Aaron Buff found his calling as a chair maker when he was about ten years old.
Photo courtesy of Cedric Chatterley.
Types of Artistry
Aaron Buff found his calling as a chair maker when he was about ten years old. One of ten children of Hud and Cordie Buff, who farmed and operated a corn mill in the southern part of Burke County, he attended the nearby Absher school in the early 1920s. "They had a workshop down there, and they made stools and the man made splits," he recalled. "Had two turning lathes down there. I never will forget, I turned one round and put it in a chair I took from the house. Oh law, I thought I had done something!"
Two young women at the school showed him how to weave the chair bottom. "They showed me how to start the chair, how to run the twill. And I'd make a mistake, they'd say, ‘Wait a minute, buster,' and get me started right." As soon as he was reasonably adept in using the lathe and weaving chair bottoms, he set out to redo the family furniture. "My daddy and mother had one chair in the house that they could use. The rest of them, the bottoms was out of them. I took one at a time to the schoolhouse."
His ability caught the attention of a veteran chairmaker, Simie Wortman (1866-1938), who gave him a place to live and taught him the full competence of a chair maker-from choosing timber to producing a finished chair. "He showed me how to make them backing chisels to mortise this by hand, to put that hole in there," said Buff. "And when he got through, he made a very neat chair."
Aaron Buff practiced the chair maker's art for 70 years. In addition to regular slatback chairs with woven oak-split seats, he made children's chairs and highchairs, tool handles, rolling pins, baseball bats, three kinds of stools, and even "column posts" for the front porches of houses. In his later years, he liked to compare himself to his old turning lathe in the backyard shed where he worked: "It's old, and I'm old, and we get along."
The North Carolina Heritage Award in 1994 recognized Aaron Buff's legacy of high standards of craftsmanship, of integrity, and of pride in his work. A good chair, he believed, was sturdy, comfortable, and made to last. "Simie Wortman taught me to make chairs," he said, and he recalled his mentor's advice: "Don't count time. Make it as neat as you can. People'll beat a path to your door and buy what you make. I try to make it like Simie said: ‘Make something that'll last.'"
Note: "Historic Artist" designates one who is deceased but whose legacy continues to influence and inspire new generations.