A Chair Made Only In Sandwich

Feb 4, 2015

Though Tappan Chairs have been made in Sandwich and only in Sandwich since 1819 the  historic brand of Shaker style chair was nearly lost to time.  

39 year old Adam Nudd-Homeyer is the only man in the world who makes Tappan Chairs.

"We still use machinery from the 1800s. So it's not only the same machine that's been making chairs, you know it's the same pattern running on the same machine doing it exactly the same way."

Adam and the old Tappan Lathe.
Credit Sean Hurley

Abraham Tappan made his first chair in 1819, so the story goes. His son Daniel powered his lathes on the currents of the Cold River.

"Daniel Tappan supported 15 kids off the business. Like he was selling chairs in Ashland trading them, slogging them through the mud and snow to get there."

The business stayed in the Tappan family until 1939. And while there have been brief spans of inactivity along the way, Adam says the whole thing might have been lost to time if not for a local cabinet maker, Gunnar Berg.

"Gunnar brought it from nothing."

The former Tappan Owner, Gunnar Berg (left) and Adam Nudd-Homeyer.
Credit Sean Hurley

As Gunnar Berg tells it, the business came to a temporary halt in 1954 with the death of then Tappan chair owner Cy Bloomberg. A local airline pilot bought the Tappan equipment at auction.  

"He had no interest in woodworking, he wanted to just keep the equipment in town in more or less one pile."

Gunnar bought the pile for 300 dollars and vowed to bring the Tappan machines back to life.  

"Well that started literally a ten year process of 1980 to 1990 working at night trying to put together this jumble of parts and figure out how it all went together."

Despite his knowledge of tools, Gunnar couldn't do it.  A friend suggested he call Doc Hoag, a prior Tappan owner, still living in a retirement home in Florida.

"He started talking about the Tappan lathe actually. Actually he didn't start talking about the Tappan Lathe he started swearing about the Tappan lathe. I mean literally just nonstop swearing. "That God damned Tappan Lathe!"

All Gunnar learned was that the lathe he couldn't put together wouldn't be much fun if he ever did. But he persevered. 

Adam keeps this sign from the old days hanging in his shop.
Credit Sean Hurley

"So what I used to do, because cabinetmaking and furniture making was a whole new thing for me I would, in my dreams, try to resolve problems that I knew were coming up typically the next day."

So Gunnar decided...to dream about the Tappan lathes.

"And I used to dream about them in such detail that when I'd come into the shop in the morning I knew exactly what to do."

Berg got the old lathes and produced his chairs from 1990 to 2005.

"I really felt at that point that I had resurrected it as a business and that was my whole intent."

He put the business for sale and got offers from Oregon and California, but for the next 8 years Gunnar Berg refused to sell.

"I was kind of under this unspoken obligation to keep it in Sandwich. The reason I found it was because it was kept in Sandwich and didn't get dispersed to the four winds."

A Tappan chair from the late 19th Century.
Credit Sean Hurley

  When Adam Nudd-Homeyer came to ask about the business, Gunnar felt he'd found a kindred spirit.  Adam not only wanted to make the chairs in Sandwich. he also possessed an elusive but necessary quality -

"I realized he was OCD enough to do that kind of work. You have to recognize those qualities in both of us. We're both frickin OCD. It's the only way to get it done.
 I know. Thank you, I'll take that as a compliment."

In 2013, Adam bought the company and set to work in his house - an old parsonage - and barn.  

"This is where the minister's horse and buggy were. And so these are the horse stalls."

A small delta lathe stands in each stall.  No horses kept, Adam jokes, but plenty of horsepower.  But the soul of the business, the Tappan Lathe stands alone against the wall.

Adam doesn't so much turn the lathe on and watch it work -

"There's this little dance that you do with it. You tighten, tighten, tighten, snug, oil, turn on, run, and then you back off, loosen, slide, pull, clank, and if you don't do that, you'll be paying for it."

After learning how to run the machines and make the chairs, Adam ran into a problem. 

"I said Tappan Chairs is back in business, anybody want to buy a chair? And everybody said "My great grandparents got a set in the early 1900s and it's still going strong."

Nobody in town needed a Tappan chair. And shipping the chairs wasn't cost effective.

Adam and the Tappan Rocker.
Credit Sean Hurley

  "So it's like we can make these chairs but now how do we get them to people?"

The question haunted Adam the for next two years until he received a call from a furniture company in Maine asking if they could represent Tappan Chairs.

"And so we've gone from sort of local and regional distribution to now having a company, Chilton Furniture in Maine, that is going to sell us nationally."

Chilton's second request left Adam nearly speechless.

"They have long had a relationship with the Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake Maine. And there'd been this ongoing discussion about bringing back the chair from that community and reselling it. You know, they're the only three Shakers left in the world."

The Shakers wanted to know if Adam was interested in becoming the steward of their chair making tradition.  

"Talk about putting pressure on - It's, it's it's - it's...so incredible because this has never been done before.  Like.  Never. "

[The story of Adam's visit to the Shakers is continued in Part 2 of this story.]