Some artisans discover their calling by necessity when, for instance, they step in the kitchen to cook dinner one night and discover they are completely at home behind a stove. Others grow into their talents, turning a childhood love of building forts or decorating their bedrooms into a lifelong hobby or profession. Fred Gantt, who had a long and successful career as an accountant, found his second calling by the side of the road.
“About two years ago I was riding up Gervais Street,” he says. “When I got to Trenholm Road, I noticed a rocking chair sitting just off the street in a trash pile that was all beat up and messy. I thought to myself, ‘I believe I might be able to fix that.’”
After carting the bedraggled chair home, Fred realized it was in even worse condition than he thought. Not only were the rockers completely gone, but the front and seat supports had rotted out as well. He got to work drilling out the weakened centers of the original uprights so he could insert dowels that, with a bit of wood filler, would allow them to remain on the chair. He also repaired the slats that formed the seat, added a concealed support system underneath, and secured several of the new joints with rope and glue. Then it needed to be sanded down, primed, and painted, a process requiring enough patience to determine just how well the paint would cover the wood before continuing on.
Within a couple of months, the chair moved from Fred’s shop behind the house to the front porch; there it cradles neighbors who pop by in the evening to catch up on the day’s news with Fred and Retta, his wife. Now the rocker is, assures Fred, solid as a rock, as balanced as a scale, and so comfortable that it doesn’t need cushions.
As word got out about the amazing restoration that Fred had performed on the rocking chair — and how much he had enjoyed the process — additional chairs in various states of disrepair began to appear on the front porch.
“I love wood and I love to mess with my hands, so this is a good project for me,” says Fred. “It gives me something to play with.”
An interesting bentwood rocker showed up with no seat. Fred stripped the paint, matched the wood with old, wide lumber planks from his family farm in St. Matthews, and stained the finished product. “It’s a mix of colors that I’ll never remember,” he says. “That’s the thing with stain. All wood takes it differently, so you just play around until you find something that looks good. Luckily, I’ve got all the time in the world to do that.”
He also repaired an old kitchen chair that arrived with, among other problems, rotted and ruined uprights. “Kitchens had lots of chairs because they were the warmest room in the house. You’d wake up and light the fire in the stove, and everyone would gather there,” he says.
Although Fred has only worked with chairs for a couple of years, the self-taught woodworker draws on dozens of years of experience building, fixing, and renovating just about anything made of wood.
In the 1950s, he and John, his brother, built a small lake house from the ground up on a piece of land the family owned at Lake Murray. “We didn’t have much of an idea what we were doing, and of course there was no internet, so at every stage I’d drive around Columbia and visit houses that were at about the same point in construction,” he says with a laugh. “I’d see how things were supposed to look, then head to the lake and try to recreate what I’d seen. Believe me, there was a lot of trial and error, but it’s still standing, so we must have done something right!”
Fred has also used his talent to create furniture from scratch, including a stunning side table constructed from a single vertical slice of pecan wood so untouched that its rim of bark remains. He also built a TV cabinet, a side table, and a mahogany table fitted with flawlessly dovetailed drawers. “When you’ve got time and you’re not pushing, you can spend time on details,” he says, shrugging off a compliment. He also refinished an antique trunk that he describes as “awful” when he found it. Today, the wood gleams, and the interior is pristine.
His wood shop started out as a playhouse, and after its brief stint as a dog house, Fred renovated the little structure into his workshop. Today, it is well organized and filled with tools, bottles of stain, cans of paint, sandpaper, bug spray, and a soft-sided cooler where Fred keeps chilled bottles of water. He has a few secret implements as well, like the dry wood filler he uses to sculpt new life into stiles, spindles, and rails ravaged by time and moisture.
“You’re supposed to mix it with water, but I mix it with wood glue,” he explains. “It makes the hardest bond you’ve ever seen, and you can work it really well.” One chair is in the midst of having new slats installed. Fred uses a piece of string to ensure they are nailed down straight. Another is being fitted for a new seat. A few chairs are around to be taken apart and used for parts. Fred prefers to use old wood whenever he can get it.
“These old-time chairs are made from good hardwood and have great millwork. They’ve rotted out because the joints were never glued, so moisture got in. I glue all the joints to keep them dry.”
Just behind the shed, in Fred’s pickup truck, sits the newest acquisition, a chair that Fred describes as a “horrible looking piece of mess.” He’s right: the old wooden chair is barely recognizable as a piece of furniture. “There’s really not much chair here,” he says. “One of my grandchildren brought it here. I’m messing with it primarily because of the challenge.” He has no idea how long it will take or, for that matter, how long it took for him to transform any of the dozen or so chairs he has already brought back to life. “Time doesn’t mean that much to me. I’m happy to piddle around in my shop for as long as it takes.”
Rocking Chair Trivia
Rocking chairs seem as though they should be ancient, but while rockers were used on cradles as far back as the Middle Ages, they did not appear on chairs until the 18th century. Many historians credit Benjamin Franklin with this Eureka moment; others credit American cabinet makers. But it was the Shakers who were known for crafting unadorned but highly functional, and often remarkably innovative, pieces, such as chairs meant to hang from pegs and built-in dressers. The Shakers fine-tuned the rocking chair design, adding a tall back and balanced rockers.
Rocking chairs also have a significant place in history. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated while sitting in a rocking chair. To be told that one is “off their rocker” implies mental instability and is a direct reference to the rocking chair. In the 1960s, presidential physician Janet Travell believed that the muscles used to propel a rocking chair back and forth could ease back pain and prescribed the use of a rocking chair to President John F. Kennedy, who was often photographed in one of the specially made chairs.