.

When he first touches the rough-hewn tiger maple, the future chair is only primitive wood.

However, as Scott Morrison of Columbus starts to hand build his heirloom rocking chairs, a transformation takes place.

"The more I touch the wood, the more friends I become with the chair," Morrison said. "It's almost like, as odd as it sounds, the wood is cooperating with me."

When the chair is hand-sanded and rub-finished 80 hours later, the relationship deepens.

"It becomes a part of you," he said. "I fall in love with every single one of my chairs."

Once a part-time woodworker, for the past four years Morrison has earned his living in his woodshop at his home seven miles from Columbus.

He and his wife, Valerie, modernized an old design for a rocker cradle for nursing mothers and the chair won this year's People's Choice Award at the Western Design contest.

Lumber for lumbars

These rockers are custom fitted, supporting the lumbar region of your back, and are built as heirloom furniture.

To make the chair so comfortable that it "disappears" underneath the sitter, Morrison asks the buyers for measurements: back of the head to the seat and the back of the knees to the floor.

Then he asks diplomatically, "Do you have a third leg?" Other human anatomy issues may influence his design.

"Wood will only do so much. The human body will only take so much - you have to be comfortable," he said. "And it has to look good."

Ten industrial-quality power tools help Morrison rough cut the pieces.

Then the 6-foot 1-inch Morrison starts shaping the seat, scraping by hand, an activity that gives him Popeye forearms and shoulders.

"I will do two or three seats in a day, and then I won't have to do seats again for a month," he said. "It tears you apart."

When he's planing and sanding, the sawdust fills two to three 55-gallon bags a day.

Sixteen screws hold the rockers together, hidden behind pegs of ebony, an African wood so rare that two bricks of it cost $200.

Montana grows more rocks than exotic woods, so Morrison orders stock from all over the world, buying by the semi load. An inventory worth about $20,000 keeps him supplied in cherry, maple, walnut and rosewood. He searches on the Internet for wood and people also find him.

One day someone called offering black walnut planted about 150 years ago by Kentucky pioneers who migrated to Oregon's Willamette Valley.

Beside his massive table saw sit slabs of rare California walnut measuring 7-feet by 20-inches by 20-inches. The thigh-high stack is the color of undiluted espresso and comes from one of the monster tree's limbs, not its truck.

"Walnut is a rainbow of different colors, and I love that," he said. "This stack of wood cost me more than the first two cars I owned."

Chiseling another career

Although he can't stand using them now, computers have made Morrison relatively rich and allowed his family to move to Montana where he could chase a dream of becoming a fine woodworker.

His father taught him woodworking basics as a boy, but when he said he wanted to be an artist, his blue-collar dad wouldn't hear of it.

So Morrison enlisted in the United States Air Force where he was trained on computers, earned a high-level security clearance and worked on the Titan Missile and Space Shuttle programs.

In California, he co-founded a software company and obtained two patents for technology that links Global Positioning System signals to cell phones. The E-911 system allows cell users to be located during emergencies.

The money was great, but Morrison said he was living the career nightmare, babysitting 130 employees.

"I hated every minute of it, hated it," he said. "I never saw my kids. I never saw my wife. I worked all the time for nothing you could hold in your hands."

Making chairs in his garage in his scarce free time helped hone his skills. Morrison also learned from the master Sam Maloof, who at age 90 still handcrafts chairs in his California home. Maloof's work is displayed in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

After three of their children were raised, he and Val made the jump to Montana.

Now the Plano, Texas, native works alone in his rural shop, happy to go to work seven days a week.

"My dream was to move to Montana. It's been fantastic. Fantastic," he said. "And the worst in woodworking is making chairs, so naturally I was drawn to that."

Val, a computer whiz as well, runs their Web site,, and helps with designs, including an original joint called the butterfly, which features sophisticated lines.

"I used a 3-D computer model that they use for movies like 'Shrek.' I push and pull and tweak things until they appeal to me," she said. "Sometimes it takes days and then that butterfly leg just popped out at me."

Morrison credits his wife with a keener eye than his and said, "She's my biggest critic and my biggest cheerleader."

After some lean years in Montana, the Morrisons now have an order backlog. Their rockers range from $1,500 on up to $12,000 for the rocker cradles.

Working efficiently or "ganging" the pieces is important. One rocker can take 80 hours.

"But I can do two in 90 hours," Morrison said.

At his current pace, he produces between 40 and 50 pieces a year.

In the next few months, Morrison will double his workshop space to add more power tools and create a showroom for visitors.

Bad boy boards

The spirit of honey-colored maple is unforgiving, demanding precise joinery.

"But when you see a tiger maple rocking chair, it's a centerpiece," he said.

Cherry grows more beautiful as it ages, developing a darker patina from the sunlight.

Walnut, when hand-rubbed, has a three-dimensional glow that Morrison loves.

Then there is rosewood, so tough it destroys two or three bandsaw blades per chair.

So tough that Morrison cringes when a buyer orders one.

"I cuss constantly. The wood fights me every step of the way," he said. "I go through a ton of sandpaper and I hurt when I'm done."

Rosewood is like a spoiled child, he said, but eventually the fight is over and he and the chair become friends again.

Morrison's goal is to be shaping rocking chairs when he's 90 and have them last.

"Two hundred years from now somebody is going to sit in this chair and wonder about the jerk that made this," Morrison said with a laugh. "I want to be that jerk."

Jan Falstad can be contacted at (406) 657-1306 or at